Lenin the dictator?

One of the standard, ‘textbook’ positions on Lenin is that he was a dictatorial centrist, suspicious of workers, keeping them out of the core of the Social-Democratic party, favouring intellectuals and so on. From where does this image come? You will find it in Menshevik literature of the time, as well as the work of Trotsky, Kautsky and above all Rosa Luxemburg. In her ‘Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy‘, a full-blooded reply to Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, she writes:

Ultracentralist tendency … the Central Committee is the only active nucleus in the party and all the remaining organisations are merely its tools for implementation … absolute blind submission of the individual organs of the party to their central authority … mechanical submission of the party’s militants to their central authority … a central authority that alone thinks, acts and decides for everyone … the lack of will and thought in a mass of flesh with many arms and legs moving mechanically to the baton … zombie-like obedience … absolute power and authority of a negative kind … sterile spirit of the night watchman … strict despotic centralism … the strait-jacket of a bureaucratic centralism that reduces the militant workers to a docile intrument of the committee … an all-knowing and ubiquitous Central Committee.

Given Luxemburg’s authority in some circles, this description has been taken as both the gospel truth and prophecy of what was to come. But is it true? For Lars Lih, it is ‘baseless nonsense’ and a collection of ‘fantasies’ (Lenin Rediscovered, pp. 529 and 551). Why? Luzemburg cites no texts in her argument, hasn’t done her homework and actually read anything, and has responded to Menshevik urgings in the bitter polemic after the Second Congress when the Bolshevik-Menshevik split first arose. However, a close look at the documents of the time (most of them in the Collected Works) reveals a Lenin who was exceedingly optimistic about worker involvement in the party, a decentralised program that even some Bolsheviks thought too much, and a democratic push that respected the collective decisions of the congresses. It turns out that the Mensheviks – a majority who consciously took on the name of the ‘minority’ first, since it signified in their mind a progressive position – were the centralists, wanting rank-and-file adherence to the intellectual core and disdaining the collective decisions of the congresses.


5 thoughts on “Lenin the dictator?

  1. The ongoing debate about “Leninism’ nonetheless proceeds albeit in circles. interesting discussion about Rosa Luxembourg here in regard to Lenin http://links.org.au/node/2407
    by one who is a considered Leninist, Paul Le Blanc — exponent of what I’d call the ‘new Leninism’.
    (His writings on the topic are very useful).
    Nonetheless, it is easy to be abstract about this and while you or I may say that Lenin was neither this nor that — aside from the dead hand of bad habits the isolation of “the Leninists” does impose a circle spirit regime which is hard to overcome without a lot of conscious effort.I suspect it may be truly impossible to transcend.
    Among a layer on the far left, the real history time Lenin is being actively embraced rather than the formalistic abstraction determined by a rigid organisational fetish.
    This in fact is the sleeping and festering core debate which tries to aggressively address the What is to be done? question.
    I think Luxemboug — and Trotsky — have served to obscure that legacy by warping it one way and another through their own patents. The problem is that in the sea saw debate what happens is that organisation — and organisational detail — is fetishized as though such formalism in itself can explain success or failure.

  2. Lars Lih’s “Lenin Rediscovered” is definitely a milestone in the field of Lenin scholarship. Decades of lies by esteemed “sovietologists”, who simply did not want to read the texts before them but imposed on their students and readers their own prejudices, are dealt with in an astonishingly effective, convincing and often humorous manner. The importance of Lih’s work in the deconstruction of the diabolical image of the undemocratic Lenin promulgated by anticommunist cold-war historians suggests a parallel with the monumental work of Hal Draper in his five-volume “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution”, which did pretty much the same thing in dealing with the “marxological myths” of the academic establishment.

    However there is an import caveat to this. The expectations of the great majority of the Russian social democrats, Bolshevik and Menshevik alike, towards the tasks of the forthcoming Russian Revolution, were pretty much identical. Overthrow of the czar- complete defeudalization – establishment of a bourgeois government based on universal suffrage – bourgeois democratic rights for the exploited masses (peasants and workers). It was in the context of this eventual bourgeoisfication of state and society that the socialists would have the necessary freedom to agitate effectively among the exploited masses, and win over a MAJORITY of the population (as the Communist Manifesto had required), thus paving the path for the next step in the process, that is the implementation of socialist measures. Trotsky on the other hand argued that the revolution would quickly pass on to socialist measures and that there would not be any protracted period of bourgeois rule, as the other Russian socialists thought. To reach this conclusion he was based on his theory of combined and uneven development, from which his thesis of “permanent revolution” stems, which I cannot expound here (if anyone is interested in this issue he/she can take a look, for starters, at Michael Lowy’s “The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development”).

    So going back to Lih’s depiction of Bolshevik commitment to democracy, this commitment was absolutely true for the entire pre-1917 period, for the revolutionary months of 1917, and pretty much, during Lenin’s own government, from October 1917 until approximately the end of 1918. From then onwards it was quite a different story, as far as Marx’s and Engels’ doctrine of democratic majority support for a socialist government was concerned. I hope that Lih takes on the post-1918 evolution of Bolshevism towards the democratic election principle in a future work.

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