Ante Ciliga

The Russian Enigma


Written: 1936–37.
Published: 1938, in Paris, under the title Au Pays du Grand Mensonge.
The present chapter, however, was simply cut out by the publisher.
And so it appeared for the first time in in 1979 [unverified], distributed by Ink Links.
Transcription: Class Against Class
Proofed & Corrected: Jonas Holmgren.
Reformatted: Einde O’Callaghan (August 2015).

The following text is Chapter 9 of Book 3 of Ante Ciliga’s extraordinary work The Russian Enigma originally published as In The Land of The Great Lie. The book details Ciliga’s time spent in Soviet Prisons and ‘isolators’ following his arrest for belonging to the Trotskyist Opposition, and provides a wealth of important documentary information concerning the miserable conditions in which the working class were reduced to living in, the extent of the ‘criminalisation’ of large swathes of the population, and the various forms in which resistance appeared.

What is equally important however, is the intellectual development Ciliga underwent during his time in Russia. He entered The USSR as an ardent Bolshevik, yet he was forced by the pressure of the reality of the situation to recognise that something, somewhere, had gone very wrong. This led him to the Trotskyist Opposition. His time amongst Trotskyist prisoners, however, convinced Ciliga that “Their outlook was not very different to that of the Stalinist Bureaucracy; they were slightly more polite and human, that was all” – indeed Stalin’s Five Year Plans of forced collectivisation and industrialisation were taken directly from the Program of the Opposition. In essence all the Trotskyists wished for was a change of personel at the top of the Soviet State – they thought they could do Stalinism better than Stalin.

This realisation of the poverty of the ‘loyal opposition’ led Ciliga to ultimately question even the basis of Bolshevism itself – the thought and practice of Lenin – “The holy of holies.” He realised that Leninism has no conception of working class self-activity, and is in fact a parasite on the back of the workers, using them to gain its own ends. The equation of Communism with nationalisation demonstrates the lack of any real difference between Stalinism, Trotskyism or Leninism – they are all predicated on the idea of State ownership of the means of production not the self-activity of the working class itself. Ciliga recognised the paucity of this vision and that he had to reject Lenin if he wished to remain a revolutionary. To his eternal credit and despite the anguish it caused him, he took this step.

Lenin, Also...

The extreme left Communist groups of the extreme left were not afraid to grapple with the whole revolutionary experience in Russia, contrary to the Trotskyist Opposition, in the eyes of which the Lenin epoch remained sacrosanct. Moreover, all these extremists groupings came into being as early as 1919–1921 in more or less sharp opposition to Lenin’s policy. The role of Lenin in the revolution was the subject of heated discussions during the time when I was incarcerated in the Verkhne-Uralsk isolator. In its discussions with others as in its own meetings the Trotskyist Opposition defended the view that Lenin was always right. In order not to run counter to this dogma, Trotsky had long ‘recognized’ the correctness of Lenin’s position in all the disputes that had set them at loggerheads in the past. Trotsky also approved Zinoviev’s proposal to call his oppositional group ‘Bolshevik-Leninists’. Still later, Trotsky reinforced the dogma that the correct position in regard to the permanent revolution (and of all Trotskyist concepts, that is certainly the one of most value) was not his, but Lenin’s. In reality, Trotsky added, Lenin was in fact a proponent of the permanent revolution, and that was why their disagreement was purely formal and of no great importance. This led the Trotskyist Opposition to develop this new theme: disagreements between Lenin and Trotsky had never been very deep; Lenin and Trotsky had always been in agreement on basic issues and disagreements bore only on points of detail. The Trotskyist Opposition reconciled Lenin’s past with that of Trotsky. Refusing to adopt a critical attitude towards either, it smeared a bureaucratic veneer over the most hotly debated aspects of the two tendencies. To the myth fabricated by Stalin, it did not oppose a serious study of the facts, but another myth.

On the other hand, some Trotskyists, those of the ‘V.B.’ group (Voinstvuyshchii Bolshevik – Militant Bolshevik), the ‘100% Trotskyists’, went even further, declaring that if the disagreements between Lenin and Trotsky had always been very grave, it was Trotsky who had always been right. A characteristic fact – the Trotskyists, who loved quotations – nearly always referred to Trotsky, and only with rare exceptions to Lenin.

