|Did Lenin Distort Marx?
11 November 1982, Islington Central Library, Debate between Steve Coleman – The Socialist Party of Great Britain, arguing Yes and Monty Johnstone – The Communist Party of Great Britain arguing No.
Steve Coleman, The Socialist Party of Great Britain
Thank you Mr Chairman, comrades and friends. Let me begin by quoting from a letter which was sent from the West Ham branch of the Communist party to the West Ham branch of the Socialist party in February 1943 [Johnstone interrupts ‘before my time’], I quote
‘The Communist Party has no dealings with murderers, liars, renegades or assassins, the SPGB has always followed a policy which would mean disaster for the British working class. They have consistently poured vile slanders on Joseph Stalin and the Communist party of the Soviet Union, told filthy lies about the Red Army, the Soviet people and its leaders. They have worked to split the British working class and are in short agents of fascism in Great Britain. The Communist party refuses with disgust to deal with such renegades. We treat them as vipers to be destroyed.’
That was signed by J. Barker, secretary of West Ham Communist Party. Well Mr. Chairman, forty years have passed since then and it would seem that rather Barker’s bark was rather worse than his bite because far from destroying the vipers of the Socialist party, my opponent’s party has spent the last forty years attempting to dissociate itself from the political principles upon which is was founded.
These days members of the Communist party think that it is a bit unseemly to remind them of their record of blind and uncritical adulation of Joseph Stalin. Instead of defending Lenin’s successor against the vile slanders of the Socialist party, they shuffle with embarrassment when Stalin’s name is mentioned, a bit like Roman Catholics who’ve been reminded of the Spanish Inquisition.
These days the Communist party is a mere shadow of the fanatical vehicle for the defence of Kremlin imperialism which it once was. The pictures of comrade Stalin have been discreetly taken down from the wall, the talk about the socialist fatherland and the armed Bolshevik road to socialism is confined to those who are too old or too young to know what is expedient. These days my opponent and some of his fellow communist party Leninists are occasionally found indulging in very moderate protestations that perhaps their comrades in the Kremlin are not behaving like gentlemen.
You can hear them fight frequently ‘Comrades of the politbureau, as fellow socialists we appeal to you to produce just a few less nuclear bombs to make the world a bit more civilised’ and ‘Comrade Jarulzelski, we would be the last to question your communist credentials but is it not a trifle unreasonable to lock up and beat up striking workers.’ ‘And as for you comrade Marchais, we realise that is only the vipers of the SPGB who want to split the working class but is it entirely in accordance with the principles of communism that the French Communist party organises a campaign to expel black immigrant workers from jobs in France.’
And all of this doubt and questioning and criticism is no bad thing, it is what separates my opponent from the majority of the members of his party who have never yet taken down the portraits of Stalin from their walls, the ones who still believe in immense humanity of the dictators of the Kremlin and who are still out to destroy the socialist vipers who refuse the belief in the false words of the Communist party’s policy statement ‘the British Road to Socialism’ which states and I quote ‘today socialism is a reality for all to see. Countries with a population of hundreds of millions are socialist states.’ But although my opponent has correctly dared to criticise certain of the worst aspects of the so called socialist states, although he has made some efforts to distance himself from the dogmatic Stalinism which is the hallmark of the Communist party. He has never abandoned the political theory which the Communist party was established to defend and out of which the horrors of Stalinism emerged. My opponent is an advocate of the Bolshevik ideology of Lenin and it is that position which he must defend in this debate tonight.
And against that defence, I am going to argue that the revolutionary outlook of Marx as endorsed by the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties in other countries is fundamentally opposed to the Bolshevik outlook of Lenin as endorsed by the Communist party of Great Britain and its companion parties in Russia and Poland and Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia to name but a few, to name but the worst. I’m going to argue that agreement with the outlook of Lenin means a rejection of the outlook of Marx and agreement with Marx means a rejection of the outlook of Lenin.
So this is a debate about the ideas and let me briefly outline the basic ideas which characterise the political revolutionary theory of Marx. Marxists start from the recognition that there is nothing inevitable about the chaotic mess which the world is in today. We reject the myth that poverty and homelessness and mass starvation and war must always be with us. We dismiss the limited and stultifying conservative belief that there is no alternative, that history can advance no further than the civilisation of the bomb and the dole queue.
Secondly the Marxist outlook presupposes that the social problems which face the mass of humanity today are attributable not to the miscalculations of governments or to the fortuity of nature but arise out of the social system of capitalism which can never serve the needs of the working class because it compulsively abandons those needs for the sake of the profit of the privileged few who own and control the means of wealth production and distribution.
