Socialist Classics: N Lenin, ‘ “Left-Wing” Communism: An infantile disorder’

Joe Conroy examined the strengths and weaknesses of Lenin’s last book in Issue 35 in March 2009.

Lenin’s last book was written in April 1920 to be in time for the second congress of the Communist International a couple of months later. Its aim was to draw lessons from the Bolsheviks’ experience for the benefit of the communist parties then emerging across Europe. The burden of his criticism was directed at a trend to be found in many of them which he saw as going too far to the left.

Lenin’s intention was “to apply to Western Europe whatever is of general application, general validity and is generally binding in the history and the present tactics of Bolshevism”. He felt able to do this because “not a few, but all the fundamental and many secon­dary features of our revolution are of international significance… by international significance I mean the international validity, or the historical inevitability of a repetition on an international scale of what has taken place here”. While often acknowledging differences between Russia and the west, the book is based on the premise that the Russian experience could be applied universally.

But Bolshevism’s strengths arose from “a number of historical peculiarities of Russia”. Firstly, Marxism had won a commanding place in the battle of ideas which raged there in the late nineteenth century. Secondly,

Bolshevism passed through fifteen years (1903-17) which, in wealth of experience, has had no equal anywhere else in the world. For no other country during these fifteen years had any­thing even approximating this revolutionary experience, this rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement —legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, small circles and mass movements, parliamentary and terrorist. In no other country was there concentrated during so short a period of time such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle…

Chief among these was the 1905 revolution: “Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution of 1917 would have been impossible.”

All this Lenin intended as further proof of the general superior­ity of Bolshevik tactics, forged in the heat of numerous battles. But in fact it tends to do the opposite, to underline how specific and limited those tactics were, intimately linked to a certain set of circumstances unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. Socialists without this back­ground of revolutionary ferment would necessarily have to operate somewhat differently. Taking Dutch communists to task for mis­understanding how illegal revolutionary work is organised, he puts it down to the fact that they “had the misfortune to be born in a small country with traditions and under conditions of particularly privileged and stable legality”. But Lenin was born in a large country with particularly unstable conditions and practically no traditions of legality, and that proved a misfortune when he ventured to interpret political circumstances different to that.

He recognises himself that outside Russia “a certain amount of reactionariness in the trade unions has been revealed, and was un­doubtedly bound to be revealed much more strongly than in our country”: the labour bureaucracy “represents a much stronger stratum than in our country” and the fight against it “is much more difficult than the fight against our Mensheviks”. The fact that Lenin and the Bolsheviks never faced a reformism with such tenacious roots seriously reduced the validity of their experience when it came to tearing those roots up.

Some of his comments on Britain illustrate this. His unfamiliarity begins to show through when he reveals that his source on the strength of the British labour movement is a Swedish newspaper article. He proposes that British communists tactically support the British Labour Party “in the same way as a rope supports the hanged”. An electoral alliance with Labour would enable them to gain an audience, while the experience of Labour in power would dispel reformist illusions and pave the way for revolutionary growth.

While this is fine in theory and a quite innovative approach, it completely misjudged the position of revolutionary socialists in Britain. A propaganda group claiming a couple of thousand members attempting to form a united front with a Labour Party that had won two million votes at the last election would be laughed out of it. A more realistic and modest way of beginning to increase their support and win an audience would have made more sense. But the overwhelming and unquestioned predominance of the Russians in the Communist International left the tiny forces of British commun­ism chasing a tactic more appropriate to a mass party, and it increased their isolation rather than overcoming it.

Lenin rejects a left communist denunciation of compromise:

There are compromises and compromises. …the difference between a compromise which one is compelled to enter into by objective conditions (such as lack of strike funds, no outside support, extreme hunger and exhaustion), a compromise which in no way lessens the revolutionary devotion and readiness for further struggle of the workers who agree to such a compromise, and a compromise by traitors… It would be absurd to concoct a recipe or general rule (“No Compromise!”) to serve all cases. One must have the brains to analyse the situation in each separate case.

This is sound common sense, and a necessary refutation of any socialist who actually believed that all forms of compromise are im­permissible in principle. But did any of them actually hold such a position? When they rejected compromise, surely it was the bad, treacherous kind of compromise they meant, rather than reluctant forced concessions? Lenin sometimes seems to be scoring easy points off weak opponents here.

The central argument of ‘Left-Wing’ Communism is that a socialist party needs “to link itself with, to keep in close touch with, and, to a certain degree, if you will, merge itself with the broadest masses of the toilers”, do whatever it takes to get through to the working class:

it is imperatively necessary to work wherever the masses are to be found. Every sacrifice must be made, the greatest obstacles must be overcome, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently, precisely in those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—to which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses belong.

So socialists have no alternative but to work in trade unions, no matter how right-wing their leaders are. The alternative, to “invent a brand-new, clean little ‘workers’ union’, guiltless of bourgeois-democratic prejudices”, leaves them preaching only to the con­verted. It would serve not to win workers over but to “fence themselves off from them by artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans”.

The same went for the refusal to take part in parliaments or elections. Socialists may have realised that parliamentary democracy is a pathetically poor second to the genuine democracy of workers’ councils, but that is not the same thing as actually replacing one with the other. The left wingers

have mistaken their desire, their ideological-political attitude, for objective reality. This is the most dangerous mistake revolution­aries can make. …we must not regard what is obsolete for us as being obsolete for the class, as being obsolete for the masses… or naïvely mistake the subjective “rejection” of a certain reactionary institution for its actual destruction…

This is not a mistake that people stopped making in 1920. Left wingers who have personally rejected the political institutions of capitalist society sometimes act as if the rest of the world has done likewise and they can safely be ignored. Organising a petition to a government minister, for instance, can often be a useful and effective method of mobilising support behind a certain demand. Refusing to do so because you would rather be turning that minister out of his state car at gunpoint leaves you with little contact with the mass of workers who are currently far from such a position. But taking that step can actually play a part in bringing people towards a rejection of capitalism. And that rejection can only be implemented when the working class in its overwhelming majority is convinced of its necessity. The consciousness of socialists can do no more than help convince them to change the world, not change it on their behalf.

Most working-class people have some kind of a belief in parliamentary democracy, or at least can see nothing better on offer. Rejection of it is far more often a manifestation of apathy than of faith in an alternative. Therefore socialists should try and use what opportunities it can provide to argue for the real democracy of socialism. Participating in the parliamentary system on such a basis doesn’t reinforce it but “facilitates the process whereby bourgeois parliamentarism becomes ‘politically obsolete’”. Of course, the danger of falling into parliamentary reformism is always present, but that only means that socialists “must learn to create a new, unusual, non-opportunist, non-careerist parliamentarism”.

This is the proper response to all such dangers: to face them and work out methods to defeat them, not to evade them. All engage­ment with people who are currently indifferent or opposed to socialist revolution carries the potential risk of political dilution, but those who flee from that risk “are frightened by the comparatively small difficulties of the struggle against bourgeois influences within the working-class movement”. Real revolutionaries will not fear contamination but tackle the task in spite of everything:

It is not difficult to be a revolutionary when the revolution has already flared up and is raging, when everybody joins the revolution because he is carried away by it, because it is the fashion… It is much more difficult—and much more useful—to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to be able to defend the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organisation) in non-revolutionary bodies and even in downright reactionary bodies, in non-revolutionary circumstances…

Lenin’s main organisational conclusion is the necessity of “the strictest discipline, truly iron discipline in our Party”, to achieve “absolute centralisation and the strictest discipline of the proletariat”. To the question of whether the working class or the Communist Party or the party leadership should rule, Lenin replies that they all naturally go together. “Not a single important political or organisational question is decided by any state institution in our republic without the guiding instructions of the Central Committee of the Party.” The trade unions “formally, are non-Party” but their leaderships “consist of Communists and carry out all the instruc­tions of the Party”. In view of this, “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, something like discussing whether the left leg or the right arm is more useful to a man”.

The problem here is that a left leg and a right arm are equally organic parts of a human body, both growing and developing naturally with it, both necessary to kick a ball, say. But a socialist party is not an organic growth of the working class. A working class can, and usually does, exist without a revolutionary party being part of it. Such a party has to constantly strive to win and win again active support in the class, rather than occupying a position within it as of right, and any other party could potentially do the same. A socialist party is neither a leg or an arm for the working class: it is more like a boot that can help it kick that ball more effectively, a boot that can be discarded or replaced if it ceases to do so. Lenin’s effective nullification of difference or tension between party and class ill fits socialists for their activity, and contributed to a situation where the Communist Party could proclaim itself ruler in the name of the workers.

So there was something to the left criticism of leaders taking the place of the working class. Of course, Lenin was right to note that attacks on leaders can often hide a desire for leadership: “new leaders are put forth (under cover of the slogan: ‘Down with the leaders!’)”. But he much prefers to detect the influence of enemy classes:

They encircle the proletariat on every side with a petty-bourgeois atmosphere, which permeates and corrupts the proletariat and causes constant relapses among the proletariat into petty-bourgeois spinelessness, disintegration, individual­ism, and alternate modes of exaltation and dejection. The strictest centralisation and discipline are required in the political party of the proletariat in order to counteract this… Whoever in the least weakens the iron discipline of the party of the prole­tariat (especially during its dictatorship) actually aids the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.

Undoubtedly the working class has its enemies who will endeavour to sow confusion in its ranks. But this is not the source of every disagreement with the party line, and disagreement in general cannot truthfully be portrayed as “actually” aiding and abetting the class enemy. There is such a thing as an honest difference of opinion among socialists. Insisting that such differences are invariably emanations of the diabolical spirit of the bourgeoisie, or un­knowingly doing the devil’s work, creates a heresy-hunting atmos­phere where party centralisation and discipline becomes nothing more than keeping your head down and doing what the leaders say.

Having all but anathematised his opponents, however, Lenin concedes that they do have a point somewhere. Left communism was particularly strong in Italy, and (while admitting his un­familiarity with it) Lenin admits that the toleration of parliamentary opportunism in the Socialist Party there “creates ‘Left-wing’ Communism on the one hand and justifies its existence, to a certain extent, on the other”. While criticising a British communist opposed to working in parliament, Lenin praises his contempt for the parliamentarians:

This temper is very gratifying and valuable; we must learn to prize it and to support it, because without it, it is hopeless to expect the victory of the proletarian revolution in England, or in any other country for that matter.… The hatred felt by this representative of the oppressed and exploited masses is in truth the “beginning of all wisdom”, the very basis of any Socialist or Communist movement, and of its success.

