The Need for Post-Leninism

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

Tim Wohlforth

I AM VERY happy that my article “The Two Souls of Leninism” (Against The Current #4-5) has stirred up interest and controversy among ATC readers. That events which occurred over sixty years ago are still subject to discussion and conflicting interpretations, indicates both the importance of the Russian Revolution to modern history, and a tendency for these events, codified as ideology, to be used to justify current political practice.

My article was limited to Leninism in power and was not an attempt to assess Leninism as a whole nor the problem of the bureaucratization of post-revolutionary society in a more general sense. It is based on a single chapter in my forthcoming book After The Revolution: Essays on Post-Revolutionary Society to be published by New Left Books/Verso this coming spring.

My article made very clear my support for the general strategy of the Bolshevik Party which led to the October Revolution and my support to that revolution. This is no small matter and it has considerable relevance for revolutionary strategy in various parts of the world today.

I maintained in the article, however, that there were two sides of “souls” or Leninism: one based on the democratic self-movement of the masses and the other an elitist view which justified the imposition of revolution upon the working class from above by the state. I conclude that one cannot separate these two aspects of Leninism; that taken together they are Leninism.

Lenin was above all a great practitioner of revolution and therefore it is not proper to judge the body of thought produced by him separate from his action when in power in Russia. This leads me to advocate a “post-Leninist” perspective.

It was not the task of my article to spell out, outside of the question of a pluralistic revolutionary and post-revolutionary process, the full contents of a post-Leninist outlook.

Alan Wald in his criticism of my article, “In Defense of Critical Leninism” (Against the Current #6), agrees with many of my criticism of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s actions in the 1918-1923 period. He supports the fine document “Socialist Democracy and Dictatorship of the Proletariat” produced by the “Euro-Trotskyists” associated with Ernest Mandel.

It is no coincidence that this tendency has a good reputation in relation to internal democracy within their groups. I personally have nothing but praise for the Mexican Partido Revolutionario Trabajadora (PRT) which conducts its internal life very much in the spirit of this document.

On the other hand both Alan and I have witnessed a something less than democratic internal life in the American Socialist Workers Party, while I, being a glutton for punishment, was also the victim of the perverse cult run by Gerry Healy-all in the name of “Leninism.”

Distortions of internal democratic life — all justified in terms of “Leninism”-have been practiced by a host of other groups both adhering to mainstream Trotskyism as well as the “state capitalist” tradition. We do not need to add the Maoists and official Communists — all claiming to adhere to Leninism-to make the point that there is indeed confusion in the minds of the working class public as to the democratic character of Leninism.

It is, of course, possible that there exists a “critical Leninist” viewpoint which consistently rejects the anti-democratic elitist soul of Leninism in order to preserve its democratic revolutionary soul. I would still feel such a tendency uses terminology which, in 1986, only confuses the issue in the working class public’s mind and is not historically defensible. Yet I would feel politically in complete agreement with such a viewpoint.

Alan Wald, I am afraid, is not consistent in this regard. His version of “critical Leninism” continues to include justification for the actions of a revolutionary elite which is not invigilated by the masses and which acts against the wishes of the masses.

Are Socialists Elitists?

“There have been and will continue to be many instances,” Alan Wald writes, “where a majority has supported policies that a revolutionary socialist minority must vigorously oppose.” I have no objection to this as I have spent my entire adult political life — over thirty years — as part of a socialist minority vigorously opposing policies embraced by the majority of the American working class.

But Alan has something more in mind: “In fact, all socialists are ‘elitist’ in the sense that they stand for a better world than the present one.”

I disagree with this statement as it is an attempt to soften the correctly derogatory connotation of the term. It is not elitist to wish for a better life for the masses but it is elitist to impose upon the masses your vision of this better life, independent of the wishes of the masses.