Thirdly the Marxist approach to political change entirely repudiates the traditional capitalist image of the working class as a crowd or a mob who must always live in deference to masters and submission to the laws of the market. The essential factor which differentiates Marxism from all other ideologies is its assumption of the potentiality for those who are currently the victims of history to become its conscious makers. To quote Marx the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class themselves. And it is this crucial factor which makes Marxism a theory of revolution which is unlike all of the old capitalist theories of revolution, because for Marx the road to emancipation must be consciously embarked upon by the class which is to be emancipated from wage slavery. And not only did Marx contend that this must happen, not only did he argue that it was a necessity, he contended that it could happen, that it was a possibility.
And finally Marxists are not just in the destruction business, because destruction is the fantasy of the impotent. Emancipation involves more than the escape from the social system which economically enslaves us. Beyond the barriers of capitalism there is the alternative of socialism. And it is to this alternative that Marxists are committed and this socialist alternative involves the common ownership and democratic control of the means of living, the factories, the farms, the docks, the offices, the media, these in a socialist society must be owned and controlled not by a class, not by a bureaucracy, not by a state, but by the whole community.
Socialism means the rational utilisation of the earth’s resources for the use of the people of the earth so that bread will no longer be produced to sell on the market with a view to profit but will be made for the free access of all humanity so that there will be no longer a perverse crisis of overproduction of food for the market while thirty million people starve to death each year. Socialism is the rational resolution to these contradictions of capitalism.
Now the opponents of Marxism find it very difficult to argue against this Marxist solution to the various problems, the numerous and insurmountable problems which exist within capitalism. And because they find it difficult they spend their time and their money abusing and confusing and distorting the principles of Marxism. They talk about Marxist Russia and the Marxist militia in Poland which locks up trade unions and the Marxist president in Zimbabwe who has declared strikes to be illegal. And why should they not use these sticks with which to beat Marxism? Because after all Brezhnev who died yesterday called himself a Marxist. So does Jarulzelski. So does Mugabe. So did Stalin, so does the Communist Party of Great Britain. And furthermore the Communist party endorses the application of these labels to every one of the dictators and regimes and reactionary movements which cares to style itself Marxist.
And it is very understandable that workers who are not naïve, not gullible say that Marxism, that sounds very good in theory, sounds very nice as I outlined it just before, but when it is put to the test, all you get is dictatorship and political prisons, and bans on strikes, and just as many nuclear weapons. And when they hear people who call themselves socialists, defending these iniquities, when they hear members of the Communist Party saying that Russian nuclear bombs are alright because they’re owned by the proletarian masses, when they hear members of the Communist party saying that the dictatorship is alright in Russia because the dictators are there to look after the proletariat who never elected them, who can blame workers for treating Marxism with the utter contempt that so many workers do today. But the fact is, that it is not Marxism which has failed, it is not Marxism which has been put to the test, it is the Bolshevik theory of Lenin which has been tried and I intend to contend that that Bolshevik theory has as much to do with Marxism as Ian Paisley has to do with Jesus Christ.
Now it’s true, that there are many Leninists who would claim to be heirs to both Marx and Lenin. That the two men were sort of partners in a revolutionary double act and Marx came on first to entertain the troops with theoretical acrobatics.
And then Lenin and the Bolshevik magicians came on afterwards to pull a revolution out of a hat and make the theory vanish. And according to this historical myth, Marx conceived the theory and Lenin did the deed. As Palme-Dutt of the Communist party once put it, what Marx saw, Lenin achieved. Now it would be tedious and inappropriate for me to attempt a detailed comparison of the numerous volumes of Marx’s collected works and the forty two volumes of Lenin. And neither is it necessary to engage in such an academic exercise. Without doubt it can be said quite clearly, both Marx and Lenin made observations about society which were both invalid and to some extent limited by their own historical circumstances.
But what stands out from any serious comparative analysis of the ideas and actions of Marx and Lenin is that they held different conceptions of revolution and different conceptions of socialism. I’ve already pointed out that Marx’s entire revolutionary thought was dominated by the belief in the historical possibility of the working class consciously emancipating itself. In the Communist Manifesto Marx clearly explains what a socialist revolution must entail. He says all previous historical movements were movements of minorities or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is self conscious independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority and note the words, conscious, independent, immense majority. This was the language of a revolutionary who knew what the force of a conscious working class could be.
