by Barry Biddulph
Mark Hoskisson departs from the conventional Trotskyist interpretation of the Russian Revolution, in his analysis of Thermidor and the Russian Revolution. (Permanent Revolution issue 17). His conclusion is that the political counter revolution took place inside the Bolshevik party in 1921 and was led by Lenin and supported by Trotsky.
Yet Mark still dismisses the possibility of Bolshevik values, and methods of organisation, prior to 1921, contributing to the betrayal of the political aspirations of 1917. He still clings to the orthodox view that the Bolshevik Party could somehow be a custodian of workers’ power, despite substituting itself for the working class following 1917, as long as the right to form factions were preserved. Hence, the banning of party factions in 1921 is seen as the historic turning point. Mark asserts that Bolshevism’s descent into counter revolution marked a distinct break with, not a continuation of its fundamental character and politics in the period 1912 to 1920.
But why start with the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic party in1912? The Bolshevik Party was not proclaimed in 1912. Instead, eighteen Bolshevik-Leninists in Prague captured the RSDLP as their sole factional property. There was nothing fundamentally new in this. Lenin and his followers had always considered themselves as the true party within the RSDLP. In 1920, Lenin put the origins of Bolshevism and his values of strict centralism and iron discipline back to 1903, and the organisational split with the Mensheviks. However, the split with the Mensheviks in 1903, was not programmatic, nor was the break a division between reformists on one side and revolutionaries on the other. Trotsky, the future practical leader of the Russian Revolution was against Lenin, whereas his supporter Plekhanov, opposed both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.
As for the dispute about the rules, in the unity conference of the RSDLP, in 1906, the Mensheviks agreed with Lenin’s version of the party rules. Lenin was distorting the history of Bolshevism to emphasis what he regarded, in 1920, as the enduring values of Bolshevism, which were : a stress on the continuity of a handful of leaders ; top down centralism; intolerance of non Leninist views; organisational activity in place of discussion; and a distrust of the spontaneity of the masses. In a word, substitutionism. This had been a fundamental feature of Bolshevism prior to 1921.
The counter-revolution was a process which began shortly after 1917, and had a firm link with old Bolshevism. Victor Serge’s reflections on his first hand experience of the Russian Revolution in ,Marxism in our Time, highlighted the origins of the counter-revolutionary process, in the Bolshevik leaders lack of revolutionary audacity or the fear of liberty for working class groups. Looking to government restraint rather than the creativity, and initiative of the masses (1) This was also the main historical lesson drawn by the Workers Opposition, the Democratic Centralists, and other Communists, who challenged Leninist orthodoxy within the party. Leninist values of top down centralism, disregard for workers democracy, organisational methods instead of discussion, dishonest polemics, which had been in evidence in 1903-4 and 1907-12 resurfaced, to fuse with what Serge described as the old Statism.
The party state was built from the top down in conventional ways. Shortly after the revolution, Sovnarkom or cabinet government was rooted in the party leadership, not Soviet representation. Local Soviets and factory committees were emasculated, and all Russian Soviet executives were by-passed, as ex Tsarist central economic institutions, and their local centres were imitated, in the setting up of the supreme economic council Vesenka, and it’s local Glavki. The idea of soviets with participatory democracy was forgotten. The revolutionary promise of workers control was broken.Lenin declared that while industry was indispensable, workers- democracy was dispensable. Socialism was not about transforming production relations, but increasing productivity.
Workers power at the point of production was irrelevant for the party leadership. Lenin called for the workers unquestioning subordination to the sole will of the factory manager. Workers were subjected, by the Bolshevik government to the Taylor System, once described by Lenin as the latest scientific capitalist exploitation. American efficiency was the way forward. The Bolsheviks used the technical apparatus of capital,using bourgeois specialists. They reintroduced hierarchical and alienated social relations. Trotsky, who had been a harsh critic of Lenin’s ultra centralism in the years of exile, proclaimed that the elective basis was politically pointless and technically inexpedient. Orders from above were final.
