Bob Gould, 2004
Source: Ozleft, March 18, 2004 (Part I), May 6, 2004 (Part II)
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
A critique of Doug Lorimer’s article, The Bolshevik Party and “Zinovievism”: Comments on a Caricature of Leninism, in Links (No. 24, pp. 96-112), and a few suggestions as to what an organisation drawing the useful lessons of Lenin’s activity, experience and writings, might look like in modern conditions. How we might get there from the present situation of a proliferation of Marxist sects.
“It is true that prior to the October Revolution Lenin had agitated for [a] strictly disciplined party of professional revolutionaries as the condition sine qua non for the conquest and maintenance of power. Nevertheless, throughout his career, including the five years of his active life after the victory of October, Lenin never managed to organise such a ‘monolithic’ party. Nor was it ever more than a pious wish with him which he constantly violated. Bolshevism, born of polemics and factionalism, flourished throughout the twenty years of its Leninist period on arguments and dissensions. It was only after Lenin’s death, after Stalin’s ruthless police measures had strangled the Bolshevik party, after the red colour of pulsing life had been drained from its veins, that it assumed the rigidity of a mummified corpse … ”
L. Trotsky, Trotsky's Notebooks, 1933-35, Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, Philip Pomper and Yuri Felshtinsky, pp. 27-28. This book, by Pomper and Felshtinsky, is a very important piece of original scholarly research. The two editors have done a very systematic job of collating Trotsky's notes from 1933-35, which are in the Trotsky papers at Harvard University. These notes particularly relate to matters of philosophy and natural science, and to Trotsky's attitude to Lenin during the period when he was preparing to write a major biography of Lenin, which unfortunately never happened. The notes from Trotsky's papers give considerable insight into Trotsky's thinking about events in which he had been an important participant.
The day before the conference, we arranged a meeting of the active workers of the Helsingfors Committee, at which we decided on the general plan for conducting the conference and also on the agenda. It was decided to propose S.A. Garin as chairman of the conference, as he was the most prominent and best known figure in Helsingfors. But as Garin could not be present at the conference all the time, it was decided to put the general guidance of the conference in my hands by electing me as deputy chairman.
In the committee, there were two points of view on the question of the political situation, one more moderate, approaching the point of view of Comrade Kamenev at that time, and the other more revolutionary, based on the famous thesis published by Lenin immediately on his arrival from abroad. The representative of the first point of view was Kirill Orlov, and of the second, Antipov. In order to deal with all sides of this most important point of the agenda, it was decided to have both points of view submitted, and let these two speakers deal with the question.
The conference opened the next day in the hall of the house of the Governor-General. A large number of delegates was present. There were representatives from almost every ship stationed in Helsingfors. There were also many guests among whom was the figure now well known to me — the notorious Khilyani [Khilyani was a Menshevik]. However, this time he discreetly kept in the background.
A. Ilyin-Genevsky, From February to October, pp. 41-42. (Published in English in the Soviet Union, c.1926)
The above observation by Trotsky in the mid-1930s, in which he draws harsh lessons from the development of Stalinism, is in sharp conflict with the lessons drawn by Doug Lorimer in Links, 24. Ilyin-Genevsky’s account of the relatively public Helsingfors conference of the military supporters of the Bolshevik Party adds further weight to Trotsky’s case. That was the party that led the revolution in all its turbulent, contradictory development.
The discussion of Marxist organisation is not exactly new territory. Nevertheless, on a world scale we are now in a position to illuminate general theories of “Leninism” from the common practices and experiences of dozens of “Leninist” groups, organisations and parties. This historical record stretches from the time of the first codification of “Leninist” doctrine, essentially by Grigory Zinoviev in the early to mid-1920s, through its counter-revolutionary Stalinist perversion, to the experience of various modern “Leninist” sects, up to the present.
It’s a singular tribute to the revolutionary memory of Lenin and Trotsky, and lesser, but still important, revolutionaries such as James P. Cannon and Zinoviev, that across the planet, militants of organisations large and small, and numerous individuals, should be discussing their organisational ideas and political perspectives with intense enthusiasm.
Throughout this document I refer to a phenomenon that I choose to describe as Big-L “Leninism”, which is a way of approaching Lenin that I reject. What I mean by this is the approach common to both the Stalinists and many non-Stalinist revolutionary socialist groups, of reducing Lenin’s ideas to a schema involving a tendentious and excessively textual reading of Lenin, with little attention to historical context, changing circumstances and Lenin’s real political practice. Big-L Leninism is, in my view, a menace to a proper use of Lenin’s unique and important political heritage.
The first thing that attracted my attention on the US-based Marxism List (Marxmail) was Louis Proyect’s extended pieces on Leninism and Zinovievism, particularly Lenin in Context. One of the participants printed multiple copies of a number of these articles for people attending a seminar we held on the History of Australian Trotskyism in June 2002.
I was also, relatively recently, interested by a lengthy article produced by the Spartacists revisiting the question of the German Revolution of 1918-1923 in a critical way. It’s also worth noting the book Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism which throws some light on these questions, reprinting articles by Alfred Rosmer and others (Francis Boutle, London, 2002). At this point, I read in to the record, so to speak, Louis Proyect’s articles on “Zinovevism” and the German 1923 Marzaktion. I don’t agree with them completely, but I agree with about 95 per cent, and it’s hard to get a fix on the issues without reading them. I also read into the record two articles by Mick Armstrong, Sandra Bloodworth and Marc Newman, published together as Lenin and the Party, Debunking the Myths, by Socialist Alternative.
In general, I agree with the way the question of Leninism and Marxist organisation is presented in these two documents, although I’m cautious about Socialist Alternative’s practice. I’m not going to cover most of the territory in the articles with which I generally agree, but will assume most of those points in my take on this discussion.
We owe Doug Lorimer and the DSP Leadership some gratitude, in that Lorimer (despite the crudeness, literalism and narrowness of his presentation) has codified as doctrine the point of view that permeates most “Leninist” sects on these questions in a summary and relatively accessible way. On that side of the argument, also, is the pamphlet by Bruce Landau, the then leader of a tiny “Leninist” sect in the US (reprinted in Australia by the DSP), and the classic statement of “Leninism”, Zinoviev’s collection of lectures, The History of the Bolshevik Party (selections). On that side of the argument also, is James P. Cannon’s The Struggle for a Proletarian Party and his History of American Trotskyism as well as Joseph Hansen’s nasty little polemic against The Abern Clique, also reprinted in Australia by the DSP leadership to give some credence to their Cannonist “team leadership” schema.
Intermediate overviews of Leninism between these two broad positions are contained in books by Marcel Liebman (Leninism under Lenin), Paul LeBlanc (Lenin and the Revolutionary Party) and Neil Harding (Leninism). A more hostile but very useful take is Robert Service’s biography of Lenin.
I have several preoccupations about the question of Leninism that have not been addressed comprehensively so far in this discussion. The first issue is historical context. The real, living and breathing Lenin, the Lenin who was at the heart of the development of the Bolshevik current in the Russian labour movement, and then sadly, for a only very brief moment, the communist movement on a world scale, was primarily a revolutionary preoccupied in the first instance with overthrowing Czarism, with the socialist revolution in Russia, and flowing out of that, with the possibility of a world socialist revolution.
For Lenin, organisational questions were usually secondary to the revolutionary objective, and when they became primary they usually did so only in the context of the revolutionary objective. Lenin’s organisational proposals and formulas changed, evolved, and were even reversed on a number of occasions, depending on revolutionary necessities. He never developed an utterly finished theory of the party. His failure to elaborate a final, detailed, general scheme of party organisation was clearly based on his deep-rooted Marxist caution against elaborating schemas for all places and all times.
Lenin tried to draw out the generally applicable features of the Russian experience of party building, but he was often cautious about going too far in this. Witness his well-known statement about the 1921 Comintern Resolution being “too Russian”. The problem, for Lenin, was how to train the cadres of the Comintern in the dynamic, dialectical, Marxist spirit that had animated the construction of the Bolshevik movement. The difficulty involved in this process was accentuated by the uneven understanding of these questions, even in the ranks of the Bolshevik organisation itself.
Unfortunately, Lenin was cut off in his political prime in the midst of being brutally made aware of tendencies towards bureaucratisation built into the Russian situation, and also being made aware of what Rakovsky later described, from the Stalinist isolator in which he had been imprisoned, as “the professional dangers of power”.
The death of Lenin, in the midst of these developments in Russia and in the Comintern was one of the greatest political disasters of the twentieth century. The Russian masses have paid in blood and pain ever since for the fact that Lenin was replaced by Stalin at the centre of a highly centralised political set-up in the Soviet Union.
Two other sections from Pomper’s book give an insight into Trotsky’s views circa 1933-35. The writer here is Trotsky and he is referring to the “Epigones”, Stalin and Zinoviev, and their creation and crude misuse of the Lenin cult. Trotsky’s words here are also relevant to Lorimer’s approach to Lenin.
“Lenin had no predecessors, or else they were pushed aside into the deepest shadows. In addition, Lenin’s own intellectual life ceases to be a process of development. It has no stages, crises, sharp breaks, mistakes, and corrections. Lenin’s life consists of automatic expositions and applications ‘of Bolshevism’s fundamental positions’.
“Epigonism signifies a suspension of intellectual growth. The historiography of epigonism extends this stagnation to the past as well. Once Leninism had appeared upon the earth it remained unchanging.” L. Trotsky, Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933-1935: Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, p. 21.
Then Pomper writes:
“Whenever Trotsky justified Lenin’s organisational centralism, he tended to invoke one of Lenin’s own bits of folk wisdom: If the twig is bent, then in order to set things straight one has to bend it even farther in the other direction. The Russian revolutionary movement had suffered from organisational disunity, diffuseness, and vulnerability to infiltration by police. Lenin had tried to fashion a secure underground party. But he had never intended to establish a monolithic centralism. Rather, he had sought political equilibrium.”
Pomper quotes Trotsky:
“Ultimately, despite the greatest difficulties … upheavals … waverings to one side or the other, the Party sustained a necessary equilibrium of elements of both democracy and centralism. The best proof of this equilibrium is the historical fact that the Party absorbed the proletarian vanguard, that this vanguard through democratic mass organisations, such as trade unions, and then soviets, was able to pull after it an entire class — and even more, an entire nation — of working people. This mighty historical exploit would have been impossible without a combination of the broadest democracy, which allows the expression of the feelings and thoughts of the broadest masses, with centralism — which assures firm leadership. The destruction of this equilibrium was not the logical result of Lenin’s organisational principles, but the political result of a change in the correlation of party and class. The party degenerated socially — became an organisation of the bureaucracy. An exaggerated centralism became essential for its self-defence. Revolutionary centralism became bureaucratic centralism; the apparatus, which in its resolution of internal conflicts cannot and does not dare to appeal to the masses, was forced to set up a court of higher appeal above itself. Thus bureaucratic centralism inevitably leads to personal dictatorship.” L. Trotsky, Trotsky’s Notebooks, pp. 32-33.
It was left to the “Epigones”, particularly Zinoviev, at the apex of his brief moment of power, to codify “Leninism” as a method of organisation. Zinoviev did this by drawing out all the authoritarian elements in the practice of the Bolsheviks at different moments and playing down the element of conflict and open discussion in Bolshevik history.
This authoritarian rewriting of history was aided by one of Lenin’s real political mistakes — the ban on factions in the party. The impulse to centralisation in the Russian state and party, driven by the weakness of the Russian working class after the world and civil wars and the economic crisis gripping Russian society, taken together with that country’s economic and cultural backwardness, was accelerated by this political mistake.
This drive to bureaucratic centralisation reinforced the authoritarian trend in Zinoviev’s concept of Leninism. As part of the ruling bloc within the party-state apparatus and as president of the Comintern, Zinoviev had both the means and the interests to promote a highly centralist account of Lenin’s alleged theory of the party.
Lorimer treats the fifth congress of the Comintern, at which the authoritarian structural changes in the Comintern and the Communist Parties were pushed through, as if this were a sudden change that fell from the sky. In fact, an earlier contributor to this centralising process was another of Lenin’s mistakes: the adaptation to Zinoviev over the Marzaktion in Germany, as Lenin emphasised the centralisation of the Comintern over the errors of the Marzaktion.
A process was at work that included some political mistakes by Lenin. He later implicitly came to recognise those political mistakes, without spelling them out too explicitly, when it was probably too late. These questions are covered very cogently by Tony Cliff (Lenin, Vol. 4, pp. 110-120).
“If the Third Congress resolution on the Marzaktion was a compromise, and an unsatisfactory one at that, it was partly because of Paul Levi’s public attack on the KPD, and also because of his insinuation against the Executive Committee of the Communist International. But the main reason was the strength of the ultralefts in the Comintern and Lenin’s and Trotsky’s fear of a split in the KPD and the Comintern.
“The resolution on the Marzaktion was a very dangerous precedent: a cover-up for the highest leaders — Zinoviev, Bukharin and Radek — instead of an honest accounting. The prestige of the leadership was protected at the expense of Marx’s watchword: the Communists never hide the truth from the working class. The manoeuvres of Zinoviev, the about-turn of Radek and the stupidities of Bela Kun were covered up.
The fact that the motions dealing with the Marzaktion were adopted unanimously was a bad omen.”
It became traditional within the Trotskyist movement to take, as the point of departure of classic Bolshevism, the first four congresses of the Communist International and the 21 Conditions for admission to the Comintern, and to swear by them as holy writ.
