Revolutionary Lives: Leon Trotsky (part one: 1879-1921)

In Issue 16 (July 2003) Joe Conroy began an examination of Trotsky’s life and politics.

Lev Davidovich Bronstein was born in the Kherson province of the Ukraine on 26 October 1879 (7 November by the western calendar) to a family of well-off Jewish farmers. By his late teens he had become involved in a group of revolutionaries working to overthrow the rule of the Tsar over the Russian empire. Although initially resistant, he became an enthusiastic Marxist, involved in organising strikes in the region. This earned him arrest in 1898 and deportation to Siberia. In 1902 he managed to escape, writing the name of one of his prison guards in his false passport, a name that stuck to him: Trotsky.

Revolutionary organisation

He made his way to London, where many of Russia’s leading socialists were gathered in exile. Like most of them—most notably, Vladimir Lenin—Trotsky advocated a centralised organisation to unite the scattered circles of socialists across Russia in co-ordinated action. But the congress that was to establish such an organisation in 1903 led to a deep split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

Trotsky saw two very different conceptions of revolutionary organis­ation at issue: “In the one case we have a party which thinks for the proletariat, which substitutes itself politically for it, and in the other we have a party which politically educates and mobilises the proletariat”. The first conception, that of the Bolsheviks, would mean “the Party organisation ‘substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee”.1 The relationship between a socialist party and the working class, he maintained, had to be a two-way street: “It is not only the party that leads the masses: the masses, in turn, sweep the party forward.”2 Defending a party’s revolutionary essence was a question of politics, not organisational rules: “I do not believe that you can put statutory exorcism on opportunism.”3

Trotsky’s arguments did go somewhat overboard. His doom-filled prophecies of Bolshevik dictatorship were not fulfilled in the ensuing years. And while rules couldn’t defeat reformism, they could play some part in defining the nature of socialist activity. But at the same time, he did have a point. The arguments of Lenin and the Bolsheviks did too often put the building of their own party ahead of the struggle of the workers, and what progress they made was often due to quietly ignoring these ideas in practice. Trotsky’s insistence on the centrality of the working class and its activity to any socialist project was a necessary corrective.

Permanent revolution

All these theories were put to the test of an actual revolution in 1905: when troops opened fire on a demonstration seeking reform from the Tsar, it set off a wave of strikes and rebellions. Trotsky returned to Russia to play a central role, being elected leader of the Council of Workers’ Deputies in the capital St Petersburg. Workers elected such councils, or ‘soviets’, in work­places all over the country, and they constituted a potential challenge to capitalist rule:

a freely elected parliament of the working class… the Soviet really was a workers’ government in embryo… the organized expression of the class will of the proletariat… the democratic representative body of the proletariat at a time of revolution… It constitutes authentic democracy, without a lower and an upper chamber, without a professional bureau­cracy, but with the voters’ right to recall their deputies at any moment.4

The phenomenon of workers’ councils confirmed Trotsky’s refusal to join either faction of Russian socialism, because he envisaged greater revolutionary possibilities than either of them. The Mensheviks held that, in an economically backward country like Russia, replacing Tsarist rule with parliamentary democracy was as far as the revolution could hope to go for the time being. The job of the working class, as a small minority of the population, was to encourage liberal capitalist politicians to oppose Tsar­ism. The Bolsheviks had no such faith in the liberals, and aimed for a government in which workers would share power with the peasantry. While this would make a clean sweep of Tsarism, socialist change would not be on the agenda.

Although the working class formed only a fraction of Russia’s popu­lation, Trotsky argued, it was concentrated in the decisive areas of industry, giving it a disproportionate political weight. The hesitancy and political cowardice of Russia’s capitalist class were matched by the revolutionary spirit of its young working class. In such conditions, “It is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country.”5

Once in power, the working class would immediately set about getting rid of Tsarism and introducing democratic reforms, but this would inevit­ably bring it into conflict with capitalism. Legislation to limit the working day, for instance, would meet the opposition of capitalists closing down factories and locking out workers. The workers’ government would have no alternative but to take over their factories: “the very logic of its position will compel it to pass over to collectivist measures”. The workers would have to take economic as well as political control: “The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement.”6 The revolution would become permanent, moving directly from the overthrow of Tsarism to the overthrow of capitalism.

But the rule of the workers could not survive in isolation, least of all in a country as economically undeveloped as Russia. Their only hope would be for their revolution to inspire workers in other countries to follow their example and come to their aid. “The workers’ government will from the start be faced with the task of uniting its forces with those of the socialist proletariat of Western Europe. Only in this way will its temporary revolu­tionary hegemony become the prologue to a socialist dictatorship.”7

The workers could not hold power without the support of other exploited sections of the people, especially in Russia’s vast countryside:

The proletariat will find itself compelled to carry the class struggle into the villages and in this manner destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants, although within compar­atively narrow limits. From the very first moment after its taking power, the proletariat will have to find support in the antagonisms between the village poor and village rich, between the agricultural proletariat and the agricultural bourgeoisie.

The revolutionary government should include representatives of the peasantry, but “the hegemony should belong to the working class”.8

Trotsky was right to insist that, rather than an alliance of equal partners, it would be a case of the peasantry following the lead of the workers. The position of the working class in the economy gave it a far greater collective strength, and its direct, immediate interest in carrying out socialist measures would give it the leading role in the revolution’s development. But he went too far in assigning only a passive role to the peasantry, asserting that “The proletariat in power will stand before the peasantry as the class which has emancipated it.9 Rural revolt would add an extra dimension of its own to the revolution. He was wrong, too, in assuming that they would inevitably turn against the workers at some stage, that “The primitiveness of the peasantry turns its hostile face towards the proletariat.”10 A successful revolution would bring the rural poor to see the advantages of socialism for themselves.

The revolution of 1905 didn’t realise the potential Trotsky saw in it. By the end of the year, the ruling class was beginning to regain the upper hand. The leaders of the St Petersburg workers’ council were arrested and sent to Siberia. Again, Trotsky escaped and went into exile for what proved a barren period for Russia’s socialists.

Workers’ revolution

Trotsky took a prominent part in the international socialist opposition to the first world war. Tsarist Russia’s involvement in the slaughter proved to be the last throw of the dice for the regime. Growing discontent erupted in revolution in February 1917 which replaced the Tsar with a provisional government. Shortly after 1905 Trotsky had forecast that “the first new wave of revolution will lead to the creation of Soviets all over the country”,11 and 1917 proved him right as workers’ councils mushroomed. In May he succeeded in getting back to St Petersburg.

