Before Stalinism: A Response to Critics

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Samuel Farber

THE SYMPOSIUM CONDUCTED by Against the Current on my book Before Stalinism (Verso, 1990) brought up serious issues in the Marxist revolutionary socialist tradition that are not limited to the question of when and why the Russian Revolution began to degenerate. For my part, I first want to restate some of the key theses and arguments put forward in that work.

Without questioning that there were major qualitative differences between Stalin’s and Lenin’s rule in Russia, Before Stalinism shows that by the time Stalin came to power, soviet democracy had already disappeared. Basing myself on the abundant and mostly recent scholarship on the early revolutionary period, I show how by 1921, and certainly by 1923 when Lenin ceased to function as the leader of revolutionary Russia, soviet democracy no longer existed. I provide extensive documentation to support this claim not only in relation to the soviets in the strict sense of the term, but also in regard to the press, the institutions of workers’ management and control, and the unions.

One of the results of my work was to challenge the “Leninist-Trotskyist” orthodoxy both in terms of the factual record and political interpretation. This orthodoxy was well represented among the contributors to the ATC symposium, particularly by Bernard Rosen and David Mandel. Bernard Rosen for one has apparently achieved such a high degree of closure in the important issues at stake here that he did not even find it necessary to read and criticize my book in order to provide his interpretation of the period for this journal. This, even though Before Stalinism directly and explicitly contradicts, with an abundance of supporting evidence, a good number of Rosen’s claims.

October 1917: A Democratic Upheaval

Western Cold War historiography argued that Stalinism was not much different from Leninism and that the authoritarian character of Leninism in power was already built into the original conceptions of Bolshevism as it was developed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Before Stalinism clearly and unambiguously rejects such an interpretation.

Instead, my book endorses and articulates the reasons for the October revolution and also emphasizes the fundamentally democratic character of that upheaval. In the process, I argue against several of Rosa Luxemburg’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks and show, for example, how the suppression of the Constituent Assembly was quite defensible on democratic grounds.

I also put forward the argument that most of the undemocratic practices of “Leninism in power” developed in the context of a massively devastating Civil War and the political and economic policies of War Communism adopted in response to it. In fact, the abolition of workers’ democracy cannot possibly be understood outside such a context. However, while the devastation caused by the Civil War is a necessary part of the explanation for the decline and disappearance of soviet democ<->racy, I argue that it is not sufficient.

For one thing, the Civil War devastation does not explain why the mainstream Bolshevik leadership (by which I mean the leadership of non-dissident Bolshevism) made a virtue out of necessity and, as I show in great detail in Before Stalinism, theorized the undemocratic and dictatorial measures as permanent features of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia. This theorization and the practices accompanying it became even more developed and entrenched after the Civil War. All of this had, by the early twenties, killed the free and authentic political life of the country thus depriving soviet society of a variety of possible political defenses against the subsequently rising Stalinist monster.

It is particularly important to underline that War Communism also signified the end of workers’ management, control and trade union autonomy. This, however, was no obstacle at the time to the mainstream Bolshevik leadership coming to see the widespread bureaucratic nationalizations of War Communism as a great advance towards the Communist goal.

It is true that subsequently, as David Mandel points out, many Bolsheviks such as the economist L. Kristman critically examined the utopian excesses of War Communism. Yet this does not negate the fact that the War Communist abolition of multi-party soviet democracy and workers’ control was never regretted or defined as a defeat by the mainstream Bolshevik leadership. It is especially noteworthy in this context to contrast this lack of regret with the official reaction, in 1921, to the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) of concessions to capitalism which was unambiguously defined by Lenin as a “retreat.”

This contrast does not lead me to conclude that Lenin’s mainstream leadership had by then developed a worked out and hardened political philosophy opposed to workers’ management, control and trade union autonomy (as it was later the case with Stalinism). I do conclude that, in the eyes of Lenin and his cothinkers, these were not defining characteristics of a transition to socialism and had come to occupy a decidedly lower priority in such a transition than the centralized state control that had clearly obtained the upper hand during the years of War Communism.