Trotsky quickly became an advocate of traditional forms of authority. Find the best man for the job and let him use his individual authority. Ideas about workers militias and guerrilla tactics were bushed aside. The red army was modelled on the old imperial army. The ideas of Lenin’s , State and Revolution, were ignored : there was a failure to develop mass democratic decision-making. Party and state centralism were chosen instead. On the other hand, the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917, was not top down centralism : workers doing as they were told. The Bolsheviks greatest strength in 1917 was its revolutionary opposition, from below, to the provisional government, The Bolshevik centre was swamped with the influx of new members. Local branches of the Bolshevik party enjoyed the general features of the mass movement: freedom of criticism. They did not wait for instructions.
The leadership was not ideologically homogenous either. The old Bolsheviks such as Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev clung to Lenin’s old mistaken perspective of the Democratic Republican Revolution. For this reason, Lenin was compelled to work with comrades who he had previously denounced as useless to the revolution. Non Bolsheviks such as Trotsky, Lunacharskii, and Antonov Ovsenko became central to the struggle for workers power. Charles Bettelhiem, (2) has provided an estimate that about half of the leading Bolshevik activists in 1917 had previously been non Leninist prior to the revolution. In Trotsky’s words on joining the Bolshevik party : the party had become de-Bolshevised.
The Bolshevik party returned to the traditions of its ideological youth in 1918, before the onset of the civil war. Trotsky adopted the undemocratic organisational principles he had previously criticised in Bolshevism. In our political tasks in 1904, Trotsky scolded Lenin’s organisational ideas and declared that the task of Marxists was to replace factory discipline, rather than glorify it. He shared Rosa Luxemburg’s view of Lenin’s, one step forward two steps back. The ultra Centralism advocated by Lenin was imbued with the sterile spirit of the supervisor. The only thinking element in the Bolshevik organisation was the leadership. Lenin was an advocate, in 1904, of bureaucracy rather than democracy. Consequently, he saw undemocratic methods as effective in Russian conditions.
As Marcel Liebman (3) notes, Lenin in his Letter to a Comrade on Organisational tasks in 1904, assigns all power to executive bodies ignoring the requirements of democracy completely. But, strict top down centralism is not the only effective way to operate in conditions of autocracy or dictatorship. If the centre is penetrated by an agent, as it was by Malinovsky, then the entire organisation is put in danger. In any case, Bolshevism was not good at keeping out state agents. Lenin’s concept of political organisation was strongly influenced by the model of German Social Democracy. There with a heavy stress on the role of a few leaders bringing a socialist awareness to the workers, from outside the spontaneous class struggle. Workers were considered to be unable to go beyond trade unionism by their own efforts. The proletarian Jacobins would act as the custodians of the socialist future, with their own correct political perspectives.
Lenin’s focus in What is to be Done, was on the guidance of a dozen tried and talented leaders, professionally trained, schooled by long experience and working in harmony. Without this prompting no class in society could wage a determined struggle. Lenin never repudiated WITBD. Its political logic came into play in 1918-21. In our Political Tasks , (1904) Trotsky perceptively detected the seeds of substitutionism in WITBD. The danger of the party substituting for the class and the leadership substituting for the party . Lenin’s enduring values were the continuity of leaders and their ideology, not the continuity of class struggle and the self emancipation of the working class. Following the revolution in 1917, as Neil Harding (4) points out, a vast bureaucratic structure was established outside democratic control. This was not simply a response to adverse conditions.
From mid 1918, the Bolsheviks began to substitute the party for the self-activity of the working class. The Bolshevik instinct was for tight leadership direction and control by a tiny number of trusted comrades. Gorky complained that there was a fake identification of the party with the class. At the eighth party congress in 1919, a small elite leadership of the Politburo was set up, followed up by an organisational concentration of power in a tiny Orgburo. Sapronov described it as vertical centralism. Party rules in 1919 compelled organised Bolshevik fractions in the soviets and factories to take instructions from party bosses. Many, if not most of the delegates, at these conferences, were state employees. militarization of Labour was agreed on the recommendation of the Bolshevik leadership at the ninth congress. The militarization,of the transport unions was agreed by the central committee, in the absence of Trotsky, in the same year. Trotsky was the most militant advocate of these dictatorial methods, but he was not alone in his enthusiasm.
