If the past can be reduced to the failings of an individual, the complicity of an entire culture and its participation in that individual’s misdeeds need never come under scrutiny.
– Sardar, Nandy and Davies, Barbaric Others
The centenary of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 represents a unique moment for historical remembrance and celebrated, the event in question a momentous episode in the history of working class struggle and a beacon of hope for anyone who has ever dared to dream of a basically sane and just world. First and foremost, it represents an opportunity to recall the industrial democracy of factory committees established on the ruins of Tsarism and war, easily the revolution’s greatest achievement. It likewise represents, amongst other things, an opportunity to recall the everyday heroism of the Russian people against Tsarist police state oppression and their creativity in trying to construct the foundations of a better world amidst war and endemic social upheaval.
For others, by contrast, it will represent an opportunity for the politicisation of history, an opportunity to sweep all the problematic aspects of the revolution under the rug, be they the fate of the factory committees under Bolshevik rule, or of many of those who dared to fight for the ideals of socialism when they came into conflict with the political ambitions of the Bolsheviks. What seems equal parts likely and predictable will be the rehashing of self-serving belief systems that arose from the exercise of state power in Russia, innocent apparently of even the slightest derivation from the original founding principle of the First International that ‘the emancipation of the working class will be carried out by the workers themselves.’ As the press release for a new biography of Lenin timed to coincide with the centenary alleges,
Lenin’s originality and importance as a revolutionary leader is most often associated with the seizure of power in 1917. But, in this new study and collection of Lenin’s original texts, Slavoj Žižek argues that his true greatness can be better grasped in the last two years of his political life. Russia had survived foreign invasion, embargo and a terrifying civil war, as well as internal revolts such as the one at Kronstadt in 1921. But the new state was exhausted, isolated and disorientated. As the anticipated world revolution receded into the distance, new paths had to be charted if the Soviet state was to survive.
The general emphasis here on the difficulties of ruling the Soviet state is at the outset indicative of the predictably intemperate character of orthodox centenary celebrations; Russia had survived foreign invasion, embargo and a terrifying civil war, but it was the Soviet state used interchangeably with the Russian people that had suffered them – as well as internal revolt. Who however had instigated the revolt at Kronstadt in 1921, as well as many of the other revolts taking place against the Bolshevik state at the time? According to this perspective, not the Russian people as a matter of definition. The history of the Revolution was therefore apparently that the institutional power structure was conceptually interchangeable with the mass of the Russian people, nowhere more so than when the Russian people expressed dissent against that power structure – dissent that snowballed into open rebellion in the face of the arrogance and contempt of those who claimed to speak for them. Since the mass of the population and the institutional power structure were one and the same, the great leader was the revolution in much the same way apparently that the Sun God was the state (according to the Leninist worldview, the state and the revolution are one and the same thing after all).
As the apparent lack of accompanying social histories marking the Centenary seems to suggest then, the reassertion of self-serving ideological orthodoxies will take precedent over critical appraisal of the legacy of the Russian Revolution, such that it might empower rather than cripple future movements, as they have done over the last century. The fruits of these disordered priorities are apparent today in the isolation of radicals from the broader working class, whose disinterest in Leninism might be interpreted as a statement on the relevance of autocratic, doctrinaire vanguard parties incapable of thinking beyond alienated roles of permanent protest. At best, they reduce workers to apathy. At worst, they create fodder for the far right, who acknowledge the pain they experience at the hands of neoliberalism while offering them false hope in the politics of scapegoating. Either way, the global working class shifts from one defeat after another, constantly on the back foot against a predatory neoliberalism, a ruling class offensive from an emboldened corporate aristocracy. In the face of this situation, business as usual left responses produce sickening capitulations. Movements that create interest and capture the imagination, not least of which being the Indignados of Spain, rise to significance outside of electoral politics. The endless rallies and protests of leftism-as-usual might be useful to party recruitment and the political ambitions of nominally socialist politicians, but do precious little to challenge fundamental social relations that make endemic privilege and injustice possible.
This essay is not intended simply to trash the Russian Revolution as an exercise in virtue signalling my libertarian credentials, or otherwise to stir up long held antagonisms stemming from the split in the First International for the sake of my own sadistic pleasure. No doubt however there will be some who will dismiss this essay, without even bothering to read it, as an exercise in revisionist utopianism from some petit bourgeois autonomist or anarchist with no concept of historical materialism In being incapable of, or unwilling to, distinguish between being criticised and being attacked, such types will inevitably try to frame any attempt to critique the Russian Revolution as an attack on socialism as such. Surely at this outset this is part of the problem, if not a good demonstration of why looking at the Soviet experience squarely is so sorely overdue.
The fact is that the tendency to attribute critiques of Leninism to an ideological agenda, whether conscious in the case of ideological opponents or unconscious in the case of those who just don’t get it, is a blame-shifting fallacy known as the False Dilemma, or the assumption that ‘those who are not for us are against us.’ Under the schema to which this fallacy gives rise, the prior assumption is that it is impossible to critique Leninism because one happens to value critical thinking, empirical thought or even materialism. Indeed, a paradox is evident in that materialism is invoked in defence of suppressing doubt in the Leninist thesis that the degeneration of the revolution into Stalinism was primarily an issue of the mercenary and generally ruthless personality of Stalin, his attitude to things like international socialism and the NEP, and other causes peripheral to the historical processes that created fertile soil for his rise to infamy. The possibility of a dialectical negation is hardly conceivable, let alone considered; the expression of doubt or scepticism can only be part of an anarchist or ultra-left agenda that undermines the only viable option on the table. At the very outset, this circular logic protects anyone who invokes it against ideas they don’t like.
In contrast, suggest, even simply as an antithesis to the usual interpretation of events for the sake of playing Devil’s Advocate, that Stalin did not simply wander into the leadership of the Russian Revolution and turn the revolution bad, but rather that the revolution had started badly, and the prevailing conditions permitted the rise of a Stalin to begin with insofar as he needed to do very little to take over a state apparatus already habituated to authoritarianism, such that ossification into bureaucratism was inevitable – an inevitable result of conflating an economic dictatorship of the class with the political dictatorship of a class of professional revolutionaries with interests separate from the mass of the population insofar as they controlled the level of state power. The problem was deeper, in other words, than the many difficulties created by the Civil War, the relatively undeveloped state of the Russian economy, and the failures of parallel revolutions in Western Europe. To argue otherwise would seem to be to adopt the logic that the US electoral system could have been saved from corporate capture if Bernie Sanders rather than Donald Trump had won the 2016 election, that policy in Afghanistan and Syria would have been fundamentally different, that Guantanamo Bay would have closed, that mass surveillance by the NSA would have been discontinued, and that neoliberalism would have not continued to reign supreme.
No doubt there are many amongst the Democratic Party who feel that the loss of their favoured candidate has been the tipping point for politics in America; that democratic governance has only become problematic because of Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party. None who can be taken seriously adopt this line of thinking, the roots of Trumpian demagoguery go back decades at least, to the birth of neoliberalism and the gutting of US manufacturing. So too in the case in the Russian Revolution does it also seem prescient to avoid reducing the historical dynamics associated with the degeneration of the revolution into totalitarianism to the personality of the demagogue or tyrant. To labour the point for the sake of clarity, it makes about as much sense to try to explain the German National Socialist movement by describing the life story of Adolf Hitler. While we might find it comforting to imagine that a monster like Hitler was of a different breed to the rest of the species, in reality the issue is arguably less that he was inhuman than that he was all too human, and that perhaps there is a little Hitler in all of us, which given the right conditions stands as much change of coming to the fore, whether we end up in charge of a fascist state or a sausage sizzle.
With that in mind, this essay contends, and will aim to demonstrate, that this kind of ahistorical thinking, coupled with the tendency to identify critical perspectives on the Russian Revolution with attacking socialism, accounts in no small part for the inability of the left to learn from the history of the Russian Revolution in practical terms. It will argue that one of the more significant issues relating to the conditions that produced a Stalin pertains to the issue of means and ends, and that this this was also a question of the conspicuous gap between the values said to inspire the Bolsheviks at the theoretical level and those that informed them in practise. Actions speak louder than words after all.
In considering the issue of the values espoused in theory and those espoused in practise, it very quickly becomes apparent in looking at the history of the Russian Revolution, that the actions of the Bolsheviks were markedly opposed to the principle of the First International, to the effect that ‘the work of emancipation will be carried out by the workers themselves.’ The rationale for this principle was straightforward, and neatly articulated by Eugene Debs, who pointed out that ‘those who lead you into a revolution can lead you back out again’; it bears emphasising that this was a crucial issue. If the working class was not permitted to organise and express itself autonomously, and if it was forced to carry a new set of masters who had learned to speak the language of workers’ rights and justified class oppression in the name, not of the rights of capital but the rights of labour, then the politics of class justice would degenerate into a rhetorical mechanism for the social reproduction of class privilege.
While at theoretical level the Bolsheviks were committed to revolutionary change, in practise they did not believe that a classless society was possible in Russia. Marx had theorised that economic development proceeded in distinct historical stages that reflected the underlying mode of production, leading Lenin and Trotsky to assume that communism was impossible in Russia without the development of an urban proletariat. This they felt was only achievable through a transition period that could bring Russia out of feudalism and into capitalism as they understood it to have done in Western Europe, creating the basis for the urban proletariat who could then struggle for socialism. To this, Trotsky added that the Russian bourgeoisie were too weak and ineffectual to carry out a political revolution to overthrow the Tsar in a comparable manner, and since this was the case, the urban proletariat such as it was would have to enter into an alliance with the peasantry to do so, enabling resolution of the land issue and facilitating the development of an industrial proletariat that could carry out a second revolution and establish the basis for the cooperative, classless economy associated with full communism.
Precluded from immediate change (in their own minds, at least), the Bolsheviks sought to take and maintain state power, suppress the capitalist reaction and develop the semi-feudal and predominantly agrarian Russian economy such that it would in turn produce a proletariat that could act as a social base for industrialisation, and eventually socialism. Upon the development of a proletariat that could struggle for full communism in the form of workers’ control of production and the abolition of classes, Lenin theorised, the state would simply wither away. Leninists tend to account for the fact that it did not do so by pointing to the failure of European communists to extend the revolution over to in the west, precipitating a strategic crisis that Stalin was then able to exploit to assume leadership of the Russian Communist Party and turn it into a vehicle for his own designs on absolute power.
