The forgotten criticism of Bolshevism

13 01 2013

Barry Biddulph contributes to the debate in the ACI on the Forgotten Legacies of Bolshevism by Simon Hardy

738259_10151201909186769_908068371_oIn Left Wing” Communism an Infantile Disorder, Lenin could not have made his core organisational values more explicit: centralism and iron discipline. From putting the lid on the opposition in 1921, with a ban on factions, all the way back to bureaucratic centralism in One Step Forward Two Steps Back, and Letter to a Comrade, in 1904, there was a consistent approach in which democratic methods were not considered to be essential, but regarded as dispensable in circumstances the leader considered to be appropriate for top down authority to be loyally followed.

  Simon quite rightly disagrees with a factional approach, which aims for splits, and regards disunity as normal, based on a conviction of an absolutely correct programme and policies. But this was the Iskra culture from which Bolshevism arose. It was factional through and through: the faction acting as the Party. Polemics were meant to destroy the persons credibility, not seek the truth. This included false accusations. As Vladimir Akimov remembers, in Dilemma’s of  Russian Marxism,  Lenin dishonestly claimed  Rebochee Delo and himself were  economists.(1) Leaders of other tendencies of the Russian Social Democratic Labour  Party, were seen in factional terms, as rivals.  In contrast, in the introduction to Simon’s piece, it is asserted that ‘Bolshevism emerged out of an attempt to build broad parties which allowed a diverse number of tendencies to coexist within a common political project’.  It’s not clear how this understanding emerged.

Bolshevism, as a tendency, came to light following the 1903 congress and in effect as a party in 1912. In neither instance could the ‘project’ be remotely described as a broad church. On the contrary it could not have been more narrow and factional. Lenin was virtually alone with a few followers following 1903. The congress was an émigré  squabble; cats fighting in a sack. Lenin admitted he spent the entire congress in a frenzy. There were no programmatic differences. Trotsky the future leader of the revolution in 1905 and 1917 was against Lenin. Plekhanov, who was against both revolutions, was on Lenin’s side. The faction fighting and name calling created an atmosphere in which there was no respect for personalities or decisions. Lenin’s majority on the editorial board election which triggered the split in the RSDLP was due to anti Iskra comrades leaving the congress and had an accidental character. The formal majority quickly became the minority after the Congress. In Prague in 1912, Lenin in effect captured the RSDLP for the Bolsheviks, excluding many future leaders of the October Revolution.

Simon Hardy regards Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s organisational methods misplaced; but the misunderstanding seems to be Simon’s. Simon warns against the dangers of inflexible forms of organisation, deduced in an unproblematic way from theory. But this is precisely the point made by Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky in their critique of Lenin in 1904, in Organisational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy [Leninism or Marxism] and Our Political TasksLenin not only advocated bureaucracy against democracy, and centralism against local autonomy, but identified revolutionary principle with this top down approach which extended the rights and powers of the centre over the parts ignoring organisational democracy. He regarded a grass-roots approach from the rank and file up, as a form of opportunism.(2)

This organisational dogma is often justified and glossed over by use of the phrase, ‘bending the stick’. Lenin used an organisational trick of exaggeration to overemphasize the key task. But a bent stick is distorted and distortion leads to a dissociation from reality and a false tradition. Another defence of Lenin is to argue that a powerful party centre was essential for effectiveness in an autocratic regime. But the problem with this is, if it is penetrated by a state agent, (Malinovsky) all the information about the organisation is shared by the state . No organisational form is spy proof. In any case, even if bureaucratic centralism was somehow necessary, due to specific circumstances, why make a virtue of necessity? Why not stand for as much democracy and local autonomy as possible? Police repression in Russia existed in 1896, but it did not stop the decentralised mass work of the so-called economists.

