“Bloodstained, One Hundred Years of Lenninist Counterrevolution” is a newly released book by AK Press compiling together both current and historical critical writings on the Russian Revolution which “forces us to reckon with the past [and] demands we think more carefully about freedom [and] social change.” You can purchase your copy along with many other recommended titles here. This posting is part of our series of articles and social media postings relating to the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution #RussianRev100Years.
History may not have ended, but it certainly has gotten strange. The social contract neoliberalism once imposed—a patchwork of economic shell games and the political rituals needed to foist them on people—has shredded with surprising speed in recent years. The result has been a rapid universalization of precarity. Unpredictability and groundlessness are ubiquitous parts of our lives, which unfold in a supposedly “post-truth” world where the basic prerequisites for understanding almost anything seem lacking—or at least seem to change with each news cycle.
This new reality was both cause and effect of Donald Trump’s election as forty-fifth president of the United States. His campaign successfully harnessed the fear and desperation of our social unraveling, and he rose to power with promises to end it. He would, he said, stop the erosion of our dwindling sense of security and restore the certainty of clear borders (national and racial) and steady jobs. The trains would run on time.
Trump’s success-from-the-fringe took US liberals by surprise. Anything other than the staid electoral ping-pong between managerial representatives of this or that political party had been unthinkable to them. Further along the left spectrum, there was surprise among many radicals, but perhaps less shock: they at least had the theoretical arsenal with which to explain the situation— after the fact.
The left is no less subject to historical uncertainty, nor really any more prepared to meet it or predict what’s next. Lately, many radicals have been engaged in the same grasping at straws that motivated Trump voters. When the way forward is unclear, they seem to think, it’s safest to go backward, into the past. They search for answers in the tried and true—even when that truth is one of massive historical failure. Thus we’ve seen a return to social democratic strategies, first with the tepid “socialism” of Bernie Sanders, more recently with the resuscitation of the Democratic Socialists of America. Voters in Europe figured out long ago the pointlessness of electing so-called socialists to over see a capitalist economy. The US, as usual, has failed to learn from others’ mistakes.
The hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the occasion for this book, has put an even more bizarre spin on these developments. Many see the centennial as an opportunity to rehabilitate, even celebrate, outdated forms of authoritarian state socialism. It’s a tricky celebration, though, one that must either carefully ignore the human devastation that the Bolsheviks set in motion in 1917 or push it past an imaginary border beyond which, the story goes, communist possibility was hijacked by evil men, and marched off to a land of gulags and forced collectivization. Judging from their lists of recent and forthcoming titles, leftist publishers around the world will repeat these elisions and fairy tales in scores of books that praise Lenin, reframe the Bolsheviks, and attempt to rescue the Marxist jewel buried beneath a mountain of corpses.
If it was just the old guard and zealous party officials spinning these fictions, this book would be unnecessary. Their influence has steadily declined and they will eventually all die off. In these strange, unsettled times, though, a number of young people have become enamored with the ghosts of dictatorships past, sharing “Hot Young Joseph Stalin” memes on social media and sporting hammer-and-sickle baseball caps and jeweled necklaces. There’s often an ironic edge to the new Bolshevik bling, like the punks of a previous generation wearing Nazi symbols. But the punks at least had a raw nihilistic honesty: they were referencing the horror behind their regalia to make a point. Today’s new, young communists are either much more oblivious to the history behind their gestures or are slyly hedging their bets by pretending there’s no substance to their style, and thus no accountability. All this suggests a more pressing need for this book.
“Of all the revolts of the working class,” writes Cornelius Castoriadas, “the Russian Revolution was the only victorious one. And of all the working class’s failures it was the most thoroughgoing and the most revealing.” We might quibble about the word “only,” but Castoriadas’s point remains: there is something important to learn from the possibilities that the Russian Revolution both opened and demolished. The catastrophe in Russia obliges us, he says, to reflect “not only on the conditions for a proletarian victory, but also on the content and possible fate of such a victory, on its consolidation and development” and, most importantly, on the “seeds of failure” inherent in certain approaches to revolutionary strategy. According to Marxist-Leninists, when it comes to the Russian Revolution, those seeds were entirely external and “objective”: the defeat of subsequent revolutions in Europe, foreign intervention, and a bloody civil war. The historical importance of these factors is incontestable, and largely besides the point. The real question, as Castoriadas notes, is “why the Revolution overcame its external enemies only to collapse from within.”