His first port of call was the workers’ council, where he argued that the revolution’s next step should be “to transfer the whole power into the hands of the Soviets”.12 The Mezhrayontsy, a group of socialists Trotsky had been linked to for a couple of years, had been advocating such a policy since February. At Lenin’s prompting, the Bolsheviks too were now calling for the workers’ councils to take power, dropping their old position. “The Bol­sheviks de-bolshevised themselves”, commented Trotsky.13 The Mezh­raiontsy merged with the Bolsheviks and many of their leading fig­ures, including Trotsky, were elected to the party’s leadership.

After six weeks’ imprisonment at the hands of the government, Trotsky emerged in September to a situation where the call for a second, workers’ revolution was winning majority support among the working class. He was elected president of the capital’s workers’ council again, and organised the insurrection of 25 October that overthrew the provisional government and handed power to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets.

The workers’ council, foundation of the new government, was an “irreplaceable organization of working-class self-rule”, argued Trotsky.14 Delegates were elected by and responsible to a specific workplace, and so the councils truly reflected the workers’ will:

They depend directly on organic groups… there is the far more import­ant guarantee of the direct and immediate contact of the deputy with his electors. The member of the municipal council or zemstvo depends on an amorphous mass of electors who invest him with authority for one year, and then dissolve. The Soviet electors, on the other hand, remain in permanent contact with one another by the very conditions of their life and work; their deputy is always under their direct observation and may at any moment be given new instructions, and, if necessary, may be censured, recalled, and replaced by somebody else.15

As commissar for foreign affairs in the new workers’ government, Trotsky took prime responsibility for what he had long ago identified as the first necessity of a Russian revolution. “Our whole hope is that our revo­lution will kindle a European revolution”, he announced on taking up the post. “The Russian revolution will either cause a revolution in the West, or the capitalists of all countries will strangle our [revolution].”16 To this end, the Bolsheviks established the Communist International. “It has no aims or tasks separate and apart from those of the working class itself”, said Trotsky. It wanted to help establish, not “tiny sects, each of which wants to save the working class in its own manner”, but in each country “a genuine revolutionary organization, one that doesn’t tell the workers lies, doesn’t deceive them, doesn’t hide from them nor throw sand in their eyes, doesn’t betray them in the cloakrooms of parliamentarianism or of economic conciliationism but leads them unswervingly to the end”.17

Generalising from the Russian experience, he concluded that the heartlands of capitalism would likely be the toughest nuts for socialism to crack, while the system gave way at its weakest links:

The more powerful a country is capitalistically—all other conditions being equal—the greater is the inertia of “peaceful” class relations… Countries with a younger capitalist culture are the first to enter the path of civil war inasmuch as the unstable equilibrium of class forces is most easily disrupted precisely in these countries.… the task of initiating the revolution, as we have already seen, was not placed on an old proletariat with mighty political and trade union organizations, with massive tradit­ions of parliamentarianism and trade unionism, but upon the young proletariat of a backward country. History took the line of least resist­ance. The revolutionary epoch burst in through the most weakly barri­caded door.18

Whose dictatorship?

The class overthrown by the Russian revolution showed no signs of giving up without a struggle. Their resistance went on for years with the help of invading foreign armies, forcing the new-born workers’ republic to fight a war for its very existence. As commissar for war from 1918 Trotsky organised a Red Army from scratch that succeeded in beating back the forces trying to crush the revolution. Ruthless combat went hand in hand with humanitarian concern: “Let the hand be cut off of any Red Army man who lifts his knife on a prisoner of war, on the disarmed, the sick and wounded”, ran one of Trotsky’s orders.19

Violence in defence of the revolution was clearly justified in Trotsky’s eyes: “When a murderer raises his knife over a child, may one kill the murderer to save the child?” Renouncing violence would mean renouncing revolution itself. However, Trotsky tended to make an unfortunate necessity into a positive proposition:

the principle of the ‘sacredness of human life’ remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains.… we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life’.… The man who recognizes the revolutionary historic importance of the very fact of the existence of the soviet system must also sanction the Red Terror.20

Recognising the necessity for a socialist revolution to terrorise its enemies is one thing: sanctioning every single use of terror is another. Regarding human life as sacred is not the sole preserve of Kantian priests and vegetarian Quakers. Socialists should only kill, or support killing, if and when it proves absolutely necessary. Even then, it is the exception to the rule, an evil to be tolerated and kept to a minimum, not a principle to be exalted.

Years before the revolution, Trotsky had insisted that the dictatorship of the proletariat “wouldn’t be the dictatorship of a little band of conspirators or a minority party, but of the immense majority… the political rule of the organised working class”. The multitude of problems faced by the workers in power could be solved only

by long ‘debates’, by way of a systematic struggle not only between the socialist and capitalist worlds, but also between many trends inside socialism… No ‘strong authoritative organisation’… will be able to suppress these trends and controversies… for it is only too clear that a proletariat capable of exercising its dictatorship over society will not tolerate any dictatorship over itself.21

The revolution’s early years came surprisingly close to this ideal. For a period the Bolsheviks shared governmental power with another left-wing party. Other parties and schools of thought took a full part in political debate. Within the Bolshevik party itself various factions contended openly. The isolation of the revolution and its need to fight for survival threatened this democracy, however. Very little opposition remained within the framework of the workers’ power, as parties colluded with or surrendered to those trying to bring back the old regime. Soviet Russia effectively ended up as a one-party state.

This situation could be explained, at least in part, by the desperate straits the revolution found itself in. Trotsky, though, chose to justify and praise it as a good thing in all circumstances:

The exclusive role of the Communist Party under the conditions of a victorious proletarian revolution is quite comprehensible.… The revolu­tionary supremacy of the proletariat pre-supposes within the proletariat itself the political supremacy of a party, with a clear programme of action and a faultless internal discipline.
The policy of coalitions contradicts internally the regime of the revolutionary dictatorship. We have in view, not coalitions with bour­geois parties, of which of course there can be no talk, but a coalition of communists with other ‘socialist’ organisations… In this ‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental…22

He personally took a hand in ‘re-organising’ trade unions that disagreed with industrial directives from the government: “our state is a workers’ state… Hence the trade unions must teach the workers not to haggle and fight with their own state”.23 But if the workers had no say in how the state was run, how could it be a workers’ state? Those who raised such questions were shut up, with Trotsky’s full support:

They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the party, as it were, 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 is obliged to maintain its dictatorship… The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers’ democracy…24

A greater and greater distance was opening up between an exhausted, decimated, isolated working class and the state power that ruled in its name. Meanwhile Trotsky noted the advent of the “new Soviet bureaucrat” who was becoming increasingly powerful: “This is the genuine menace to the cause of communist revolution. These are the genuine accomplices of counter-revolution”.25 To his eternal credit, Trotsky was to fight a life-and-death battle against this bureaucracy. But that battle was severely weakened before it began by the excuses he himself made for state rule over the workers rather than workers’ rule over the state.