In fact, a more charitable translation of the book’s title would have called this left wing a ‘childhood disease’ rather than an ‘infantile disorder’, maybe even a ‘growing pain’. The appendix goes along with some of the left criticisms, and says that if the left were to leave the communist parties, “every effort must be made” to heal the rift. At the Communist International congress, while sticking to his guns, Lenin always maintained that the left communists belonged in the International.

This was because “the mistake of Left doctrinairism in Communism is a thousand times less dangerous and less significant than the mistake of Right doctrinairism”. This is a sensible con­clusion, universally valid: the mistakes of over-zealous or in­experienced revolutionaries are not in the same league as the policy of drawing socialism towards an effective accommodation with the relations of social domination characteristic of class society. But Lenin spoils this conclusion by qualifying it: the left communists are only less dangerous “at the present moment… only due to the fact that Left Communism is a very young trend”. This left wide open the possibility, even the likelihood, that the actual or imagined mistakes of real socialists could be used to make them into the main enemy. And that disorder should have been a far more worrying one to contemplate.

Come back Ilyich, all is forgiven

In Issue 20 (November 2004) Joe Conroy reviewed an assessment of Lenin’s politics in 1917.

V I Lenin, Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917, edited and with an Introduction and Afterword by Slavoj Žižek (Verso)

Karl Marx is almost accepted in polite society these days. Guardian journalists write books about him and conclude that he was a decent old stick after all. But Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: he’s a different proposition. You can draw a picture of Marx—albeit a profoundly false one—scribbling away for himself in the British Museum, harmlessly working on his eccentric theories. But playing down actual involvement with revolutionary activity is virtually impossible in the case of Lenin, what with 1917 and all that. If the fact that “Marx was before all else a revolutionist” got covered up not long after Friedrich Engels said so at his graveside, Lenin has always, as György Lukács put it, symbolised “the actuality of the revolution”.

So you have to admire an academic who writes a book arguing that Lenin is far from a discredited dead dog, but a figure to learn from. Although the title page describes this as a selection of Lenin edited by Slavoj Žižek, there’s far more Žižek than Lenin. The cover of this edition (the hardback came out two years ago) is adorned with pictures of both men, and “Žižek on Lenin” is the most prominent legend. Žižek’s contrib­ution to the book is easily longer than Lenin’s. His mammoth afterword ‘Lenin’s Choice’ often has little to do with Lenin at all. When he asks “So where is Lenin in all this?” (p 292) it reminds you that he has wandered off the point for a hundred pages or so. Some of these ramblings are interesting ramblings, but they don’t really butter any parsnips as far as Lenin is concerned.

His selection of Lenin’s writings needs to be argued with. While he writes that “It is impossible to overestimate the explosive potential of The State and Revolution” (p 5), it’s not possible to estimate it at all when he decided not to include this, the best thing Lenin ever wrote. If consider­ations of space were at play here, some of his own musings could have made way for it. The pamphlet Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? has more right to be in there than some of what has been included. New translations would have been preferable to the Collected Works renderings, complete with the dull Muscovite footnotes that give you too much information on the ideological trend of some forgotten Russian periodical or other.

The predominant feature of Lenin in 1917 is his determination to seize the time, to take the opportunity to seriously go for all-out revolution. Others on the left, he wrote, “picture socialism as some remote, unknown and dim future”, unable to see the chance of realising that future in the present, when “socialism is now gazing at us from all the windows” (p 100). Against these, not to mention a considerable wing of the Bolshevik leader­ship, he insisted that unless the workers took over, the Tsarist generals would establish a dictatorship, and the working class internationally would be left in the lurch: “History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now” (p 116).

But this was no solo run, with the revolution emerging from Lenin’s bald head:

Indispensable as Lenin’s personal intervention was, however, we should not change the story of the October Revolution into the story of the lone genius confronted with the disorientated masses and gradually imposing his vision. Lenin succeeded because his appeal, while bypassing the Party nomenklatura, found an echo in what I am tempted to call revolutionary micropolitics: the incredible explosion of grass-roots democracy, of local committees sprouting up all around Russia’s big cities and, ignoring the authority of the “legitimate” government, taking matters into their own hands. This is the untold story of the October Revolution, the obverse of the myth of the tiny group of ruthless dedicated revolutionaries which accomplished a coup d’état.

p 6-7

Lenin spent much of 1917 trying to convince socialists that the workers knew better than they did, telling them they should listen

for the initiative of the revolutionary people to begin expressing itself as something majestic, powerful and invincible.
Let all sceptics learn from this example from history.… Don’t be afraid of the people’s initiative and independence. Put your faith in their revolutionary organisations… Lack of faith in the people, fear of their initiative and independence, trepidation before their revolutionary energy instead of all-round and unqualified support for it—this is where the SR and Menshevik leaders have sinned most of all.

p 109-10

It wasn’t just the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks who needed convincing. The Bolshevik party and Lenin himself had to change course. Faith in popular initiative and independence was a radical break with Lenin’s earlier theory that socialist consciousness had to be imported into the working class from outside by the revolutionary party. Many of Lenin’s followers still haven’t made that break, continuing (as Žižek puts it) “to dream that Revolution is round the corner: all we need is the authentic leadership which would be able to organize the workers’ revolutionary potential”. We need to realise that “This mysterious working class whose revolutionary thrust is repeatedly thwarted… simply does not exist” (p 307‑8).

The working class has to draw its own conclusions and work out its own salvation. The arguments and proposals put to them are one—very important—factor in this, but the actual victories and defeats that workers go through teach lessons in themselves. Lenin always maintained that it was the concrete experience of the 1905 revolution that gave the Russian working class such a head start in 1917. The Bolshevik party that succeeded in 1917 wasn’t bringing socialism to the workers from outside: it had essentially fused with a working class that had set out upon a revolutionary road.

And this only happened after Lenin had fought for the Bolsheviks to abandon what had long been their defining standpoint, their interpretation of the nature of Russia’s revolution. They, and Lenin most of all, had always believed that it wouldn’t be a socialist revolution, only a radical capitalist one that would clear the way for socialist struggle. Not only did he now argue for this position to be dropped, he wanted socialists outside the party who had disagreed with it brought into the Bolshevik leadership. Imagine any of today’s far-left organisations ditching its definition of Stalinist Russia, and then inviting members of an opposing group to make up half of its central committee!

The transformation of the Bolshevik party in 1917 bears comparison with a similar process taking place in Ireland around the same time. Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin party had spent a decade advocating a dual monarchy: a self-governing Ireland linked with Britain by the one king. The 1916 rising was linked with Sinn Féin’s name despite the party’s lack of involvement with it. When the upsurge in republican sentiment later swept the country, thousands took over the existing Sinn Féin organisation and essentially changed its policy to a republican one. To some extent, the revolutionary workers of Russia did the same with the Bolshevik party, pressuring it to fit their own aspirations. By October Lenin could write: “the Bolsheviks, i.e., the representatives of revolutionary proletarian internationalism, have now embodied in their policy the idea which is motivating countless millions of toilers” (Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?).

Amidst today’s movements for global justice, Žižek sees a role for the party (p 296-7):

How do we invent the organizational structure which will confer on this unrest the form of the universal political demand? Otherwise, the momentum will be lost, and all that will remain will be marginal disturb­ances, perhaps organized like a new Greenpeace, with a certain efficiency, but also strictly limited goals, marketing strategy, and so on. In short, without the form of the Party, the movement remains caught in the vicious cycle of “resistance”… the last thing we want is the domestication of anti-globalization into just another “site of resistance” against capitalism.

He has a point here. The various aspects of capitalism can’t be overcome in splendid isolation: a broad, generalised assault on the system as such is needed. And like any form of political activity, that assault will need to organise itself as effectively as possible.

But, firstly, building a movement to get rid of capitalism is not all—or even mainly—a matter of organisation. The desire to have such a move­ment, and the belief in its practical possibility, will have to take shape first, and that comes down to political argument and experience before it comes down to taking organisational form. Secondly, if we “invent the organiz­ational structure”, it is unlikely to resemble previous structures, least of all “the form of the Party” with or without a capital P. The horrible experience of “the Party”—Stalinist, Trotskyist or otherwise—has discredited the name so much that we need to find another name for what we want. As Lenin wrote in 1917, when calling on socialists to abandon the name ‘social democrat’, “it is time to cast off the soiled shirt and to put on clean linen” (The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution).

The Lenin of 1917 is not all of Lenin: there is a Before and an After. Up to a few years before, he had more often than not been an advocate of elitist and arrogant party-building, of a workers’ revolution that would shrink from taking a socialist direction, of a deadeningly static interpretation of Marxist philosophy. A few years after, he was more often than not an advocate of party dictatorship, of compulsory obedience to the party line, of reducing socialism to featureless economic construction.

But the honeymoon period in between was something else. In 1914 the international socialist movement collapsed as war engulfed Europe. Lenin’s response was to go back and rediscover the emancipatory heart of Marxist thought, to discern the revolutionary possibilities created by capitalism at its height. Lenin was a new man by 1917, someone determined not to let the prospect of socialism slip by.

This is the Lenin from whom we still have something to learn.… The idea is not to return to Lenin, but to repeat him in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation. The return to Lenin aims neither at nostalgically re-enacting the “good old revolu­tionary times”, nor at an opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old programme to “new conditions”, but at repeating, in the present world­wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of reinventing the revolution­ary project…

p 6,11

Half the power of Lenin, says Žižek, is in the name, “the extent to which the signifier ‘Lenin’ retains its subversive edge” (p 312). That name stands for the harsh reality of revolution in flesh and blood, which is why it still enjoys the contempt of the intellectual prizefighters for the powers that be. Even people committed to overthrowing those powers are ignorant of Lenin’s revolutionary inspiration, his commitment in 1917 to win a world without classes or states, a socialism where “all will govern in turn and soon become accustomed to no one governing” (The State and Revolution). If the things this Lenin stood for are the same things we stand for, we would be mad to spurn his help in the fight.

Socialist Classics: Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Crisis of Social Democracy’

In Issue 62 (December 2015) Joe Conroy looked at a work that kept socialism alive amid the betrayals of the first world war.

