Lenin giving a speech
One of the great problems of modern Russian history is the origin of the authoritarian regime that the Bolsheviks established after the revolution. Certainly during the Cold War and after anything like "objective" analysis was very difficult. The fact that the collapse of 1984-1991 entirely discredited the regime hasn't helped.
The Cold War led to a pronounced bias concerning the Soviet Regime in both the West and Soviet Bloc. In one case, the West, leading to a demonization of the regime and in the Soviet case leading to a glorification of the regime. The Soviet glorification of the regime does not concern me in this essay except to note that it was embarrassingly simple-minded and consisted of the repeated chantings much of the time of ritual shibboleths.1
In the West two schools gradually emerged to explain the origins of the one party state. The first and undoubtedly most influential, even now, is the "original sin", idea of Bolshevism. This was the opinion that within the ideology crafted by Lenin was the blueprint for the creation of an authoritarian one party regime. Thus the ideology of Bolshevism impelled, required that once it seized power it must establish autocratic rule. This view sees Bolshevism as an ideology for gaining power. Thus conspiracy, coup-d'etat, secret police, in a word, coercion is the essence of Bolshevism. Thus Bolshevism because of Lenin's idea of a "Vanguard Party" would inevitably become a dictatorship. In this view the October Revolution of 1917 is a coup d'etat of a small group of single minded conspirators.2
The second idea was the idea that the Bolshevik autocracy emerged as a result of factors associated with the Revolution, such as foreign intervention, civil war, the collapse of the economy, general chaos and the need to safeguard the revolution both externally and internally. In this view the social chaos that enveloped Russia from 1917 onwards compelled the resort to coercion and violence in a desperate bid to overcome and deal with significant problems. For example the extreme grain shortages that developed in the the cities in the late winter / spring of 1918. In this view The Revolution of October 1917 was largely popular and ad hoc.3
The view that the Revolution turned into an authoritarian state has a result of contingent factors goes back to to the early days of the Revolution. Leon Trotsky4 for example viewed autocratic rule as a solution to the problems of backwardness, social chaos, civil war and revolutionary isolation. Basically the idea is that if, the social breakdown, had not happened or if the new regime had not come under attack from forces without or within, or if the revolution had spread, if Russia had not been so backwards then the the revolution would not have degenerated into an authoritarian state.
The "original sin" idea takes it for granted that Lenin's doctrine of a "Vanguard Party",5 led inevitably to the growth of a authoritarian one party state upon the seizure of power. Certainly Lenin's idea that the "Proletariat", (working class), needed to be led by a party of professional revolutionaries with the right consciousness, was in this opinion bound to lead to an authoritarian solution once power was attained.
The problems with the "original sin" approach begin with the fact it is basically a post-hoc approach; it sees the results of the revolution and projects back into the past those developments and sees them has inevitable. for example it ignores that the Bolshevik party was faction ridden, subject to massive internal disputes and certainly the pre-revolution rhetoric of the Bolsheviks does not indicate any overt belief in authoritarian political management. Analysis of actual Bolshevik practice in 1917, pre October Revolution does not indicate very much if any authoritarian practice.6 In fact the party was divided by a host of issues, including whether or not to seize power, the suppression of the press etc., it was a far from a monolithic, tightly unified instrument for wielding political power. Further many of the steps leading to the creation of the one party state were bitterly opposed within the party.7 Further this notion ignores contingent factors like the existence of vocal violent opposition, the catastrophic economic situation which certainly helped to ensure / encourage the use of coercion and authoritarian means.
In some cases this is characterized by blaming the opposition to the Bolsheviks forcing the Bolsheviks to resort to violence and coercion by the hostility of the various opposition groups.8 The main idea being that Lenin and his associates were forced into suppression by the hostile acts of various parties.
In terms of evaluating the above two ideas hindsight must be avoided at all costs. The tendency to see things through the prism of what did happen resisted at all costs. In this case the fact, and it is a fact, that the Bolshevik Party was not, before the attaining of power, an authoritarian dictatorial party run on either Stalinist or Dictatorial lines is clear. And it is easy to find comments indicating a sincere belief in free elections, freedom of the press, etc., etc. So what happened? Bukharin explained it thus; that in the past the workers:
was forced to demand, not freedom of assembly just for workers, but freedom of Assembly in general..., freedom of the press in general... etc. But there is no need to make a virtue of necessity. Now that the time has come for a direct assault on the capitalist fortress and the suppression of the exploiters, only a miserable petty-bourgeois can be content with arguments about "the protection of the minority".9
In the past you see, we had to mask our real view so that our opponents would not know that we were lying when we pretended to support democratic rights on principle; we had to conceal that we demanded minority democratic rights only for ourselves and would deny them to others once we got the whip hand . . .What a gigantic conspiracy it must have been, for the entire Marxist movement to have carried out this fraud! Bukharin claimed that the movement had lied in the past, and he was telling the truth now: but in fact, of course, no such absurd conspiracy had ever existed - Bukharin was lying now, to cover up a 180, [degree], turn in his view of democracy. In any case, with this line of argumentation, no one could believe him and his likes then or now. A movement that printed this drivel was discredited for the future as for the past.10
I suppose when Bukharin was being tried in his infamous show trial during the purges of the thirties and then executed, he might have paused a bit over some of the foolishness he uttered earlier during his years in power.