Simon seems to share Luxemburg’s and Trotsky’s rejection of making a fetish of  discipline. Lenin invoked factory discipline for the Bolsheviks, conflating capitalist technology and authority with socialist collectivism and even dragging in military discipline and the soldiers mentality, as a model for the party member, literally the rank and file, in One Step Forward Two Steps back. (3) Luxemburg and Trotsky stressed arousing the spirit of rebellion against mind numbing capitalist industrial work and discipline, rather than the sterile spirit of the overseer. (4) Any discipline had meaning only in the sense of self-discipline of the individual and the class for a just cause, not in unthinking loyalty to a leadership. After the October Revolution, Lenin returned to  value factory discipline, one man management and respect for capitalist technology and the division of labour that flowed from it. Most of the factions banned by Lenin in 1921 made the same points, any organisation should be rooted in working class initiative, energy and creativity.  Instead of anchoring  the organisation in the self-activity of working class, Lenin located the party in a stable leadership team who could somehow be the custodians for the socialist future.

In part, Simon’s view of Bolshevism is not so much a critical appraisal as an echo of the Lenin cult.  So according to Simon, ‘Lenin himself knew how to make hard decisions about when to work with people and when to break with them, he was single-minded in his determination to build a revolutionary party’.  But Lenin preferred to work with practical committee men, such as Stalin, who could not challenge his leadership. Stalin was one of the core of loyal Bolshevik Leninists. Lenin promoted him to numerous positions over the years, with disastrous consequences, due to his ability to apply pressure to enforce the Leninist line. The other implication of Simon’s statement implies that Lenin and Bolshevism were always the revolutionary current and all others were reformists or centrists.  This is the myth of the party of a new type. But Bolshevism was not free of opportunism as Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin demonstrated with their support for the provisional government in February 1917.

Simon provides a justification for a homogenous Leninist faction in the RSDLP on the grounds of ‘the equivocations of the Mensheviks and floaters (!) like Trotsky’. But what about Lenin’s programmatic equivocations? The perspective of Bourgeois democratic revolution proved reformist and wrong in 1905 and 1917. Lenin viewed Trotsky’s and Martov’s promotion of permanent revolution in 1905 as ultra left. In Our Differences (1905) Trotsky mocked Lenin’s Jacobinism. The perspectives of Bolshevism called for a working class aestheticism. The working class would limit itself to democratic demands and trust the party to deliver socialism in the future, while the capitalists would  say to themselves everything is fine, because there is no threat to property as the working class has agreed to discipline itself by accepting the constraints imposed by the party. In 1917 a debolshevised (Trotsky’s words on joining)  Bolshevik party left behind the minimum programme to catch up with masses and trampled on the main Leninist programmatic demand, of the  Constitutional Assembly.

A Leninism without expulsion’s and exclusions, which seems to be Simon’s position, would simply not be Leninism. His view that ‘it (Bolshevik) was a party that succeeded in managing differences internally and striking the right balance between democracy and united action’ is not a recognisable description of ‘the party or the tendency’. The factional nature of the Bolsheviks prior to 1917 resulted mainly in exclusions rather than expulsions.  During the period of reaction following the defeat of the 1905 revolution, the membership of the RSDLP factions was  reduced to tiny numbers. Lenin then insisted the Bolshevik faction had to have a single mind: his own. Even tactical differences were ruled out. Bolshevism became monolithic, and party patriotism and the party line became the norm, establishing a heritage for the party dictatorship over the class 1919/23 and Stalinism that followed.(5)

The expulsion of Alexander Bogdanov from the Bolshevik faction showed the undemocratic and unscrupulous manner in with Lenin could deal with effective critics. The difference with Bogdanov was tactical. The third Duma had an even more restricted franchise than the previous two and the Bolsheviks did not have the membership for a mass electoral intervention, so the dispute that followed was largely theoretical and given its tactical nature, unnecessary. Lenin had previously favoured boycott, but now broke the rules of democratic centralism and voted against the Bolshevik faction and against a boycott at a joint RSDLP meeting, in 1907, with the Mensheviks. Lenin was in a minority of one in his faction. Later in 1909 Bogdanov, was in effect, expelled  at an extended Proletarii editorial meeting of Leninist loyalists. Lenin could not risk being outvoted at a Bolshevik conference. While Lenin could not work with Bogdanov or Trotsky, he could work with Stalin and Plekhanov, who had already opposed the revolution in 1905. Did he really always know who to work with in the interests of the broader movement and the revolution? (6)

