Of Lenin and Leninism

Against the Current, No. 38, May/June 1992

Bernard Rosen

TIM WOHLFORTH’s “In The Grip of Leninism” (ATC 35) is actually in the grip of distortions and exaggerations on two accounts: what happened during the first six months or so of Bolshevik rule, and the identification of such happenings with the Leninist concept of a vanguard party and Lenin’s (alleged) dictatorial nature with its proclivity “to carry out brutal repressive actions without feeling any moral qualms.”

1. The Soviets (says Wohlforth) “had become rubber stamps for Bolshevik decisions.” The facts: During the first year of the Soviet regime localism flourished in the Soviets.(1) Indeed, “the smallest soviets were examples of `direct democracy.'”(2)

By Autumn 1918, “these `basic’ authorities [the soviets] started to disintegrate rapidly,” partly the result of the White Terror which massacred Communists and the most active members of the soviets and suppressed the latter. Paradoxically, too, the Cheka “charged with the struggle against the `whites'” was endowed “with considerable powers, in face of which the soviets had to accept a minor role.”(3)

The Bolsheviks, however, did not abandon their commitment to independent soviets. In December 1919, with the civil war winding down, the All Russia Congress of Soviets passed a resolution introduced by the Menshevik Martov “calling for the powers of the soviets to be strengthened.” Then in 1920, elections to the soviets took place and Martov acknowledged that “the return to more `general’ methods” occurred and often worked to the advantage of his party’s candidates.(4)

2. Factory committees were abolished. The facts: After the October Revolution, factory committees often acted on their own. They refused to obey received instructions; they made alliances with factory owners; sometimes enterprises were sold off and the stocks and plant divided among the personnel; some factories resembled “anarchist communes” which lived “a self-contained existence”; and, at times, workers “awarded themselves wage increases.”(5)

The Bolsheviks, who believed in economic organization through centralized power, curbed the excesses of the factory committees. Indeed, the historian of Russian anarchism affirms “the extraordinary achievement of the Bolsheviks lay in checking the elemental drive of the Russian masses toward a chaotic Utopia.”(6) Yet the Soviet government “merely sought to operate through the trade unions, exercising persuasion in order to reduce the dimensions of economic anarchy.”

Due to objective conditions beyond their control, the Bolsheviks, during the period of war communism, were compelled to take increasingly strong measures to keep the economy functioning. Yet as late as 1920, “some trade union leaders complained, referring to the factory committees that were supposed to be subject to their jurisdiction, of the `dual-power situation’ which was hindering economic activity.”(7)

3. Trade unions lost their independence. The facts: From 1918 on disputes arose in the Communist Party and the trade unions on such issues as the degree of independence to be allowed the latter and their particular role in the economy and state.(8)

The unions, however, freely participated in the running of the country, took part in “the administration of individual branches of the economy” and were part of VSNKh (Supreme Council of the Economy). The unions also had “significant powers” in the Peoples Commissariat of Labor.(9)

Even under the harsh conditions of war communism, when industry was turned into “a supply organization of the Red Army” and decrees imposed a very strict control over the labor of every citizen,(10) the unions did not cease to function as relatively independent bodies.

Lenin accepted and defended this fact as late as December 30, 1920 when he declared at a conference of communists that there was a need for trade unions independent of the state. As he put it, since “ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it,” we now have a state “under which it is the business of the massively organized proletariat to protect itself, while we … must use the workers’ organizations to protect the workers from their state, and get them to protect our state.”(11)

Indeed, until the rise of Stalinism, or better put, its definitive victory, the soviet unions performed an active, viable function in the life of the country, hindered and restricted, certainly, by the pragmatic policies of the government under conditions of war communism and its aftermath.

4. One-man management was restored to the factories. The facts: Wars and revolutions have their own inner dialectic and can cause a revolutionary party in power to change direction. In October 1917, the Soviet regime did not go beyond working class state control of industrial enterprises with the employers still in the picture and not expropriated. But with the onset of the civil war and intervention, and bourgeois resistance and sabotage growing apace, the Soviet government increasingly expropriated the capitalists, so much so that by June 1918 virtually all large-scale industry had been nationalized.