But what about Lenin? In ‘What is to be done?’ he writes and I quote ‘socialist consciousness cannot exist among the workers, this can be introduced only from without.’ ‘Cannot exist’! ‘Only from without’! For Lenin the idea of workers developing a level of understanding which would enable them to organise for the socialist alternative is as arrogantly rejected as it would be by the most reactionary of Tories. Listen to what he says, ‘if socialism can only be developed when the intellectual development of all the people permits it then we shall not see socialism for at least five hundred years. The socialist political party which is the vanguard of the working class must not allow itself to be halted by the lack of education of the mass average but must lead the masses.’
Now what would Marx have said about this elitist notion that workers need a vanguard to get socialism for us because left to ourselves such intellectual development is an impossibility. We’ve no need to guess what Marx would have said because in 1879 Marx and Engels sent a letter to socialists in Germany dealing with precisely this sort of arrogant vanguardism. They wrote, ‘the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class themselves. We cannot therefore co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above.’
So which are socialists going to accept? Lenin’s view that leaders can’t hang around waiting for the workers to become politically educated or Marx’s view that socialism must be brought about by conscious workers who reject leadership? And it is up to my opponent from the central committee of the Communist Party after all to explain that these aren’t opposite views at all they’re exactly the same. And this is of no mere academic interest because this elitism tells us a lot about a party which claims to stand for socialism. It tells us that a Leninist party like the Bolsheviks saw socialist revolution as a process whereby a minority imposes its will on the unconscious majority. Now when Marx spoke about this crucial term, the dictatorship of the proletariat, what Marx meant was the conquest of the political power by a conscious working class in order to dispossess the minority capitalist class. He meant to the coming to social power of the majority, the dictatorship of majority, in other words, a democratic transformation of society by the conscious majority, for the conscious majority.
But it’s quite clear that Lenin’s dictatorship was to involve the rule of a minority party on behalf of a politically unconscious working class. This is what the Bolshevik revolution was. And it is in fact what Lenin said the Bolshevik revolution was. In an article published in the New International in April 1918 Lenin readily admitted that and I quote ‘just as a hundred and fifty thousand lordly land owners under Tsarism dominated the one hundred and thirty million Russian peasants, so twenty thousand members of the Bolshevik party are imposing their proletarian will on the mass but this time in the interests of the latter.’ And if my opponent is true to the principles of Lenin he too will favour the imposition of minority dictatorship in the interests of the working class and if my opponent is true to Lenin’s advocacy of the dictatorship of a vanguard then he will find no difficulty in defending this evening Lenin’s statement which I now quote to you ‘that there is absolutely no contradiction between Soviet, that is socialist, democracy and the exercise of dictatorial powers by individuals.’
Now Lenin and the Communist party and my opponent if he wants to join them are entitled to believe that the role of the working class must always be that of a follower, that there is always got to be this group of self appointed leaders to bring about the revolution. They are of course in very respectable company when they think that, every single capitalist leader bases his arrogant claim to lead upon this essentially conservative belief. And as Engels wrote in his introduction to Marx’s ‘class struggles in France’, ‘all revolutions up to the present, have resulted in the displacement of one definite class rule by another, they’ve used the majority, they’ve used the discontent whether its been of the proletariat or of the peasantry in order to bring one minority elite into power instead of another.’ But, writes Engels, the socialist revolution is necessarily different and I quote to you what he says ‘the time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at head of unconscious masses is past. Where it is a question of the complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must be in it, must themselves have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for!’ and this is the revolutionary position of Marx and Engels. No socialism without conscious socialists. Sorry if you can’t hang around and wait, but that’s the only way you are going to get it. No leaders imposing socialism from above. No dictatorships of the apparently enlightened over the unenlightened. But Lenin rejected these principles. Leninists reject these principles because they cannot hang around and wait the five hundred years which Lenin spoke of for socialist consciousness to develop.
And so what do you get when you impose a Bolshevik dictatorship in conditions where the material readiness for socialism is lacking? You get a new form of authoritarian state control, you get state capitalism, the rule of capital by a parasitic state bureaucracy, a new ruling class which claims that its exploitation is in the interests of the people it exploits and members of the communist party get very upset when you tell them about this state capitalism which exists in the socialist fatherland but they only have to look at what Lenin himself had to say in May 1918. He openly stated and I quote ‘state capitalism would be a step forward if in approximately six months time state capitalism became established within our republic. This would be a great success and a sure guarantee that within a year, socialism will have gained a permanently firm hold.’ And a year later, when state capitalism had become firmly established in Russia, what did Lenin then have to say about socialism? He said and I quote again ‘socialism is nothing else but a monopoly of state capitalism instituted for the benefit of all the people and by virtue of that ceasing to be a capitalism monopoly.’ And that to this day is the Leninist position, state capitalism is socialism, socialism is capitalism run in the benefit of the people. If Lenin was alive today, he’d be a sure candidate for the SDP. A worker being employed by the Ford Motor company according to the Communist party is being exploited in accordance with Marx’s theory of surplus value but of course a worker producing cars in a Russian factory, a worker producing ships in Gdansk shipyard who hasn’t even got the opportunity to form a trade union which his employers do not run whose surplus value is being stolen away by the dictatorship which he has had no say over electing, oh well of course, according to my opponent, he’s not being exploited at all. He’s a free citizen of a socialist state.