Finally we get to Wald’s point: “If the majority of the population is poisoned by the ideologies and cultures of racism, chauvinism, sexism, and individualism, then the duty of socialists is to go against the stream, to aggressively promote — and in some extraordinary cases attempt to enforce — minority ideas. Moreover, under the difficult conditions of civil war it is often not possible to carry out full and democratic discussions of opposing strategies and policies.” [emphasis added-TW]

This is precisely where I believe I part company with Alan and with the many well-intentioned revolutionaries who agree with Alan. Lenin and Trotsky suppressed other political tendencies precisely on the grounds of the existence of an “extraordinary” situation and they justified their actions by claiming that the masses were infected with alien ideologies while they, the vanguard, represented the true interests of these masses.

I want to pose the question as sharply as I possibly can so that there can be no ambiguity. Let us suppose we have a group of revolutionaries who have state power in their hands as the result of a democratic revolutionary process and the overwhelming support of the population. At a later date the majority of the people appear to hold views which the revolutionaries view as “poisonous.” Let us even assume that the revolutionaries are correct in their judgment of the views of the majority, that this majority really does want to arrest or even reverse the revolutionary process. What should revolutionaries in power do?

Obviously the first thing to do is to work day and night to convince the majority that it is wrong. Should that fail and the revolutionary leadership choose to impose its will, despite a lack of majority support, history has shown to us that the result will be of necessity bureaucratic elitist rule.

I hold that revolutionaries must submit to the will of the people even if this means loss of power and retrogression of the revolutionary process. Only such a course will lead, in time, to a truly democratic socialist society based on equality.

I want to remove any possible misunderstanding and false argumentation. I, of course, understand there may be a brief period when elections may have to be postponed to permit the establishment of relative stability so that elections can be carried on in an orderly fashion. I realize in some intense civil war conditions some censorship of the press may be temporarily needed, and I do not believe groups actually involved in military actions or genuine subversive activities (like spying) against a state have any democratic rights.

However, I believe I have presented sufficient evidence to prove that Lenin and Trotsky’s actions cannot be justified on such a basis. Overwhelming evidence proves that Leninist suppression was based on recognition by the Bolsheviks that they were, indeed, a minority within the country, and at times, a minority within the working class of the country.

Stark Realities

I must also object to Alan’s attempt to somehow soften the picture of the stark realities of Leninist Russia. I made it very clear that Cheka activity was intermittent against both anarchists and the Mensheviks until 1921. After that repression was universal. I also stressed that it was effective in preventing either tendency from gaining the political following they would otherwise have had within the working class.

A study of Cheka activity proves that this was the purpose of its actions, not purported subversive activity. Any revolutionary who reads Paul Avrich’s excellent book, The Russian Anarchists, will be moved to tears over the physical destruction of this principled, though misguided, revolutionary tendency at the hands of revolutionaries in power.

Alan mentions that Lenin opposed bureaucracy in the last years of his life. I am sure he did so in complete sincerity. Yet he opposed the bureaucracy by methods which could only strengthen it. His idea of worker and peasant inspectorates chosen by the party tops was utilized by Stalin to increase party control over the bureaucracy in the interests of the bureaucratic stratum as a whole.

It could not be otherwise. Only the invigilation of the masses through democratic pluralism can check state bureaucracy. This raises the very interesting, though hypothetical, question as to what would have happened if Lenin had lived another ten years or so? I would maintain matter how determined and sincere, cannot counter a structured social stratum.

I am reminded of Fidel Castro, another completely sincere revolutionary with a rather high regard for his own abilities. Castro also opposed bureaucracy, equally unsuccessfully. I visited Cuba a few years back and I found no sign of the slightest public manifestation of dissidence or critical thought.

It is hard for democratic revolutionaries to realize that there are sincere revolutionaries who are, at the same time, undemocratic and elitist in power. It can be their strong revolutionary convictions which lead them to impose radical change in a bureaucratic fashion upon a recalcitrant majority. In addition to Fidel Castro, I am thinking of Tito, Mao and Ho Chi Minh.

“One cannot rule out,” Wald writes, “a situation, especially in a small country, where a mass revolutionary party is so authoritative and internally diverse that it has no significant rivals.”

I doubt if size of country has much to do with political diversity. I had a friend once who was critical of all the state socialist societies except one, little Albania. There, he claimed, because the country was so small, and most people were relatives, what appeared to outsiders as despotism was really quite benevolent. He did not convince me.