In February 1915 Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned in Berlin. She had been sentenced the year before for inciting soldiers to dis­obedience, but the sentence hadn’t been carried out. The authorities clearly believed that putting her off the scene now would be useful. From the outbreak of the world war, she had been among the most vocal of the few socialists in Germany who dissented from their party’s support for the war, and were now beginning to organise and make their voice heard.

While her imprisonment was a major blow to these efforts, official hopes that Luxemburg’s voice would be silenced went unfulfilled. She could still write behind bars, and worked on a scathing indictment of the war and the Social Democratic Party’s acquiescence in it. By April it was ready and smuggled out, but her comrades on the outside, harassed and with little resources, couldn’t get it printed. Only when she was released after a year was it finally published, in secret, but the demand necessitated numerous reprints. She signed it with the pseudonym Junius—used in eighteenth-century England by a defender of popular rights against the monarchy—and it has often been known since as the Junius Pamphlet.

Luxemburg begins by describing the atmosphere of the war, now the initial hysteria had settled down: “mass butchery has become a tiresome, monotonous everyday task”. War was now literally a case of business as usual:

The cannon fodder that was loaded and patriotically cheered on in August and September is rotting in Belgium, in the Vosges, in Masuria, on the killing fields from which crops of profit shoot up powerfully.… Business is flourishing upon the ruins.… Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth—thus stands capitalist society, as it is.… Dividends are rising, and proletarians are falling.

But even worse was the response from the sworn enemies of capitalism: “in the midst of this inferno a world-historic tragedy has occurred: the capitulation of international social democracy”. The parliamentary representatives of the Social Democratic Party of Germany had voted to give financial support to the war, and the party as a whole had hastened to give political support: “it forgot all its principles, its pledges, the decisions of international congresses just at the moment when they should have been applied”. It had called for all classes to rally around the national flag in wartime, “declared the class struggle to be extinct”, but the other side was cleverer:

Have private property, capitalist exploitation and class rule by any chance ceased to exist? Have the property owners perhaps declared in a flush of patriotism: in view of the war, we hereby hand over for its duration the means of production—land, factories, works—as common property, renounce the exclusive right to profit from commodities, abolish all political privileges and sacrifice them on the altar of the fatherland as long as it is in danger?… The abolition of the class struggle was, therefore, an entirely one-sided affair.

This capitulation, repeated by social democrats in the other warring countries, led thousands of workers to go to the front without protest, to kill and be killed. It was not just weakening the working class from an intellectual or political point of view, but literally decimating them, physically exterminating them:

It is our strength, our hope that is being mowed down there in swathes, day after day, like grass before the scythe.… The flower of our manhood and youthful strength, hundreds of thousands whose socialist training in England and France, in Belgium, Germany and Russia was the product of decades-long work of education and agitation, other hundreds of thousands who could have been won over to socialism tomorrow, are falling and decaying miserably on the battlefields. The fruit of the sacrifices and toil of generations over decades is destroyed in a few weeks, the elite troops of the international proletariat are cut down at the root of life.

The excuse that Germany was fighting a noble war for democracy against the evil Russian dictatorship is torn apart. That dictatorship was one of the most oppressive on earth, but the revolutionary move­ment in Russia was growing and preparing to challenge it—until the outbreak of war temporarily disorientated and suppressed it: “‘German rifles’ are crushing, not Tsarism, but its opponent.” German propaganda lamented the plight of Poles under the Russian empire, but Luxemburg—who was one of them—points out that others suffered under German rule, where “Polish children had the German ‘Our Father’ beaten into them with bloody welts on their bodies”. But what else would the warmongers do but excuse their actions as defensive?

When and where has there been a war, since so-called public opinion has played a role in government calculations, in which each and every belligerent party did not, with a heavy heart, draw the sword for the one single purpose of defending its fatherland and its own righteous cause from the shameless attack of the enemy? The legend is as much a part of warfare as powder and lead.

The war could only be understood in its global context. Luxemburg traces the development of German imperialism in particular, and its role in the international power play which formed the backdrop to the outbreak of 1914. Imperialism is “an innately international phenomenon, an indivisible whole that can only be understood in all its inter-relations”, she writes. Looked at in isolation, the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia was a clear imperialist aggression, but “Serbia itself is only a pawn in the great chess game of world politics”, and she praises the Serbian socialists who saw that it would inevitably be dragged into the overall imperialist war, “a competitive struggle of an already fully-developed capitalism for world supremacy”.

From this she draws a general conclusion on the position of nations: “in today’s imperialist milieu there can no longer be any wars of national defence generally”. It was true enough to say that the nationalism of the great powers was a fraud designed to perpetuate oppression, even when they were invoking support for smaller states under their wing. But what about the attempts then being made by Egyptians or Africans or Irish to win national independence? Far from cloaking imperialist desires, they were throwing damaging spokes into the wheels of imperial chariots. Even though opposing empires naturally attempted to profit from their rivals’ discomfort, the demand to break away from empires deserved the full support of socialists.

A strange twist on Luxemburg’s anti-nationalism comes when she claims that “The highest duty of the Social Democracy towards its fatherland demanded that it expose the real background of this imperialist war… That would have been truly national”. To a large extent, she is trying to throw back at the party leaders their own pretensions of standing up for the German people. Her claim is that ordinary Germans would suffer from the war rather than benefitting, but to couch that in a nationalist phraseology—particularly one as inextricably imperialist as German nationalism was in 1914—is confusing, at best.

(Unfortunately, Luxemburg’s true position here is grossly distorted for English speakers by a translation published in New York in 1918 and still doing the rounds in print and on line, although it is often poor and sometimes inaccurate. She wrote that as long as imperialism exists, “the right of national self-determination has nothing at all in common with its practice”, but this is translated as “there can be no ‘national self-determination’”. The same translation says that “Today the nation is but a cloak that covers imperialist desires, a battle cry for imperialistic rivalries, the last ideological measure with which the masses can be persuaded to play the role of cannon fodder in imperialistic wars.” However, the words “Today the nation” have been dropped into the middle of a sentence, changing its meaning radically. Luxemburg was writing here about “The national phrase”, which imperialism has “perverted into its opposite”.)

But would the triumph of one particular side in the war be a more favourable result for the working class? This was like making “a choice between two beatings”, says Luxemburg:

For the European proletariat as a whole, victory or defeat of either of the two warring camps would be equally disastrous from its class standpoint. For war itself as such, whatever its military outcome, means the greatest conceivable defeat for the European proletariat, and the quickest forcing of peace by the international struggle of the proletariat can bring the only possible victory for the proletarian cause.

This contrasts with the ‘revolutionary defeatist’ position of Lenin, especially, that defeat of your own side would be preferable. Any anti-war agitation tends to weaken the particular state in which it takes place: successful agitation in Germany, for instance, would restrict the capacities of the German military. Luxemburg’s own activities show clearly that she never allowed the consideration of undermining the German war effort to hold her back. But defeat for one side necessarily implies victory for the other, and she is here speaking from the standpoint of the international working class. She was right to raise the idea of a third possibility coming out on top, of workers’ revolt exhausting the resources of both sides and ending the war altogether—and the final outcome of the war was not too far at all from that.

The war was confronting humanity as a whole with an over­arching choice: “either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or the victory of socialism, i.e., the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method: war”. The important thing was to learn this lesson, so that something could yet be salvaged from the slaughter:

Socialism is lost only if the international proletariat is unable to judge the depth of the fall, doesn’t learn from it.… The working class must always fearlessly look truth in the face, even the bitterest self-accusation… we will win if we have not forgotten how to learn.

What should socialists have done in August 1914? Not proclaim a revolution, but hold their nerve and speak the truth: “not ridiculous prescriptions and recipes of a technical nature, but the political watchword, clarity on the political tasks and interests of the proletariat in the war”. It is quite possible that such a stand would have proved un­popular in the first months of war hysteria. “At first we would perhaps have achieved nothing but that the honour of the German proletariat would be saved”, but even that would be no small thing. It would have maintained the socialist movement “like a rock in the roaring sea”, eventually attracting those sickened of the carnage and looking for solutions. When hatred of war connects with desire for a new world, such solutions become practical:

The madness will only stop and the bloody nightmare of hell will only disappear when the workers in Germany and France, in England and Russia finally awake from their intoxication, reach out a fraternal hand to each other, and drown the bestial chorus of warmongers and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the powerful old battle-cry of labour: Proletarians of all countries, unite!

State capitalism rides again!

Joe Conroy asked in Issue 37 (September 2009) how socialists should respond to the increasing economic role of the state.

It’s not that long ago that you’d have to consult the back-page wish-lists of far left newspapers to meet the demand ‘Nationalise the banks’ (exclamation mark optional). But these days, you can’t move for would-be nationalisers. It is now the official policy of the ICTU and the Labour Party that the state should take over the banking system, and plenty of mainstream economic commentators agree, many of them far from being left-wing. And this is not just theoretical: governments from Washington DC to London to Dublin have become the proud owners of banks and other concerns. State intervention in the economy is back with a vengeance, front and centre on the agenda of conventional politics.

All this has brought a wry smile to socialist faces. The staunch defenders of free enterprise, who never missed a chance to condemn the paralysing hand of government in the economy, are all of a sudden falling over each other to call on the state to bail them out. Those who hailed the market as a god-given mechanism for cutting out the dead wood and ensuring the survival of the fittest now beg the state to step in and prevent the economic system taking its natural course. And officially we’re now supposed to own some of the same banks that charged us for the privilege of giving them our money. Until very recently, you couldn’t have made it up.

But do we have anything to rejoice about in all this? Has capitalism been forced to abolish its own laws? Has the superior logic of socialism imposed itself on the economy? Does this sharply increased role of the state constitute a move towards socialist trans­formation, a step in the right direction?

The idea that socialism is about taking state ownership of the economy is widespread but false. For a start, the ultimate goal of socialism is a world without states, where human beings freely associate with each other without the need of any external agency of coercion to keep us in line. A political movement aiming at getting rid of the state could hardly have the object of making the state master of economic activity.

But if a stateless society is the final destination, does state take­over of means of production not feature somewhere along the way? It does, but the $64,000 question is: What state? Or whose state?