To be kind to my opponent, I may say that such reasoning is the product of the most profound mental confusion. To be rather less kind and more frank I would suggest that the Leninist conception of socialism is a fraudulent masking of the tyranny of state capitalism behind the rhetoric of Marxism.
Mr Chairman in conclusion my opponent has a lot to answer and I’m not going to detain him much longer. He has to answer for the fact that his party has repeatedly urged workers to elect anti working class Labour governments. He has to answer for his party’s various positions in relation to the last world war including its support for the so called communist pact with the Nazis. He has to answer for the fact that the Daily Worker was the first newspaper in Britain to express support, unequivocal support for the barbaric atomic bombing in Japan. He has to answer for Budapest and Prague and the crushing of Solidarity. He has to answer for the racism of his comrades in France and the nationalism of his fellow import controllers in Britain. These policies are the legacy of Leninism which he must defend. But above all it is the duty of my opponent to deny the possibility that a majority of workers without following leaders or accepting dictatorships can take conscious and democratic action to immediately establish a propertyless moneyless wageless stateless society. He must deny that. And if my opponent admits that that possibility of such a social revolution that the world has never before seen, if he admits that that could happen, that it’s worth organising for, that it’s something on the cards now, then he betrays the political principles of Lenin. And let’s be in no doubt whatsoever, it is only out of such a betrayal that the victory of socialism can be won.
Monty Johnstone, Marxism Today, Communist Party
Well comrades, I will attempt to stick to the theme and the discussion which is whether Lenin distorted Marx. Rather than feeling myself to be in the position of having to answer for everything that has been done in the name of Leninism. Comrade Coleman objects not unreasonably to having to answer for everything that is being done in the name of Marx and Marxism, I would likewise considerably reject and resent having to answer for everything that has been done in the name of Leninism particular as such things are going on in Poland at the present time about which I have publically and clearly and my party has publically and clearly expressed the strongest condemnation as being completely at variance with the basically democratic and anti elitist principles of Marxism which I will argue were also the principles of Lenin.
I will attempt to show that in fact Marxism is not some body of thought that was laid down by Marx and which can only be interpreted in one particular sort of way. I believe that Marxism is a method of understanding the world and of transforming the world in the direction of a socialist and ultimately of a communist society. And I believe and I will attempt to show that operating under the particular conditions of the Russia of his day which were quite different from the conditions which Marx was analysing in the Western Europe of his time, Lenin was to lead the greatest revolution that the world has seen and was to take Russia out of the camp of capitalism and imperialism and to put it on the road of creating a new society based on working class power and based on the construction of a society with the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. And all the terrible things that happened under Stalin and so on cannot eliminate that service and the fact that as E. H. Carr who died last week said, in his history of the Russian Revolution ‘Lenin must be considered as the greatest revolutionary of all times.’
The point that Marx made that ‘philosophers have interpreted the world, the point is to change it’ is of the essence of the activist Marxism of Lenin. And the SPGB confines themselves to a sterile armchair Marxism that has never succeeded in transforming anything in this world and therefore it seems to me is completely at variance with the very spirit and essence of Marx. Moreover it seems to me to be somewhat strange that they do in fact criticise Lenin in the name of Marx since I have for instance from the Socialist Standard of November 1980 written by no less a person than Comrade Coleman himself the following statement ‘socialists do not accept everything that Marx said and did,’ quite right, ‘much of it was wrong and anti socialist’. A comrade of mine wrote to the Socialist Standard to ask, to have an explanation of what in Marx was anti socialist, but they refused having acknowledged the letter ever to print it and so we’re waiting for this time to hear what was in fact anti socialist in Marx.
But I would suggest having looked at publications of the SPGB, that in fact their criticisms of Marx touch on fundamental points in Marxism and that in fact where they are criticising Lenin, they are in fact criticising to no small extent, Marx himself and I will come to that in a moment.
