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One Hundred Years of Communism

A look at Leninism

In the midst of the global carnage now known as World War I, the Polish-Jewish-German Marxist thinker Rosa Luxemburg wrote that the world faced the choice between “Socialism or Barbarism.” The Russian Marxist thinker Vladimir Ilich Ulianov, known as Lenin, and his fellow Bolsheviks, nevertheless demonstrated with the price of millions of victims that it was possible to merge, in a genocidal experiment, Socialism and Barbarism. It was rather Raymond Aron who was, as Allan Bloom wrote shortly after the French political thinker’s death in 1983, “the man who for fifty years . . . had been right about the political alternatives actually available to us. . . . [H]e was right about Hitler, right about Stalin, and right that our Western regimes, with all their flaws, are the best and only hope of mankind.” Exalting, like philosopher Alain Badiou and his disciples (including late-age Slovenian enfant terrible Slavoj Žižek), “the Leninist hypothesis” and the Bolshevik revolution as reference points for a rejuvenated Left, is both cynical and absurd. It is morally despicable. How many times do we need to repeat what Bolshevism meant for Russia and to the other “Soviet Republics” (as Boris Souvarine noticed, they were neither Soviet, nor Republics)? Borrowing the title of a famous book by the great historian Norman Cohn about the poisonous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the Leninist hypothesis was a warrant for genocide.

On November 7, 1917 (October 25, old style), the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government, took over power, and established their totalitarian rule (the first one-party system ever). Lenin called it “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Rule of law and traditional morality were discarded as “bourgeois hypocrisy.” Political competition between parties and free and fair elections, the vital conditions for a modern democracy, were for Lenin and his comrades “parliamentary cretinism.” Soon thereafter, it was clear that the new regime exerted a ruthless dictatorship over the proletariat. Earlier that year, however (in February), the czarist regime had been overthrown by Russia’s democratic forces. So, there were actually two 1917 Russian revolutions: the liberal one, first, and the Bolshevik (totalitarian) one, in October. The first one guaranteed political rights and private property. The second crushed both. Once in power, the Bolsheviks abolished civil liberties, persecuted real and imaginary opponents, disbanded the Constituent Assembly, and banned all political parties with the short-lived exception of their allies, the left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries. The October putsch, planned primarily by Lenin and Trotsky, resulted in the suppression of the freedoms conquered via the February Revolution. Lenin’s slogan “All power to the councils (soviets)!” meant, in fact, all power to his party. Or rather, all power to the tiny group that claimed to speak in the name of the party, of the working class, of the people. Bolshevism meant the demise of the legal and the moral person. It represented what Polish poet Alexander Wat named a continuous aggression against the inner man.

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In November 1957, in Moscow, Mao Zedong solemnly spelled out his belief that Leninism would prevail globally — no matter what the risks, including a thermonuclear war. World War I, he claimed, gave birth to the first socialist state. WWII begot the world socialist system headed by the USSR and China. WWIII, if provoked by the “imperialists,” may lead to over 100 million dead, but the planet would be entirely red. Khrushchev was dumbfounded, and so were other communists aders, including Palmiro Togliatti, the head of the Italian Communist Party. Was Mao mentally sane? In fact, one might argue, he was merely following the logic of the Stalinist, i.e. Bolshevik, worldview. For him, “peaceful coexistence” meant treason, and Khrushchev was the arch-traitor. As for Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, Mao kept attacking him as a dangerous “revisionist.” Between “dogmatism” (a code word for Stalinism) and “revisionism,” Mao and his supporters had no doubt: any attempt to overhaul the sacred Marxist tenets was the main enemy and needed to be annihilated.

Thirty years ago, on November 2, 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev embraced Marxist revisionism, rehabilitated Nikolai Bukharin (executed in March 1938), and officially condemned Stalin’s “enormous and unforgivable crimes.” Given the circumstances (he was facing adamant opposition from the orthodox Leninists grouped around Yegor Ligachev and from the unreconstructed East European Stalinist magnates), this was a fair and courageous statement. It revealed the general secretary’s growing disappointment with the Leninist ideology and political system (partocratic ideocracy, to use the late historian Martin Malia’s concept). It is worth remembering these facts, especially now, when Putin has institutionalized oblivion and urges Russians not to dwell upon the communist catastrophe and its consequences.

Such acts of conscience were, however, fundamentally antithetical to and actively opposed by the Bolshevik regime, revealing the dangers of revitalizing that movement as the basis of the Left. Consider the case of Isaac Nachman Steinberg. An orthodox Jew, a lawyer, and a socialist politician, Steinberg’s political views were essentially anarchist, although he saw himself as a Left Eser (Socialist Revolutionary) or Left Narodnik. Russian Left Esers proposed a radically decentralized federation of worker syndicates, councils and cooperatives whose delegates are chosen by direct democracy and could be revoked at any moment. He served as People’s Commisar of Justice in Lenin’s first cabinet. When he realized the horrifying magnitude of terror, he directly confronted Lenin by saying he thought that he was the head of the People’s Commissariat for Justice, not for Social Exterminations. Lenin responded acerbically that this was precisely its mission, but one couldn’t say so publicly. Steinberg was arrested in February 1919; he died in New York after escaping Lenin’s police state. So much for Soviet justice.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books including The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, University of California Press, 2013.

Vladimir Tismaneanu

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