Marx and Engels did state clearly in the Communist Manifesto that a socialist revolution would have to “centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state”, but made it just as clear what this state would be: “the proletariat organised as ruling class”. This isn’t a case of the capitalist state nationalising companies. Instead it envisages the working class establishing organs to take and hold political power, and these organs moving to take economic power too.

Much of the misunderstanding is rooted in a stereotyped conception of what capitalism is. It is generally seen as a system of privately-owned companies competing against each other and selling their products through markets. While this undoubtedly corresponds to a considerable amount of capitalist activity, it is not the only type, and neither is it the system’s defining characteristic. The basis of capitalism is the exploitation of people who don’t own means of production by those who do, extracting surplus value beyond the wage allowed to workers. Such capitalist ownership and exploitation can be individual and private, but it can just as well be collective and statified. The subordination of the worker’s life-activity to the dictates of capital remains fundamentally the same.

Far from contradicting each other, privately-owned capital and state-sponsored capital complement each other. Capitalism has ever and always utilised the state to forcibly create the conditions it needs to prosper. Where private capital has proved unable to develop especially the transport and communications infrastructure it needed, the state has shouldered the burden for it. This all reinforces the socialist contention that the state is no neutral arbiter standing above classes but—as the Communist Manifesto puts it—“a committee that manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeois class”, even occasionally pursuing that class’s common interest in opposition to individual sectors of it.

The best socialist thinkers were unambiguous that there was nothing socialist about nationalisation. Engels noted in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that

a certain spurious socialism has made its appearance—here and there even degenerating into a kind of flunkeyism—which declares that all taking over by the state, even the Bismarckian kind, is in itself socialistic. If, however, the taking over of the tobacco trade by the state was socialistic, Napoleon and Metternich would rank among the founders of socialism. If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, constructed its own main railway lines; if Bismarck, without any economic compulsion, took over the main railway lines in Prussia, simply in order to be better able to organise and use them for war… such actions were in no sense socialist measures, whether direct or indirect, conscious or unconscious. Otherwise, the royal maritime company, the royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailors in the army, would be socialist institutions…

In ‘State Monopoly versus Socialism’, a chapter of his pamphlet The New Evangel, Connolly observed growing demands for nationalis­ation, but was adamant that

to call such demands ‘Socialistic’ is in the highest degree mis­leading. Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production; without this co-operative control the public ownership by the State is not Socialism, it is only State Capitalism.…
Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism—if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are all State officials—but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials of labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.…
It will thus be seen that an immense gulf separates the ‘nationalising’ proposals of the middle class from the ‘social­ising’ demands of the revolutionary working class. The first proposes to endow a Class State—repository of the political power of the Capitalist Class—with certain powers and func­tions to be administered in the common interest of the possess­ing class; the second proposes to subvert the Class State and replace it with the Socialist State, representing organised society —the Socialist Republic. To the cry of the middle-class reform­ers, ‘Make this, or that, the property of the government,’ we reply, ‘Yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property.’

The early Communist International held to a similar position. Speaking at its 1922 congress, Trotsky dealt with those who claimed that property was being progressively socialised under capitalism:

To this we Marxists replied that so long as political power remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie this socialization was not socialization at all and that it would not lead to socialism but only to state capitalism. To put it differently, the ownership of various factories, railways and so on by diverse capitalists would be superseded by an ownership of the totality of enter­prises, railways and so on by the very same bourgeois firm, called the state. In the same measure as the bourgeoisie retains political power, it will, as a whole, continue to exploit the proletariat through the medium of state capitalism, just as an individual bourgeois exploits, by means of private ownership, “his own” workers. The term “state capitalism” was thus put forward, or at all events, employed polemically by revolutionary Marxists against the reformists, for the purpose of explaining and proving that genuine socialization begins only after the conquest of power by the working class.

State capitalism grew immensely through the twentieth century. The world wars saw states taking over the direction of whole economies, laying down what was to be produced, when, how and by whom. Gaps in post-war economies were filled by nationalising energy generation, transport and other strategic sectors. In extreme cases, this general tendency went as far as turning whole societies state capitalist—in Russia, eastern Europe, China, Cuba and else­where—even installing a whole new state capitalist class sometimes.

Ironically in view of his stubborn refusal to apply the concept to Stalin’s Russia, Trotsky’s comments envisage a “bourgeois firm, called the state” exploiting the whole working class. Marx foresaw the theoretical possibility in Capital when describing capital’s tendency towards centralisation: “In a given society this limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company.”

The reality of workers’ exploitation in Stalinist societies escapes explanation unless the capitalist dynamic underlying their econ­omies is understood. Claiming them as socialist societies leaves us supporting that exploitation; defending them as some kind of halfway house between capitalism and socialism leaves us essen­tially making excuses for it. The nature of such societies is not an un­important historical matter, but a vital issue for today. People have a right to know what socialism is and what socialism isn’t, and unless they hear unequivocally that it has as little in common with state capitalist dictatorship as it has with Western private capitalism, who can blame them for turning elsewhere?

So nationalisation is not something to be supported on principle by socialists. The current wave of bank nationalisations, for instance, is something we should oppose. It would be better to let the banks and their rich clients stew in their own juice than to nationalise their debts and force working-class taxpayers to pull the irons out of the fire for them. When governments pay top dollar to their friends to make the rest of us pay for the error of their ways, nationalisation is clearly serving the interests of the capitalist class.

Surely nationalised companies like CIÉ or the ESB should be defended against privatisation, though? They should, but we need to be clear what exactly we are defending and why. The mere fact of state ownership in itself isn’t worth defending. But privatisation in­variably means an attack on the conditions of workers in a company and on the services it provides, and that is something to oppose all the way. Defending the current structures of a state company—with a slogan along the lines of ‘Hands Off CIÉ’, for example—ignores the miserable realities of life for workers employed there or dependent on its services. The only viable stance is to oppose any attempt to worsen the situation of workers while putting forward a radically different way of running things.

There is sometimes an actual contradiction between defending the interests of the working class and defending a nationalised company. Some state companies are turned into unashamedly commercial enterprises without being privatised. Even before it was sold off, Aer Lingus was virtually indistinguishable from most private airlines as far as its workers were concerned. The process which brought that about was accepted by many trade unionists in the vain hope that it might stave off privatisation, but in fact it only paved the way for it. Because nationalisation as such was seen as something to be defended rather than the concrete position of workers, unions who thought they were keeping the butcher at bay ended up helping to fatten the company up for him.

The traditional left-wing solution of calling for something to be nationalised ‘under workers’ control’ is inadequate. It reproduces the top-down takeover of an enterprise by the state while holding out the illusion that somehow workers will be in the driving seat rather than the capitalist class who own that state. Consciously or unconsciously, it confuses the issue: capitalist state control is the opposite of workers’ control, not its companion. While it isn’t possible to create islands of socialism in a capitalist ocean, a co-operative run by workers that demands resources from the state with no strings attached is far better than a nationalised corporation with workers on the board of management.

The ‘free market’ phase of capitalism held ideological sway for a generation and more, but that period is now coming to an end. More and more, the system is turning towards state capitalism to see it through the present crisis. This makes it even more important for socialists to clearly articulate their attitude to it. Our job is not to replace private employers with a state employer, but to replace the rule of capital—private or state—with the rule of the working class, laying the foundations for a society of free associated labour. As capitalism gets more brutal in its attacks on workers, they need to look, not to the state, but to their own latent power to collectively take charge of society and rebuild it from the ground up.

Socialist Classics: Leon Trotsky, ‘Literature and Revolution’

One of Marxism’s best discussions of art was discussed in Issue 22 (July 2005) by Joe Conroy.

Marxist writings on literature are often irritating. Either they content themselves with unobjectionable generalisations, or engage in such particular analysis that only the specialist can get much out of them. Very few manage to steer between the two rocks, and Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution is possibly the best of them. It bears the marks of its time, of course: most of the writers from the Russia of 1924 that he refers to have passed into obscurity, so that today’s reader can make little sense of the specifics. But there is enough that still applies in there to stimulate thought among socialists on questions of art and culture.

First of all, Trotsky insists that socialists should actually be thinking about such questions. The victory of socialism would not be measured by its ability to satisfy basic needs like food and clothing, but by its ability to foster a new art. This was an indispensable part of humanity creating a free life for itself: “the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry”, for instance (Literature and Revolution, Michigan 1960, p 170).

For some reason, this conviction of the absolute necessity of art is rare among socialists. Our indictments of capitalism tend not to mention the stifling of artistic creativity: the changes we call for tend not to encompass artistic revolution. The occasional criticisms we make of official arts policies usually boil down to mumbling that more money should probably be spent on that sort of thing. The idea that we should be talking about art and its role, pushing artistic debate forward as opposed to just reviewing the odd novel, is still lacking. Most socialists prefer to stick to bread and butter in their politics—forgetting that bread and butter is only a bare culinary minimum, not a proper square meal.

For Trotsky, art was not just necessary in a holistic sense, as part of a fully-rounded development, but also as part of the struggle to change the world: “how can one reconstruct oneself or one’s life without seeing oneself in the ‘mirror’ of literature?” To reject this would be “to strike from the hands of the class which is building a new society its most important weapon” (p 137). He writes this in a post-revolutionary context, with the capitalist class overthrown: prior to such a situation, art can hardly be the “most important weapon” in the working-class arsenal. But it is one of the most important. To fully understand the world we are trying to change and the world we are trying to create, we need a sense of perception that is artistic.

Many, if not most socialists underestimate the transformation that a socialist revolution would try to bring about. It’s not a matter of writing a new name on the title deeds to the means of production, but of human beings living an entirely different kind of life. Escap­ing from the chains of material want is an indispensable foundation for this, but no more than that. The key is people relating to each other as freely associated active individuals, making a reality of “All the emotions which we revolutionists, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming—so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians—such as disinterested friendship, love for one’s neighbor, sympathy” (p 230). At the end of the day, socialist politics is about creating a desire for such a life—or rather, awakening the desire for it that is already in us, but buried—and a contempt for a condition that denies it.

To comprehend how the need for human liberation is crushed out of us calls for an approach which is beyond the journalist’s statistic, the documentary maker’s camera, the orator’s phrase. To see the reality of how class society distorts and constricts the most intimate aspects of human relations requires a reconstruction and a presentation of them that only an artist can accomplish. To realise how people do their best to maintain a human existence with each other in spite of it all can’t be done without the peculiar type of ‘mirror’ that art holds up to us. It is only right that most socialists admire the work of Ken Loach—but how many have noticed that Kes is a far more revolutionary film than Land and Freedom?

