In The Grip of Leninism

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

Tim Wohlforth

THE AMERICAN LEFF needs to begin its thinking processes with the fall of the Berlin Wall rather than with the storming of the Winter Palace. If we do not develop a socialism which Is a meaningful alternative in the post-Stalinist era, we will become totally irrelevant.

This requires a complete break with the Leninist tradition. We cannot, however, simply step around Leninism as if it were doggy dew. We need to study carefully the history of Leninism in power and think through the theory that has grown up as a defense of that practice. We must learn the lesson of the New Left in the 1960s which broke with its past by ignoring it, only to return to this past with a vengeance during its implosion.(1)

Samuel Farber’s book Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy can be very helpful in this process. It represents an honest summary of the large body of material now available on democracy in Lenin’s Soviet Union.

The book represents a thorough and devastating condemnation of Leninism in power. Curiously, however, Farber makes no systematic assessment of Leninism as a body of theory. He presents the facts, makes important points en passant, yet holds back from drawing all the conclusions his evidence demands. I believe that Farber remains partly in the grip of Leninism.

Let us briefly summarize the facts Farber has assembled. Within the first six months or so of Bolshevik Party rule: (1) the Soviets had become rubber stamps for Bolshevik decisions; (2) factory committees were abolished; (3) trade unions lost their independence; (4) one-man management was restored to the factories; (5) freedom of the press largely disappeared; (6) opposition parties lost their ability to function freely and many opposition leaders were jailed; (7) civil society disappeared along with individual rights and due process in legal practice; (8) democracy was rooted out of the army and the old discipline and generals put back in charge.

By June 1918 Russia had become, for all intents and purposes, a one-party dictatorship. In 1921, after the successful conclusion of the Civil War, this dictatorship was intensified and institutionalized. The leading figure in carrying through all these changes was Lenin. I would like to add one critical point on which Farber is ambiguous: (9) The ideology developed to justify the establishment of this one-party dictatorship was Leninism.

The Theory of Leninism

“Leninism” is that body of doctrine utilized by Lenin to justify his post-revolutionary actions.(2) At heart Leninism in power represents one very simple, powerful idea: the interests of the working class are expressed through the thinking and practice of a section of that class organized into a vanguard formation. This meant in practice that the working class exercised its dictatorship through the rule of its vanguard party. This led Leninists to impose their view upon the working class even when the working class held a different view of its “real” interests. Likewise working-class parties that competed with the vanguard party were seen as representing the influence of alien classes upon the working class.

Leninism combines this notion with the Marxist concept that the interests of all humanity in this historical period are embodied in the interests of the working class and its socialist revolution. Therefore, it was quite proper from a Leninist point of view for this vanguard to impose its will upon the poor peasants and intermediary classes, as well as upon the old ruling classes.

Lenin added one additional personal element to “Leninism” as he practiced it. Lenin believed deeply that this body of theory and practice was grasped completely only by himself. His thinking, his iron will, his emotions, his entire physical being were at one with this vision. The party, for Lenin, was no more than an instrument of his will. This permitted Lenin to carry out brutal repressive actions without feeling any moral qualms. This notion, both dangerous and fetching, is also the source of much of the cultism, factionalism and splits that have plagued the Trotskyist movement.

I would agree with Farber when he states that “those supporting a New Order devoid of democratic control from below unavoidably [open] the road for the formation of a new type of ruling class.” (Farber, 215) This means that while Leninism and Stalinism are not identical they are linked as cause is to effect!

Farber proves conclusively that the basic structure of the single-party dictatorship and bureaucratic domination of society were put into place under Lenin. What Stalin did was wipe out the remnants of democracy within the party. Stalin’s victory was inevitable given the confines of one-party rule. Sadly, Stalin’s opponents—Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev —had contributed to the creation of the system which doomed them.

