Lenin and the origins of the Bolshevik party.

19 06 2012


Lars T Lih argues that “Lenin’s rejection of the actual parties of the Second International does not mean he is rejecting its party ideal“.(1) But in emphasising the social democratic political influence on Lenin does Lars misinterpret Lenin’s presentation of the History of the Bolshevik party ? His interpretation of Lenin’s comment in Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, that “As a current of political thought and as a political party, Bolshevism has existed since 1903,”(2) is that “the reader gets no idea when and how the Bolsheviks moved from a ‘trend of political thought’ to a ‘political party'”. For Lars,Lenin is “simply not interested in this aspect of Bolshevik History“.(3) But the question is, why did Lenin not address the crucial point about the origins of the Bolshevik party?

As if to dismiss an obvious objection, Lars adds, “the reason for this is not that Lenin wants to give a misleading impression about the historical evolution of Bolshevism”.(4)  This opinion and others suggest that for Lars to find Lenin guilty of such a thing, he would have to have in his possession a signed confession. In the political context, Lenin did want to give and did give the impression that between 1903 and 1917 Bolshevism was a kind of independent organisation or in some sense a party, with iron discipline and strict centralisation. These values of a centralised top down organisation were the ones stressed over and over again by Lenin in Government. In his very misleading and selective history of Bolshevism in Left Wing Communism, he wanted to teach communists internationally, what he claimed were the fundamentals of Bolshevism’s theory and practice. These values were  correct political leadership, and iron discipline. The history of Bolshevism showed how to “build up and maintain under the most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat”.(5)

In fact in 1917, the Bolsheviks were not very disciplined or highly centralised.(6)  Many new  and old Bolsheviks in 1917 had not always accepted Lenin’s authority. Lenin himself had often been undisciplined : he sometimes broke the rules of democratic centralism. At the Finland station in 1917, he publically criticised and acted against the central committee’s overwhelming majority, who stood on his mistaken programme of the democratic revolution. He also voted with the Mensheviks against his own Bolshevik faction led by Bogdanov, on the issue of whether to boycott the third Duma. Lenin pressured Trotsky into giving him a central committee majority in favour of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1918, by threatening to wage a factional war against any anti treaty majority. Trotsky was aware from his own painful experience that Lenin meant this and that it would destroy the unity required for any successful strategy.

Lenin was not interested in providing any details of the various splits and disagreements within the Bolsheviks prior to 1917. This did give the impression that the Bolsheviks were ideologically monolithic or united around his leadership. However, the phrase ‘Bolshevik Leninist’ showed there were other kinds of Bolsheviks. His potted history of Bolshevism also implied the Bolsheviks were in a sense,  a party of a new type, separate from the opportunists. A theme articulated explicitly by Stalinism and Trotskyism. He did not mention the unity conference with the Mensheviks in 1906, or that the Mensheviks had accepted his proposal of the rule change at that conference, which was the root cause of the 1903 split. There were no programmatic differences. Nor does Lenin provide the context for the only party that really did exist prior to 1917, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which included Mensheviks and others who disagreed with Lenin. He uses the word Bolshevism as if it was a synonym for that party, as if it was ‘the party’ from 1903.

While maintaining that beneath Lenin’s anti Kautsky political rhetoric, there was a revolutionary Social Democratic message, Lars does note that “Lenin and the Bolsheviks put a new emphasis on centralisation and discipline, because of the challenges of civil war and state-building – but in so doing they were building on long-accepted values in the socialist Movement”.(7) State building might be a Social Democratic value, but it is obviously not a Marxist value. The Paris Commune was not an example of state building. Lenin’s, The state and revolution, articulated, to some extent, the creativity of the Russian working class in 1917. Having said that, this view of the state had no real influence on pre-1917 Bolshevism or indeed post-1917 Bolshevism. Lenin abandoned this view of the state; as he abandoned the revolutionary ambitions of socialism from below in 1917. The civil war cannot explain the enduring choice of top down bureaucratic centralism, since these enduring values of Lenin predated the civil war and followed the victorious end to the civil war.

