Leninism with reservations

Issue: 114

Mark Thomas

Paul Le Blanc, Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience: Studies of Communism and Radicalism in the Age of Globalisation (Routledge, 2006), £18.99

The generation of radicals thrown up by the anti-capitalist movement since the 1999 Seattle protest and the mass opposition to George Bush’s ‘war on terror’ since 9/11 is the first to emerge since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Stalinism. One feature of this new radicalism—not without its healthy element but ultimately severely limiting—is the adoption of a dismissive approach to the struggles and especially the ideological commitments of previous generations of radicals, particularly where they were influenced by some form of Marxism. One reason for this is the over‑ready acceptance of the arguments long espoused by right wing opponents of Marxism—that the political programmes of Karl Marx, and especially Lenin, are at the very least proven failures and at worst inherently totalitarian.

The enormous value of Paul Le Blanc’s book is that he takes Lenin seriously. His goal is to provoke and persuade young radicals of today into a more thoughtful reflection on the experiences of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, those they inspired in America in particular, and to explore the insights these might offer today. For Le Blanc, Lenin remains an essential companion in the fight for a better world in the 21st century.

One central theme of the book flows from this—the demonstration that Lenin was a radical democrat committed to socialism from below, and that the emergence of Stalinism was the very opposite of what Lenin’s lifelong activity aimed at. As such it ran against the grain of the whole spirit of the party he was so pivotal in creating, the Bolsheviks. Le Blanc provides a forceful restatement of the material reasons for the degeneration of the workers’ democracy that triumphed in the October 1917 Revolution into Stalinism (although with some important weaknesses which I will turn to below). He stresses the devastating crisis that overwhelmed the Bolsheviks during the civil war, not least the ‘murderous violence’ of the Western democracies against the infant Soviet state and the continued isolation of the revolution in a backward country. He goes on to to provide a compelling summary of Lenin’s ideas about revolutionary change and his approach to organisation, and their continuing resonance today.

Le Blanc is also keen to open the experiences of American communism in the 20th century to serious study by today’s radicals. In particular, he explores the rich and exciting period of the great labour insurgencies of the 1930s, when the Marxist left in the US, the biggest component of which was the Communist Party, made a significant impact on the American working class, and wider American society and culture. Le Blanc challenges those who see this experience as damned by virtue of the Communist Party’s adherence to Stalinism—what Le Blanc calls a ‘one-note conception’ of Communism—and who can see in American Communism little more than loyalty to a totalitarian foreign state. He insists that American Communism was both a legitimate and highly contradictory phenomenon. It was both a community of activists—often the most committed and self-sacrificing of their generation—with real working class roots, and at the same time an instrument of the Stalinist bureaucracy that governed the Soviet Union by the 1930s.

Le Blanc also argues that revolutionaries, while taking Lenin as indispensable, should also be open to working with and taking seriously the experiences of other, non‑Leninist traditions. His focus here is primarily on religious radicals, almost exclusively Christian and American, and to a slightly lesser extent anarchism as a general current of ideas in the international workers’ movement. A J Muste, a Christian radical whose American Workers’ Party merged with the US Trotskyists led by James P Cannon in 1934, is the outstanding figure here. But he is far from alone (Le Blanc introduces us to long forgotten figures such as the Reverend Claude Williams, a Christian minister with portraits of Jesus, Eugene Debs and Lenin on his parsonage wall). All this is a useful riposte to those on the left who understand religion in a ‘one-note’ way as nothing but a reactionary force in society.

But Le Blanc goes considerably further than this. He sees both religious radicalism and anarchism as offering insights that can help overcome weaknesses he identifies in Leninism. Leninism for Le Blanc is essential, but flawed. Indeed, he expresses this in religious language, describing Leninism as ‘good’ but also containing an ‘evil within the good’. One central source of this ambivalence to Lenin lies in Le Blanc’s assessment of the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism, for although he places the primary weight on a materialist explanation, he does not see this as wholly exhausting the question.