The problem with the contingent arguments is that they assume that humans are programed to respond in certain ways to given situations. Accepting that the Bolsheviks took power without the intent to create a dictatorship, and that democratic norms existed even flourished in the party, and that no evidence, unless its conjured up through hindsight, supports the idea that Lenin was planning to establish a one party state beforehand; we still have the problem of why the Bolsheviks did what they did.
Certain things confound the issue. It is for example very hard to believe and what evidence we have refutes it, that the other Socialist parties, or the Anarchists / Greens would have resorted to mass permanent coercion if they had attained power. We have for example the events of 1917 before the Bolsheviks took power. Given that the standard justification for the Bolsheviks in using coercion was violent opposition, then no one should have a problem with the coercive means sometimes used to crush the Bolsheviks. In fact its quite obvious that the opposition was far too lenient and loose in its measures from this point of view. But then its seems to come down to double standards, the idea being that it was unjust to crush the Bolsheviks and just for the Bolsheviks once they were in power to crush violent opposition. That doesn't wash. If it was just or permissible for the Bolsheviks to violently oppose the Provisional government then by what moral calculus was violent opposition to the Bolsheviks NOT permissible or moral, but beyond the pale? And just why should one be indignant about the rather clumsy attempts to suppress the Bolsheviks but approve or accept has permissible their attempts to crush opposition?11
Also we have to remember that well before the Bolsheviks seized power there were other Socialists who saw dictatorial ideas in Lenin's notions of the Vanguard Party.
The revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg reviewing several of Lenin's works in 1904, severely criticized, Lenin's idea of the party has being conspiratorial, dictatorial and dangerous:
Another example is Leon Trotsky in a pamphlet he published in 1904 called Our Political Tasks said:But here is the "ego" of the Russian revolutionary again! Pirouetting on its head, it once more proclaims itself to be the all-powerful director of history - this time with the title of His Excellency the Central Committee of the Social Democratic Party of Russia....Let us peak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.12
In the first case, it is more difficult to “cheat”: history, having placed a definite task on the agenda, is observing us sharply. For good or ill (more for ill), we are leading the masses to revolution, awakening in them the most elementary political instincts. But in so far as we have to deal with a more complex task – transforming these “instincts” into conscious aspirations of a working class which is determining itself politically – we tend to resort to the short-cuts and over-simplifications of “thinking-for-others” and “substitutionism.”In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee; [emphasis added] on the other hand, this leads the committees to supply an “orientation” – and to change it – while “the people keep silent”; in “external” politics these methods are manifested in attempts to bring pressure to bear on other social organisations, by using the abstract strength of the class interests of the proletariat, and not the real strength of the proletariat conscious of its class interests. 13
Needless to say once Trotsky joined Lenin this little work disappeared down the memory hole. Trotsky's desperate efforts to refute the idea that Stalinism was his and Lenin's monstrous bastard child had to ignore this amazingly prophetic statement, especially the truly amazing section emphasized above. Trotsky spent much of his life in exile denying that he and Lenin were in anyway responsible for Stalin and Stalinism. The above statement refutes Trotsky out of his own mouth.
One can multiply those statements from other people involved in doctrinal disputes among the Russian Social Democrats. One could also list in very great detail the complaints among Lenin's colleagues about his dictatorial behavior and his tendency to demand obedience and submission before the revolution.14
Lenin's capacity to engage in polemical excess, (He regarded anything has permissible) and his belief that opposition had to be annihilated, crushed, destroyed, speak of a personality that isn't leery about using excessive means.15
Given the above it cannot be considered an accident that once the Bolshevik's took power they rapidly adopted authoritarian solutions to the problems they faced.16
Even if it is accepted that the external and internal situation encouraged or perhaps even required authoritarian solutions it does not explain the particular solutions used or the fact has the quotation from Bukharin above indicates, that these solutions had a tendency to be seen not just as temporary expedients but has more or less permanent, and in some sense "ideal", and a tendency for those solutions to be maximized in terms of effect. Further the tendency existed for force to be used as a substitute, i.e., "shortcut" for dealing with intractable problems.
