Lenin's Legacy: Dialectical Socialism
PHIJIML at ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu
PHIJIML at ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu
Mon Dec 4 17:54:05 MST 1995
I will belatedly follow up here on Louis Proyect's proposal for a
discussion of Lenin's Legacy, having noted one objection to this idea.
Such a discussion might be a continuation of the Science and Society issue
(Fall 1995) and the recent conference on that theme. The following is a
modification of remarks I made then.
In his introduction to the Lenin issue of Science and Society, David
Laibman recites an interesting story, taken from Albert Rhys Williams,
Lenin: The Man and His Work (New York: Scott and Seltzer, 1919). The time
is shortly after the revolution, late in 1917, in Petrograd:
A delegation of workingmen came to Lenin asking him if
he could decree the nationalization of their factory.
"Yes," said Lenin, picking up a blank form, "it is
a very simple thing, my part of it. All I have to do
is to take these blanks and fill in the name of your
factory in this space here, and then sign my name in
this space here, and the name of the commissar here."
The workmen were highly gratified and pronounced it
"But before I sign this blank," resumed Lenin, "I
must ask you a few questions. First, do you know where
to get the raw materials for your factory?"
Reluctantly they admitted they didn't.
"Do you understand the keeping of accounts,"
resumed Lenin, "and have you worked out a method for
keeping up production?" The workmen said they were
afraid they did not know very much about these minor
"And finally, comrades," continued Lenin, "may I
ask you whether you have found a market in which to
sell your products?' Again they answered, "No."
"Well, comrades," said the Premier, "don't you
think you are not ready to take over your factory now?
Go back home and work over these matters. You will
find it hard; you will make many blunders, but you will
learn. Then come back in a few months and we can take
up the nationalizing of your factory."
Laibman succinctly summarizes the moral of the story as follows:
"working-class capacity in general, and not working-class state power, is
central to socialism." (265)
Perhaps someone will not be terribly edified by this story.
Accustomed as we are to political double-talk, someone will say: "Wait a
minute. This is not really a story about working-class capacities but
about bureaucratic state power. If workers are not ready to run their own
factories, then the so-called workers state is there to do it for them."
Of course this interpretation is jumping the gun by about 12 years. In
1929, Stalin, on his own personal initiative, overthrew the society that
eventually came to express the moral of this story. Lenin is not saying,
if you don't know how to run your own factories, then trust us to do it
for you until you do learn this. The result being, of course, that they
will never get this chance. Bertell Ollman (see chapter 6 of part III in
his recent book, Dialectical Investigations) proposes the phrase, "Regency
of the Proletariat", to describe the dominant form of socialism in Russia.
The Communist Party is analogized to the regent, who rules while the king
is still too young, too immature, to rule himself. A clever regent will
ensure that the true king is so stupefied that he will never be capable of
But this is not a story that rationalizes the regency of the working
class state. Lenin here in fact rejects nationalization because workers
are not yet ready for it. They can't keep accounts, and they don't
understand the market. That implies that the nationalization that Lenin
had in mind was not "command state socialism", "state market socialism".
But if workers are not able to run their own factories, who, you might
ask, will run them for them? The answer for Lenin was simple. If workers
cannot do it, then for the time being it has to be done by the
capitalists. Quite consistently with this line of thought, the first
economic structure set up by Lenin, in 1918, was called "State
capitalism". In the post-revolutionary society, capitalists would have to
run important parts of the economy large-scale monopoly capitalists, in
fact, who were needed to bring some order into a country that teamed with
small-scale petty-profiteering and tax evasion.
This point is made explicitly by Moshe Lewin in his recent book,
Russia/USSR/Russia, according to James Weinstein's review in the current
In These Times (December 10, 1995), noting the chapter title, "Russian
socialists firmly believed in capitalism." According to Weinstein, "In
[Lewin's] introductory chapter, he states flatly that from day one
`socialism had no chance' in Russia because `the conditions were not ripe
for it.' Lenin and the other Russian revolutionary leaders understood
this, Lewin explains, because their initial ideology was `German-made.' To
them, as to Marx, this meant that capitalism prepared the ground for
But doesn't that mean a continuation of capitalist profiteering? One
can hear the indignant outcries from socialists who, despite this Marxist
idea, fear that the revolution was being betrayed. Look on this as a
learning experience, Lenin replies. Look on capitalist profits as a form
of tuition that workers have to pay in order to learn from them how to run
their own society.
