The Onus of Historical Impossibility

Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992

Susan Weissman

THE CENTRAL INTERPRETATIVE question dividing Soviet studies has been that of the relation between Leninism (or Bolshevism) and Stalinism. For decades the “totalitarian” school of analysis has put an equation between Leninism, Bolshevism and Stalinism since for them the first two were synonymous with Marxism, the equation between Marxism and Stalinism became standard.

In Moscow at the height of glasnost, when Memorial (a group committed to preserving the memory of purge victims—ed.) was actively excavating the Stalinist past, I commonly encountered the attitude “we’re tired of bashing Stalin, it’s time to get onto Lenin.”

Young activists were concerned in particular with two historical issues: the debate over the 1918 decision to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, because in an atmosphere of burgeoning democratic institutions, this held relevance to their lives; and Lenin’s Civil War conduct, a question that opened the door to the previously untouchable time of Lenin’s power. Trotsky was still blamed for the excesses during the Civil War, but more and more, the question was being raised, where was Lenin, and how could Trotsky have been so ruthless without Lenin’s complicity?

That was two years ago, which in politics is a very long time The fashion now is to denounce not only Leninism as the precursor of Stalinism, but the October Revolution as but a Bolshevik coup d’etat. Richard Pipes’ The Russian Revolution,just published in paperbackby Vintage in December 1991, is but the latest, yet most comprehensive and probably influential expression of this view.

Influenced by Cold War Western historians and the horrors of the Stalinist era, the equation between Stalinism and socialism is now being strengthened by the Soviets and East Europeans, while in the West, historians and journalists now routinely dismiss the Soviet experience as a bracket in history. It is in this context that the struggle to come to terms with Leninism is really just beginning.

A Critical Re-Examination

The publication of Before Stalinism by Sam Father is a welcome salvo, one that raises the seriousness of the debate in light of the present day impasse for the left. RussiarilSoviet historiography has always been the ideological weapon of whomever is writing—whether Leninist or anti-Leninist, anarchist, monarchist, anti-communist, whatever.

Sam Farber is also partisan, seeking a creative and critical re-examination of the revolutionary period not so much to set the record straight, but to draw lessons for revolutionaries today. His book deliberately concentrates in a systematic and comprehensive way on the events and decisions that led to the erosion of Soviet democracy in the time of Lenin, and attempts to develop a theory of revolutionary democracy for the period of transition.

Farber focuses on the importance of such institutions as independent trade unions, a free press and a legal system—institutions that much of the left previously dismissed as the ideological apparatus of the state.

Farber also shows how various tendencies, inside and outside the Bolshevik party, emerged to oppose the erosion of soviet and party democracy. He thus brings to the discussion the fruits of nearly two decades of research by young scholars looking afresh at the revolution and its aftermath.

It is particularly refreshing that Sam Farber, who is outside the specialized Soviet studies discipline, is able to use the findings of these new social historians without adopting their sometimes uncritical acceptance of written records from the Stalinist period (which has often led them to diminish Stalin’s role as well as the numbers of victims of his policies).

Farber stands firmly with the disenfranchised and oppressed victims of the Stalinist counterrevolution, while rejecting the orthodoxy of the “totalitarian’ school of analysis. Indeed his strength lies in this partisanship, his commitment to democracy from below on the struggle for socialism. While the early revolutionary period must be discussed within its own historical context, Farber rightly recognizes the universality of the issues confronting the young revolution and Bolshevik party, and the increasing relevance for us of their decisions in light of the experience of the past six years.

Democracy and the “Transition”

The Stalinist-apologist left has either neglected or dismissed the question of democratic forms of socialism, while the Trotskyist left has always counterposed the higher form of soviet or council democracy to bourgeois-democratic Parliamentary forms. Sam Father’s study, thankfully breaking through these constraints of traditional left politics, stresses the importance of democratic institutions beyond factory committees and forms of workplace democracy—which, he asserts, need to be matched by organs of political democracy at the national and local level.