But first of all let us deal with Lenin’s major contribution as a Marxist, namely in transforming backward Russia into a country where the working class led by the Bolshevik party took power.
Lenin from his earliest days proceeded to do to Russia what Marx had done to Western European capitalism. He analysed in his book ‘The Development of Capitalism in Russia’ which is a basic fundamental Marxist analysis, the way in which capitalism was developing in Russia and was able to refute the Narodniks who argued that in fact Russia could bypass the capitalist stage. The conclusion that he drew and this was of course validated by the capitalist development which was to take place in Russia in the first years of the twentieth century, Russia could not evade the capitalist phase. It was therefore necessary to organise the working class into an independent party which, first of all, would push forward the broadest possible movement to carry through a bourgeois democratic revolution, which is what Marx and Engels had seen as the necessary next step in Germany and other European countries in 1848 which hadn’t yet carried through a bourgeois democratic revolution, and then having carried through that revolution to go ahead and set their sights at a socialist revolution.
Now Comrade Coleman has told us that Lenin was an elitist, that Lenin’s conception of the party as put forward in ‘What is to be done?’ written in 1902 was completely at variance with the idea of Marx that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself, a phrase which Comrade Coleman cannot be unaware was quoted innumerable times by Lenin himself. But not in order to put forward some kind of spontaneist quasi-anarchist theory that the workers automatically reach a level of socialist consciousness but in order to argue that it is necessary as Marx and Engels themselves had conceived to develop a socialist Marxist political party which sees as the Communist Manifesto said ‘further ahead the line of march than the ordinary workers, which can link the national struggles of the working class with the international struggles, which can link the immediate struggles with the longer term aim of socialism.’
If in embryo the SPGB believes that the working class can spontaneously work themselves up to the level of socialist consciousness I don’t know what they’re doing in business. As I understood it the whole contention of the SPGB was that their role was to bring socialist understanding to the working class. Now that was what Lenin in ‘What is to be done?’ argued quite clearly but he did not argue that the workers were incapable of achieving a socialist consciousness. He argued that particularly in the conditions of the Russia of his day when the workers were undereducated, forced to work ten hours or more a day in factories that initially the consciousness that they would attain by their own efforts would only be an economic or a trade union consciousness. And that in order to appreciate the wider connections between those economic demands and the need for a political revolution, first of all against Tsarism, and from thereon in against the whole capitalist system, it was necessary that Marxists who in the first stages who would, like Marx and Engels themselves, come from the educated intelligentsia, would bring these ideas to the working class.
But there was no question of believing that it would stop there and let me go on to quote passages in ‘What is to be done?’ that Comrade Coleman notably omitted to quote.
Lenin said, having said that the working class exclusively by its own efforts is only able to develop trade union consciousness said ‘at the same time this does not mean of course that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology. They take part however not as workers but as socialist theoreticians to the extent that they are able more or less to acquire the knowledge of their age and to develop that knowledge’ and he went on to say and incidentally also to take practical steps to this effect that to enable them to succeed more often in this every effort must be made to raise the level of consciousness of the workers as a whole. And he throughout his life attached the greatest importance to helping to carry through the education and the promotion of working class cadres, which if Comrade Coleman has actually read the whole of ‘What is to be done?’ as opposed to certain selected extracts from Mr [S. V.] Utechin’s edition of it you will see Lenin referred to as Russian Bebels, that is to say people who are able by coming into a Marxist party to develop to the kind of leading positions that August Bebel was able to develop to in the German Social Democratic Party.
And in fact he went on to say the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism whilst at the same time he emphasised that I go on quoting ‘most widespread and continuously and diversely revived bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class to a still greater degree.’ Surely that’s true and its true of this country! At the present time, Marxism is a method of understanding, analysing and changing the world that has to be brought to the working class and then developed further by the working class itself. To a considerable extent this has happened in the certain parts of the Western European Labour movement were there are strong working class parties. In 1902 when Lenin wrote ‘What is to be done?’ it had not yet happened but Lenin was to emphasise very strongly when he wrote the preface to a collection of articles in 1907 which contained ‘What is to be done?’ that ‘What is to be done?’ as he put it should be seen in the particular conditions that existed in Russia in 1902 in that historical context and not taken out of that historical context.
And you will recall if you studied Lenin’s life and activity that in 1905 when the first possibilities for a freer legal activity for the Russian Social Democratic Labour party existed that the emphasis which was placed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was on mass recruitment to a mass party and the bringing of more and more workers into the leading positions in the Bolshevik party. That was always Lenin’s point of view. And throughout whether it was in 1905 revolution or again in 1917 or after he stressed again and again the vital importance of giving the fullest possible reign to the spontaneous initiative of the working people not in contradiction to the development of the conscious working class party leading them but as a complementary process.