part two


  1. Leon Trotsky, Our Political Tasks (London, no date), p 72, 77.
  2. Leon Trotsky, 1905 (Harmondsworth, 1973), p 279.
  3. Quoted in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917 (London, 1989), p 44.
  4. 1905, p 235, 266, 268.
  5. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London, 1962), p 195.
  6. Ibid, p 232-3.
  7. 1905, p 333. It should be stressed that the dictatorship Trotsky has in mind here is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, the undivided rule of the working class, as discussed further on.
  8. Results and Prospects, p 208, 202.
  9. Ibid, p 203.
  10. Ibid, p 209.
  11. The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology, edited by Isaac Deutscher (New York, 1964), p 56.
  12. Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (Oxford, 1954), p 254.
  13. Quoted in Cliff, p 209.
  14. Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume one (London, 1973), p 51.
  15. The Essential Trotsky (London, 1963), p 47. Zemstvos were rural councils in Tsarist Russia.
  16. Quoted in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The sword of the revolution 1917-1923 (London, 1990), p 21.
  17. The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume one, p 159, 94.
  18. Ibid, p 82, 84-6.
  19. Quoted in Deutscher, p 461.
  20. Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism (London, 1975), p 81-3.
  21. Quoted in Cliff, Towards October, p 42, 63.
  22. Terrorism and Communism, p 122-3. The Bolsheviks had renamed themselves the Communist Party in 1918.
  23. Quoted in Cliff, The sword of the revolution, p 165.
  24. Quoted in Deutscher, p 508-9.
  25. Quoted in ibid, p 427.

A hundred years on: The two souls of Bolshevism

In March 2003, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh discussed the centenary of the Bolshevik party in Issue 15.

The nativity of Bolshevism has often been told. After being run out of Brussels by the secret police, fifty or sixty Russian socialists congregated in a London church in the summer of 1903. Impassioned debate and a couple of walkouts followed but, after all the jacks were in their boxes, they were split pretty clearly down the middle. Those in the majority called them­selves Bolsheviki—meaning ‘those in the majority’, funnily enough—and the rest is history.

Their leader was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and the victory of the Bolshe­viks at that conference was largely the victory of his ideas as to what a socialist party should be. He argued with characteristic force that the working class were incapable of becoming socialist of their own accord, that socialist politics would have to be brought to them from the outside by professional revolutionaries fighting against the workers’ spontaneous urges. This was reflected in his organisational proposals. The party would have to be run from the top down: bureaucracy, not democracy, was the guiding principle of revolutionary socialist organisation.

Some revolutionaries disagreed. Leon Trotsky famously commented that it would lead to a central committee substituting itself for the party, and then one man substituting himself for the central committee. Rosa Luxemburg said the central committee would be the only people in the party allowed to think, with the members subordinate to its will. If Lenin had said that Russian socialists had to get serious about promoting socialism among the working class; that scattered propaganda groups had to get together in a united party; that the repressive might of the Tsarist state had to be met with tightly-knit discipline and dedication—then it would have been a different story. But Lenin was taking ideas that had validity for a particular time and place, and putting them forward as general principles. As general principles, they were plain wrong.

The damage they did came out in 1905 when a revolution against Tsarism spread throughout the Russian empire. The Bolsheviks’ reaction was one of suspicion and hostility. The political culture of their party had taught them that spontaneous workers’ action could lead nowhere and had to be brought under external socialist control as quickly as possible. Here was just such an upsurge that seemed determined to do its own thing. When workers’ councils appeared, a potential apparatus of workers’ self-government, the Bolsheviks boycotted them, before reluctantly agreeing to take part—but only if they accepted the Bolshevik programme beforehand!

Lenin eventually pushed for a more sensible approach, but was forced to argue against his own earlier positions, claiming that he had only been exaggerating for effect. Turning his previous ideas upside down, he had to point out that the working class were ahead of the Bolshevik party, instinc­tively realising things that the Bolsheviks couldn’t, and it was about time they started learning from the workers. The founding principles of Bolshe­vism had to be jettisoned when revolution came, with their inventor leading the jettisoning process.

The Bolshevik organisation itself underwent a profound change during the 1905 revolution. Its membership increased fivefold over the period as thousands of workers blissfully unaware of Bolshevism’s birth pangs came into the party. The party’s internal life changed beyond recognition. The notion of ‘democratic centralism’ came about, with the accent clearly shifting to the word ‘democratic’: the party united to carry out its decisions collectively, but only after these decisions had been reached democratically. Members formed groups to argue for different positions at party meetings and in the party press; minorities could continue to advocate their point of view freely; branches enjoyed a good deal of autonomy from the leadership. A party of socialists in revolution could not function otherwise.

But when the upheaval of 1905 was defeated, Bolshevism suffered its own kind of counter-revolution as the party retreated into a bunker. The free discussion of ideas in a pluralist party gave way to an organisation where members were to repeat the line from above. Honest debate all too often gave way to childish sectarian abuse and expulsion.

Once again it took a revolution to rescue Bolshevism—and once again, the party nearly fluffed it. They had always insisted, following Lenin’s lead, that socialist revolution wasn’t yet on the cards in Russia, and so contented themselves with consolidating the revolution of February 1917 that replaced Tsarism with a straightforward capitalist government. Again they did their best to reign in spontaneous attempts by workers to take things further. And, as in 1905, Lenin had to get the party to dump one of the defining points of Bolshevism, one that he himself had defined.

Far more important than Lenin’s role, though—and a factor that made Lenin’s role possible—was the metamorphosis of the Bolshevik party. Membership exploded in 1917: it is estimated that, by October, only one member in twenty had known the old days of the party. People and groups who had been excommunicated for years by the Bolsheviks were now welcomed in as leaders, as their understanding of the revolution proved better than that of the ‘old Bolsheviks’. An unprecedented regime of inter­nal democracy reigned as different schools of thought openly contended as a matter of course.

For many the role of the Bolsheviks in the October revolution has served as a retrospective vindication of everything Bolshevism said and did in the preceding fourteen years. But the Bolshevik party that triumphed in 1917 bore little resemblance to the Bolshevik party that had gone before. It was the Russian working class that made the revolution: they just used the Bolshevik party as their instrument, pressuring and moulding it until it suited their needs. The hundreds of thousands of workers who poured into the party made it their own. The best of the party’s leaders had the foresight to welcome and facilitate the transformation.

The new Bolshevism faced a serious test early on, as the German impe­rial army stood poised to invade the revolution’s capital. Should Soviet Russia try to fight a revolutionary war against them, or sign an unfair peace in the hope of living to fight another day? A fierce debate raged among the Bolsheviks—but it raged freely and fairly. Both sides published their arguments in the party press; speakers from both sides kicked off discussions at party meetings; both sides were proportionally represented at all levels of the party from central committee down.