As the leader of the Left Opposition, Trotsky provides the main source of criticism of Stalin, not least of which being that Stalin left the New Economic Policy (NEP) in place, abandoning the work of trying to work through the theorised stages of economic development from socialism to full communism by prioritising ‘the law of value’ over ‘the law of planning,’ while leaving the Soviet state to degenerate into bureaucratism. Trotsky was vocal in his criticism of Stalin’s decision to declare the policy of ‘Socialism in One Country,’ one that abandoned the cardinal principle of worker internationalism in favour of Soviet nationalism. This approach, as Trotsky pointed out, subordinated communist movements around the world to the needs of Soviet foreign policy, tending to result in them having a destructive effect on radical opposition to the capitalist status quo, the anti-communist paranoia of Western reactionary and fascist elements notwithstanding. The conduct of the Stalinists during the Spanish Civil War and Revolution (1936-9) in breaking up many of the revolutionary peasants’ collectives was a particularly notorious example.
A paradox is evident, however, insofar as the ‘extenuating circumstances’ pretext Stalin cited as justification for the policies Trotsky found so abhorrent was not at its core any different to that cited by Trotsky to justify the suppression of all other political groupings in the years immediately after 1917, as well as the brutal suppression of strikes and other expressions of working class discontent. Prime amongst these was the massacre of the revolutionary sailors, ‘the cream of the revolution,’ at the Kronstadt naval base outside Petrograd in 1921, treated by Trotsky at the time as a regrettable necessity to defend the revolution from its many external enemies (discussion follows below). The extenuating circumstances of the Russian Civil War demanded the suppression of an insurgent reactionary class; the Bolsheviks did not simply decide not to tell the difference between insurgent reactionaries and insurgent dissidents, and massacre the cream of the revolution once their creamlike qualities became a hindrance rather than an aid to their own ambitions.
Without any critical engagement with orthodoxies such as these, the progressive marginalization of radical, anti-capitalist politics in the century since 1917 is understood to have had very little to do with the incapacity of the far left to come to terms with the historical legacy of the Russian Revolution, much less to say the arrogance of defenders of Leninist orthodoxies who claim to have all the correct answers without appearing to know what the question is. It has nothing to do with the shortcomings of what are, after a full century, traditionalisms, because none will be admitted; it has nothing to do with the propensity of traditionalist thinkers to react with the defensiveness of a Zionist to any attempt to raise inconvenient historical facts. It has nothing to do with a causal relationship between Leninist ideology and the degeneration of the USSR into a party dictatorship exercised over the Soviet working class in the name of the Russian working class, and then into the personal dictatorship of Stalin exercised over the Russian working class in their own name.
If the left has been neutralised, then, it has been due to the failure of the workers of the world to recognise the transcendental logic of Leninism thanks to the cultural influence of capitalist individualism, a process that has precipitated the ‘embourgeoisment’ of the working class and the rise of naïve, misdirected leftisms that in displaying utopian, revisionist, opportunist, dilettante and chauvanistic tendencies are indicative of the cancerous state of late capitalism, or ‘a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement.’ Sections of the working class who take history seriously or are simply independently minded throw their hands up at the conflation of dilettantism and utopianism for struggling to keep up with the relentless application of the False Dilemma, and give up hope of social change in favour of settling down with a family and a mountain of debt to try to squeeze whatever happiness they can out of the margins of an increasingly and nasty grim society, or developing a meaningful drug addiction, or something of that order.
The Great Purge
Perhaps the best place to start in coming to terms with the relationship of Stalinism to Leninist ideology per se is to examine the legacy of the Stalinist purges, which represents the point at which everyone who does not for whatever reason still openly identify as Stalinist can hopefully still agree. It is interesting to note that many who identify as radical and revolutionary tend not to be familiar with the history of the purges, as this arguably tends as much as any other part of Soviet history to reflect on the foundations of Leninist ideology (the same also seem to be true of Maurice Brinton’s work The Bolsheviks and Workers Control, which exhaustively documents the destruction of the spontaneous forms of workers’ control established during the authentic phases of the Russian Revolution by everyone’s favourite self-appointed workers’ vanguard).
Prior to the Purges, Josef Stalin was already prone to the fallacy-ridden style of the False Dilemma (‘those who are not for me are against me,’ or ‘there is no difference between being criticized and being attacked’) that criticism of his personal dictatorship over the Party could only come from those who were hopeless suckers for capitalism, not because the Soviet Union was a terror-ridden inferno trying to pass itself off as a worker’s utopia (‘the proletarian moral panic’). In The Results of the First Five-Year Plan (1933), Stalin declared that
We must bear in mind that the growth of the power of the Soviet state will increase the resistance of the last remnants of the dying classes. It is precisely because they are dying, and living their last days that they will pass from one form of attack to another, to sharper forms of attack, appealing to the backward strata of the population, and mobilizing them against the Soviet power. There is no foul lie or slander that these ‘have-beens’ would not use against the Soviet power and around which they would not try to mobilize the backward elements. This may give ground for the revival of the activities of the defeated groups of the old counter-revolutionary parties: the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, the bourgeois nationalists in the centre and in the outlying regions; it may give grounds also for the revival of the activities of the fragments of counter-revolutionary opposition elements from among the Trotskyites and the Right deviationists. Of course, there is nothing terrible in this. But we must bear all this in mind if we want to put an end to these elements quickly and without great loss.
Of note in this passage is the binary invoked between ‘the power of the Soviet state,’ already associated with the Absolute Good, and ‘the last remnants of the dying classes,’ already associated with the Absolute Evil. Being the sole recipient of that power (much more so in the wake of the purges shortly to follow), Stalin self-servingly makes no distinction between ‘the power of the Soviet state,’ and his own personal power as dictator over both the Russian Communist Party, and given the control exercised by the RCP over Russia and its imperial colonies, the Soviet Union. His willing confusion of the two set the scene for the association of dissent with ‘counter-revolutionary opposition elements from among the Trotskyists,’ who, in being the primary dissident group from the left (and in fact, the only dissident group left), would be the main targets of the coming purges, associated with Right deviationists purely for rhetorical value as ‘assorted scum who fail to worship the ground I walk on with the requisite level of awe.’ In the Soviet power/dying classes binary there was no room for the possibility of doubt, disagreement, dissent, or considering other possibilities.
The prevailing logic was that of the False Dilemma, of ‘You are either with us or you are with the counter-revolution.’ In it we can see the seeds of the Great Purge; on this count, there should be little controversy. It is also the logic of what sociologists concerned with moral panics, episodes when society becomes preoccupied with ‘existential threats’ of often wildly-varying factual basis, call the ‘production of deviance.’ Conceptually, the production of deviance derives directly from the fact that deviance is a subjective comment whose meaning depends on who has the power to impose their definition on public discourse, a condition that generally requires control over the channels of mass communication. Given that this is the case, the production of deviance and moral panics can be generally understood as elite-driven phenomena.
The Stalinist media demonstrated this fact in no uncertain terms when, on 1 December 1934, Comrade Sergei Kirov, head of the Leningrad Soviet and Politburo member, was assassinated in Moscow. The Stalinist state media immediately cast Kirov’s assassination as the handiwork of the notorious capitalist Leon Trotsky and his petit bourgeois, counter-revolutionary terrorist supporters, who were immediately targeted for liquidation. History records the ensuing period as the Great Purge and the Moscow Show Trials. Enabling the Stalinist Purges was the conspiracy theory of a Trotskyist cabal operating within the Soviet Union, in cahoots with Western capital, to undermine and destroy the revolutionary state; by means of this conspiracy theory, reflecting as it did deviance production and the False Dilemma, the machinery of Stalinist repression cemented the absolute power of the Red Tsar and sealed the last nails in the coffin of the workers’ revolution in the name of defending it from its enemies. Dissidents, critics, those who failed to worship Stalin with the requisite level of awe, and in fact simply anyone Stalin suspect of being a threat to his grip on power, were demonized and associated with the paranoid conspiracy theory on the basis of the logic that, ‘if you think for yourself, the bourgeois reaction wins.’
Unmistakable in this classic example of deviance production was the cognitive dissonance dividing the ideals Stalin invoked to rationalize the purges from the actually-existing values that motivated him to root out the last fires of dissent in the name of their defence against an existentialist threat – values which, suffice it to say, were far less selfless and benign. Such cognitive dissonance is hardly unique in this instance; examples throughout history are legion. When George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, committing the supreme international war crime of aggression in the process, he did so in the name of upholding the rule of law against random acts of violence committed by terrorists. When Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade in 1095, he yelled ‘God wills it!”, inciting Christians to war in the name of principles such as ‘thou shalt not kill’ and ‘love thy enemy.’ The reader will likely think of numerous others. In recent decades, the habit of using freedom as a pretext for compelling unthinking obedience, for perpetrating imperialistic military adventures and habitually violating the rights and freedoms of millions through crisis leveraging has been particularly audacious (anyone who believes otherwise is invited to read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine).
The fact that Stalin did extol the proletariat while terrorizing it reveals not only just how destructive the tendency to value beliefs over actions can be, but also that doing so is no less destructive when invoked in the name of radical ideals as when invoked in the name of reactionary ones. It would seem in fact that they are more so; many the greatest crimes in history have typically been carried out in the name of the loftiest principles we can think of. As Howard Zinn has pointed out,
Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.
Zinn’s observation reflects as equally on the Stalinist period as it does on many other episodes throughout history, those referred to above and numerous others. The historical clues cite above already give us some clue as to whether Stalin’s outrages were simply a reflection of the pathological strains in his personality, or were the result of dynamics present at the founding of the Soviet state favouring someone of an autocratic and ruthless temperament. If there have been parallels with other periods outside of the Soviet experience, as it would appear there have been, this would seem to constitute a significant fact insofar as these are also institutional examples, giving support to Zinn’s thesis that obedience within power structures regardless of their stripes has been one of the primary causes of conflict, war and injustice historically. The really burning question is the extent to which such parallels, and so the attendant conclusions consistent with the broad themes of history, can be drawn within.
Stalinism and Trotskyism
The same dynamics of deviance production, along with victim playing, victim blaming, and conflating criticism with support for the enemy evident in the Stalinist purges as per the False Dilemma, are evident in the suppression by the Red Army of the Kronstadt Uprising (1921) on the orders of Leon Trotsky. Early on in the revolution, Trotsky celebrated the revolutionary sailors of the Russian navy as ‘the cream of the revolution’ for their mutinying, which weakened the repressive powers of the Tsar and provided decisive inspiration and material support to the revolutionary movement immediately prior to October 1917. Their exploits are celebrated in the classic black and white film ‘The Battleship Potemkin,’ which portrays the revolutionary sailors’ involvement in the 1905 revolution, including the classic massacre scene on the waterfront steps at Odessa, highlighting the violence and brutality of the Tsar.