Now when Lenin having opposed the first world war as an imperialist war returned to Russia in April 1917 after the victory of the February revolution, he presented his famous April theses in which he argued that Russia having carried through a bourgeois democratic revolution needed now to set its sights at a socialist revolution which would also be a revolution directed against the imperialist war. But he went on to say that these ideas which we’re now putting forward are only accepted at the moment by a small minority. Our task therefore is patiently to explain our point of view until we succeed in winning a majority over to that point of view. And again and again he emphasised that we are not Blanquists, I quote him again in the spring of 1917 ‘you cannot disregard the people. Only dreamers and plotters believe the minority can impose their will on a majority. That is what the French revolutionary Blanqui thought and he was wrong, when the majority of the people refuse because they do not yet understand to take power in their own hands, the minority however revolutionary and clever cannot impose their desire on the majority of the people’ and he emphasised without a majority, not only among the front ranks of the revolutionary classes but in the country generally, without that, there can be no question of insurrection.
The history of the period between April and October 1917 was a history of the struggle of the Bolshevik party with forty thousand members only after the February Revolution rising to a party, not with twenty thousand as Comrade Coleman said but with six hundred thousand members of the party, to win over in the first instance a majority among the workers and then to win as they did in November 1917 a majority of the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants to support the insurrection which overthrew the Provisional government which took Russia out of the war, which gave the land to the peasantry and which established soviet power, a particular form under Russian conditions of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which as far as Marxists are concerned meant what it said, not a dictatorship over the proletariat, but the political social supremacy of the working class in alliance with the broadest sections of the population.
I would argue very strongly and there’s not time to adduce all the facts but I can do so, it is a point which I have studied a great deal and written on to some extent, that the October Revolution was a revolution supported by the majority of the population and it is only after Lenin looking at the actual facts, the position and the soviets, the results of the elections to the city councils in Petrograd and Moscow and so on, had convinced himself that there would be such a support for the revolution, that in alliance with the left socialist revolutionaries representing a majority of the peasantry that this would have a majority in the country did he organise the insurrection, the October rising, which in fact was approved by the majority of the second congress of the Soviets in November 1917.
Now it is true that Lenin believed that that revolution would be followed by the spread of revolution to Western Europe and so on and it is true that he miscalculated. It is true that the soviet state was hard pressed to maintain itself but maintain itself it did and it would hardly have succeeded in doing so if it was only a small minority of twenty thousand people as Comrade Coleman says but it maintained itself against the invasion of the hostile military forces of some fourteen capitalist countries as well as the White Guard, forces which were mobilising against it.
But in the course of so doing, the revolution was distorted, you did get the basis for the Stalinist tyranny which was to come afterwards.
Now you can say with the wisdom of hindsight that this revolution should never have been launched by the Bolsheviks. In my opinion if you say that you will never progress, there will never be an advance of the working class because you’ve got to be prepared in certain periods in history just as Marx recommended again and again in revolutionary periods to be able to show what Danton called for ‘audacity, yet more audacity and still more audacity’ a quotation incidentally which Engels was to use writing of the German revolutions of 1848. It was a bold historical step, it has resulted in negative phenomena but also phenomena which have in their historical import been enormously positive, have helped to change the whole face of the world including of course particularly of the Third World and the breaking of the whole existence of imperialism as the sole world system existed.
But it should be remembered what Lenin set out to establish and did establish in the first period of soviet power was not a one party dictatorship, in the first period of soviet rule, there was a multi party system existing in the soviet union. I have been in the Lenin library in Moscow and have read the papers published from legal addresses in Moscow and Petrograd at that time of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks and anarchists denouncing the soviet government of Lenin and Trotsky and so on. And of course you only need to read the reports of for instance the fifth congress of soviets meeting in July of 1918 where a third of the delegates were delegates of the Left Socialist Revolutionary party who Lenin debated with as the opposition and so on and accepted the existence of a multi party system in the soviet union.