It appears that Lenin and many of his colleagues had a tendency to devalue, things like freedom of the press, fair elections etc., even before attaining power, and to be fixated on the issues involved in holding and retaining power in and of itself. There was further a tendency to think that the ends justified the means and a great difficulty in seeing that the means used would affect the ability to get to the goal or make the goal impossible of attainment. It should be said that those tendencies had formidable opposition within the Bolshevik party itself and Lenin was never without vocal opposition within his party.17
It is also worth mentioning that Lenin's conception of politics was shall we say limited. As one critic has said while discussing Lenin's The State and Revolution:
Further, of course the implications here are major, there is no conceptual space for a parliamentary opposition. Delegates are described as being representatives, legislators and executives. A delegate who is only a representative, who wishes to bear no responsibility for legislation with which he or his constituents disagree, but claims the right for his opposing and critical arguments to be heard, who refuses both a legislative and executive role, is not catered for in such a system. In fact he is specifically ruled out: he it would be who conceived parliament as a "talking shop" and his job as going there to talk persistently against those who were "doing". So here again we have the insistent emergence of the theme of the impossibility of divisions among the people: the people must have a unitary set of interests and possibility of political conflict - which can result only from representatives becoming careerists - is to be avoided by the tight bonds between representatives and electors. Here the very possibility of party - that is organizations expressing diverse views and value orientations - is abolished long before any exigences of the 'particularly hostile' conjuncture persuaded the Bolsheviks to get around to it in practice. 18
The idea is that Lenin's own theoretical views, shared by many of his colleagues led to a view that opposition to his / their opinions, in fact opposition of any kind, was somehow illegitimate. Certainly his tendency to view those who disagreed with him, or advanced positions contrary to his, has motivated by prospects of material gain in one form or the other with only his position has free of such motives and therefore 'pure' is easily authoritarian in result.19
If its clear that the possibility of Bolshevism degenerating into authoritarian rule because of certain ideas and attitudes of mind that were common among the Bolsheviks and a good deal less prevalent in other Socialist political parties and groups in Russia was a very real one.
Regarding the unfortunate conjuncture of events after the Bolshevik seizure of power. Unfortunately a lot of it seems to be complaining that it rains sort of logic. The argument not only attacks the opponents of the Bolsheviks for opposing them, which makes the assumption that opposing Bolshevik policy was somehow wrong / illegitimate, but assumes that the external situation was somehow perverse, and accidental.
Has Evan Mawdsley has said:
It is, however, going too far to say that without the Civil War things would have developed differently. The crucial point is whether the "Revolution" and "Civil War" were two distinct things. They were not. In the first place, many developments that might seem to come from the Civil War were really indirect, inevitable, and delayed consequences of the seizure of power. The Bolsheviks were great partisans of class conflict, and of class conflict pursued to the death. It is utopian to think that after the seizure of power one's opponents will simply lie back and think of the inevitability of human progress. The Bolsheviks were less afraid of civil war than they should have been. When Soviet power was so weak and thinly based, when the Bolshevik party and class in whose name it ruled were so small, it is hard to see how the enemies of Bolshevism could not have had considerable success.
Given the nature of Russian society and given the ideology of the party that took power, Civil War was implicit in the October Revolution. The costs of the Civil War were the costs of the Revolution.20
In the aftermath of October 1917, the Bolsheviks demonstrated a striking tendency to rely on coercion to solve problems. From the break-up of the Constituent Assembly in February 1918 to dealing with general industrial decline and lack of food in the cities. The Bolsheviks showed a readiness to use the short cut of coercion. If the Constituent assembly is a problem disperse it! If food in the cities is a problem send armed workers to seize it from the countryside! If industry is in decline; regiment the workers by force! No doubt the situation was bad but this tendency helped smooth the way to one party rule.
Just has the Bolsheviks benefited from a massive increase in popular support in 1917, such that when they overthrew the Provisional government in October 1917 they had considerable probably massive, popular support. In the first half of 1918 faced with a massive decline in popular support due to the worsening economic situation, which many Bolshevik policies probably helped to make even worse, the Bolsheviks resorted to coercion. Faced for example with the massive rise of support for the Mensheviks, independent Socialists etc., in the local Soviets during the first part of 1918, and a corresponding decline in Bolshevik fortunes in those elections. The Bolsheviks resorted to purges, violent dispersal of the Soviets, fraud; in some cases massive. Faced with the prospect of losing power the Bolsheviks substituted coercion for popular support. Such Bolshevik measures in turn created more opposition which in turn helped justify / excuse more coercive measures.21
So to get back to the question that started this essay. Did Bolshevism have an original sin? There was certainly no plan to establish a one party authoritarian dictatorship beforehand and certainly circumstances played a powerful role in helping to determine this outcome. However ideology did play a role; even before the seizure of power, tendencies within Bolshevism in an authoritarian direction were noted by some with some fear for the future. This was combined with a attitude towards opponents that was authortarian and a tendency to disparage certain civil rights. Also an inability to see how ends could be corrupted by the means used.