This became the basis the Trotskyist movement taking over, almost wholesale, Zinoviev’s (and Lorimer’s) formulaic version of what they call “Leninism”. This wasn’t so bad, as far as it went. The first four congresses sure beat the hell out of the counter-revolutionary Stalinist perversions that came later. However, the master gravedigger of the revolution, Stalin, took over and used most of Zinoviev’s formulaic version of Leninism as part of the Stalinisation of the Communist movement in the period of defeats and the ebb of the world revolution in the mid and late 1920s.
As Stalin consolidated his power, he took the notion of centralisation of the communist movement to an even more extreme level and rewrote the history of the Bolshevik movement yet again. This created the classic Stalinist falsification that the early Bolshevik party was an organisation that functioned similarly to Stalin’s barbaric regime. Stalin’s books On the Opposition (Moscow, 1927), The Problems of Leninism (Moscow, 1928), and the later book which he ghost-wrote, The Short History of the CPSU(B) (Moscow, 1939) contain much of this material.
The spirit that animated the first congresses of the Comintern, and Lenin’s and Trotsky’s interventions in them (including on organisational matters), was driven, at the first three congresses by the imminent possibility of revolution in Western Europe and, at the fourth congress, by the notion that although revolutionary prospects had ebbed, the forward march to world revolution would be speedily renewed.
There is also an underlying assumption that the Russian Bolsheviks, with all their revolutionary experience and the power of the Soviet state behind them, would be at the centre of this revolutionary process. These considerations underlay the intense emphasis on centralisation.
This was a moment of painful contradiction and transition: the moment when Lenin and some other Bolshevik leaders were just becoming sharply aware of powerful tendencies to bureaucratisation developing in the soviet state — Rakovsky’s “professional dangers of power”.
The contradictory demands of this moment caused Lenin to see the ban on factions in the Russian party as a necessity, but on the floor of the conference to disagree with those who wanted to make it permanent. It is well known now that in this last period of his conscious life Lenin was intensely preoccupied with problems of bureaucratisation in the Russian Revolution. His concern was implicit in his agonised words that “we are guilty before the working class”, at the time of the conflict with Stalin over the latter’s chauvinist attitude to non-Russian nationalities.
The whole history of the conflict in the Soviet Party and the development of the Left Opposition, and later of the Zinoviev opposition, underlies the way different groups of Bolsheviks came to a realisation of these problems at different times. Zinoviev, for instance, played a major role in creating the myth of “Leninism”, but after he lost power he admitted to Trotsky that the whole idea had been a bit of a beat-up. Zinoviev’s consciousness of the dangers of the bureaucratisation to which he had contributed, developed, unhappily, after he lost power to Stalin. Zinoviev’s History of the Bolshevik Party, and his little iconographic memoir of Lenin, come from the earlier period of his role as the confident “Epigone”, who feels secure in his grasp on power.
Basing himself on Zinoviev’s book, which he nowhere acknowledges, but clearly permeates his whole approach, Lorimer presents the formalisation of rules restraining public debate in the Bolshevik movement as an organic growth out of the history of the Bolshevik party, and as something made necessary by the lessons, drawn by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, from the collapse of the Second International (when its sections supported their various national governments in 1914). This is certainly the way it was initially presented by Lenin, as he “bent the stick” in characteristic fashion.
Then came the equally disastrous collapse of the Communist International into Stalinism, partly under the weight of its centralised rules and norms. Lenin’s agitated afterthought that the ban on factions should not be permanent, and his general observations on the direction of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet state, in his final conflict with Stalin, make it clear that Lenin was conscious of the dangers of bureaucratisation and over-centralisation.
Had Lenin lived, the whole spirit of his previous political activities suggest that he would have dramatically “bent the stick” back in the direction of inner-party democracy. He was a ruthless and effective politician and he would hardly have failed to draw dramatic practical conclusions from previous errors, to which he had himself contributed. Lenin was no stranger to extremely sharp, but necessary, reversals.
Lorimer’s implication that the last word on the question is Lenin’s authoritarian stance at the moment of the crisis in the Russian Revolution, which brought about the NEP and the ban on factions, is also the stance of Zinoviev and later Stalin. This rhetorical misuse of what they claim was Lenin’s political practice was a valuable weapon for the “Epigones” in accelerating the Stalinisation of the Russian Revolution.
This view, however, contradicts all our knowledge of Lenin’s previous behaviour and preoccupations. Lenin fought desperately in the last months of his life to reverse the bureaucratisation process. Everything about his political practice underlines that, for him, the political essence was always more important than formal rules, even ones he had had a hand in designing. Lorimer’s approach is heavily influenced by the ideology of Epigonism, which so rapidly developed in the mid-1920s in the Soviet Union and the communist movement.
Trotsky and the Left Opposition concluded quite early that the ban on factions had been a mistake, as Rakovsky points out, in his Professional Dangers of Power.
Lorimer seems completely oblivious to any of these considerations, and he certainly makes no serious attempt to refer to the extensive literature that raises a number of these issues.
Doug Lorimer’s version of “Leninism” is rigidly authoritarian from start to finish. His main concern in the Links article is to prove that classical Leninism involved Lenin opposing open discussion in the party outside severely restricted limits. Lorimer presents this approach as an absolutely necessary norm of socialist organisation. He has a complementary proposition that “Leninism” requires very deep political homogeneity in the organisation. He presents these ideas as a kind of essence of Leninism.
It’s striking that Lorimer does not take the opportunity presented by this discussion of Leninism to advance any view of what Leninist organisations might do in the material world. His presentation is entirely negative, and totally focused on the things that, in his view, “Leninist” organisations should not do. The main thing they should not do is have the far reaching semi-public tactical discussions and conflicts that were a feature of the Russian socialist movement up to the moment of the ban on factions.
“Leninism”, for Lorimer, is a negative, disciplinary business, not a lively, developing, partly agitational construction. In this presentation he doesn’t take the opportunity to talk about the rich tactical lessons drawn by Lenin at the second congress, embodied in Left Wing Communism. This pamphlet contains, in fact, the real essence of Leninism, insofar as there is one — not the negative, centralising, organisational formulations common to Lorimer and Zinoviev. Lorimer is only interested in Left Wing Communism from the angle of justifying homogeneity in his organisation.
Implicit in Lorimer’s article, although it isn’t clearly spelled out, is the other major DSP leadership shibboleth — “team leadership” — which the DSP leadership takes almost literally from Cannon and the US SWP, particularly in its later degeneration under the leadership of Joseph Hansen and Jack Barnes.
The question is: why does Lorimer single out these aspects so instrumentally as his essence of Leninism (Lorimer’s essence of Leninism approach is reminiscent of Humphrey McQueen’s jocular but serious argument that Coca-Cola is the “essence of capitalism”).
The obvious answer is that this kind of approach is at the heart of the political life of the DSP as a sect. A bit of a discussion of how this works, currently and historically, in the DSP is useful here, because the DSP example is replicated again and again all over the world in Marxist groups. The organisations of the Lambertists, the Lutte Ouvriere group, the International Socialist Tendency, the US Socialist Workers Party, the Committee for a Workers International, the old Healy organisations and their current progeny, the Spartacists, many organisations in the Morenist current, and many organisations of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (although the ligue Communiste Revolutionaire seems to be an exception) all share this essential organisational model to a greater or lesser degree.
They face off against each other in various countries with an authoritarian and apolitical emphasis on discipline and regime. They pretty well all pay lip service to an organisational formula that theoretically allows factions in the organisation, but they surround it with many constraints of a formal and informal kind. These retraints preclude any kind of real and deep-going political confrontation and discussion in socialist organisation that have this kind of regime.
The overemphasis on “leadership”, and particularly on “team leadership”, tends to make any political discussion that takes place internal to the leadership, and thereby retards the political development of both members of the leadership and the rank and file in these organisations. It also makes changes in leadership, initiated from below, almost impossible.
The DSP has for the last two and a half years been involved in setting up the Socialist Alliance, a new “multi-tendency” formation in which it has effective political hegemony. While it has invested considerable effort into this enterprise, the DSP itself has slowly declined in membership but has drawn back into limited political activity some of its ex-members and some from other groups, who have formed a caucus of ostensible independents with the blessing and organisational support of the DSP.
The DSP has pressed forward against the opposition of the next-largest group, the ISO, and the seven other smaller groups that make up the Alliance, to make the DSP’s paper, Green Left Weekly, the official organ of the Alliance. At the level of the Alliance, a certain amount of public discussion takes place, but in the DSP, where the political decisions about the future of the Alliance are actually made, the political discussion takes place within the framework of the severe limits placed on political discussion by Doug Lorimer’s version of big-L “Leninism”.
In the past couple of week, a further minor crisis has developed in the Socialist Alliance. The members of the independent caucus closest to the DSP have proposed a structural change to the Alliance with a new tier of leadership, a kind of council that would have the effect of further sidelining the smaller affiliates. Several other members of the independent caucus have revolted over this proposal, ascribing it to DSP manipulation. This dispute is currently unresolved.
A few months ago, a discussion erupted in the DSP youth organisation, Resistance, in which a significant group, including some members of the DSP, put forward, and vigorously argued for, the idea that Resistance ought to follow the path of the Alliance and become a multi-tendency organisation, opening itself up to other socialist-minded youth.
The DSP leadership came down like the proverbial ton of bricks on this initiative, and mobilised DSP leadership loyalists to resoundingly defeat this opposition group. After that, DSP organisational discipline was invoked to remove at least one of the oppositional DSP members from activity in Resistance, and youth activity in general, in a punitive way.
At the Christmas-new year DSP conference, where the future of Resistance and the future of the Socialist Alliance were discussed and decided on, members of the Resistance opposition who weren’t delegates to the conference were prevented from addressing the conference on the Resistance question.
In addition to this, the Resistance opposition was ambushed, in the sense that their inquiries about what the official report on Resistance might contain, were met with the leadership story that nothing very dramatic would be in the report. In fact, the report contained a sweeping attack on the Resistance opposition, to which the oppositionists had very little possibility of preparing a serious answer.
People with experience in big-L “Leninist” groups will be familiar with this sort of practice. In the course of this whole debate in Resistance, the young supporters of the DSP leadership used a number of respectful quotes from Doug Lorimer, John Percy and James P. Cannon to try to demonstrate that the propositions of the Resistance opposition were incompatible with “Leninism”.
This kind of organisational and political set up is the heart of what Lorimer defends in his Links article. The purpose of Lorimer’s learned exposition of what he claims were Lenin’s unchangeable views, and what he infers was Lenin’s practice, is actually a super-instrumental attempt to justify the current regime in a smallish sect in a comparatively stable capitalist country. That’s the way this kind of authoritarian interpretation of Leninism is usually used, and those kinds of circumstances usually drive this kind of interpretation.
One feature of Doug Lorimer’s article is his overly literal, pretentious and narrow treatment of the topic. This goes with the territory, so to speak. In his presentation he almost entirely relies on texts from Lenin, and he downplays history and context.
He thus crudifies and simplifies several enormous questions. He makes no attempt to address the substantial literature about these questions. In essence, Lorimer’s article is an exercise in textual exegesis of the sort chronically used by evangelical Christians, who treat the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as the revealed word of their god, all of it inspired despite the obvious contradictions and limitations in the text.
This rigid, evangelical approach to the Bible is always entirely internally referential to the text, and always tries to explain away apparent contradictions as mere matters of interpretation of the infallible text. Lorimer’s evangelical method is a particularly dangerous way to approach Lenin.
Some of Lenin’s contradictory writings on different questions can be reconciled by reference to different circumstances without too much trouble. Many others don’t need to be reconciled, because Lenin’s positions on many questions changed dramatically a number of times. This is no disrespect to Lenin, because one of the most serious features of his political practice was its flexible and experimental character, which combined innovation, dictated by a certain Jacobin urgency about overthrowing the Tsarist state and the international bourgeoisie, with a thorough and serious grounding in classical Marxism.
Within that framework, Lenin was an ingenious, restless revolutionary figure, not too worried by apparent inconsistencies, but usually willing eventually to recognise his mistakes, although he wasn’t given to breast-beating about past errors. He tended to move on, and encouraged others to do the same.
Lorimer shows little obvious knowledge, or at least much interest, in the rather wide literature about the real Lenin and the real Leninism. At the end of this article, I attach a list of books and documents which are relevant to this discussion, of which very few are mentioned by Lorimer.
The primary purpose of Lorimer in his article is to draw the necessary authoritarian conclusions to justify the stultifying political practice of the current DSP leadership apparatus in its organisation. He appears to be relatively uninterested in the political content of the political disputes he describes. In his treatment of the March Action, in which the later Stalinisation of the Comintern was prefigured, Lorimer is beside himself with excitement because he thinks he can prove that the disciplinary aspect of the question was more important to Lenin than the ultraleftism of Zinoviev’s Comintern leadership, which imposed an erroneous line on the Germany Communist Party. For an accurate overview of the issues in the March Action controversy, Lorimer is of little use. He quotes Lenin’s response to Clara Zetkin, on matters of discipline, but he doesn’t explain what Zetkin said to Lenin, which was:
“In my opinion, the case of Levi is not just a problem of discipline, it is in the first place essentially a political problem. It can only be correctly judged and evaluated in the context of the whole political situation, and this is why I think that it can only be dealt with properly in the framework of our discussion of the tactics of the Communist Party and in particular in the framework of discussion on the March Action … If Paul Levi must be severely punished for his criticism of the March Action and for the mistake that he undoubtedly committed at that time, what punishment is merited by those who made the mistakes themselves? The putschism that we denounce did not consist of the masses in struggle … It was in the members of the Zentrale [Central Committee] who led the masses into struggle in this way …
“It remains a fact … that representatives of the ECCI indeed bear a large share of the responsibility for the way in which the Marzaktion was conducted, [and] that representatives of the Executive are largely responsible for the wrong slogans, the wrong political attitude of the party, or, more correctly, of the Zentrale.”
