There is currently much debate among those who wish to overcome the splintered condition of the anti-capitalist left, about how to evaluate the legacy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The recent initiative by Anti-Capitalist Initiative (ACI) claims it seeks a positive regroupment of the left on the basis of a discussion on contentious issues. One of the organisers of this initiative, Simon Hardy made a contribution to that discussion entitled ‘Forgotten Legacies of Bolshevism’ (link below). This week and next ‘critical-mass.net’ will contain two further contributions which are directly critical of the Leninist and Bolshevik traditions. This weeks contribution is by Barry Biddulp who writes for the Commune blog (for link scroll down on left side bar). Next week an article entitled ‘Clinging on to Patriarchy’ by Roy Ratcliffe will appear.



Barry Biddulph contributes to the debate in the ACI on the Forgotten Legacies of Bolshevism by Simon Hardy

In “Left Wing” Communism an Infantile Disorder, Lenin could not have made his core organisational values more explicit: centralism and iron discipline. From putting the lid on the opposition in 1921, with a ban on factions, all the way back to bureaucratic centralism in One Step Forward Two Steps Back, and Letter to a Comrade, in 1904, there was a consistent approach in which democratic methods were not considered to be essential, but regarded as dispensable in circumstances the leader considered to be appropriate for top down authority to be loyally followed.

Simon quite rightly disagrees with a factional approach, which aims for splits, and regards disunity as normal, based on a conviction of an absolutely correct programme and policies. But this was the Iskra culture from which Bolshevism arose. It was factional through and through: the faction acting as the Party. Polemics were meant to destroy the persons credibility, not seek the truth. This included false accusations. As Vladimir Akimov remembers, in Dilemma’s of  Russian Marxism,  Lenin dishonestly claimed  Rebochee Delo and himself were  economists.(1) Leaders of other tendencies of the Russian Social Democratic Labour  Party, were seen in factional terms, as rivals.  In contrast, in the introduction to Simon’s piece, it is asserted that ‘Bolshevism emerged out of an attempt to build broad parties which allowed a diverse number of tendencies to coexist within a common political project’.  It’s not clear how this understanding emerged.

Bolshevism, as a tendency, came to light following the 1903 congress and in effect as a party in 1912. In neither instance could the ‘project’ be remotely described as a broad church. On the contrary it could not have been more narrow and factional. Lenin was virtually alone with a few followers following 1903. The congress was an émigré  squabble; cats fighting in a sack. Lenin admitted he spent the entire congress in a frenzy. There were no programmatic differences. Trotsky the future leader of the revolution in 1905 and 1917 was against Lenin. Plekhanov, who was against both revolutions, was on Lenin’s side. The faction fighting and name calling created an atmosphere in which there was no respect for personalities or decisions. Lenin’s majority on the editorial board election which triggered the split in the RSDLP was due to anti Iskra comrades leaving the congress and had an accidental character. The formal majority quickly became the minority after the Congress. In Prague in 1912, Lenin in effect captured the RSDLP for the Bolsheviks, excluding many future leaders of the October Revolution.

Simon Hardy regards Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s organisational methods misplaced; but the misunderstanding seems to be Simon’s. Simon warns against the dangers of inflexible forms of organisation, deduced in an unproblematic way from theory. But this is precisely the point made by Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky in their critique of Lenin in 1904, in Organisational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy [Leninism or Marxism] and Our Political Tasks. Lenin not only advocated bureaucracy against democracy, and centralism against local autonomy, but identified revolutionary principle with this top down approach which extended the rights and powers of the centre over the parts ignoring organisational democracy. He regarded a grass-roots approach from the rank and file up, as a form of opportunism.(2)

This organisational dogma is often justified and glossed over by use of the phrase, ‘bending the stick’. Lenin used an organisational trick of exaggeration to overemphasize the key task. But a bent stick is distorted and distortion leads to a dissociation from reality and a false tradition. Another defence of Lenin is to argue that a powerful party centre was essential for effectiveness in an autocratic regime. But the problem with this is, if it is penetrated by a state agent, (Malinovsky) all the information about the organisation is shared by the state . No organisational form is spy proof. In any case, even if bureaucratic centralism was somehow necessary, due to specific circumstances, why make a virtue of necessity? Why not stand for as much democracy and local autonomy as possible? Police repression in Russia existed in 1896, but it did not stop the decentralised mass work of the so-called economists.