Lenin had always regarded workers democracy as desirable in some circumstances, but not essential and integral to socialist advance. Sometimes it was a luxury which could be dispensed with. His instinct was for a direction from above, the sterile spirit of the supervisor, to use Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase. In the opinion of Victor Serge, the Bolshevik government, “was libertarian in words and only for a short time, during the brief period of Soviet Democracy, which extended from October 1917, to the summer of 1918. Then it pulled itself together and resolutely entered the path of old ‘statism’ – authoritarian, and soon totalitarian. It lacked the sense of liberty.”(8) The commune state administered from below was rejected, and the Social Democratic view of trust in the state replaced confidence in the creative instinct of the workers themselves. The political choice after the 1917 October revolution, to root the revolution in the party leadership and the state, rather than the mass organisations of the workers, planted the seed of counter-revolution which grew and developed within the party- state administration. “From very early on (1918-19) the Bolshevik state was anathema to socialist creativity,emasculating soviets and trade unions”.(9)

Lenin’s critics within the Bolshevik party all stressed that the state and party bureaucracy was the result of the move away from workers self-activity. Kollontai summed up the attitude of workers disillusioned with Lenin’s Government when she concluded, “we give no freedom to class activity, we are afraid of criticism, we have ceased to rely on the masses”.(10) Ossinsky’s criticism of the top down instruction to obey, without question, the single will of the factory manager is another good example. “If the proletariat does not know how to create the necessary prerequisite of the socialist organisation of labour no one can do this for it”.(11) Many oppositionists, including Ossinsky and Miasnikov made the point that if the stick was raised against the workers, it would end up in the hands of a new oppressive, exploitative class. This kind of criticism was dismissed by Lenin, in his typical abusive and dishonest style, as left-wing childishness, petty Bourgeois and anarchist. Lars T Lih is at his best pedantic self when he translates the phrase infantile disorder as a disorder of childhood and then growing pains! It is almost as if Lenin was the most polite and honest of all polemicists. To describe his critics as childish is not a debate, it was part of the cult of the party leader and his correct strategy and tactics.

Barry Biddulph


1 Lars T Lih, ‘Bolshevism and revolutionary social democracy

2 V. I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder

3 Lars T Lih, as above.

4 Lars T Lih, as above.

5 Lenin, as above.

6 S. Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

7 Lars T Lih, as above.

8 V. Serge in D. Cotterell (ed), The Serge-Trotsky Papers (London and Colorado: Pluto Press, 1994), p.180

9 S. Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24 London and New York, Rutledge, 2008,p.10

10  N. Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought (London: Macmillan, 1983, p.266

11 International Communist Current, The Russian Communist Left, 1918-1930 (2005), p.73

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3 responses

20 06 2012

Is it worth emphasing as well that what happened in the Soviet Union was a result of the material conditions rather than the errors of one man’s politics?

Russia in 1917 was a largely peasant society. I’ve seen estimates that the working class was less than 10% of the population. And although it couldn’t be said that it was impossible for a society to go straight from feudalism to communism, the material conditions of the peasant class did not suggest that they wanted or would accept communism. They wanted ‘peace, bread & land’ as the Bolsheviks promised, but none of that is communism. Hence a small group of communists led a small working class & a big peasant class with a mixture of communist & non-communist promises, trying to impose communism from above. This meant keeping control through the ‘disciplined’ party rather than ‘all power to the Soviets’. Kronstadt exposed the Bolsheviks. Under such conditions either the Bolsheviks gave up & allowed capitalism & possibly multi-party democracy, or they forcibly imposed collectivisation at great human cost & attempt to hold on to power by murdering opponents. Under Stalin’s leadership they choose the latter.

Only now are we starting to emerge from this long dark shadow. Unfortunately, there are still some who think such top-down leadership of the ‘enlightened’ is required. Whilst they carry on being historical societies for the re-enactment of the Russian Revolution, many are actually organising as communists & having assemblies where equality of decision-making is real. Unsurprisingly, many of them don’t regard themselves as communists. That’s the legacy of Bolshevism.

21 06 2012

I was just making the point that ideological or political choices were made it was not all about adverse circumstances. Many of the choices contributed to the adverse circumstances. The Treaty of Brest Litovsk for example.

26 07 2012

Except its not nearly so cut and dried. The Germans would have probably captured Moscow and St Petersburg if the Bolsheviks had not signed the treaty. Also its a fact, that the overwhelming majority of opinion in the Soviets, that is among ordinary people, was for peace. The reason the left’s opposition collapsed so quickly is they had no mass base to speak of.


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