The Democratic Centralist group found itself in a very different position when Lenin was in question. Unlike the Trotskyists, the group had its origins in the Bolshevik old guard. Consequently, as much in its general conceptions as in the way its members expressed them, it was ‘Leninist’. At its origins in 1919 and 1921 it represented the local apparatus, ‘His Majesty’s opposition’ against the centre. In the name of “democratic centralism” it was opposed to the bureaucratic centralism of Lenin’s Central Committee. Hence its name. Deeming that Lenin had departed from his own programme, or that he did not see where his policies were heading, the group had been set up to defend Leninism against Lenin. Without wishing to admit it to themselves, they set the Lenin of the revolution’s decline against the Lenin of its rise. They criticized the policy of Lenin in power, taking their stand on the Leninist principles of The State and Revolution. But, profound as that 1917 work of Lenin’s was, nonetheless, it did not supply all the answers to the new problems raised by the course of the revolution. Finally, the group had dithered for ten years (1919–29), now capitulating to Lenin’s ultimatum, now supporting the Trotskyists in their struggle against Stalin. Its orientation, ‘more royalist than the king’, proved to be sterile. The Five Year Plan shook the group to its foundations. The majority, like the majority of Trotskyists, capitulated. They justified their capitulation by paying that from the moment when NEP and the bourgeoisie were liquidated, socialism was being built, and they were in the wrong.

If the condition of the workers is wretched, that is because one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs; before the complete construction of socialism a final difficult stage has to be traversed – that of the liquidation of the last capitalist class, the petty-bourgeoisie. That is how Timofei Sapronov, leader of the group and one of the best-known worker Bolsheviks in Russia, explained the standpoint of the ‘capitulators’.

If one holds to Leninist principles on this, the attitude of the capitulatory is not lacking in logic. Lenin’s whole strategy after October rested on the thesis that the petty-bourgeoisie and private capitalism alone menaced the proletariat and socialism. Lenin castigated with an iron hand all the oppositional forces that spoke of bureaucratism and State capitalism as a danger threatening the working class. Following the course laid down by Lenin, the Decemists (Democratic Centralism group), on the eve of the Five Year Plan, spoke only of the victory of the ‘petty-bourgeois counter-revolution’ and the transformation of the U.S.S.R. into a ‘petty-bourgeois State’. The Leninist conception admitted of no other counter-revolution ... And thereupon comes the Five Year Plan, which wages war on the petty-bourgeoisie and liquidates it. One had to choose: either remain faithful to the Leninist thesis and recognize that the Five Year Plan was realizing socialism, or bow to reality and recognize what even Lenin might have said, the triumph of the ‘third force’ – the bureaucracy and State capitalism. Those Decemists who did not capitulate chose the second course ... But this re-evaluation which in fact rejected all the post-October ideas of Lenin, and put in question even those of pre-October, was effected only slowly, step by step. And the small group of Decemists in our isolator split on this occasion into three or four fractions.

Some continued to think that Lenin, after October, although making some small mistakes, had a correct attitude, and that the line only began to deviate with Stalin. Others considered that already in Lenin’s time, with the establishment of NEP, the bourgeois-democratic structure of the revolution had got the upper hand of the socialist structure and that Lenin himself did not realize what he was doing. The third fraction declared that in spite of all proclamations, the socialist structure of the revolution had always been weaker than the petty-bourgeois structure. The revision of Leninism consequently bore no longer only on State capitalism but also on the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the beginning, when Lenin, in 1920, upheld the thesis of the single party and the dictatorship, the Decemists had approved and had then broken with the Workers Opposition, who at once denounced them. Experience of the dictatorship of the party led them to reject their original views. They now began to understand that there could not be democracy within the party without workers’ democracy. The reassessment of Lenin s political ideas was more rapid than of his economic ideas. During two years of exile the opportunity was given me to follow all these twists and turns. The end result of this was a critical, not to say hostile attitude towards the practice and the theories of the post-October Lenin.

In the criticism of the Lenin of the revolutionary period the tone was set by the Workers Opposition of 1920, more accurately, by its left wing, which took an organized form in 1922, under the name of the Workers Group. In the language, then current, members of the group were called ‘Myasnikovists’, from the name of their lead, Myasnikov, a well-known worker Bolshevik.

He was one of the most outstanding figures of the Bolshevik revolution. The Workers Opposition and the Workers Group were, in origin, from the Bolshevik old guard. But contrary to the Decemists, they criticized Lenin’s course of action from the beginning, and not on details but as a whole. The Workers Opposition denounced Lenin’s economic line. The Workers Group went even farther and attacked the political regime and the single party established by Lenin prior to the NEP. In the person of Serge Tiyunov, the Workers Group in our isolator possessed a highly educated, very active, uncompromising representative. Moreover, according to some reports, he was not devoid of Nechayevist traits.

