The Trouble with Leninism

by Mark Evans, Alex Doherty

Leninism continues to be an influential tendency within the radical left. Mark Evans of the Project for a Participatory Society outlines a critique of Leninism and proposes an alternative approach to achieving revolutionary change.

First published: 03 August, 2011 | Category: Activism, Vision/Strategy

Mark Evans is a founding member of Project for a Participatory Society UK, the UK chapter of the International Organisation for a Participatory Society, a growing movement of people committed to developing vision and strategy devoted to winning a new society based on participation, solidarity, equity, diversity and self-management.

Here he discusses his critique of Leninism with NLP’s Alex Doherty and outlines elements of an alternative approach for the radical left. We will publish a reply from a British Leninist in the coming days.

Leninism continues to be an influential strand of political thought on the radical left in the UK. You have been highly critical of this ideology, but before we get into your views on Leninism could you first outline for us what Leninism is exactly. What are its key concepts and features?

Before getting into the specifics of Leninism it might be worth me highlighting some more general criticism of Marxism that will hopefully help readers better understand my position which is rooted in, and informed by, participatory vision and strategy.

A key aspect of Marxism is the philosophical position of historical materialism which places particular emphasis on economic activity as a driving force for social dynamics and explanation for historical continuity and change.  To my mind this is not only an inaccurate picture of reality but also one that actively undermines solidarity between the various constituents that make up the left.  By prioritising class exploitation and oppression within the economic sphere over other forms of oppression in other social spheres - such as sexism and racism - historical materialism establishes an organisational framework that generates unnecessary and destructive tensions within the movement. 

But in addition to unfairly and unwisely elevating classism above other non-economic forms of oppression I would also argue that Marxists get economics seriously wrong and in ways that actively alienate the working class from the anti-capitalist movement.  I will talk more about this later (see my answer to question 3). 

As for Leninism, central to this doctrine is the conviction that, for a revolution to be successful, we need a revolutionary party.  This strategic conviction emerges out of a number of interrelated insights regarding the reality of capitalism and the nature of the class system.  These include -

>    The rejection of reformism
>    The uneven development of class consciousness within the working class

Leninists argue that capitalists will never allow their power to be eroded by a reformist party in power.  It therefore follows, according to Leninists, that it is necessary to organise for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. 
Leninists also argue that mass spontaneous revolt against capitalism is inadequate to win a revolution.  Hence, for Leninists, what is needed is for the most advanced and best organised revolutionaries (the vanguard) to lead the mass revolt to successful revolution. 

Finally, to defend the revolution against counter-revolutionary forces, the vanguard party must be organised along democratic centralists lines. 

This seems to capture the essence of Leninism - as I understand it. 

Lenin is a rather divisive figure on the left - for those in the Leninist/Trostkyist tradition he is a hero, a leader of the first workers revolution, and a man whose legacy was effectively destroyed by Stalin. On the other hand anarchists and some Marxists have argued that Lenin created the institutional architecture that made it all too easy for a Stalin to arise. How do you see the historical Lenin?

Well, first I don’t think that there is any doubt that Lenin was a serious and committed revolutionary.  That, I think, is beyond question.  What I do think is questionable is the nature of the revolution that Lenin had in mind.  Here, it seems to me, there are two quite different Lenins.
 
For example, we find the Lenin who said “all power to the soviets” and the Lenin who said “”Large scale machine industry which is the central productive source and foundation of socialism calls for absolute and strict unity of will ... How can strict unity of will be ensured?  By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.” 

Supporters of Lenin - like Tony Cliff and his followers - tend to argue that these quotes need to be considered in their historical context and that it was events like the civil war that forced the Bolshevik leadership to resort to authoritarian measures.  However, this argument is undermined by Lenin’s right-hand man, Trotsky, when he stated -
“I consider that if the Civil War had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one-man-management much sooner and much less painfully.” 

That said, I’m sure that (like Lenin) Trotsky also said some very nice things about workers control etc. 
So we have a situation where Lenin (and Trotsky) was saying very different, and often contradictory, things at different times - some libertarian and others authoritarian in tone.  How do we work out which to take seriously?  Did Leninism lead to Stalinism? 
Whilst this is an interesting question, for me as an organiser, it is kind of irrelevant.  Rather than focusing on individuals, like Lenin, what is much more important is to undertake an institutional analysis of the revolutionary organisation advocated by Lenin and implemented by the Bolshevik Party. 

