Socialism or Statism?

Kropotkin argued that every "new economic phase demands a new political phase." This meant "if we want the social revolution, we must seek a form of political organisation that will correspond to the new method of economic organisation. . . . The future belongs to the free groupings of interests and not to governmental centralisation; it belongs to freedom and not to authority." 1

This applies to Bolshevism as well. Given that it was whole-heartedly state capitalist in both aims and practice, what political system did it implement? If asked about this, followers of Bolshevism will point to Lenin's State and Revolution. Anarchists, however, agree with Marx when he said that we cannot judge people by what they say, but by what they do. Lenin promised a radical democracy, one which had many similarities to anarchist ideas. However, he combined these libertarian socialist elements with more typically statist ones. Lenin argued that "by educating the workers' party, Marxism educates the vanguard of the proletariat, capable of assuming power and leading the whole people to socialism." Is it the party or the proletariat which takes power? His comment about "the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. the organisation of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class" suggest the former.2

This is confirmed from other works written in 1917. Lenin stressed that the Bolsheviks would "take over full state power," that they "can and must take state power into their own hands." The role of the working class was that of voters. Hence the first task was "to convince the majority of the people that its programme and tactics are correct." The second task "that confronted our Party was to capture political power." The third task was for "the Bolshevik Party" to "administer Russia." 3 The idea that socialism involved direct working class self-management of society is missing, replaced by the equation of party power with class power.

As anarchists have long argued, the state "is the minority government, from the top downward."4 It is the delegation and centralisation of power into the hands of a few. Centralism was designed for minority rule and to exclude the mass of people from taking part in decision-making processes in society: "To attack the central power, to strip it of its prerogatives, to decentralise, to dissolve authority, would have been to abandon to the people the control of its affairs, to run the risk of a truly popular revolution. That is why the bourgeoisie sought to reinforce the central government even more. . ."5

If Bolshevism is capitalist in economics, we would expect it to be capitalist in politics as well. This means that it will favour "centralism" and "strong state power," which it did.6 Power was quickly centralised in the hands of the Council of People's Commissars. Four days after seizing power, it "unilaterally arrogated to itself legislative power simply by promulgating a decree to this effect. This was, effectively, a Bolshevik coup d'etat that made clear the government's (and party's) pre-eminence over the soviets and their executive organ. Increasingly, the Bolsheviks relied upon the appointment from above of commissars with plenipotentiary powers, and they split up and reconstituted fractious Soviets and intimidated political opponents."7 This is Bolshevism's central fallacy, it claims to desire a society based on the participation of everyone yet favours a form of organisation centralisation designed to preclude that participation.

So what happens when the workers reject the vanguard? Simple, the vanguard rejects (and represses) the workers. In response to the "great Bolshevik losses in the soviet elections" during the spring and summer of 1918 "Bolshevik armed force usually overthrew the results of these provincial elections." In Petrograd, the government "continually postponed the new general elections" and called them only after it packed the soviet with representatives from organisations it controlled. This ensured its majority, making the direct elections from the workplace irrelevant.8

Party Dictatorship

Once the civil war started, Bolshevik authoritarianism accelerated. Leading Bolsheviks started to argue that party dictatorship was inevitable in every revolution. While still praising "soviet democracy" as the highest ever, Lenin admitted in mid-1919 that "when we are reproached with having established a dictatorship of one party . . . we say, 'Yes, it is a dictatorship of one party! This is what we stand for and we shall not shift from that position . . .'" The next year, he generalised this lesson: "the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of the class, because in all capitalist countries (and not only over here, in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts . . . that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard." 9

Trotsky agreed, arguing in 1920 that "it can be said with complete justice that the dictatorship of the Soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party."10 The following year he stated that you cannot "place the workers' right to elect representatives above the Party, as if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers' democracy." The party was "obliged to maintain its dictatorship, regardless of temporary wavering even in the working classes." 11