This question has contemporary meaning. I cannot really argue with Ferenc Feher, the Hungarian dissident and former student of George Lukacs, when he states that “for the average intelligent citizen of Soviet-type societies, the slogan ‘return to Leninism’ stands for courting [Tiananmen-like] disaster.”(3)

“Socialism in One Country”

Trotsky and his followers developed a complex line of argument aimed at preserving the Leninist idea by separating it from Leninist practice. Trotsky reasoned that Leninist practice represented a specific case, justified by a special set of historical circumstances, rather than a general model which would be repeated under other circumstances. Trotsky stressed world revolution as his solution to the difficulties faced by the Russian workers state and contrasted this perspective to Stalin’s policy of socialism in one country, which he viewed as a capitulation to Russian specificity.

Certainly the objective conditions facing the victorious revolutionaries in Russia were bleak. The Bolsheviks had come to power in a relatively backward country, whose economy was in shambles, with a disintegrating army which was losing a war, and they were relatively isolated from revolution elsewhere. Once having signed a humiliating peace with Germany, they faced an internal civil war supported by foreign powers. These were certainly very difficult conditions under which to carry out experiments in democracy and to build a new society.

Farber supports the notion held by all Bolsheviks at that time “that the economic backwardness of Russia could only be overcome with the material help provided by one or more successful revolutions in economically developed Western Europe.” This means that if there is not simultaneous revolution in an advanced country, a revolution in a backward country is doomed to evolve into Stalinism. In fact Farber justifies “the revolutionary ‘gamble’ of October 1917” on the grounds that “there existed realistic prospects for a revolution in at least one economically advanced country in Western Europe….” (Farber 201, 205)

History has not been very kind to the world revolutionary hope. Not only do we so far have no examples of revolutionary triumph in more than one country at a time, but we have yet to see it triumph in even a single advanced nation. This certainly would suggest that the people in a lesser developed nation would be damn fools to follow revolutionaries who promised them state slavery unless the workers in the United States or Western Europe rose up and came to their aid.

Even if a revolution was successful in an advanced nation, however, it would be an illusion to think that this would in any fundamental way alter the internal situation in the less developed nation. For example, if revolution had triumphed in Germany in 1918 or 1919, the German revolutionaries would have inherited a chaotic situation of their own and would have little resources available to aid their Russian comrades. Farber quite inconsistently seems to agree with this assessment and yet he still clings to the world revolution schema:

“A successful socialist revolution in Germany would have naturally helped a lot; for example, it might have shortened the period of sacrifices and lack of capital for infrastructural investments, but it could not have eliminated it. This becomes all the more evident when we consider the damage suffered by the German economy during World War I, and the urgent needs and priorities of the German working class and peasantry themselves.” (Farber, 55)

This is not an abstract historical question. The Nicaraguan Revolution had to do its best to survive with little external aid and a lot of external hostility. The Cuban Revolution, to be sure, has survived with substantial aid from the USSR and, until recently, from the East European countries. This aid, however, was used to encourage rather than discourage the anti-democratic practices of Castro and his leadership group.

Serious revolutionaries must be able to cope with conditions similar to those which faced the Bolsheviks The great strength and appeal of Leninism is that its program worked. Yet the outcome was Stalinism. If we wish a different outcome we need a different program. However, it must also be a program that works, not threadbare wishes about world revolutionary salvation.

An alternative did exist in Russia in the 1917 to 1923 period, and a study of this alternative can help us in developing a working model for a survivable and feasible socialism for our era. A strong, effective and democratic government could have been developed capable of defending itself against counterrevolutionary attack, bringing order to chaos, and instituting what Farber calls “a moderate, de facto socialism in one country.” (Farber, 199) This would have had to be a mixed socialist/market economy as visualized later by both Bukharin and Trotsky in the 1920s.

The Democratic Counterrevolution

Now we must turn to a most peculiar matter. Samuel Farber proves himself in this book to be an honest and knowledgeable scholar of the post-revolutionary period. Perhaps more important, Farber is a convinced revolutionary socialist deeply committed to democracy. Yet he has not been able to completely free himself from the grip of Leninism. There is a critical point in his book where Farber seems to think his revolutionary socialist convictions are in conflict with his humane and democratic principles. He blinks, clinging to the former and compromising the latter.