In fact Lenin himself speaking in January 1918 argued the superiority of the soviet system on the grounds as he put it that if the working people are dissatisfied with their party they can elect other delegates, hand power to another party and change the government without any revolution at all. That possibility it is true was blocked by the conditions in which in the summer of 1918 the Left Socialist Revolutionaries instead of being prepared to accept the vote of the majority of the congress of soviets organised an armed rising at a time when there was civil war and so on and under the conditions of that civil war and intervention you got repressive measures taken for self defence by the soviet state. I’m not saying that even within that framework all of them were justified, I don’t believe that they were, there was a great deal of brutality and so on which was exercised under the conditions of Russian backwardness but they were conceived of by Lenin as temporary measures. The fact that at the end of his life, in his last articles was to see the grave spectre of bureaucracy stalking the country and more and more establishing itself not only in the soviet institutions but in the party itself, was something which unfortunately, he was unable with his last illness and his death to prevent, and of course we had the whole period of Stalinism ahead.
But I believe that precisely the ideas of Lenin, the basic anti elitism that characterised Lenin’s conception of soviet power are the ideas which ultimately will inspire a democratisation in the socialist countries in the same way as they inspired the Prague spring of 1968, the initiative for which was taken in fact by Czechslovak Communist party.
Now of course when the Bolsheviks took power in Russia they did not do what the SPGB recommends should be done and that is to say immediately to nationalise, socialise everything, abolish wages, money and god alone knows what not. They did essentially what the Communist Manifesto and I quote ‘the proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all means of production in the hands of the state i.e. The proletariat organised as ruling class to win the battle for democracy.
Now this is an idea which the SPGB is not very keen on. In their edition of the Communist Manifesto they tell us that the Communist Manifesto was a youthful production, we agree it was a useful production yeah, youthful and useful, was ‘a youthful production’, a challenge to a world of privilege that had not yet hardened into the overwhelming sway of the capitalist class with the subservient working class producing what society lives upon. But the policy outline was in some respects not clear, leaning towards leadership by a section of the population, apparently Marx and Engels were guilty of what Lenin is reproached with as well as far as the SPGB is concerned, and when they talked about ‘making inroads of the possessions of the privileged groups wresting ownership of one industry after another from them by using control of state power’, they were, these were mistaken views according to the SPGB. ‘Industry cannot be wrested from capitalist ownership by degrees, the change must be fundamental, immediate and complete. Socialism means an immediate and fundamental revolution in the basis of society, the complete abolition of capitalist ownership of the means of production at one stroke.
Well comrade I believe that this is gross utopianism and so did Marx and Engels not only in the youthful production of the Communist Manifesto which it is true that they wrote when they were but in their twenties but likewise at the end of his life Marx was saying exactly the same thing. For instance if you look at his ‘marginal notes on Bakuninism’s Statism and anarchy’ written in 1874-75 when he was no longer youthful but already fifty six years old he wrote as follows ‘as long as the other classes, particularly the capitalist class still exist, as long as the proletariat fights it, for with its assuming governmental power, its enemies and the old organisation of society have not yet disappeared, it must use violent (or forcible, the german word is gewaltsam) forcible methods hence governmental methods. If it is still a class and if the economic conditions on which the class struggles rests and the existence of classes have not yet disappeared and must be forcibly swept away or transformed, its process of transformation must be forcibly speeded up.’
In other words, right to the end of his life, Marx had a conception of a stage by stage transformation of capitalism, not the SPGB conception of doing it by one stroke and similarly as far as the Bolshevik revolution was concerned and the whole period of the new economic policy introduced in 1921 which was so violently denounced by the SPGB and a number of others.
Comrade Coleman quotes Lenin’s reference to state capitalism in Russia, what did Lenin mean, Lenin meant that in the early period of soviet power, alongside those sections of industry which were directly nationalised and passed into control of the soviet state, that it was necessary to extend the control of that state over private capitalist enterprises as well, these were what he called the state capitalist sections of the economy, not in order to stay there as some kind of ultimate ideal but as a process in Russia which would represent an advance because it would enable a greater section of the economy to be subject to state control, the control of the state controlled by the working class and to subject it to planning and ultimately of course to take it over and bring it under the socialised control.
So it was not a question of envisaging, as Comrade Coleman implied, the establishment of state capitalism in Russia but only of using control over private capitalist enterprise alongside of nationalisation at a certain stage in the process which Marx and Engels had spoken of. Now in fact in the same document, he is commenting on Bakunin, he says ‘Bakunin talks about this dictatorship of the proletariat as being envisaged by the Marxists as only a short dictatorship’ and what does Marx say in his marginal comment, he says ‘Non mon cher (in French), no my dear fellow, the class domination of the workers over the sections of the old world fighting against them must last for as long as the economic basis of existence of classes has not been destroyed.’ In other words for a long historical period.