But just as Bolshevism was rejuvenated by the rise of the revolution, it stagnated with its fall. As the Russian working class was more and more decimated and isolated, the democratic reality of the revolution slipped away. When an opposition to the leadership’s policies grew inside and outside the party in 1920-21, the response was very different. Although the party published and distributed the opposition’s programme, discussion of it was one-sided and cursory. Lenin began to speak of deviationists helping the enemy, a luxury that the party couldn’t afford. He successfully proposed that factions be banned in the party on pain of expulsion.

This in itself should put paid to the myth that everything was hunky-dory as long as Lenin was around. Not in the midst of civil war with the revolution surrounded by hostile foes, but afterwards when the military threat had receded, Lenin shut down debate within the party, cut off the lifeblood that had enabled it to play such a part in 1917. Of course, when Stalin came to power he went to town altogether, stamping out any and every trace of dissent—but he didn’t lick it off the stones.

There are clearly two souls of Bolshevism. There is the Bolshevism that embodied the determination of the working class to take control in 1905 and—outstandingly—in 1917. And there is the Bolshevism of narrow-minded bureaucracy trying to order the working class around. The first, revolutionary Bolshevism is worth something. This baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bath water, but the baby is very small and there is a lot of very dirty water.

A hundred years on, 57 varieties of socialist stake their claim to ‘the Bolshevik legacy’. Building a replica famine ship is usually a fruitless task. Socialists operating in parliamentary democracies and grappling with the strength of reformism in the working class movement will need to be a bit more imaginative than copying a political practice that never had to face such challenges. But worse still, it is usually the wrong aspects of Bolshe­vism that are mimicked—like an Elvis impersonator who models himself on the burger ‘n’ pills slugger of 1977 rather than the man who shook up popular music in 1956.

Latter-day pretenders to the Bolshevik crown go for Bolshevism of a 1921 vintage, washed down with a glass or two of 1908 (a very bad year). Rather than the vibrant cut and thrust of 1917 Bolshevism, they go in for once-a-year democracy. The lapsed Catholic annually stumbles in to mid­night mass slightly the worse for his Christmas indulgence, and the ‘Bol­sheviks’ of today annually go through the motions of democratic debate at a conference. Outside of that, ‘democratic centralism’ means accepting the truth revealed from on high. Every member is free to express a different opinion and get the head bitten off them for doing so. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas le bolchevisme révolutionnaire.

Democracy in the socialist movement is not just a good idea, a noble precept to genuflect before, but a downright necessity. Without it the voice of the rank-and-file member can’t be heard, the views of the working class outside can’t get through, genuine revolutionary activity can’t take place. This does not mean that anything goes: lines have to be drawn so that fake socialists don’t waste our time. Nor does it mean establishing a debating society: some occasions call for a little less conversation and a little more action. But a real party of revolutionary socialists would recognise diversity, debate and democracy as a good thing, an indispensable complement to revolutionary action. It would have that much in common with Bolshevism when Bolshevism had so much in common with the revolutionary working class.

Borges, Balzac and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Kevin Higgins reviewed a book of essays on the relationship between literature and politics in Issue 12 (March 2002).

Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the public sphere (Verso)

To say that the relationship between literary criticism and Marxist politics has been fraught with difficulties is something of an understatement. More often than not the nuanced, dialectical approach used by the likes of Marx and Trotsky to unravel the world of literature in all its many-sided com­plexity has been (and for the most part still is) elbowed aside in favour of a crude reductionism which has its origins in the Stalinist crackdown on literature and art in the late 1920s. Even today, those who review books (or films) for left-wing publications tend to operate on the basis that if a book is ‘objectively speaking’ on the right side of the class struggle then this, in and of itself, must mean that the book in question is a ‘good book’ deserving a positive review. And the reverse is also held to be true: T S Eliot’s poetry couldn’t possibly be a patch on, say, Jimmy McGovern’s Dockers because, after all, T S Eliot was a reactionary. In the minds of some, any comrade who takes a few hours out from the class struggle to read The Wasteland or The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is probably in serious danger of ending up on the Fine Gael front bench, or as Primate of the Church of Ireland, or some such grotesque bourgeois deviation.

Roddy Doyle is judged to be more ‘politically relevant’ than, say, John Updike or Julian Barnes, merely because he writes about ‘ordinary working class people’, whereas they for the most part don’t. And indeed perhaps he is more relevant, at least in the sense that his subject matter means that socialists will probably have more to say about him than they will about most contemporary novelists. However, taken too far, this sort of approach to literature and art could, at least in theory, reduce us to the absurdity of saying that Brendan Grace is somehow a better comedian than Woody Allen merely because his subject matter is more ‘working-class’; or, per­haps a little more plausibly, that Rage Against The Machine are definitely better than Elgar was, because they sing “fuck the police” whereas he did nothing of the sort. Marx and Engels may have thought that, in literary terms, one reactionary Balzac, writing as he did predominantly about the French middle and upper classes, was preferable to a hundred socialist Zolas, writing about ‘the workers’, but such dialectical niceties tend un­fortunately to be lost on most of their followers.

In this context, Christopher Hitchens’ Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the public sphere is required reading for anyone even remotely interested in the relationship between literature and politics. And how ironic it is that this example of a dialectical (one might say almost Marxist) approach to literature should be provided by Hitchens: a ‘left’ liberal Vanity Fair columnist, who since September 11 has apparently lost the run of himself and become (along with silly old Paul McCartney) just another raving imperialist warmonger. It is, as Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked, a funny old world indeed.

The book is a collection of thirty five reviews and essays, which origi­nally appeared in publications such as The New York Review of Books, the New Left Review and the Times Literary Supplement. In the foreword Hitchens tells us about the influence Wilfred Owen’s devastatingly power­ful anti-war poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ had on him as a young man:

I shall never be able to forget the way in which these verses utterly turned over all the furniture in my mind; inverting every conception of order and patriotism and tradition on which I had been brought up. I hadn’t yet encountered, or even heard of the novels of Barbusse and Remarque, or the paintings of Otto Dix, or the great essays and polemics of the Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences; the appeals to civilisation written by Rosa Luxemburg in her Junius incarnation. (Revisionism has succeeded in overturning many of the icons of Western Marxism; this tide however still halts when it confronts the nobility of Luxemburg and Jean Jaures and other less celebrated heroes of 1914—such as the Serbian Dimitri Tucovic.) I came to all these discoveries, and later ones such as the magnificent Regeneration trilogy composed by Pat Barker, through a door that had been forced open for me by Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.