Indeed, in recent Soviet experience, the new strike committees were often coopted by the Yeltsinites, whereas the new socialist leftists were strongly attracted to the electoral (bourgeois-democratic) forms being built. In fact the new socialist activists in the USSR recognized that these institutions were important enough to defend on the barricades in August 1991, because their destruction would open the way to a return to the arbitrary rules of the Stalinist past and an attack on human rights.

Much has been written of the significance of the failed attempted putsch of August 1991—whether a coup was actually attempted, or simply arranged so that a counter-coup by Yeltsin could be successfully employed. While it is clear that the victors of the August events do not represent authentic democratic forms, the putschists represented a fear of political liberty.

The failure of the coup effectively terminated Stalinism and in that sense is a victory for the march toward genuine democracy. As far as the Soviet population was concerned, imperfect forms and institutions of democracy were apparently preferable to no forms of democracy!

Sam Farber has begun a Marxist historiography of the time of Lenin, which is necessarily a beginning. The point of a Marxist view of history is to understand the present by studying the past, in order to change the present, and hence the future. What Farber does successfully is to point to political errors that facilitated the counterrevolution represented by Stalin-lam. What he cannot do is suggest remedies to problems that were insoluble.

In this sense Farber has really combined two studies in one: he examines the historical record and suggests alternative lines of action in a problem-solving manner, and he considers the historical record to raise the relevant questions for revolutionaries for their own application—that is, to learn from history. It is the latter where I believe Farber succeeds; the former is where he will come in for the most contention, because his remedies are abstracted from the constraints of the time period and world political economic reality in which the Bolsheviks were acting. In short his proposals seem to meto abuse the privilege of hindsight.

Serge on Bolshevik Power

Another author who drew lessons from the first victorious revolution, followed its internal decay and wrote for those who would prepare future revolutionswas Victor Serge, whom Sam Farber cites as one of his influences. Serge wrote Sidney Hook in 1943 that: “if it cannot be denied that Bolshevik intolerance, Lenin’s ‘proletarian Jacobinism,’ the authoritarian centralization of the party contained the seeds of Stalinism as a whole, revolution and Bolshevism itself also contained far other seeds, notably that of a new democracy that Lenin and the others endeavored to establish with good will and passion in 1917-1918.” (Victor Serge to Sidney Hook,, “Marxism and Democracy,” July 10, 1943)

It is obvious that many of the measures Lenin took were anti-democratic and left the door open fora Stalin, yet the Bolsheviks were not only operating in the context of the terrible consequences of the Civil War, which decimated their constituencyof support—the working class constituted only ten pereent of the population after the Civil War—they were also trying to hold on while awaiting the maturation of the revolutionary crises in Europe, their key to salvation.

Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution (an important text to be republished, fortunately, by Pluto Press this year), a sophisticated defense of revolutionary Marxism inaction, makes the case that the early drive toward a dictatorial one-party state was not the result of ideological ardor, though party patriotism played its part, but rather was the outcome of improvised emergency measures in response to a crisis situation.

The Bolsheviks themselves were aware of the contradictions between their democratic goals and their authoritarian practices, which they justified by the danger of reaction. It seemed they could only surmount the contradictions through demagoguery. They were sincere in their goal, yet they also had an underdeveloped commitment to soviet democracy, as Farber correctly indicates.

As their responsibilities increased, their mentality changed. While recognizing the key role of the soviets in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the Bolsheviks in power by the 1920s were concerned less with soviet democracy than with the danger of capitalist restoration. Even Preobrazhensky and Trotsky of the Left Opposition, whose program was a principled critique of bureaucratization and the stifling of democracy in the party, rarely addressed the issue of democracy in the society as a whole.

