Clifford Biddulph begins a series on forms of communist organisation with this piece on the origins of Bolshevism
For Lenin, as for Marx, organisational forms are part of a living process which changes and adapts to different situations. But Lenin’s general approach to communist organisation was “to state that what might be a general Marxist truth does not always apply in concrete circumstances” (Lih, 2006, Lenin Rediscovered p 555), As Alan Woods puts it “it is about the demands of the moment rather than abstract theory” (Bolshevism, 1999 p 93). So for Lenin a general Marxist truth in some circumstances was the wrong priority. This flexibility towards Marxist theory was a hall mark of Bolshevik organisation.
The phrase often used to describe Lenin‘s organisational method is ‘bending the stick.’ Lenin bent the stick or polemically exaggerated in order to grab attention and focus on what really mattered to move forward. For many Leninist and Trotskyist activists trapped in the cult of Lenin, he might have bent the stick too far in some circumstances, but he always bent it back or corrected his mistake in the long run. This was the ‘infallible Lenin’ who embodied the revolutionary dynamic or the actuality of the Revolution. But a bent stick can be permanently twisted, distorting reality. The bent stick analogy is also used to suggest continuity where inconsistency exists.
Lenin’s polemic against the so called ‘economists’ in What is to be Done (WITBD) resulted in a concept of the relationship between organisation and class which bent Marxist theory. According to Lenin: “the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts is able to develop only trade union consciousness”. Therefore, “there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the workers themselves-socialist consciousness is introduced into the proletarian struggle from without.” (CW, 1973, vol 5 p375). This was, as Trotsky stated at the time, absurd (Our political tasks, 1904). According to myth the Leninist truth is concrete, but the historical facts are that the mass strikes of the Russian workers from 1896 to 1905 confirmed workers spontaneously went beyond trade union consciousness as they did in the earlier chartist movement in Britain.
Lenin’s formulations were not so much realist as political imagination. Lenin exaggerated the influence of economism and saw economism where it did not exist. The reality was that Akimov and his Rebochee Dyelo comrades were not economists. In words and deeds they had opposed leaving the political struggle to the Liberals. The fact was, Lenin saw them as rival leaders. A factional war with false polemics was waged against them. Zinoviev claimed that “Akimov told workers to know their place and not concern themselves with politics.” (History of the Bolshevik Party, 1973 p60). This claim was entirely false.
The view of Marx was that the emancipation of the working class is an act of the working class itself. If socialist consciousness derives from the intellegentia, and the spontaneous class struggle against exploitation is simply trade unionism, then little is left of this conviction of Marx expressed in a letter to Bolt, in November 1871, that “the political movement of the working class has its ultimate objective, of course, the conquest of power by the working class developed up to a certain point and rising precisely from its economic struggles” (Marx and Engels on the trade unions, Kenneth Lapides, 1987 p 113).
A one sided focus on the politics of the expected bourgeois revolution, which was a mistaken perspective, caused Lenin to downgrade the workers’ class struggle rooted in their material conditions. Lenin had previously recognised that socialist conscious could develop through economic struggle. The organisation was to be rooted in the factories where the industrial workers were most susceptible to Social Democratic ideas. (CW, 1977 vol 2 p327). The political struggle was not outside the economic struggle. Rosa Luxemburg’s intricate analysis of the Russian mass strikes showed the strikes “passed from the economic field to the political so that it was almost impossible to draw a dividing line between them” (Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 2004 p194). The economic and political factors were interwoven.
Trotsky mocked Lenin’s short term instrumental use of theory in WITBD and One step forward two steps back. Yesterday the proletariat were crawling in the trade union dust; today the workers are raised to the role of teachers, instructing the intelligentsia in discipline. Yesterday the intelligentsia was the teacher of socialist consciousness; today it is a pupil learning factory discipline. “And this is supposed to be Marxism” (Our Political Tasks p104). Moreover, the task of Marxists was to replace factory discipline not glorify it.
Communist organisation is created in the process of class struggle. Marxists are not outside but internal to the movement of workers. Luxemburg criticised Lenin for making a fetish of centralism. “The ultra centralism that Lenin advocates seems to us ,in its whole essence to be imbued not with a creative spirit but with sterile spirit of the overseer” (Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 2004 p256). The Leninist central committee would think for every member of the organisation down to the smallest detail or in Trotsky‘s sarcastic words “ I am recognised by the central committee therefore I am.” (Report of the Siberian Delegation, 1903 p44). The masses learn from their own mistakes.