Farber projects a “possible alternative scenario.” The year is 1921 and as Farber fantasizes it, Lenin launches a “New Political Policy (NPP)” legalizing all political parties and groups that “accept, and pledge loyalty to, the Soviet system of government….” These parties are guaranteed freedom to propagate their views and given the facilities to make that guarantee real. An election is then held and, Farber admits, it is “possible” that the opposition parties would win. (Farber, 205-208)

Farber first suggests that Lenin should have sought under these circumstances some power-sharing arrangement Of course, in my opinion, it is most unlikely that parties which had been suppressed, their leaders jailed, and which would have run election campaigns bitterly critical of the Bolsheviks would agree to such an arrangement. Farber grants that the “extreme outcome” could be that the Bolsheviks would have to turn over the government to this opposition. Here comes the clincher: the Bolsheviks would turn over power conditionally.

First, a programmatic iron-dad guarantee preserving the major gains of the October Revolution, e.g. that there would be no attempt to return the major industries to private capitalists, and that the growth of private capitalism in the countryside would remain subject to strict controls. (Farber, 7)

Socialists traditionally have held that their movement is more committed to democracy than the supporters of capitalism. While capitalists permit democratic practice up to a point, they can be expected to overthrow democratic institutions if the working class, through these institutions, proceeds to abolish their private ownership of the means of production. Farber would have us act in the same undemocratic fashion as the capitalists. An honest socialist would need to campaign in the future, stating: “Vote socialism in but I warn you that if you don’t like the system you won’t be allowed to change your mind and vote socialism out!”

I am afraid that Farber’s one-way socialism would not get much support. That may be just as well because insistence on sustaining the socialist system despite majority disapproval is simply another variety of imposed socialism.

Events over the past two years in Eastern Europe and in Nicaragua should convince us that this is no hypothetical question. In Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia completely free and democratic elections produced governments determined to sell off the state-run enterprises and privatize the entire economies of their countries. Of course these factories were not really in the possession of the people (nor, by the way, were factories in the Soviet Union in 1921). Rather they were in the hands of a bureaucratic state.

These developments are unique in history and present a new theoretical challenge for Marxists. Even if we hold that the previous bureaucratic system represented some form of “new class” society, or was “state capitalist,” or any other designation, I believe we must designate these events as a democratic counterrevolution.

The previous system, whatever its name, was shattered with the fall from power of the single party which dominated the system. Elections placed state property into the hands of the people creating a situation close to Marx’s definition of a workers state in The Communist Manifesto: “… to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as a ruling class … — The missing ingredient was, of course, the proletariat organized as a ruling class!”

However, the collapse of the former system and the placing of the State, which already had in its hands “the instruments of production” into the hands of the people through an open and genuinely democratic electoral process can only be termed as revolutionary. It follows that the actions of the representatives of the people in selling off the people’s property can only be termed as counterrevolutionary!(4) (This should not be taken to imply that the previous Stalinist regime was in some distorted or deformed manner revolutionary.)

I believe that this development represents a positive alternative to the maintenance of the previous bureaucratic state socialist system. The rightward swing will not last indefinitely. The conditions are being created in those countries for the rebirth in the future of a genuine democratic socialism.

Nicaragua is another example. The Sandinistas led a popular revolution and then imposed their rule on the country for a number of years. They carried through popular reforms, redistributed a lot of land, set up cooperatives, nationalized some industries, and earned the hatred of the American government. While they did not completely establish socialism, their role within Nicaragua was analogous in many ways with that of the Bolsheviks within, of course, a Latin American setting.(5)

The United States imposed an economic boycott on the country and armed a contra army. This combination led to a significant deterioration in the living standards of the Nicaraguan people. At the same time the Sandinistas, themselves in the grip of Leninism, at times acted in an arrogant fashion towards the people, made a number of mistakes in their administration of the economy, and insisted upon continuing a very unpopular draft. However, they agreed to genuinely free elections which were won by a counterrevolutionary opposition coalition.

Daniel Ortega then transferred power to the new government, regrouped his forces in opposition and has carried out (quite successfully I might add) a determined and popular struggle to defend the conquests of the revolution. The Chamorro government’s need to compromise with the Sandinistas has led to a cooling in relations with Washington.