However, my critique of what I have termed “mainstream” Bolshevism is by no means applicable to the whole of Bolshevism. If anything, my whole book could be seen as a brief in support of Victor Serge’s often quoted observation that Bolshevism contained a mass of other germs other than the germ of Stalinism. As mainstream Bolshevism developed a new politics in the context of Civil War conditions, this was opposed by both the early left oppositionists (Workers Opposition, Democratic Centralists) and right oppositionists (Riazanov, Lozovsky) inside the Communist Party.

I discovered that the very points emphasized by Hal Draper–socialism from below and the importance of political democracy and civil liberties–were a lot closer to the views expressed at key moments by early right and left Bolshevik oppositions than to mainstream Bolshevism. In fact, most of my specific criticisms of “Leninism in power” were made at the time by one or another revolutionary, and most notably by the early left and right Bolshevik oppositions. Therefore, the quarrel of my critics is as much with the critique of those Bolshevik opposition groups as it is with my own.

Virtue Out Of Necessity

The fact that the mainstream Bolshevik leadership made a virtue out of the anti-democratic necessities imposed by the enormous hardships of the Civil War did not develop in an ideological and political vacuum. Instead, this constituted the exacerbation of a Jacobin aspect of Bolshevik politics that became dominant under the stimulus of the Civil War crisis.

Incidentally, reading David Mandel’s review one would think that Before Stalinism quotes passages from Lenin in an arbitrary and contradictory fashion; and indeed Mandel can make that case because he ignores one of the underlying themes of the book which I just outlined: the contradiction between a democratic and a Jacobin orientation in Lenin’s politics before 1918, and the predominance of his Jacobinism after 1918, in response to economic devastation, and especially after 1921, in response to an almost total lack of political support for the government by any social class.

My book points out that pre-Civil War Leninism had two sides that were at odds with each other. On one side was the clearly democratic Lenin who always insisted on the close connection between the struggle for democracy and the struggle for and democratic content of socialism. Lenin had a better understanding than any of his revolutionary socialist contemporaries of the importance of political democracy as a political goal to be pursued by the workers’ movement on behalf of society as a whole.

In this respect, Lenin’s views stand in stark contrast with other revolutionary socialists, sometimes including Rosa Luxemburg, who for reasons of economism, workerism or a schematic economic determinism derided the political struggle for general democratic demands such as the right of nations to self-determination.

Yet alongside this emphasis on the struggle for democracy, Lenin and his cothinkers also held a number of essentially Jacobin ideas particularly in regard to revolution. To be more precise, Lenin was a quasi-Jacobin because, unlike petty-bourgeois Jacobinism, Lenin was committed to rooting the revolutionary movement in the politically organized working class. However, Lenin’s Jacobinism consisted of a heavy emphasis on the will and dedication of the activist minority as contrasted with the weight of institutions that encompass that minority as well as much broader sectors of the working class and population as a whole.

The key problem with Lenin’s quasi-Jacobinism was that the working class, unlike the bourgeoisie, can exercise power in society only democratically and collectively, through institutions such as multi-party soviets and factory committees. Classical Jacobinism could develop dictatorial power without fundamentally affecting the social or economic power that the bourgeoisie held as individuals. However, the moment the working class is deprived of democratic control over the institutions through which it exercises power in society, the working class has lost its power, period.

The Jacobin tradition, besides having a strong and uncritical tendency to favor centralization for its own sake, is not inclined to support the defense of minority rights and civil liberties. While Before Stalinism argues that there are situations, such as a civil war, where civil liberties may have to be restricted on a temporary basis, it insists that there can be no real socialist democracy, or for that matter full and genuine innovation and progress, with dissident individuals and minorities terrorized into silence and conformity, and forcefully prevented from attempting to become the new majorities.