Just as a religious worldview can accommodate much scientific analysis but insists that this still leaves something left over and unexplained, so Le Blanc sees the degeneration of the Russian Revolution as having causes beyond its isolation, the backwardness of Russian and pressure of imperialism. Here Le Blanc invokes what he describes, again in religious language, as Leninism’s ‘sin of pride’. Focusing on the civil war period of 1918-21, Le Blanc sees a drift towards the substitution of force for persuasion and workers’ democracy. He suggests the ‘arrogance’ of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and their faith in ‘scientific understanding’ played a role here, above and beyond the material circumstances. This ‘pride of knowledge’ had some part in the rise of Stalinism. So Lenin ‘helped to create preconditions for a reality that was the opposite of what he believed in and had devoted his life to’ (p141).

Le Blanc insists that the baby shouldn’t follow the bathwater. Leninism is still held to be qualitatively different to Stalinism and contains a powerful emancipatory core. But there are dangers in its bold claims for leadership. It is the insights of religion (or rather certain progressive forms of religion) and anarchism that can help limit this negative dimension of Leninism—religion because it can offer a sense of humanity’s limitations, and anarchism because of its stress on democracy from below. Le Blanc is an advocate of Leninism with safeguards. It should be stressed that he is no uncritical advocate of either religion or anarchism. He takes Hal Draper’s argument that the socialist tradition encompasses ‘two souls’—a democratic ‘socialism from below’ and an authoritarian ‘socialism from above’—and exports it to religion and anarchism as well. Neither has an unblemished record and therefore religious radicals and anarchists need Leninism as much as Leninism needs them. It is in this eclectic mingling of traditions that Le Blanc hopes future revolutions can avoid the fate of Stalinism and an answer can be found to a troubling question: ‘How can people who are damaged by oppression under capitalism create a non-oppressive society?’ (p24).

It is hard to accept all of this. Lenin described the Russian Revolution during the civil war as a besieged fortress where the Bolsheviks doggedly held on while revolution elsewhere, above all in more developed Western Europe, could develop. Would a greater sense of ‘humility’ have helped here? Surely the real barrier to substitutionism is the self-activity of the masses. But in the collapsing Russian economy the working class disintegrated as a social force during the civil war. Only the revolution spreading could have overcome this.

Le Blanc also raises another concern about Leninism. It is given less space but it raises vital questions. Le Blanc reflects not just on the dangers that may follow from Leninism’s success—the danger of degeneration in power—but the danger of failing to influence the masses and lead a successful revolution. Can small Leninist organisations today avoid becoming irrelevant sects? A mass labour movement underpinned the emergence of the Bolsheviks as a mass party in the years 1912-17 in Russia and formed the world in which US Communism operated in the 1930s. Today all this is gone, argues Le Blanc, therefore Leninism must be a fish out of water, doomed to shrivel into marginal sects that fruitlessly try to impose models from classical Marxism without recognising that the context that allowed it to emerge as a serious force has changed.

But such a perspective, if adopted, must undermine the excellent arguments Le Blanc has put forward for the importance of many of Lenin’s organisational and strategic insights for contemporary radicals. It could only encourage a passive abstentionism where building Leninist parties must wait for the re-emergence of a radical working class movement. It must also mean that the process of creating this mass class consciousness is to be separate from the work of building Leninist organisations. But didn’t the work of the Bolsheviks in the years 1907-12 or of American communists in the 1920s make a significant contribution to later workers’ upsurges? It is certainly true that in the absence of a highly conscious and combative working class any revolutionary party runs the risk of accommodating to sectarian isolation. But to suggest that this cannot be combated and, more importantly, cannot be overcome with the emergence of more favourable conditions is to make a very strong claim. The building of a Leninist party must involve a series of transitions as new circumstances prevail in the class struggle—and a series of crises in the organisation as it fights to re-orientate itself. The history of Bolshevism itself offers an example where these battles were resolved favourably.

The record of the revolutionary left since 1968 does contain many examples of organisations that failed to survive the downturn in the class struggle from the mid-1970s onwards (especially those influenced by Maoism). And it is also true that some of those that survived and held themselves together have failed to seriously engage with the new movements and new possibilities since Seattle and the development of the anti‑war movements (notably Lutte Ouvrière in France). But the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France and the Socialist Workers Party in Britain have done so. Will they make the next transition? There are no guarantees but to claim in advance that they cannot seems unwarranted.