The result of this process is nonetheless counterrevolution, and at least some of the gains of the revolution will be compromised or lost outright. Yet Ortega’s only alternative would have been to suppress the opposition and the majority of his own people, to turn even more towards the totalitarian Stalinist model, and to continue the war. Daniel Ortega is to be commended for his actions. Those who wish to make a democratic socialist revolution must learn to accept the possibility of a democratic counterrevolution.

The Soviet Mystique

The thinking of many leftists, including Farber, on the question of state and governmental structure in the transitional period has been shaped by what I call Leninist tunnel vision. We tend to look back at classical Marxism with Lenin’s eyes, seeing only those strands in Marx and Engels’ thought which Lenin wished us to see, strands which Lenin subtly transformed into a justification for his dictatorship.

The late Hal Draper deserves credit for producing the definitive study of the use by Marx and Engels of the term Dictatorship of the Proletariat. He devoted two books comprising some 650 pages to the project.(6) This may seem like a bit of overkill, but we can only thank Draper for his efforts when we consider the amount of mischief that has been carried out under cover of these four words.

Marx used the term, Draper asserts, as synonymous with “working-class rule,” “proletarian ascendancy” and “workers state.” At no time did he use the term to refer to form of government. For instance, he insisted that the dictatorship of capital existed under several different forms of government: the democratic republic, monarchy, dictatorship.

He recognized only one general form of government through which the working class could rule: the democratic republic. Draper explains that Marx always distinguished “the governmental form (democratic republic) and the class content of the state (dictatorship of the proletariat).”(7)

Marx’s reasoning was fairly obvious. The capitalist gains his power from his private ownership of the means of production. He continues to possess this power under both dictatorial and democratic governments. The working class can only possess the means of production through the state which it can only control through a democratic process. Once the working class loses control of the state it loses control of the means of production and therefore no Ionger rules.

Lenin distorted this position in order to defend a party dictatorship over the working class.

“By the end of Year One, it was clear that Lenin was no longer using the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to denote a workers’ state that was subject to the democratic rule of the working classes. It now meant a specially organized dictatorial regime, dictatorial in the sense that had become increasingly dominant, and increasingly c9derposed to abstract democracy.”(8)

Draper proves that Lenin’s distortion of the Marxist heritage had another, more subtle side. He conflated the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat with that of the commune state in such a manner that the two became inseparable in the thinking of Leninists. This permitted him to attack parliamentary democracy, claiming the higher ground of the purported superior structure of the commune state. For instance, a year after the seizure of power Lenin wrote in The Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Kautsky, without a doubt the most mendacious piece of writing in his long career, at a time when the Soviets had been completely gutted by the Communist party: “Proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy; Soviet power is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic.”(9)

Draper explains Marx’s view:

“The question was this: was the council system (soviet system in the general sense, Riesystem), as a form of government, a necessary and inevitable and ‘permanent’ feature of the dictatorship of the proletariat? …This question was not covered by Marx’s view of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ which embraced no idea about specific governmental forms as a necessary part of the concept … A Marxist could conceivably conclude, as Kautsky in fact did, that a workers state could be founded on the basis of parliamentary institutions.”(10)

Farber clearly does not grasp this point because he attacks Rosa Luxemburg’s defense of the parliamentary system as a position which “flew in the face of what is practically the ABC of revolutionary Marxism.” (Farber, 58) Farber’s mistake is quite understandable as it simply illustrates once again the grip of Leninism upon left thinking.

Certainly the “commune” form is a better, more democratic, and more egalitarian way of administering state power. The question is: was it ever workable? Trotsky makes a cogent criticism of the Paris Commune in his discussion of the 1871 experience in his otherwise notorious Terrorism and Communism.

The Paris Commune had lasted only seventy-two days when it was bloodily overthrown by the counterrevolutionary Versailles government. It would be a grave mistake, Trotsky suggests, to simply heap praise on the Commune without asking the vital question: Which features of this government might have been responsible for its defeat?