Having put as the basis of its programme Marx’s watchword for the 1st International – “The emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves” – the Workers Group declared war from the start on the Leninist concept of the ‘dictatorship of the party’ and the bureaucratic organization of production, enunciated by Lenin in the initial period of the revolution’s decline. Against the Leninist line, they demanded organization of production by the masses themselves, beginning with factory collectives. Politically, the Workers Group demanded the control of power and of the party by the worker masses. These, the true political leaders of the country, must have the right to withdraw power from any political party, even from the Communist Party, if they judged that that party was not defending their interests. Contrary to the Decemist and the majority of the Workers Opposition, for whom the demand for ‘workers’ democracy’ was practically limited to the economic domain, and who tried to reconcile it with the single party, the Workers Group extended its struggle for workers’ democracy to the demand of freedom for the workers to choose among the competing political parties of the worker milieu. Socialism could only be the work of free creation by the workers. While that which was being constructed by coercion, and given the name of socialism, was for them nothing but bureaucratic State capitalism from the very beginning.

In 1923, during the largest of the strikes led by the Workers Group, they appealed to the Russian and the international proletariat through a Manifesto, in which they set out their views, clearly and without beating about the bush. Here they stigmatized the nascent tendency of Bolshevism to base itself, not on the working class, but on the ‘cult of the leader’. This Manifesto is one of the most remarkable documents of the Russian revolution. Its publication at the moment of the internal collapse of the Russian revolution had the same significance as Babeuf’s Manifesto of the Equals at the moment of the internal collapse of the French revolution. For a long time in the isolator I abstained from participating in discussions on the role of Lenin. I belonged to that young Communist generation that had been raised on the idea that Lenin was sacrosanct. For me, it went without saying that Lenin was always right. The results – the revolutionary conquest of power, and holding it – spoke in his favour. Thus, I and my generation concluded that the tactics, and the means, too, were justified.

When I arrived at the isolator, it was in this sense that I intervened. So I was not a little put out to hear the Decemist, Prokopenya, give me this ironic advice: “Useless to get heated, comrade Ciliga, about Lenin’s struggle against the bureaucracy. You rely on one of the last articles he wrote before his death, the one on the reform of the Workers and Peasants Inspection. Did he call on the masses to organize themselves against the bureaucracy? Not at all. He proposed the creation of a special organ with a well-paid staff, a super-bureaucratic organ to combat ... the bureaucracy!”

“No foreign comrade” Prokopenya continued, “At the end of his life Lenin lost confidence in the worker mass. He banked on the bureaucratic apparatus, but, fearing that it would overdo things, he sought to restrict the evil by making one part of the apparatus control the other.” After a moment’s silence, she went on: “obviously, there’s no point in shouting this from the rooftops; that would only give Stalin additional arguments. But it is no less a fact.”

If I felt little inclination for a study of the discussions and quarrels of the past, it was because I was overwhelmed by the problems of the present. To the extent that historical problems interested me, it seemed to me that these groups overestimated the importance of their old differences with Lenin. The fate of the revolution, in my opinion, was decided by the relationship of class forces, and not by the formulas or theses upon which this or that internal tendency had been able to agree.

As the fulfilment of the Five Year Plan progressed, so the question of organizational, political, and economic formulas again became correspondingly immediate. Problems that one might have thought long since settled by history were suddenly once again on the agenda, and with added force. The suppression of the petty-bourgeoisie and of private capitalism, made it plain that within the social arena there were no other forces but the bureaucracy and the proletariat. And now it was at the level of organizational forms that one had to seek the solution to problems such as the mutual relation of these organizational forms themselves, and “what is socialism, and how can it be achieved?” Technical questions of organization revealed themselves as social questions. The struggle of the labouring masses against the bureaucratic tyranny could henceforth only be against the organizational forms that the bureaucracy had given the economy. But these forms had not been invented by Stalin. They had been bequeathed him by Lenin. The Russian revolution, in spite of its antagonisms and internal strife, is an organic whole. And Lenin cannot be exonerated.

Applying himself to the study of these new questions, the Myasnikovist, Tiyunov, wrote an essay on the historical dispute over the bureaucratic or the socialist organization of production. His work was based on a critique of the military measures taken by Trotsky to organize production during the period of war communism. The young Decemist, Jacques Kosman, wrote a brilliant historical study on what was called ‘the trade union question’. He reached the conclusion that the manner in which Lenin organized industry had handed it over entirely into the hands of the bureaucracy. And the direct consequence of that recapture of the factories from the proletariat meant that they had lost the revolution.