Serge raised the issue of revitalizing political parties and political life, stating that “socialism and workers democracy cannot be born out of pronunciamentos.” Yet even while demanding democracy both within and outside the party, Serge admitted that after 1921 “everybody that aspires to socialism is inside the party; what remains outside isn’t worth much for the social transformation.” (Serge, “Reply to Ciliga,” New International, Feb. 1939,54)

This explains the concentration on inner-party democracy rather than on democratic institutions for the society at large. Yet while this may have satisfied what Farber calls the mainstream BoIsheviks, Serge wrote that the chief omission in Bolshevik discussion in this period was the problem of liberty, which along with democracy and political pluralism was drowned in the avalanche of the Civil War.

Isolation and Its Choices

Finally, Serge recognized that “the socialist revolution which unfolded in Russia could never be considered apart from the international labor movement.” (Serge, Russia Twenty Years After, 147-148)

By 1921, the Bolsheviks had defeated the bourgeoisie in Russia, and had crossed the rubicon with the violent suppressionof the Kronstadt rebellion. It was clear that the international revolutionary upsurge of 1919-1920 had reached its peak, and the Bolsheviks, now isolated in power, needed a workable program to survive the “breathing spell,” or retreat.

Further construction of socialism was impossible alone, and now they had to wait fora positive revolutionary outcome in the West. The New Economic Policy (NEP) of concessions to the market in general and peasant agriculture in particular was the only program in the actual circumstances and became the transition, the program of the waiting period.

Serge considered NEF a demoralizing blow that once again allowed the kingdom of the market to appear, without a loosening of political control and the existence of political organizations. He called for an alternative: the planned self-rule of the freely associated producers, a communism of associations that would create congresses and special assemblies to harmonize initatives from below.

Like Serge, Farber tries to balance the terrible objective circumstances, which left little room for alternatives, and the conscious political choices made in place of other choices which might have been more dangerous to survival, but less dangerous to democratic governance. Farber brings to light the alternatives posed by various right and left tendencies within the Party to what he calls “mainstream Bolshevism” and demonstrates that there were political reasons that Soviet democracy was put to death, and there was an interaction between the objective factors—Civil War conditions, economic crisis—and the political causes, which Farber locates in the Jacobin politics of mainstream Leninism.

Had Lenin paid more attention to the importance of political pluralism and democracy, Farber maintains, it would have been harder for Stalin to succeed and easier for new democratic forms to emerge. He concedes, however, that soviet democracy could not have survived when half the working class had died in the first turbulent years.

Bolshevism In One Country

Left governing a mass of war-weary, semi-literate peasants, with no international extension of the revolution, the Bolsheviks understood their chances of survival were dim.

Early Bolshevik policy was geared toward the international revolution. In the debates over the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (called the peace of shame by most of the Bolsheviks), Lenin said “I want to lose space in order to gain time.” His critics in the Left Communists warned against trying to preserve the revolution at any cost, because the economic policies led to the soviets losing their independence. Lenin said: “We will perish without the German Revolution.”

The outbreak of the German revolution at the end of year one (1918) gave brief hope to the Bolsheviks, and Lenin insisted that in terms of world importance, the German revolution was more important than the Russian—and if need be, the Russian revolution would be sacrificed for the sake of the German, which had a better chance of advancing socialism in the world.

Trotsky said the duty of Russia (the vanguard of European revolution) would be to have no frontiers, and that the French proletariat was waiting for the positive outcome in Germany. How the Bolsheviks saw themselves in the world, then, was of primary importance. They understood that their revolution could never survive in one country alone—as Lenin affirmed after the German workers’ uprising was defeated.

With hindsight, Sam Farber has pointed to the dangers inherent in Lenin’s conception of the organization of the new Soviet workers’ state, dangers that people involved in social change today need to study very closely. With hindsight we can see that Lenin’s organizational strategy that allowed for victory was both a strength and a weakness.

Other reviewers may prefer to find fault with the Leninist theory of organization, with the leading role of the Bolshevik party and its increasingly antidemocratic measures which led to a dictatorship of the party over the proletariat. The new material Farber had recourse to, however, demonstrates not only the Bolsheviks’ errors but the difficulties confronting them.