Trotsky naturally insists on art being indissolubly linked to the society it is produced in, and the class make-up of that society. The retort that art is an expression of individual feeling doesn’t contradict this at all, because it doesn’t ask how this individuality is formed and how social change “shakes up individuality” (p 12). Socialism is not about suppressing individuality but developing it, and again, literature is necessary to do this (p 225):

What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoievsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and pro­founder understanding of its psychic forces and of the rôle of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer.… [The literature of Maxim Gorky] fed the early Spring revolutionism of the proletariat on the eve of 1905, because he helped to awaken individuality in that class in which individual­ity, once awakened, seeks contact with other awakened individualities. The proletariat is in need of artistic food and education…

All this is Greek to a lot of socialists: “there are many people in this world who think as revolutionists and who feel as Philistines” (p 147). This applies equally to some of those socialists who ‘go in for’ the arts. The high jinks, politely termed ‘street theatre’, that accompany some left-wing demonstrations these days are usually painful to behold. Much of the poetry solemnly recited at the odd left-wing event with cultural pretensions should really have stayed in the shoebox under the bed. A lot of the time, this is just a case of people who, if they were half as good as they think they are, would be twice as good as they really are. But often, their artistic in­adequacies are not unrelated to the shallowness of their political commitment. Formally, they accept the socialist principles and all the rest of it, but it’s only skin deep: “they have not entered, so to speak, into their blood”, as Trotsky says of one group of writers (p 146), and so they can’t express them artistically.

“Proletarian art should not be second-rate art”, he writes (p 205). The fact that it so often is shows how low a premium is put on it. Artists have to pay their dues, and Trotsky devotes much of the book to straightforward formal criticism. A poet has to learn how to fashion a line of verse, a musician has to learn the chords, a painter has to learn how to wield the brush. Praising a bad work of art and putting it on the wall might be justifiable for a national school teacher, but socialists shouldn’t allow diplomacy or even political affinity to come between them and honest criticism.

And that criticism has to be artistic before it is political (p 178): “A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art.” Trotsky goes on to say that Marxism can explain the historical roots of artistic development, but is careful not to make any more extravagant claims for it (p 218):

The Marxian method affords an opportunity to estimate the development of the new art, to trace all its sources, to help the most progressive tendencies by a critical illumination of the road, but it does not do more than that. Art must make its own way and by its own means.… The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command.

The last sentence betrays the way Trotsky had come to conceive of socialist thought and activity as coming entirely out of and through “the Party”. The book came out in the midst of the squabble for Lenin’s succession, and Trotsky, with the zeal of a late convert to Bolshevism, was at pains to prove himself Leninicis ipsis Leniniores: more Leninist than Lenin. But his point about socialist attitudes to art is clear and correct.

A socialist society being built should allow “complete freedom of self-determination in the field of art” (p 14). Of course, a play advocating the return of the Tsar and the shooting of all the Bolsheviks should be treated the same as a pamphlet advocating the same, but outside of clearly counter-revolutionary art, artists should face no hindrance. The persecution of artists who wouldn’t bend the knee to the Russian Communist Party was still a few years ahead as Trotsky was writing but, although he deplores any “petty partisan maliciousness” towards awkward artists (p 221), such maliciousness was already paving the way.

He makes clear that “a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders” is foreign to Marxism, as are demands “that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital” (p 170). On the other hand, the only artist Trotsky singles out for wholehearted praise is one Demyan Biedny. The reason none of us have heard of him is that he was a not too significant author of agit-prop poetry. There’s no reason why propaganda art can’t be good art, of course, but Trotsky praises the propagandist rather than the artist (p 213): “Not only in those rare cases when Apollo calls him to the holy sacrifice does Demyan Biedny create, but day in and day out, as the events and the Central Committee of the Party demand.” Faced with this, the best approach is: Don’t do as Trotsky does, do as Trotsky says.

When socialism has finally triumphed over capitalism, he writes, political struggles will be replaced by aesthetic ones: people will form ‘parties’ for or against a particular architectural project or artistic style. This is already happening to some extent, as the threat to drive a motorway through the Tara-Skryne valley has shown, and nothing goes up in Dublin without everyone having an opinion on it. (Trotsky’s impression of the Eiffel Tower could equally apply to the Spike (p 247): “one is attracted by the technical simplicity of its form, and, at the same time, repelled by its aimlessness”.) “The wall between art and industry will come down” in a socialist society (p 249), making all work into a work of art. Mountains will be moved and rivers re-routed, says Trotsky, adjusting the world to human taste. The results of reckless interference with nature would cause us to be more humble today than to treat the earth as clay to be moulded as we wish—but this is maybe only counselling a more cautious way of doing the same thing. Whether Trotsky is right in believing that socialism would make Aristotle average, his vision of artistic liberation dwarfs the limited horizons of many socialists. But above this ridge, new peaks will rise.

Revolutionary Lives: Leon Trotsky (part three: 1929-1940)

Joe Conroy‘s look at Trotsky’s work concluded in Issue 18 in March 2004.

The last decade of Trotsky’s life was marked by unprecedented adversity. While fascism took over more of Europe, Stalin’s rule in the USSR grew steadily more brutal. It drove Trotsky from one place of exile to another—from Turkey to France to Norway to Mexico—hounding him with lies, abuse and violence. The fact that he held fast to his principles throughout is a tribute to his undying loyalty to the socialist cause.


Spain spent the 1930s in a continuous state of political crisis, culminating in Franco’s fascist coup in 1936. Much of the initial resistance consisted of workers and small farmers seizing factories and land from owners who sided with fascism. But the Communist party and others pushed for a ‘people’s front’ policy, in which all classes would put aside their differences and defend democracy. Working people would have to postpone hope of improving their situation in society and accept their inferior position until Franco was out of the way. Trotsky argued that such a strategy fatally weakened the struggle:

The demand not to transgress the bounds of bourgeois democracy signifies in practice not a defence of the democratic revolution but a repudiation of it.… The fighters of a revolutionary army must be clearly aware of the fact that they are fighting for their full social liberation and not for the reestablishment of the old (“democratic”) forms of exploitation.1

The rise of Hitler in Germany was made easier by the Communist Party’s refusal to fight alongside the Social Democrats against him. They maintained that the reformists were little better than the fascists at the end of the day. Trotsky didn’t deny the Social Democratic betrayals of the working class but, because a Nazi victory would crush all workers’ organisations without exception, it was possible and necessary for revolutionaries to form a united front with them. This would mean unity in action, but not hiding differences with each other: “we shall criticize each other with full freedom… But when the fascist wants to force a gag down our throats, we will repulse him together!”2

In both cases the policy pursued by Stalin and the Communist Parties under his control had contributed to fascist dictatorships coming to power. The internal workings of these parties, wrote Trotsky, prevented them from taking a real part in the workers’ struggles:

The German Communist Party was growing rapidly… But before the hour of test came, it was ravaged from within. The stifling of the interior life of the party, the wish to give orders instead of to convince, the zigzag policies, the appointment of leaders from the top, the system of lies and deception for the masses—all this demoralized the party to its marrow. When danger approached, the party was found to be a corpse.3

The parties had created a layer of members unable to think for themselves, fit only to obey orders from the leadership: “Whoever bows his head submissively before every command from above, is good for nothing as a revolutionary fighter!”4


The disastrous effects of Stalinism in Russia itself were also ruthlessly exposed by Trotsky’s pen. While Stalin claimed that a socialist society was under construction, if not already built, Trotsky pointed to the glaring inequalities between ordinary workers and the bureaucrats: “such socialism cannot but seem to the masses a new re-facing of capitalism, and they are not far wrong”. There existed a “whole stratum, which does not engage directly in productive labor, but administers, orders, commands, pardons and punishes”.

the Soviet government occupies in relation to the whole economic system the position which a capitalist occupies in relation to a single enterprise.…
The transfer of the factories to the state changed the situation of the worker only juridically. In reality, he is compelled to live in want and work a definite number of hours for a definite wage.… In the bureau­cracy he sees the manager, in the state, the employer.5

But he maintained that the USSR was different to capitalist societies. The land, the means of production, and foreign trade were in the hands of the state, and this defined “the nature of the Soviet Union as a proletarian state”. The bureaucracy, in so far as it maintained state ownership, “still remains a weapon of proletarian dictatorship”.6 For all its shortcomings, Russia “still remains a degenerated workers’ state”.7

Trotsky initially clung to the hope that Stalinist rule could be overcome peacefully, and only revised his view in 1933, when the Communist Parties signally failed to prevent Hitler coming to power. However, the revolution he revolution he then called for was one “confined within the limits of political revolution”, overthrowing the political rule of the bureaucracy but, in economic matters, going no further than “a series of very important reforms, but not another social revolution”.8 The USSR was “a damaged workers’ state… which still continues to run and which can be completely reconditioned with the replacement of some parts”.9

There is a clear contradiction between the reality of Stalinist society as Trotsky described it and the conclusion he drew from it. The state existing in Russia was no kind of a workers’ state at all, whatever qualifying adjective preceded the term. As workers in any nationalised company can testify, state ownership in itself doesn’t change the dynamics of capitalist exploitation. The economy belonged to the state, indeed, but the state belonged to a class of bureaucrats who played the role of capitalists. It is true, as Trotsky said, that they couldn’t pass their wealth on directly to their children, but in practice they could and did pass on their privileged lifestyle and social position. Overthrowing them would mean more than a “political revolution” with a democratisation of economic management systems, but rebuilding society anew from the ground up, starting with a fresh workers’ revolution.