For a rounded and careful account of these events, Tony Cliff’s book, Lenin, (Vol. 4, pp. 110-120) is useful. Cliff’s conclusion, which is extremely persuasive, is that Lenin’s acquiescence in the exclusion of core leaders of the German Communist Party (KPD) (notably Paul Levi) was a mistake, and an accommodation to Zinoviev and the Comintern leadership in the interests of preserving a common face to the world.
Cliff’s conclusion is that this contributed to the authoritarian pre-Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern. It’s pretty clear that the my-party-right-or-wrong position, on which Lorimer verges in his article, was in practice one of the preconditions for the later Stalinisation of the communist movement.
Lorimer skates over the fact that the ban on factions at the later CPSU conference was an enormous political mistake that contributed to a process of political degeneration and ultimately to Stalinisation. He presents the monolithic clause in the Bolshevisation resolution at the fifth Comintern congress as a mistake, but one that seems to fall from the sky.
Lenin’s mistake in supporting this move to ban factions was dictated by his anxiety to avoid a split in the party, and to some extent on his expectation, common to all the Bolsheviks, of a rapid expansion of the world revolution, which he clearly believed would be a corrective to authoritarian centralisation.
He became more conscious a little later of the enormous dangers inherent in this drive to centralisation, when he was terminally ill, but by that time it was too late for him to reverse the process. However, he did launch a vigorous assault on Stalin as the living expression of these bureaucratic dangers.
The pity was that Trotsky failed at that stage to take up and carry forward this struggle against Stalin, begun by Lenin, to a major fight in the party. That was a political error on Trotsky’s part, partly dictated by his consciousness of his lesser authority among the old Bolsheviks in the party. Trotsky had enormous prestige among the Russian masses, but the Bolshevik Old Guard tended to treat him with a certain suspicion.
Lorimer’s attitude to historical events and important Russian Revolutionary personalities is crude, summary and insulting. He refers to David Riazanov and Solomon Lozovsky as “beta-Bolsheviks”, obviously because they had both come out of Trotsky’s Interdistrict organisation (the Mezhraiontsy), but he says nothing about their subsequent fate.
Riazanov was imprisoned by Stalin and died in exile in Saratov. Lozovsky was murdered in the last antisemitic witchcraft trial in Moscow in 1952 (the trial of the “Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee”). Riazanov was a trade union activist and scholar, biographer and archivist of Marx and Engels, and Lozovsky a long-standing revolutionary trade unionist. Ilyin-Genevsky’s sketch of an organiser of the Interdistrict organisation (in From February to October) is illuminating about the blurring of lines between Bolsheviks, Mezhraiontsy, Borot’bists (Ukrainian Left Socialist Revolutionaries) and other socialist groups and individuals, indeed all the healthy elements that were rallying to the cause of the socialist revolution at this time. Beta-Bolsheviks indeed.
“ … we did not only meet enemies in the printing plant. A friend of ours, SM Uritsky, came once a week to get out his Mezhrayonets periodical called the Internationalist. Uritsky at that time was a Mezhrayonet organiser. I well recall his short stocky figure set on crooked legs, gaining his table with a slight limp, adjusting his pince-nez every minute, his chubby hands clutching a batch of proof sheets. He would climb on an exceedingly uncomfortable stool near the table. His head would sink between his shoulders and, armed with a pencil, he would begin to read and scrawl on the proofs which lay before him. His whole figure radiated warmth and comfort. Later when I became better acquainted with him, I learnt to value his happy and frank nature, his simplicity and affability, especially to his comrades at work.” [The, by then, leading Bolshevik, Solomon Uritsky was later assassinated by reactionaries in Petrograd in August 1918.]
The whole history of the Interdistrict Organisation and its absorption into the Bolshevik Party works against the facile Lorimer alpha-beta Bolshevik version of historical events.
The issue that Lorimer cites, the suppression of bourgeois newspapers, requires a more careful consideration than the summary treatment that Lorimer gives it. In the 1980s, Ernest Mandel and Nahuel Moreno conducted a vigorous debate, which was published as a printed book in English by the Morenists in Columbia, and was also published in the United Secretariat internal bulletin.
This debate was a vigorous conflict over, and careful reconsideration of, the issues involved in the notion of the dicatatorship of the proletariat. The suppression in Russia of, not just the bourgeois newspapers, but also the Menshevik, Left and Right Socialist Revolutionary and Anarchist newspapers, is an extremely complex and problematic question. Lorimer’s contemptuous dismissal of the reservations of Riazanov and Lozovsky about the question reveals a deeply authoritarian bent on his part.
The magazine Links, itself has been the main vehicle for a desultory political discussion between the DSP leadership, and various Marxist groups overseas, particularly some in Asia. The revolutionary groups in Asia associated with Links are very serious formations. Nevertheless, many of them are of Stalinist background, and organisations with this kind of political lineage usually carry over a very authoritarian notion of the structural features of “Leninism”. It’s at the level of a rather authoritarian conception of the party that the DSP’s collaboration with most of these overseas ex-Stalinist and Stalinist groupings has proceeded.
All the leaderships of sub-Leninist groups, who want to set in stone their control of their own organisation, and their own pretensions to be an exclusive proletarian leadership, tend to single out of the history of the Bolshevik movement a number of the features codified by Zinoviev in the mid-1920s as the essence of big-L Leninism. We have now, however, the benefit of hindsight. It is quite clear that it is exactly the features that these leaderships tend to single out as the main necessary features of Marxist organisation, that became a central part of the Stalinisation of the communist movement in the 1920s.
The early Trotskyist movement took as a point of departure the validity of the First Four Congresses of the Communist International and the 21 Conditions for admission to the Comintern. Even this approach is problematic. A number of the 21 Conditions were clearly predicated on constructing a combat organisation with the almost immediate expectation of an impending revolutionary situation and the working-class seizure of power in a number of countries. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out that way. The revolutionary opportunities were lost or defeated, and the revolutionary crisis eventually dissipated.
Many of the 21 Conditions are no longer relevant to immediate tasks facing small socialist groups in conditions of relative capitalist stability. How many of these sub-Leninist groups actually conduct agitation in the army, for instance? There have been several agitations in armies in the past 30 years, but they have always been in the context of opposition to specific imperialist wars, such as those in Vietnam and Iraq, and a general formula about agitation in the army isn’t of much use.
Similarly, the stress in the 21 conditions on centralisation and homogenisation of the parties was a feature of a complex situation, in which, the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union were manoeuvring and battling to hold on to power in very adverse circumstances, and preparing, they thought, for the seizure of power in Germany, and possibly France and even Britain.
The 21 Conditions, particularly their heavily centralist aspect, were built around the idea that the Comintern leadership was a kind of general staff of the world revolution that could give very direct, even day-to-day leadership to revolutionary upheavals in various countries. This always was a notion that tended to the metaphysical and overly formal. In practice, it contributed to the Stalinisation of the Comintern. It also contributed to major disasters such as the Marzaktion, and the later defeat of the German revolutionary upsurge in 1923.
The 21 Conditions are thoroughly impregnated with the notion of the Comintern leadership as the “general staff of the world revolution”. In an early re-evaluation of this issue, when they broke with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International in 1984, the DSP leadership made the sound point that, if that notion had ever had any validity it certainly had been superseded by events, and there was no national centre that could play such a role in any meaningful way, certainly not with any of the authority and practical revolutionary experience of the Bolsheviks.
Nevertheless, having wisely put the linchpin of the structure aside as a central feature of revolutionary politics, the DSP leadership still hangs on to the over-centralist aspects of the 21 Conditions, particularly the aspects that reinforce extremely bureaucratic and centralised regimes in individual socialist organisations in many countries. The overly centralist structure of the 21 Conditions is an anachronism in vastly changed world conditions. In the new circumstances prevailing today in the world, entrenching leaderships of small, self-satisfied, rather eclectic socialist sects behind a wall of powerfully centralist structural arrangements only has the effect of turning the leadership of each organisation into a self-interested small oligarchy.
Despite the language that he sometimes used, Lenin’s political practice was experimental and provisional, and he generally, even in his most centralising moments, left an escape clause. The classic example of this was when, on the floor of the Soviet Communist Party Congress, his supporters wanted to make the ban on factions permanent. He successfully argued against this on the grounds that there might be a change in the extraordinary circumstances that, in his view, made the ban conjuncturally necessary.
Classic Bolshevism had a number of libertarian, anti-centralising aspects. The leading cadres of the Bolshevik Party all over Russia at the time of the Russian Revolution were to some extent the hastily assembled group of revolutionaries who rallied to the idea of the socialist revolution, and it included people who had been in different parties and groups, such as the Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists, and quite a few who had moved in and out of Bolshevism at various times.
It is fiction to view these people, as Zinoviev does, in his highly problematic History of the Bolshevik Party, as an homogenous and disciplined army awaiting orders from an infallible central committee. These real revolutionaries came into the Bolshevik movement with experiences, ideas and divergent political traditions, and Lenin wasn’t particularly concerned initially about disciplinary questions, so much as whether the new recruits were willing to participate in animating the revolutionary process.
The over-emphasis on centralisation was a tragic by-product of the civil war, which also produced the very damaging phenomenon of war communism. The books of Victor Serge, Alfred Rosmer and the revolutionary classic Ten Days That Shook The World, by the US socialist journalist John Reed, are a much better guide to the realities of Bolshevism than Zinoviev’s self-interested book.
Lorimer has not always been so unaware of a number of these considerations as he now appears to be. In 1999, the DSP’s Resistance Library performed the very useful publishing task of reprinting Lenin’s Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, with a number of the appendices and pieces of supplementary material distributed to the Second Comintern Congress.
Lorimer’s introduction to this edition of Left Wing Communism is intelligent, workmanlike and useful. He draws attention to the dialectical aspect of Lenin’s document, and his intervention at the Congress, and he stresses the two poles of this intervention:
Lenin’s major intervention at the Second Congress of the Comintern was directed at moulding the young Communist Parties and the Comintern in the strategic directions already discussed. Some of Lenin’s ideological underpinnings included a fairly detailed exposition of his “theory of imperialism” and a lengthy discussion of the “labour aristocracy” in imperialist countries.
There has been much subsequent debate and dispute about the details of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, and the associated question of “labour aristocracies”. A number of Marxists, and some bourgeois critics, have pointed to flaws in Lenin’s specific “theory” of imperialism and/or at limitations in his theory of “labour aristocracies” (as the primary basis of reformism in the labour movement).
Tony Cliff is a critic of these two concepts (in the latter case most importantly in his book The Labour Party, A Marxist History), but there are a number of others. A.J. Polan, an anti-Leninist, libertarian critic of Leninism, in his book, Lenin and the End of Politics, offers a coherent critique of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, and the notes contain a brief summary of the literature on the arguments about Lenin’s theory of imperialism and the associated question of the “labour aristocracy”. (I don’t agree with many of Polan’s other criticisms of Lenin, but the section on the theory of imperialism is very useful.)
Also of interest is a DSP document from the early 1980s, The Struggle for Socialism in the Imperialist Epoch, which in passing makes some observations on the “labour aristocracy” question that reflect a different standpoint from that now advanced by the DSP leadership. Peter Boyle of the DSP and myself have been conducting a protracted argument on these broad questions for a year or so now, and my contributions to this debate are on Ozleft.
This argument is important because, in my view totally instrumentally, the DSP leadership has seized upon Lenin’s theory of imperialism and views on “labour aristocracies”, including their problematic aspects, out of all reasonable proportion, as another shibboleth to justify a sectarian approach to the labour movement. In the course of doing that, they’ve turned these two theories of Lenin into a kind of supra-historical big-L Leninism, which the heretic and sinner shouldn’t dare to question. Big-L Leninism is, ideologically speaking, a thoroughgoing menace to serious Marxist analysis.
It is worth noting that, despite Lenin using these theories as part of the ideological background to Left-Wing Communism, the actual tactics he proposed for the working-class movement included serious communist fraction work in all the organisations of the working class. In practice, in particular, this was true in the organisations dominated by the “labour aristocracy”, and was buttressed by a united-front approach directed at mass Social Democratic organisations, including implicitly, fraction work.
The “aristocracy of labour” thesis and the “Leninist” theory of imperialism weren’t the central strategic axis of the tactics adopted by the Comintern in its Leninist-Trotskyist phase — the united front was. Boyle’s idea that the “aristocracy of labour” thesis was the primary axis of the tactics adopted by the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s is a delusion. The “aristocracy of labour” thesis had more the character of a certain rhetorical flourish, a bit overstated by Lenin, to help persuade the ultralefts to adopt realistic tactics in the workers’ movement.
The “labour aristocracy” theory did not emerge as the central strategic category until later, when Stalin and Bukharin were turning the face of the Comintern to a frontal assault on what they came to term “social-fascism”, ie reformism. Overstating the importance of the idea of the “aristocracy of labour” and developing it into the notion of “social fascism” was one of the primary aspects of the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern. See Brian Pearce’s important article on the British Communist Party and the Labor Left.