The argument that somehow legal or institutional controls could have altered events, that a new social group (the bureaucracy) could be held back by technicalities, is difficult to sustain. The problem is really enigmatic. While it is correct and perhaps easy for Farber to recognize that the Bolsheviks should have allowed legal forms such as elections, in practice this would have led to more complete splits in the party—the very reason Lenin banned factions.

A Way Out?

It is however possible to argue that democratic practices might have delayed the coming to power of the bureaucracy, during which time the soviet Left could have established itself and served as an example to the world working class. Farber writes that following the Civil War not just a new economic policy was needed, but a New Political Policy (NPP), which is obviously true.

In this connection Victor Serge wrote that a coalition government in 1923, while fraught with danger, would have proved far less dangerous than what transpired under Stalin. What happened instead was that discontent and opposition within the party and the working class caused the Central Committee to adopt a-state-of-siege stance, rather than a policy of reconciliation and tolerance towards other socialist elements.

Serge also conceded that the Bolsheviks trusted only themselves in power because of their commitment to world revolution, and a coalition government in Russia would have weakened the young Communist International, whose task was to guide and direct the coming revolutions.

The role of the Russian Party in the Comintem was paramount because the Russians carried the weight of authority and experience and, Serge noted, because the European revolutionary leaders were inferior politically to the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks easily dominated the congresses of the Comintern, while the foreign delegates seemed to abdicate critical thinking in their desire for Bolshevik approval.

The Bolsheviks were caught in a bind: they won the Civil War, but the bourgeoisie won the overall class war of the time. Farber points out that the Bolsheviks wanted to hold on, but maintains that they should have been more democratic. Instead they cracked down more.

Had they established a broad working-class democracy to match their rhetoric, it would have served the cause of world revolution. But they would not have lasted very long. In that case, the defeat of the Russian Commune State would have been much worse than that of the Paris Commune, a fate the Bolsheviks knew awaited them. Little did they know that what actually happened under Stalin had the same bloody consequences for themselves and the population. Which would have been better?

For the Bolsheviks the key problem was that they were isolated in power, representing a constituency that was not the majority in society. Had Lenin fought the bureaucracy from the beginning, in retrospect this could have meant that Stalin may not have come to power. And if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin, one could speculate that the German or Spanish proletariat may have had a victory.

Again with hindsight, Trotsky should have taken power in the opposition struggle rather than playing by the Party rules. But this would have been extremely difficult given that Stalin was rigging the votes in the Party elections and Party congresses. Trotsky also misjudged the early character of Stalin’s group, thinking Stalin represented the vacillating center pushed by a pro-capitalist Right, rather than the evolution of the bureaucracy itself taking power and leading to the creation of a new system.

Some Unrealistic Speculation

Farber engages in quite a lot of this sort of speculation about what should have been done, and what could have been. In his chapter on “Revolutionary Alternatives to Lenin,” Farber states that the left should have made a tactical bloc with the Right Opposition led by Bukharm) against Stalin. The question is whether such a union was at all possible in the years when it counted.

When currents emerged in the economic debates of the 1920s, Stalin adopted Bukharin’s policy of socialism in one country as  way to politically defeat the Left. Bukharin took part in the anti-Trotsky campaign, fully in accord with the top-down anti-democratic methods Stalin employed. Although Bukharin met secretly with Kamenev in 1928 in an attempt to block with the Left against Stalin, his opposition came too late and only because Stalin had turned against Bukharin and the Right.

The hypothetical Left-Right anti-Stalin bloc was impractical on two counts. The Left correctly realized that Bukharin’s program meant a slide toward capitalism, which they were trying to defeat in the world; and in any case by 1927-28 the Left was already defeated.

Anyway, Bukharin would not have united around “libertarian demands” of freedom of expression and proliferation of political parties before 1928, nor would Trotsky or Zinoviev have been able to unite with socialism-in-one-country—the doctrine theorized by Bukharin and taken up by Stalin for his own purposes—which violated the Left’s understanding of the role of the Russian Revolution In the international process.