During the period of reaction the difficulties of maintaining the organisation and some kind of resistance led naturally to intense tactical disagreements within the Bolshevik faction. Lenin’s approach, like his pedantic response to Rosa Luxemburg (7) seemed to be about efficiency. The leader or leadership makes the decisions: get used to it. There was no toleration of tactical differences or rights for minorities. The Bolshevik critics of Lenin were deemed to be heretics or deviationist’s of one kind or another. In the tradition of Iskra, labels were pinned on sinners: recallists, ultimatists, god builders and so on. There are no positive lessons to be learned from any of this.

Simon refers to a model of democratic centralism adopted by the Bolsheviks after the  the unity conference of the RSDLP in 1906. But the Mensheviks were a majority on the leading committee. The Bolsheviks were a party within a party with their own central committee and discipline. Who decides when the unity of a definite party action begins and ends or when criticism is to end and members must toe the line or else: the central committee or leadership. But which leadership? Lenin insisted that any controversy on action and criticism would be decided by a RSDLP conference. This allowed the Bolsheviks a blank cheque to criticise the Menshevik leadership. It was a kind of entryist policy. In the revolutionary year 1917 democratic centralism broke down at a leadership level with Lenin pursuing his own line in public against the entire central committee and the masses overwhelmed the party centre and were not taking orders from anyone.

Lenin’s enduring model of Democratic Centralism, given his bureaucratic view of organisational efficiency, was his explanation to the Democratic Centrists who called for the restoration of the democratic side of the concept at the ninth congress following the October Revolution. Members elect an executive  and the leadership get on with administration; the congress elects a leadership and so get on with it. (8)  Lenin returned to intolerance of discussion and debate shortly after 1917. Enough of the chatter. The workers  opposition and other critics  were seen as unhealthy deviations from the correct line. It was not a question of legitimate debate and discussion, since the opponents of the leader were dishonestly deemed to be anarchists Syndicalist’s, petty bourgeois or simply childish. This was the cult of the leader with the correct line. Organisational measures were used to remove critics from their supporters and pressure put on oppositional papers to be closed down.

Democratic Centralism is not democratic; leaders decide on how much democracy there should be, depending on their interpretation of the circumstances.  The concept has been compatible with authoritarian personalities and top down undemocratic parties. Simon wants to fill an undemocratic form with a democratic content, but the usual undemocratic content was demonstrated recently in a scandal in the British SWP.  The content is tied to the form of a small central leadership mimicking the centralization of state decision-making.  A post capitalist society can only be established by the self emancipation of the working class, not a handful of leaders invoking the values of so-called democratic centralism and substituting for the class.


1 Vladimir Akimov, The dilemmas Of Russian Marxism, p 322  Edited by Jonathan Frank 1967. Lenin dishonestly claimed he did not see any need for a revolutionary organisation.

2 Vladimir Lenin, One step Forward,Two steps back. (1977) CW V7p394

3 As above p392

4 Leon Trotsky, Our Political Tasks, p 104, undated, New Park Publications.

5  Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 1980,Merlin Press p282

6  For years Lenin had left philosophy on one side in his alliance with Bogdanov. In any case there were serious differences between the the materialism of Plekhanov and indeed Lenin, compared with the philosophy of Marx.

7 Lenin, Revolution  Democracy and Socialism,selected writings,Edited by Paul Le blanc, p 151, Pluto Press 2008.

8 Michael Waller, Democratic Centralism, p 28 Manchester University press 1981.

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21 responses

13 01 2013

Trotsky famously repudiated all his pre 1917 critique of Bolshevism. But this does not make the repudiation correct. Nor should we accept the repudiation uncritically as Trotskyists usually do. The tragedy of Trotsky is that he became trapped in the cult of Lenin and in authoritarian politics 1919/23.