Another Decemist, Misha Shapiro, wrote a refutation, supporting the traditional viewpoint of the Decemists: the disputes over the diverse systems for organizing production had no principled significance. According to Shapiro, the Workers Opposition did not represent the interests of the proletariat, but those of the trade-union bureaucracy. And if the demands conceding the transfer of the factories to the trade unions had been satisfied, the only difference would have been the management of the factories by the trade-union bureaucracy in place of the party bureaucracy.

To be able to fight the bureaucracy, the proletariat needed freedom: freedom to organize, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly. But that led to the argument of freedom to choose one’s party, upheld by Myasnikov, and condemned formerly by Lenin, by Trotsky, and by the Decemists. And even then the major part of the Decemists and almost all the Trotskyists continued to consider that “freedom of party” would be “the end of the revolution”. “Freedom to choose one’s party – that is Menshevism,” was the Trotskyists’ final verdict. “The proletariat is socially homogenous and that is why its interests can only be represented by a single party,” the Decemist Davidov wrote. “And why should not democracy within the party be coupled with its dictatorship outside?” the Decemist Nyura Yankovskaya wanted to know. “The Paris Commune succumbed because over there they had too many parties. But with us there is only one. How, then, has it happened that our revolutions too, has succumbed?” Dora Zak retorted to Davidov. The young Decemist Volodya Smirnov even went so far as to say: “There has never been a proletarian revolution, nor a dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, there has simply been a ‘popular revolution’ from below and a dictatorship from above. Lenin was never an ideologist of the proletariat. From beginning to end he was an ideologist of the intelligentsia.” These ideas of Smirnov were bound up with the general view that the world was steering straight towards a new social form – State capitalism – with the bureaucracy as the new ruling class. It put on the same level Soviet Russia, Kemalist Turkey, fascist Italy, Germany on the march to Hitlerism, and the America of Hoover-Roosevelt. “Communism is an extremist fascism, fascism is a moderate communism,” he wrote in his article, Comfascism. That conception left the forces and perspectives of socialism somewhat in the shade. The majority of the Decemist faction, Davidov, Shapiro, etc., considered that young Smirnov’s heresy had gone beyond all bounds, and he was expelled from the group, amid uproar.

Grasping the importance of bygone problems for the understanding of new problems, for a precise assessment of future tasks, I set myself to studying them seriously. The nuances in the interpretation of these questions by the extreme left milieu favoured critical examination and self-determination. And, studying them after an intense revolutionary experience, I approached them in a state of mind obviously different from that of comrades who ten years before had found in them reasons for splitting. I had behind me fifteen years of the history of the revolution and could judge the past with a mind both clearer and more aware than theirs.

But in subjecting the ‘Lenin epoch’ to a critical analysis, I entered the holy of holies of Communism and my own Ideology. I subjected Lenin to criticism, the leader and the prophet, crowned by the immortal glory of the revolution, and even more by the legend and the mystification of the post-revolutionary myth. And, in spite of the critical spirit of the surroundings in which I laved, I entered the sanctuary on tiptoes, so much did I find myself guilty in listening to that inner voice saying to me: “To understand the experience and the lessons of the revolution one must shrink from nothing and show oneself as pitiless as the revolution itself, that also shrank from nothing.”

And the farther I penetrated into the sanctuary the more day after day, week after week, month after month I asked myself the fundamental question: And is it, perhaps, you also, Lenin? Were you not great only so long as the masses and the revolution were great? And when the force of the masses declined, did not your revolutionary spirit equally decline, decline even more?

“Could it have been possible that, to retain power, you could have betrayed – you, too – the social interests of the masses? And that what had seduced us, we, the naive, had been the decision to retain power? And that you had preferred the bureaucracy victorious to the defeated masses? And that you could have aided that new bureaucracy to bend the neck of the Soviet masses? Is it possible that you could have crushed the masses when they did not want to accommodate themselves to the new order of things? That you could have slandered them, that you could have distorted the sense of their rightful aspirations? Lenin, Lenin, what weighs the most – your merits or your crimes?”

“I set little store by the motives that inspired you: it was, you thought, better that the bureaucracy should be the ones to bend the neck of the masses than to see again the former exploiters, the bourgeoisie and the landlords. It is possible that the bureaucracy considered the matter important, but for the masses who bowed their heads it mattered little ...”

