Comment on Leninism

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

Wayne Price

AGAINST THE CURRENT has begun an important discussion on the nature of Leninism. Writing for the Revolutionary Socialist League, I agree that there are ‘Two Souls of Socialism” (the title of a 1966 pamphlet by Hal Draper), an authoritarian socialism-from-above and a democratic/libertarian socialism-from-below. Draper believed that Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky were on the side of socialism­ from-below. So does Alan Wald, adding “the Trotskyists” and the Sandinistas.

Without agreeing with everything Tim Wohlfarth says, he raises another possibility: that the dividing line between the two sorts of “socialism” may run through the work of Lenin, Trotsky, and — in my opinion-Marx.

There are both authoritarian and democratic sides to Leninism and Marxism. Unfortunately, the “heirs of Marx” today are mostly either state-capitalist dictators or social democrats-both supporters of capitalist imperialism and statism. We need to investigate what is the flaw in Marxism which permits it to be used by such statist forces.

Anarchism too has its libertarian and authoritarian “souls.” I believe that we need to work toward a new synthesis of Marxism and anarchism, to create a libertarian socialism which is revolutionary, radically democratic, and self-managing.

Paradoxically, Lenin opened up the possibility of such a resynthesis at the time of the Russian Revolution. Influenced by the mass upheavals, he declared (in State and Revolution) that the capitalist state must not be replaced by a new bureaucratic regime but by an association of workers’ and farmers’ councils (soviets), backed by an armed people: the commune or council-state. The revolutionary party was urgently needed to fight for this program against other political programs, but it was not intended to become the new state.

In practice, Lenin abandoned the commune-state program. The repressive, bureaucratic machine which grew up during his rule was only partly due to objective pressures. At no time did Lenin announce, ‘We have to outlaw other parties on the Left because of conditions of civil war, invasion, blockade and mass starvation. This is a temporary measure which we will reverse as soon as practical. Meanwhile, foreign Communists should not take this situation as a model.” Quite the contrary. Lenin simply had no notion of pluralistic socialist democracy. (For a review of the facts, see C. Sirianni, Workers Control and Socialist Democracy: the Soviet Experience.)

The basic problem for Leninism, as for Marxism, is the (Hegelian-derived) belief that the laws of history, as brilliantly analyzed by Marx, are absolutely true­ and that we can be completely sure of them. This is expressed in the phrase, “socialism is inevitable.” The party claims to know these laws, with full certainty, and even to embody them. This is expressed in the phrase, “the party represents the working class.”

If we — and we alone — have the absolute knowledge of the way forward, then we would feel justified in outlawing other parties, suppressing strikes, repressing the peasants, and generally bashing in­ convenient people. Revolutionaries in other countries may feel critical of such terror, but would finally justify it as the “revolutionary process.”

Central to Alan Wald’s argument is his belief that Leninism might correct itself “from within its tradition.” The real question is whether any of the major Leninist tendencies is likely to correct itself from within, when their movement is in the other direction. 99% of today’s Leninists advocate a one-party, top-down dictatorship.

Alan claims that ” … for the past fifty years… the Trotskyists have championed multi-party systems. ..with ever-increasing vehemence.” Trotsky left his followers a two-sided inheritance: the call for multi­ party soviets, and the belief that the Soviet Union was a “workers’ state,” merely because industry was nationalized — even though the workers were powerless and exploited.

Occasionally today’s Trotskyists may refer to his democratic ideas, but mainly their politics emphasize his statist side. Generally they continue to “defend the Soviet Union,” are enthusiastic supporters of Castro’s one-man dictatorship, support the invasion of Afghanistan, and so on.

Alan also praises the socialist pluralism of ” … the followers of Max Shachtman in later years.” In his later years, Shachtman supported the U.S. in the Vietnam war and his followers now staff Reagan’s State Department.

Alan apparently claims the Sandinistas as fellow Leninists who also advocate multi-party socialism. Although Nicaragua is not a totalitarian state like Cuba, it is dominated by one party. In any case, it is not run by workers’ and peasants’ soviets, managing the economy and the state from the bottom up. To endorse the Sandinistas is actually to reject the commune-state, one of the best parts of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s heritage. That Alan does not see this is proof of the weakness of his “critical Leninism.”

At one point Leninism was probably the best of the alternate programs — after all, no one else was advocating multi-party councils either. But now it has come to a dead end, including its Trotskyist off shoot. We can only save its contributions if we are prepared to work on a broader integration of the libertarian “soul of socialism.”

March-April 1987, ATC 8

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