Having helped the Bolsheviks into power, the sailors from Kronstadt watched with growing unease as the central government in Moscow began increasingly to mimic the autocrat they had lately overthrown, usurping the power of local Soviets, suppressing opposition newspapers, forcing the revolutionary factory committees to submit to the control of vertical, party-controlled unions, and forbidding strikes, in the name of the theory that the power of the Soviet government and the economic power of the revolutionary workers and peasants were one and the same thing. By 1921, a short four years after the revolution, only a straw was required to break the camel’s back. This arrived in the form of repression by the Bolshevik government of a series of strikes in Petrograd; watching from across the bay, the revolutionary sailors of the Kronstadt Garrison declared that enough was enough. On 28 February, meetings aboard the Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol battleships approved the 15-point ‘Petropavlovsk Resolution.’ The revolutionary sailors demanded:
- Immediate new elections to the Soviets. The present Soviets no longer express the wishes of the workers and peasants. The new elections should be by secret ballot, and should be preceded by free electoral propaganda.
- Freedom of speech and of the press for workers and peasants, for the Anarchists, and for the Left Socialist parties.
- The right of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant organisations.
- The organisation, at the latest on 10th March 1921, of a Conference of non-Party workers, solders and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt and the Petrograd District.
- The liberation of all political prisoners of the Socialist parties, and of all imprisoned workers and peasants, soldiers and sailors belonging to working class and peasant organisations.
- The election of a commission to look into the dossiers of all those detained in prisons and concentration camps.
- The abolition of all political sections in the armed forces. No political party should have privileges for the propagation of its ideas, or receive State subsidies to this end. In the place of the political sections various cultural groups should be set up, deriving resources from the State.
- The immediate abolition of the militia detachments set up between towns and countryside.
- The equalisation of rations for all workers, except those engaged in dangerous or unhealthy jobs.
- The abolition of Party combat detachments in all military groups. The abolition of Party guards in factories and enterprises. If guards are required, they should be nominated, taking into account the views of the workers.
- The granting to the peasants of freedom of action on their own soil, and of the right to own cattle, provided they look after them themselves and do not employ hired labour.
- We request that all military units and officer trainee groups associate themselves with this resolution.
- We demand that the Press give proper publicity to this resolution.
- We demand the institution of mobile workers’ control groups.
- We demand that handicraft production be authorised provided it does not utilise wage labour.
It is worth noting at the outset of the Petropavlovsk Resolution that nowhere does it demand the restoration of the Tsar or of capitalism, or anything that could even be interpreted as such — except by someone applying the False Dilemma fallacy, which they would only do if they had become subject to the corrupting effects of power (cf. Lord Acton’s commentary on the French Revolution, ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’). Indeed, resolutions 11 and 15 demand greater economic freedom with the specific stipulation that such freedom does not utilise wage labour – the capacity to exploit it by depriving workers of control over the product of their labour institutionally, and paying them less in wages than the value their labour creates, being the foundation of class-divided societies and all the injustice and insanity contained therein (by contrast, such concerns did not appear to be a feature of Lenin’s New Economic Policy). Rather than demonstrating petit-bourgeois concerns with the freedom of small-scale traders, the Petropavlovsk Resolution expresses discontent with the functioning of the Soviets under the Bolsheviks, with specific reference to their responsiveness to the needs of civil society and the increasing domination by the central government over all areas of social and economic life. The demand for immediate new elections to the Soviets is hardly counter-revolutionary, ‘All power to the soviets’ having been the much-vaunted revolutionary slogan proclaimed by Lenin upon his triumphant return from exile in 1917, one that the Bolsheviks had apparently now traded for ‘All power to the party’ by executive fiat because they could – because they now controlled a monopoly over the means of violence.
With the adoption of the Petropavlovsk Resolution, the Kronstadt Uprising was underway. In response, Trotsky cabled the Kronstadt Rebels via the Committee for the Defence of Petrograd on 4 March 1921 to inform them, ‘If you will persist, you will shoot down like partridges.’ The choice of game hunting as a metaphor is itself a telling statement on the growing expanse between the living conditions of inner party members in Moscow and the greater mass of the Russian people (it is traditionally associated with the landed aristocracy, who had both the spare time to hunt for leisure and lands on which to do so). A conspicuously poor choice of phrasing, it might have been outdone only by the suggestion that Trotsky would ‘release the hounds of revolutionary justice.’ In sending the Red Army across the Baltic ice to butcher the Cream of the Revolution a week or so hence, now that their creamlike tendencies were a hindrance rather than a help to his own political ambitions, Trotsky denounced the Kronstadt rebels as ‘White Guardist’ supporters of the Tsar, a claim he repeated over a decade later is a series of tawdry apologetics the Prophet Outcast penned from unforeseen exile in Mexico.
Making a series of unsupported allegations revolving around a theory of changing class composition within the Kronstadt garrison, ‘Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt’ is notable for the lengths to which Trotsky goes to demonstrate that the Kronstadt garrison were against him because they weren’t for him; in this sense, Trotsky’s apologetics appear to be unique in the annals of blame-shifting in that, rather than simply invoking the False Dilemma, he tries to prove it empirically – demonstrating, if not a convincing case, then that there is certainly nothing like ambition. For all his sophistry, however, Trotsky is unable to explain what is counter-revolutionary about the Petropavlovsk Resolution, other than he happens not to like it. Indeed, he manages not even to mention it. Nor does he explain how the de facto leader of the uprising, Stephen Petrichenko, fits into his theory of shifting class composition in the Kronstadt garrison, given his eight-year history in the navy. The lack of answers in this respect begs the question as to the shifting class composition of the Bolshevik party as it became more and more inured to power, bureaucratic and out of touch with the same working class whose interests it claimed to uphold.
In lieu of addressing such issues, Trotsky appears to prefer an approach that excused him from any need to reflect on his own basic operating assumptions. Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt positively drips with arrogant incredulity that because people dare to entertain the idea that they might be within their rights to doubt his judgment, or to take note of facts that he prefers to avoid, there must be something profoundly wrong with them. ‘The present disputes around Kronstadt revolve around the same class axis as the Kronstadt uprising itself, in which the reactionary sections of the sailors tried to overthrow the proletarian dictatorship,’ Trotsky concluded.
Conscious of their impotence on the arena of present-day revolutionary politics, the petty-bourgeois blunderers and eclectics try to use the old Kronstadt episode for the struggle against the Fourth International, that is, against the party of the proletarian revolution. These latter-day ‘Kronstadters’ will also be crushed – true, without the use of arms since, fortunately, they do not have a fortress.
He did not get the chance, as it turns out, since in being a ‘Kronstadter’ himself to Stalin, Trotsky was himself crushed not long afterwards by one of Stalin’s agents without force of arms, lacking as he also did a fortress. Of additional interest regarding Trotsky’s conspiracy theory is his failure to make any mention of it at the time, not least at the Tenth Party Congress (8-16 March 1921) in Moscow, which was running throughout the period of the Kronstadt Uprising. There would have presumably been no better opportunity to expose a counterrevolutionary plot within the navy, and one that would have probably been given a great deal of attention considering the status of the revolutionary sailors as key players in both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. As it happens, however, Trotsky did not make a single mention of the ‘shifting class composition’ conspiracy theory at the Party Congress, alleging instead of the Cream of the Revolution shortly after massacring them, and of related tendencies within the revolutionary movement, that
The Workers Opposition have come out with dangerous slogans. They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the Party. As if the Party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy.
It was not Trotsky who had been corrupted by the exercise of absolute power; it was the fault of the Russian working class for asserting workers’ democracy; anyone who found cause to doubt the veracity of this line of thinking had probably become subject to the influence of petit-bourgeois blunderers, eclectics, dilettantes, revisionists and utopians with a poor handle on the finer points of historical materialism as well. As well as demonstrating a practical understanding of the difference between a Party dictatorship, the workers’ power it was supposed to be, and the workers’ movement in whose name the Bolsheviks had seized power, Trotsky had also demonstrated the practical application of terror as a function of state power, one associated with the personality of Stalin in traditional Leninist orthodoxy, but understood to be a characteristic function of power structures regardless of the values those wielding it claim to stand for when their grip on power isn’t on the line from a critical perspective grounded historically.
Interestingly from the point of view of traditional understandings of the Russian Revolution, none other than Ernest Mandel, leading theoretician of the Fourth International and author of Marxist Economic Theory, reaches much the same conclusions about Trotsky’s role in a book otherwise devoted to celebrating him. While reasonably enough noting the logistical difficulties created by the civil war, the decline of the urban working class to 35% of its former size and the collapse of much urban industry, Mandel nevertheless rallies against the ‘dark years’ of Trotsky’s ‘substitutionalism’ (which he appears not to have emerged from), in which he abandoned the need for the workers’ party to be ‘an accompaniment to the self-activity of the masses,’ and argues that this ‘hindered rather than promoted’ it during these vital first years. In support of these claims Mandel quotes Trotsky’s comments to the Tenth Party Congress in 1921 referred to above, also making note of comments to the Second Comintern Congress in 1920, in which he stated
Today we have received a proposal from the Polish government to conclude peace. Who decides such questions? We have the Council of People’s Commissars but it too must be subject to certain control. Whose control? The control of the working class as a formless, chaotic mass? No. The Central Committee of the party is convened in order to discuss the proposal and to decide whether it ought to be answered. And when we have to conduct war, organise new divisions and find the best elements for them – where do we turn? We turn to the party. To the Central Committee. And it issues directives to every local committee pertaining to the assignment of Communists to the front. The same thing applies to the agrarian question, the question of supplies and all other questions.
This commentary makes an interesting corollary to Trotsky’s comments at the Tenth Party Congress in 1921, revealing once again his contempt for the masses and his assumption that, outside hierarchies of political control exists only chaos and formlessness – a bizarre assumption for anyone even vaguely associated with movements based on class solidarity, all the more so for one of the leading lights of a movement theoretically devoted to the development of organic organisations of producers, a withering away of the state and the development of a classless society!
Voicing opinions of this kind once might have been excusable as an uncharacteristic slip-up; we do all, after all, make mistakes. Trotsky, however, did it repeatedly – whether in talking about the chaos of the working class outside of political stratification, his desire to shoot the cream of the revolution like partridges, the passing moods of the workers democracy or his theories about the shifting class composition of various opposition groups purporting to demonstrate that those who weren’t for him were against him. At no point did Trotsky appear to acknowledge his own limits in a manner similar to say, Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, who, when rejecting Frodo’s suggestion that he use the One Ring to defeat their enemies, implores of him
Don’t tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand Frodo, I would use this Ring from a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.