This course of events between October 1917 and June 1918 was not rooted in the Leninist concept of a vanguard party or Lenin’s character which did not feel “any moral qualms.”

The state control of the industrial machine, “already stimulated by the first world war before the Bolshevik advent to power, now received fresh and overwhelming stimulus from the civil war; and its place in Bolshevik experience was confirmed anew by hard practical experience.” Thus, the main lessons which the Civil War drove home in industry “were the necessity for centralized control, direction and planning.” Hence, the need for technical specialists and the need for one-man responsibility in management.”(12)

5. and 6. Freedom of the press largely disappeared and opposition parties lost their ability to function and many opposition leaders were jailed. The facts (I start with the parties first):

I. The Constitutional Democrats (Cadets). When White Guard generals opened war against the soviet regime, the Cadets and right Social Revolutionaries “staged a semi-insurrection in the capital.” In fact, counterrevolutionary leader General Deniken acknowledged connections between White Guards and the headquarters of the Cadets. The Cadets were, consequently, declared illegal on November 28, 1917.(13) Their newspapers continued to appear, though not without difficulty, until the summer of 1918.(14)

Illegalizing the cadets was not a principle rooted in Bolshevik Marxism. Lenin made this quite clear at the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party in 1919. He said: “We do not at all regard the question of disfranchising the bourgeoisie from the absolute point of view, because it is theoretically quite conceivable that the dictatorship of the proletariat may suppress the bourgeoisie at every step without disenfranchising them.”(15) Does Wohlforth find fault with this formulation of Lenin?

II. Social Revolutionaries. After the October Revolution, that party rejected “not just the majority in the Soviets” but “the Soviet regime itself”; the majority of its central committee resolved on “armed action against the Bolsheviks”; several SR leaders made their way to the front to join forces with army elements; plans were made to kidnap Lenin and Trotsky; resort was made to terrorism and several Bolshevik leaders were assassinated; and SRs joined anti-Bolshevik governments set up in Russia.(16)

The party was banned in June 1918 but when in February 1919, a minority of SRs advocated a rapprochement with the Soviet regime, the Bolsheviks responded by relegalizing the party. However, the SR party continued to choose the banner of counterrevolution and “fought for it with all the violence typical of the period.” Bolshevik intolerance was the response.(17)

The Left SRs participated in a coalition government with the Bolsheviks but left the coalition after the Brest-Litovsk Treaty (March 1918). However, relations between the two parties remained friendly until the Bolsheviks set up Committees of Poor Peasants and sent workers’ detachments to the countryside to requisition foodstuffs for the cities.

The SRs then resorted to violence, assassinated the German Ambassador, hoping thereby to restart the war between Germany and Russia, and launched a revolt in the capital. However, after their defeat, they were not excluded from the soviets and were spared the wave of terror that “swept over Moscow” after September 1918.(18)

III. Mensheviks. Vacillations and ambivalences in Menshevism led to vacillations and changes in the Soviet government’s policies toward them. The consequence was that the Mensheviks continued to exist as a legal party long after “within the six months or so.” In fact, in 1920, the Mensheviks had legal party offices in Moscow and in August of that year, held an open party conference in that city.(19)

The Mensheviks were suppressed, however, in the Winter of 1920-1921. Why? The leaders of the Bolshevik Party were made aware “how isolated they were and how precarious was their position.” Thus, “in the catastrophic circumstances, both economic and political, that governed the repression of the Kronstadt revolt and the introduction of N.E.P., they resolved to allow no more opposition from outside the Communist Party, and also to restrict it considerably inside the Party.”(20)

If the Mensheviks attained power, which was most likely if free elections were held in 1921, the Bolsheviks were convinced that capitalism would be restored. After all, the basic view of the Mensheviks, as far as Russia was concerned, was that in that backward country only the bourgeoisie and not the proletariat should hold power. The Bolsheviks were also convinced that revolution was in the wings in western Europe, and by holding on to power, not only were they stimulating revolution abroad, but such revolution would save the Soviet regime itself. In other words, objective conditions, rightly or wrongly interpreted, and consequences, rightly or wrongly prognosticated, accounted in great part for the Bolshevik treatment of the Mensheviks.