All the more ironic, then, that in the aftermath of September 11 Hitchens has apparently turned his back on the tradition of Zimmerwald and Rosa Luxemburg, preferring instead to accuse opponents of the War on Terrorism of being ‘soft on fascism’ in an article in The Spectator: a magazine which has in its time given refuge to every rightward moving crank from Kingsley Amis to Woodrow Wyatt.

A little further on in the foreword Hitchens points out that:

Many of the writers discussed here have no ‘agenda’ of any sort, or are conservatives whose insight and integrity I have found indispensable. I remember for example sitting with Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires as he employed an almost Evelyn Waugh-like argument in excusing the military dictatorship that then held power in his country. But I had a feeling that he couldn’t keep up this pose, and not many years later he wrote a satirical poem ridiculing the Falklands/Malvinas adventure while also making statements against the junta’s cruelty in the matter of the desaparecidos. It wasn’t just another author signing a letter about ‘human rights’; it was the ironic mind refusing the dictates of the literal one.

This sort of talk will probably sound fairly alien to most left-wing activists, brought up as most of us have been on a diet of ‘Ken Loach good, Brideshead Revisited bad’. And yet it is far closer to Marx’s actual approach to literature—Borges perhaps being a kind of latter-day Argentinian Balzac—than anything you’re likely to read in an issue of a far left paper. A little more commonplace is Hitchens’ observation that:

In the case of the United States, we await a writer who can summon every nerve to cleanse the country of the filthy stain of the death penalty… there is as yet no Blake or Camus or Koestler to synthesise justice and reason with outrage; to compose the poem or novel—as did Herman Melville with flogging in his White-Jacket—that will constitute the needful moral legislation.

Of course the well-meaning sentiments are undoubtedly already there, indeed are probably ten-a-penny at every open-mike poetry night from Greenwich Village to San Francisco, but the trick is to combine the political and the aesthetic: to accomplish the usually impossible task of making a statement which as well as being ‘true’ is memorable to the point of being in some sense beautiful.

The writers with whom Hitchens engages here range from the predictable—George Orwell, Raymond Williams, Gore Vidal, Salman Rushdie and Oscar Wilde—to those such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Roald Dahl whose work might superficially seem to be almost entirely devoid of political content. ‘Rebel in Evening Clothes’ is the title of a lovely essay on Dorothy Parker who, as a daughter of the massively wealthy Rothschild family and fashion writer for Vogue, was perhaps an unlikely radical. And yet her 1919 poem, originally titled ‘Hate Song’, is something which, with the possible exception of a slightly disparaging reference to milkmen, even the most hardened Socialist Realist would surely have to appreciate:

…the Boss;
He made us what we are to-day—
I hope he’s satisfied.
He has some bizarre ideas
About his employees getting to work
At nine o’clock in the morning—
As if they were a lot of milkmen.
He has never been known to see you
When you arrive at 8.45,
But try to come in at a quarter past ten
And he will always go up in the elevator with you.
He goes to Paris on the slightest provocation
And nobody knows why he has to stay there so long.

There are also some hilarious demolition jobs: on the horribly glib Tom Wolfe (essayist and author of the novel Bonfire of the Vanities); on Tom Clancy (author of The Hunt for Red October etc, etc) who Hitchens aptly describes as “the junk supplier of surrogate testosterone”; and, best of all, on the prominent American critic Norman Podhoretz, of whom he says: “But as the years passed… Podhoretz began to fawn more openly on Richard Nixon and the Israeli general staff as if rehearsing for the engulfing, mandible-straining blow job he would later bestow on Ronald Reagan.” Of course, in the light of his own post-September 11 descent into pro-imperialist jingoism, it is entirely possible that, for Hitchens himself, that particular sentence might yet turn out to be the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

However, the best essay in the entire book is his examination of the life and poetry of Philip Larkin. Ever since the publication of his Selected Letters in 1992 showed that he was, to put it mildly, a reactionary and a racist, critical responses to Larkin have tended to polarise into two distinct camps. On the left are those who claim that the fact that Larkin enclosed the following charming little ditty in a letter to a friend clearly exposes him as the disgusting reactionary they always suspected him of being:

Prison for the strikers
Bring back the cat
Kick out the niggers
How about that?

And for Larkin’s critics this is where the case for the prosecution usually rests. Meanwhile his apologists such as the critic John Bailey have claimed that Larkin was simply “more free of cant—political, social or literary—than any of his peers”. Britain’s current Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has even gone so far as to say “that Larkin’s work had the capacity to create a recognisable and democratic vision of contemporary society”. Hitchens cuts through both hypocrisy and hyperbole with great skill, providing us with pretty damning evidence that, far from being just another Tory Little Englander, Larkin was in fact a “frustrated fascist”, who after 1945 was forced by the new political realities to hide his real political beliefs. And yet at the same time Hitchens still manages to separate the poems themselves from the political views of the poet:

unless we lose all interest in contradiction—we are fortunate in being able to say that Larkin’s politics are buried well beneath, and some­where apart from, his poems. The place he occupies in popular affec­tion—which he had won for himself long before the publication of his fouler private thoughts—is the place that he earned, paradoxically, by attention to ordinariness, to quotidian suffering and to demotic humour. Decaying communities, old people’s homes, housing estates, clinics… he mapped these much better than most social democrats, and he found words for experience.

Unacknowledged Legislation is a truly excellent book: a must for any­one who has ever complained about one of those left-press reviews in which the reviewer typically uses the last sentence to earnestly inform us that the ‘fundamental flaw’ in this or that book or film is that nowhere does it provide the working class with an answer to the problems they face under capitalism. The recent political statements of its author, Christopher Hitchens, are of course disappointing in the extreme; but they are also perhaps just a contemporary example of the relationship between literature and politics in all its complexity.

Another movement is possible!

In November 2001 (Issue 11) Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh discussed the rise of the movement against capitalist globalisation.

A lot of the talk about the global economy is only hype, of course. Far from free-floating capital leaving national constraints behind it, the coercive force of national states is still an indispensable part of its arsenal. Far from borders and boundaries becoming an irrelevance, those seeking refuge from the ravages of capitalism are greeted with detention camps and deportation orders. Far from the benefits of the consumer-driven economy trickling down to all, a good half of humanity hovers on the brink of starvation.

The core of truth within all the globalisation hype is a declaration of intent on the part of capitalism. The ideologues of the capitalist class are openly proclaiming the secret of their rule, their determination that their system will penetrate every nook and cranny of the planet. As far as they are concerned, there is nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide: there isn’t a single corner of the world they won’t try to squeeze a profit from. It’s open season for exploitation, and every single one of us is fair game.