13 01 2013

Barry, a timely intervention given the SWP crisis.
If revolutionaries want a communist society where everyone has an equal say, why do they organise in a way that creates a group that is ‘more equal’ than others? They need to recognise their egos & limit the amount of time that anyone can have in a role. Obviously this is limited by the number of members, their skills & their willingness to take on responsibility. But for a group the size of the SWP it doesn’t seem unreasonable to limit the time in a role to two or three years, & preferably doing these roles whilst working like other ordinary members. They should then be prevented for holding any role again for at least five years. All roles should also be voted upon by all members. In otherwords, organise a party as you would organise a communist society. Surely, that’s not too much to ask for?

13 01 2013

Excellent article indeed , and timely as I believe the crisis in the SWP could tranish the Left for many years if we dont show those who are getting interested in an anti capitalist alternative that we DO hold the seeds of a future society , a communist one, within us, Duvin is right, a key democratic demand in any organisation would be a limit to holding positions, but also that any one elected is accountable, recallable..and removable in transaprent and simple ways.

13 01 2013

Very refreshing to read this, thanks. We’re all used to criticisms of Stalin (and -ism) and of the still autocratic post-Stalin USSR but criticism of Lenin is very rare. I can’t issue a funded opinion but I welcome the diversity and watch with interest what others may have to say.

13 01 2013
Roy Ratcliffe

Excellent response by Barry to the current debate among many who want to recreate Bolshevism and Leninism, without – what they see as a few disfiguring blemishes. However, Bolshevism and Leninism, including the later Trotskyism was fundamentally flawed, and not just deformed on the surface. I have documented some of the systemic failings in Revolutionary Party:help or hindrance’. on my own blog at and will follow it up next week with an article entitled ‘Clinging onto Patriarchy’ which attempts to demonstrate how the concept of leadership and vanguard – amongst some on the left – has not substantially broken from the patriarchal tradition of positing a ‘benign’ leadership which is necessary to guide all us lost or floundering working class sheep.

PS I would like to re-blog the above article on my site if Barry and Commune would OK that. Regards, Roy

13 01 2013

Roy – we would be happy for you to reblog Barry’s article.

16 01 2013

In response to the discussion and debate surrounding the recent SWP conference,the leadership have taken a formal,bureaucratic position : the majority vote went against the critics,therefore accept the decision and get on with it. But invoking a narrow majority vote with abstentions in the context of a controversy which has many ramifications,implications and involves a feeling that something is serious wrong, does not address the issues and leaves the authority of the conference and the leadership short of general respect.

I raise this in an effort to throw some contemporary light and understanding on Lenin’s position after the RSDLP congress of 1903. There are vast historical and political differences, but there is an echo is this specific very narrow area of formal majority votes. In his over-long and to use the young Trotsky’s word ,boring book, One Step Forward,Two steps Back, Lenin argued that it all boiled down to a conference majority on the election to the Editorial board and all the rest of the controversy was so much phrase spinning and vague chatter.

Furthermore for Lenin ‘to counter-pose the power of authority to the power of idea’s is anarchistic talk’ But in this context like his modern central committee imitators, he empties authority of any criticism /discussion politics,conviction. If as he later argues, that authority of the central institution should rest on moral and intellectual prestige then to dismiss criticism or alternative ideas as a talking shop and idle chatter, is to render the authority formal. so conviction and ideas are replaced by discipline.

In his very cautious response to Rosa Luxemburgs critique, in organisational Questions of Social Democracy, Lenin argued that Rosa was wrong in her view that he defended one system of organisation against another. Now on the face of it ,at one level this assertion is untrue,but at a deeper level when Lenin says ‘From the first to the last page of my book I defend the elementary principles of any conceivable system of party organisation’ He argues from a political neutral standpoint of a technically efficient system.