Some will no doubt scoff at using a Hollywood adaptation of a fantasy novel as commentary on the historical experience of the Russian Revolution, but perhaps the fact that a literary source demonstrates a greater example of reflection and the general capacity for self-criticism than the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution is telling in and of itself. Maybe a similar acknowledgement of the inherent limitations of power given the categorical failure of the Russian Revolution to abolish class exploitation and wage slavery might have been appropriate, something along the lines perhaps of an acknowledgement that although one might aim to assume state power out of a desire to do good, power works according to its own logic and would through even the most steadfast, idealistic and otherwise moral of revolutionaries effect a terrible power that we don’t even need to imagine because we have the historical record instead. We might add something to the effect that the professed ideals we use to justify certain actions are meaningless if the actions themselves produce the opposite ends; that if we truly believe our ideals, they are reflected in our actions, since actions speak louder than words and pretences to the contrary tend to be the basis of what Orwell called doublethink, or the propensity as part of a system of thought control to hold conflicting beliefs simultaneously.
Hinting at such lessons, any mention of Kronstadt, only one of numerous left-wing uprisings against the increasingly autocratic Bolsheviks in the years after 1917, quite often sends Leninists into conniptions of fallacious incredulity; the perverse spectacle of the worker’s party using their military power to suppress a workers’ uprising reasserting the demands they themselves asserted in getting that power reveals attitudes of sheer entitlement comparable to in conservatives subjected to mentions of privilege (‘Oh here we go, the SJWs rolling out the race card again’ etc), or even Zionists affronted by reminders of Palestinian humanity (‘more anti-Semitism! Why do they hate us so much?!’). The fact that Stalin demonised and persecuted Trotskyists as ‘petit-bourgeois counter-revolutionaries’ just as Trotsky had demonised and persecuted the Kronstadt rebels on the same pretext fifteen years or so prior, suggests that the reactions are the same because the underlying victim-playing, victim-blaming and conflation of dissent with disloyalty and treason were the same, both invoked as defence mechanisms against having to acknowledge and come to terms with the consequences of their own actions.
The Question of History
As noted above, the Marxist mythology of historical stages was used to justify a binary espoused by Friedrich Engels between ‘scientific’ socialism and ‘utopian’ socialism, the difference appearing to be that ‘Utopian’ socialism indulged in idle daydreams about a perfect society without worrying about how to get from here to there and what was actually possible given the prevailing social and economic conditions, while ‘scientific’ socialism took into account material conditions in the present and the laws of history to place revolutionary praxis in historical context. Thus ‘scientific’ socialism, according to Engels, was not
an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historical-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict.
According to this view then, placing revolutionary theory and practise in historical context meant coming to terms with this ‘historical-economic succession of events’, which was to say the incremental stages of political development throughout history, socio-political superstructures reflecting their underlying modes of production – monarchist autocracy alongside feudalism, which in reaching crisis point opened a window for bourgeois-democratic revolutions that enabled capitalist industrialisation, economic liberalisation and the development of an urban working class, thereby establishing suitable preconditions for a mixed socialist economy, and at length full communism, opportunities to establish which would appear as the internal contradictions within capitalism became increasingly acute. Permanent revolution appears to have been predicated on the idea of adopting a consistent revolutionary strategy and avoiding political alliances with the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy, lest revolutionaries inadvertently help to strengthen the social basis for reaction by helping to strengthen their class enemy politically, in favour of a worker-peasant alliance.
It was this belief in the ‘historical-economic succession of events’ amongst the Bolsheviks that fed the conviction amongst the Bolsheviks in the impossibility of a revolution in an underdeveloped country such as Russia was at the turn of the 20th century, hence the need to export the revolution to the more industrially advanced countries of Western Europe, felt to represent a way to give Russia the room to develop an urban proletariat big enough to constitute the social base for a proletarian revolution, as noted previously. Since the proletarian revolution was off the cards, the best that could be hoped for, the Bolsheviks felt, was a ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution that could abolish the last remaining traces of feudalism, secure political rights and ‘expand the floor of the cage’ as it were for revolutionary struggle.
If all of this hinged on the belief within traditional Marxism that ‘iron laws’ of history could then be applied to revolutionary activism in the same way that one might apply an algorithm in statistical analysis. mechanical engineering or the targeting of advertising on the marketing platform called Facebook, compelling evidence to demonstrate why socio-economic conditions were a greater determinant of historical outcomes than individual will seemed lacking. Indeed, one of the main problems with the ‘scientific socialism’ narrative is that what separates scientific ideas from religious faith is their capacity for falsifiability; if the theory can’t be reproduced, it fails the test. Originally a method for analysing political economy, historical materialism began to be invoked as an ideological rationalisation for the Bolshevik habit of conflating the economic power of Russian workers and peasants as a whole with what Trotsky acknowledged as the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party, precipitating its vulgarisation based on Engels’ original binary between ‘scientific’ and ‘utopian’ socialism. Invoked in this way, historical materialism shared with other such historical oddities as Social Darwinism and eugenics the basic characteristic of non-falsifiability; all made unsupported and unverifiable claims about natural laws said to determine effects in history prior to individual will, whose function was to provide pseudo-scientific pretences for actually-existing conditions lacking in moral legitimacy (in the case of the other examples, social injustice and racial oppression).
As the German anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker pointed out in the introductory chapter to his magnum opus Nationalism and Culture, ‘There are historical events of the deepest significance for millions of men which cannot be explained by their purely economic aspects.
When Alexander planned his wars, lust for power played a far more important part than economic necessity. The desire for world conquest had assumed actually pathological forms in the ambitious despot. His mad power obsession was a leading motive in his whole policy, the driving force of his warlike enterprises, which filled a large part of the then known world with murder and rapine. It was this power obsession which made the Caesaro-Papism of the oriental despot appear so admirable to him and gave him his belief in his demigod-hood . . . The will to power which always emanates from individuals or from small minorities in society is in fact a most important driving force in history. The extent of its influence has up to now been regarded far too little, although it has frequently been the determining factor in the shaping of the whole of economic and social life.
The will to power cast significant doubt on the vulgar historical materialist myth that the laws of history demanded a series of transition stages culminating in a state capitalist revolution as a prelude to the development of an urban industrial proletariat, if for no other reason than it recognised the existence of an individual subjectivity rooted in self-awareness that could act in history as well as being acted upon, even if within a context not of one’s choosing.
A good demonstration of this fact could be found in the additional fact that, while industrialisation in England and France had certainly given both countries large proletarian bases for socialist revolution, it had also subjected the working classes of both countries to what we might call the autocratic hierarchies inherent to capitalist relations of production – not to mention the authoritarian dynamics associated with them. If the political sphere within capitalist democracy was in some respectful of the individual rights of each and responsive to the needs of the mass (even if laws are made by and for the ruling class and voting for representatives involves choices between various factions of parties to govern with laws designed to uphold class privilege), that all ended as soon at the threshold of the workplace, which remained as internally autocratic as the political sphere had ever been under feudalism. Engels himself waxed lyrical about this fact, explaining that, to overcome the autocracy of capitalist production, it was necessary to embrace it:
Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, grows the mass of misery . . . grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in number, and disciplined, united, and organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself . . . The expropriators are expropriated.
Engels’ patent willingness to harness the very dynamics he claimed to want to overthrow in the name of overthrowing them does not inspire confidence in the idea that he had an appreciable understanding of the dynamics of authoritarianism in general, much less to say the pernicious and toxic influence of authoritarian psychology or its corrupting effects on individual subjectivity, or indeed his own cognitive dissonance. It does not appear to have been for nothing that the bourgeois democracies of Western Europe were unable to carry through with revolutions of their own. Subject to the autocratic hierarchies inherent to capitalist relations of production the workers of the west were and remain subject to a form of capture-bonding or Stockholm Syndrome that provides no end of fruitful source material for political psychologists and social theorists trying to understand the willingness of the mass individual to cooperate in their own exploitation.
In trying to come to understand what motivates some individuals to construct authoritarian systems and what also motivates others to support them, Wilhelm Reich, a former student of Freud’s in Germany and a practicing psychoanalyst in Austria, argued (somewhat mechanistically) that moralistic repression of all the personal drives towards individual assertion and self fulfillment, be they physical or existential, diverted such energies into service of authoritarian systems (in this example, the totalitarian state). Using the scapegoating of Jews and other minority groups and war as outlets for otherwise frustrated energies, and bread and circuses to keep the peasants from revolting, Reich argued, Hitler was able to bring the entire nation of Germany behind a characteristically paranoid and irrational militaristic project that resulted comprehensively in its own destruction. More relevant today than the more mechanistic aspects of these theories was Reich’s crucial observation that the dynamics driving the Nazi war machine were anything but limited to Germany in the 1930s. They were on the contrary, he argued, a dangerously acute example of psychological and emotional tendencies far more pervasive in individual human subjectivity. ‘Fascism,’ Reich wrote,
‘is the only politically organized expression of the average human character structure . . . In this characteristic sense, “fascism” is the basic emotional attitude of man in authoritarian society, with its machine civilization and its mechanistic-mystical view of life.’
There was, in other words, a little bit of Hitler in all of us, as noted — various attempts to portray the Nazi leader as somehow something other than human, as opposed to someone all too human, notwithstanding. The implications for the subjectivity of the working class under ostensibly free conditions of bourgeois democratic states are profound. Above all else, the authoritarian subjectivity driving the underlying class divisions between those with property and those with nothing to sell but our labour raise serious questions about the vulgar myth of an inherent progress beyond feudal class structures towards freedom; it is arguably the blindness of the traditional left towards the dynamics of authoritarian psychology given its own problems in that respect that prevents It from properly appreciating its function as mortar to class hierarchies.
Erich Fromm, another German through a student of Jung who took a far less mechanistic view, reached similar conclusions, arguing that the power of autocratic and totalitarian regimes derived in the main, not so much from the repression of personal physical drives, but from the inculcation and development of a relationship of emotional attachment to and dependence on authority. Many individuals within the bourgeois democracies Leninists felt were only a historical step away from a classless, cooperative communist society, Fromm found, had essentially the same kind of relationship with political and religious hierarchies that peasants had with their feudal lords, and victims of emotional abuse have with abusive co-dependents in the personal sphere – the aforesaid capture-bonding or ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ that left them helpless to assert themselves. ‘Frequently, and not only in the popular usage, sadomasochism is confounded with love,’ he observed.