But the great thing is that this brash capitalist rhetoric of the last few years has met with a huge movement of opposition. Its origins are far more diverse—geographically and historically—than is often realised, but its greatest manifestations so far have been the thousands that have dogged the bankers and politicians whenever they congregate, opposing their diktats and discussing alternatives. The best elements of the movement have drawn the conclusion that capitalism itself is the enemy, have moved from asking whether it should be replaced to asking how it should be replaced.

Socialists who choose to sneer at and dismiss this movement have, in all probability, come to the end of their useful political existence. It has its faults, of course, but then, so has every political movement in history. It is inevitable that people coming into radical politics for the first time will bring ideas with them that are often raw and innocent. How many of the left’s golden oldies can honestly look back at our own first political steps without a bashful smile playing across our lips? We would do well to remember what Lenin said to those socialists who scorned the Easter rising: it is inconceivable that revolution will happen without political outbursts that bring all manner of half-baked prejudices with them. “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it.”

The point is that this movement is a work in progress. The position it starts from is just that, a jumping-off point, and experience can bring people to fill in the gaps and reject what needs rejecting—a labour that many of us could profit from. If traditional socialist theory sometimes gets a cold welcome in this movement, that is largely due to the Stalinist and/or social-democratic image that traditional socialist theory still conveys.

It would be easy to say, for instance, that cancelling third world debt won’t resolve the chronic problems that plague the world’s poorest countries. In itself it won’t, of course, but it will mean that some children live who otherwise would die; and a successful worldwide campaign to drop the debt would potentially open up an agenda of placing the needs of human beings ahead of bankers’ profits. The same goes for the demand to tax financial speculators in order to relieve world poverty. Socialists should be behind these kinds of demands heart and soul, seeking to ensure that they become a first step rather than the last.

This doesn’t mean nodding with a fixed smile at every notion that is put forward. There is nothing worse than the spectacle of middle-aged socialists patronising young activists by hiding their disagreements. When ideas are proposed that seem to you to be mistaken, you have to have the honesty to disagree with them, regardless of the drop in popularity or recruitment that may result.

To take an example, the idea that global production should be replaced with local production. The motivation behind it is clear. Global trade at the moment is just another of the myriad ways the world’s rich exploit the world’s poor. The only reason that runners are made in south-east Asia is that workers can be exploited at a higher rate there. The unnecessary waste that the process entails piles up yet more environmental destruction. But localising the economy would avoid the problem rather than solving it. It is possible to create a world where people on different sides of the earth work together for their mutual benefit. Instead of reigning us all in to narrow, national frameworks of production and consumption, everyone should be able to share in the diverse cultures and creations of our planet. Local production fails to envisage the possibility of such a world and so, if anything, it goes against the spirit of the movement.

Socialists need to be a part of this movement, unreservedly. We also have to be arguing for socialist ideas in it, not just holding the biggest placards and the loudest megaphones. So far, left responses have resembled the beds that Goldilocks came across. It’s either too hard and makes you uncomfortable, or too soft and damages your backbone. The third bed, the one that’s neither too hard nor too soft, is yet to be manufactured.

The movement has found an echo in Ireland, but no more than that. On May Day last a ‘blockade’ of the Dublin Stock Exchange was organised. Upon seeing a hundred people sitting on their doorstep, the mandarins of the Exchange decided to close their doors at 4.30. “We have shut down the Stock Exchange!” the megaphones proclaimed. A bit of a march ensued, to the strains of “We will fight and we will win: in London, Paris, and Dublin!”

Now, demonstrations in Seattle, Prague, Genoa and elsewhere have succeeded in throwing a spanner in capitalism’s works, in rattling the ruling class. The Dublin Stock Exchange knocking off for its tea half an hour early is not in the same league. Re-heating a thirty-year-old slogan—especially one that extends internationalism no further than Paris!—hardly expresses the dynamism of the new resistance to capitalism. At this stage, Ireland’s ‘anti-capitalist movement’ is a pale imitation of real movements elsewhere.

The call has been made, therefore, to root the movement in local Irish struggles. But you can’t just graft a ready-made tree on to young shoots as they sprout. You have to take part in these struggles as they arise, attempting to bring them together and raise them into an attack on capital­ism itself. Going backwards, carrying around your anti-capitalist tree looking for a bit of soil to root it in, is no good. A picket line isn’t really strengthened by wise men from the east bearing gold, frankincense and ‘the spirit of Genoa’. Globalisation begins at home, and the native battles against its local manifestations will have to grow from the bottom up to form a real challenge to capitalist rule.

Seattle was so successful because global opposition to capitalism combined with American opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Genoa was so successful because global opposition to capital­ism combined with Italian opposition to Berlusconi’s rule. Anti-capitalism will really have arrived in Ireland when global opposition to capitalism combines with our opposition to what capitalism is doing to us here. That means a lot of hard, unglamorous work in fights that don’t start from explicit opposition to the capitalist system at all. It also means opposing an inherently unjust political set-up in the north of our own country, not just injustice thousands of miles away.

The globalisation issue has seen socialists uniting with environmental­ists, with third world activists, with everyone… except other socialists. For some of us, it seems we can get together with people on our right, just as long as we are assured uncontested control of the left flank. The good ship Left Unity has run aground on the rocks of sectarianism, at least for the time being. Most of the left haven’t yet reached the level of political maturity where they can honestly work with other socialists—and that goes for those who boarded the ship as well as those who refused to come near it.

The introduction of refuse charges in Dublin city rightly led socialists to protest against the unfairness of them and the ill-concealed privatisation agenda behind them. What it didn’t lead them to do (initially, at any rate) was form a united campaign against them. Instead the city was partitioned into zones of influence like post-war Berlin, with the ‘great powers’ agreeing not to tread on each other’s toes (except where they could get away with it). Grown-up socialists would have enough confidence in their own politics to throw in their lot with other socialists on a level playing field—but then, grown-up socialists are extremely thin on the ground.

The future lies with a new generation of socialists emerging from the new revolts against capitalism, a generation that needn’t repeat the mistakes of its predecessors. Some of these will have joined one or other of the presently-existing organisations, probably for apparent lack of anything better. Sooner or later, if they are honest with themselves, they will come up against contradictions. How come the policies are decided at the top and then handed down? How come the same people have been leading for a couple of decades? How come members who express disagreements with the party line are frowned upon and sidelined?

A wiser course of action is to keep your powder dry, to be an active a socialist as you can, without pinning anyone’s colours to your chest. Because all this is only preliminary skirmishing, just yet: the serious contests are still to come. As the weekly announcements of job creation in the Celtic Tiger give way to weekly announcements of job losses in the Celtic Tiger, the myth of capitalist prosperity will be even harder to swallow. Even more young people—and many not so young—will take up a position of absolute hostility to global capitalism. And when they do, what passes for a socialist movement at present won’t be good enough for them.