Lorimer’s version places a heavy emphasis on the alleged need to keep strategic and political conflicts internal to the party, and by implication, even to the leadership. Lorimer, and those like him in the leadership of sub-Leninist groups, relies heavily on the peculiar Cannonist tradition of the US SWP, which refines the Zinoviev notion even further.
Drawing out inferences from Cannon’s The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, and his egocentric History of American Trotskyism, a notion — a cult really — of “team leadership” is developed. The rules, conventions and traditions of the Australian DSP embody several intrinsic features. The primary feature is elaborate constraints on political discussion inside the party, even in normal times.
The convention, rigidly enforced, is that every serious political difference has to be kept private, unless those with differences go through a fairly elaborate process of forming a faction within the organisation. The DSP, in the tradition of the American SWP, is extremely explicit about this, but in practice, all sub-Leninist formations are pretty much the same in this respect, even, in Australia, the somewhat healthier ones such as Socialist Alternative.
Public expressions of political differences are subject to extreme moral pressure in the organisation, which usually takes the form of the conventional tripwire: if you disagree with the leadership, you must form a faction, and of course, forming a faction is “war in the party”, in the words of Cannon.
In the history of the Australian DSP, the formation of a faction has almost always led to a split, or the expulsion of the minority, on some organisational pretext. The practice of the Bolsheviks as they groped their way towards the socialist revolution was quite different to this. The net effect of these traditions and conventions (and in the case of the Cannonists, such as the US SWP and the Australian DSP, the rules), is to make it impossible for a serious change in political direction or political culture to come from the rank and file of the organisation.
The effect that this set-up has had on the selection of leaderships is poisonous. Rather than leaderships being elected for a combination of theoretical and ideological development, ability, agitational capacity, and incorporating elements of conflict and contradiction, leaderships are selected by nominating commissions, according to conformity to the existing leadership, and the, usually eclectic, full program of the group.
This tends to breed out the skills required for mass agitation and leadership, as well as political innovation and alternative strategic views. In practice, additions to leaderships in sub-Leninist groups are selected for their existing or potential conformity to the existing leaderships, rather than for their agitational or theoretical qualities.
James P. Cannon was a courageous and pivotal figure in the development of the world revolutionary movement. He was a workers’ leader with a very wide experience, many political skills and deep commitment to the socialist revolution. Over a long life he never reconciled himself to the ruling class. All his writings, even his most curious and triumphalist work, the History of American Trotskyism, are useful parts of the education of any serious scientific socialist.
His most reflective book, The First Ten Years of American Communism, is the most useful of his books. Pretty well all Cannon’s works are in print, between Pathfinder Press and the Spartacist League’s Prometheus Research Library, which has done some important publishing work, reprinting early Cannon works.
The redoubtable Canadian Marxist historian, Bryan Palmer, is said to be writing a major political biography of Cannon, and the sooner that appears the better. In the interim, the best thing written about Cannon is the section on Cannon in Tim Wohlforth’s book, The Struggle for Marxism in the United States.
Cannon’s organisational conceptions were taken over largely from the Zinoviev period of the Comintern. They were rather authoritarian and had fairly drastic consequences on occasion.
In the 1940 dispute in the US-SWP Trotsky was extremely cautious about the summary way in which Cannon brought the dispute to a sharp organisational solution (a split that gave birth to the Workers Party). It is clear that Trotsky would have preferred a continuation of the discussion, and the avoidance of a premature split.
That split turned out to not be the world-historic political division that it is treated as in Cannonist mythology. The Workers Party turned out to be a rather effective revolutionary organisation during World War II and played a powerful role in unions and industry from a principled, internationalist standpoint. Many of the young middle-class supporters of the Shachtman faction developed into very serious revolutionary trade unionists during the war.
As late as 1947 unsuccessful reunification negotiations took place between the Workers Party and the SWP. The Workers Party only began to shift to the right dramatically about 1949. Two useful sources on the Workers Party are Peter Drucker’s book on Shachtman and Harvey Swados’s interesting novel, Standing Fast.
One of the rather painful ironies of Marxist political experience is that towards the end of his life, Cannon became alarmed at the organisational degeneration of the US-SWP, the form of which was an even more ruthless limitation of factional rights by the Hansen-Barnes leadership in the 1960s. Cannon even wrote a document Don’t Strangle the Party, which is in the collection of Cannon’s writings published by the DSP in Australia, and the DSP leadership would do well to study that small document carefully.
In a polemic some months ago I made the comparison of the competition between the Marxist groups, as similar to the competition between ant and bee colonies with a slightly different genetic mix, which compete for similar environments. The analogy caused a certain amount of wry amusement.
If you take, in Australia, the International Socialists, Socialist Alternative, the Militant Group (now the Socialist Party), the DSP, the Communist Party, the Spartacist League and some other of the small groups, they all share this emphasis in their internal regimes on the special role of the leadership. Usually, there is constant pressure to homogenise the rank-and-file around the political line and the whole eclectic political culture of the particular group, even in the smallest details.
Bukharin, in a speech to Moscow Party members in 1923, mentioned on page 159 of Tony Cliff’s Lenin Vol 4, made an observation that is still relevant to the internal situation in most modern Marxist semi-sects, such as the DSP.
“As a rule the voting takes place according to a definite pattern. They come into the meeting and ask: ‘Is anyone opposed?’ And since everyone is more or less afraid to voice dissent, the individual who was appointed becomes secretary of the cell bureau … in the majority of cases the elections in our party organizations have in fact been transformed into a mockery of elections, because the voting takes place not only without preliminary discussion, but, again, according to the formula, ‘Is anyone opposed?’ And since it is considered bad form for anyone to speak against the ‘leadership’, the matter is automatically settled. This is what elections are like in the local cells.
“Let us now speak of our party meetings. How are they conducted? I myself have taken the floor at numerous meetings in Moscow and I know how the so-called discussion takes place in our party organisations. Take for example the election of the meeting’s presiding committee. One of the members of the district committee presents a slate and asks: ‘Is anyone opposed?’ Nobody is opposed, and the matter is considered settled. The presiding committee is elected and the same comrade then announces that the presiding committee was elected unanimously.”
Doug Lorimer discusses the expulsion of the Menshevik liquidators from the Russian Social Democracy in 1912. This is a crudification of the events at the Prague conference of the RSDLP. He does not even mention the existence of the Pro-Party Mensheviks, who, according to Lenin, were a majority of the Menshevik faction, although not of its leaders.
Lorimer should have a careful look at Brian Pearce’s article, Building the Bolshevik Party, Some Organisational Aspects. At the Prague conference, the line of division was between, on the one side, most of the Bolsheviks and the pro-party Mensheviks, led at that time by Plekhanov (the chairman of the Prague conference), and on the other the Liquidators, who were mainly Mensheviks.
The group that was expelled wasn’t the Mensheviks, as such, but the Liquidators. After the conference, the Bolsheviks and the pro-party Mensheviks merged, although Plekhanov himself did not join the merged organisation. The fused Russian Social Democracy after 1912 was thus an amalgamation of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. There is no hint of these circumstances in Lorimer’s carefully dishonest-by-omission account, which is designed to give an imaginary picture of Bolshevik monolithism.
Later, writing about the Zimmerwald period, Lorimer quotes with approval Lenin’s irritation at the idea of publishing the ideas of Bukharin and Radek on the national question in the Bolshevik press. But despite Lenin’s irritation the discussion on the national question continued in the public arena and Lenin was often himself in a minority, despite the general correctness of his views.
The argument over national self-determination even persisted into the period after the October Revolution, and again Lenin was initially in the minority to the centralising, Great Russian views of Bukharin and Radek, who opposed national self-determination. He eventually won through and achieved a majority to incorporate the principles of national self-determination into the laws of the new Soviet state. Lenin, on the national question, had no respect for mistaken majorities in the Bolshevik Party.
Later, the debate over the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk also proceeded among the Bolsheviks in the most public way. Mass-circulation Bolshevik and Soviet dailies carried the views of both sides. Once again, Lenin was initially in the minority, but he wisely fought on until he achieved a majority, which was decisive for the immediate survival of the Soviet state.
At the height of this dispute the Left Communists in Petrograd produced their own daily paper, Kommunist in addition to putting their views in Pravda and other forums. They elaborated their own platform on issues such as workers’ democracy, the national question, industrialisation and the trade unions.
Even after the Seventh Party Congress in March 1918, the Left Communists continued to organise, and won control of the Moscow Party Committee. They published their own factional party paper in Moscow. The Seventh Congress voted to represent the Left Communists on the Central Committee. It was standard Bolshevik practice to include oppositional groupings and views in leadership bodies in proportion to their support.
Lenin attacked the Left Communists not for publicly expressing their views, but because they wouldn’t take their place on the Central Committee. Later, the dispute at the Tenth Party Congress in 1921, over the role of trade unions, was completely public.
The Workers Opposition, around Kollontai and Shlyapnikov, defended the total independence of the trade unions from the Soviet state. Trotsky, at the other extreme, favoured the incorporation of the trade unions into the state and the militarisation of labour. Lenin occupied a careful intermediate position, and his view was victorious in the debate, although he was initially in a minority.
EH Carr, in The Bolshevik Revolution, has this to say:
“To give an impression of the unparalleled extent of the debate a few of its principal landmarks may be recorded: On 24 December, 1920, Trotsky addressed a monster meeting of trade unionists and delegates to the eighth All-Russian Congress of Soviets — his speech was published the following day as a pamphlet … Throughout January 1921, Pravda carried almost daily articles by the supporters of one or another platform”. (EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. 2, Harmondsworth, 1966, p 224)
The reality is that the rich and complex, relatively public internal life of the Bolshevik Party was ended by the ban on factions. This became the greatest mistake in the history of the communist movement. Lorimer asserts his opposition to the ban on factions in a formal way, but the whole spirit of his emphasis on centralisation, as against the actual practice of the Bolshevik movement during its heroic period, implies that the ban on factions was inevitable.
That’s a similar view to that of Zinoviev during his presidency of the Comintern, and put forward in his History of the Bolshevik Party, on which the DSP relies in its internal education program. As recently as January 2004, the DSP leadership was using photocopied extracts from Zinoviev’s book as part of its educational program for Resistance members, conducted at the Chippendale headquarters, in Sydney.
The Zinoviev-Cannon-Doug Lorimer-John Percy approach to the history of the Bolshevik Party completely miseducates those who are subjected to it systematically about the real ethos of Lenin’s Bolshevik organisation. To Lenin, organisational ideas were deeply important but they flowed from political necessity. They were an attempt to elaborate organisational arrangements that would advance the socialist revolutionary process.
Lenin changed his organisational views on a number of occasions. For instance, in 1902 in What is to be Done? Lenin elaborated the idea of socialist organisation and consciousness coming into the working class from outside. Fairly quickly, he implicitly moved away from that approach in its fullest application to fight the Committee Men in 1905, with the aim of opening up the Bolshevik Party to the revolutionary masses. The formula of democratic centralism, on which Lorimer and others like him lean so heavily, is only mentioned in the works of Lenin four times, in the roughly half of the 30,000-odd pages of Lenin’s Collected Works that are online at the Marxists Internet Archive, which includes all of Lenin’s most important texts.
For Lenin, his organisational ideas, which changed and developed depending on circumstances, were intimately linked to political necessities, both long-term and immediate. The idea that he had some kind of immutable, unchanging organisational schema is a myth, and the most dangerous Lenin myth of all because it was a very major part of the ideological justification for Stalinist degeneration. For Lenin, while his organisational ideas as they stood at any stage of development were important, nevertheless they were secondary to political necessities and imperatives.
This is the only way it is possible to comprehend Lenin, who, when he was in a majority, usually leaned heavily on his rights as the main leader of the majority, but when in a minority often behaved like an effective factional whirling dervish until he achieved a majority. To Lenin, any organisational schemes, even his own, were in the final analysis subordinate to the political issues.
Lenin would have reacted with immense and visceral hostility to the outlook of the leaderships of current Marxist sects, who reduce the whole alleged lesson of Lenin’s political life and activity to a few crude organisational schemas directed at cementing their power and control over tiny sects, which are peripheral to the workers movement largely because of these leaderships’ sectarian posture towards the mass movement.
Doug Lorimer’s approach to “Leninism” is that of a scholastic Red Professor, and bears methodological similarities to both the Zinoviev school of the mid-1920s, and even the later Stalin school of “Leninism”.
Doug Lorimer pays little attention to context and relies almost totally on Lenin texts, mostly taken out of context, with the sole object of creating a mythological picture of the political development and practice of the Bolshevik Party. Lorimer systematically highlights instances in which it could be said that Lenin opposed public discussion of political differences in the Bolshevik faction, and later in the Bolshevik Party.
To do this Lorimer, in the style of all “Leninist” epigones, tries to create the image of an omniscient Lenin, superconsciously guiding a process of onward and upward development towards the final political product — an idealised Bolshevik Party and communist movement achieved in the period of the first four congresses of the Comintern.
The political purpose of this mythologising on Lorimer’s part is the pedestrian one common to this whole school: the justification of ultra-authoritarian political practices — in this case of Lorimer’s own smallish group in a relatively stable capitalist country. It is only possible to maintain this view by dramatically neglecting the substantial literature about the development of the Bolshevik movement. Lorimer particularly ignores good political biography of Lenin, such as Tony Cliff’s useful four-volume Lenin, Bertram D. Wolfe’s Three Who Made A Revolution, and Trotsky’s biographical notes on Lenin, methodically disinterred by Philip Pomper from the Trotsky papers at Harvard University.
The mythologising in which Lorimer and others like him engage does the political memory of Lenin’s creative revolutionary flexibility no honour at all. All these epigonic schools create a plaster saint Lenin who nowhere touches earth.