In the end Lenin and Trotsky and their associates ended up rationalizing with a sort of false consciousness, a mystification, of what they did to sanctify their acts, and to cloak their desire to retain power. Bolshevism become a ideology to justify the exercise and rule of one party, a form of mystification to justify the power and privileges of a new ruling elite.
Towards the end of his life Lenin realized that something was wrong and Trotsky after he was forced out of power and then into exile realized also. Lenin's solution was stupefyingly simpleminded and did not involve giving up one party rule, that was of course rationalized away. Trotsky spent his later years engaging in prolonged apologetics, dedicated to the idea that he had nothing to reproach himself for and that his acts had nothing to do with the rise of Stalinism.22
If Bolshevism did not have an out and out "Original Sin" it certainly had a tendency in that direction. Of the two ideas looked at here it appears that the "Original Sin" idea is unpleasantly close to reality. Given both the tendencies within the Bolshevik party and the forces that would almost certainly be unleashed by the seizure of power a descent into authoritarian rule was virtually inevitable, despite the declared intentions and frankly sincere beliefs of most Bolsheviks. External factors while creating the opportunity for the seizure of power also virtually perscribed the outcome, authoritarian rule, when combined both Bolshevik tendencies and the virtually certain response to the seizure of power.
Thus does history behave like a bastard and Revolutions defeat themselves through success.
1. This does not mean that useful work was not done in the Soviet Union on early Soviet history, however the need even in serious historical work to pay at least lip service to Marxist-Leninist cant could not but be an impediment to serious historical analysis.
2. The best example recently of this approach is The Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes, Vintage, New York, 1991 and Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, Richard Pipes, Vintage, New York, 1995.
3. Good examples of this approach are The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, Alexander Rabinowitch, Pluto Press, New York, 1976, and The Russian Revolution 1917 - 1932, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1982.
4. See for example The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor MI, 1957.
5. The key text being What is to be Done?, V. I. Lenin, 1902, can be found at Here. This text outlines Lenin's theory of a Vanguard Party.
6. Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising, Alexander Rabinowitch, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1968.
7. See for example The Bolsheviks come to Power:... and The Bolsheviks in Power, Alexander Rabinowitch, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 2007, also Before Stalinism, Samuel Farber, Verso, London, 1990.
8, For example Leninism under Lenin, Marcel Liebman, J. Cape, London, 1975.
9. The Politics and Economics of the Transition Period, Nikolai Bukharin, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1979, (original Pub. date 1919), p. 47, quoted from item in Footnote 10, pp. 141.
10. The "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" from Marx to Lenin, Hal Draper, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1987, pp. 141-142.
11, See The Mensheviks after October, Vladimir N. Brovkin, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1987.
12. The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism, Rosa Luxemburg, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor MI, 1961, pp. 107, 108. Originally published in 1904, the article quoted being Leninism or Marxism.
13. Our Political Tasks, Leon Trotsky, from the Trotsky Internet Archive. The Chapter the quote is located in is Part II:Tactical Tasks in the section From pedagogy to tactics, at Here.
14. See Before Stalinism, and Three who made a Revolution, Bertram D. Wolfe, Bell Publishing Co., New York, 1964. for examples of rather unpleasant behavior and attitudes from Lenin before and after the Revolution see The Unknown Lenin, Richard Pipes, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN., 1996, a collection of rather unpleasant documents by Lenin kept secret until after the fall of the regime.
15. See Three who made a Revolution, pp. 353-355.
16. See Before Stalinism for the depressing details.
17. see Three Faces of Marxism, Wolfgang Leonhard, Paragon Books, London, 1970, pp. 47-94.
18. Lenin and the end of Politics, A. J. Polan, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1984, pp. 81-82. The State and Revolution, published originally in 1917, can be found Here.
19. Lenin and the end of Politics, deals with this in depth.
20. The Russian Civil War, Evan Mawdsley, Allen & Unwin, Boston, 1987, pp. 289, 290.
21 see Before Stalinism. The Mensheviks after October, is especially rich in detail about the tactics and strategies for holding onto power by various forms of coercion.
22, See both Before Stalinism and Lenin and the end of Politics. Lenin's solution of having workers oversee party bureaucrats and having more workers in both party and state bureaucracy are breath taking in terms of naivety and of course preserve one party rule.