The Jacobin conception of revolutionary leadership is also incompatible with the exercise of working-class political power. To the extent that, according to Jacobin political practice, the truth of the revolutionary activists’ vision is sufficient guarantee of their authority to act, to that extent the actions of revolutionary leaders cannot be corrected or reversed by representative popular institutions such as the soviets. This Jacobinism becomes even more dangerously antidemocratic when combined with Hegelian-sounding notions such as Trotsky’s allusion to the “revolutionary birthright of the party” in 1921, or the very similar and no less pernicious idea that “History,” in its inevitably progressive development, has reserved the role of revolutionary leadership to a particular party or political formation.

While political parties are necessary since they provide indispensable leadership and formulate alternative choices and programs, it is the representative institutions, rather than the parties, that must in the last analysis be the repositories of working-class and popular sovereignty. From this it follows that the representative institutions must have the ability to replace the party in power, including the party or parties that led the successful revolution.

While recognizing that this would have been, from a practical point of view, not an easy task in the conditions of Russia in the early twenties, I want to stress that the quasi-Jacobin side of Lenin’s politics, which became dominant after 1918 and especially after 1921, weighed heavily against his even considering such a possibility in principle.

After the Revolutionary Wave

Here is where reviewer David Mandel evades the absolutely fundamental question that in the absence of political support from any social class in the post-1921 period, the Bolsheviks could have only retained the monopoly of political power by suppressing every form of independent political expression in the country, thus depriving the Soviet working class and people of the ability to resist the development of Stalinism.

Even if Stalinism had not come about, the Leninism of the post-1921 period had already “succeeded” in equating socialism with top-down rule over the working class and the peasantry, while eliminating the independence of these classes in the process. At the same time, the shift of the Comintern toward the tactics of the United Front indicated that, generally speaking, the Communist leadership no longer saw revolution in Western Europe as an immediate or short-term possibility. For all of the above reasons, the Communist Party’s attempt to maintain a monopoly of political power could no longer be justified in Marxist or socialist terms.

Ironically, the new working class that was reconstituting itself out of the remnants of the old working class that had won the Civil War against the Whites badly needed a revolutionary workers’ party unencumbered by state bureaucratic responsibilities and liabilities in order to struggle against the inequities of NEP. Such a party might have been able to help these new workers reorganize and repoliticize themselves from the grassroots, i.e. from below rather than from above.

I argued that the alternative at that point–1921–was to attempt, as was indeed the inclination of a number of Bolsheviks, a political negotiation and compromise with the actually existing loyal opposition (Martov’s Mensheviks) and with other oppositionists (e.g. various elements of what had been the SR party and constituency) that may have been persuaded to become loyal oppositionists in exchange for political reforms leading toward a democratization of soviet Russia.

David Mandel ridicules the notion of negotiations and claims that democracy would have led to a capitalist restoration in Russia. Maybe yes and maybe no, but by retrospectively refusing to run that risk, Mandel is essentially adopting the old “fair weather” antidemocratic leftist argument that the left should support democracy only if we are guaranteed favorable results. I submit that at bottom socialist “fair weather” democrats are not really sure if they are for democracy and what it implies.

Mandel’s instrumentalist or pragmatic explanation for Bolshevik politics after 1921 is missing something else as well. By 1921, Lenin’s politics had evolved to the point where he would not any longer have, as a matter of political conviction, even considered negotiations leading to a sharing or abandonment of political power.

While David Mandel evades dealing with the issue of the unviability of Bolshevik political power after 1921 except through the increasing use of force and terror, Tim Wohlforth engages in the exact opposite type of error. Tim does not evade the issue I’m addressing here. With great boldness, he even proclaims the permissibility of a “democratic counterrevolution” against the Bolshevik government.

Wohlforth has not only provided us with a quite vulgar view of a Lenin “who believed deeply that this body of theory and practice was grasped completely only by himself,” and that “the party … was no more than an instrument of his will,” but, much more importantly fails to make a key distinction which I thought to be so elementary that, perhaps mistakenly, I did not bother to sufficiently spell out in my book.

