Barry Biddulph takes another look at Lars T Lih on Lenin and “the party”.
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 attempting to distil social democracy from Bolshevism, he distorts the history of Bolshevism and misinterprets Lenin’s politics. 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’”. 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) No, of course not. This opinion and others suggests that for Lars to find Lenin guilty of such a thing, he would have to have in his possession a signed confession. But 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 centralised top down instructions were the ones stressed over an 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; correct political leadership, strategy and tactics and more importantly 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) Nor did Lenin have the correct strategy for revolution until April 1917. 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) This betrays Lars Lih’s own values. State building might be a Social Democratic value, but it is obviously not a Marxist value. The commune state or the lessons of the Paris Commune are not examples of state building. Lenin’s, The state and revolution, articulated the creativity of the Russian working class in 1917 and rediscovered the anti state views of Marx. 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 foreman’, 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 with the party state administration. “The Bolshevik Vanguardism and statism made them blind to the creative potential of democratic workers organisations, intolerant of other working class political forces and ruthless in silencing dissent”.(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.
1 Lars T Lih, ‘Bolshevism and revolutionary social democracy‘
2 V. I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder
3 Lars T Lih, Op. cit.
4 Lars T Lih, Op. cit.
5 Lenin, Op. cit.
6 S. Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)
7 Lars T Lih, Op. cit.
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: Soviet workers and the new communist elite (London and New York: Rutledge, 2008)
10 A. Kollontai quoted in N. Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought (London: Macmillan, 1983), p.266
11 International Communist Current, The Russian Communist Left, 1918-1930 (2005), p.73