Now our comrade from the SPGB talk about the doing away of the state and so on. I don’t know what this has in common with the Marxist as oppose to the anarchist conception. I’m not suggesting that they have got the same conception of the anarchist on the question of political action in present society but in terms of their conception of how you leap from capitalism to socialism, the word they equate with the higher stage of communism virtually, thereby with a minimum period of transition or in many of their publications they seem to be saying with no transition at all to a stateless moneyless classless society.
In fact of course, Marx and Engels explained very well the stages, Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, spoke of the need to preserve the state during this whole period of the dictatorship of the proletariat. He spoke of a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, quite right, thoroughly democratic, but nonetheless a state which will fulfil the major functions of state power, not however in the hands of a small minority as in preceding class societies, but in the hands of the great majority of the population, in order, over a period of time, finally to expropriate capitalism, to create the basis for a fully classless society, and ultimately when this has spread to the world which cannot if you are realistic be conceived of as happening all in one act then ultimately the withering away as Marx and Engels saw it of the state.
But in fact their rejection of this kind of conception of Lenin is as I have tried to show basically a rejection of the conception in Marx himself and therefore to talk of a Lenin having distorted Marx and then counterpose in this respect Lenin to Marx seems to me to be totally wrong.
Finally I would like to clear up one point because I have a little more time, and that is this favourite quotation of the SPGB with regard to Lenin favouring personal dictatorship. They never actually produce the passage where it comes from, they always quote it from secondary sources but if they bothered to read Lenin, it’s perfectly clearly available to them, well no no, it’s not in ‘What is to be done?’ [Coleman interrupts ‘The immediate tasks of the soviet government (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/mar/x03.htm)] exactly, and what is the context in which he talks about it, the context in which he talks about it is absolutely clear and relates not to dictatorship of an individual in general but relates to the power of the factory director in working hours only. What does Lenin say? He says that absolutely, he uses the Russian word беспрекословно (besprekoslovno) which means absolutely [inaudible] unquestioningly ‘submission to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of labour processes that are based on large scale machine industry. Our task is to lead the exhausted masses along the path of labour discipline, along the path of coordinating the task of holding meetings and discussing the conditions of labour with the task of complete obeying the will of a soviet leader and a dictator during working time’ and during working time is underlined in Lenin’s original ‘immediate tasks of soviet power’.
Now trying to understand the conditions in 1918 that existed in Russia with a broken down industry and with a situation where the workers control that had rightly been established while the factories were in fact in the hands of private capitalists just did not give them the possibility of pulling that industry up by its bootstraps and organising the necessary labour discipline. Therefore whilst preserving as he says, the full discussion and debate and so on outside of working hours, during working hours in the process of production the need for one man management of industry. Is this totally at variance with the ideas of Marx and Engels? I would refer our comrades to Engels’ well known article on authority written in 1873 and directed against the anarchists. Engels’ basing himself on his own very intimate knowledge of the cotton mills in Britain said in industry there are very definite production requirements, I quote, ‘and whether particular questions are settled by decision of a delegate placed at the head of each branch of labour or if possible by a majority vote, the will of the single individual will have to subordinate itself’ which means that questions are settled in an authoritarian way. And he went on to say the development of large scale industry and agriculture increasingly tends to enlarge the scope of this authority.
In other words, Marx and Engels and Lenin had a much more realistic vision of what was involved in running a socialist society than do our comrades from the SPGB. It is a question of combining efficiency in the organisation of production with the greatest democracy and democratic control. Engels refers to the most desirable thing, being in fact the decision by a majority vote and that is what we would be in favour of in normal conditions which exist in this country, but under the particular conditions that existed with the breakdown of soviet industry in 1918, Lenin was doing it seemed to be nothing different from that which Marx and Engels themselves would have envisaged.
Now I say in conclusion that if you have any doubts with regard to the basic democratic anti elitist and indeed pluralist outlook of Lenin you only need to see the position which he was taking in 1920 and 1921 in the debate in the Russian Communist party on the trade union question. He argued specifically the trade unions need to defend the workers against their own state and he pointed out that that state has got bureaucratic distortions. He argued then, as at other times, for the maximum initiative and freedom of the workers themselves to defend the interests of their class even against the bureaucratic distortions which would appear even in the framework of a socialist society. I am not trying to put Lenin into a political beauty competition. Lenin made many mistakes. Lenin said many things which in fact can be criticised in retrospect. But I would repudiate fully and totally the idea that he was an elitist, the idea that he envisaged establishing autocratic control of the working class and similarly I can totally repudiate that that is the idea of the Communist party in Britain today. Thank you.