Monday, August 27, 2007

Lenin: a political moderate and humanitarian


Lenin's Tomb, eh? It's like the trains: you're waiting for one post, and then three or four come along at once. (No, you certainly shouldn't interpret that as me saying that this blog is a train-wreck). I simply wanted to adumbrate a case, the basis for a future pamphlet, perhaps, or even a novella. A week or so ago, I was sandbagged on the MediaLens site by a bunch of anti-Leninists, some liberal and some anarchist. This is all very much par for the course, and I appreciate that my insistence that Lenin was a democrat and the Bolshevik Party a model of thriving conversational openness was bound to be provocative. And I'd be the first to admit that Lenin's often brutal language during the Civil War, imbibed very much from his era I think, is chilling. The 'Hanging Order', in which a number of bloodsucking capitalists were to be hung in public as part of a terrorist campaign against the White Army and the Entente forces, is not what one would typically understand as the language or action of a political moderate - but that merely goes to show how loaded the terms of moderation and extremism actually are.

I don't pretend that I can settle the argument over whether it is ever appropriate to use terror to increase the human cost of an oppressive and iniquitous system or movement. It is a problem that has come up in almost every revolt in human history: the slave revolts, the French revolution; the anti-apartheid movement; and almost every anti-colonial struggle. It is an abiding issue in the struggle for Palestinian liberation. However, I will tentatively make a few suggestions. In the first instance, one has to reckon with the human cost of not using such methods, as well as the human cost of using them. This isn't the case for a crude utilitarianism, but it does suggest that the argument is a lot less simple than the violent prohibition of liberal moralism, or pacifism, would permit. The fact that the Bolsheviks won the civil war by the skin of their teeth - against an ememy that would undoubtedly have not only crushed the democratic achievements of the revolution, but also set a record for Hitler to break in terms of Jew-killing - at least suggests that to dispense with the tactic would have invited defeat and a potential humanitarian catastrophe. To adopt a more pacific posture when one is under sustained and vicious attack not only domestically from the most horrendous reactionary thugs, but also internationally from the club of rich men who have recently sunk Europe into one of its most depraved episodes in history, is arguably a form of fanaticism and utopianism that defies logic. Lenin is frequently upbraided for utopianism, yet if anything defines the Bolsheviks in opposition and in power, it is their pragmatism, their awareness of the necessary compromises to achive their goals. And those goals themselves were very precise and Lenin was one of the most creative in formulating direct, material means of achieving them (see this lively little warning shot, for example). The Bolshevik role in the revolution wasn't a coup, as it is usually interpreted, but it was at the minimum a form of humanitarian intervention. Having fought alongside Russian workers to win their humane goals in the real world, not in Utopia, the Bolsheviks then sought to defend them in the real world. Aware of the threat that the bureaucracy itself posed and the parlous condition of soviet power after the civil war, Lenin opposed the abolition of trade unions as a power separate from the soviets. Having gauged the threat of Stalin's obsessive bureaucratism, his petty tyrannical tendencies, and his Greater Russian chauvanism, Lenin tried to stop the slow-moving coup.

What is striking about the reflexive anti-Leninist posture of so many is how apolitical it is. Take a few of Chomsky's usual raps, for example. Here's him in 'The Soviet Union Versus Socialism':

"Soon Lenin was to decree that the leadership must assume "dictatorial powers" over the workers, who must accept "unquestioning submission to a single will" and "in the interests of socialism," must "unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process."


This is taken from Lenin's 'The Immediate Tasks of the Proletarian Government', and the full quote is as follows:

"We must learn to combine the 'public meeting' democracy of the working people—turbulent, surging, overflowing its banks like a spring flood—with iron discipline while at work, with unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader, while at work."


Iron discipline at work because of the economic crisis the country was in as a result of the war and the decimation of the country's industrial working class, but with "turbulent, surging, overflowing" democracy! Here's Chomsky again:

Lenin explained that subordination of the worker to "individual authority" is "the system which more than any other assures the best utilization of human resources".


This is taken directly from Maurice Brinton, who took it from Lenin's partially transcribed speech to the Third All Russian Congress of Economic Councils in 1920. This pre-NEP speech advocated the rapid requisitioning of grain to be distributed to workers at fixed prices rather than those obtainable on the market, which would be sky-high. It also advocated the more widespread use of one-man management to the same end. The quote is as follows, and I add in square brackets the part ommitted by Brinton:

"The transition to practical work involves individual management, for that system best ensures the most effective utilisation of human abilities, [and a real, not verbal, verification of work done]."


What is the significance of the ommitted passage? Only that production levels were catastrophically low, the working class had been drastically reduced in numbers by the ongoing civil war, and labour discipline was in a terrible state. This was something that Lenin was kind enough to include in his speech, in fact. Not only are the quotes lazily distorted, the political context is entirely removed: it is a moralistic fable, in which the bad men with their bad Hegelian ideology do wicked things and blacken the name of socialism. Curiously, Chomsky has recognised that the circumstance of war necessitates a certain amount of authoritarianism, and cites America during the Second World War as his example. Well, say what you will for Pearl Harbour, but the United States was not being invaded by an international coalition during WWII and was not in a situation of near social collapse as a result of years of reactionary war.

It isn't reasonable to continue to pretend otherwise: Lenin was a political moderate and humanitarian. I'm not recommending that you kiss his cold dead arse for that fact, but I simply think that if the terms mean anything, then they apply especially to Lenin.