1923 saw Trotsky admitting "if there is one question which basically not only does not require revision but does not so much as admit the thought of revision, it is the question of the dictatorship of the Party."12 In 1927, he was talking about the "Leninist principle, inviolable for every Bolshevik, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is and can be realised only through the dictatorship of the party."13 Ten years later, he continued this theme, arguing that the "revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party" was "an objective necessity" imposed, in part, by "the heterogeneity of the revolutionary class." He dismissed the idea that "the party dictatorship could be replaced by the 'dictatorship' of the whole toiling people without any party" and stated that the "revolutionary party (vanguard) which renounces its own dictatorship surrenders the masses to the counter-revolution."14 He even repeated his old argument from 1920 that "those who propose the abstraction of Soviets to the party dictatorship should understand that only thanks to the party dictatorship were the Soviets able to lift themselves out of the mud of reformism and attain the state form of the proletariat." All in all, "the proletariat can take power only through its vanguard" and a "revolutionary party, even having seized power . . . is still by no means the sovereign ruler of society."15 Note, the party is "the sovereign ruler of society," not the working class.

The Civil War

It will be argued that the Civil War explains all this. Ignoring the fact that the Bolsheviks had undermined soviet democracy before it started, this "explanation" is question begging. After all, those who argue this are meant to understand that "a socialist revolution . . . is inconceivable without internal war, i.e. civil war, which is even more devastating than external war." Equally, the idea that the Russian Revolution would have succeeded if it had spread to Germany is also flawed. Germany was in a state of economic collapse at the time and, as Lenin argued, the revolution there "will be a hundred times more devastating and ruinous" because "state capitalism prevails" and so "there will be gigantic difficulties and tremendous chaos and imbalance." 16 As such, it seems incredulous that modern day Bolsheviks blame the inevitable results of revolution for the degeneration of the Russian one.

Socialism from Above

The roots of the problem lies with Bolshevik politics. It rejects the idea of "socialism from below," the idea that socialism can only be constructed from below-upwards by mass participation, based on self-managed organisations.

In 1905, Lenin argued that "limitation, in principle, of revolutionary action to pressure from below and renunciation of pressure also from above is anarchism." He stressed the importance combining "from above" and "from below," where "pressure from above" was "pressure by the revolutionary government on the citizens."17 He went so far to state that the "organisational principle" of Bolshevism was "centralism" and "to proceed from the top downward."18 The implications of this became clear once the Bolsheviks seized power. As Lenin explained to his political police, the Cheka: "Without revolutionary coercion directed against the avowed enemies of the workers and peasants, it is impossible to break down the resistance of these exploiters. On the other hand, revolutionary coercion is bound to be employed towards the wavering and unstable elements among the masses themselves."19 Of course, "wavering" and "unstable" elements is just another way of saying "pressure from below," the attempts by those subject to the "revolutionary" government to influence its policies.

Bolshevism confuses party power with workers power. For Lenin, it was "evidence of the most incredible and hopeless confusion of mind" to ask the question "dictatorship of the Party or dictatorship of the class?" and it was "ridiculously absurd and stupid" to "draw a contrast . . . between the dictatorship of the masses and the dictatorship of the leaders," The "correct understanding of a Communist of his tasks" lies in "correctly gauging the conditions and the moment when the vanguard of the proletariat can successfully seize power."20 Note, the vanguard (the party) seizes power, not the masses. He also indicated the "top-down" nature of Bolshevik rule in 1920:

"The interrelations between leaders-Party-class-masses . . . now present themselves concretely in Russia in the following form. The dictatorship is exercised by the proletariat which is organised in the Soviets and is led by the Communist Party . . . The Party, which holds annual congresses . . . is directed by a Central Committee of nineteen elected at the congress, while the current work in Moscow had to be carried on by [two] still smaller bodies . . . which are elected at the plenary sessions of the Central Committee, five members of the Central Committee in each bureau. This, then, looks like a real 'oligarchy.' Not a single important political or organisational question is decided by any State institution in our republic [sic!] without the guiding instructions of the Central Committee of the Party.