This message speaks loud and clear to readers of State and
Revolution, at least if they read this book carefully. For workers to
gain democratic control over their lives they must be capable of
exercizing accounting and control. They must develop their own
capacities. Capitalism prepares the way for this by simplifying
accounting methods and by promoting the development of workers'
capacities. At the same time, capitalist development frustrates the
exercize of those capacities. And so capitalism itself prepares the way
for a higher, more authentically democratic society. Here is the essence
of the dialectical conception of socialism: Socialism arises out of
capitalism. Without capitalism there could be no socialism. And when
socialism does arise it does so with "birthmarks" of its capitalist
parent. It is necessary to think in terms of transition between
capitalism and (developed) communism, even different forms of
transition: a period of competition between capitalist and
non-capitalist/socialist enterprises; a period in which socialist
enterprises predominate, but which still involves market production
(excepting the exchange of labor).
This dialectical outlook differs fundamentally from another approach
to revolution, typified by the Russian revolutionary, Mikhail Bakunin.
"Let my friends build," Bakunin wrote, "I want only to destroy, for I am
convinced that using rotting materials to build on carrion is wasted
labour, and that new living materials, together with new organisms, can
only appear out of grand destruction." (Pirumova, Russia and the West;
19th Century. Moscow: Progress Publishers. 1990, 95.) The Russian
context produced a movement of revolutionaries that called themselves
Nihilists. This trend embodied a purely negative attitude toward the
capitalist invasion of Russia. Lenin's dialectical socialism was
constantly at odds with the spirit of nihilistic socialism both outside
and inside the Bolshevik party.
State and Revolution, written just a few months before the Russian
revolution, is often read as a blueprint for the post-revolutionary
society. But the story cited by Laibman suggests a different
interpretation. Lenin sent the workers home and told them to come back in
a few months after they had done their homework. The socialist democracy
described in State and Revolution was not intended as a projection for the
*near future* in Russia. "[T]he conditions that enable really `all' to
take part in the administration of the state" are present, Lenin wrote,
"in a number of the most advanced capitalist countries" (State and
Revolution. From Selected Works. Vol. 2. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
360). Of course any contemporary would know that such a classification
leaves Russia out of the picture, quite far out of it in fact. And if the
workers might still need a few months, at the least, what about the vast
majority of the population, the millions of illiterate peasants? They too
must be educated if "all" are to really take part in the running of the
But Lenin did not follow the Mensheviks -- as Lewin, or the reviewer,
seems to suggest -- who thought so highly of capitalism that they believed
it was necessary to create a fully developed capitalist society first, and
only later to create a socialist society. The Mensheviks were not
nihilistic socialists, but neither were they dialectical in their
thinking. For them it was either socialism or capitalism. And if not
socialism, as Lenin's story itself suggests, then they concluded that it
must be capitalism. But Lenin's idea was not like this. Thanks to the
workers' state power, It was possible to learn from capitalism and use
capitalism, but not be subject to capitalism.
The state capitalist project was never realized. Paradoxically, it
was partly thanks to the intervention of the Western capitalist states
that capitalism was abolished in Russia. The destruction of capitalism
was not the original intention of Lenin's Bolshevik government, which was
ready not only to tolerate big capitalist firms but even to promote their
expansion in the post-revolutionary years. The polarization brought about
by the Civil War, both nationally and internationally, ruined the
prospects for the emergence of a capitalist tutorial system in Russia.
As this possibility dwindled, Soviet Russia veered in the direction
of nihilistic socialism with the installation of War Communism. The state
nationalized industry, without asking the workers whether they were ready
to run their own factories. Clearly *some* people thought *they* could do
this nicely. And where would they find a market for their goods, Lenin
ought to have asked? That problem was readily settled by abolishing the
Lenin soon saw that War Communism was a disaster. In fact it
confirmed the truth of what he argued in State and Revolution. As a
result of this attempt by the Soviet state to go "straight to communism",
he wrote, it "suffered an economic defeat by the spring of 1921 more
serious than any defeat" at the hands of its Civil War opponents (Alan M.
Ball. Russia's Last Capitalists: The Nepmen, 1921-29. Berkeley: The
University of California Press, 1987, 10).