“I set little store also, Lenin, by the arguments of your defenders: subjectively, your intentions were the best in the world. It was you yourself, Lenin, who taught us to judge people, not according to their subjective intentions, but according to the objective significance of the latter, according to the social groups in whose interest their activity operates and on whose behalf they speak. And besides, in your own justifications – very cautious, it must be said – I find proof that you have yourself subjectively accepted the regime you were objectively bringing into being. Worse still: Just when the dictatorship of the bureaucracy was becoming stronger you consciously (proof of this exists) slandered the worker masses resisting the triumphant bureaucracy. Yet that resistance – feeble as it was, crushed as at was by the bureaucracy – is the supreme testament of the revolution. And a new revolution, truly freeing, socially freeing, the lower orders, can arise in Russia and elsewhere in the world, only by realizing the programme of the annihilated Workers Opposition. It is in this return, in this continuity of the history of mankind, that its progressive tendencies will be carried forward ...”

The sun sets in the distance, over the Urals, casting on the desert steppes, the mountains and the prison, the last rays that lighten my cell. It is the third year of my imprisonment. And it is hard ... Through the bars I look with intense yearning at the mountains, the sun, the sky, freedom, freedom. I am alone in the cell. My cell-mate is in hospital. My soul is desolate ... I am in mourning for Lenin.

“What have I just done? Have I not gone mad, a prey to the delirium of prisons?”

* * *

Let us look at this more closely.

In 1917 it was obviously a question of who would go farthest, the quickest, be the strongest, the masses or Lenin. Like a hurricane that devastates everything in its path, they overthrew everything in Russia and the world that was old, corrupt, deceitful. Truly these were ‘days that shook the world’. Russia was making world history. And because Lenin had known how to make the heart of humanity beat at that moment of its magnificent, liberating explosion; because in those days when one saw the grand audacity of that triumph of the popular masses, he had known how to be one with them and to lead them, Lenin has forever taken a place of honour in the hearts of the workers and in the Pantheon of history. And that place is forever assured him, even if he must, like Cromwell, settle accounts with the masses for his crimes or those of his successors after the downfall of the revolution; even if, at some moment of history, his corpse is delivered on the streets of Moscow to the popular fury, as Cromwell’s corpse was hoisted on the gallows.

But from the moment when the old edifice collapsed and Lenin took power there began the tragic divorce between him and the masses. Imperceptible at the start, it grew, and finally became fundamental.

The worker masses instinctively achieved their complete freedom, entirely achieving their aims. And it was for that that they made the revolution. Everything and all at once. Now or never. And it is that which distinguishes the epoch of revolutions from that of reforms. Going beyond the bounds of the old socialism of 1905 in order to create the new, the labouring masses of Russia, in 1917–18, went farther than Lenin initially desired. And the impetus was so powerful, and the situation so tense, that the masses swept Lenin up in their wake. Such were the relations between the leader and the masses at the culminating point of the revolution.

And the facts speak for themselves: after the October revolution Lenin did not want the expropriation of the capitalists, but only ‘workers’ control’; control by the workers’ shopfloor organizations over the capitalists, who were to continue to retain management of the enterprises. A fierce class struggle ensued, invalidating Lenin’s thesis on the collaboration of the classes under his power: the capitalists replied with sabotage and the workers’ collectives took over all the factories one after the other ... And it was only when the expropriation of the capitalists had been effected de facto by the worker masses that the Soviet government recognized it de jure by publishing the decree on the nationalization of industry.

Then, in 1918, Lenin answered the socialist aspirations of the workers by opposing to them the system of State capitalism (‘on the model of wartime Germany’), with the greatest participation of former capitalists in the new Soviet economy. Lenin was not a partisan of the total destruction of the old economic order, but of a kind of equilibrium of the old and the new, for their co-existence. Lenin, who had shortly before attacked ‘class collaboration’, is now its apologist. Holder of power, he has begun to feel the influence of the diverse forces of society, and no longer, as formerly, that of the working class alone. He has made himself the apologist of the momentary status quo and no longer of the dynamic of the epoch. The growing civil war came to correct once again this phase of Leninist philosophy of the revolution. The collapse of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires gave fresh nourishment to the minimalist tendencies of the popular masses, and the case for the immediate achievement of socialism received official sanction. The year 1919 began. It is the apotheosis of the Russian revolution, its own ‘1793’. And, as one has seen, it is once again on the initiative of the masses and not that of Lenin.