Clearly, Alan has some specific “small country” in mind and I doubt that it is Albania. It could be Cuba where Fidel Castro came to power with overwhelming national support. Yet he proceeded to suppress not only the bourgeois democratic wing of his supporters but also the non-Communist but radical wing, including trade unionist David Salvador and writer Carlos Franqui.

More than likely Alan has Nicaragua on his mind. We all, of necessity, have Nicaragua on our minds these days. Nicaragua makes this discussion concrete and immediate.

We all understand the great difficulties imposed upon the revolutionary process in Nicaragua by American aggression. I certainly join with Alan and, I am sure, most of the readers of ATC in defending the Nicaraguan Revolution against this aggression and I support the Sandinistas in their efforts to resist these attacks and to carry out needed social changes within Nicaragua.

I would also agree that the Sandinistas have overwhelming revolutionary authority within Nicaragua and have only insignificant revolutionary opposition. Yet internal opposition from non-revolutionary parties and groups is by no means insignificant, as the last election indicated.

Sandinista policy in relation to the non-revolutionary opposition has certainly been superior to that carried out by Lenin and Trotsky and proves, if proof is still needed, that pluralism is possible under conditions of armed counterrevolution supported by outside powers.

Yet we must not be blind to statist tendencies among the Sandinistas. The closing of La Prensa, reprehensible as that journal was, is an action we should condemn.

It is true that the Sandinistas are made up of three competing tendencies and are thus, to some extent, internally pluralistic. Yet the debates between these tendencies occur on the highest level only and are not open to scrutiny or invigilation by rank-and-file Sandinistas, not to mention non-Sandinistas.

The sad historical truth is that if the Sandinista leadership should wipe out pluralism external to its movement it is unlikely that internal pluralism will sur&vive. This discussion is very relevant to current revolutionary practice.

Alan suggest that my “post-Leninism” could very well be a return to pre-Leninism. If I may be philosophical for a moment (old habits die slowly) all change involves elements of return to a previous state. Marx saw socialism as a return to pre-class society on the higher level of modern technology.

I would love to see a return to the kind of socialism which motivated a Gene Debs and a Rosa Luxemburg, where notions of one party states and imposed socialism simply did not exist. Such a return would, of course, need to be enriched by the great experiences of the Leninist era, negative and positive.

In conclusion, I can only say that I hope I am in error in my interpretation of Alan Wald’s remarks about the revolutionary suppression of a majority under extraordinary circumstances. I would be more than happy to learn we have only a semantic difference.


Alan Wald has seen a copy of my reply to his comments and has written to me to clarify a couple of points. I certainly do not want to attribute to him positions which he does not hold.

Alan’s letter explains that his main concern is to clarify and narrow the circumstances under which he would favor a minority socialist government imposing its will upon the majority:

“I had in mind three fairly classical situations: 1) A situation in which a racist community refuses to allow integration of a racial minority, even though it is proven that failure to integrate has a deleterious effect on the quality of life of the minority. 2) A situation in which a majority of men blocking with a group of conservative women take steps to prohibit abortion, even though illegal abortions mean death for a number of women. 3) A situation where a selfish section of the community hoards food and will not share it with a group towards whom they feel antagonistic {this could easily happen in a Central American country in which a racial community is left to starve to death while a nearby urban center has plenty.)”

No, Alan, I don’t agree with you that an advanced minority should repress a majority even if that majority seeks to be repressive towards minorities and women. Righteousness which is imposed leads inevitably to authoritarianism. I believe socialists should join the struggles of persecuted minorities, even at the price of stepping down from power, should their rights be opposed by a bigoted majority.

I continue to feel that Alan’s search for exceptional conditions which might justify minority or one-party rule — always formulated in the hypothetical rather than the historically-concrete form — is an attempt to make Lenin’s conduct in the post-1917 period appear to be a matter of mistakes or errors in carrying out an otherwise correct strategy based on a sound body of theory. I hold that Lenin­ ism is what Lenin and Trotsky did in power. This is why I insist upon going beyond Leninism.

March-April 1987, ATC 8

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