One of the key features of Leninist parties is the organising principle of democratic centralism. What is democratic centralism? Why do you oppose it?
 
As I said as part of my answer to question one I think Marxism gets economics seriously wrong and in a way that alienates the working class from the anti-capitalist movement.  To understand why I think this requires an understanding of the possible sources of class division.
 
Typically Marxists see capitalism as a two class system.  There is the capitalist class and there is the working class.  The distinction between the two class emerges as a result of their different relationships to property ownership.  Basically the capitalists own the economy whilst the workers rent themselves out - a situation that inevitably generates different and opposing class interests.  

Whilst I agree with this I also think that there is at least one other source of class division within capitalist economics that Marxists tend to be blind to.  This additional sources of class conflict emerges out of the division of labour which under capitalism is elitist in nature.  The hierarchical division of labour results from the uneven allocation of tasks that go to make-up jobs.  This unevenness generates the hierarchy and allows for a minority to monopolise the empowering tasks within the economy and with it create a class of professional managers - sometimes referred to as the coordinator class. 

So for advocates of participatory economics (parecon) like myself capitalism is a three class economic system resulting from both property / ownership relations and the elitist division of labour / monopoly of empowering tasks.  Therefore as an organiser for a classless economic system it is necessary for me to not only be anti-capitalist but also anti-coordinator class. 

But what does this have to do with democratic centralism? 

Democratic centralism is a specific way to structure and run an organisation.  The democratic aspect has to do with the feature that all members are free to debate and have a say in decisions.  The centralism aspect refers to the outcome of elections after which all members are expected to uphold the majority position to ensure unity of action. 
(Before moving on to my main point I think it is probably worth stopping here and considering what kind of society is likely to result from a revolutionary organisation run along such lines.  If revolutionary organisations are to be considered seeds of the future society - as I think they should - then to my mind it seems almost inevitable that Leninism will lead to some form of mono-cultural totalitarianism with little, if any, consideration for minority opinion and rights.) 

However, another often overlooked feature of Leninist organisations is the hierarchical division of labour which is maintain within democratic centralism.  By maintaining an elitist division of labour Leninist organisations elevate the coordinator class to positions of dominance and, in so doing, generate a strong internal dynamic towards elitist centralisation and away from participatory democracy.  It is, I would argue, as a result of this internal dynamic and class dominance that much of the working class become alienated from the anti-capitalist movement. 
You see for me one aspect of the revolution for a classless economy will need to be a transition from an elitist division of labour to an egalitarian division of labour (what parecon advocates call balanced job complexes) and yet, to my knowledge, Leninists say nothing about this. 

From this analysis I think we can conclude that the debate, over what would have happened if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin instead of Stalin, is irrelevant and something of a distraction.  What is much more important, it seems to me, is that we develop coordinator class consciousness within the anti-capitalist movement. 

Leninist parties (the Socialist Workers Party being the most obvious example) have clearly made very important contributions to left struggles in the UK over the course of several decades - how do you view the role of SWP and other parties such as The Socialist Party (formerly the Militant tendency)?

I have mixed feelings. 

On the one hand Leninist parties clearly make a valuable contribution to left organising in the UK.  For example they have played an important role in helping organise and mobilise the general public in opposition to government policy relating to both domestic and foreign affairs.  Obvious examples include the massive anti-war march of 2003 and the anti-cuts demonstration earlier this year. 

On the other hand I do think that their contribution is significantly limited by the inherent problems of Marxism / Leninism highlighted above.  But more to the point I also feel that these problems actually hold our efforts back from developing into a popular and participatory movement and so in that sense are very damaging. 

From this point of view Marxists / Leninists are in an impossible position.  To help build the much needed mass movement would require that we transcend historical materialism with a superior theory and replace democratic centralism with a form of organisation that facilitates meaningful and fair participation by its membership.  But to do this would mean abandoning key aspects of Marxism / Leninism which in the end, it seems to me, would make any continued association with or identification to the ideology meaningless. 

The only real solution, I think, is to establish a new international revolutionary organisation that addresses these problems and with it escapes the limitations of Marxism / Leninism. 

Why do you think that it is so important for the left to outline visions of the kind of society it would like to see?

If we want to build a popular revolutionary movement we need to recruit.  To recruit we need to overcome a major obstacle - the uneven development of consciousness within the general public.  How might we do this?