Masochistic phenomena, especially, are looked upon as expressions of love. An attitude of complete self-denial for the sake of another person and the surrender of one’s own rights and claims to another person have been praised as examples of “great love”. It seems that there is no better proof for “love” than sacrifice and the readiness to give oneself up for the sake of the beloved person. Actually, in these cases, “love” is essentially a masochistic yearning and rooted in the symbiotic need of the person involved
This was as true where love of the fatherland, the spiritual father and, in this instance, the industrial master, was concerned as in the case of dysfunctional personal relationships (it was also true of the revolutionary masters, which might go some way towards explaining the cult of personality amongst Marxists and the preponderance of framed portraits of their idols amongst the faithful). Not only were such co-dependent social political relationships ruinous of happiness, wellbeing and the capacity of people to function effectively as individuals, Fromm argued, but they were also destructive of their ability to function outside of them. The longer they lasted, the harder it was to leave; subjective dynamics of this have in more recent times been studied in the form of prison institutionalisation. In his summary of the topic, Craig Haney notes that
in the course of becoming institutionalized, a transformation begins. Persons gradually become more accustomed to the restrictions that institutional life imposes. The various psychological mechanisms that must be employed to adjust (and, in some harsh and dangerous correctional environments, to survive) become increasingly “natural,” second nature, and, to a degree, internalized. . . The process of institutionalization is facilitated in cases in which persons enter institutional settings at an early age, before they have formed the ability and expectation to control their own life choices. Because there is less tension between the demands of the institution and the autonomy of a mature adult, institutionalization proceeds more quickly and less problematically with at least some younger inmates. Moreover, younger inmates have little in the way of already developed independent judgment, so they have little if anything to revert to or rely upon if and when the institutional structure is removed. And the longer someone remains in an institution, the greater the likelihood that the process will transform them.
To the extent that the capitalist economy became a prison of autocratic dynamics that trapped workers within a work regime of hired slavery and a social regime of long-term debt bondage, this also seems to apply to questions of political economy. In both cases the result was repressed, dogmatic, rigid and inflexible personalities, people who were fearful of their own shadow and paralyzed by terror in the face of meaningful freedom, which from their co-dependent perspective was tantamount to abandonment, and no less painful a prospect. Despite its patent dysfunctionality, this condition also had its uses insofar as ‘the more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness.’ The fact that ‘destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life’ was a potential source of all sorts of irrational energy for someone who knew how to channel it, whether they were an Engels looking to harness the ‘mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself’ for purportedly revolutionary purposes, or a business owner looking to inspire greater productivity out of his or her rentals by applying benevolent paternalism of the kind associated with Henry Ford. To the extent that capitalism involved the the social development of a hereditary class of hirelings conditioned to capture-bonding by the prevailing mode of production, introducing capitalism as a strategy for overcoming it made about as much sense as inducing cancer as a cure for cancer, and was about as irresponsible.
The apparent failure within vulgar historical materialism to account for the authoritarian dynamics of capitalist relations of production also appears to have failed to account for the monopolistic and otherwise totalitarian tendencies within capitalism, tendencies that are playing themselves out before us as late capitalism mutates into global neoliberal casino corporatism as we speak. On the one hand, a historically unprecedented transnational corporate empire renders national governments mere puppets and masks, eviscerating whatever token rights remain in pursuit of total corporate supremacy; on the other hand, the political representatives of the international corporatocracy claim to represent the popular will, while scare mongering about existential threats in the face of unfolding economic, social and environmental crises in the name of leveraging them for the sake of defending class privilege from the existential threat of political demands for change, otherwise doing everything in their power to forestall any potential for political institutions to respond to the needs of the mass of humanity. According to the conventional Leninist view, this constitutes preferential conditions for the development of revolutionary class struggle.
This also raises the question as to why these conditions were not present at the decline of feudalism, which was likewise a class-based society though one based around manorial production and the master-slave relation between the manor lord and the feudal serf. As well as failing to account for the monopolistic tendencies within capitalism, vulgarised historical materialism, which within Leninism became the ideological pretext for conflating the class power of Russian workers and peasants with the party dictatorship of the Bolsheviks, also sits increasingly at odds with contemporary scholarship on the historical origins of capitalism. A recent study of Marxist feminist Sylvia Federici raises serious questions, as Federici traces the breakdown of feudal social relations and the rise both of peasant rebellions and agrarian forms of self-management in the aftermath of the Black Plague, as the mass dying that targeted believers and sinners alike revealed the lie of a higher plan to the cosmos and gave fuel to heterodoxy, apostasy and rebellion. Federici raises the question of whether the forms of collectivism that were springing up around the commons, especially in places like Italy, didn’t demonstrate the viability of alternate forms of economic organisation based on sharing and cooperation, established within an agrarian rather than industrial context.
As Federici demonstrates, the Catholic hierarchy certainly seemed to think so, which appears to account for the fact that an alliance of it and other privileged interests launched a campaign of theocratic terror in the form of the European Witch Hunts, which ultimately ran for 300 years. The mythology of the existentialist threat of the witch established an ideological pretext for class warfare, enabling the European ruling classes to smash alternative movements at odds to the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ building momentum behind the development of the capitalist economy, and to force the European peasantry into roles consistent with capitalist modalities – not least of which being the forcing of peasant women into the home under patriarchal rule to perform the role of brood mares for capital. ‘It is no exaggeration to say that women were treated with the same hostility and sense of estrangement accorded ‘Indian savages’ in the literature that developed on the subject after the Conquest,’ Federici writes.
The parallel is not casual. In both cases literary and cultural denigration was at the service of a project of expropriation . . . the demonization of the American indigenous people served to justify their enslavement and the plunder of their resources. In Europe, the attack waged on women justified the appropriation of their labour and the criminalisation of their control over reproduction. Always, the price of resistance was extermination. None of the tactics deployed against European women and colonial subjects would have succeeded if they had not been sustained by a campaign of terror. In the case of European women, it was the witch-hunt that played the main role in the construction of their new social function, and the degradation of their social identity.
If the three centuries of theocratic terror associated with the European Witch Hunts can be understood as the midwife of capitalism as it emerged out of the crisis of feudalism, accompanied as it was by colonial adventures that created a related set of problems all of their own, this would seem to indicate that the path from feudalism to capitalism was anything but historically inevitable. Rather, it necessitated centuries of institutional terror to shut down the robust peasant rebellions taking place at the time and the alternative economic experiments to which they were giving rise. In light of what we know now about the actual means by which the continuance of class privilege and a master class in the face of a rebellious European peasantry was ensured, the waxing lyrical of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto about the glorious doings of incipient capitalism appear somewhat disastrous.
The means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange … the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.
They were burst asunder with the aid of three centuries of state terror, as were the alternative paths of cooperative development springing up around parts of Europe where feudal bonds had ceased to have influence, mirroring the Russian Obschina or Mir which predated serfdom. Many of the other famous comments within the Communist Manifesto regarding ‘all that is solid melts into air’ and similar commentary suffer from similar shortcomings, not least given the fact that the bourgeoisie never lifted a finger to do anything Marx and Engels describes; it was all done either by slave labour, or by the hirelings who, in allowing the emerging capitalist class to free up capital costs associated with owning and maintaining the labour supply, were no longer owned, but rented!
As Marx himself later observed in the first volume of Capital, the history of the extirpation of the working class from the bonds of feudalism ‘is written in the annals of mankind with letters of blood and fire,’ a far more prescient observation. Nevertheless, The Communist Manifesto alleged that the glorious bourgeoisie were not only doing all the work, but they were civilising the barbarians as well:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate.
Invoking the same racist and xenophobic binaries against subject colonial populations does not seem particularly indicative of those with superior insight into the dialectics of historical development; they seem rather the product of people who were themselves products of their age; to suggest that this was at all a feature of Marxist thought would however be inherently dilettantish, utopian and revisionist according to the conventional viewpoint. In the light of Engel’s previous comment about the autocratic hierarchies of capitalist relations of production being a good way to discipline communist workers, the fact that Marx and Engels were products of their age in more ways than one serves instead to reinforce the observations above regarding the relationship between the aforesaid hierarchies, capture bonding and authoritarian subjectivity, not least given Engels’ own status as the owner of textile factories in Barmen, Germany and Manchester.
Perhaps it was this blindness to their own authoritarian overreach that made the founders of communism incapable of perceiving the cognitive dissonance associated with the implication that the inherently superior dynamics of private accumulation were behind the subjugation of colonial possessions, not to mention the subjugation of women or the expropriation of the commons, other parts of the same process of primitive capital accumulation. While the reductionism inherent to the theory of iron laws of historical development might have been at odds with the fact that capitalist did not triumph in Europe by virtue of its inherent superiority, which allowed it to ‘burst asunder’ the fetters of feudalism, but rather by hundreds of years of terror, it nevertheless created a need for intellectual leadership by suitably enlightened theorists, as anyone who has ever been advised to read a 1000-page book when expressing doubt about various aspects of Marxist-Leninist ideology will readily appreciate (one is reminded of Einstein’s observation that we should be able to explain a theory in terms a four year old can understand if we understand it ourselves).
At the same time, it also created a need for political leadership by a cadre of ‘advanced workers,’ which in practise meant a cadre of professional party activists trying with conspicuously disastrous results to impose effects (Socialism) on Russian society through social engineering of causes (industrial capitalism to produce in a class of industrial workers as a social base for Socialism). While expressing surprise that the reversal of cause and effect resulted in a party dictatorship exercising power in the name of the working class and a ruling class of bureaucrats free of ‘the passing moods of the workers democracy’ (to again borrow Trotsky’s terminology), defenders of the vulgar historical materialism nevertheless insisted on continuing to ‘conjure up the spirits of the past’ in attempting to rationalise actions reflecting values vastly at odds with those said to be informing them. At the same moment, they sought to explain away the cognitive dissonance and double standards as utopianism and revisionism on the part of anyone who acknowledged them.
‘Utopianism’ in this sense referred to the capacity to adhere to principle (as opposed to simply making things up as one went along), the a priori assumption being that maintaining a harmony between means and outcomes such that actions were consistent with words was characteristically inconsistent with reality, over which Marxists had a monopoly merely because they felt like it. By the same token, ‘revisionism’ referred to any propensity to acknowledge that state power worked according to a own logic independent of anyone who wielded it, that this could be demonstrated as a historical fact, and that, regardless of the values they professed to adhere to in the abstract, those who had power tended in practise to twist and mangle their values to rationalise the exercise of power. ‘Revisionism’ was acknowledging that power was a seductive force to willing agents, whose arrogance and narcissism prevented them from recognising their own limits – their susceptibility to corruption in particular — while nursing a false sense of intellectual superiority, in the final analysis through militant ignorance. The hubristic mentality that resulted could perhaps be framed in terms of a kind of Marxism-Dunning-Krugerism.