This system of top down organisation is revolutionary .Its revolutionary because the party leader has decreed only that way of functioning is a lever to change reality, irrespective of Marxist or communist theories of democratic revolutionary organisation. The Party leader has determined what political form is appropriate for the present circumstances.That leaders authority becomes a kind of absolute . Communist theory will become concrete later meanwhile leave it to the leadership.

Lenin also determined what was possible in terms of the relationship between party and class and economic struggle and political struggle, in What is to be Done, irrespective of what Marx wrote about working class self emancipation or the interlacing of the economic and political. He never repudiated these positions. which were shown to be false, in 1905/17 and indeed following the October revolution.

16 01 2013

As the SWP demonstrate there are people who use an ideology (Leninism) to justify their privileged positions (being on the central committee).

They have to emphasize the roll of the paper & the need for full-time professionals producing it & the rank & file selling.
There is no equality in decision-making.
It is not how a communist society will organise itself.

So the question is, should we label these people as a ‘coordinator class’?

I’m probably more sympathetic to the Bolsheviks & the experience of the Russian Revolution than most libertarian communists.
What happened in Russia is largely explained by the material conditions: a peasant dominated society that had no class interest in communism, rather than one man (Lenin) or one group (Bolsheviks) having the wrong political theory.

The choice was a bourgeois revolution (Mensheviks) or a one-party state ruling by force (Bolsheviks & Stalinism).
But that’s not to blame Lenin: it wasn’t possible to know for sure that the peasants couldn’t be persuaded to adopt communism, especially if the revolution had spread to Germany & Britain.

None of this justifies Lenin’s centralism; it just gives it the context.

Today we don’t have a peasant dominated world.
There is no argument for trying to impose communism upon a working class.
It is in the interest of the working class to take collective control of the means of production rather than to have to sell their labour to the few who do own & control the means.
But there is the problem that the media & the wider social & cultural aspects of society are controlled by the capitalists & we have capitalist ‘brainwashing’.

This does mean that some do have communist consciousness & most don’t.
Naturally those with should organise together.
But surely they should organise in a way that is appealing, where new members feel empowered & listened to?
This is what social networking gives them to a large extent.
And because of this the capitalist hegenomy is breaking.
People will organise themselves & take matters into their own hands.

The important thing is to give them access to communist explanations so they don’t get fooled into giving up their power to another group, whether religious ideologues (e.g. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood) or fascists (e.g. Golden Dawn).

16 01 2013
Roy Ratcliffe

Might I respectfully suggest duvinrouge that you reconsider accepting a defence of Lenin and the Bolsheviks on the basis of so-called peasant backwardness. There is of course the observation that Marx made toward the end of his life which did not consider the Russian peasants as too backward for such a transition. Nor was this his position concerning the peasants of France also in the 19th century. But one of the clearest expressions of the socio-economic awareness of peasant social production in the 19th century Russia, I have come across is as follows. Writing in 1856, Von Haxthausen noted that;

“The members of the artisan communes also constantly assist each other with their capital and labour; purchases and sales are transacted in common and they send their commodities together to the markets and towns, where they have shops for the sale of them: they do not form exclusive corporations, like those of the German artisans; but their associations are open to all and the members united only by the bonds of communal life. Everyone is at liberty to assume a profession, or to give it up, commence another and enter a commune where his new occupation is carried on. This however is seldom the case, as a change would not often be advantageous; but no restraint is imposed by any of the communal regulations.” (Von Haxthausen. ‘The Russian Empire: its People, Institutions and Resources. London 1856. Excerpts reproduced in ‘Documents of European History’. Volume. 1. page 301.)

Too often we trustingly accept partisan generalisations handed down to us, I know I bought that rationalisation, for many years, until I did the further research.


Roy (

17 01 2013


If it’s the case that the peasants as a class wanted communism & the Bolsheviks denied it to them, then do you not have to accept there’s a coordinator class?