To answer that, we need what Maurice Brinton calls, in his preface to Ida Mett’s history of the Kronstadt commune, a new, genuinely socialist history. “What passes as socialist history,” according to Brinton, “is often only a mirror image of bourgeois historiography, a percolation into the ranks of the working class movement of typically bourgeois methods of thinking.” State-socialist hagiography, in all its Leninist, Trotskyist, Maoist, and Stalinist varieties, is simply a thinly veiled “great man” vision of the past, with kings and queens and presidents replaced by revolutionary “leaders of genius,” brilliant strategists who supposedly led the masses to victory—or who would have if “objective factors” hadn’t intervened, which, strangely, they always seem to do.
This anthology is an attempt to contribute to that new history. It is, again following Brinton, a history of the masses themselves, written, as far as possible, from their perspective, not from that of their self-declared representatives. We’ve collected works spanning the last century, from 1922 to 2017, that serve two purposes.
The first is to uncover the living revolution beneath the myths that the Bolsheviks and their state-socialist heirs have piled up to legitimize their otherwise indefensible actions. The living revolution is the potential inherent in any mobilized populace. It is made, not decreed, bestowed, or legislated into existence. And it is a powerful force. The initial stage of the Russian Revolution, stretching from February through October, was famous for its lack of blood shed. When the masses rise up as one, there is no power that can oppose them. They create new revolutionary forms, agreed-upon practices that may or may not take institutional form. These practices, which cohered in Russia into the soviets, factory committees, and cooperatives, are the embryonic structures through which a new society might be organized.
A socialist or anarchist history must also seek to locate the seeds of failure in any revolution. These also belong to the masses. The blame for the “degeneration” of the Russian Revolution can be, and has been, spread liberally. However, making simple boogeymen of the Revolution’s betrayers—Stalin being the most familiar, especially for Leninists and Trotskyists seeking their own absolution—avoids the fact that the masses could be betrayed in the first place. They fell for pretty lies and stirring speeches. They failed to resist at crucial moments or, when they did resist, they didn’t go far enough. They surrendered, inch by inch, the power that they had taken, and they let their enemies build a very different sort of power over them. There is a reason why Lenin could say that the October coup was “easier than lifting a feather”: the way had already been cleared and the state already smashed. There was nothing to lift. The masses had made the revolution and the Bolsheviks had only to step over the rubble and into the oppressors’ abandoned palaces. The fact that they could do so is a warning and a lesson that the authors in this collection drive home in countless ways.
The forms of genuine revolution and the ways they were violently dismantled by Lenin and his comrades are the main themes of this book. If there is a slight emphasis on the latter it is because the anarchists, council communists, and anti-state Marxists in the pages ahead a) have an implicit faith in what Emma Goldman calls “the creative genius of the people” and b) hesitate to prescribe the details of a future society that remains to be born, under conditions and meeting challenges we cannot foresee. Real revolutions are never staged, they don’t happen according to any theorist’s timetable, and they rarely need help getting underway. While that fact is made clear throughout this book, there is also a crucial focus on what happens next, on the traps and pitfalls, on everything that can go wrong.
Rudolf Rocker traces the genealogy of the factors that led to the Russian Revolution’s failure through the often-prophetic debates in the First International and back to the late eighteenth century. Marx and Engels, whose ideas Lenin adapted, borrowed their theory of revolution from the Jacobins and authoritarian secret societies of the French Revolution. Specifically, says Rocker, they relied upon distorted bourgeois histories of those figures. The resultant Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is the “dictatorship of a given party which arrogates to itself the right to speak for that class.” It is “no child of the labour movement, but a regrettable inheritance from the bourgeoisie … linked with a lust for political power.” Rocker contrasts this concept with the “organic being” and “natural form of organisation … from the bottom upwards” that the labor movement itself forges though struggle: councils and committees networked inflexible, nonhierarchical federations.
Luigi Fabbri also sees bourgeois roots in Leninist ideology, “a frame of mind typical of bosses.” Writing just after the October revolution, Fabbri cuts through the numerous misrepresentations of anarchism that even the earliest Bolshevik propaganda promulgated—and that state socialists still push—to reveal the main ideas “separating authoritarian from libertarian communists.” The “fatal mistake” of Lenin and company was their belief that building a powerful state would somehow eventually lead to that same state withering away, the precondition for communism according to both Marxists and anarchists. For Fabbri, as for most contributors to this book, “The state is more than an outcome of class divisions; it is, at one and the same time, the creator of privilege, thereby bringing about new class divisions.” Moreover, it “will not die away unless it is deliberately destroyed, just as capitalism will not cease to exist unless it is put to death through expropriation.” Or as Iain McKay puts it in his analysis of one of Lenin’s most famous books: “The Russian Revolution shows that it was not a case of the State and Revolution but rather the State or Revolution.”