The Question of the State
In lieu of recognising the inherent logic of institutional power, the practical application of vanguardism resulted in a party dictatorship of politicians and bureaucrats claiming to represent the working class while having little or no actual contact with workers, as noted, a much different outcome to the social dictatorship of the whole working class theorised not very precisely by the usually anal-retentive Marx (and seemingly as a provocation to the libertarian socialist opposition). This only became truer once Stalin and his bureaucracy substituted his own power for that of the Party. Able to make up the rules as they went along in the name of the fulfilling the stages of history preceding communism, the Bolsheviks could reinstitute the market through the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the name of saving the revolution; since words mattered more than actions and effect preceded cause, promoting capitalism was actually promoting revolutionary goals, and anyone who advocated returning power to the councils or Soviets, like the Kronstadt sailors, were petit bourgeois deviationists who wanted to overthrow the most significant and meaningful achievements of the revolution and restore capitalism. Anyone confused by this logic was probably a bit ideologically suspect as well.
Dragging this logic further, the reintroduction of state capitalism through the NEP, implementing market mechanisms in the name of the long-term viability of socialism, was likewise a more revolutionary course of action than, say, encouraging the collectivist tendencies within peasant cooperatives and pursuing an agrarian course towards socialism, using expanded agrarian production to support the development of an urban working class – apparently because it permitted the purportedly revolutionary politicians controlling the levers of state power to continue to do so. As Lenin himself admitted, the Bolsheviks detested the idea of agrarian socialisation as an affront to the ideological justifications for their hold on power, but were obliged to take it up as their own, in much the same way as he had proclaimed ‘all power to the soviets’ in the days before they could get away with machine-gunning revolutionary sailors. At the same time, they sought to educate the peasants in the error of their ways such that they would make a more comfortable fit with Bolshevik power – the exact opposite of what they were supposed to do prior to having power and being able to make the rules up as they went along, as provided for in their vulgarised historical materialism. As Lenin wrote in 1918,
…when enforcing the land socialisation law — the “spirit” of which is equal land tenure — the Bolsheviks most explicitly and definitely declared: this is not our idea, we do not agree with this slogan, but we think it our duty to enforce it because this is the demand of the overwhelming majority of the peasants. And the idea and demands of the majority of the working people are things that the working people must discard of their own accord: such demands cannot be either ‘abolished’ or “skipped over.” We Bolsheviks shall help the peasants to discard petty-bourgeois slogans, to pass from them as quickly and as easily as possible to socialist slogans.
The arrogance of the Bolsheviks here is illustrated in the willing confusion of demands for land redistribution in aid of the agrarian cooperativism of the Obschina or Mir with ‘petit-bourgeois slogans.’ If the existence of Russian peasant cooperatives potentially signalling an agrarian path out of economic crisis cast doubt at the very least on reductionist or deterministic theories of historical stages, then it made sense for Lenin to adopt the logic of the False Dilemma. To do otherwise was to acknowledge that there was no place for politicians and the self-proclaimed vanguard of the proletariat in the Revolution — even that their influence had mostly been a destructive one, using the revolutionary aspirations of Russian workers and peasants as a stepping stone into power, and as the basis for a string of sophistries that aimed to pass off a new set of managers as revolutionary workers dictatorship (even despite the fact that not one of those involved in it did anything to create value in the sense of investing labour in the production of goods and services).
The dictatorship of the proletariat quite simply were quite literally not workers, but since the ends justified the means as long as they were justified in the name of Socialism, anything went. Words spoke louder than actions. This being the case, there was no bad way of serving the cause, no objective measure of success or failure outside of the realm of self-serving ideology which defined anything as a good as long as it was invoked with the right pretext. This could Lenin claim in 1917 that
Socialism is merely the next step forward from state capitalist monopoly . . . socialism is merely state capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly.
Lenin neglected to elaborate on what the interests of the whole people were and how state capitalist monopoly served them. He neglected to elaborate on how this kind of phrasing might not be abused in such a way as to identify the personal vested interests of the tyrant or demagogue with the interests of the people, thereby making any assertion of the popular interests, needs or goals of the popular mass a counter-revolutionary prospect. We have already examined how this propaganda line was adopted under Stalin to demonise dissent as an attack on the revolution; much of the additional evidence discussed since has been provided in the name of demonstrating this attitude as a characteristic feature of the Bolsheviks more generally. Similarly, in 1921,
State capitalism would be a step forward as compared with the present state of affairs in our Soviet Republic. If in approximately six months’ time state capitalism became established in 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 will have become invincible in this country.
At this point, considerations of what constitutes objective reality cease to apply; reality is whatever you feel like it is and can assert from your position of control over the levers of power. By this logic, state capitalist monopoly was not exploitative or oppressive because the people controlling the state capitalist monopoly felt themselves to be nice rather than nasty. Surplus value was no longer indefensible as a matter of definition but a matter of the greater good, to be dispensed with later (probably). Promises that six months of state capitalism would be sufficient to give socialism a permanent foothold within a year merit speak for themselves. They beg the question again as to what process exactly was state capitalism supposed to be ‘made to serve the interests of the people’? If the communists were in control of the state capitalist monopoly, why not just hand over power to the factory committees that had been set up in 1917? Was it because they didn’t want to? Was it because by 1921 the factory committees had been absorbed into the unions, which were dominated by the Bolsheviks and integrated vertically with the Russian Communist party? If the factory committees had already seized the means of production, why would it even be necessary to relinquish control back to them again unless the Bolshevik revolution had come at the expense of the workers’ revolution, which presumably was not carried out to establish state capitalist monopoly but to give all power to the Soviets, for the defense of which the revolutionary sailors had been massacred?
Furthermore, if it was true that organised workers were only capable of a ‘trade unionist’ consciousness which helped to uphold capitalism by focusing attention on petty work issues rather than the great issues of the revolution, seizing of the means of production and implementing worker’s control, as Lenin argued in What is to be Done?, was this trade union consciousness now a socialist consciousness under conditions of state capitalist monopoly? At what point were those in charge of these state capitalist monopolies likely to relinquish control? What precedents in history could the Bolsheviks point to in support of the theory that autocrats would relinquished power voluntarily? The history of the Soviet Union certainly does not provide any precedents for the present day in that respect, a fact that would seem to suggest there were no more likely to be precedents for similar assumptions in the past. But nevertheless,
The state capitalism, which is one of the principal aspects of the New Economic Policy, is, under Soviet power, a form of capitalism that is deliberately permitted and restricted by the working class. Our state capitalism differs essentially from the state capitalism in countries that have bourgeois governments in that the state with us is represented not by the bourgeoisie, but by the proletariat, who has succeeded in winning the full confidence of the peasantry. Unfortunately, the introduction of state capitalism with us is not proceeding as quickly as we would like it. For example, so far we have not had a single important concession, and without foreign capital to help develop our economy, the latter’s quick rehabilitation is inconceivable.
The numerous armed revolts that had to be put down and the forced requisitioning of grain that came later would appear to suggest that the Bolsheviks had somewhat less than the full confidence of the peasantry, but not being ones to let facts get in the way of a good ideology, they were permitted to fall down the memory hole. In The State and Revolution, possibly his most libertarian work, Lenin had pointed out truthfully enough that ‘freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: freedom for slave owners.’ At the same time, however, ‘freedom is a bourgeois prejudice,’ as Lenin declared in response to appeals from anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to respect the freedom of the Russian working class.
We repudiate all morality which proceeds from supernatural ideas or ideas which are outside the class conception. In our opinion, morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of the class war. Everything is moral which is necessary for the annihilation of the old exploiting order and for the uniting the proletariat. Our morality consists solely in close discipline and conscious warfare against the exploiters.
These comments appear to be in keeping with, and in fact summarise, much of what we have been looking at above. If everything necessary for the annihilation of the old exploiting order is moral, then so to was anything that could be identified with it – the Trotskyist Left Opposition following the rise of Stalin to the leadership of the Russian Communist Party, for example. While the need to develop the productive capabilities of society could potentially be justified on the grounds that, as long as they were enough to produce a surplus, but not enough for universal comfort, the danger always remained that a new ruling class might arise, the best way to guarantee that a new ruling class would rise would be to institute one.
Any revolutionary movement, then, based on the principle that the ends justify the means and that everything necessary for the annihilation of the old order was moral – in contrast to the principle perhaps that everything moral is necessary for the annihilation of the old order, a small but important difference – could have no other outcome. Similarly, any revolutionary movement seeking to justify actions based on values completely different from their rhetoric about workers taking control of the means of production, the emancipation of the working class being the responsibility of the workers themselves and giving all power to the soviets could have no other outcome. And as the history books now remind us, they didn’t, a fact tending to reflect the fact that attempts to assert Leninist orthodoxies ideology are tantamount to attempts to suppress history.
Scare mongering about existential threats, politicised for the sake of justifying one or another expediency born of crisis that in calmer and more dispassionate times are considered beyond the pale, is the classic propaganda device for imposing authoritarian controls in the name of situational expediencies that sustain the power of ruling classes at the expense of popular rights and freedoms. As we have seen, it turns up in no end of historical contexts and serves no other ultimate purpose.
In his exploration of the scare-mongering dynamics associated with witch panic during the early modern period, historian Norman Cohn formulates what he describes as an ‘ancient fantasy’ — what we might describe these days as a propaganda trope, cultural motif or even archetype, in the Jungian sense, of crisis leverage carried out under conditions of moral panic for the abovementioned purposes. The essence of this ‘ancient fantasy’ was, Cohn argued, that ‘there existed, somewhere in the midst of the great society, another society, small and clandestine, which not only threatened the existence of the great society but was also addicted to practices which were felt to be wholly abominable, in the literal sense of anti-human.’
The fantasy changed, became more complex, down through the centuries. It played an important part in some major persecutions; and the way in which it did also varied. Sometimes it was used merely to legitimate persecutions that would have occurred anyway; sometimes it served to widen persecutions that would otherwise have remained far more limited. In the case of the great [European] Witch Hunt, it generated a massive persecution, which would have been inconceivable without it. In pursuing its history one is led far beyond the confines of the history of ideas and deep into the sociology and social psychology of persecution.
It could also be argued that Cohn’s ‘Ancient Fantasy’ also manifested in fears of external threats, such as in the case of the Cold War anti-communist narratives that read Soviet expansionism into every geopolitical development felt to be unfavourable to American capital, and the reactionary phase of the French Revolution, when the Terror was justified on the grounds of defending France from internal and external enemies. These are both classic examples arguably of the application of the False Dilemma in victim-playing and avoid having to address the consequences of one’s own actions.
As we have seen above, we can draw a parallel between the moral disengagement of Stalin, manifest in his application of the False Dilemma to associate any criticism or dissent with the demonised figure of Trotsky on the basis of guilt by association, make himself out to be a victim of a vast Trotskyist conspiracy, to make his persecution of Trotskyists out to be their own doing, and that of Trotsky in doing the exact same towards the Kronstadt sailors. If this is the case, then on the same basis we might draw a similar parallel between the False Dilemma as applied in the abovementioned examples of Cohn’s ‘Ancient Fantasy,’ in the existential threat of witches, the Brides of Satan, and the attempts by Leninists to justify the establishment of a political monopoly on the grounds of situational expediency – in this case, the existential threat of Tsarist reaction.