Lenin had said, “It is a terrible misfortune that the honor of beginning the first socialist revolution should have befallen the most backward people in Europe.” He often used the weak link analogy—the Russian revolution breaking the weakest link in the capitalist chain, beginning a process that would eventually destroy the chain itself. In fact more links broke away, but the chain itself continued and the broken links slowly imploded. (My thanks for the weak link-strong chain argument to Hillel Ticktin, “Trotsky’s Conception of the ‘Russian Mode of Production,'” unpublished manuscript, July 1991.)

The Consequences of Failure

The cost of the failure to establish world socialism was catastrophic. Had the German revolution succeeded, history could have been spared the nightmare of Hider and Stalin. With the defeat in Germany, the Comintern remained a creature of the Soviet party-state.

Two questions therefore arise. Were the Bolsheviks misguided in their reliance on the extension of the revolution internationally? And was the Bolshevik party the kind of instrument for taking power that could be imitated or exported to other countries?

Victor Serge in fact thought that Lenin and Trotsky’s greatest error was misjudging the revolutionary enthusiasm of the West European masses, even though capitalism appeared finished (even putrefying) asastable force. Unfortunately the Bolsheviks could not see the international consequences of their own methods of rule and of seeking to apply their particular organizational model internationally.

Farber is right to point to the problem in the organization of the Bolshevik party, with its Jacobin roots. One could also argue their roots were peculiarly Russian, and the organizational form they created was particularly well suited to Russian conditions—the underground development of the Party in the conditions of autocracy and a vast secret police network of infiltrators.

Was the form they created exportable? One could argue that the tragedy is that the Russian model was exported, which grew to sometimes ridiculous proportions in the conditions of open bourgeois democracy where revolutionaries chose to organize as if they were in Tsarist Russia.

One way to assist revolution in the West would be for Red Russia itself to serve as a beacon of workers democracy, an example the workers in the advanced Western countries would rush to emulate. Holding on as such an example—rather than holding on to escape the threat of restoration—could have led to different practices.

Certainly, in order to exist, the new workers state would have to assist world revolution, as was recognized and written in various places by Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Preobrazhensky, Rakovsky, Kamenev, Serge and others But while Lenin’s theory of organization in Russia was sufficient for victory, they did not have a theory for overthrowing capital in the world. Lenin understood that an organized revolutionary force (“subjective factor”) was necessary, but the capitalist class had learned from the soviet experience and developed various ways to stave off revolution. No one could come up with a way the workers in the West could win.

Clearly, as Farber points out, Lenin’s march on Warsaw (an attempt to build a socialist bridge to Germany) was not the way, and led to the widespread perception that Pilsudski was a hero in turning back the Bolshevik invaders. Lenin’s Warsaw action reflected both his enthusiasm for world revolution, and his impatience or desire for a shortcut. (Trotsky warned against the march, which may well have succeeded if Stalin had not disobeyed orders to provide support for Tukhachevsky’s exhausted troops.)

The lesson was that revolution could not be imposed from outside. Moreover, the Leninist theory of organization proved inadequate for more industrialized and modernized democratic capitalist countries. In fact, as Sam Farber intimates but never explicitly shows, had the Bolsheviks developed soviet power instead of party power they would have been more likely to serve as an attraction to the world working class.

Thus the logic of my argument is that the Bolsheviks (a) understood they were doomed without an extension of the revolution, but (b) had no adequate theory for doing this, and (c) in failing internationally, precipitated their own defeat at the hands of the narrow, nationalistic and brutal policies of the Stalinist counterrevolution. The question then arises—what might the Bolsheviks have done had they been able to see that the very degeneration of soviet democracy, and the increasingly bureaucratic authoritarian character of their own revolution, contributed to the failure of the international proletariat?

What would the consequences have been if they had not held on to power? The barbarous experience of Stalinism, with its terror machine killing millions of its own citizens in peacetime, might have been avoided. But given the backward level of development in Russia, the Menshevik or social democratic program could not have succeeded either.

January-February 1992, ATC 36