From revolutionary apotheosis to bankruptcy is only a step. And at this historic conjuncture it is Lenin who has the saddest role. If the period of social upsurge, of revolutionary exaltation, was characterized by the fact that the masses succeeded in drawing Lenin behind them, the decline and bankruptcy of the revolution revealed the antagonism between Lenin and the worker masses, and his victory over them.

What then was at stake in the battle? The very principle of socialism, the fate of industry wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie. It is that which causes the divorce of Lenin from the proletariat. It is there that one must seek the key to an understandingly the duplicity of Lenin’s role in the revolution. The workers had become masters of the factories and had introduced the principle of collective production. But the liaison between the various factories depended on the bureaucratic apparatus. And this was already a symptom of the danger threatening the proletariat. The fate of socialism in Russia depended on the workers having the possibility of ensuring the overall control of production. To achieve a socialist organization of society, to reorganize the agrarian economy by the socialist method, the proletariat had above all else to realize the socialist organization of its own place of abode – industry.

It would seem that it was a question here of a compelling truth. Yet it is always forgotten when the destinies of socialism and the revolution are investigated. Lenin, placed at the summit of the apparatus, looked at the problem through the eyes of the apparatus. And that is what a worker delegate to the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party, Milyunov, pointed out, saying:

“Lenin’s attitude is psychologically understandable. Comrade Lenin is president of the Council of Commissars; it is he who directs our Soviet policy. It is clear that any action, from whatever quarter, that embarrasses that direction can only be regarded as petty-bourgeois and particularly harmful.”

In fact, during the civil war the central bureaucracy had not teased to spread, and had taken over the factories. The management of the factories, at first nominated by the workers and employees, was now more and more appointed by the centre. At the same time the original management had gradually become a one-man management. The factories had begun to slip from the hands of the workers. And that had happened on Lenin’s initiative, and in spite of the stubborn opposition of the entire workers’ fraction of the party, of all the leading worker Bolsheviks. For his opposition, Tomsky was exiled by the party to Turkistan; as in the past Sapronov was sent to the Ukraine for his ‘democratic centralism’.

With the end of the civil war, the struggle between the bureaucracy and the proletariat for the mastery of industry was resumed with renewed force. It entered upon the decisive phase. And it was precisely that struggle which shattered the system of war communism. “In our industry there are two powers, that of the workers and that of the bureaucrats. And that is paralyzing production. The only way out is a radical decision: a single power, either that of worker socialism or that of State capitalism.” It was in these terms that Shlyapnikov, theoretician of the Workers Opposition, denounced the conflict in an article published by Pravda, during the pre-congress preparatory period for trade union discussion.

What was Lenin’s attitude then? He also stood for a no compromise decision, like Shlyapnikov, but with the difference that he was for sole power to the bureaucracy. And Lenin himself confessed that, under the guise of trade union discussion, there was indeed the question of withdrawing control of the factories from the working class. He declared: “If it is to be to the trade unions, that is to say to the nine-tenths of the non-party workers, that management of industry is confided, then of what use is the party?” So therefore the party had no more than one-tenth of the working class, in the shape of worker Bolsheviks, who demanded the same thing as the non-party workers. So the class line on this decisive question was very sharp: on the one side the workers (members of the party and non-party), on the other the bureaucrats (members of the party and non-party); behind the workers – socialism; behind the bureaucrats – typical State capitalism.

To compensate for the violation of the factories, Lenin promised the workers the right to strike. As if the workers had made the October revolution for the right to go on strike! Characteristic are Lenin’s relations with the ‘liberals’ of his own bureaucratic camp. Standing halfway between the Workers Opposition and Lenin, the Trotsky, Bukharin, Sapronov groups proposed a slackening of the unique power of the bureaucracy by the addition, in a consultative capacity, of the workers’ voice in the organization of production. Lenin opposed this in the most categorical manner and applied the most energetic organizational measures against them (at the Tenth Congress of the Party in 1921) for the “wobbling” they displayed.

He, Lenin, certainly did not “wobble”. Making himself the spokesman of the Soviet bureaucracy (non-party as well as Communist), with unshakeable firmness he wrested the factories from the workers (Communist and non-party) wrenched from them from their essential conquest, the one weapon they could use to take another step towards their emancipation, towards socialism. The Russian proletariat became once more the wage-earning manpower in other people’s factories. Of socialism there remained in Russia no more than the word.