Just as Leninist narratives used the concepts of the institutional power structure of the Soviet state and the mass of the Russian people interchangeably, freely conflating the vested interests of those in charge of the state and common interest, so too did they use the defence of Soviet Russia from its external enemies and the grip on power of the Bolshevik Party interchangeably in the same way. During the suppression of the Kronstadt Uprising, the Bolsheviks used the same trope Cohn identifies as the ‘Ancient Fantasy’ to play the victims of Tsarist reaction, even though there was barely a reactionary in sight. That fact indicates that they had other motivations for making claims of expediency, raising doubt as to the veracity of the claim that a party dictatorship was necessary to meet the military threat. Nestor Makhno’s anarchist partisans held off Ukrainian Nationalists, Austro-German imperialists, Hetmanates, the Whites, and the Red Army for good measure, perhaps in part because he had a sense of humour.
If it was possible to do the same elsewhere without recourse to the class-privilege-upholding, invented-by-the-class-oppressor-for-only-one-reason, institutionalised power structure of the state, surely it would make sense to try. Similar non-statist modes of military organisation had similar triumphs against regular forces, the Zapatistas during the Mexican Revolution only a few years beforehand being a particularly pertinent example. If the issue is not even on the table for discussion, then we can only conclude that the cries about existentialist threats are only designed to provide an ideological pretext for the political ambitions of those making them – unless, that is, those who defend the taking of state power don’t intend to be amongst those doing so. But, of course, they do. ‘The workers’ party should establish a workers’ state, put down its reactionary capitalist adversaries and guide society towards socialism . . . except for me, because I am certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would be the one bad egg who would derail the whole entire shit, bequeath a second degenerated workers’ state to history and set the cause of workers revolution back a century, just like we all pin the blame on Stalin for doing,’ said nobody ever.
Leninism as conservatism
Orthodox interpretations of the Russian Revolution put the blame for the revolution’s failures down to the role of personalities such as Stalin’s, the expediencies of the moment, such as the White Invasion (the ‘Russian Civil War’), and the vicissitudes of fate, such as the failure of the working classes in Western Europe to follow up with one of their own. In every partisan accounting, the Bolshevik seizure of state power comes out as innocent and blameless as a new spring lamb — with the obvious exception of Stalin, the only errors apparently being in the political understanding of and commitment to it amongst those involved, and the level of vigour employed in carrying it through. While it may certainly be granted that there were mitigating circumstances for the workers’ revolution not having progressed full steam ahead, rather than being invoked to lessen the harshness of criticism, factors that might be construed as mitigating circumstances often seem to be invoked as excuses to avoid acknowledging errors of judgments at all. To blame everything on factors external to Bolshevik ideology as such, to Stalin’s sociopathic personality disorder, to situational factors and the vicissitudes of fate is convenient and easy; to examine the institutional dynamics that enabled it far less so. On the same logic that blames the pathology of Stalinism on the personality traits of the dictator alone, as noted previously, we might blame the pathology of Wall Street on the personalities of Wall Street bankers, not on the pathologies interwoven into finance capital as an institution. In looking at institutional dynamics like deviance production and moral disengagement, on the other hand, we find that Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were not as different as their respective supporters would like to imagine.
The penchant of all three for the logic of the False Dilemma, for the deep defensiveness that made all three prone to demonising and labelling any source of criticism and associating it with either passive (‘petit-bourgeois, utopian dilettantism’) or active (thinking differently) support for the capitalist reaction, draws an unbroken line from the Bolshevik Revolution of 25 October 1917 to the Stalinist purges and beyond. Just as the Bolshevik programme was, by definition, correct, so too was it impossible to criticise either the ideology or the actions of the Bolsheviks out of a desire to help them, as Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Peter Kropotkin, and no doubt many others also, tried to do in vain in appealing to Lenin directly, or the revolution. In the absolute logic of, ‘if you cast doubt on the Bolshevik party the enemies of socialism win,’ born of the False Dilemma, there was only room to tell the revolutionary leaders what they wanted to hear, or to be classed in the same category as Tsarist militarists and capitalist oligarchs.
This logic, the logic of ‘‘if you cast doubt on the Bolshevik party the enemies of socialism win’ was as evident in Trotsky’s denunciation of the Kronstadt rebels as ‘White guardists’ as it was it was in Stalin’s denunciation of those who rebelled against his tyranny as petit-bourgeois counter-revolutionary Trotskyist terrorists. It also seems to account for Lenin’s tendency to demonise his enemies as ‘infantile leftism’ and conflate thinking differently with being a weekend dabbler in radical politics — though demonizing and labelling anyone with the audacity to cast doubt on the majesty of your judgment was naturally the crowning heights of mature adult behaviour, much less to say the disciplined logic of anyone who wasn’t fucking around with virtue signalling and other silly relics of the ego. In any event, maybe if some were weekend dabblers in politics, it was only because they had actual jobs and had to work for a living during the week, in which case it was quite perfectly okay to not know everything already. One would in fact preference knowing the right questions and not all the answers over having all the answers and not the question.
That these issues do remain unexplored and unexplained within the political tradition that wrought them, even after a century, serves to demonstrate that revolutionary ideals and values by no means guarantee that the actions taken in their name will result in favourable outcomes; the virtue of the ideals invoked in the abstract in no way of necessity translates into virtue in the actions carried out in their name in practise. Actions speak louder than words. Means determine outcomes, and not the other way around; unfree means do not produce free outcomes. One does not acquire a sense of selfhood and personal agency by developing the habits of slavery; pretences to the contrary. In refusing to acknowledge that ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ (John Dalberg-Action), also presume to defy causality. The various fallacies invoked by defenders of the Bolshevik Revolution to avoid having to avoid addressing the consequences of the actions of those with their hands on the levers of power, even to acknowledge a difference between the workers’ revolution and the political revolution of the Bolsheviks (much less to say freely conflating the state power structure and the masses of the Russian working class as if they were one and the same thing), demand nothing of them. In the same way, some anarchists might seek to brush over the catastrophic failures of the CNT-FAI in the Spanish Revolution by refusing to acknowledge the perversity of prominent anarchists joining the Catalan government (though in that case, the anarchists arguably failed in their revolution by abandoning their beliefs, while the Bolsheviks arguably failed by sticking to them).
Approaches to the past that are more honest, demand more, and produce far less in terms of a feeling of having all the answers, which typically risk the danger of appearing to others as though one has not a clue as to the question. They likewise reinforce self-serving attitudes and approaches that do less to build on the lessons of history than they provide opportunities to gloss over the disastrous consequences of past actions, ultimately for the sake of little more than false pride and vanity. Reflecting this fact, Marx wrote in the 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte (1852) that
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.
It is almost as if he was talking about Cohn’s ‘Ancient Fantasy.’ The danger of reproducing the oppressive social relations and subjective dynamics you were trying to overcome, was, it seems, a thing; in challenging injustice and oppression, it was imperative to ensure that in doing so, we did not first become oppressors ourselves. As noted above, this was the imperative behind the original slogan of the First International, that ‘the emancipation of the workers must be carried out by the workers themselves,’ the danger of anything taking place to the contrary being, as Eugene Debs pointed out, that anyone who lead the working class into a revolution could lead them straight back out again.
This seems to be the basic problem in the Russian Revolution, not least given the propensity of the Bolsheviks from Lenin on to take for themselves the right to determine who ‘the working class’ and who ‘the people’ were (no prizes for guessing, it was the Bolsheviks), and persecuting opponents via the logic of the False Dilemma as enemies of the working class and enemies of the people (though in reality, critics of the Bolsheviks). They certainly seemed to manage to provoke a great deal of criticism, hostility and active opposition in reinstituting state capitalism in the form of the NEP instead of, say, devolving power to the workers’ soviets (councils) as Lenin had proclaimed upon his return from exile in 1917, and for which the cream of the revolution, the Kronstadt sailors, had taken a stand when it was extremely dangerous to their longevity to do so. For their part, the Bolsheviks acted as though they had inadvertently discovered themselves superfluous to the needs of the revolution at the point of production, and were even set against the implementation of workers’ and peasants’ control as obstacles to the assertion of their own power. One suspects that many of their victims made this same discovery (though by the same token, “yes, and we would have gotten away with our evil plan to restore the Tsar and capitalism not controlled by the Bolshevik bureaucracy if it wasn’t the meddling of you kids” etc). Perhaps this factors such as these that inspired Marxist political economist Paul Mattick to observe that, ‘Marxism is the last refuge of the bourgeoisie.’
If what Mattick has to say has any legs to stand on at all (he would perhaps have been one to know), it seems only fair to conclude then that, for those who do find themselves in their last refuge, that subjective attachments to received ideas and traditions will be more important than clear understanding what worked and what went wrong so as to avoid the same mistakes next time around – nay, to even enable the possibility that there could even be a next time around. If there is to be no next time around, then it seems fair to conclude that not a small part of the reason why will be because the received doctrines of Leninism amount in practise to a form of conservatism, one that as all other forms of conservatism sacrifices the present and the future to the past. If this is so, then the marginalization of the radical left and its widespread lack of appeal for the workers of the world is something of a no-brainer; if all it comes down to is swapping one set of masters for another, of helping an alternative set of state capitalist managers overthrow and replace the current set who in their infamy have that racket already sewn up, we might as well stick with things as they now stand. If you’re going to be a slave regardless, you might as well continue to slave for a proportion of the value you create returned to you as a wage, and enjoy the endless torrent of consumer durables to throw into the bottomless pit of our alienation. You might as well be a debt slave and have a nicer cage to live in (even if all wage slavery amounts to is swapping hired slaves for rented ones and outsourcing of responsibility for the maintenance of your slave population to the slaves themselves).
This should not perhaps be as contentious as it might otherwise sound; if we consider the Political Compass as a more meaningful reflection of the actual spectrum of political ideas, if for no other reason than it transcends the traditional left-right binary with dual axes of ‘libertarian vs. authoritarian’ and ‘collectivist vs individualist,’ we can also see certain political similarities between opposing ends of one axis according to the other. Along the ‘libertarian vs. authoritarian’ axis, for example, Leninists share the authoritarian spectrum with fascisms of the individualist axis at the collectivist end. Similarly, along the ‘collectivist vs. individualist’ axis, authoritarian and libertarian socialists share the collectivist end of the spectrum, while libertarian socialists share the libertarian spectrum with libertarian capitalists, who occupy the individualist end. The long and the short of this is that, according to this approach, authoritarian socialists have at least as much in common with libertarian socialists as they do with authoritarian capitalists, who are at the very least conservative, and in fact potentially more so in fact if Lenin’s commentary about state capitalist monopoly moves him further to the individualist end of the spectrum. The desire to protect a monopoly is, after all, a characteristically conservative trait.