Lorimer makes big play of, and overstates, the difference between the Bolshevik faction of the broad RSDLP and the Bolshevik Party after 1912. To some extent Lenin himself helped create part of the myth surrounding the definitive break of 1912, but it remains a myth nonetheless. Talking about another stage in development, Tony Cliff puts this issue as follows:
The fact that it took Lenin nearly a year to persuade the Bolshevik deputies to break away from the Mensheviks gives a very different picture from the commonly accepted one of Bolshevism as a totalitarian organisation under his dictatorship. In fact, Lenin had to fight again and again to convince his own members, one might even say, to colonise his own party. (Lenin Vol. 1, chapter 17, Building the Party, Tony Cliff, Pluto Press)
In reality, the RSDLP and the Bolshevik faction, and the later Bolshevik Party were reshaped a number of times in the period before the Russian Revolution, both by Lenin’s activities and leadership and by the activities of others, all affected by objective developments.
A number of the splits and divisions, for instance the 1903 split, weren’t deliberately planned or engineered by anybody, including Lenin. They happened when different temperaments and formulations collided. In the 1903 split, the crystallisation of tendencies came after the event. In addition, in a very short space of time, Lenin came into sharp conflict with his own most vehement supporters, the Committee Men, who had found their personal interpretation of Lenin’s ideas in What is to be Done? so appealing, but were flummoxed when Lenin swung over to the idea of an open mass party during and after 1905. Marcel Liebman outlines some of this in his article Lenin in 1905. A revolution that shook a doctrine.
Cliff writes that Lenin recolonised the party a number of times. Betram D. Wolfe makes the point that Lenin almost immediately broke with his initial supporters of 1903, who became conciliator Bolsheviks in 1904. Lenin came rapidly to rely on Krassin and the newly recruited Bogdanov, and on Lunacharsky (later one of Trotsky’s Mezhraiontsy, is he a “beta Bolshevik” too?).
Wolfe makes the point that Lenin’s close collaborators at this point included a number of emigre writers and literary people who had a certain penchant for rhetorical ultraleftism. At this point, when the Russian Revolution of 1905 was surging forward, Lenin did not regard a tendency to agitational ultraleftism as a major immediate problem. At the first conference of the united RSDLP at Tammerfors, Lenin was one out in the Bolshevik faction in opposing abstention from the first Duma, but he didn’t make a big issue of it at that point.
At the next big conference at Tammerfors, it appeared to him that boycottism had become more dangerous, and he voted, once again one-out in the Bolshevik faction, with the Bundists and Mensheviks to participate in the Duma. Lenin was so offside with the majority of the Bolshevik faction that he wasn’t nominated for the Central Committee at the London RSDLP conference in 1907. He got himself elected later, when he’d reasserted his influence in the Bolshevik faction by lobbying the Bolshevik committees and securing their support against the decision of the conference. It was at this point that he began moving towards a break with Bogdanov, Krassin and Lunacharsky because their ultraleftism had become a fetter on the further development of the Bolshevik faction and the RSDLP as a whole.
By that time the RSDLP had become an enormous mass organisation, with more than 100,000 members represented at the two Tammerfors conference and the London conference. Each of these conferences had 200-300 delegates, compared with the small number (a brief look at One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back indicates there were 56) at the 1903 conference, at which the split occurred.
Like most of Lenin’s theoretical turns, Lenin’s turn to philosophy in attacking Bogdanov and the Machists was precipitated in the first instance by the political needs of the moment. It obviously dawned on Lenin that he had to develop his understanding of Marxist philosophy to combat the idealist philosophy of Ernst Mach, which Bogdanov was introducing into the Bolshevik ranks.
Nevertheless, Lenin’s initial foray into philosophy was crude and deterministic, and even his sister, who idolised him and acted as one of his political agents, found it to be a very abrasive work. One feature of Lenin that is appealing and instructive, and that contemporary revolutionaries ought to imitate, is demonstrated by the evolution evident in his initial and later forays into philosophy.
Obviously the limitations of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism eventually became evident to Lenin, and a few years later, in 1914-16 he made a further, deeper and altogether more useful systematic inquiry into the sphere of the philosophy of Marxism by returning to the sources, particularly to Hegel.
Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, while difficult, mark a real development of Marxist method, Marxist philosophy and of the skills required for using Marxism as a method of inquiry and political analysis to guide concrete political activity. Cliff Slaughter, Raya Dunaevskaya, Peter Jeffries and Evald Ilyenkov, as well as George Novack, Trotsky and Ernest Mandel provide a useful picture of the insights that Lenin pioneered in his Philosophical Notebooks.
While not acknowledging what a barbaric philosophical approach he had adopted in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin turned his hand to correcting the error in his later work on Marxist philosophy in 1914-16 (contained in volume 38 of his collected works). Despite the way Gerry Healy crudified this work, Lenin’s mature work on philosophy remains an important part of the theory of Marxism and is in sharp contrast with his early crude approximation. This kind of dramatic turn was at the heart of the actual practice of Lenin the man, the revolutionary, the philosopher and the Marxist theoretician, rather than the idealised, all-knowing, permanently fully developed and conscious caricature assiduosly cultivated by all epigones.
Lenin eventually concluded that it was necessary to refound the movement, and he threaded his way through to the 1912 conference by finding new close collaborators, Kamenev and Zinoviev, and breaking decisively with the ultraleftism of Bogdanov, etc. He also made a bloc on his right with the pro-party Mensheviks, led by Plekhanov.
He chose, at the 1912 conference, which was in fact a very small conference, to dub that conference a full conference of the RSDLP and to proclaim the exclusion of the Liquidators from the party. The decisive character of this division shouldn’t be overstated, however. Lenin said privately that many of the ultraleft Bolsheviks would return to the party and that proved to be the case in 1917, when many of them returned to the Bolsheviks via the Mezhraiontsy group. In the fusion with the Mezhraiontsy in 1917, the Bolshevik Party and the Mezhraiontsy negotiated as equals for a fusion, and the fused organisation adopted a new name, the Communist Party.
It suits Lorimer’s centralist aspirations to take up Lenin’s rhetoric about the decisive breakthrough represented by the Prague Conference. Nevertheless, despite Lorimer’s use of Lenin’s description of the split, it was not as complete or decisive as Lenin said or Lorimer desires. This is demonstrated by the subsequent fusion with the Mezhraiontsy as relatively equal partners in 1917, in which context a large number of the people the Bolsheviks split with in 1912 returned to the united party. What is so useless, politically, about Lorimer’s version is its one-dimensional thinness achieved by relying only on selected Lenin texts rather than a serious political and sociological overview of the development of Bolshevism.
The question is brutally posed in this form: either the Red Professor Lorimer’s scholarship is hopelessly narrow and incomplete or he deliberately chooses to ignore any detailed description of the actual developments because this detailed description is of no use to his centralist schema. It is to address the enormous gaps in Lorimer’s narrative, which is mainly based on Lenin texts, that I’ve included some lengthy extracts from Bertram D. Wolfe and David Lane.
Bertram D Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution contains a unique summary of developments in the Bolshevik Party between 1903 and 1917. Wolfe was a member of the Lovestone faction of the US Communist Party, and was in fact Jay Lovestone’s closest intellectual associate. He was of Russian Jewish background, so he understood a lot about the cultural ethos in which Bolshevism and Menshevism developed. He read Russian and spoke it a bit, and he attended several Comintern congresses during the Zinoviev period. When he wrote the book, he had shifted politicially to an anti-Communist outlook, but nevertheless he retained his considerable admiration for Lenin — with, however, no illusions.
Since Wolfe wrote his book, we have the benefit of much more hindsight and a great deal of new material from the previously closed Soviet archives, which supplements Wolfe’s narrative and generally doesn’t contradict it. Wolfe’s book is very useful in providing an accurate picture of the developments, and is in striking contrast with the one-dimensional narratives about Lenin characteristic of both the Stalinist and Zinovievist schools.
Lenin had been learning, too, from the merciless bombardment to which his organisational views had been subjected by Plekhanov, Trotsky, Parvus, Rosa Luxemburg, Axelrod and Martov. His resolute and tidy mind, reacting as always against the slackness and disorganisation of the Russian intellectual, was still attracted to centralism and direction from above. He was still sure that the top leadership was somehow guaranteed to be the most devoted, the most skilled in Marxian science, the most fitted to decide issues and pick subordinates. He still insisted as before that the Central Committee should have the power to select or add to the Local Committees and confirm or reject all local selections. But the mass stirrings in Russia, no less than the bitter debate, had schooled him in the necessity of giving ground on the questions of democracy, the elective principle, the safeguarding of some measure of local autonomy, the right of opposition, the protection of a minority. He felt now that his rigid organisation must be loosened up to admit thousands and tens of thousands without such close scrutiny as in the past. In short, his one-sided emphasis on centralism was now reformulated as the bifurcated term: “democratic centralism”. How much of democracy and how much of centralism would go into the compound was a question which would be answered differently in differing periods. The time would come when democracy would be once more swallowed up in centralism, but for the moment his problem was to reeducate the “hards” and authoritarian centralists he had indoctrinated and gathered around him, and to persuade them to accept some measure of democracy. Once more he had recourse to a Party congress, that is, a convention of his own faction posing as the leadership of the entire Party. There he could convince and reorient his own followers, correct the agrarian program, amend the Party constitution to correct the error Martov had written into it as Article I at the Second Congress, renew his contact with Russia, put the idea of armed insurrection on the order of business, rearm his faction and the Party for the new day of open mass activity of millions. “The Congress,” Lenin wrote, “must be simple — like a war council — and small in numbers — like a war council. It is a Congress to organise war.” Whatever his followers may have thought, he did not mean war against the Mensheviks. It took place in London from 25 April to 10 May 1905, with only Bolsheviks, conciliators and neutrals present. The Mensheviks held a simultaneous “conference” in Geneva. Lenin prepared for his Bolshevik convention with his characteristic thoroughness, as indeed, he had need. The “Leninists” he himself had trained in centralism, professional revolutionism and “hardness” had learned his dinned-in formulae by rote. Many of them had been attracted by the very authoritarian rigidity of those formulae. Now, in the name of “the traditions of Bolshevism” and “true Leninism”, they resisted all his sweeping proposals for change. Lenin would have to refight this ominous battle again and again at every critical juncture in the history of his party, for, while it was easy to teach definite formulae, it was not easy to impart the spirit of realistic flexibility with which he himself approached the changing world. What would happen to a party thus nurtured when its authoritative leader was not present, or when his voice should be stilled forever? But since, as Freud has put it, “in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality”, it never occurred to Lenin to pose such a question. To him, the organisational changes he now advocated were important not so much to meet the Menshevik criticisms halfway as to prepare the Party for open public life and imminent revolution. For months he had been firing away at the premature sclerosis which seemed to have taken possession of the Bolsheviks in Russia. “Really, I often think that nine-tenths of the Bolsheviks are really formalists [reads a typical letter] … One must recruit among the youth more magnanimously and boldly, more boldly and more magnanimously and still more magnanimously and still more boldly, without fearing them. Forget all the old cumbersome ways, the respect for titles, etc … Give every subordinate committee the right, without many conditions, to write leaflets and distribute them (it is no great misfortune if they make breaks: we will ‘gently’ correct them in Vperod) The events themselves will teach in our spirit … Organise, organise and once again organise, hundreds of circles, push the usual hierarchical committee follies entirely into the background. It is wartime … Else you will perish with the honours of Komitetchiki [Committee Men — the word of scorn in later years would become Aparatchiki — Apparatus Men] with the official seal imprinted upon you … ” [Letter of 4 February 1905]
At the Congress his forebodings turned out to be more than justified. He stormed at his erstwhile followers, took the floor again and again and again, employed irony, ridicule, indignation, interrupted others while they were speaking, made a general nuisance of himself.
“I could not sit still [he explodes at one point] and hear it said that there are no workers available who are fit to be committee members The question is being postponed. Plainly there is a sickness in the Party.”
At another point:
“The Party does not exist for the Party Council, but the Party Council for the Party … In all constitutional lands the citizens have the right to express lack of confidence in this or that official or official body. This right cannot be taken from them … Who is the judge in the handling of a dispute between the Party Council and the Local Committees? Under free political conditions our Party can and will be built completely on the principle of election … Even under absolutism the application of the electoral system in much greater measure than at present would have been possible.”
