A Look at Leninism
by Ron Tabor
These are not the best of times for Marxists. The denial of individual rights, the bureaucratic nature of command economies and the monopoly on political power - all characteristic of Marxist regimes - have been thoroughly discredited and rejected within the Soviet bloc. Given the USSR's long history of problems and its eventual collapse, Marxists have attempted to take both political and theoretical stock by re-examining the October revolution. This re-examination of 1917 tends to focus on either the objective conditions of the revolution/civil war or the theory/practice of the Bolshevik party.
Ron Taber, a leader of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), explores to what extent the theory and practice of Leninism was responsible for the social system of state capitalism and the crimes of Stalin. Although Taber's book predates the Soviet Union's collapse (it was published in 1988), A Look At Leninism nonetheless addresses the theoretical and epistemological roots of the authoritarian character of Soviet society. In re-reading a number of Lenin's most important theoretical works, the author carefully documents how the often ruthless practices of the Bolsheviks flowed directly from the words of the party's leading theoretician.
Taber begins his re-examination by considering the nature of the revolution that the Bolsheviks had intended to carry out. The author argues that Lenin's "April Theses" marked a change in Bolshevik strategy, a "socialist" revolution became the stated goal rather than a "bourgeois" revolution which would have been more appropriate given the underdeveloped nature of Russia. This move to advocate a socialist revolution was done without any real thought or discussion within the party about what a revolutionary democratic society would entail. As a result, the Bolsheviks fell into the trap of equating a dictatorship of professional revolutionaries with a real workers' state. In such a context, Taber argues, it is understandable how Stalin could get to be the General Secretary of the Party.
Questions concerning the type of revolution the Bolsheviks advocated and carried out are tied to questions about the role of the revolutionary party and the development of socialist consciousness. Taber argues convincingly that Lenin's major work, What is to be Done?, justifies the dominance of the revolutionary party over workers. This justification is based on Lenin's belief that workers -- on their own -- were only capable of developing "trade union consciousness" (for example, understanding the need to organize as a union and strike for better wages) and not "revolutionary socialist consciousness" (for example understanding the need to unite as a class and overthrow capitalism). The elitist nature of such thought is largely self evident.
A Look At Leninism also provides an interesting discussion of the "ethos of Bolshevism." This ethos, according to Taber, can be defined in terms of both a cult of hardness (in personal interaction and in party functioning) and a cult of centralization (heavy reliance on scientific planning). The social distortions that followed from the Bolsheviks' cult of hardness are many: revolutionary puritanism, heavy-handed discipline, and hostility toward any pleasurable activities. The Bolsheviks' cult of centralization also led them to celebrate both one man management and capitalist technology. Taber argues that the Bolsheviks' mercilessness and fixation on scientific planning set the foundation for Stalin's reign of terror and the emergence of state capitalism.
One chapter of Taber's book features a discussion of Lenin's most libertarian work, State and Revolution. As most anarchists know, Marxists are very quick to point to State and Revolution as proof that Lenin himself was not an authoritarian. Taber writes that this work does not ring true because Lenin's argument relies too heavily on theoretical abstraction and scientific categories. The withering away of the state that Marx, Engels and Lenin theorize about only comes after the reality of building a very strong state by revolutionary forces. The underlying conditions for the USSR's undemocratic nature may be found in Lenin's belief in the inevitability of dialectical logic.
The most original component of Taber's critique of Leninism is found in his discussion of the Bolshevik leaders' theory of knowledge. Because Lenin believed in both absolute truth/knowledge, and that Marxism was the knowledge of truth, Taber argues that Lenin and the Bolshevik party -- because they were the only true Marxists in Russia -- believed that their ideology was absolutely correct. Again, the undemocratic and authoritarian implications of such thinking are abundantly clear.
Taber's work is interesting in that he attempts to draw explicit links from Lenin's theory to Bolshevik practice, but in all fairness to Leninists this is done without any serious discussion of what constitutes state capitalism or Stalinism. Moreover, Taber's book looks at Bolshevik theory in a vacuum; there is no discussion of the force of circumstance that may have pushed Lenin and the Bolsheviks in certain directions. While Marxists may find Taber's book useful, anarchists no doubt would extend and sharpen his critique of Leninism.
Central to any anarchist critique of Leninism and Marxism is a theoretical and practical rejection of its deeply embedded authoritarianism. In rejecting and critiquing domination in all its forms, anarchists could never accept the primacy of a revolutionary party or the privileging of the industrial working class over all other social groupings in the making of a revolution. Compared to Marxist-Leninist theory, an anarchist theory of revolution would be federalist and decentralist in nature, and anti-authoritarian in purpose.
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