At the tenth Congress in 1921, a report about extra rations, luxury apartments, and extravagant cars for Bolshevik leaders, was kept secret from the delegates. Lenin promoted Stalin into key positions in both Orgburo and Politburo, even in the workers and peasants inspection, a committee to root out bureaucracy! Lenin defended Stalin’s multiple jobs, which became the organisational basis of Stalinism, against the criticism of Preobrazensky and Shlyapnikov.Stalin had been favoured by Lenin prior to 1917. There was a continuity with old Bolshevism. Stalin had been a key member of Lenin’s Bolshevik- Leninists from 1908-12. Lenin co- opted Stalin onto the central committee, despite the refusal of the Bolshevik conference in 1912 to elect him to the leadership. Stalin’s job, on behalf of Lenin, was to enforce the strictest centralism: lower bodies would carry out instructions from the top. Politically reliable comrades would be selected for party positions. Critical comrades were moved to less important political locations.
Mark Hoskisson is absolutely correct to write that the dictatorship of the party in the name of a class is an absurdity. Any party has to be subordinate to the class, not the other way round. However, Mark still adopts substitutionist logic by also asserting that since the party had been temporarily entrusted with the stewardship, on behalf of workers, it was vital that internal democracy be maintained at the highest level, to ensure the revolutions future. But, in the Bolshevik Party there was an undemocratic culture of party patriotism and loyalty to the leader. As late as 1923-4, Trotsky articulated this value in the phrase we cannot be right against the party. The party in turn could not be wrong in relation to the class, and the leadership could not be wrong in relation to the party. Even Lenin’s critics at the tenth congress felt compelled to put Loyalty to the Leadership, party before the class, by crossing the ice at Kronstadt to attack and try to kill comrades who shared many of their criticism of the Bolshevik leadership.
In any case, anti Leninist positions inside the party were regularly denounced as petty bourgeois and anarchist: the expression of the pressure of outside non working class forces. This was before Shliapnikov, of the workers opposition, was told he was more dangerous than the armed Kronstadt rebels in 1921. There was a leadership fear of debate within the party before 1921. It was not a matter of legitimate or honest rational debate. There had been a history of false polemics from Lenin since 1902-3 ,when Rebochee Delo and Vladimir Akimov were falsely accused of Economism. Lars T Lih (5) has recently confirmed Akimov’s own defence, that he was not an economist, was correct. Lenin treated critics with uncomradely suspicion and vituperation. The workers opposition were dishonestly labelled Syndicalist. Any deviation from Lenin’s line was, by definition, petty bourgeois.
The Leninist leadership not only dominated information and interpretation between conferences, but was able to manipulate the make up of conferences and co-op leaders. A Minority could be a loyal opposition, although it would not be able to become the majority. Factional rights could not and did not prevent the counter evolution gravitating around the Bolshevik bureaucratic apparatus. This form of counter-revolution cannot be explained simply by adverse material circumstances. The political ideology of Democratic Centralism played a key role. The apparatus created Stalin, but Lenin created the apparatus. Trotsky(6) pondered these words in his notes in exile. Lenin prized Stalin for the ability to exert pressure The more the state machine required the exertion of pressure, the more important Stalin became.
Democratic Centralism, which probably originated in the parliamentary practice of German Social Democracy, imitating, parliamentary centralism, was introduced into Russia by the Mensheviks. Essentially democratic centralism in the RSDLP, in 1906, allowed members to elect leaders and delegates to a conference. Nevertheless, freedom to criticise the elected leadership, was restricted to the requirements of party unity. The Bolshevik’s were in a minority in the unified party, so Lenin’s definition of democratic centralism, at the time, was wide and flexible: free and open discussion was allowed. The only time criticism was not allowed was when criticism disrupted a party action. But what constituted disruption? Following instruction from above was clear, although local autonomy and the scope of the instructions might cause debate, but who was to decide in any controversy about party disloyalty? In practice, this would depend on the toleration of the leadership.
This begged the question of how much freedom there was for party members. Lenin asserted that any controversy about disrupting a definite action would rest with the party congress. In effect, this gave the Bolshevik faction freedom to openly act against the Menshevik majority, in the day-to-day operations of the RSDLP. Lenin was not committed to this unpractical definition of democratic centralism. It was all a matter of instrumentalism or short-term considerations. In 1918 , he informed the left communists, who were asking for local autonomy,that Democratic Centralism was simply a Congress electing a central committee, who then governed.