I am referring to the distinction between the preservation of the fundamental democratic gains of the October Revolution (land reform and workers’ control of industry) and the political rule of the Bolshevik Party. That is why I argued that in negotiating the sharing or even the abandonment of political power, the Bolsheviks should have insisted on guarantees for the preservation of those fundamental democratic gains. Precisely because I, unlike Wohlforth, do not identify the rule of the Bolshevik party as being identical with the October Revolution, that I can and should insist on such a distinction, since there is of course a big difference between the specific policies of the Bolshevik or any other party for that matter, and the fundamental democratic attainments of a revolution.

Is Tim Wohlforth willing to allow that the results of an election in, say, early nineteenth-century France should have permitted the return of the peasants’ newly acquired land to the aristocracy and the Church? Or that an election held in the United States in the early 1870s, besides resulting in the defeat of the Republican Party should in addition have allowed for the return of slavery? Wohlforth should not forget the difference between “democratic” cretinism and democracy.

Can We Discuss Alternatives?

I was very struck, but hardly surprised, by some political traits common to several of the contributions to this symposium and to leftist reviews of my book which have appeared elsewhere (see, for example, Lewis Siegelbaum, “A Usable Past?” New Left Review 189, 141-144). Socialist writers who would be the first to tell you what the Spanish Republic could and should have done to prevent the victory of Franco, what the supporters of Allende could and should have done to prevent the rise of Pinochet, and so on for practically every country and area of the world in the history of the twentieth century, become rigid and fixed determinists when it comes to the years of “Leninism in power.”

As a result these socialist writers accuse me of being ahistorical for doing the very same thing they do when discussing every other historical situation. Thus, according to these comrades, when it comes to Lenin’s Russia, what happened is the only thing that could have possibly happened. Or, what did happen was the only possible alternative to the advanced soviet democracy that did not have much of a chance to succeed in the conditions of soviet Russia in the twenties. In other words, it was to be either pure soviet democracy or the deep authoritarianism of “Leninism in power,” and nothing in between. Given this set of schematic assumptions, it is no wonder then that symposium contributor Susan Weissman concluded that the problems of early soviet Russia were “insoluble,” as indeed they were by the standards of highly developed soviet democracy.

David Mandel does acknowledge at one point my argument that a different set of politics than those of “Leninism in power” may have produced if not a democracy, then at least a less authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, having said this, Mandel then immediately proceeds to caricature Before Stalinism by attributing to it the notion that if it weren’t for the Bolshevik political flaws that the book criticized, “Stalinism, as the extreme, `pathological’ form of bureaucratic rule, would almost certainly have been prevented from developing”?

What would you think of a critic of David Mandel who said: “Mandel, as a good Trotskyist, thinks that if the Spanish Republic had adopted the policies of social revolution rather than those of the Stalinist Popular Front, Franco’s dictatorship would almost certainly have been prevented from developing.” Would that be a fair criticism of Mandel’s Trotskyist position, or is the criticism being “loaded” to make Mandel appear as a “crystal ball gazer” or as a Nostradamus instead of a Marxist?

I was also struck, but even less surprised, by socialist reviewers’ treatment, in the ATC symposium and elsewhere, of the discussion of socialist legality in Before Stalinism. The issue was either completely ignored in the left-wing reviews, or else the reviewers grossly distorted and exaggerated the claims I made for socialist legality and then proceeded to demolish these distortions and exaggerations as if they were my own.

Thus, for example, Susan Weissman attributes to me a point of view of her own creation: “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” (ATC 36, 37). Quite obviously, neither I nor any other Marxist could possibly have made such a claim. In fact, my analysis was centrally concerned with how the legal conceptions of “Leninism in power” significantly contributed to the deep authoritarianism of the regime and facilitated the development of subsequent totalitarian Stalinist legal and political conceptions.