His old followers could not recognise him! Almost singlehanded he succeeded in introducing a number of sweeping changes into the Party Constitution. The first was of course the repeal of Section 1, the celebrated “loose” definition of membership which Martov had succeeded in putting through at the Second Congress. But the others were all in the spirit of those who had been his critics at the Congress: the safeguarding of the autonomy of the locals against Central Committee alteration of their composition; approval of the widespread introduction of the electoral principle; the protection of minorities; their right to oppose and criticise the Central Committee; their right to issue oppositional literature and have it circulated by the Party smuggling apparatus, provided one-sixth of the locals requested it. But when Lenin pointed out that at this Congress of the “party of the proletariat” there was only one delegate who had ever worked in industry, and he proposed to pump fresh blood into the local organisations by making mandatory a majority of working men on each local committee (“I would greatly favour a rule that in our committees for every two intellectuals there should be eight working men”) his astonished following of professional revolutionaries or komitetchiki voted down his proposal as impractical and likely to dilute the revolutionary clarity of the Bolshevik organisation. Vladimir Ilyich was in a towering rage, which diminished only after a few days of reflection had persuaded him that the bubbling, overflowing life that was churning up the stagnation of ages would likely wash this encrustation away also. The Mensheviks, too, were almost wholly professional revolutionary intellectuals, but their theory predisposed them to look upon the new period as one which would bring millions into “public life” and lead to the formation of a “broad, non-partisan or supra-partisan organisation of the working masses”, out of which a new and broad and truly working-class socialist party might grow, to replace the narrow conspirative organisation of intellectuals. It was this predisposition of the Mensheviks which gave them a decisive leadership in the Soviet of 1905 and in the new trade unions which sprang up.* * * * * * * * * * *
At the Congress, Lenin had to agree to considerable relaxation of control from abroad. The new Central Committee was made up of Lenin, Krassin, Bogdanov, Rykov, Postalovski, with Essen, Rumyantzev and Gusev as alternates. Of all these, only Lenin remained in Geneva as “Foreign Representative: and editor of the official organ, Proletarii. Two secretaries were chosen, Krupskaya for the Foreign Centre and Stasova for the Russian.* * * * * * * * * * *
… when the first number of the Menshevik popular daily, Nachalo, appeared, the Bolshevik Novaya Zhizn wrote: “We welcome a comrade in the struggle. The first issue is notable for the brilliant description of the October strike written by Comrade Trotsky.” And Lunacharsky records in his memoirs that when Lenin heard someone say: “The star of Khrustalov is setting; today the strong man of the Soviet is Trotsky,” he responded after a moment: “Well, Trotsky has won this by his tireless and striking work.”* * * * * * * * * * *
Lenin was an unusual compound of revolutionary temperament with an acute sense of actual reality. He was more reluctant than the Menshevik leaders, and slower by many months, to realise that the fortress could not be taken by storm. When he did recognise it, he found himself almost alone in his own camp. For several years he had to conduct a struggle with the majority of his colleagues to make them grasp the true state of affairs and abandon slogans, tactics, gestures appropriate only to a time of open warfare. All through 1906 and early 1907 he vacillated between sturdily realistic appraisal and too easily reviving hope. A big Socialist fraction in the Second Duma (although almost three-quarters were Mensheviks); strikes among backward workers who had not participated in the earlier ones; peasant riots, more numerous in the spring of 1906 than in 1905; a belated mutiny of peasants-in-uniform at Kronstadt and Sveaborg; all the lingering fires that flared in the peripheral regions of the great empire when the blaze at the centre had died — each of these in turn was taken by Lenin as a sign of renewal. By temperament, by creed, by obligation, he would rather err on the side of hope than miss an opportunity because of too easy despair.
“Revolutionary Social Democracy [he wrote in the middle of 1906] must be the first to enter on the path of the most decisive and relentless struggle, and the last to have recourse to methods which are more roundabout.”
So his creed. But still his sense of reality bade him prepare for the resumption of the roundabout path.* * * * * * * * * * *
“Indeed [wrote Lenin in April 1906] if we look at the matter from the point of view of the departure of the Social Democrats from their ‘normal’ road, we will see that a period of ‘revolutionary whirlwind’ shows more and not less closeness and ideological unity in the social democracy. The tactics of the epoch of ‘the whirlwind’ did not increase the distance between the two wings of Social Democracy but brought them closer together, in place of the former differences there arose unity of views on the question of the armed uprising. The Social Democrats of both factions worked in the Soviet of Workers Deputies, these unique organs of embryonic revolutionary power. They appealed together to the soldiers, the peasants, to enter into the Soviets. They issued revolutionary manifestoes together with the petty-bourgeois revolutionary parties. The previous controversies of the pre-revolutionary epoch gave way to agreement in practical matters. The rise of the revolutionary wave removed the differences, compelling the acceptance of fighting tactics, brushing aside the question of the Duma, placing the question of an uprising on the order of business … In the Northern Voice, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks together called for a strike and an uprising, together called upon the workers not to give up the fight until the power was in their hands. The revolutionary situation itself suggested the practical slogans. Differences of opinion concerned only details in the estimate of events. For instance, Nachalo regarded the Soviets as organs of revolutionary self-government, while Novaya Zhizn looked upon them as embryonic organs of revolutionary power, uniting the proletariat and the revolutionary democrats. Nachalo inclined to a dictatorship of the proletariat; Novaya Zhizn stood for the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, [Lenin: Collected Works, Third Russian Edition, Vol. IX, pp. 123-4. This article was originally published legally in St Petersburg in April 1906.]
That was the high point of friendliness on Lenin’s part. But the same actions which had called forth Lenin’s enthusiasm had awakened Axelrod’s chagrin, Martov’s abulia, Plekhanov’s doubts and Martynov’s remorse.* * * * * * * * * * *
Not so Lenin. At all times he strove to keep his faction apparatus tuned up for possible rupture, or alternatively, for the more effective imposing of his views upon the united party. Yet he too felt the force of the demand for unity, and became for the nonce in his own fashion that, to him, most detestable of political beings: a “conciliator”. By the end of 1905, finding their lower units everywhere fused, the two leaderships set up a provisional “Parity Executive Committee” with an equal number from each side, to prepare a joint unification congress. Krassin, Lalayants and Rykov represented the Bolsheviks; Krokhmal, Taresevich and Jordanski the Mensheviks. When the government suppressed their two daily papers, they set up a common daily with a joint editorial board: Lunacharsky, Bazarov and Vorovsky, Dan, Martynov and Martov. Inside the fused locals Bolshevik and Menshevik leaders presented rival platforms and ran rival sets of delegates for the unification congress. Thus they would determine its decisions, and their relative shares in the united leadership.* * * * * * * * * * *
Even in 1905, when the boycott tactics were first adopted, Lenin was reluctant to accept them. But at the Bolshevik Conference which was held at Tammerfors, Finland, in December 1905, he was startled to find his whole faction lined up against him! Here is Joseph Stalin’s report of that episode, as given to a little party in 1920 to celebrate Lenin’s fiftieth birthday: “The debate — at Tammerfors — opened, and the provincial members, Siberians and Caucasians, led the attack. What was our astonishment when, after our speeches, Lenin intervened and declared himself in favour of participating in the elections. But then he saw his mistake and took his stand with the faction, we were stupefied. The effect was electric. We gave him a great ovation.”
Lenin did not reply at his birthday party but during the course of that same year, 1920, he took occasion to make it clear in a pamphlet that he thought that not he but “the Siberians and Caucasians” had been mistaken at Tammerfors. Why then had he gone along? Was it because he feared to be cut off from his followers? That was part of it. For the next four years that fear would make Vladimir Ilyich tread warily, until he had mustered enough strength for his conception of Duma activities so that he could expel (and he actually did expel) all the recalcitrant revolutionary romanticists from his faction. But in December 1905, at Tammerfors, there had been special reasons for yielding to the “Siberians and the Caucasians”. At that moment, the Duma was to Lenin a very secondary matter. He let himself be persuaded by the very unanimity of his conference delegates that they were expressing — how he longed to believe it! — the temper of the masses themselves. If it were but so that the masses had no faith in the Tsar’s Manifesto, with its promises of Duma, Constitution, and civil liberties! Perhaps his followers were so unanimous because they had come right from the localities where the masses were planning, arms in hand, to overthrow the Tsar and write their own consitution. This attractive idea was the easier to accept because, even while the Tammerfors Conference was in session, the Moscow insurrection began. It was the crack of pistols and rifles there, and not the attack of “Siberians and Caucasians”, by which Lenin had let himself be seduced. But by the time he got to Stockholm for the unity Congress he knew he had been mistaken to yield. For several years — the next four, to be exact — the Duma question would overshadow all others, and would put Lenin into opposition both to the majority of his own faction and, for different reasons, to the Mensheviks. His faction were in love with that splendid moment when they had appealed to the masses to ignore the Tsar’s concessions and, by insurrection, convene a constituent assembly. In Trotsky’s tart words, they had observed that lightning is accompanied by thunder, and therefore concluded that if they kept making a noise like thunder, the lightning would strike again. Lenin’s stern sense of realism told him that the days of direct storm were over, which alone could justify the departure from the Marxist tradition of participating in parliamentary elections. Hence he voted with the Mensheviks for participation, though it threatened to separate him from the faction he had formed. Yet he could not agree with the Mensheviks either, for it seemed to him that they set too high a value on the Duma. He would make it a mere sounding board for revolutionary propaganda, a forum where revolutionists, clothed with special immunities and powers of attracting national attention, could denounce the Tsar’s “parliamentary comedy” and could talk over the heads of fellow-deputies and ministers to the masses outside the Duma, rallying them to extra-parliamentary actions, strikes and demonstrations. The Mensheviks. however, took the “parliamentary comedy” as serious drama.* * * * * * * * * * *
“History has shown [wrote Lenin in October 1906] that the convening of the Duma brings with it the possibility of useful agitation … that inside we can apply the tactics of an understanding with the revolutionary peasants. It would be ridiculous to close our eyes to reality. The time has come now when the revolutionary Social Democrats must cease to be boycottists.”
“History has shown” — that was Lenin’s way of admitting that he had been proved wrong and learned something. But his followers were never so ready as he to go to school to Mistress History. Once more he had to fight on two fronts: against the irreconcilable among his followers (and that meant most of them), to drag them, reluctant, into the election campaign; and against the Menshevik-controlled Central Committee, which proposed an electoral bloc with the Kadets against the Rightist parties.* * * * * * * * * * *
We shall have to bear in mind, too, that Lenin is not always as “rock-hard” as he would like to appear. There were times when he would restrain his polemical language out of other considerations than “the limits set by criminal law”. Chief of these other considerations would be the feeling, often neglected but never fully abandoned, that the working class must in the long run be educated by political controversy to a deeper understanding of its position and tasks. As for the restraints of the criminal law, these would vanish when his party became the government and made the law. We shall have to ponder then what would happen to this doctrine, especially when the doctrine was taken up by lesser men with less ingrained humaneness, and less concern for the long-run effect of polemics upon the understanding of the masses, or when it was adopted by the leaders of other Communist parties, lacking the counter-balancing humane tradition of the old Russian revolutionary intelligentsia.* * * * * * * * * * *
A new cry arose for boycott of the Duma. The Social Revolutionary Party reverted to boycott, while Lenin’s faction overwhelmed him once more. This was a “cardboard, comic-opera Duma”, they cried, and the Constitution was now a mere fraud. What self-respecting revolutionary could so humiliate himself and so deceive the masses as to participate in such undemocratic elections, play a role in such a farce, pretend that anything could be accomplished in such a travesty on the idea of popular representation? But Lenin knew no finical pride as to the kind of institution in which he would work if he could thereby serve the revolution. “In a pig-sty if necessary,” he told his comrades. Moreover, he had been studying Stolpyin and his manoeuvres with increasing respect. Here was an opponent worthy of his steel, a man who, with opposite intentions, but from similar premises, was doing much what Lenin would have done had he been a champion of the existing order and an enemy of the revolution.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The Central Committee (under Lenin’s control since the London Congress) called an All-Russian Conference in July 1907 to consider Stolypin’s coup d’etat and prepare for the elections to the Third Duma. Though he had just captured the Central Committee, Lenin again lost control of his own faction. Out of fifteen Bolshevik delegates, fourteen were for boycott! The lone dissident was Lenin. They deposed him as spokesman and chose Bogdanov to report for them. Once more, as at Stockholm, Lenin voted with the Mensheviks. Poles, plus Bundists, plus Mensheviks, plus Lenin, outvoted the Bolshevik delegation. All through 1908 the conflict smouldered in the faction, in forms too complicated to follow in detail. At times it seemed as if Lenin had persuaded a majority to participate in the elections. But then the fight broke out in a new form because they wanted to recall those Deputies who were chosen (fourteen of the eighteen Mensheviks) for not acting in a sufficiently intransigent fashion. This trend Lenin dubbed otzovism (“recallism”, from the Russian word for recall). Or they wanted to present an ultimatum to the socialist Duma Deputies, which could only lead to the resignation of the Deputies either from the Party or from the Duma. This trend received the name of “ultimatism”. All these boycottist and semi-boycottist trends rallied around the personality of the philosopher Bogdanov, who had succeeded Krassin as the number-two man in Lenin’s troika, and who now threatened to oust Lenin from domination in his own faction. Among those who sided with Bogdanov were Lunacharsky, Gorki, Krassin, Bazarov, former Bolshevik Duma leader, Alexinsky, the historian, Pokrovsky, the future GPU chief, Menzhinsky, the historian of the Party, Lyadov, the future Comintern leader, Manuilsky, and many others whom we shall meet again. Not until the middle of 1908 did Lenin win a slender majority (eighteen to fourteen) in Moscow, and as late as 1909 he was still in a minority in Petersburg. Only when he felt strong enough and had built himself a new troika (the first three-man leadership had been Lenin-Krassin-Bogdanov; then Lenin-Taratuta-Dubrovinsky; Lenin-Malinovsky-Zinoviev; Lenin-Zinoviev- Kamenev; then, in wartime, Lenin and Zinoviev, did he expel without ceremony or any constitutional warrant all the boycottists, recallists and ultimatists from his faction. Under what conditions we shall see in a succeeding chapter (Chapter 29, Lenin as Philosopher). Ultimately, all but two of these dissenters returned to the fold as more unconditional followers than before. Only Bogdanov remained aloof because of his independent temperament and deep differences on philosophical matters. The other permanent loss was Alexinsky, who became a bitter enemy of Bolshevism. However, at the high tide of the boycottist movement in 1907, Lenin had been so alone that even the future constituents of his troika Zinoviev and Kamenev, were lined up for a while against him.* * * * * * * * * * *
So vast an assemblage, so noisy and quarrelsome, including Caucasians in sheepskin hats and bearded working men in Russian blouses and ten Deputies from the Second Duma, over 300 delegates in all, representing over 150,000 members, could not contrive to meet in secret in some tiny cellar hole, unbeknown to the police. First the whole variegated army filtered into Denmark with the intention of meeting in Copenhagen. But the democratic city fathers took fright and banned their meeting out of deference for Denmark’s ruler, who was uncle to Russia’s Tsar. London was their next choice, but how to get funds to transfer 300-odd people to England? Angelica Balabanoff and Gorky proved to be more than interested spectators now, for the former secured a substantial donation from the German Social Democratic Party and Gorky raised additional funds in London. The ousted Congress found shelter in the Brotherhood Church in Whitechapel belonging to a Christian Socialist group under the leadership of Ramsay Macdonald, a church — as Gorky noted — “unadorned to the point of absurdity”. Having lent their building for what they conceived to be a convention after the British fashion — two or three days to settle all issues — the congregation spent the next three weeks trying to get this convention-in-permanence to adjourn, if not sine die, at least long enough for Wednesday evening prayer meeting and Sunday service.* * * * * * * * * * *
“Cost what it may!” Yet still he hoped, or so he assured Gorky, that they could continue to maintain the tactical bloc while they had it out in philosophy. But in truth the bloc itself was in a bad way, and Lenin was slowly coming to the conclusion that a split was necessary. In December 1905, he had let “the Siberians and Caucasians” override him on the Duma question, because it seemed unimportant in the face of imminent armed uprising. In 1907, at the July Conference of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to consider elections to the Third Duma, fourteen out of fifteen Bolshevik delegates (all but Lenin!) had been for boycott and they had named Bogdanov instead of him as spokesman for the faction. All through 1908 this nagging conflict smouldered and flared up again: now as “boycottism, now as otzovism or ‘recallism’, now as ultimatism”. Not till the middle of 1908 did Lenin win a slender majority on tactical questions in Moscow, and not until 1909 in Petersburg. The group which thwarted him on tactical reconversion from the period of storm to the period of calm were men who had originally been attracted to him by his call for armed uprising and seizure of power. Those formerly big issues had become remote and marginal for Lenin now, while the questions of Duma elections, and practical trade union work, had become urgent and central. His associates were poets like Lunacharsky, philosophers and scientists like Bogdanov and Bazarov, historians like Pokrovsky, novelists like Gorky, romantic revolutionists in politics for whom Lenin’s extremism was attractive, “softs” for whom a “hard line” possessed irresistible fascination. When they came to Lenin, he appeared to occupy the extreme red end of the Social Democratic spectrum. Now that from more sombre circumstances he deduced soberer slogans and devices, shifting his place in the tactical spectrum to match the blue realities of the period, he lost much of his attractiveness and seemed to them unfaithful to “true bolshevism or Leninism”. But Lenin knew that to repeat the same slogans of armed uprising and seizure of power now would be to lose contact with the masses and with reality. Their “true bolshevism” was to him but a caricature. In this Lenin was wiser than any philosopher, more attuned to social moods than any novelist, poet, or historian in his faction. The time had come, he concluded, to bring his old associates to their senses or to sweep them aside, lest his group perish from neglect of the real possibilities and the actual tasks before it. Since the independent and self-confident Bogdanov was the leader of the heterogeneous bloc that stood in his way, Bogdanov must be discredited. Perhaps the faction would listen to him on tactics after he had discredited his opponents on the ground of philosophy. He could get off his chest the long-suppressed disagreements on philosophical matters; he could strike a blow, albeit a trifle late, for orthodox Marxism against this heterodoxy, and contribute to the counter-offensive against ideological decay and reaction.