"In its work the Party relies directly on the trade unions . . . In reality, all the controlling bodies of the overwhelming majority of the unions . . . consists of Communists, who secure the carrying out of all the instructions of the Party. Thus . . . we have a . . . very powerful proletarian apparatus, by means of which the Party is closely linked up with the class and with the masses, and by means of which, under the leadership of the Party, the class dictatorship of the class is realised."21

Combined with "non-Party workers' and peasants' conferences" and Soviet Congresses, this was "the general mechanism of the proletarian state power viewed 'from above,' from the standpoint of the practical realisation of the dictatorship" and so "all talk about 'from above' or 'from below,' about 'the dictatorship of leaders' or 'the dictatorship of the masses,' cannot but appear to be ridiculous, childish nonsense."22

Perhaps this explains why he did not bother to view "proletarian" state power "from below," from the viewpoint of the proletariat? If he did, perhaps he would have recounted the numerous strikes and protests broken by the Army

and Cheka under martial law, the gerrymandering and disbanding of soviets, the imposition of "one-man management" in production, the turning of the unions into agents of the state/party and the elimination of working class freedom by party power. After all, if the congresses of soviets were "more democratic" than anything in the "best democratic republics of the bourgeois world," the Bolsheviks would have no need for non-Party conferences "to be able to watch the mood of the masses, to come closer to them, to respond to their demands."23 How the Bolsheviks "responded" to these conferences and their demands is extremely significant. They stopped them. This was because "during the disturbances" of late 1920, "they provided an effective platform for criticism of Bolshevik policies and their frequency decreased." They "were discontinued soon afterward."24

Got No Class?

While Lenin obviously has no problem with this system of party rule, many of his followers justify it in terms of the decimation of the working class that occurred during the civil war. This meant, it is argued, that of necessity the Soviet institutions took on a life independently of the class they had arisen from.

The major problem with this kind of assertion is simply that the Russian working class was more than capable of collective action throughout the Civil War period against the Bolsheviks. In the Moscow area, while it is "impossible to say what proportion of workers were involved in the various disturbances," following the lull after the defeat of the workers' conference movement in mid-1918 "each wave of unrest was more powerful than the last, culminating in the mass movement from late 1920." At the end of June 1919, "a Moscow committee of defence (KOM) was formed to deal with the rising tide of disturbances . . . KOM concentrated emergency power in its hands, overriding the Moscow Soviet, and demanding obedience from the population. The disturbances died down under the pressure of repression." In early 1921, "military units called in" against striking workers "refused to open fire, and they were replaced by the armed communist detachments" who did. "The following day several factories went on strike" and troops "disarmed and locked in as a precaution" by the government against possible fraternising. On February 23rd, "Moscow was placed under martial law with a 24-hour watch on factories by the communist detachments and trustworthy army units."25

Nor was this collective struggle limited to Moscow. "Strike action remained endemic in the first nine months of 1920" and "in the first six months of 1920 strikes had occurred in seventy-seven per cent of middle-sized and large works." For the Petrograd province, soviet figures state that in 1919 65, 625 workers took part in strikes and in 1920 there were 85,645, both significant numbers as according to one set of figures, which are by no means the lowest, there were 109,100 workers there. In February and March 1921 "industrial unrest broke out in a nation-wide wave of discontent . . . General strikes, or very widespread unrest, hit Petrograd, Moscow, Saratov and Ekaterinoslavl." Only one major industrial region was unaffected. In response to the general strike in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks replied with a "military clamp-down, mass arrests and other coercive measures, such as the closure of enterprises, the purging of the workforce and stopping of rations which accompanied them."26