The sort of piss-and-vinegar, bite-size socialism that is rampant today—easily-memorised slogans for all occasions—will have to give way. A new generation of socialists will demand serious theoretical answers to the difficult questions thrown up by an undertaking as big as world revolution. The organisational forms which condemn people to accept the word from on high or keep their mouth shut will also have to give way. Rather than awkwardly fitting into a cheap off-the-peg suit, a new generation of socialists will tailor new methods of organising that give them a real voice, that allow them to teach the movement as well as learn from it.

Would today’s socialists be prepared to see their organisations perish in such a process? Or has the means become more important than the end? There can be no doubt that certain socialists are congenitally incapable of the necessary alterations: years ago, the wind changed and their faces are now stuck like that. If it takes a bonfire of the vanities to clear away dead wood, so be it.

From Seattle to Genoa and beyond, the protestors have affirmed that another world is possible. So is another type of socialist movement.

Revolutionary Lives: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (part two)

Joe Conroy‘s reassessment of Lenin’s life and work concluded in Issue 7 in July 2000.


Revolution broke out in Russia again in February 1917. Workers overthrew the Tsar, set up their own councils or soviets, and power was precariously balanced between them and a provisional government that failed to solve the most basic problems of the working people—ending the war, feeding the people, giving land to the peasants, and establishing a democratic system.

From exile in Switzerland Lenin called for the workers to take power through the soviets. Only they could satisfy the basic democratic demands, by breaking with capitalism. At the same time they would have to start bringing the capitalists under their control, implementing socialist measures. The schema of 1905 went out the window: Lenin understood that the fight for democracy and the fight for socialism could only succeed in combination. As he later wrote, looking back on the 1917 revolution:

We solved the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in passing, as a “by-product” of our main and genuinely proletarian-revolutionary, socialist activities.… [Others] were incapable of under­standing this relation between the bourgeois-democratic and the proletarian-socialist revolutions. The first develops into the second. The second, in passing, solves the problems of the first. The second consoli­dates the work of the first.1

When Lenin returned to Russia in April his new position met with stiff resistance from the leadership of the Bolshevik party, most of whom wanted to stick to his former position. He replied: “The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have turned out differently; they are more original, more peculiar, more variegated than anyone expected.” The slogan of 1905 was now outdated.2

This kind of argument was a bit jesuitical, to say the least. Lenin’s old approach hadn’t been proved right in an unexpected way: it had been proved wrong in a very straightforward way. It hadn’t passed its sell-by date: it was no good to begin with. Lenin effectively dropped it, but the reorientation of the Bolshevik party would have been clearer and easier if he had openly admitted and corrected his mistake.

While in hiding from the forces of the provisional government during 1917 Lenin wrote The State and Revolution. Continuing his rediscovery of the original Marxist teaching on the state, he reiterated that the capitalist state was not a neutral force but an instrument to maintain class rule. The socialist revolution could not take over or reform this state: it had to get rid of it altogether. The working class would have to replace it with a new type of state, that wasn’t really a state at all, a temporary rule to defeat capitalist resistance. It would mean “Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people”.3

As in the Paris Commune of 1871, workers would elect representatives who would be paid no more than a worker’s wage and could be replaced at any time. Armed force would be under the control of the working class, not the monopoly of an army separate from them. Bureaucracy would be swept away:

Under socialism much of “primitive” democracy will inevitably be re­vived, since, for the first time in the history of civilised society, the mass of the population will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn. and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.4

Even this minimal state would go as soon as its work was done:

Only in communist society, when the resistance of the capitalists has been completely crushed, when the capitalists have disappeared, when there are no classes… Only then will a truly complete democracy become possible and be realised, a democracy without any exceptions whatever. And only then will democracy begin to wither away, owing to the simple fact that, freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copy-book maxims. They will become accustomed to observing them without force, without sub­ordination, without the special apparatus for coercion called the state.5

The State and Revolution is very much a product of 1917: as the soviets of workers’ deputies sprang up and jostled for power, the potential for socialist society was there for Lenin to see as he wrote. He abandoned a planned chapter on the experience of the Russian revolution because “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it.”6

As Lenin went through the experience of the revolution his abilities came into their own. From the early months when he called for the Bolsheviks to patiently explain the need for soviet power, through the times when he had to dampen the enthusiasm of those who wanted to take power before they had the support to keep it, to October when he fought for the Bolsheviks to organise an insurrection before it was too late—Lenin’s tactical skill shines through.

None of it would have been possible, though, without him mobilising rank-and-file Bolsheviks, and even workers outside the party, to put pressure on the conservative leadership. The Bolshevik party was itself revolutionised in 1917. It was as much a case of the working class winning the Bolshevik party as the other way round. While the party’s traditions played their role, without the discontinuity of its development during the revolution, its growth into a mass organisation alive with debate and activity, it would have got nowhere—and neither would Lenin’s influence over it.

The rise and fall of the revolution

On 25 October the provisional government was overthrown in the capital and a government based on the soviets, with Lenin at its head, took control. For workers in Russia and throughout the world the October revolution held the promise of real freedom. But even as it tentatively began to fulfil that promise, it came under an onslaught that ultimately proved too strong for it. Within a decade the workers of Russia were once again under the heel of a dictatorship. The death of the Russian revolution remains the greatest of socialism’s lost possibilities.

Lenin repeated again and again that the workers’ revolution in Russia could only survive if it became part of an international socialist revolution. Only a few months after the revolution he said: “there would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone”.7 He repeated the point years later:

It was clear to us that without the support of the international world revolution the victory of the proletarian revolution was impossible. Before the revolution, and even after it, we thought: Either revolution breaks out in the other countries, in the capitalistically more developed countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish.8

The Russian workers were holding on until workers took power in other countries: “We are now, as it were, in a besieged fortress, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief.”9 Sacrifices would have to be made in the meantime, but “I repeat, our solution from all these difficulties is an all-Europe revolution”.10

In Russia itself, the strength of the revolution was that it was the crea­tion of the working class itself. In the first weeks of the revolution Lenin stressed that

Creative activity at the grass roots is the basic factor of the new public life.… Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach; living, creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.11

He drove the point home the following day in a proclamation:

Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your Soviets are from now on the organs of state authority… Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.12

He insisted that “socialism cannot be introduced by a minority, a party. It can be introduced by tens of millions of people when they have learnt how to do everything themselves”.13

Lenin’s faith in international revolution was by no means misplaced. The end of the war saw a wave of revolutionary upheavals from one end of Europe to the other. But when none of these revolutions succeeded, the Russian workers were left high and dry.