Years before, in 1922, Trotsky had given a much clearer response to those who saw state ownership, rather than workers’ power, as the defining feature of socialism:

To this we Marxists replied that as long as political power remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie this socialization was not socialization at all and that it would not lead to socialism but only to state capitalism. To put it differently, the ownership of various factories, railways and so on by diverse capitalists would be superseded by an ownership of the totality of enterprises, railways and so on by the very same bourgeois firm, called the state. In the same measure as the bourgeoisie retains political power, it will, as a whole, continue to exploit the proletariat through the medium of state capitalism, just as an individual bourgeois exploits, by means of private ownership, “his own” workers. The term “state capitalism” was thus put forward, or at all events, employed polemically by revolutionary Marxists against the reformists, for the purpose of explaining and proving that genuine socialization begins only after the conquest of power by the working class.10

Just as Stalin’s failure to stop Hitler in 1933 caused Trotsky to abandon hope of reforming Stalinist Russia, so the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 led many of Trotsky’s followers to reject his definition of Russia as a workers’ state. Trotsky was having none of it—not least because he felt Stalin was on the brink of collapse anyway:

A totalitarian regime, whether of Stalinist or fascist type, by its very essence can only be a temporary transitional regime… incapable of perpetuating itself.… Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall?11

Seeing a passing phenomenon where, in reality, an established society existed clearly led Trotsky to underestimate the stability of the regime.

Because Trotsky saw Stalinist Russia as a more progressive society than others, he adopted a stance of “Unconditional defence of the USSR” in time of war. Even when Stalin occupied eastern Poland on foot of his deal with Hitler, Trotsky welcomed his imposition of Russian property forms there: “the statification of property in the occupied territories is in itself a progressive measure… the Kremlin with its bureaucratic methods gave an impulse to the socialist revolution in Poland”.12 While he had previously written that “The bureaucracy which became a reactionary force in the USSR cannot play a revolutionary role in the world arena”,13 he now portrayed it overthrowing capitalism in eastern Europe. While he had previously written that “Only the working class can seize the forces of production from the stranglehold of the exploiters”,14 he now portrayed the Stalinist bureaucracy carrying out that task.

To the rule of Stalinist bureaucrats, Trotsky counterposed the demo­cratic rule of the working class:

the dictatorship of the proletariat by its very essence can and should be the supreme expression of workers’ democracy. In order to bring about a great social revolution, there must be for the proletariat a supreme manifestation of all its forces and all its capacities: the proletariat is organized democratically precisely in order to put an end to its enemies.… The heavy hand of dictatorship is directed against the class enemies: the foundation of the dictatorship is workers’ democracy.15

This would mean a range of different workers’ parties existing and criticising each other. While Trotsky glossed over the fact that he himself had justified one-party rule through the 1920s, his position now was a distinct advance. But in the heat of polemic he slid back towards the old position: “if the dictatorship of the proletariat means anything at all, then it means that the vanguard of the class is armed with the resources of the state in order to repel dangers, including those emanating from the backward layers of the proletariat itself”.16 Instead of the working class freely discussing the way forward while uniting to forcibly impose its will on the capitalists, this envisaged one “vanguard” section of the working class forcibly imposing its will on other sections—a far cry from pluralist workers’ democracy.


Trotsky believed that the struggle for socialism couldn’t do without him in this period: “now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word… There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method”.17 The same went for the Fourth International, founded in 1938 to organise his supporters worldwide. He wasn’t lacking in high hopes for it: “During the next ten years the program of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions”.18

But it was not to be. Uniting socialists in as much common activity as possible was quite right, but 1938 was no time for a conference of 21 socialists to be proclaiming a world party of socialist revolution, complete with a fully-fledged intercontinental structure of organisation. The First and Second Internationals had emerged from upward swings of the workers’ movement, and the Third came on the back of an actual socialist revolution. On the other hand, the Fourth had, as Trotsky put it, “arisen out of… the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history”.19 An all-out revolutionary offensive launched in the decade of Hitler, Franco and Stalin was never likely to make much headway.

One of the new International’s problems was Trotsky’s contention that “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” The strike wave of 1936 in France, for instance, “revealed the wholehearted readiness of the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist system”, but their leaders “succeeded in canalizing and damming, at least temporarily, the revolutionary stream”.20 The events of 1936 were undoubt­edly impressive, but a working class that was really ready to overthrow capitalism would hardly turn around and go back to sleep at the word of any leaders. By reducing everything to bad leadership, Trotsky’s view gave the impression of workers chomping at the bit but powerless to see through their leaders: if different leaders were only provided, then the revolution could proceed. An earlier comment of his was nearer the mark: “The quality of the leadership is, of course, far from a matter of indifference for the outcome of the conflict, but it is not the only factor, and in the last analysis is not decisive.”21

Trotsky felt that socialists needed to have a programme of demands to present to workers. To take a typical example: “Against a bounding rise in prices… one can fight only under the slogan of a sliding scale of wages.”22 So, if inflation reaches 5%, wages should automatically go up 5%. But it is more common, if conditions are at all favourable, for workers to demand 10%—to try and use the opportunity to increase their real wages rather than running to stand still. The demand for a sliding wage scale has seldom, if ever, been put forward in actual struggle. Telling socialists that it was the “only” way to fight inflation could only encourage them to privilege their own ready-made programme at the expense of demands emerging from real workers’ struggles. Trotsky had proposed a more flexible method of inter­vention some years before, when he said that revolutionaries needed to develop “the capacity to put forward at the right moment sharp, specific fighting slogans that by themselves don’t derive from the ‘program’ but are dictated by the circumstances of the day”.23

The isolation of Trotsky’s followers bred an almost messianic convic­tion regarding their role as the one true revolutionaries. Trotsky made the absurd claim that “The advanced workers of all the world are already firmly convinced that the overthrow of Mussolini, Hitler, and their agents and imitators will occur only under the leadership of the Fourth International.”24 No other socialists came up to scratch: they were “the only genuinely revolutionary current which has never repudiated its banner, has not compromised with its enemies, and which alone represents the future”.25 Socialists in Spain who disagreed with Trotsky were informed by him that “Outside the line of the Fourth International there is only the line of Stalin-Caballero” (Largo Caballero was the Spanish prime minister).26 When the revolutionary Victor Serge begged to differ, Trotsky resorted to the kind of tactics the Stalinists had employed against himself: Serge was only “a disillusioned petty-bourgeois intellectual” aiming “to subdue Marxism… to paralyze the socialist revolution”, and the likes of him were “carriers of infection” in the movement.27 Trotsky’s point of view was often, though not always, correct; but unleashing his wrath on any socialist who thought differently was a recipe for severely narrowing the potential for agreement.

The communist future

Treating Leon Trotsky as a revolutionary oracle—as some have done, and still do—is never going to utilise his contributions to the cause he was devoted to. His ideas of socialist organisation in his later years were seriously flawed. His opposition to Stalinism was all the weaker for being conditional, picking out good aspects of the system to defend. But his stand against the Stalinist bureaucracy in unimaginably hard times was truly heroic. His fight to provide an alternative to its betrayals still remains relevant—above all, his understanding of permanent revolution, linking the fight against all oppression with the international socialist revolution.

Stalin never forgave Trotsky, and made considerable efforts to silence him. In Mexico, where Trotsky lived from 1937, Stalin’s supporters perse­cuted him endlessly in the press and even launched a gun attack on his home. A Stalinist agent managed to infiltrate the household and, one day, smashed a pickaxe into Trotsky’s skull. Trotsky struggled with him fiercely and tried to survive. But on 21 August 1940 Trotsky’s revolutionary life came to an end.

Six months earlier, in poor health and aware of the threat of assassin­ation, Trotsky had written a testament:

For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolution­ist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.
…Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.28


  1. Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39) (New York 1973), p 307, 320.
  2. Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York 1971), p 355.
  3. Leon Trotsky, Whither France? (London 1974), p 85.
  4. The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p 103.
  5. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York 1937), p 120, 138, 43, 241-2.
  6. Ibid, p 248-9.
  7. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York 1973), p 102.
  8. The Revolution Betrayed, p 288, 253.
  9. Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism (London 1971), p 30.
  10. Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume Two (London 1974), p 245.
  11. In Defence of Marxism, p 16-17.
  12. Ibid, p 51, 23, 163.
  13. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 106.
  14. Whither France?, p 41.
  15. Ibid, p 91.
  16. Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours (New York 1973), p 59.
  17. Trotsky’s Diary in Exile 1935 (London 1958), p 54.
  18. Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-9) (New York 1969), p 59.
  19. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 111.
  20. Ibid, p 73-4.
  21. The Revolution Betrayed, p 87.
  22. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 76.
  23. The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 143.
  24. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 102.
  25. Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937-38) (New York 1970), p 160.
  26. The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 262.
  27. Their Morals and Ours, p 60-1, 66. For an indication of how little foundation Trotsky’s insults had, see Joe Conroy, ‘Revolutionary Lives: Victor Serge’, Red Banner 9.
  28. Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, p 139-40.

Revolutionary Lives: Leon Trotsky (part two: 1921-29)

Joe Conroy‘s look at Trotsky’s life and work continued in Issue 17 (November 2003).

The early years of the Russian revolution, for all their difficulties, engendered great hopes of human liberation. Trotsky was insistent that the emancipation of the most downtrodden was at the heart of socialism:

the revolution is, before and above all, the awakening of humanity, its onward march, and is marked with a growing respect for the personal dignity of every individual, with an ever-increasing concern for those who are weak. A revolution does not deserve its name if, with all its might and all the means at its disposal, it does not help the woman—twofold and threefold enslaved as she has been in the past—to get out on the road of individual and social progress. A revolution does not deserve its name if it does not take the greatest care possible of the children—the future race for whose benefit the revolution has been made.1

The working class had not taken power to hold on to it indefinitely, but to remove the need for it. “The liberating significance of the dictatorship of the proletariat consists in the fact that it is temporary—for a brief period only—that it is a means of clearing the road and of laying the foundations of a society without classes and of a culture based upon solidarity.”2 Such a culture would know no such thing as a state, people instead forming a voluntary social bond: “Just as people in a chorus sing harmoniously not because they are compelled to but because it is pleasant to them, so under communism the harmony of relationships will answer the personal needs of each and every individual.”3

Trotsky had always maintained that revolution could never survive in Russia alone, that socialism could only be victorious internationally. He spent much of his time encouraging and criticising the revolutionary groups that took shape across Europe following the first world war. Unless they succeeded in organising themselves effectively, clarifying their political activity and winning over a majority of the working class, great oppor­tunities would go to waste: “The most mature revolutionary situation without a revolutionary party of the necessary dimensions, without correct leadership, is just like a knife without a blade.”4

These revolutionaries had the support of only a minority of the workers, most of whom still supported the reformist politicians and union leaders. To win over the majority, socialists had to engage in joint activity with reformists on issues affecting the basic interests of the working class. Such united fronts would not mean that socialists would abandon their criticism of reformism. On the contrary, they would provide a chance to prove in practice that revolutionary politics made more sense:

We participate in a united front but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. We function in the united front as an independent detachment. It is precisely in the course of struggle that broad masses must learn from experience that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others, that we are more audacious and resolute.5

The young revolutionary parties also needed vibrant internal democracy and debate in order to develop: “Without a real freedom of party life, freedom of discussion, and freedom of establishing their course collectively, and by means of groupings, these parties will never become a decisive revolutionary force.”6 But through the 1920s, this became less and less the case. The decay originated with the increasing bureaucratisation of Russia’s Communist Party.