17 01 2013

Duvinrouge-material conditions do not explain why Bolshevism took the form it did. Nor does a reference to material conditions explain the political choices made. This reference to material conditions has been used by the Trotskyist tradition as apologetics for Leninism. Certainly the orthodox philosophical materialism of Chris Harman and John Rees has been utilised to this effect.

But if we go back to centralism and discipline. What material circumstances were responsible for Lenin locating power in Sovnarkom and the Party state apparatus days after the October Revolution,rather than Soviets? What material pressure led to the Bolsheviks emasculating factory committees and workers control shortly after advocating them in 1917? it was about political choices.

Many Trotskyists excuse the top down authoritarian aspects of Bolshevism by reference to the material conditions of the civil war. But these bureaucratic substitutionist methods pre-dated the civil war and post- dated the end of the civil war. As the various oppositionists said it was the values of centralism and discipline and lack of trust in the creative initiative of the masses. Political choices that emerged from a wrong view of party and class.

Material circumstances cannot explain why the counter revolution originated and took the form of a counter revolution within the party/state apparatus. The philosophical materialism of Plekhanov and Lenin’s Pre 1914 materialism would have suggested the counter revolution would have come from the material interests of Peasants or the Nepman. But instead of counter revolution coming from materially existing classes,it came from the rise of a new exploiting class originating from Bolshevik values /ideology of centralism and Iron disciplne,but developed further by stalin.

Although typically Lenin did not repudiate his earlier philosophical views he did glimpse the humanistic aspect of Marxism in his philosophical notebooks with his observation that Man’s consciousness not only reflects the material world, but creates it. But this insight did not have much bearing on the Bolshevik practice after 1914 except in a negative way.

17 01 2013
Roy Ratcliffe

Hi duvinrouge!

I am not claiming the peasants wanted ‘communism’ as such, any more than the vast majority of workers wanted ‘communism’ when they articulated slogans such as ‘peace, bread and land’. The evidence I have uncovered only suggests that they were not too backward to move to a system of economic and social production based upon their own self-activity, since it was what they were familiar with either in their agricultural communes or in their artisan activities when the seasons rendered agricultural production impossible or negligable. How and who might facilitate a developmental transition of generalised self-organisation and activity as a bottom-up, rather than a top-down command process – is of course the much contested question.

Regards, Roy

17 01 2013


Isn’t the choice:

1. The Bolshevik one-party state & Stalinist crimes didn’t have a material basis & where due to Lenin & the Bolsheviks having ‘wrong’ politics.

2. There is a basis in material conditions & the Bolsheviks were the coordinator class.

3. There is a material basis in the peasants not having a class interest in communism.

To argue the first is surely to depart Marxism’s scientific basis?


18 01 2013
Roy Ratcliffe

Hi duvinrouge

I can’t speak for Barry, but for me the real choice is in one sense the opposite of a choice between your three general points. I personally don’t think it useful to start off from these three generalisations, counter-pose them and then choose the most convincing. For this reason for me your points are too general as a starting point. To my understanding the method Marx used was to study as much detail as possible and only then arrive at any relevant generalisations. This seems to me to be the only useful path.

The generalisation that the Russian peasants were too backward for anything but authoritarian control, is a generalisation which was given to me many times. However, later it came to me that it needs considerable evidence to conclude that they were – and I had never been given any convincing evidence. When I did the research, the evidence I found (part of which I inserted above) did not point to that conclusion, so I rejected it. The evidence I gathered suggested they were used to collective self-activity both in the fields, in their artisan occupations and in the factories. Additionally in reading all the volumes of Lenin I could get hold of I concluded in my book that;

“What he and other Bolsheviks were really referring to was their lack of mathematical ability, their inability to read and write and above all else, their deficiency in understanding the language of intellectual, scientific and political discourse. Anything less than this elitist level of political and technical culture was considered backward by him.” (chapter 5.)