On that note, and just as it said today that people find it easier to envision the end of the world than the end of capitalism, so too, it seems, do some find it easier to envision the end of the world than their own subjective emotional attachment to institutionalised power structures, and the attendant idol worship (perhaps in this sense Leninism, as an authoritarianism, involves its own form of capture-bonding and unhealthy co-dependencies). We have emerged out of the historic defeats of the revolutionary workers’ movements, now relegated to the margins of society, into neoliberal barbarism; we have traded the failure to achieve a measure of social and economic justice at the expense of class privilege for the calamitous global dominance of the first privatised empire in the history of humanity, that of transnational, unaccountable, internally autocratic mega-corporations. Some might blame the apathetic working class, as if worker apathy is a cause rather than a consequence of doctrinal shortcomings, or the inability of the average radical to properly absorb received doctrine.
But, again, this costs us nothing. In the name of not sacrificing the future to the past and letting the tradition of all dead generations continue to weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living, on the other hand, better perhaps instead to do something that does, to risk willing conflations of being criticised and being attacked, reflexive accusations of utopianism and revisionism, virtue signalling to the choir, trial by antisocial media and other such other attempts at blame-shifting and scapegoating, by putting criticism and demands for accountability squarely where they belong – which is to say, in the canon of received doctrines, nowhere more so than when they are raised to the level of holy scripture.
Ben Debney is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at Deakin University, Melbourne. He is researching historical examples of moral panic encompassing witch panic, communist panic and terrorist panic, and exploring the extent to which they represent a pattern of crisis leveraging and scapegoating. Web: bendebney.info
A PDF version of this essay is available from my Academia.edu profile.
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 The full message reads as follows:
“To the deceived people of Kronstadt.
“Do you see where the rascals have led you? Here is your position. The greedy fangs of former Tsarist generals are already showing themselves behind the Social-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. All these Petrichenkos and Toukins are manipulated like puppets by the Tsarist general Kozlovsky, Captain Borkser, Kostromitinoff, Chirmanovsky and other proved White guards. They are duping you! They tell you that you are struggling for democracy, but two days have hardly passed and you see that you are not really fighting for democracy but for Tsarist generals. You have permitted a new Wrengel to put a rope around your necks.
“They lie to you that Petrograd is with you, that Siberia and the Ukraine support you. All these are only cynical lies. The last sailor in Petrograd turned his back on you when he learned that Tsarist generals like Kozlovsky were among you. Siberia and the Ukraine firmly defend the Soviet power. Petrograd, the Red city, sneers at the pitiful pretensions of a handful of Social-Revolutionaries and White guardists.
“You are completely surrounded. In a few more hours you will have to surrender. Kronstadt has neither bread nor fuel. If you persist you will be shot like partridges. Naturally, all these generals — Kozlovsky and Borkser-all the wretches like Petrichenko and Toukin, will flee at the last moment to the White guardists in Finland. But you others, simple deceived sailors and Red soldiers, where will you go? If they are promising to provide for you in Finland, they are fooling you again. Don’t you know that the soldiers of General Wrangel, led away to Constantinople, died like flies of hunger and disease? The same fate awaits you if you don’t come to your senses immediately.” Volin, The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921, Montreal; Black Rose Books Ltd., 1975, ‘Part I: Kronstadt (1921).’
 Trotsky, Leon, “Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt” in V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Kronstadt, Monad Press, 1979..
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 Fromm, Erich, The Fear of Freedom. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1942; Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. Routledge, 2012.
 Haney, Craig, ‘The psychological impact of incarceration: Implications for post-prison adjustment,’ National Criminal Justice Reference Service 2003, 66, via https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=205852, accessed 21 February 2016.
 Fromm, The Sane Society, op cit.
 The history of the rising corporate power in the United States in fact involves significant efforts at knocking the precapitalist culture of solidarity and mutual aid out of immigrant workers so that they could become better consumers, social climbers and debt slaves. See for example Meyer, Stephen. “Adapting the immigrant to the line: Americanization in the Ford factory, 1914-1921.” Journal of Social History 14, no. 1 (1980): 67-82; Lazzarato, Maurizio, Governing by Debt. South Pasadena; Semiotexte, 2015.
 Lofgren, Mike, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. Penguin, 2016; Wolin, Sheldon, Democracy Inc: Managed Democracy and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008; Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Harvard University Press, 2001; Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, Sydney; UNSW Press, 1995.
 Hilton, Rodney, ed. Class conflict and the crisis of feudalism: essays in medieval social history. London; Verso, 1990.
 Federici, Silvia, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Private Accumulation, New York; Autonomedia, 2005.
 Federici, Caliban and the Witch, ibid, 102.
 Edward Said, Orientalism, op cit.
 Cohn, Norman, The pursuit of the millennium: Revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the middle ages. Random House, 2011; Hilton, Rodney. Bond men made free: Medieval peasant movements and the English rising of 1381. Routledge, 2003; Mustin, Graham, ‘Religion and revolution in the Middle Ages,’ International Socialism 147, 6 July 2015, via http://isj.org.uk/religion-and-revolution-in-the-middle-ages, accessed 7 October 2017; Beer, Max. Social Struggles in the Middle Ages (Routledge Revivals). Routledge, 2010.
 Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.
 Marx, Karl, Capital, London, Penguin Classics, 1990, Vol 1., ‘The Secret of Primitive Accumulation,’ 875.
 Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, ibid.
 ‘Friedrich Engels,’ Encyclopedia Britannica, via https://www.britannica.com/biography/Friedrich-Engels, accessed 7 October 2017.
 Federici, Caliban and the Witch, op cit; Perelman, Michael, The Invention of Capitalism: Classical political economy and the secret history of primitive accumulation. Duke University Press, 2000; Moore, Jason W., Capitalism in the Web of Life, London; Verso, 2015.
 The propensity for doublethink, doing one thing in the name of doing the opposite and then blaming those obliged to wear for bringing the consequences on themselves, is arguably a problematic feature of hierarchical forms of social organisation per se, Leninist or otherwise.
 Lenin, V.I., The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Moscow, 1918.
 Lenin, V.I., The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, Moscow, 1917.
 Lenin, V.I., The Tax in Kind, 21 April 1921, in Lenin’s Collected Works, 1st English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Volume 32, pages 329-365.
 Vertical integration of the unions with the state was also a feature of Italian fascism; Mussolini described fascism as the ‘corporate state.’ In this case it seems the nasty people were controlling the state capitalist monopoly, not the nice ones.
 Lenin, V.I., To the Russian Colony in North America, Moscow, 1922.
 Ablokeimet, ‘Notes on the origins of civilisation, or what passes for it,’ The Bloody Messenger, 20 September 2017, via https://thebloodymessenger.wordpress.com/2017/09/20/notes-on-the-origins-of-civilisation-or-what-passes-for-it/, accessed 21 September 2017
 See the long list of references in citation 17.
 Cohn, Norman, Europe’s Inner Demons, CITE, ix.
 Feldman, Jay, Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America, Pantheon, 2011; Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics, London; Cape, 1966; Davis, David, The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present, Ithaca, NY; Cornell University Press, 1971; Palmer, Robert Roswell, Twelve who ruled: The year of terror in the French Revolution. Princeton University Press, 2013.
 ‘We also would like to point out that the characterization of certain revolutions as counterrevolutionary is a sociological and not a partisan undertaking. Many left-leaning revolutions in history went through two stages, moderate followed by radical. The radical phase, which rejects the earlier moderate phase, will eo ipso contain a counterrevolutionary dimension. To disassociate themselves from their mosderate revolutionary precursors, radical revolutionaries frequently resort to amplification typical of moral panics in that they proclaim their goal to be nothing less than the defence of the revolution itself. To accomplish their goals, radical revolutionaries have been willing to use the kinds of extreme methods that have given rise to the expression “the revolution devours its own children.” Radical phases of revolutions, such as the Jacobin Terror, Great Stalinist Terror, and the Cultural Revolution, all rolled back freedoms, violated rights, and repossessed land and other resources attained in the earlier phases of the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions respectively. In doing so, they channelled moral panics in the pursuit at once of radical and counterrevolutionary goals. The focus of this chapter, however, is a more typical ideologically-driven counterrevolution that amplified fears to reverse rights acquired within living memory.’ Shafir, Gershon, and Cynthia E. Schairer, “The War on Terror as Political Moral Panic,” in Shafir, Gershon, Everard Meade, and William J. Aceves (eds), Lessons and Legacies of the War on Terror: From Moral Panic to Permanent War, London; Routledge 2013: 15.
 Plans by White Guardists to provoke the Kronstadt sailors into revolt are generally referred to as the ‘smoking gun’ of proof of a conspiracy, though they can neither point to proof of any influence over the sailors, or explain why a conspiracy would be necessary for the revolutionary sailors to need outside influence to reach the point of insurgency where the Bolsheviks were concerned. There were certainly far more bourgeois elements amongst the rapidly expanding bureaucracy in Moscow.
 Womack, John, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. Vintage, 2011.
 Kropotkin, Peter, ‘Letter to Lenin,’ Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970, via http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/kropotkin/kropotlenindec203.html
 Whitehead, John, Power Corrupts: A Culture of Compliance Breeds Despots and Predators, Washington’s Blog, via http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2017/10/power-corrupts-culture-compliance-breeds-despots-predators.html, accessed 11 October, 2017.
 As a fascinating sidenote, many of the most significant experiments in self-management during the Spanish Revolution were carried out by agrarian collectives in Catalonia and the Levante, by anarchist peasants associated with the CNT who had not been domesticated into the autocratic hierarchies inherent to capitalist relations of production by virtue of their still largely pre-capitialist modes of work. See for example, Leval, Gaston. Collectives in the Spanish revolution. London: Freedom Press, 1975; Leval, Gaston. Collectives in the Spanish revolution. London: Freedom Press, 1975; Dolgoff, Sam, ed. The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939. Black Rose Books Ltd., 1974; Bauer, Augustin Souchy. With The Peasants Of Aragon. Soil of Liberty, 1982; Mintz, Frank. Anarchism and Workers’ Self-Management in Revolutionary Spain, Oakland; AK Press, 2013; Ness, Immanuel, and Dario Azzellini. Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present. Haymarket Books, 2011; Peirats, José. Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution. Freedom Press (CA), 1990; Peirats, José. The CNT in the Spanish Revolution. Vol. 1. PM Press, 2011.
 Lazzarato, Maurizio. Governing by Debt, op cit.
 See politicalcompass.org.
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Spoiler: he doesn’t actually call Lenin a fascist.