As we have already seen one way is for revolutionaries to organise themselves into a vanguard party and then to agitate the general public towards revolution.  During a revolutionary situation (think general strike) the vanguard party captures state power and takes on a leading role to ensure that the revolution is successful in destroying capitalism.  This, of course, is the Leninist approach to overcoming uneven consciousness within the working class.

Now this problem of uneven consciousness can not be ignored - so hats-off to Leninists for at least attempting an answer, as most revolutionaries simply fail to do so as far as I can tell.  But as I have tried to show above the Leninist approach to revolution does not lead us to classlessness.  On the contrary, if the working class bring down capitalism but have no idea of how to run the economy along classless lines then the vanguard will establish what has traditionally been call socialism but what advocates of parecon think is more accurately described as coordinatorism - an economic system controlled by a class of professional managers.  The important point here is that, without vision for a classless economy, the working class can find themselves doing the dirty work for the coordinator class who may well be anti-capitalist whilst at the same time having no intentions of loosing their position of privilege within the economy. 

An alternative approach to the problem of uneven consciousness, that avoids the authoritarian vanguardist tendencies of Leninism, is the development and popularisation of alternative social systems that institutionalise left values.  This allows us to adopt what we might think of as a libertarian vanguardist approach to organising which, I would ague, has a number of advantages.

One advantage of developing vision is that it arms the left with a serious reply to the right-wing claim “there is no alternative”.  Presenting well thought-out alternative models of how society could function is a great way to challenge such dogma and, in-so-doing, free people from the ideological control that can result from it. 

Another important advantage is that it allows the revolutionary movement to draw on its long-term objectives to inform its short term goals and organisational form.  The revolutionary movement should, in my opinion, be the future society in embryonic form.  But, for common sense reasons, this can only be realised if the movement knows what their desired future society looks like - its basic institutions and primary functions. 

Utilising vision to inform short-term goals also has a number of important attributes.  For example, by drawing on our vision to inform our initial demands we ensure that any reforms that we win move us in the right direction.  This helps to create and maintain an important continuity between our long term objectives and our day-to-day organising.  Vision orientated organising will also tend to generate a much more constructive attitude to activism.  Rather than focusing on the negative / anti of revolution a focus on vision generates a positive / pro character to organising. 

My feeling and hope is that all of these benefits to vision orientated organising will help address the unevenness in consciousness whilst generating support for a growing pro-participatory movement. 
 
The anti-cuts movement has naturally spawned a variety of organisational forms since its inception and there is plenty of debate about how best to organise the resistance. What is your assessment of these debates and how to move forward from here?

What is important to understand here, in my opinion, is the significance of the public services.  To my mind there are two aspects to this.

On the one hand the public services represent an alternative to corporate led globalisation.  This means that they have to be destroyed because they undermine the validity of Thatcher’s TINA doctrine - There Is No Alternative.  For the corporate led globalisation project to succeed all existing alternatives must be crushed and the idea of running the economy for the people (and not for profit) be wiped from our minds. If people can see an alternative - and one that they can influence to some extent via the democratic process - then this might generate some opposition to corporate globalisation. 

That is one important aspect of the public services.  Another important aspect is the potential for the public services to be run by the general public for the common good.  This potential is, in my opinion, the real threat that the public services represent to elites.  The egalitarian idea that the public services could be democratically run by the people for the people could quite easily take-hold within this context.  In fact, to my mind, the public services are the natural place for a participatory economy to emerge.  Destroy the public services and this threat is removed. 

So when we are assessing how well the anti-cuts movement is doing we might want to keep these two aspect in mind. 

With regards to the first aspect I feel that we have made a promising start.  The March 26th National demonstration, called by the TUC, was well attended and helped to expose the Lib-Con myth that the cuts are an economic necessary as opposed to a political decision.  The impression I am getting is that there is a lot of organising now taking place within the union movement, as well as within newly formed anti-cuts community groups, to build on this success and to organise a powerful movement to stop the attacks on public services and bring down the Lib-Con government. 

But it could be argued that the best way to defend public services would be to push for greater democratic control over them by workers and consumers.  This approach links the two aspects - not only would we be defending public services against the attacks but also be pushing to make them stronger and less vulnerable to future attacks.  This is my favoured approach.  But to my knowledge there is not much, or at least not enough of this taking place within the anti-cuts movement.  So with regards to the second aspect highlighted above I’m not sure that we are doing so well.

But it is still early days and I suspect that things will get very interesting in the coming months. 

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