The Roots of Russian Communism by David Lane, then a lecturer in social and political studies at Cambridge (Martin Robertson, 1975), provides something of the sociology of the Russian Social Democratic party, both Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. Lane used biographies of Russian Social Democrats available in the Soviet archives to put together an overview of a thousand of them and construct a sociological picture. This overview is a useful supplement to Bertram D. Wolfe’s political narrative of Russian Social Democracy.
Juxtaposing Wolfe’s narrative and Lane’s sociology provides a more rounded picture, which underlines the dead-end intellectual poverty of Lorimer’s selective, text-based approach to Lenin.
The party split was often not paralleled by two formal organisations in Russia until the autumn of 1904 (or even the spring of 1905, as in Moscow); in Siberia and other places the two factions operated within the same organisational structure during the 1905 Revolution. For the revolutionary activist and those drawn into the revolutionary crowds it would be wrong to emphasise factional and party divisions — except, perhaps, where national or racial differences existed. The masses, who had largely been apolitical and apathetic, were swept into revolutionary activity following the lead of the politically articulate and organised. In these conditions a movement based on a Leninist theory of organisation had a great advantage. Within the RSDLP the intensity of the factional struggles varied regionally, being stronger in the south than in the north. In practice, the “internal democracy” of the local groups reveals no consistent differences between the factions in 1905. At the lowest levels of the party organisation, there was little conscious awareness of policy differences. Nevertheless, by the autumn of 1905, the popular image of the factions in the localities was beginning to differ. The propaganda of the Bolsheviks, especially in Moscow, advocated more extreme measures and many Social-Democratic local leaders and activists were aware of policy differences between the factions. An investigation of factional activity suggests greater militancy by the Bolsheviks. In 1905, while the Mensheviks emphasised the development of trade-union groups, the Bolsheviks were more prone to lead revolutionary activity. The Bolsheviks’ attempts to seize power, often supported by the Mensheviks, were strategically wrong and failed. Though both factions had sympathisers (as distinct from active members) from all social strata, the Second Duma elections show that the Bolsheviks were much more dependent on working class support than their more widely based Social-Democratic rivals.
Current theories of “mass society”, which explain the rise of revolutionary movements in terms of the “socially isolated members of all classes” are not apposite to the rise of the Bolshevik faction. The leadership of both factions was predominantly drawn from the upper strata of society — the Mensheviks having more men of “townsman” social origin and the Bolsheviks rather more of the gentry — thus confirming Lipset’s hypothesis that the local leaders of radical movement come, not from the “socially marginal” or “deviants” but from men already having status in the community. The rapid change from rural to urban forms of life causing social dislocation contributed to the growth of the Bolshevik faction: at least it had relatively more men of peasant origin among the rank and file. The Mensheviks, even in areas of very rapid growth, did not seem able to recruit the peasant urban newcomers into their ranks. Though there were no firm Social-Democratic organisations in the countryside, by 1905 there were circles in some rural areas, such as Tver and Moscow. The many town workers still linked to the village may have identified revolutionary attitudes and Social-Democracy with an urban way of life and as opinion leaders influenced their peasant peers. This has important implications for the study of communist revolutionary movements of the twentieth century. The distinction made by Barrington Moore between “those who provide the mass support for a revolution, those who lead it and those who ultimately profit from it [who] are very different sets of people” is not a good one. The Bolshevik rank and file, even in 1905, were drawn to a considerable extent from men born in and still having connections with the countryside. One should not lightly assume that “the peasants” were a homogeneous unit supporting “revolution” but opposing the Social-Democrats: they were fragmented and some of their number made up the Bolshevik party. The social organisation of the Russian countryside was affected by the processes of industrialisation. The local studies suggest that regional factors affected the allegiance of the peasant newcomers in the towns, who were Bolshevik in Ivanovo-Voznesensk and Socialist-Revolutionary in Moscow: the active Bolshevik membership, however, was not only drawn from peasants freshly exposed to town life. The existence of a socialist circle or of a more intangible “tradition” of Social-Democratic activity would in itself seem to be an important factor determining later strength. Among the workers in the very large factories, at least in St Petersburgh and Ekaterinoslav, the Socialist-Revolutionaries and not the Social-Democrats were the ones who had the most support.
This phenomenon is probably explained by the industrial structure. A “mixed” industrial structure (such as Moscow) tends to segmentalise the working class: labour-intensive unskilled industries attract urban immigrants perpetuating “islands” of peasant norms and values, whereas capital-intensive industries demanding skilled and literate workers promote a social consciousness based on a given workers’ stratum. In homogeneous industrial structures (one-industry towns such as Ivanovo) immigrants are absorbed more quickly by the urban culture and, where economic conditions are conducive, a wider class consciousness may more readily develop. A definite regional pattern of affiliation to the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions had emerged: the Bolsheviks being concentrated in the Russian-speaking areas; the Mensheviks, being in the south and Caucasus, were composed, to a large extent, of the national minorities. This may have been started by the large number of Jews in the Menshevik elite which, once established, perpetuated itself. When considering the problems of national integration in developing societies, Almond and Coleman have pointed out that communal, ethnic, religious and racial differences are barriers to assimilation into a national society. Such differences too may affect the possibility of organising a political party on a national scale. National, racial and ethnic groups with different traditions, solidarity and antagonism, provided a basis for a plural or federal political structure, which was contrary to the Bolshevik notion of an all-Russian centrally controlled socialist party. The Menshevik demand for more autonomy to local units was related to their local factional strength, to their support among the national minorities and across economic class lines. Their demands for a more decentralised form of party, for more “democracy” in local units were closely related to the social structure of the Menshevik faction and to the political interests of its leaders. The regional division was not only due to nationality factors, the economic structures of the regions also differed.
While it has been suggested that the support for revolutionary Marxist parties is derived from workers in growing industries, and for the more moderate Social Democrats from workers in stable industries, this research suggests the opposite. Bolshevik support tended to be in the economically depressed areas where the older factories were situated, whereas the Mensheviks were concentrated in areas of very rapid economic growth. It is well-known that southern Russia and the Caucasus developed rapidly after 1880. The relative rates of growth for the different regions (measured by the percentage increase in the numbers of employed workers) were — Bolshevik areas: Moscow 289 per cent, Vladimir 288 per cent, Kostroma 718 per cent, Yaroslavl 380 per cent, Perm 230 per cent. Menshevik areas: Ekaterinoslav 41 times, Area of the Don Army 61 times, Kherson 9.7 times, Kiev 175 per cent. (St Petersburg’s rate of growth was good). These figures bring out that the rapidly developing areas were less responsive to the Bolsheviks. Indeed, one might expect areas of relative deprivation such as Moscow to be more susceptible to production uncertainty and falling living standards, which would create a basis for labour unrest. This research confirms the hypothesis advanced by JC Davies that revolutionary outbursts are likely to occur after a prolonged period of economic and social development followed by a period of reversal. It would also fit the Marxist notion that political upheavals by the working class are related to economic impoverishment. It is also interesting to note that Bolshevism took root among the older, more “traditional” Russian working class.
In the late nineteenth century, in the Moscow and Vladimir provinces over 80 per cent of the workers were permanently employed in factories and dependent on factory work. Whereas, in Kharkov and Kiev provinces (areas of Menshevik supremacy) only 48.78 per cent and 42.5 per cent respectively of the factory workers were permanent. The Bolsheviks tended to be in areas of established large-scale factory production. On figures collected between 1886 and 1893, in Kiev (Menshevik), for example, 92,005 men were employed in 4417 factories, while in Moscow 213,128 were in only 1225 factories. Vilna had a very large proportion of permanent workers — though in very small works, on average only eleven strong. As E.P. Thompson has pointed out when discussing Birmingham industry in the early nineteenth century, small scale industrial enterprises tend to mute class antagonism, for in times of recession masters and journeymen are similarly affected. The more gradual social scale characteristic of such industrial areas is a general factor inhibiting political radicalism. Lipset has argued that a locality based on an “isolated” industry tends to develop support from left-wing extremist parties. The Ivanovo-Voznesensk area was Bolshevik not only because it was based on the textile industry but also because it was economically deprived. The fact that many were employed in one industry means that a crisis affects a large number of people — unlike mixed industrial areas. But economic crises linked to a dominant or “isolated” industry do not always result in social solidarity or class consciousness. Other factors operated in Baku, which prevented the development of class consciousness: it was relatively easy for the unemployed to return to their villages and national and racial groups existed through which discontent was articulated. The industrial structure in terms of the size and ownership of individual firms varied regionally. In Ivanovo, the textile industry — Russian-owned and vertically integrated — not only created conditions blurring differences between workers, but also uniting employers. In St Petersburg, the industrial structure included a large number of firms in different industries and in the Donbass many were foreign-owned and foreign-managed. Such firms, with relatively more enlightened management relations, ready to negotiate with workers and more prepared (and able) to pay a “fair wage” may have encouraged the development of a more moderate Social-Democratic party. The Bolsheviks were strongest in areas where industry was mostly Russian-owned (the central economic area and the Urals); the Mensheviks in areas where many foreign firms were being set up (the Ukraine, the Caucasus and to a lesser extent, St Petersburg).
Lorimer does a considerable disservice to a proper balance sheet on the Bolshevik experience by concentrating on the alleged disciplinary aspects of “Leninist” organisation surrounding the Marzaktion in Germany. This this approach is so damaging ideologically because it implicitly treats the Stalinisation of the Russian Revolution as relatively unimportant, and not worthy of careful or close examination in this context.
All that matters to Lorimer is precedents that can be used to justify the political practices of his tiny DSP monolith. Tony Cliff has demystified a lot of this effectively in his four-volume Lenin.