Leninist distortions of other revolutionary traditions hasn’t changed much in the last century. Fabbri and others writing at the time of the Russian Revolution, both eye witnesses and close observers, focus our understanding of what non-Bolshevik militants were fighting for. They also give us a more clear picture of the possible forms of human liberation that the Bolsheviks methodically foreclosed. Several essays in the pages ahead give detailed accounts of the methods that the newly established state used to achieve this. Maurice Brinton and Ida Mett each focus on the massacre at Kronstadt, one of the clearest examples of how ordinary people, workers and sailors in this case, sought to push the revolution beyond the outmoded bourgeois political and economic forms Lenin imposed, only to face the guns and bayonets of Trotsky’s Red Army. Barry Pateman describes the many dedicated revolutionaries who wound up in “communist” prisons, as well as the networks of solidarity that tried to get them out. Iain McKay maps the growing (rather than withering) Soviet state as it absorbed one by one the democratic, federalist institutions the masses had created in Russia, which posed a threat to the growing dictatorship. Otto Rühle describes the disastrous effects of Leninism when it was exported to Europe. Lenin’s influence, says Rühle, was not merely an impediment to the revolutionary struggles of European workers, it also provided the model for fascism in Italy and Germany. “All fundamental characteristics of fascism were in his doctrine, his strategy, his social ‘planning,’ and his art with dealing with men … Authority, leadership, force, exerted on one side, and organization, cadres, subordination on the other side—such was his line of reasoning.”
Ultimately, though, the differences between the Bolshevik dictatorship and its many leftwing critics boils down to different ideas about how and why revolutions are made. To the Russian anarchists, certainly, Lenin’s absolute divorce of theoretical, communist ends from immediate, repressive means was in itself a guarantee of revolutionary failure. The very word communism—with cognates like communal, commons, community—implies an obvious and practical set of political guidelines, a militant ethics. Yet as Nestor Makhno, who organized forces to fight both Red and White armies in the Ukraine, notes, officials at the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party, which was held only eight years after the Bolsheviks came to power, agreed that the word “equality” should be avoided in anything but abstract discussions of distant social relations; it had no place in the Communist present.
Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman emigrated to Russia in 1919. While the immediate reason for their voyage had been deportation, they returned to their homeland with high hopes and a commitment to help build a new society. Within two years, those hopes had been dashed. They left in December 1921, both writing damning books about their experiences soon after (Berkman’s The Russian Tragedy and Goldman’s My Disillusionment in Russia). Those experiences, which ranged from the inspiration of seeing revolutionary energies unleashed on a mass scale to the horror of watching them destroyed, lend a sharp-edged clarity to the pieces we’ve included here, a stark contrast between competing visions of social transformation. “The Bolshevik idea,” writes Berkman, was “that the Social Revolution must be directed by a special staff, vested with dictatorial powers.” This not only implied a deep distrust of the masses but a willingness to use force against them, an unsurprising observation to those of us on this side of the Russian Revolution, but a shocking idea to many at the time. Berkman goes on to quote Bolshevik theorist Nikolai Bukharin: “Proletarian compulsion in all its forms … beginning with summary execution and ending with compulsory labor, is a method of reworking the human material of the capitalist epoch into Communist humanity.”
Compulsion was necessary because the Bolsheviks claimed to already know the path the revolution needed to take, even if workers and peasants seemed to be moving in a different direction. Lenin used a Marxist playbook. His apparent flexibility, his often contradictory positions, had less to do with open-mindedness than with a single-minded focus that allowed him to say whatever was necessary to achieve his goal. He was, as Emma Gold man put it, “a nimble acrobat … skilled in performing within the narrowest margin.” After meeting him, she was convinced that “Lenin had very little concern in the Revolution and … Communism to him was a very remote thing.” Instead, the “centralized political State was Lenin’s deity, to which everything else was to be sacrificed.” For Goldman, the revolution depended more on the “social consciousness” and “mass psychology” of Russian workers and peasants than on any allegedly objective conditions, at least those that were written in the Marxist playbook. At first, Lenin had no choice but to endure the popular forces that were “carrying the Revolution into ever-widening channels” that weren’t under Bolshevik control. “But as soon as the Communist Party felt itself sufficiently strong in the government saddle, it began to limit the scope of popular activity.” It was this desire to keep all power in the hands of the Party, the supposed advance guard of the proletariat, that explains, says Goldman, “all their following policies, changes of policies, their compromises and retreats, their methods of suppression and persecution, their terrorism and extermination of all other political views.”