The party leadership gathered ever greater control in its hands, pushing aside and silencing those who disagreed with the line from above. It started “to drop ready-made decisions on the party’s head, decisions that have been discussed and arrived at in gatherings of the ruling faction which are kept secret from the party”.7 As a result, “the party was living, as it were, on two storeys: the upper storey, where things are decided, and the lower storey, where all you do is learn of the decisions”.8

The devastation Russia had suffered in the world war and the civil war had left the working class exhausted and atomised. In the absence of workers’ revolution elsewhere, the bureaucracy held power and started to dig itself in. Joseph Stalin became the predominant spokesperson for their interests, above all with the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’: even without international revolution, Russia could build a socialist society on its own. Trotsky fought tooth and nail against this blatant abandonment of Marxist internationalism: “Soviet Russia will be able to maintain herself and to develop only in the event of world revolution… only if it serves as the starting point and remains an integral part of the world revolution of the international proletariat”.9

The Stalinist policy unfolded with disastrous results in China, a country in the grip of imperialism and landlord rule. Revolution broke out there in 1925, but the Chinese Communist Party had been instructed by Moscow to join the middle-class nationalist Kuomintang party, and to support its leadership without criticism. The Kuomintang suppressed uprisings of workers and peasants, and massacred Communists. The Communist Party was then made to transfer its allegiance to a left-wing faction of the Kuomintang, which went on to treat them in similar fashion. The Chinese working class went down to a tragic defeat.

Stalin’s theory had decreed that the fight for socialism was not on the agenda in China, and had to wait until national independence was won. Trotsky countered that national liberation would be won as part of a struggle which also addressed the social and economic oppression of the working people:

Really to arouse the workers and peasants against imperialism is possible only by connecting their basic and most profound life interests with the cause of the country’s liberation.…
The victory over foreign imperialism can only be won by means of the toilers of town and country driving it out of China.… They cannot rise under the bare slogan of national liberation, but only in direct struggle against the big landlords, the military satraps, the usurers, the capitalist brigands.

The imperialists and landlords would be overthrown by “a revolution on whose banner the toilers and oppressed write plainly their own demands”.10

The catastrophe in China led Trotsky to extend the theory of permanent revolution, which until now he had only applied to Russia. In countries like China, he argued, oppressed by colonialism and economic backwardness, the capitalists couldn’t be relied upon to fight as they were usually them­selves linked to the oppressor. Therefore,

the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation… The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.… it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.11

Powerful and all as the bureaucracy now was, Trotsky believed that the working class was still in ultimate control of Russia. “If we did not believe that our state is a proletarian state, though with bureaucratic deformations… if we did not believe that our development was socialist… then, it need not be said, our place would not be in the ranks of a Communist Party.” The struggle against the bureaucracy “is a reformist struggle”, because “Power has not yet been torn from the hands of the proletariat.”12 If this were not the case, a different approach would follow:

If the party is a corpse, a new party must be built on a new spot, and the working class must be told about it openly.… if the dictatorship of the proletariat is liquidated, the banner of the second proletarian revolution must be unfurled. That is how we would act if the road of reform, for which we stand, proved hopeless.13

Although this is far clearer in hindsight than it was then, the road of reform was indeed hopeless by the time Trotsky wrote these words. The Stalinist bureaucracy was already too entrenched to be voted out of power at party conferences—conferences which were now no more than a rubber stamp for the bureaucracy’s policies. The opposition movement still had significant support in some sections of the working class: if, as some of its members proposed, it organised openly against Stalin as a new party for a new revolution, its chances of success would probably have been greater. Trotsky’s position prevailed, however, and the opposition resolved “to keep these differences within the confines of our continued work and our joint responsibility for the policy of the party”.14

He even agreed that no other party but the Communist Party should be allowed to exist: “the party has a monopoly in the political field, something absolutely necessary for the revolution”. Forming an opposition party was excluded in principle: “We will fight with all our power against the idea of two parties, because the dictatorship of the proletariat demands as its very core a single proletarian party.”15 Even the existence of factions within the party he ruled out of order: “I have never recognized freedom for groupings inside the party, nor do I now recognize it”.16 Trotsky’s commitment to the straitjacket of party unity reached a masochistic pitch in the following statement at a party conference:

Comrades, none of us wishes to be or can be right against the party. In the last instance the party is always right… I know that one ought not to be right against the party. One can be right only with the party and through the party because history has not created any other way for the realization of one’s rightness. The English have the saying ‘My country, right or wrong’. With much greater justification we can say: My party, right or wrong…17

So Trotsky yielded to party discipline. When the party ordered an end to debate, he obeyed and stayed silent. “We must not do anything at this moment”, he told his supporters:18 a recipe for sitting and waiting while the other side strengthened its position. When the bureaucracy decided to hush up Lenin’s deathbed advice to remove Stalin from power, Trotsky went along with the decision and even publicly denied that Lenin had said any such thing. When he did come out against the leadership, he formed alliances with people who proved untrustworthy and incapable of honest opposition. For the sake of such alliances he compromised on matters of principle. He even agreed to renounce his biggest contribution to Marxism, the theory of permanent revolution, which he announced to be irrelevant: “I myself regard it as a question which has long been consigned to the archives”.19

But the growing power of the bureaucracy did cause Trotsky to consider that counter-revolution could come in a new, unexpected way. Possibly, it “would not be carried out all at once, with one blow, but through successive shiftings, with the first shift occurring from the top down and to a large extent within one and the same party… a special from of counter-revolution carried out on the installment plan”.20 He drew a comparison with the French revolution: on 9th Thermidor (according to the revolutionary calendar) the conservatives pushed the radicals out of power.

It is less the danger of an open, full-fledged bourgeois counterrevolution than that of a Thermidor, that is, a partial counterrevolutionary shift or upheaval which, precisely because it was partial, could for a fairly long time continue to disguise itself in revolutionary forms, but which in essence would already have a decisively bourgeois character, so that a return from Thermidor to the dictatorship of the proletariat could only be effected through a new revolution.21

In the final years of the decade, the bureaucracy moved to decisively consolidate its power. Thousands of its opponents were arrested: Trotsky himself was expelled from the Communist Party in late 1927 and exiled to Kazakhstan in the outskirts of the USSR two months later. Forced collect­ivisation in the countryside expropriated millions of farmers, and accel­erated industrialisation drove workers to work harder for less. Whereas Trotsky had seen the bureaucracy as an unstable intermediate group balancing between the workers and the remaining property owners, instead it now came into its own, establishing firm bases for its independent power in society, politics and the economy.

Although some of his analysis had proved inaccurate, Trotsky—unlike many others—had no intention of giving in before the overwhelming power of Stalinism. When the secret police presented him with an order to cease his political activity, he threw the ultimatum back in their faces:

To demand from me that I renounce my political activity is to demand that I abjure the struggle which I have been conducting in the interests of the international working class, a struggle in which I have been unceasingly engaged for thirty-two years, during the whole of my conscious life.… Only a bureaucracy corrupt to its roots can demand such a renunciation. Only contemptible renegades can give such a promise.22

In January 1929 Trotsky was deported from the USSR altogether, and was never to return. But his fight against the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution was far from over.

part three


1    Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life (New York 1973), p 53.

2    Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Michigan 1960), p 194.

3    Problems of Everyday Life, p 176.

4    Leon Trotsky on Britain (New York 1973), p 162.

5    Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume Two (London 1974), p 96.

6    Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (London 1974), p 117.

7    Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27) (New York 1980), p 114-15.

8    Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) (New York 1975), p 69.

9    Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume One (London 1973), p 358.

10  Leon Trotsky on China (New York 1976), p 161, 207-8, 189.

11  Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London 1962), p 152, 154-5.

12  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p 162-3, 489.

13  Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1928-29) (New York 1981), p 300.

14  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p 164.

15 Ibid, p 390, 394. These quotations are from the 1927 Platform of the Opposition, which was drafted collectively. Trotsky was its main author, however, and these quotations certainly reflect his own views. See, for instance: “We are the only party in the country, and in the period of the dictatorship it could not be otherwise.… the Communist Party is obliged to monopolize the direction of political life.” The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), p 78-9.     

16  Ibid, p 154.

17  Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 (Oxford 1959), p 139.

18  Quoted in ibid, p 201.

19  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p 145.

20  Ibid, p 260, 263.

21  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1928-29), p 139. 22

22 Quoted in Deutscher, p 468-9.

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.

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).

Revolutionary Lives: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (part one)

Joe Conroy began a look at Lenin’s life and work in Issue 6 (March 2000).

November 1918: Lenin is engaged in a fierce polemic with an opponent. He tears his antagonist’s arguments to pieces, shreds the pieces some more, and heaps contempt on his foe. The archetypal Lenin, some would say, and not without reason: the dogged polemicist refusing to yield an inch. And yet, in the midst of all the flying accusations, Lenin points out that his anger isn’t caused by someone daring to disagree with his own answer to the question of the day. On the contrary: “Perhaps my answer is wrong”, he says. “Nothing would have been more welcome to us than a Marxist criticism of our analysis by an outsider.”1

This is precisely what Lenin has not got. Attacks upon him and his ideas have come in abundance. But there have been all too few attempts to judge him by the standards he himself set, to soberly examine how far his ideas can help in the liberation of the working class. The towering figure of twentieth-century socialism needs above all to be critically reviewed if his work is to play a part in the twenty first century.

On 10 April 1870—22 April by the western calendar—Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in Simbirsk in central Russia. He was the son of a schools inspector, and his upbringing was comfortable and apolitical. Politics forced itself upon his mind at the age of seventeen, however, when his older brother was executed for attempting to assassinate the Tsar. Later that year he took part in a student protest and was expelled from university.