Another major intellect in the Trotskyist movement, Ernest Mandel, is also interesting on these questions. In the 1970s and 1980s, Mandel was involved in a complex and interlinked series of arguments and debates with both the Zinovievists of the American SWP, Jack Barnes and Co, then including the Australian DSP, and also Nahuel Moreno and his substantial organisation in Latin America.
Mandel was critical of a crudification of the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and disagreed strenuously with Moreno on the necessities facing the Bolsheviks in the early years of the Russian Revolution. This robust discussion proceeded at a pretty high political level on both sides, and exists in the United Secretariat internal bulletins of that time. The Morenists in exile in Colombia published a little hardback book, in English, of Moreno’s contribution. The core of Mandel’s views on these questions is expressed in the following quote, from a lengthy article by Mandel on revolutionary strategy in Europe, in the 100th issue of New Left Review, November 1976-January 1977.
If I have not answered the question about whether parliamentary organs are necessary, it is because I think that is an essentially tactical matter. We should not treat it as a question of absolute principle, and it will not necessarily be answered in the same way in every country. If a parliamentary organ is used in an attempt to repress and “roll back” the self-organisation of the masses, then it is a clear instrument of counter-revolution, and we have to take a position accordingly (such was the case in Portugal last year, as it was in Germany in 1918 and in Russia after October 1917). It should not be forgotten that Rosa Luxemburg took a quite unambiguous position against the transfer of power to the Constituent Assembly in Germany. She — and the Spartacist delegates to the First Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils — opposed the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, arguing instead for the maintenance of the sovereignty of the Congress of Councils as the only representative organ of power of the German working class. But once that sovereignty is established, then it is not a question of principle whether there should be a parliamentary organ to deal with secondary matters. Its usefulness is not all that clear to me, but the answer will depend on the national political tradition of the various countries and on the role such an organ might play as an arena of struggle between the major cultural and ideological currents. What is essential is that political and economic power should be firmly and genuinely in the hands of the armed workers organised in soviets. Trotsky’s own thinking on this question underwent an unquestionable evolution, which we have to continue. Like Lenin, Trotsky combined two elements in the period 1920-21. One the one hand, in order to defend soviet power in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions, they took decisions — with an iron determination that we cannot but approve of — which led them introduce mesures that broke in practice with soviet democracy, and they assumed full responsibility for this. Going further than Trotsky, Lenin declared in 1920 that the Soviet state was no longer a healthy workers’ state, but a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations. He was absolutely lucid about this and did not aim to deceive anyone. Of course, one can discuss whether one particular measure or another was justified in the given conjuncture, but that is not the essential point.
However, there was also a second, infinitely more dangerous aspect to their actions in this period. This was their attempt to give some of these measures a general theoretical foundation that is quite unacceptable. For example, Trotsky wrote in 1921 that soviet democracy is not a fetish, and that the party can exercise power not only in the name of the working class, but even in exceptional circumstances against the will of the majority of the class. We should be incomparably more cautious before adopting formulations of that kind, because we know from experience that in such a situation it is a bureaucracy rather than a revolutionary minority that will come to exercise power against the majority of workers — a fact that Lenin and Trotsky were themselves to recognise a year later. As far as theory is concerned, the year 1921 was the nadir of the Bolsheviks’ history, and Lenin and Trotsky made a whole number of errors.
All you have to do is read Trotsky’s later writings to understand that he became aware of these errors. At the end of his life, he said that he did not want to discuss whether the banning of factions in the Party was inevitable, but that what was clear was that it assisted the establishment of the Stalinist regime and the bureaucratic dictatorship in the USSR. What is that if not de facto self-criticism? Moreover, when Trotsky said in the Transitional Program of 1938 that he was in favour of freedom for all soviet parties, he had undoubtedly drawn the conclusion that the lack of such a constitutional right opens the door to the use of the argument: “You are a potential party”, against any faction, and of: “You are a potential faction”, against any current or tendency. In that direction, it is not only socialist democracy that is stifled, but also inner-party democracy. In the period 1936-38, Trotsky had become fully aware of the inner logic of such positions, and was implicitly undertaking a serious self-criticism. In our own thinking on the question, we should not let ourselves be restricted by an uncritical defence of decisions taken under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.
I think that the Bolsheviks were wrong in 1921. They should not have banned the Menshevik Party; they should not have banned the anarchist organisations; and they should not have suppressed multiple slates in elections to the soviets after the end of the Civil War. The paradox is quite striking: during the Civil War the Bolsheviks allowed themselves the luxury of an opposition in the press and in the soviets, but once the war was over they made an error of judgment. They thought the main danger following the introduction of the NEP was a political resurgence of the petty and middle bourgeoisie, which would threaten the restoration of capitalism in the short term. That was an error of conjunctural analysis, but it was no less an error. The peasantry was much too dispersed and demoralised to pose an immediate threat to soviet power. (Of course, in the long term, as the Left Opposition pointed out, this analysis was correct, and six years later in 1927 the danger became acute). But in 1921 the main danger was not bourgeois counter-revolution; it was depoliticisation of the working class and the rapid process of bureaucratisation. The measures taken at the time assisted and developed that process. We should have the courage to recognise that this was an error and that the Opposition slogan of 1923: “Extend rather than reduce soviet democracy”, was valid from 1921 onwards.
Lorimer’s approach is completely textual. He takes quotes from Lenin at different points in Bolshevik history and strings them together to provide some kind of “proof” of a thesis that the essence of an abstraction he calls “Leninism” lies in a thoroughly authoritarian centralist type of party organisation functioning primarily from the leadership downward, and operating according to a type of cabinet solidarity within this leadership. Most other aspects of Lenin’s political method and practice are ignored in this account.
Lorimer ignores the actual history of Lenin’s political leadership and practice and the type of dynamic revolutionary organisation that Lenin refounded a number of times, the real essence of which was considerably more libertarian than Lorimer’s text-based version.
Lorimer’s account is spectacularly ahistorical. It ignores the demonstrated problem that emerged with the Stalinisation of the Russian Revolution: that overcentralisation, which seemed necessary to Lenin and Trotsky at the time of the ban on factions in the Communist movement, turned out to be a major factor in creating the conditions for the bureaucratisation of the revolution in the period of ebb. A failure to address these questions is an enormous defect in any overview of what useful lessons we might draw from Leninist practice.
Mandel’s views, which I’ve quoted above, are relevant here. This is an area of political analysis and inquiry that is extremely pressing in any serious refounding of the revolutionary socialist movement. History shows that overcentralisation of the revolutionary socialist movement leads in the direction of bureaucratisation and Stalinisation of revolutionary socialist parties in power.
Lorimer’s formula, derived from his flat, ahistorical, textual reading of Lenin, has the effect in small socialist groups, in relatively non-revolutionary situations, of transforming them rapidly into sects similar in structure and ethos to small religious groups. In particular, the emphasis on overly rigid internal structures and of leadership cabinet solidarity has the effect of winnowing out more normal revolutionary elements and only retaining Committee People, who are totally focussed on the interests of their group as a propaganda organisation, as a thing in itself.
This, in practice, removes the organisation from the problems of the class struggle and the real issues in the society in which they are operating. Lorimer’s formulaic Big-L “Leninism” is one of the main things that contributes to the transformation of small Marxist groups into middle-class sects.
As a young person in the 1950s, I fell in love with the political idea of Lenin and his activity. Later, breaking from Stalinism, I did what many do in breaking from Stalinism: I used Lenin texts to demystify the Stalinist misuse of Lenin. Using my own reading of Lenin’s writings, as pointed to by others who I respected, was a useful approach as far as it went, and it was just about all that many of us had available at the time.
In the 1970s, I was a rather taken with Gerry Healy’s turn to Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks. Despite Healy’s exaggerated overstatement of Lenin’s approach to philosophy, I still regard the Philosophical Notebooks as of considerable value, methodologically.
At a number of points in my life, usually at moments of political crisis, I’ve gone back to considering Lenin’s legacy, which is always a useful thing to do, and this current inquiry, which is my most systematic overview so far of Lenin’s work and legacy, is informed by a serious attempt to consider the new material now available to us.
I insist that that is the best way to approach the question usefully. The world has moved beyond any utility for Lorimer’s archaic quoting of Lenin texts out of context. This is a pretty stupid way of approaching Lenin politically now that we have so much useful material to work on.
For many years, I have conducted my bookselling business opposite Moore College, the powerhouse of Evangelical Christianity in Australia, and perhaps in the world, and I have become acquainted with the Evangelical Christian approach to something they call the personality of Jesus Christ, and the texts of the Bible, which they assert is the literally inspired word of God. They insist that everyone confront their notion of Jesus Christ on the basis of a curious book called the New Testament, a mixture of some scraps of historical fact, myth and allegory, which they insist on calling the literal truth about Jesus Christ.
When one considers cooly the history of Christianity, it is clear that Jesus Christ is a partly mythological figure, loosely based on the life of a political, religious and social agitator who was assassinated by the Roman state some time in the first century. Most Marxists and most materialists can see this easily, concerning the history of Christianity, its origins and the personality of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the Stalinist, Zinovieviest and Lorimerist schools of Leninology approach Lenin’s writings and the history of the Bolsheviks in a very similar way to the way literalist Bible Christians approach the history of Christianity, the Bible and the personality of the Christ figure.
This is a bizarre way to approach Lenin, who is not a partly mythological figure like Jesus Christ. We now know more about him, and more about the history of the RSDP, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, than we know about almost any other recent historical figures, or any historical figures, for that matter. A text-based, Evangelical-Christian-like, narrative about Leninism, such as Lorimer’s, is an absurdity in the 21st century, an affront to the method of Marxism, and a great dishonour to the real value of the study of Lenin and his ideas and practice for Marxists.
The cartoons below were produced by some bright-eyed satirists who were involved in the Russian Social Democracy around the time of the 1903 Congress, and they circulated widely in Social Democratic circles. The Russian Bolsheviks and Menshviks of that time had a sense of humour.
I. One of our scouts (the tom-cat’s colleague) reported that Purry-Murlyka was hanged. Our underground went wild. So we decided to bury the tom-cat, and Klim, our court poet (commonly called Mad-tail) nimbly cooked up the funeral oration in the Central Organ. Onufrii himself, the all-wise rat, crawled forth from his dark hole (a small dialectics barrel serves him as house) into the light of day and he addressed us thus: “O you silly mice! You have obviously forgotten my Vademecum … I am an old rat and well versed in the habits of cats. Look, Purry-Murlyka is hanging, but without a rope, and I see no fatal noose around his neck … Woe! I sense this funeral will not end well.” We, however, laughed and began to prise the tom-cat’s paws off the beam, when his claws suddenly opened and he fell and thudded to the floor like a sack. We all fled into corners and watched in terror … what next?
II. Purry-Murlyka did not move. We then began to skip and jump in a frenzy and pulled the tom-cat about … Out of sheer joy, Onufrii, the all-wise rat, lapped up the heady liquor of dialectics and immediately forgot all about Purry-Murlyka’s claws, or even about the “theatrical phrase in pseudo-classical style”. He hugged a little mouse who had not completed as much as three years of high school, yet was no less addicted to dialectics than Onufrii, and was recognised by all mice as the rat’s legitimate heir. Hugging the little mouse, Onufrii took him for a dance to the tune of Le chat en miniature. (One of our leading mice is the tom-cat’s namesake and is mighty proud of this). Klim, our poet, climbed on to Purry-Murlyka’s body and there began to read his funeral oration; over and over again we burst into Homerical laughter. This is what he said: “Once upon a time there lived a Purry-Murlyka — red-skinned he was, whiskered like a Turk he was, mad he was, and possessed of Bonapartism he was — for which he was hanged. Underground, rejoice!”
III. He had only just uttered the last two words, when all of a sudden our deceased woke up. We all scattered to the winds! A terrible slaughter began. A smart little mouse that had danced the can-can with the old rat — tail-less as he returned home. Unfortunate Onufrii forgot all about those treacherous little doors, jammed his tail, and hung over the small barrel where he was wont to hide whenever cornered. His old bosom friend only whispered, “I foresaw it all,” and expired. Le chat en miniature and the luckless poet became Purry-Murlyka’s breakfast.
Thus our feast ended in tragedy.
While Plekhanov, his private parts covered by a fig leaf — “dialectics” — labours hard to pull long-eared Martov and his Menshevik friends, Axelrod (crayfish), Dan (snake), Potresov (frog) and Trotsky (dragonfly) out of the swamp, A.S. Martynov, the former editor of the semi-economist Rabochee Delo, who has joined the Mensheviks and allegedly dominated their minds, drags them down into the mire. Lenin, hands on his hips, stands on the dry path that leads to the rising sun of the proletarian revolution and looks on.
Plekhanov: “O God, what torture! — I hardly pull one youngster out by his hears when this man-like monster has already caught another and drags him down into is vile quagmire. Thus I wallow perpetually in this cursed swamp, and if I do not watch out, I shall sink right up to my crown!”
Headed by M.N. Liadov, V. Rozenberg (Alexandrov), N. Volsky-Valentinov, S.L. Gusev and V. Bonch-Bruevich, Bolshevik party members humbly beg the Menshevik-controlled editorial board of Iskra to publish their declaration. In the editorial office of Iskra, Plekhanov and Martov, seated — Trotsky, on the phone — L.S. Humenfeld (technical secretary), leans over the table — F.L. Dan, who recently joined Iskra, stands behind Plekhanov — Vera Zasulich and Paul Alexrod are in frames hanging on the wall, like roi fainéants. Plekhanov: “What is this! Wholesale action? Hey! Secretary! Ask these fellows for their passports …”