The nihilistic socialism of war communism was a failure. It had
permitted the rapid resurgence of the age-old Russian bureaucratic state,
as well as alienating the peasantry and bringing hunger to the cities.
With the establishment of the New Economic Policy in 1921, Lenin returned
to the spirit of dialectical socialism. I have recently argued here that
this period was not always understood by Lenin to be a "retreat", but he
eventually came to see it as a permanent way forward. Focusing on a
tendency of peasants to form marketing cooperatives, Lenin wrote in 1923
that it was possible "to build a complete socialist society out of
co-operatives, out of co-operatives alone, which we formerly ridiculed as
huckstering..." (Lenin, Vol. III, 1971, 761.)
A quite distinctive form of market socialism was initiated in Russia
that was to endure until its overthrow by Stalin in 1929. This Leninist
socialist society was a complicated learning experience for the Russian
workers and the Russian peasantry, as well as a creative period for the
arts and philosophy. The Russian state, rooted in centuries of Tsarism,
which had leaped forward during War Communism, was for a time restrained,
while the people, workers and peasants, had real opportunities to learn
how to take control over the basic conditions of their own lives.
Critics of Lenin focus especially on weaknesses in the political
system of Russian socialism, as though political structures are
independent of economic realities. The resurgence of the traditional
Russian bureaucratic state was natural product of age-old Russian
socio-economic conditions of a society of peasants that lacked the
practical, socio-economic interconnections that would allow them to be a
self-determining class "for-themselves". According to the dialectic of
external mediation, a society made up largely of internally disconnected
producers gravitates toward the state or the god-like ruler, as the means
Lewin argues that this feature of Russian society was aggravated by
the Civil War. According to Weinstein, "The suffering of the peasants
during the civil war, Lewin tells us, entailed a social retreat throughout
the vast reaches of rural Russia. And even though the peasantry survived
the war in better shape than did the more modern sectors of the country,
the war pushed the countryside backward into its age-old shell,
characteristic of much more primitive times... The sketchy beginnings of a
capitalist market economy now broke down entirely, and the peasants
transformed themselves into `a family-oriented ocean of microfundia --
institutions that calculated `mouths to feed,' rather than productivity
and market opportunities." The Asiatic bureaucratic state under a
god-like ruler had always been the natural political reflex of this
By the end of the Civil War, Georg Lukacs has argued, "economic
factors that stemmed from the underdevelopment of the Russian Empire
worked in a subterranean fashion to undermine the achievements of the
Soviets.... Lenin recognized this dangerous course when he abruptly
changed directions, repudiated `war communism' both theoretically and
practically and introduced NEP" (Lukacs, The Process of Democratization.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, 101, 127.)
Lenin countered the renewal of the despotic bureaucratic state by
liberating economic life from state management, by giving the majority of
the population real possibilities for controlling basic conditions of
life. The historical legacy of Lenin is represented by the fact that
during the 1920s a unique form of socialism existed and to a certain
extent thrived in Russia.
No doubt it is important to examine the problems that emerged in the
course of its development after Lenin's death. What I wish to focus on
here is the idea that there was a distinctive Leninist period of socialism
that was fundamentally different from the ensuing Stalinist period.
Stalinist state socialism was not the logical outcome of NEP but its
People who try to equate Lenin and Stalin do so by pointing out that
they both governed one-party states, distinguished only by degree of
brutality. Lenin recognized the weakness of the Soviet state, but
believed that it could be improved in the course of time: "Our machinery
of government may be faulty, but it is said that the first steam engine
that was invented was also faulty." (March 27, 1922, cited by Charles
Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR, Vol.1, 447.) There was a profound
difference of essence in the type of society that was being promoted by
that state, and hence the type of state that was being created. The
Leninist state was a self-limiting state, the opponent of the traditional
Tsarist state and the recuperation of Tsarist traditions under the regime
of nihilistic socialism. The Leninist state fostered those conditions
outlined in State and Revolution, according to which workers, including
the vast majority of working peasantry, would develop their own capacities
so as to be able to govern their lives themselves.
So there was no fundamental contradiction between the democratic
ideas of State and Revolution, and the ensuing period of socialism from
1921 to 1929.
SUNY at Buffalo
phijiml at ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu
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