Thus, for example, Before Stalinism examined such matters as the very pernicious and dangerous idea prevailing during the early revolutionary period that a workers’ state removed the need for defense attorneys acting independently of the prosecution and the government. I also examined the post-Civil War Criminal Code of 1922, which attempted to legalize arbitrary government. This code continued to uphold the notion developed during the Civil War (1918-1920) that an act could be considered a criminal offense even if it was not expressly forbidden by any existing law.

In addition, the 1922 Code allowed for no procedure equivalent to the right of habeas corpus which was meant to insure that an arrested person was charged and brought before a judge, or else released. For his part, David Mandel dodges and evades the issue of legality and the need to institutionalize democracy by implicitly counterposing these to mass activism, as if these two were counterposed in either Before Stalinism or, more important, in social and political reality.

Quite the contrary! The only known way of preserving and consolidating the gains of mass activism is by translating them into institutions such as multi-party soviets, independent trade unions and organisms of workers’control.

Revolutionary Discontinuity

Among the critics of Before Stalinism there are some fellow revolutionary socialists who take democracy seriously. However, these comrades confront great difficulties when they place themselves in a continuous political line of descent from the Leninist tradition and particularly from the record of what I have called “Leninism in power,” meaning the soviet state in the period from 1917 to 1923. Confronted with the need to reconcile their democratic views and inclinations with the defense of “Leninism in power” they twist, turn, convolute, and sometimes end up as apologists while distorting my views.

The fact is that we have experienced a revolutionary discontinuity in the sense that our politics are not the result of an uninterrupted line of development where old principles and priorities are merely adapted to new strategic and tactical imperatives. For several decades we have lived in a post-Stalin, post-Hitler, post-Hiroshima, and post-previously unimaginable disasters and atrocities ad infinitum. Most socialists have reacted to these cataclysms, and to a very long lasting boom in the industrial capitalist countries, by accommodating themselves to capitalism through social democracy, liberalism or even right-wing politics, or by accommodating themselves to Stalinism in its Eastern European and/or its Third World varieties (China, Cuba, Vietnam).

A few socialists managed to maintain revolutionary politics without recourse to these various substitutes. They developed a view, unfortunately minoritarian within the left, of revolutionary socialism from below based, among other things, on a new understanding and emphasis on the importance of institutionalizing democratic substance and procedures (after all, there is no democratic substance without consistent procedures to apply it in practice), both in terms of current struggles and demands as well as in the struggle for a future society. This necessarily entailed an appreciation for civil liberties and fundamental political rights not commonly found in the revolutionary left.

When I speak of discontinuity, I do not mean a total break with or total negation of a political tradition. A revolutionary movement worthy of its name cannot but draw from the contemporary labor rank-and-file struggles and from the democratic struggles against racism, sexism and imperialism and for human rights and the preservation of the environment.

That in no way prevents us from drawing on Lenin’s contributions in a wide variety of political issues and contexts. There is much to be learned from Lenin in regard to revolutionary strategy and tactics as opposed to liberalism, reformism, nationalism and the centrality of the political struggle for democracy, to name a few; but there is also much to be avoided in his theoretical and practical political record.

Along the same lines, there is also a great deal to be learned from the contributions of other revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci, and of Americans Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood and Eugene Victor Debs, but none of them were free of serious errors and deficiencies nor could they individually provide a sufficient basis for the development of a revolutionary tradition. There is thus no more reason to call ourselves Leninists than Luxemburgists, Trotskyists, Gramscians, or Debsians.


Samuel Farber’S Before Stalinism (Verso, 1990) has stimulated discussion in a number of journals of the left. Against the Current’s symposium on the issues raised in Farber’s work has included the following previous contributions: David Mandel, Susan Weissman and Tim Wohlforth presented critical reviews in issue #36. Ernest Haberkern responded to Tim Wohlforth on issues regarding the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and parliamentary democracy in issue #37. Wohlforth’s rejoinder appeared in issue #38, as well as a further comment by Bernard Rosen. All three back issues are still available for $4 apiece. Here, Sam Farber summarizes the debate and the main themes of the book.

November-December 1992, ATC 41