This is a lightly edited excerpt from a chapter by Michael Neocosmos in Lenin 150 (Samizdat) (Daraja Press, 2021), edited by Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn, Johann Peter Salazar and Patrick Anderson.
At the end of the civil war, in the early 1920s, the new socialist state in Russia was in grave danger. Not only was the country economically devastated by war and famine, but the Communist Party itself was faced with a political crisis most obviously apparent as several of its major leaders and theoreticians (notably Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin) disagreed so vehemently that the danger of a split appeared to be a real possibility.
Yet, arguably, and this was Lenin’s view, the problem had much deeper roots than mere personal or theoretical disagreements. This crisis was formed by several interconnected elements: increasing evidence of state bureaucratic practices undermining socialism, the growth and greater independence of the administrative apparatus within the party and the consequent arrogant practices of party cadres towards the people.
As a result, there was clear evidence of a distancing of the party from the people who were supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the transition, particularly given the appalling conditions they were facing in the post-civil war period. Finally, there appeared a threat to the worker-peasant alliance (or smychka) itself on which the socialist state ultimately depended.
While the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) helped to mitigate the threat to the smychka by, in particular, allowing trade in agricultural commodities, the fundamental problems remained. These were political and not economic or administrative, as Lenin never ceased to stress.
During this period, Lenin developed extremely detailed arguments to counteract politics within the state apparatuses and the party itself that relied on coercive bureaucratic methods.
Socialism, the period of transition to communism, was in danger of losing support among the mass of the people. It is crucially important to understand that for Lenin, this transitional period (also known as the “dictatorship of the proletariat”) with its coercive power over a small bourgeoisie, its representatives, laws and practices, should be combined with the broadest possible democracy for the people who were the overwhelming majority. In this, Lenin closely followed Karl Marx’s statements in various political texts such as the Civil War in France and the Critique of the Gotha Programme.
A brief review of Lenin’s arguments in this specific context is extremely valuable as it enables us to acquire an understanding of the deeply democratic (in the proletarian and not the bourgeois sense) political position which Lenin saw as necessary to achieve the ultimate goal of a communist society. It was Lenin’s view that class struggle persists under socialism although it should today be apparent that “class” is not the exclusive concept for understanding the contradictions inherent in such a transitory society. In particular, it does not sufficiently clarify the practices of the state itself.
To call the state a “workers’ state” as Trotsky did was simply “an abstraction” for Lenin. Concretely, it was rather “a workers’ and peasants’ state” and moreover “a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it”. What was dangerous about the “bureaucratic twist” of the state was precisely that it engaged in practices (“a culture”, Lenin said) which were inimical to full democracy and the unleashing of popular potentials for transformation toward the achievement of freedom where the state is no longer, in Marx’s terms, “superimposed upon society … [but] completely subordinate to it”.
We are confronted here with a conception of class politics as irreducible to simple sociological class location yet, at the same time, Lenin attributed the bureaucratic character of the state to the backwardness and overwhelmingly historically agrarian nature of Russian society. Consequently “it will take decades to overcome the evils of bureaucracy”. “[In the last analysis] struggle alone will determine how far we shall advance.”
In order to enable proletarian control over the state apparatus, two fundamental political problems needed to be solved: 1) the limitation of state bureaucratic excesses and 2) training of (non-party) workers to take over state administrative tasks. The resolution of these two problems required much closer links between the party and the majority of the people in order for the party to ultimately rely on them.
For Lenin it was imperative that “communists should control the [state] machinery they are assigned to, and not … that the machinery should control them”, and that this requires the party to have the support of the people. In order to do so successfully, the party had to acquire the support of the trade unions, the main organisations of the working people.
For Lenin, “trade unions are reservoirs of the state power, a school of communism and a school of management. The specific and cardinal thing in this sphere is not administration”, the bureaucratic approach of controlling the trade unions from above that Trotsky was advocating. “Trotsky’s fundamental mistake is that he treats … the questions … as administrative” rather than political.
Lenin warned his comrades that “if the party falls out with the trade unions the fault lies with the party and this spells certain doom for the Soviet power … Nothing can ruin us but our own mistakes … There is a spirit of hostility for us among the trade union rank and file because of our own mistakes and the bureaucratic practices up on top, including myself.”
Should an administrative approach to the trade unions, as advocated by Trotsky and Bukharin be followed, this would threaten the dictatorship of the proletariat itself. For Lenin, ways had to be found to enable ordinary workers to combat bureaucratic power and to defend themselves against their own state: “We now have a state under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself.”
But it was not just the state apparatuses that were the problem, “we must have the courage to face the bitter truth. The Party is sick. The Party is down with the fever.” During this period the party was becoming “overgrown” by its administrative apparatus thus undermining the power of elected officials.
In his study of that period Charles Bettelheim comments that: “The transformation of the Bolshevik Party between 1918 and 1923 … presented a twofold aspect: on the one hand, it tended to preserve the proletarian character of party policy; on the other it tended to bestow independence upon the party’s administrative apparatus and thereby increase the freedom of action of a body of officials who, in the conditions then existing, were increasingly bourgeois and petty bourgeois.”
Lenin attempted to find a cure for the growing “sickness” in developing closer ties with the people. By identifying the “honest and loyal worker … among the non-Party people … and trying them out in wider and gradually expanding fields of work, and [thus helping to] cure the evil of isolation of Communist Party cells from the masses, an evil that is in evidence in many places.”
At the end of his life Lenin was convinced that the only way to overcome the reactionary politics of the state bureaucracy was a reliance on non-Party workers and peasants. However, Lenin’s struggle was not continued, and the mass organisations gradually lost all independence from the state-party. Marcel Liebman argues that in this manner “a regime born in a struggle for freedom and amid hopes for a libertarian society acquired … the shape of a burdensome and authoritarian bureaucracy”.
Today, these arguments of Lenin’s are largely forgotten. It is assumed on “the Left” that socialism is a goal to be attained and not a period of transition to communism during which state power and its practices and subjectivities must be struggled against in order to provide the conditions for popular democracy and to give free reign to popular inventiveness.
State coercion of the bourgeoisie must therefore be complemented by the most extensive forms of popular democratic practice. Of course, the dialectic between coercion and freedom is not an easy matter to resolve politically, but addressing this dialectic is precisely what the emancipatory politics of socialism are all about.
If we are interested in seriously thinking a politics of emancipation today, it is necessary for any such project to be based on independent popular movements. In particular, this means transcending the problematic of representation that lies at the core of the party form of organisation and which is invariably statist as the party is said to “represent” – the people, the working class or “the masses” – within a state-controlled domain of politics.
The problematic of representation disables the necessary constant problematising of the dialectic of popular movement and organisation, of theory and practice. A political subjectivity that is in essence emancipatory and dialectical is opposed to a politics of simple representation.
Ultimately, as Lenin advised, this means never failing “to understand what is decisive in marxism namely, its revolutionary dialectics”.