Lenin’s response to these criticisms was defensive. “Comrade Luxemburg says for example that my book is a clear and detailed expression of intransigent centralism. Comrade Luxemburg thus supposes that I defend one system against another. But actually this is not so. From the first to last page of my book I Defend the elementary principles of any conceivable system of organisation.” (Le Blanc, 2008, Lenin p152) But despite these evasive words Lenin was an advocate in this period of bureaucracy rather than democracy because it saw it as effective in Russian conditions. In his letter to a comrade on organisational tasks published in 1904 “by assuming all power to the executive bodies it takes little account of the requirements of democracy or rather ignores them completely” (Liebman, 1980, Leninism under Lenin p39).
In One Step Forward Two steps Back Lenin disregarded the issue of the degree of centralism. It was centralism, centralism, centralism. Democracy was dismissed: it was a mere toy. To open up the party to publicity and elections was to open up the organisation to arrests and detention. But this one sided stress on centralism did not answer points about lesser forms of democracy such as local autonomy. Besides centralism is not an organisational form which necessarily keeps out the police. It can make an organisation more vulnerable, if the centre is penetrated by a state agent, as the Bolshevik centre was by Malinovsky. In any case, the Bolshevik underground organisation was not very effective in keeping out the police (Lih 2008). And even if ultra centralism was necessary, why make a virtue of it?
It is a myth that Menshevism and Bolshevism were fully formed political tendencies at the time of the split following the 1903 congress. There were no programmatic differences. Nor was it a break between revolutionaries on one side and opportunists on the other. On Lenin’s side was Plekanov who would go on to oppose the Moscow insurrection of 1905 and the revolution of 1917. Against Lenin was Trotsky the leader of the Soviets in 1905 and 1917. (Woods, 1999, p142). The Mensheviks accepted Lenin’s rule on membership at the unity congress in 1906 so this rule was not a life and death question as Lenin admitted. Lenin went on in isolation to break organisational rules and set up his own central committee against the Bolshevik central committee, but described his opponents as individualistic intellectuals.
Lenin’s concept of organisation was strongly influenced by the model of German social democracy with a heavy stress on the role of leaders at the top of the organisation. “Without a dozen tried and talented leaders professionally trained, schooled by long experience and working in perfect harmony, no class in society can wage a determined struggle” (CW, 1973 vol 5 p461). Lenin’s political machine or the Bolshevik leadership which was predominantly made up of the intelligentsia was left behind by the creative spontaneity of the Russian workers in the revolution of 1905. The Bolshevik leadership in Russia trained in the organisational concepts of WITBD and One step forward distrusted spontaneity, were suspicious of strikers and saw the Petersburg soviet and non party mass organisations as a rival to the Bolshevik organisation. The Bolshevik leaders threatened to withdraw from the Petersburg soviet if it did not accept the authority and programme of the Bolshevik party.
Lenin was compelled to attempt to re-educate and reorganise the Bolsheviks to correct his previous distorted view of the relationship between party and class. “Lenin was essentially forced to rehabilitate working class spontaneity as a politically important factor of revolution” (Lynne Poole,1995, ‘Lenin and Trotsky a question of organisational form’, p123 in The Ideas of Leon Trotsky). But there was no repudiation of previous positions or self criticism. Contrary to WITBD workers were instinctively spontaneously social democratic. Although he added that more than ten years work by social democrats had helped transform spontaneity into consciousness. But he was defensive stating that he had not intended to give his previous formulations programmatic status.
Lenin is often seen as separate from other Bolshevik leaders or committee men as if he had no responsibility for their organisational methods. Writing in exile in the 1930s, trapped in the cult of Lenin, Trotsky described Lenin as a political genius. Lenin was not so much the machine as the workers in motion. But in 1905 it was Trotsky who had an organic connection with the self activity of the masses. Trotsky was one of the first exiles back in Russia to lead the Petersburg soviet. By contrast Lenin’s less positive relationship with spontaneity resulted in ten months delay in a return to Russia following the outbreak of the revolution. (Isaac Deutscher, 1961, Stalin). Following the 1905 revolution Trotsky described Lenin’s perspective of dissolving the class struggle into a democratic coalition in a bourgeois republic as hopelessly idealistic. (Trotsky, 1905, Our differences, p330).
For Lenin politics is an endless chain but “the whole art of politics lies in finding and taking a firm grip as we can of the link that is last likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at any given moment” (Callinicos, 2007, ‘Leninism in the 21st century’, p26 in Lenin Reloaded). The problem with this method as we have seen is short termism, inconsistency, and a lop sided view of reality. Part of the Marxist truth is not the Marxist truth.