In 1921, Lenin decided to put the lid on the opposition and ban non Leninist factions. The Leninist faction was in charge of the party following the factions consolidation at the top, with the ousting of some of Trotsky’s supporters from key positions after the trade union debate. For those oppositionists who wanted to encourage workers initiative from below, the debate was a distraction from the issue of the danger of bureaucratic centralism. It was a manoeuvre to scapegoat Trotsky for the authoritarian politics agreed by all the leadership. The old Bolsheviks stage-managed the debate to tighten their grip on the party. Lenin’s loyal and trusted lieutenant Stalin, and his followers, filled the organisational vacancies.
In 1921, Lenin saw things very much as he did in the factional fight with Bogdanov in the period 1907-12: it was a struggle against a petty bourgeois deviation. But, in 1907-12 , Lenin took political intolerance to absurd lengths, as Leibman describes in his account of this period. In these years , Bolshevism became not just centralised around Lenin, but synonymous with his leadership line. Even tactical views had to be unanimous. The Bolsheviks had to have a single mind: Lenin’s. The tactical battle with Bogdanov revolved around the question of participation in the Duma. There had been various tactics adopted towards the first and second Duma 1905-6 ,and with the Third Duma, and an even more restricted franchise, more tactical differences emerged. At the July 1907 conference of the RSDLP, the majority of the Bolshevik delegates voted for a boycott of the Third Duma, under the leadership of Bogdanov. Lenin crossed factional lines and voted against his own faction, breaking his own rules of democratic centralism. He then drew up his own motion to participate in the Duma against the organised Bolshevik’s which was carried with Menshevik votes.
Then organisational methods were used to settle a tactical dispute. Rather than convene a conference of the Bolshevik faction and risk a majority vote for Bogdanov, Lenin engineered a meeting of an extended (with his supporters added) editorial board of the Bolshevik paper Proletarii, to expel Bogdanov from the Bolshevik centre,which removed his control of Bolshevik funds. When Bogdanov refused to accept this decision of the irregular meeting, he was unconstitutionally expelled from the Bolshevik faction. Trotskyists , such a LeBlanc (7) agree with Stalin and Zinoviev that these years were central to the whole meaning of Leninism. This was when Lenin’s leadership team was established, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, and Stalin. These were the original Bolshevik- Leninists.
Mark contends that with the adoption of NEP in 1921, Lenin was now explicitly fighting to preserve Bolshevik rule by bureaucratic force if necessary. Socialism would come later. Although even before 1921, the underlying piecemeal adoption of policies out of step with the revolutionary politics of 1917 ,was based on consolidating the revolution in Russia. Lenin had returned to a version of his old Bolshevik perspective of a National Revolution. This was a historical phase in Russia before the introduction of socialism, in which the party would introduce a class limitation or decide for the workers what was possible in the current historical stage. The party leaders would preserve socialism for the future. Trotsky had mocked these elitist Jacobin ambitions in his famous anti-Bolshevik polemic of, our differences, in 1905. Trotsky would never be able to bring himself to return to this kind of critical assessment of Bolshevism. Lenin’s perspective of consolidation of the Bolshevik state in isolation was clear with the refusal to gamble on the German revolution, in signing the Brest Litovsk Treaty in 1918. Lenin defended the separate peace from what Uritsky described as a Russian point of view: a seed of socialism in one country.
Whatever the merits of the case for and against revolutionary war, Lenin’s old Bolshevik undemocratic organisational methods returned. He made it clear he would not accept a majority vote on the Central committee against the treaty. He threatened to resign from leadership positions and give the majority revolutionary war! Trotsky knew one of Lenin’s factional fights would seriously damage the prospects of the regime. Accordingly Trotsky deferred to Lenin : he gave Lenin a central committee majority. This decision was ratified by a conference of a small number of party workers. The wider party membership was not consulted. The Moscow party committee wanted to gamble on the European revolution, and significantly declared that Soviet Power was already formal; an early recognition, by party members, that the gains of the revolution were fading. There was a high pressure vitriolic leadership campaign against the publication of Kommunist , by the so-called left communists. Lenin denounced them : they represented a complete renunciation of Communism. He demanded that they end their organisational existence. So much for formal factional rights.
