Chris Harman


A different kind of party altogether

(8 June 2002)

Socialism from below, Socialist Worker, No.1803, 8 June 2002.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman on Lenin and the revolutionary party

THE RICH and powerful always want to put us off the idea of revolution. They have consciously promoted the argument that in Russia the revolution led to terror and dictatorship, that Lenin led to Stalin. This idea has been encouraged for decades and by a wide range of people. Writers who supported the old Stalinist rulers of Russia continually promoted the argument that Lenin led to Stalin.

They wanted to make people believe that the tyrannical regime that dominated Russia was justified as a continuation of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Conservative opponents of revolutionary socialism also repeated the idea that Leninism and Stalinism were the same thing. They wanted, and still want, to give the impression that any attempts to create a socialist society inevitably lead to the destruction of freedom. There is no real evidence to back this up.

Some people support the argument that Lenin led to Stalin by quoting a few sentences written by Lenin in 1903 and comparing them with what Stalin actually did some 30 years later. But they completely ignore the other 40 or so volumes of Lenin’s writings. More significantly, they ignore the fact that, before he could finally and conclusively consolidate his power, Stalin had to murder virtually all the old Bolsheviks.

By 1937 only one in ten of the surviving members of the Bolshevik Party of 1917 were still in Stalin’s Communist Party. The party that Lenin built was quite different to the organisation that Stalin used as an instrument to rule over Russian society. In Stalin’s party there was no possibility of members discussing policies. Anyone who questioned Stalin’s decisions faced instant expulsion from the party, imprisonment and in some cases execution.

The same ban on discussion persisted in Russia for decades, right up until the Stalinist system collapsed in the late 1980s. In Lenin’s party it was quite the other way. The history of the party is a history of heated debate that took place openly in the party’s paper, Pravda. For instance, in April 1917 the majority of the party took a different position to Lenin.

When one of Lenin’s articles was published in Pravda, an editorial written by Stalin expressed disagreement, saying Lenin was out of touch.

In July 1917 workers and soldiers in Petrograd wanted to stage an uprising against the middle class government of Kerensky. Lenin, Trotsky and the majority of the Bolsheviks thought this was premature, because outside the storm centre of Petrograd most people would oppose the uprising.

But large sections of the party disagreed openly, and the Bolshevik soldiers’ paper supported the attempt at a rising. In October 1917 Lenin and Trotsky thought the time was ripe for revolution. But two of the most important Bolshevik leaders, Zinoviev and Kamenev, disagreed to the point of arguing against the insurrection in public. Such debates took place in the party because it was the party of the most militant workers.

Even when the party was illegal, in August 1917, about one in 12 Russian workers was a member. Free discussion was necessary if a policy was to be hammered out that would enable these militants to give a clear lead that less militant workers would follow.

Nor is it true to say that Lenin always believed the party was right and could never make a mistake. In 1905, when the first Soviets (workers’ councils) were formed, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd were suspicious of them.

It seemed inconceivable to many old time militants that previously backward and conservative workers could suddenly join in the struggle against Tsarism and build an organisation of their own. But Lenin quickly corrected this mistake. He insisted that “the masses are making heroic efforts to rise to the occasion and cope with the historic tasks of world significance imposed on them by history.

“Months of revolution sometimes educate citizens more quickly and fully than decades of political stagnation,” he said. Later he argued that the workers’ councils, invented by the Russian masses, must be the basis of the real workers’ state.

The same gap between old militants and workers who had just entered the struggle developed in autumn 1917. Lenin told Trotsky that the non-party workers were much more revolutionary than the workers already in the party and that the rank and file of the party were much more revolutionary than the leadership.

Lenin still believed that the working class needed a party if it was to counter the manoeuvres of the ruling class in a centrally organised way. But he insisted that the party had to learn from the workers as well as teach them, and it could not do that unless there was open discussion within the party.

Last updated on 11 December 2009