And what, many will ask, about 1921 and Kronstadt? The fate of industry, that is to says the fate of socialism, was settled well before. The suppression of the Kronstadt revolt was the bureaucracy’s reply to the attempt of the proletariat and the peasantry to unite against it. Lenin and his bureaucracy were very frightened by this. After the suppression, it was NEP and the conclusion of the alliance of the bureaucracy and the peasantry against the proletariat. It was only at the time of the Five Year Plan that the strengthened bureaucracy turned on its provisional allies – the middle peasants and the kulaks.

Having liquidated socialism on the economic domain, having liquidated workers’ power in the factories, the bureaucracy had still one more task to accomplish – to liquidate the political power of the proletariat and the toiling masses. The organ of that owe was the great mass organization that surged up during the revolutionary process – the Soviets. To the mass political organization, the Soviet, as to the mass economic organization, the trade union, the bureaucracy opposed the organization in which the participation of the masses was the weakest but where it was itself the strongest – the Party. To suppress all possibility of battle in favour of the masses, both within the party itself and without, the decisions of the Tenth Party Congress were, on Lenin’s initiative, as follows: suppression in the country of all parties except the Communist Party; suppression in the Party of any opinion and any group opposing the bureaucratic summit of the Party. The Party was transformed into an auxiliary organism of bureaucratic Caesarism, just as the Soviets and the unions had been transformed into auxiliary organisms of the Party. The bonapartist dictatorship over the Party, the working class and the country had taken shape.

I was dumbfounded when I discovered that the Communist Party leaders themselves were fully aware of this. In his book, The Economy of the Transition Period [1], Bukharin formulated the theory of proletarian bonapartism (‘the personal regime’). And to this passage Lenin made the note: “it is true ... but the word is not to be used.” [2] One can do it, but one must not say it – there is all the Lenin of the time when he left the proletariat for the bureaucracy. Lenin also knew how to disguise the bonapartist character of the bureaucracy. “It is not possible to realize the dictatorship of the proletariat through an organization including it in its entirety”, he wrote, “for the proletariat is still too divided, too humiliated, too easy to bribe.” And that is why the dictatorship of the proletariat “can only be realized by the vanguard, which gathers to itself all the revolutionary energy of the class: the Party”. Subsequent experience would demonstrate all the bureaucratic reality of that theory of the dictatorship, of that theory of the dictatorship of the party over the working class, of the dictatorship of a select minority over the ‘backward majority’ of the proletariat. Once again history, would demonstrate the soundness of that phrase from the old revolutionary song – There is no saviour supreme. Neither God nor Caesar, nor tribune – the soundness of the watchword of the workers’ movement: The emancipation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves.

The liquidation of the political power of the proletariat nevertheless required a solid ‘ideological basis’.

An oblique approach had to be made, for it was impossible to call things by their right names. In a revolution initially made in the name of socialism, it is not convenient to say bluntly: “It is now we who are the new gentlemen, the new exploiters.” It is so much easier to call the seizure of the factories from the workers – “a victory for the socialist mode of production”; the grip of the bureaucracy on the workers – “the strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat”; and the new exploiters – “the vanguard of the proletariat”. Since the landlords had been ‘the protectors of the peasants’, the bourgeoisie ’the vanguard of the people’, the bureaucracy could well be ‘the vanguard of the proletariat’. The exploiters have always considered themselves the vanguard of the exploited.

Lenin justified his new policy by the weakness of the proletariat. Confiding the revolution to the hands of the bureaucracy, he asserted that he was safeguarding it for the workers. Tomorrow’s rewards would justify the sacrifices of today. These rewards are now before our eyes and we know what they are worth. It must be said, to the honour of the Russian proletariat, that it sensed immediately, in spite of its weakness, what was being hatched. It understood that Lenin was acting as if he had said: “You others, you workers, you are not logical. You want the immediate introduction of socialism, and you have not the strength to do it. Since you cannot be the masters of society, you must be the servants: it is the law of the class struggle in a society of classes. If you resign yourselves to the inevitable, we will give you all that is possible to give you."

The workers had their own conception of the struggle and they acted as if their reply to Lenin had been: “No, it is you who are not logical, comrade Lenin. If we are not strong enough to be the masters of the country, then we must pass over to active opposition. A class does not surrender, it fights.”