Within Russia the working class suffered a serious decline. Hundreds of workers were killed in the civil war, as the world’s capitalists tried to strangle the revolution at birth, and in the famine and disease that followed. Thousands of others left the factories to work in the apparatuses of the state, the Red Army, and the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks had renamed themselves). Even more went back home to the countryside where the chance of eking out a living was slightly easier than in the devastated cities. The industrial working class, said Lenin, “owing to the war and the desperate poverty and ruin, has become declassed, i.e., dislodged from its class groove, and has ceased to be a proletariat.… the proletariat has disappeared.”14

Working-class democracy cannot survive where there is no working class; nor can it survive in a single isolated, beleaguered country. The soviet power rapidly declined to a one-party rule, a state that was not withering away but piling on the pounds—the opposite of what Lenin envisaged in The State and Revolution. The view that this was due to a lust for power on Lenin’s part cannot be supported: the situation arose in spite of his intentions, not because of them. Questions can and must be asked, however, about his reaction to it.

Lenin began to justify the divergence between the theory of workers’ power and the reality of Communist Party rule. He claimed that “the dictatorship of the working class is being implemented by the Bolshevik Party”.15 He bluntly characterised the situation: “The proletarian class equals the Russian Communist Party which equals the Soviet state. Don’t we agree on all this?”16 The theoretical excuse for party rule rather than class rule came later: “the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of that class… It can be exercised only by a vanguard that has absorbed the revolutionary energy of the class.” This vanguard supremacy was necessary not only in the harsh conditions of Russia but “in all capitalist countries”.17

Lenin at the same time said that “ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it”.18 It would be closer to the truth to say that, by this stage, it was more of a bureaucratic state with a working-class twist to it, the socialist good intentions of the best Communists keeping some elements of socialism alive. Lenin cursed the bureaucracy of the state incessantly, but put the problem down to bureaucrats inherited from the Tsarist apparatus, who the Communist Party had to bring under control. All the time, the biggest danger lay in the bureaucratisation of the party itself, and increasing its power only added to the problem.

It was further worsened by the silencing of revolutionary opposition. The repression directed against the counter-revolution and those who went along with it was completely justified: no socialist revolution can roll over and allow the capitalists to organise resistance against it. But the re­pression of those who opposed the Communist Party while supporting soviet power cannot be excused, and in fact weakened the revolution by depriving it of the criticism it needed. The Communist Party itself, which had enjoyed a wide freedom of debate, became increasingly monolithic. “We will not permit arguments about deviations, we must put a stop to this”, Lenin told the party congress,19 and successfully proposed a ban on the right of members to organise against the leadership’s policies, with expulsion for those who disobeyed.

International revolution remained the only salvation for the ever weaker revolution in Russia. But this became a much rarer note in Lenin’s speeches and writings. By the end of 1920 he was saying that “today we can speak, not merely of a breathing-space, but of a real chance of a new and lengthy period of development”. A year later he asked:

Is the existence of a socialist republic in a capitalist environment at all conceivable? It seemed inconceivable from the political and military aspects. That it is possible both politically and militarily has now been proved; it is a fact.20

Lenin never ceased to hold out hope for world socialist revolution. He devoted a great deal of time and effort trying to foster it, by means of the Communist International. But he did begin to hedge his bets when that revolution seemed unlikely to appear.

The last fight

At the end of 1922 Lenin was struck down by illness and forced to take a back seat in the work of government. The distance gave him the chance to consider more thoughtfully what had become of the revolution. Battling against the party leadership’s attempts to withhold information from him (for the good of his health, supposedly) he began to realise just how profound the problem was.

He condemned the imperialist way that the Russian state and party bureaucracy treated the non-Russian nationalities. He proposed measures to counteract the growth of bureaucracy. He even tried to get Stalin removed from the power base he had built up for himself. Right to the end Lenin was fighting a rearguard action against the betrayal of the revolution.

But who would put these reforms into effect? The working class was in no fit state. Those in the Communist Party who would oppose the leadership faced marginalisation and exclusion, and Lenin’s personal prestige only went so far. In the circumstances, the anti-bureaucracy institutions Lenin proposed could only become bastions of bureaucracy themselves. His reforms seem more and more like shifting deckchairs around on the Titanic, when only international workers’ revolution could tow Russia away from the iceberg.

A stroke in March 1923 put an end to Lenin’s political career. He died on 21 January 1924.

At the Communist Party congress in 1920, some bright spark hit upon the idea of celebrating Lenin’s approaching fiftieth birthday. Lenin did all he could to stop it, but soon speakers were rising to laud the great leader of the world’s proletariat. He got out of the room as fast as his feet would carry him, and phoned up every couple of minutes to see if all this rubbish was over, so he could return.

Praise is the last thing Lenin needs. He fought to build an effective socialist organisation; for opposition to every kind of oppression; to raise revolution from the ruins of world war; to bring the 1917 revolution to victory; to spread that revolution worldwide. Lenin is praised even if we say nothing.

But it’s a poor tribute to say nothing about his mistakes. His own advice is better:

we must drop all empty phrase-mongering and immediately set to work to learn, to learn from mistakes, how best to organise the struggle. We must not conceal our mistakes from the enemy. Whoever is afraid of talking openly about mistakes is not a revolutionary. If, however, we openly say to the workers: “Yes, we have made mistakes”, it will pre­vent us from repeating those mistakes in the future…21

Lenin was wrong on many occasions, and was often unwilling to admit it. But “for the most part people’s shortcomings are bound up with their merits”, as he once noted himself.22 His faults were the faults of one dedicated to the socialist cause, and anyone who engages in real struggle is bound to make mistakes. Lenin’s faults, however, shouldn’t be overlooked or excused, but criticised and corrected, if his goal of making the world socialist is to be achieved.


1    ‘Fourth Anniversary of the October Revolution’ (14 October 1921).

2    Letters on Tactics (April 1917).

3    Chapter V.

4    Chapter VI.

5    Chapter V.

6    Ibid, Postscript.

7    Speech at Communist Party congress, 7 March 1918.

8    Speech at Communist International congress, 5 July 1921.

9    ‘Letter to American Workers’ (20 August 1918).

10  Speech at Communist Party congress, 7 March 1918.

11  Speech at meeting of Central Executive Committee of the soviets, 4 November 1917.

12  ‘To the Population’.

13  Speech at Communist Party congress, 8 March 1918.

14  Speech at Political Education Departments congress, 17 October 1921.

15  August 1919: quoted in Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin (London 1975) p 269.

16  Note to Nikolai Bukharin, 11 October 1920: quoted in Louis Fischer, The Life of Lenin (New York 1965) p 492.

17  Speech to Communist Party activists, 30 December 1920.

18  Ibid.

19  8 March 1921.

20  Quoted in Liebman, p 370.

21  Speech to Communist International congress, 1 July 1921.

22  ‘A Single Economic Plan’ (22 February 1921).