Later the violent crushing of the Kronstadt Soviet marks the end of the revolution. Kronstadt was the last mass struggle for soviet power and freely elected soviets. what was decisive was not the factional rights of Red Jacobins. The party apparatus could have neutralised minorities or silenced them in one way or another outside formal factional rights. At the 1920 congress of the party there were 500 complaints that administrative measures had been taken to separate oppositionists from their supporters. The ban simply made control of the party by the apparatus much easier. Besides, to repeat the sentiments of Rosa Luxemburg(8) : freedom solely for the members of one party, no matter how numerous, is no freedom at all. Workers participatory democracy is essential, not a luxury. What fundamentally counted was that the Bolshevik leadership retained authoritarian methods following the civil war and repressed workers attempt in Moscow and Petrograd to revive collective political decision-making. This included mass sackings, the withdrawal of rations, and imprisonment of workers leaders . The Bolshevik claimed that the working class was non-existent, an empty shell. the workers who did exist were casual elements or economistic and so on.
Notwithstanding these polemical exggerations, recent research by Simon Pirani has shown, despite numerical weakness, and the civil war, workers organisation in the industrial heartlands were still intact. In spite of this, Bolshevik vanguardism and statism made them blind to the creative potential of workers organisation and ruthless in silencing dissent.(9) Workers were disaffected, alienated, and hostile to the Bolsheviks and their state. In 1921 , Trotsky was substitutionism personified. He admonished the workers opposition after the tenth congress, telling them that the party must assert its dictatorship, even if it clashed with the democratic moods of the masses. The dictatorship of the proletariat was not the domination of society by the working class as envisaged by Marx, but the dictatorship of the party.
Lenin confessed, in 1922, the Bolsheviks had used the Tsarist state and its ex officials to a considerable extent. But Trotsky remained blind to the counter-revolutionary development of party-state bureaucracy. His thinking did not move with history. Even in 1923, he dogmatically denied Thermidor had taken place. It was over a decade later before he admitted that it had taken place. yet he located it in 1923. The result was Trotsky shared Stalin’s and Zinoviev’s view of the relations between party and class in the period 1918-21. This uncritical view of post 1917 Bolshevism, making a fetish of Bolshevik organisational forms, led to undemocratic organisation principles and dogmatism in the Trotskyist movement.
In comments directed against Victor Serge in Their morals and ours Trotsky(10 )reiterates that centralism is indispensable, whereas internal party democracy is not a goal in itself. Centralism is indispensable because of changing moods and vacillations of the masses, and the need to repel backward elements. Then again, as the events of 1905 and 1917 in Russia demonstrated, the party itself was subject to changing moods. The masses were spontaneously in the vanguard and the party in the rear guard, or playing catch up, as Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution described. The revolutionary organisation should not be seen as separate from the masses, but internal to its struggle. But Trotskyism continued to counter pose a handful of leaders to the masses. Only the freedom and creativity of the working masses can overcome the state, exploitation and alienation.
1 David Cotterill, ( edited) The Serge Trotsky Papers , Pluto Press. (London 1994) p.181
2 Charles Bettleheim , Class Struggles in the USSR, 1917-23, Harvester Press. (Sussex 1976) p.123
3 Marcel Leibman , Leninism under Lenin, p 39, (London 1975) p.39
4 Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, Macmillan. (London 1983) p.325
5 Lars T Lih , (2006) Lenin Rediscovered, Brill. (Boston 2006) p.219
6 Phillip Pomper, Trotsky’s Notebooks , Columbia University Press. ( New York 1986) p.28
7 Paul Leblanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Humanities press. ( London 1990) chapter 8.
8 Rosa Luxemburg, Leninism or Marxism, Ann Arbour, (Michigan 1961) p.69
9 Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, Routledge. (New York 2008 ) p24
10 LeonTrotsky, Their Morals and Ours, Pathfinder Press. ( New York 1972 ) p.45