As we’ve mentioned, a stock excuse for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into one of modern history’s most oppressive regimes is that the Civil War demanded strict political discipline and severe economic measures. “War communism” was supposedly the revolution’s only hope. Readers will be forgiven if this reminds them of the US military’s claim that it was necessary to destroy a Vietnamese village in order to save it. As Iain McKay points out, most features of war communism—one-man management of factories, centralized economic structures borrowed from capitalism, the destruction of the soviets—“all these occurred before the Civil War broke out in late May 1918.”
The same is true of the Red Terror, the period of political repression and mass killings the Bolsheviks launched, ostensibly to eradicate enemies of the revolution. “Terror,” here, is not a word applied by appalled historians after the fact; Lenin and Trotsky embraced the term to describe their ruthless policies at the time. Lenin died early enough to avoid having to answer for them. Trotsky, on the other hand, had to spend much of his time wriggling out of his responsibility for what the revolution became. He almost singlehandedly invented an entire genre of political apologetics, firmly establishing the practice of blaming Stalin for pretty much everything. Whatever he couldn’t lay at Stalin’s feet, according to Paul Mattick, he blamed on historical necessity, presenting early Bolshevism as a sort of “reluctant monster, killing and torturing in mere self-defence.”
The problem, says Mattick, is that there is almost nothing in Stalinism that didn’t also exist in Leninism or Trotskyism. While there may be differences in the total number of victims each could claim, this had less to do with any “democratic inclinations” on Lenin’s part than on his relative weakness, his “inability to destroy all non-Bolshevik organisations at once.” And it was all non Bolsheviks who were in the crosshairs, not just explicitly White reactionaries, and not excluding those who had recently fought alongside the Bolsheviks, regardless of their political orientation. “Like Stalin, Lenin catalogued all his victims under the heading ‘counterrevolutionary.’” The main organ charged with carrying out Lenin’s repressive orders, the Cheka (The All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage), was created only weeks after the Bolsheviks came to power. “The totalitarian features of Lenin’s Bolshevism were accumulating at the same rate at which its control and police power grew.” In practical terms, most of the Russian population—from anarchists and Social Revolutionaries to striking workers to sailors demanding democratic election of their officers to the entire peasant class—could qualify as counterrevolutionaries. Nonetheless, as Mattick observes:
If one wants to use the term at all, the “counterrevolution” possible in the Russia of 1917 was that inherent in the Revolution itself, that is, in the opportunity it offered the Bolsheviks to restore a centrally-directed social order for the perpetuation of the capitalistic divorce of the workers from the means of production and the consequent restoration of Russia as a competing imperialist power.
On the centennial of the Russian Revolution, if there is one thing we hope you take from this book, it is the fact that all the published panegyrics to Lenin and Trotsky, all the political parties that model themselves on tyrants, all the eulogies to the “leaders of genius” at the vanguard of the Russian masses—these tributes are honoring the actual counterrevolutionaries of history, the destroyers of revolutions, people with the hearts of prison wardens and hangmen.
“The history of how the Russian working class was dispossessed is not, however, a matter for an esoteric discussion among political cliques,” writes Brinton. “An understanding of what took place is essential for every serious socialist. It is not mere archivism.” If it was, to paraphrase Marx, these dead authoritarians wouldn’t still weigh like nightmares on the brains of the living. Inexplicably, Marxist-Leninist and Trotsyist parties still exist. And even when not members of such parties, many radicals have matured into political adulthood in a Marxist milieu that suffers from a split personality that no amount of dialectical reasoning can cure. Ever since the formation of the Comintern, thousands have left their countries’ Communist Parties in waves, unable to tolerate this or that new betrayal. Those who remained formed extremely hard shells, but even the ones who fled had to somehow justify their relationship to a bloodstained legacy.
Unfortunately, all the soft, insulating layers of “Western Marxism” in the world cannot disguise the Leninist pea beneath the mattress. No number of “returns” to Marx—or, even better, to early Marx—can escape the inherent flaw at the core of every single instance of actually existing socialisms. Every time Marxism has been filtered through state-centered models of social change, the results have ranged from bad to horrific. This is the defect hidden within all parties, vanguards, cadre, cabals, and bureaucrats: they lead not to communism but to a new class of oppressors.
A century has been long enough. It is time for a clean break. We must remove Leninism from our revolutionary formulas and critique whatever aspects of Marxism lent themselves to the Bolshevik disaster. We must learn from the history contained in the following pages, and then make our own.
—The Friends of Aron Baron—
1. All quotations in this introduction are taken from the authors’ essays in this anthology.