I recognise that short discussion comments like these are insufficient to do more than hint at the real problem. I would be happy to send you a copy of my book which has two lengthy chapters on Lenin and the Bolsheviks which traces the policy suggestions made by Lenin and accepted by the Party and includes my own full assessment of this development from 1917 to 1923 and beyond.



19 01 2013
Mark Harper

I think the bureaucratisation of the Russian Revolution was due both to the economic backwardness of Russia and the ultra-centralism of the Bolsheviks. It’s probable that the success of the Bolshevik’s top down Socialism amongst the Russian working class was due to a recognition that achieving communism in an economically backward country with a large non-collectivist peasantry was going to be difficult. In much the same way as the numerically weak French working class of the Nineteenth Century were initially attracted to Blanquism. During the early twentieth century, the Western working class which were much stronger naturally tended towards more democratic and bottom up forms of organisation such as Syndicalism and Left communism before Bolshevisation.

The Bolshiviks weren’t a self-conscious Coordinator class in the making, though I expect many probably confused socialism with a desire for a strong Russian state organised economy. What quickly emerged however was a coordinator class based on state capitalism and this was then copied across the world (Cuba, China, and Vietnam etc) by conscious would be coordinators frustrated by the ability of their own weak capitalist class to achieve industrialisation and national independence.

On the question of organisation, I think it is mistaken to throw out the concept of a party. Revolutionary ideas will have to compete with reformist and even reactionary ideas within the working class during a revolutionary crisis. In order to compete successfully, revolutionaries need to be organised and in order to get an idea across it has to have some clarity which necessitates a level of theoretical unity within the organisation of revolutionaries. There also has to be a degree of tactical unity. It is very possible for factions within the same organisation that hold in common core principals to come up with mutually exclusive organisational tactics. This is where democracy is essential. Majority rule and, if necessary, policy amendments to achieve higher degrees of consensus to prevent splits are needed. However I think we should expect splits and should always be striving to work with other groups on areas of agreement. Revolutions will involve a myriad of parties and organisations reflecting different opinions amongst a revolutionary working class.

I agree with the comments above. Unlike Leninism, a revolutionary party should have the structure of the communist society we hope to help bring about. That is democratic, participatory and organised from the bottom up. The Party should be based on direct democracy with delegates accountable to constituencies and as mandated by them as is possible. Referendum should be used to make major tactical decisions and to change rules and core principals. As mandated decisions aren’t always possible when an organisation needs to react quickly to a changing situation, all delegates should be immediately recallable and their voting patterns published. Delegates should also be rotated regularly by having short terms of office. I believe that the slate system of electing a collective leadership has no place in this type of organisation and factions should be allowed to exist all year round and should receive funding and publication of views according to their numerical strength in the party. We also need to break down the division of leaders and led in a revolutionary party just as we will have to do in a communist society. As in a communist society, this process has to begin as soon as possible. The division between an intellectual elite and rank and file foot soldier is often more stark on the revolutionary Left than in Capitalist society generally.

19 01 2013


Excellent contribution.
The last 100 years of communism & what we need to do now in a nutshell.

21 01 2013
Joe Davies

Lenin himself was a fan of Party democracy and bottom-up organization. Just not in the Bolshevik Party of 1903-21, which had special circumstances – ‘backward’ society, autocratic regime, censorship, extreme repression, armed counter-revolution etc – to contend with. In the modern west, we don’t have these circumstances. We need a different model from that which eventually worked (ie resulted in their seizure of state power) for the Bolsheviks. A more democratic, inclusive, participatory model. One that recognizes women and potential allies of the working class and makes them welcome.

22 01 2013
Roy Ratcliffe

Hi Joe,

Whilst I agree with your final point on the need for a different model I wonder if you would share the evidence from which you draw the conclusion that Lenin was a fan of democracy. My own researches have reached the opposite conclusion. For example in the general political sphere;

“..the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised by the whole of that class, because in all capitalist countries (and not only over here in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts (by imperialism in some countries) that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard that has absorbed the revolutionary energy of the class. The whole is like an arrangement of cogwheels. Such is the basic mechanism of the dictatorship of the proletariat…It cannot work without a number of transmission belts running from the vanguard to the mass of the advanced class, and from the latter to the mass of the working people.” (Lenin Complete Works Vol 32 page 21.