It was still a few years before he got involved in the Russian socialist movement. When he did, he wasn’t long in earning himself a prominent place in the Marxist propaganda and agitation groups of St Petersburg. That wasn’t all he earned: he was sentenced to a year in prison in 1895, followed by deportation to Siberia. In 1900 he moved abroad, joining many other socialists forced to work beyond the clutches of the repressive Tsarist empire. Here he began using the pen name by which history knows him: Lenin.

Establishing a party

The most pressing task facing Russian socialists at the start of the twentieth century was uniting their scattered individual groups into a unified organisation. Some—nicknamed the ‘economists’—believed that this could best be achieved by limiting the role of socialists to practical support for the economic struggles of the working class. Lenin fought the idea tooth and nail.

The working class had a duty, he wrote, to fight against all oppression, not just their own.

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuinely political conscious­ness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases, without exception, of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected. Moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic [i.e., socialist], and not from any other point of view.…
The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be a trade-union secretary, but a tribune of the people, able to respond to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression…2

The socialist party Lenin envisaged would consist not so much of workers, but “first and foremost and mainly of people who make revolu­tionary activity their profession”.3 In the conditions of Tsarist Russia, an open party of workers was obviously not on: it would have to be a secret underground organisation of revolutionary intellectuals. But Lenin resorted to some strange theoretical propositions in support of this idea.

“The history of all countries”, he wrote, “shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union conscious­ness”. Socialism, on the other hand, was a theory elaborated by intellectuals from the propertied classes. The working class couldn’t come to socialism under its own steam or through its own struggles: “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without”. No good could come if the workers were left to their own devices, because “the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads precisely to its subordination to bourgeois ideology”, and the job of socialists was therefore “to combat spontaneity”.4

History, however, is full of examples of workers becoming socialist with little or no input from middle-class socialists, and even taking power on the odd occasion. It is true that most of the great socialist theorists up till now have been intellectuals from middle-class origins, but all of them, including Marx and Engels, learnt their socialism from the movements of the working class. And all of them realised that their theories could only have any effect if they guided the struggles of workers, rather than combating them.

Of course Lenin was arguing against people, middle-class socialist intellectuals, who saw their role as praising the efforts of the working class instead of helping them with their own understanding of socialist theory. He obviously exaggerated in his polemic with them. He later argued that “the Economists bent the stick in one direction. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it in the other direction, and that is what I did.”5

But if the metaphor has any meaning, it should be to remind us that a stick breaks when it is bent beyond a certain point. There is nothing wrong with putting heavy emphasis on the main task at hand. If Lenin had said that the spontaneous movements of the working class weren’t enough, and that socialist intellectuals should stop admiring the workers and get down to spreading their socialist ideas amongst them, then no one could argue. But opposing a wrong theory with another wrong theory didn’t help Lenin’s attempts to put together a coherent socialist party to fight against all oppression. If someone believes that 2+2=3, telling them that 2+2=5 isn’t correcting them, it’s adding another error to theirs.


At the beginning of 1905 the Tsarist edifice began to crack. The regime was engulfed by revolution as workers and the oppressed attacked, by demonstration, strike, and uprising. Lenin was able to return to Russia, but all talk of the impossibility of working-class socialism had to go out the window. “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic”, he wrote,6 and later recalled how the workers “became Social-Democratic as if by the wave of a hand”.7

His earlier arguments came back to haunt him as many of his comrades in the Bolshevik party insisted on maintaining a tightly knit organisation of professional revolutionaries, wary of the untamed actions of the workers. He was forced to retreat from some of his earlier positions—while never explicitly saying as much—as he called for the party to open itself up to the masses of workers who were revolutionised by the events of 1905. The freedoms won in the revolution meant that the party could be organised on a democratic basis, from the grassroots up instead of from the leadership down, with every right for members to disagree. It should be run on the principle “unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism”, he wrote; “the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticize”.8

The Russian working class faced not just an ordinary capitalist government, but a dictatorship that suppressed the most basic of demo­cratic rights and presided over an economy that was still largely feudal. The revolution’s job, according to Lenin, was to overthrow this dictator­ship, but not the capitalist system. The changes to be won “do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule”, he wrote, claiming that “Only the most ignorant people can close their eyes to the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution now taking place”. The working class was not big enough or class-conscious enough in Russia to carry out a socialist revolution.9

Lenin was not advising the workers to follow in the train of the capitalists: they were so weak and cowardly that the workers would have to fight for democracy without them and even against them, and do so in their own interest: “We cannot get out of the bourgeois-democratic boundaries of the Russian revolution, but we can vastly extend these boundaries, and within these boundaries we can and must fight for the interests of the proletariat, for its immediate needs and for conditions that will make it possible to prepare its forces for the future complete victory.”10 He saw Russia’s democratic revolution sparking off socialist revolution in Europe, which the Russian workers would then join; and he built no brick wall between the two revolutions: “from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way.”11

But despite Lenin’s insistence on working-class independence, and his hope of moving as quickly as possible from one revolution to the other, he clearly saw two distinct and separate revolutions ahead: first overthrow Tsarism, and then overthrow capitalism. His scenario supposed that the Russian working class would go to the trouble of winning political power and then refuse to use that power to fight against their subjection to the capitalists. If the capitalists tried to sabotage this revolution by closing down factories and locking out workers, would the workers in the revolu­tionary government not be forced to take those factories over, to sub­ordinate the capitalist economy to the interests of the working people—and thereby undermine the foundations of capitalism? In practice the revolution would have to burst the banks of capitalism, to combine its ‘bourgeois-democratic’ work with socialist work. Socialists arguing for democracy first, socialism second would end up with neither; they would have to fight for both at the same time.

Squabbling in exile

The 1905 revolution eventually went down to defeat, and by the end of 1907 Lenin was once more forced out of Russia. Not for the first time, defeated revolutionaries faced a period of crisis and dissension. “Life in exile and squabbling are inseparable”, Lenin wrote.12

One section of the socialists wanted to abandon underground work and restrict themselves to legal activity. This would mean an end to the socialist party, as Lenin argued, because socialism tailored to fit what Tsarism allowed would be no socialism at all. On the other hand, some argued that socialists should abandon legal activity altogether, taking no part in elections or the trade unions. This, as Lenin pointed out, would isolate socialists from the mass of the working class, giving up valuable platforms for socialist ideas. Even in Russia’s undemocratic excuse for a parliament the Bolsheviks put their handful of deputies to good use, although they were, to use Lenin’s phrase, “not a general staff… but rather a unit of trumpeters”.13

But Lenin’s method of putting these arguments generated more heat than light. His polemics in this period consist for the most part of an accumulation of accusations, of varying degrees of accuracy, liberally garnished with insults and name-calling. Those who went too far to the left were lumped together with those on the right under Lenin’s sledge­hammer, and those who tried for a rapprochement amongst socialists came off worst of all. The broad democracy that had blossomed in the party was cast aside as Lenin insisted on laying down a party line and making it prevail, by means of expulsion if necessary. While Lenin’s position was right against his opponents, his approach meant that his internal victories were Pyrrhic ones, leaving little of the vibrant Bolshevik party of 1905 standing.

War and renewal

The outbreak of world war in 1914 came as little surprise to Lenin, but he was taken aback by the betrayal of the socialist movement. In country after country labour parties and unions conveniently forgot their speeches about peace and international brotherhood, and mobilised workers to take part in a war to see which group of empires would exploit the world most. Lenin was one of the quickest off the mark organising opposition to the war both in Russia and internationally. He called on socialists to break with the traitors in the labour movement, and turn the war into a chance for revolution.

His break with the reformists was more than just an organisational one. The depth of their treachery led him to rethink and renew his socialism. Until now his understanding of Marxist philosophy went no further than a stubborn but rigid defence of orthodoxy; now he went back to the roots of Marxist dialectics, replacing the old fatalism with a new, dynamic view of the world. He unearthed the original Marxist teaching on the state in place of the distorted version then prevailing. He studied the new developments in the capitalist economy and their political implications.

Not least of these was the increased importance of the national question, and the duty of socialists to uphold nations’ right to indepen­dence. This gave the revolution a wider sweep than before:

The socialist revolution is not a single act, it is not a battle on one front, but a whole epoch of acute class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e., on all questions of economics and politics, battles that can only end in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It would be a radical mistake to think that the struggle for democracy was capable of diverting the proletariat from the socialist revolution or of hiding, over­shadowing it, etc. On the contrary, in the same way as there can be no victorious socialism that does not practice full democracy, so the prole­tariat cannot prepare for its victory over the bourgeoisie without an all-round, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy.14

So the revolution would be more complex and layered than previously imagined. It wouldn’t be that “one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism’, and another somewhere else and says, ‘We are for imperialism’, and that will be a social revolution!”

Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.… The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be any­thing other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements.

Many of these elements would bring confused views with them, but their struggles would nevertheless attack capitalism. The job of socialists was “to unite and direct” the discordant upsurge, not to belittle it.15

Lenin also tried to come to grips with the basis of reformism. How come the leaders of labour parties and trade unions believed in receiving reforms from the capitalist system instead of overthrowing it? How come so many workers supported them? It arose, he concluded, from the super­profits available in modern capitalism: “The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists… makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie”.16 The upper layer of the working class, the labour aristocracy, was bought off.

Obviously, capitalists with higher profits can afford to concede higher wages to their workers, and this may well lead workers to support them. But why should this only apply to the better-off section of the working class, and not the class as a whole? And there are countless cases of better-paid workers opposing capitalism, even when their wages are paid out of imperialist profits. Lenin’s understanding of reformism was weak, which is hardly surprising when reformism—and indeed reforms—were all but non-existent in Russia.

part two


  1. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918).
  2. What is to be Done? (1902) chapters III, I.
  3. Ibid, chapter IV.
  4. Ibid, chapters II, III.
  5. Quoted in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New Jersey 1990) p 63.
  6. ‘The Reorganisation of the Party’ (23 November 1905).
  7. ‘Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution’ (24 September 1908).
  8. Quoted in Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914 (London 1986) p 269.
  9. Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905) chapters 6, 2.
  10. Ibid, chapter 6.
  11. ‘Social-Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement’ (1 September 1905).
  12. Letter to Maxim Gorky, 11 April 1910.
  13. ‘Two Letters’ (13 November 1908).
  14. ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ (April 1916).
  15. ‘The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up’ (October 1916).
  16. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) chapter X.