Simon seems to share Luxemburg’s and Trotsky’s rejection of making a fetish of  discipline. Lenin invoked factory discipline for the Bolsheviks, conflating capitalist technology and authority with socialist collectivism and even dragging in military discipline and the soldiers mentality, as a model for the party member, literally the rank and file, in One Step Forward Two Steps back. (3) Luxemburg and Trotsky stressed arousing the spirit of rebellion against mind numbing capitalist industrial work and discipline, rather than the sterile spirit of the overseer. (4) Any discipline had meaning only in the sense of self-discipline of the individual and the class for a just cause, not in unthinking loyalty to a leadership. After the October Revolution, Lenin returned to  value factory discipline, one man management and respect for capitalist technology and the division of labour that flowed from it. Most of the factions banned by Lenin in 1921 made the same points, any organisation should be rooted in working class initiative, energy and creativity.  Instead of anchoring  the organisation in the self-activity of working class, Lenin located the party in a stable leadership team who could somehow be the custodians for the socialist future.

In part, Simon’s view of Bolshevism is not so much a critical appraisal as an echo of the Lenin cult.  So according to Simon, ‘Lenin himself knew how to make hard decisions about when to work with people and when to break with them, he was single-minded in his determination to build a revolutionary party’.  But Lenin preferred to work with practical committee men, such as Stalin, who could not challenge his leadership. Stalin was one of the core of loyal Bolshevik Leninists. Lenin promoted him to numerous positions over the years, with disastrous consequences, due to his ability to apply pressure to enforce the Leninist line. The other implication of Simon’s statement implies that Lenin and Bolshevism were always the revolutionary current and all others were reformists or centrists.  This is the myth of the party of a new type. But Bolshevism was not free of opportunism as Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin demonstrated with their support for the provisional government in February 1917.

Simon provides a justification for a homogenous Leninist faction in the RSDLP on the grounds of ‘the equivocations of the Mensheviks and floaters (!) like Trotsky’. But what about Lenin’s programmatic equivocations? The perspective of Bourgeois democratic revolution proved reformist and wrong in 1905 and 1917. Lenin viewed Trotsky’s and Martov’s promotion of permanent revolution in 1905 as ultra left. In Our Differences (1905) Trotsky mocked Lenin’s Jacobinism. The perspectives of Bolshevism called for a working class aestheticism. The working class would limit itself to democratic demands and trust the party to deliver socialism in the future, while the capitalists would  say to themselves everything is fine, because there is no threat to property as the working class has agreed to discipline itself by accepting the constraints imposed by the party. In 1917 a debolshevised (Trotsky’s words on joining)  Bolshevik party left behind the minimum programme to catch up with masses and trampled on the main Leninist programmatic demand, of the  Constitutional Assembly.

A Leninism without expulsion’s and exclusions, which seems to be Simon’s position, would simply not be Leninism. His view that ‘it (Bolshevik) was a party that succeeded in managing differences internally and striking the right balance between democracy and united action’ is not a recognisable description of ‘the party or the tendency’. The factional nature of the Bolsheviks prior to 1917 resulted mainly in exclusions rather than expulsions.  During the period of reaction following the defeat of the 1905 revolution, the membership of the RSDLP factions was  reduced to tiny numbers. Lenin then insisted the Bolshevik faction had to have a single mind: his own. Even tactical differences were ruled out. Bolshevism became monolithic, and party patriotism and the party line became the norm, establishing a heritage for the party dictatorship over the class 1919/23 and Stalinism that followed.(5)

