Another Comment on Leninism

Against the Current, No. 8, March/April 1987

C.J. Arthur

CONGRATULATIONS TO ATC on the interesting debate on Leninism. While I appreciate that the problem is not so much one of quote-throwing as of historical facts and explanations, I would like to alert readers to one piece of demagoguery by Lenin.

At the time of the New Economic Policy (NEP) he said the following,

“all parties, from the feudal reactionaries to the Mensheviks ….constitute ‘one reactionary mass’ opposed to the proletarian revolution (as Engels foresaw in his letters to Bebel of 1875 and 1884).” (Selected Works, 653, Pravda Nov. 6-7, 1921, Collected Works, 33)

This is dishonest or, more likely, a piece of wishful thinking. First of all, the phrase “one reactionary mass” is Lasalle’s favorite formula attacked by Engels in his letter of March 1875, as follows:

“Lasalle’s high-sounding but historically false phrase is accepted: in relation to the working-class all other classes are only one reactionary mass. This proposition is true only in a few exceptional cases: for instance, in a revolution of the proletariat, like the Commune, or in a country where not only the bourgeoisie has moulded state and society in its own image but where in its wake the demoratic petty-bourgeoisie, too, has already carried out this remoulding down to its final consequences. If, in Germany, for instance, the democratic petty-bourgeoisie belonged to this reactionary mass, how could the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party have gone hand in hand with it-with the People’s Party-for years? … And how comes it that no less than seven demands are included in this program which directly and literally coincide with the program of the People’s Party and the petty-bourgeois democracy?” (Marx-Engels, Selected Works, 337)

Marx was even more virulent in his own critique of the Gotha program, com­ plaining that Lasalle had “grossly falsified” the Communist Manifesto, and asking rhetorically:

“…has one proclaimed to the artisans, small manufacturers, etc., and peasants during the last elections: relatively to us, you, together with the bourgeoisie and feudal lords, form only one reactionary mass?” (Marx-Engels, Selected Works, 326)

Note the irony here that these are the groups favored by the NEP.

Unfortunately it is also necessary to check the Manifesto and we find that Marx himself doth protest too much. Lasalle’s formula gains some color from statements such as this:

“Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.” (Selected Works, 44)

The second point of interest is that Lenin translates a statement about classes into a statement about parties, in this way managing to include the Mensheviks in the reactionary bloc. (The Commune experience, referred to by Engels, was multi­party, of course.)

Let us turn now to Engels’ letter to Bebel of Dec. 11, 1884. Here we do find a discussion of parties. Engels’ point is that in a revolution the tamest of the parties involved will gain unexpected strength because

“… at such a moment the whole reactionary mass falls in behind it and strengthens it; everything which used to be reactionary behaves as if it were democratic.” (Selected Correspondence, (1965), 381)

Translating this to the circumstances of Russia, it would be true to say that reaction might support the Mensheviks as the lesser evil. This would be a legitimate debating point to make. But the danger arises of a codification of this insight in repressive measures justified on the grounds that all opposition must be objectively counterrevolutionary, that everyone else forms just “one reactionary mass.”

March-April 1987, ATC 8

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