IV. The Anarchists. The October Revolution led to differences between Bolsheviks and Anarchists on such matters as centralization versus decentralization, the state versus the stateless ideal, self determinations of nations and the role of factory committees. However, as one historian brings out, “Lenin’s attitude towards the anarchists immediately after the October Revolution and in the first years of the Soviet regime, showed more goodwill than sectarianism.”(21)

Actually, the first crackdown of the Cheka against the anarchists was directed against those who infiltrated that movement, “organized gangs whose political creed was little more than a cover for hooliganism.”(22) Anarchist journals continued to be published “long after the Cheka action. Shortly after that repression, Makhno, the Ukrainian anarchist, came to Moscow, interviewed Lenin and visited Moscow anarchists.”(23)

Cumulative actions by the anarchists eventually led the government to illegalize them. Thus, not only did they oppose the Brest-Litovsk Treaty (in itself not necessarily a subversive act), but followed such protest by armed expropriations.(24) They then supported the Kronstadt rebellion as a new Paris Commune, a subversive act that finally led the Bolsheviks to illegalize the anarchist movement.

Liebman points out that Lenin generally “linked the problem of press freedom with that of political freedom” and related such freedom to the situation in the Civil War adopting a class viewpoint on the whole question. Liberties and democracy “not for all, but for the working and exploited masses, to emancipate them from exploitation.” And in all this, “there was nothing … implied systematic and final banning of the opposition socialist press.”

Liebman then adds the following most cogent observation: “The measures of prohibition and intimidation adopted by the Bolsheviks, and recommended by Lenin, certainly do not provide a solution to the very real problem posed by freedom of the press in a revolutionary period.” To represent the Bolsheviks, however, “as proof of a deliberate striving for totalitarianism is to close one’s eyes to the reality of revolution.” This amounts “to advising revolutionaries to answer the massive pressure exerted by the bourgeoisie (not to mention its violence) with the Franciscan virtues of renunciation, resignation and humility.”(25)

We saw above that even the Cadet press functioned for a while after the Cadet Party was declared illegal in November 1917. And going beyond “within the six months or so,” the Menshevik and anarchist press functioned legally until 1921.

7. Civil society disappeared along with individual rights and due process in legal practice. The facts: Was this true (within six months or so)? Obviously not by the widest stretch of the imagination. An active debating life within the Communist Party, the existence of other parties and their newspapers, admittedly trammeled to one degree or another, indicate that individual and social rights were not eliminated by June 1918.

Even into the twenties with the rise of Stalinism civil society did not disappear. What of the Left Opposition that functioned, with difficulty of course, until 1927 and the Bukharinist opposition for a few years more? Does such harmonize with the disappearance of civil society? In the darkest days of Stalinism, with its violent repressions (and the continuation of some expressed dissent), it is most questionable that civil society disappeared. But this is another matter.

8. Democracy was rooted out of the army and the old generals put back in charge. The facts: Did the Red Army of Lenin and Trotsky restore the brutal barracks-type discipline characteristic of the old Czarist regime? When? How? Were ranks restored with officers’ privileges “within six months or so”? When? How? And what was wrong with making use of the technical skills and knowledge of former Czarist officers, some of whom, for one reason or another, loyally served the Soviet government and who, in addition, had commissars by their side to watch their activity and loyalty?

Wohlforth’s opposition to the “old generals” is of a piece with his opposition to one-man management, both rooted in an apparent anarchist and syndicalist-like antagonism to Leninist centralization and statism.

Concluding Remarks

Ernest Mandel, aptly and clearly, writes that “the Bolshevik government was forced in 1920-21 severely to restrict soviet democracy by suppressing soviet opposition parties and formations, and eliminating the right to form factions in the Bolshevik Party itself.” He then adds that “Trotsky wholeheartedly supported these measures.” However, whether these measures “were unavoidable in order to save the dictatorship of the proletariat, only a detailed critical-historical study could demonstrate.” But Trotsky did more “than just support them from a pragmatic point of view. He tried to justify them theoretically, going so far as to state baldly that, under certain circumstances, the revolutionary party has to substitute for the working class in the exercise of political power.”