Trotsky felt that the problem lay with “communal autonomy” and the “sacred right of self-government,” which he believed to be “mundane anarchism” resulting from “a heritage of petty-bourgeois localism and autonomism.” It will not come as a shock to any reader of Farber’s book to learn that Trotsky felt that the Paris Communards needed “a centralized party, internally welded by an iron discipline” such as that which led the Soviets in Russia.(11)

Farber has proved without question that when one combines the decentralized Soviet structure with the domination of a single disciplined party the result is the complete gutting of the Soviet structure. All power becomes concentrated in the party and soon a Stalinist type of society emerges.

However, this does not negate Trotsky’s argument about the inadequacy of the Commune form: Since any revolutionary regime can expect to face counterrevolutionary attack, a degree of centralization will be needed in the immediate transitional period.

Could a commune governmental form be an effective instrument over the state bureaucracy? Lenin, in one of the few realistic passages in State and Revolution (and therefore a section usually ignored by Leninists) says:

“There can be no thought of abolishing the bureaucracy at once, everywhere and completely. That is utopia. But to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to begin immediately to construct a new one that will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy–this is not utopia, this is the experience of the Commune, this is the direct and immediate task of the revolutionary proletariat.”(12)

Farber clearly shows us that the new Bolshevik regime led almost immediately to the building up of a bureaucratic state considerably larger and more unwieldy than the one that it had “smashed”:

“A socialist revolution is, by definition, far greater in its scope than a bourgeois revolution. One necessary result of this is the development of a state apparatus the strength of which would not have been imaginable to even the most hard-line Jacobin. Obviously, the popular control of such a powerful state requires at least equally strong democratic institutions and safeguards.” (Farber, 214)

I do not see how a decentralized political structure can effectively control a centralized bureaucratic structure. Revolutionists do not choose the circumstances under which they come to power. They inherit a society with large-scale industrial units and with concentrated urban masses serviced by large centralized government structures. The immediate task facing revolutionaries will be to create a new order out of chaos. Their success in doing this can be just as vital to the survival of the revolution as their success in suppressing armed counterrevolution.

This means that government and industrial structure in the immediate transitional period will have to be centralized. Efforts to create a decentralized government, industry and society will take time. There will need to be, as I have suggested elsewhere, a “Transition to the Transition.”(13)

State and Revolution became “social poetry rather than an actual guideline for social policy” (Farber, 211) because it could not be anything else in the immediate transitional period. Representative government—that is, the parliamentary form—is the most effective democratic system for the immediate transitional period because the people directly elect those on the top, while in the commune system the top governmental body is indirectly elected (local councils elect regional councils, which elect provincial councils, which elect a national body).

The meaningful decisions in the immediate transitional period, I am afraid, will be those which are made at the top. This means that it is critically important not only that the working class choose well and have confidence in those it chooses to hold powerful centralized posts, but that a mechanism must be in place to permit the working class to remove these leaders if it changes its mind in its assessment of their conduct. Representative democracy seems to be best suited for that purpose.

There is another practical, immediate reason for abandoning all this semi-anarchist hocus pocus about soviets. It encourages a sectarianism that separates revolutionary socialists from millions of people we could otherwise reach. Nothing makes this clearer than the democratic processes now taking place in Eastern Europe. The people of that region have chosen representative democracy. As they experience the ravages of free market capitalism, many of them can be won to the socialist idea.

This can only take place, however, if socialists present their ideas within the democratic context embraced by these people. Talk of “soviets” or “council” schemes in this context serves only to wall off socialists from the working class.(14)


Let me summarize what I believe to be the approach socialists in the post-Berlin Wall era should take to democracy in the transitional period. Marx spoke in 1850 of “proletarian ascendancy,” a term which suggests Gramsci’s use of the concept of “hegemony.” A successful working-class revolution would require that the working class first achieve hegemony over the majority of the population: peasants, a section of the middle class, the non-working poor, etc. It would need to sustain itself in power by exercising hegemony through a completely democratic and unrestricted representative electoral process based on universal suffrage. No class of people would be excluded from this process and no class of people would be given greater weight within the process.

