Sunday, January 13, 2013

A communist criticism of Lenin

Rosa Luxemburg
The Commune publishes today a quite interesting article by Barry Bidulph which criticizes Lenin's alleged authoritarianism without mercy. I'm not too knowledgeable of the historical details, so I cannot subscribe nor reject the Bidulph's educated opinion, but I can't but agree that it makes for a very interesting read, very especially in this time and age in which the need to reinvent Communism is more so important for the very future of our species:

In Left Wing” Communism an Infantile Disorder, Lenin could not have made his core organisational values more explicit: centralism and iron discipline. From putting the lid on the opposition in 1921, with a ban on factions, all the way back to bureaucratic centralism in One Step Forward Two Steps Back, and Letter to a Comrade, in 1904, there was a consistent approach in which democratic methods were not considered to be essential, but regarded as dispensable in circumstances the leader considered to be appropriate for top down authority to be loyally followed.

Simon quite rightly disagrees with a factional approach, which aims for splits, and regards disunity as normal, based on a conviction of an absolutely correct programme and policies. But this was the Iskra culture from which Bolshevism arose. It was factional through and through: the faction acting as the Party. Polemics were meant to destroy the persons credibility, not seek the truth. This included false accusations. As Vladimir Akimov remembers, in Dilemma’s of  Russian Marxism,  Lenin dishonestly claimed  Rebochee Delo and himself were  economists.(1) Leaders of other tendencies of the Russian Social Democratic Labour  Party, were seen in factional terms, as rivals.  In contrast, in the introduction to Simon’s piece, it is asserted that ‘Bolshevism emerged out of an attempt to build broad parties which allowed a diverse number of tendencies to coexist within a common political project’.  It’s not clear how this understanding emerged.

Bolshevism, as a tendency, came to light following the 1903 congress and in effect as a party in 1912. In neither instance could the ‘project’ be remotely described as a broad church. On the contrary it could not have been more narrow and factional. Lenin was virtually alone with a few followers following 1903. The congress was an émigré  squabble; cats fighting in a sack. Lenin admitted he spent the entire congress in a frenzy. There were no programmatic differences. Trotsky the future leader of the revolution in 1905 and 1917 was against Lenin. Plekhanov, who was against both revolutions, was on Lenin’s side. The faction fighting and name calling created an atmosphere in which there was no respect for personalities or decisions. Lenin’s majority on the editorial board election which triggered the split in the RSDLP was due to anti Iskra comrades leaving the congress and had an accidental character. The formal majority quickly became the minority after the Congress. In Prague in 1912, Lenin in effect captured the RSDLP for the Bolsheviks, excluding many future leaders of the October Revolution.

Simon Hardy regards Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s organisational methods misplaced; but the misunderstanding seems to be Simon’s. Simon warns against the dangers of inflexible forms of organisation, deduced in an unproblematic way from theory. But this is precisely the point made by Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky in their critique of Lenin in 1904, in Organisational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy [Leninism or Marxism] and Our Political TasksLenin not only advocated bureaucracy against democracy, and centralism against local autonomy, but identified revolutionary principle with this top down approach which extended the rights and powers of the centre over the parts ignoring organisational democracy. He regarded a grass-roots approach from the rank and file up, as a form of opportunism.(2)

This organisational dogma is often justified and glossed over by use of the phrase, ‘bending the stick’. Lenin used an organisational trick of exaggeration to overemphasize the key task. But a bent stick is distorted and distortion leads to a dissociation from reality and a false tradition. Another defence of Lenin is to argue that a powerful party centre was essential for effectiveness in an autocratic regime. But the problem with this is, if it is penetrated by a state agent, (Malinovsky) all the information about the organisation is shared by the state . No organisational form is spy proof. In any case, even if bureaucratic centralism was somehow necessary, due to specific circumstances, why make a virtue of necessity? Why not stand for as much democracy and local autonomy as possible? Police repression in Russia existed in 1896, but it did not stop the decentralised mass work of the so-called economists.
Simon seems to share Luxemburg’s and Trotsky’s rejection of making a fetish of  discipline. Lenin invoked factory discipline for the Bolsheviks, conflating capitalist technology and authority with socialist collectivism and even dragging in military discipline and the soldiers mentality, as a model for the party member, literally the rank and file, in One Step Forward Two Steps back. (3) Luxemburg and Trotsky stressed arousing the spirit of rebellion against mind numbing capitalist industrial work and discipline, rather than the sterile spirit of the overseer. (4) Any discipline had meaning only in the sense of self-discipline of the individual and the class for a just cause, not in unthinking loyalty to a leadership. After the October Revolution, Lenin returned to  value factory discipline, one man management and respect for capitalist technology and the division of labour that flowed from it. Most of the factions banned by Lenin in 1921 made the same points, any organisation should be rooted in working class initiative, energy and creativity.  Instead of anchoring  the organisation in the self-activity of working class, Lenin located the party in a stable leadership team who could somehow be the custodians for the socialist future.

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