It was Lenin who first raised the idea of a disappeared working class. He did so "to justify a political clamp-down." Indeed, this argument was developed in response to rising working class protest rather than its lack: "As discontent amongst workers became more and more difficult to ignore, Lenin . . . began to argue that the consciousness of the working class had deteriorated . . . workers had become 'declassed.'" However, there "is little evidence to suggest that the demands that workers made at the end of 1920 . . . represented a fundamental change in aspirations since 1917."27 So while the " working class had decreased in size and changed in composition,. . . the protest movement from late 1920 made clear that it was not a negligible force and that in an inchoate way it retained a vision of socialism which was not identified entirely with Bolshevik power . . . Lenin's arguments on the declassing of the proletariat was more a way of avoiding this unpleasant truth than a real reflection of what remained, in Moscow at least, a substantial physical and ideological force."28

Clearly, the idea that purely "objective factors" can explain the degeneration of the Revolution is wrong. Bolshevik ideology itself played a key role in the development of the revolution.

An Unexpected Development?

Therefore, when Leninists argue that they stand for the "principles of socialism from below" and state that this means the "direct and democratic control of society by the working class" then, clearly, they are being less than honest. After all, "there is no evidence indicating that Lenin or any of the mainstream Bolshevik leaders lamented the loss of workers' control or of democracy in the soviets, or at least referred to these losses as a retreat, as Lenin declared with the replacement of War Communism by NEP in 1921." 29 Looking at the Bolshevik tradition, the obvious conclusion which must be reached is that Leninism is not based on "socialism from below" in the sense of working class self-management of society (i.e. the only condition when the majority can "rule" and decisions truly flow from below upwards). At best, they subscribe to the distinctly bourgeois vision of "democracy" as being simply the majority designating (and trying to control) its rulers. At worse, Bolshevism preaches party dictatorship.

The development of Bolshevism from party rule to party dictatorship did not come as a surprise to anarchists. As Bakunin predicted, "by popular government they [the Marxists] mean government of the people by a small number of representatives elected by the people. . . [That is,] government of the vast majority of the people by a privileged

minority. But this minority, the Marxists say, will consist of workers. Yes, perhaps, of former workers, who, as soon as they become rulers or representatives of the people will cease to be workers and will begin to look upon the whole workers' world from the heights of the state. They will no longer represent the people but themselves and their own pretensions to govern the people."30

Ironically, but not unexpectedly, Bolshevism's only "victory" ended up providing empirical evidence in support of Bakunin's critiques and predictions about Marxism. The Bolshevik revolution quickly became the dictatorship over the proletariat, as he predicted. The fate of Social Democracy also vindicated his analysis, becoming as reformist as he predicted due to its electioneering. With "victories" like these, Marxists do not need defeats! Perhaps it is time to consider anarchism, the real socialism from below?


1 Words of a Rebel, pp. 143-4
2 Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 255 and p. 302
3 Ibid., p. 352, p. 328 and p. 589
4 Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 265]
5 Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 143
6 Lenin, Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 374
7 Neil Harding, Leninism, p. 253
8 Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, pp. 23-4 and p. 22, p. 33
9 Collected Works, vol. 29, p. 535; Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 21
10 Communism and Terrorism, p. 108
11 quoted by Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 209
12 Leon Trotsky Speaks, p. 158
13 The Platform of the Opposition, p. 62
14 Writings 1936-37, pp. 513-4
15 "Stalinism and Bolshevism"
16 Lenin, Op. Cit., p. 607; Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 298
17 Marx, Engels and Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 196 and pp. 189-90
18 Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 7, pp. 396-7
19 Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 42, p. 170
20 Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, p. 25, p. 35 and p. 27
21 Ibid., pp. 31-2
22 Ibid., p. 33
23 Ibid., p. 33 and p. 32
24 Richard Sakwa, Soviet Communists in Power, p. 203
25 Ibid., p. 94 and pp. 94-5 p. 245
26 J. Aves, Workers Against Lenin, p. 69, p. 109, p. 120
27 Ibid., p. 18, p. 90 and p. 91.
28 Sakwa, Op. Cit.., p. 261
29 Farber, Op. Cit., p. 44
30 Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, p. 178


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