Today, Mandel stresses, with the benefit of hindsight, “we can confidently state that these formulations were theoretically wrong.” They should be regarded “as unjustifiable theoretical apologies for current practical measures, not as enrichments of Marxist theory.(26)

Marcel Liebman also stresses that early soviet Bolshevism strayed from Marxist theory. The Leninists “often against their will, concentrated the whole of state power in their own hands, with no share held by the other socialist parties.” Furthermore, the new regime “moved towards prohibition and suppression of these parties.” This attitude of the Bolsheviks toward their socialist opponents, as well as the anarchists, who at times acted as their allies, “seems, indeed, to show a culpable desire for power, a fatal tendency towards monolithism.”(27)

In subsequent years, Trotsky moved away from his earlier theoretical justifications. Thus, he declared “the suppression of soviet parties led to the suppression of factions. The suppression of factions led to the consolidation of bureaucracy.” Moreover, “with us, the soviets have been bureaucratized as a result of the political monopoly of a single party which has itself become a bureaucracy.”(28)

The Bolsheviks should have found the pragmatic means to allow the Mensheviks, anarchists and other socialist parties to continue to exist and participate in political life in a legal manner. Not the aimless anti-Leninist cogitations of Wohlforth but the pragmatic mistakes of the Bolsheviks should serve as a school of guidance for the working class movement today.


  1. Marcel Liebman, Lenin Under Leninism (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 228. See ibid., 279, where it is brought out that during the first year of the Soviet regime localism was a prevailing fact in the Party, with the regime unable to overcome this state of affairs.
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  2. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923 (New York: Macmillan, three volumes, 1951-1953) Vol. 1, 130, fn 3.
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  3. Liebman, op. cit., 228-229.
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  4. Ibid., 230-231.
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  5. Ibid., 334.
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  6. Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (New York: W.W. Norton 1978), 170.
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  7. Liebman op. cit., 334-335. Wohlforth’s “within six months or so” cannot be historically located, nor does he explain how Lenin’s theory of the party and his dictatorial nature account for the demise of the factory committees.
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  8. Carr op. cit., Vol. 2, 100-115 for a good running account of those disputes.
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  9. Tony Cliff, Lenin (London: Pluto Press, 1975-1978) 3 Vols; Vol. 3, 120-121.
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  10. Ibid., 123-125.
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  11. Lenin, Collected Works v.32, 24-25.
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  12. See Carr op. cit., vol. 2, 173. Obviously, there would be less need for technical specialists and one-man management in a highly educated working class-controlled society living at peace and with unhampered movement towards socialism. But was semi-barbaric Russia in that situation in 1918? Unless the Soviet working class were to abdicate power, there was no alternative to one-man management, but under the effective control and guidance of the proletarian state.
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  13. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, (New York: Vintage, 1954), 338 including footnote 1.
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  14. Liebman op. cit. 238 fn.
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  15. Lenin, Collected Works v.29, 184.
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  16. Liebman op. cit., 243-245 et passim.
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  17. Ibid., 246.
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  18. Ibid., 257 including footnote.
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  19. For a good running account of these events see ibid., 246-250 et passim, and Carr op. cit., Vol. 1, 105-183 et passim.
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  20. Liebman op. cit., 251. And Isaac Deutscher brings out that “paradoxically, the Bolsheviks were driven to establish political monopoly by the very fact that they had liberalized their economic policy.” N.E.P. gave free scope to the interests of peasants and bourgeoisie, and they “would seek to create their own means of political expression” or try to use anti-Bolshevik organizations that existed. “The Bolsheviks were determined that none should exist.” Deutscher also stresses the isolation of the Bolsheviks and quotes Lenin who in March 1921 spoke of the non-existence of a genuine proletariat in Russia. See Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, 518 and The Prophet Unarmed (New York: Vintage, 1959), 14-15 fn. 1.
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  21. Liebman op. cit., 263.
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  22. Carr op. cit. Vol. 1, 161. See also fn 2.
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  23. Ibid., 170.
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  24. Avrich op. cit., 193-194.
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  25. Liebman op. cit., 259-261 et passim.
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  26. Ernest Mandel, Trotsky (London: New Left Books, 1979), 61-62.
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  27. Liebman op. cit., 243.
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  28. Quoted in Mandel op. cit., 62.
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May-June 1992, ATC 38