Civil liberties would be extended to all: revolutionary, intermediary, and counterrevolutionary. Due process of law would be rigorously maintained and all mechanisms would be in place to defend civil society from the state. Trade unions would be free from state control and maintain the right to strike, even (especially) against the government. All political parties would be free to compete on an even playing field, including anti-socialist parties. Should a majority decide to support parties opposed to socialism, power would be peacefully transferred to these parties.

Socialists would encourage the widest practicable extension of democratic practice within industry as well as throughout the society, and the highest degree of decentralization consistent with the efficient running of the government and the economy.

The state would continue to retain the right and duty to defend itself against any individual or group which chose violent means to oppose its course. It would also protect itself from hostile forces in the external world. While its main emphasis would be to overcome the social causes of crime, it would continue to need to protect the public from criminals. It would therefore continue to need to maintain an efficient and effective army and police force.

The working class would use its democratic control of its state to carry through socialist measures to place the basic means of production in the hands of society as a whole, through both the nationalization of industry and the establishment of worker-owned and farmer-owned enterprises.

This dominant socialist sector of the economy would exist alongside a private sector, and the administration of a plan would be combined with market mechanisms in a fashion to reduce as much as is feasible the growth of government as well as to encourage the overall productivity of the society.

Only a productive society can create the conditions for the improvement of the life of its citizens. Only such improvements over the long run will ensure the continued support of the majority for the socialist project and thus lay the basis for the further expansion of industrial and societal democracy. If the term “withering away of the state” has any meaning whatsoever, it is as an ideal towards which humanity can progress by means of the linked growth in human productivity and human control over its own society.


  1. See my article “Reflections on the Sixties,” New Left Review 178 (London, November/December 1989).
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  2. I am not concerned with the official “Marxism-Leninism” developed later by the Stalinists. Nor am I making any judgement on various possible interpretations of the body of Lenin’s thought produced prior to October 1917 or on the factions and individuals who were part of the Bolshevik party during various stages of its existence. For instance, there exist several interpretations of the meaning of Lenin’s pamphlet “What Is To Be Done?” My concern is with Lenin’s interpretation in theory and practice in the post-revolutionary period. See also my article “The Two Souls of Leninism” Against The Current 4/5 (Detroit September-October 1986). My current thinking would have had me title the article “The Two Souls of the Bolshevik Party.”
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  3. Ferenc Feher, “Soviet-Type Societies: The Need for New Theory,” Problems of Communism (Washington D.C., May-June 1990).
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  4. Tim Wohlforth, “What role for socialism in a new Eastern Europe?” In These Times (Chicago, February 6-12, 1991).
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  5. Tim Wohlforth, “Bureaucracy and draft, not elections, doomed Ortega,” In These Times (Chicago, April 18-24, 1990).
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  6. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume III. The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (New York, 1986); The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” From Marx to Lenin (New York, 1987).
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  7. Draper, Marx to Lenin, op. cit., 38.
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  8. Ibid, 104.
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  9. V.I. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Rençgade Kautsky (Moscow, 1970), 24.
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  10. Draper, Marx to Lenin, op. cit. 130-131. For a discussion of Marx’s view in 1850 of a workers state with a parliamentary form, see Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume III, 214.
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  11. Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism (Ann Arbor, 1969), 69 ff. This section also appears in Leon Trotsky on The Paris Commune York, 1970).
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  12. V.I. Lenin, State And Revolution (Peking, 1976), 59.
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  13. Tim Wohlforth, “Transition to the Transition,” New Left Review 130 (London, November-December 1981.)
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  14. A grotesque expression of precisely how not to approach present-day Eastern Europe and the USSR was reported by Alexander Cockbum in 1987: “Moscow presents ironies at levels both petty and majestic. Strolling through the National Hotel on Red Square, I am astounded to see Vanessa Redgrave loping along beside the squat, toad-like form of Gerry Healy, one of the most rabid Trotskyist sectarians in Britain. I meet a bemused writer the next day who reports that Redgrave has given a speech to his union, concluding with the cry, “All power to the soviets!” See The Nation (New York, November 28, 1987), 618.
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January-February 2018, ATC 36