The expulsion of Alexander Bogdanov from the Bolshevik faction showed the undemocratic and unscrupulous manner in with Lenin could deal with effective critics. The difference with Bogdanov was tactical. The third Duma had an even more restricted franchise than the previous two and the Bolsheviks did not have the membership for a mass electoral intervention, so the dispute that followed was largely theoretical and given its tactical nature, unnecessary. Lenin had previously favoured boycott, but now broke the rules of democratic centralism and voted against the Bolshevik faction and against a boycott at a joint RSDLP meeting, in 1907, with the Mensheviks. Lenin was in a minority of one in his faction. Later in 1909 Bogdanov, was in effect, expelled  at an extended Proletarii editorial meeting of Leninist loyalists. Lenin could not risk being outvoted at a Bolshevik conference. While Lenin could not work with Bogdanov or Trotsky, he could work with Stalin and Plekhanov, who had already opposed the revolution in 1905. Did he really always know who to work with in the interests of the broader movement and the revolution? (6)

During the period of reaction the difficulties of maintaining the organisation and some kind of resistance led naturally to intense tactical disagreements within the Bolshevik faction. Lenin’s approach, like his pedantic response to Rosa Luxemburg (7) seemed to be about efficiency. The leader or leadership makes the decisions: get used to it. There was no toleration of tactical differences or rights for minorities. The Bolshevik critics of Lenin were deemed to be heretics or deviationist’s of one kind or another. In the tradition of Iskra, labels were pinned on sinners: recallists, ultimatists, god builders and so on. There are no positive lessons to be learned from any of this.

Simon refers to a model of democratic centralism adopted by the Bolsheviks after the  the unity conference of the RSDLP in 1906. But the Mensheviks were a majority on the leading committee. The Bolsheviks were a party within a party with their own central committee and discipline. Who decides when the unity of a definite party action begins and ends or when criticism is to end and members must toe the line or else: the central committee or leadership. But which leadership? Lenin insisted that any controversy on action and criticism would be decided by a RSDLP conference. This allowed the Bolsheviks a blank cheque to criticise the Menshevik leadership. It was a kind of entryist policy. In the revolutionary year 1917 democratic centralism broke down at a leadership level with Lenin pursuing his own line in public against the entire central committee and the masses overwhelmed the party centre and were not taking orders from anyone.

Lenin’s enduring model of Democratic Centralism, given his bureaucratic view of organisational efficiency, was his explanation to the Democratic Centrists who called for the restoration of the democratic side of the concept at the ninth congress following the October Revolution. Members elect an executive  and the leadership get on with administration; the congress elects a leadership and so get on with it. (8)  Lenin returned to intolerance of discussion and debate shortly after 1917. Enough of the chatter. The workers  opposition and other critics  were seen as unhealthy deviations from the correct line. It was not a question of legitimate debate and discussion, since the opponents of the leader were dishonestly deemed to be anarchists Syndicalist’s, petty bourgeois or simply childish. This was the cult of the leader with the correct line. Organisational measures were used to remove critics from their supporters and pressure put on oppositional papers to be closed down.

Democratic Centralism is not democratic; leaders decide on how much democracy there should be, depending on their interpretation of the circumstances.  The concept has been compatible with authoritarian personalities and top down undemocratic parties. Simon wants to fill an undemocratic form with a democratic content, but the usual undemocratic content was demonstrated recently in a scandal in the British SWP.  The content is tied to the form of a small central leadership mimicking the centralization of state decision-making.  A post capitalist society can only be established by the self emancipation of the working class, not a handful of leaders invoking the values of so-called democratic centralism and substituting for the class.


1 Vladimir Akimov, The dilemmas Of Russian Marxism, p 322  Edited by Jonathan Frank 1967. Lenin dishonestly claimed he did not see any need for a revolutionary organisation.

2 Vladimir Lenin, One step Forward,Two steps back. (1977) CW V7p394

3 As above p392

4 Leon Trotsky, Our Political Tasks, p 104, undated, New Park Publications.

5  Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 1980,Merlin Press p282

6  For years Lenin had left philosophy on one side in his alliance with Bogdanov. In any case there were serious differences between the materialism of Plekhanov and indeed Lenin, compared with the philosophy of Marx.

7 Lenin, Revolution  Democracy and Socialism, selected writings, Edited by Paul Le blanc, p 151, Pluto Press 2008.

8 Michael Waller, Democratic Centralism, p 28 Manchester University press 1981.

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