And in the economic sphere;

“..unquestioning obedience to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of processes organised on the pattern of large-scale machine industry……industry is indispensable – democracy is not!” (Lenin. Complete Works Vol 27 page 258)

In response to the ‘Workers Opposition’ group within the party.

“Comrades this is no time to have an opposition. Either you are on this side or the other, but then your weapon must be a gun and not an opposition.” (Lenin Complete Works Vol 32 page 200.)

From these extracts (and from many, many more) I concluded that Lenin (and those Bolsheviks who agreed with him), did not think workers in any country were sufficiently trustworthy to be allowed a vote for their representatives or the policies ordered by the politburo (itself an unelected group.) They were simply cogs in the machinery of state planning. He also thought workers in factories should not be able to decide or even question how to organise their production schedules. And any opposition within the Party should be threatened with escalation to a weapons grade dispute, between revolutionaries who disagreed. My own view is that when people agreed with him within the party he was ok with some aspects of democracy, but when they didn’t he consistently subverted it.

Of course, I am still learning and, as in other things, I am always willing to be persuaded otherwise if sufficient verifiable evidence is supplied.

Regards, Roy (at

24 01 2013
Joe Davies

Thanks Roy, and sorry, but I can’t quote you chapter and verse about where I got my impression of Lenin’s views on democracy. I’m a communist, not a librarian :), and I remember Lenin’s contempt for Kautsky, who had quotations from Marx classified into thousands of pigeonholes, but who couldn’t understand in the end what Marx was all about, so I wouldn’t want to fall into that trap. But I do recall that in several places (“What Is To Be Done”, and “State and Revolution” in particular) he draws a distinction between what might be appropriate for the tactics of a Party in a western (so called) democracy and what might be appropriate for the situation in Russia. As I remember it, he was kind of envious of the opportunities afforded to us western commies.

24 01 2013
Joe Davies

If I have some time, I’ll go through my Lenin collection and see if I can’t track down some quotations for you. But I wouldn’t hold my breath …

24 01 2013

Like Roy I agree with your conclusion,but its not clear how you arrived at it.kautsky did not lose his understanding of Marx in libraries or a theoretical or bookish endeavor. Despite his pretentions to orthodoxy his views were clearly at variance with Marx on many issues, including materialism and the state. He was aware of this,there was no confusion or over- theorising. Many of the original manuscript’s of Marx were left gathering dust and not published by Kautsky and the German Social Democratic party.

In What is to be done, Lenin was not talking about the different and appropriate tactics for Russia compared with the west. On the contrary, he was discussing the relationship between party and class for all countries as his claim that the history of all countries shows the workers can only attain trade union consciousness by their own efforts- demonstrates . This was entirely wrong. Chartism in Britain and the events of 1905,and 1917 proved differently. His schema of bringing socialist consciousness to the workers from outside the material class struggle was at odds with Marx’s view of the self emancipation of the working class. Lenin’s separation of the economic and political was also at odds with the intermingling of the economic and political in mass strikes in Russia and elsewhere. The inspiration for these positions was Kautsky who Lenin often used for authority in his arguments. So no contempt for kautsky in that period.

The state and revolution was not about different tactics in the East and west. Again it was about universal application. Workers democracy in their soviets was superier to Bourgeois Democracy. This is undoubtedly true, but Lenin abandoned this smashing of the state or the commune perspective shortly after 17 and betrayed the creative energy of the Russian workers who inspired it during that heroic period.

The problem with impressions are that they are not very focused or accurate but having said that you have arrived at the correct conclusion without the hard slog of going through all the details. But if you don’t understand the past can you understand the present ? I suppose you would answer its better to trust your instincts and you might have a point.


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