The spontaneous opposition of the proletariat to the encroachments of the bureaucracy was indication enough that the proletariat was not as weak as Lenin asserted. And if he had been heart and soul with the proletariat, he would have supported the opposition of the workers that manifested itself throughout the country. But he thought and acted in the spirit of the bureaucracy, in the spirit of his power. That proletarian force appeared to him as a menace, and he applied to the proletariat the laws of the class struggle: a class that does not surrender must be crushed by the victor. Amid the plaudits of the whole of the country’s new bureaucracy, when Lenin, closing the Tenth Congress, exclaimed: “Now we are finished with the opposition. We shall not tolerate it an instant longer.” Effectively, that was the end of the legal opposition. The doors of prison and exile opened before them, while they awaited the arrival of the execution squads.

In spite of fundamental transformations, the revolution continued to be called, as in the past, ‘proletarian’, ‘socialist’. Even more: Lenin, himself showed how necessary it was to marry the habitual phraseology with the actual subjection of the proletariat. When the workers, veritable victims of bureaucratic pretensions, set themselves to protest against the bureaucratic mystification of socialism and demanded satisfaction of their true interests, Lenin dismissed them en bloc as ‘petty-bourgeois’, ‘anarchists’, ‘counter-revolutionaries’. The interests of the bureaucracy were, on the contrary, characterized as ‘the class interests of the proletariat’. He established in the country a totalitarian and bureaucratic regime that dubbed ‘counter-revolutionary’ everything that had politically and socially a progressive character. He ushered in that era of lies, of falsifications and distortions in which today, in its completed and reinforced Stalinist variant, the whole of Russia lives, and which poisons the entire social life of the international workers’ and democratic movement.

On hearing the resolutions and the speeches of Lenin on the Workers Opposition, Shlyapnikov exclaimed at the end of the Tenth Congress: “Never in my life, and after twenty years in the Party, have I ever seen or heard anything more demagogic and more vile.” These words of Shlyapnikov echoed those of Thomas Münzer, who called Luther ‘Dr. Liar’ (Dr. Lügner), after his pamphlets in support of the Protestant princes against the Protestant peasants.

“And that is exactly what you became, Lenin, at the close of your historic career”, I said to myself ...

I looked fixedly and with animosity at Lenin’s portrait on the table of my cell. Before me there were two Lenins, as there had been two Cromwells and two Luthers: they climbed with the revolution and then they slid back down the slope, crushing the minority who wished to go on. And the whole of that crucial evolution took place over two or three years, in the Russian revolution as in the others. Whilst we, the contemporaries, like those of the former revolutions, still continued for ten, twenty or thirty years to argue about whether that crucial evolution had ever taken place.

“And your opposition, Lenin, in the last year of your life, to ravenous Stalinism – tragic though it was for you – had no more political significance than that of a wavering between Stalinism and Trotskyism, that is to say, between the ultra-reactionary and the liberal variants of the bureaucracy.”

The fate of the Bolshevik Party, the fate of Lenin, and of Trotsky, shows yet once more that the most advanced parties and the greatest leaders are limited in their character by the circumstances of time and place. And that is why it is inevitable that at a given moment they become conservatives, heedless of the new demands of life.

The legend of Lenin appeared to me no more than a lie designed to cover up the crimes of the bureaucracy.

“To destroy the tyranny of the bureaucracy created by your own hands it was also necessary, Lenin, to destroy the legend of the infallible sage of the proletariat. At the hour of supreme danger, instead of stretching out your hand to the proletariat – you struck it down.”

“If the world has still need of this lesson, you bear it out: when the masses are incapable of saving the revolution, no one can do it for them. Your experience, Lenin, tells us that the only means of saving the proletarian revolution is to carry it through to the end, to the point where the toiling masses are totally emancipated. If the revolution is not carried through to the end, the day inevitably arrives when a new privileged minority exercises its tyranny over the majority of the workers. Contemporary revolutions all achieve complete socialism, or they will one day inevitably be anti-proletarian, anti-socialist. They will become counter-revolutions.”

“Neither God, nor masters”, a voice said from the depths of my subconscious, but not the less audible, firm, commanding. The portrait of Lenin on the table of my cell was torn into a thousand pieces and thrown into the litter bin ...

The cell was dark. Outside, night had fallen. The Urals and the steppes were plunged into an ominous stillness. And I was ill and sick at heart. For six months I could not open my mouth to speak, could not write a single word on politics, on my new conclusions about the great revolutionary leader, so depressed I was, so much I suffered in separating myself forever from the myths of Lenin that I cherished so much.


Further reading:
The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (1970)



1. Russian ed., 1920, p. 115.

2 Lenin, Collected Works, Russian ed., Vol. XI, 1930.


Last updated on: 11 August 2015