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Lenin's application of Marx's theory of the state and socialist economics

Presentation to the 'No Gods, No Masters', Melbourne Anarchist and Autonomist Conference "Lenin on Trial" session, held at the University of Melbourne, April 29, 2001


I will begin with thanking the organisers of the 'No Gods, No Masters' Melbourne Anarchist and Autonomist Conference for providing me this opportunity to defend Lenin's understanding and application of the Marxist theory of the state and socialist economy. I must also at this opportunity express my grave disappointment that members of the various political parties and movements that make up the 'red left', as the Conference organisers have described them, have not considered it worthwhile to defending Lenin in the face of very important criticisms. I do not see how ignoring this criticisms or the anarchist movement how differences between progressive forces can be resolved for the purpose of social change.

The charge presented by this Conference is: "That Lenin was a _tyrant_, who enslaved the people under state capitalism, deceitfully proclaiming it to be the dawn of Marx's utopia", with the specific offences of "butchering" the Marxist theory of the state and socialist economy.

To my mind, this poses three questions.

  • Firstly: What is the Marxist theory of the state and socialist economy and how is to be achieved?
  • Secondly: What was the experience of the Soviet revolution and implementation of a Marxist theory of the state and socialist economy under Lenin?
  • and finally: How are differences between the two to be reconciled?

The Development of the Marxist theory of the state and socialist economics.

The basic proposition of Marx and Engels in regard the State that it represents irreconciliable class divisions and is a product of the social division of labour. The second proposition, which logically follows from the first, is that the state is an instrument of class rule. Thus, it is a complete fiction to ever speak of a "free" or "people's" state (such as "the People's Republic of China", for example). All states are means by which one class oppresses others.

Following this definition of the state, the next point raised is what to do with it. Here Marx and Engels, commenting on the experience of the uprisings of the mid-nineteenth century and the Paris Commune, are unequivocal: "The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes", as is the case with a political revolution or a coup d'etat.

It is not a case of a simple transfer of the "bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another" but rather the machinery must be smashed [zerbrechen]. Now obviously, this does not mean the wholesale destruction of the the forces of production in command of the state. What it means is the smashing of the social relations manifested in the rule of capital over labour.

But following - and _only_ following - this smashing of capitalist social relations, with what is to be replaced? Here Engels, paraphrasing the dictum of Saint-Simon and the early anarchists proposes: "The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and direction of the processes of production. The state is not 'abolished,' _it withers away_."

This suggests that a workers' state must abolish the proscription of political works and ensure the rights of free association. It suggests that the workers' state must completely rid itself of the motley collection of laws that discrimate and oppress on the basis of birthright, of sex, of that mythic category 'race', of sexuality and so forth.

The second part is to replace the "government of persons" with the "administration of things and direction of the processes of production". This is the point where the rule of private capital over the forces of production is abolished and replaced by the rule of labour. But even this is limited: As the Manifesto of the Communist Party states: "The distinguishing feature of communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property... the abolition of private property... [not] the property of the petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form". The management of such a program, to quote Engels' Principles of Communism: "according to a social plan and with the participation of all members of society... [through a] _democratic constitution_".

It is now opportune to compare the application of this Marxist theory of the state and the management of the socialist economy with the practise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks from just prior to the 1917 October revolution to Lenin's death in 1924.

The Implementation of Marxist Theory by Lenin and the Bolsheviks

No actions occur without a context in space and time. It is therefore necessary to briefly describe the conditions in Russia proir to the revolutions of 1917. To put it bluntly, the Russian Empire, despite its vast size, population and natural resources, was one of the least advanced of all European nations in terms of technology, economy, political forms and culture.

Politically, Russia had only an inkling of a parliamentary democracy. Voting in the Duma was indirect - one gentry vote carried as much weight as 3 burgher, 15 peasant or 45 worker votes. Economically, Russia had undergone a period of rapid industrialisation. Following the political emancipation the serfs in 1861, it managed to skip over the entire epoch of craft-guilds in manufacture. Between the 1905 revolution and the First World War industrial production in Russia roughly doubled.

But even at this economic high point on the eve of the War, Russia still held an significantly low rate of production and national income. The War was a complete disaster for the Russians. The German and Austro-Hungarians made enormous advances and the Tsarina had completely fallen under the influence of the mystic monk Rasptutin. Courtly life openly spoke of a coup d'etat, a position strongly supported by French and British diplomats.

Yet this was not to be. On February 23, 1917 - International Women's Day - protestors and strikers clash with police. The next day, two hundred thousand workers strike in Petrograd. Two days later, soldiers mutiny and form the Soviet of Worker's Deputies. On the same day, the dissolved Duma forms a Provisional Government and formation of a new State begins.

But what sort of state is this? Both the Duma and the Soviets made alternative claims to provisional government on the same day. For a brief period they even meet in the same building. Quickly realising that such a "dual power" system cannot survive, Lenin announces that workers have already seized power in the form of the Soviets. It would be madness to ask them to hand power back to the discredited Duma, simply because it didn't fit some theory that the national bourgeoisie should have an opportunity to rule prior to the workers.

The Duma, under pressure from the allies, continues to support the war and organises an offensive in Galacia; two million soldiers desert. Their time is up. In late October the Soviets seize power in a near-bloodless insurrection. The Congress of Soviets meets and elects a multiparty executive. They immediately abolish private ownership of land, affirm the rights of peasants to occupy and work their holdings and organise an armistance.

The amistance negotiations last a year. Meanwhile German occupying forces in the Ukraine establish a 'White Russian' state which attacks the Soviet Union, after their departure. Menshevik leaders proclaim an independent republic in Georgia and call for assistance from German and Turkish troops. 'White' governments, declaring soveriegnity over all of Russia no less than six times in the following three years with international support from the British, the United States, the French, the Czech's, and the Poles.

In 1919, in the midst of civil war, with a complete blockade of trade an infrastructure, with the nation in tatters, and the threat of mass famine looming, the Bolsheviks introduce the policy of 'War Communism', consisting of increased nationalisation of industry and confiscation of grain hoarded by richer peasants. The plan is less than a success. The Kronstadt Soviet revolts against the Soviet Union. Their rebellion is put down. Yet their economic demands - to end the grain requisitions and to establish a free market for peasants, are accepted a year later to the month with the end of 'War Communism' and the establishment of the 'New Economic Plan'.

The introduction of the New Economic Plan was Lenin's last significant involvement in the Soviet regime. Weakened by a 1918 assasination attempt, in early 1922 he suffers a stroke which leaves him partially paralysed and unable to speak and write. He relearns sounds and how to write with his left hand to express his last warning: that now that some stability has been reached, bureacucracy is a great danger. But not as dangerous as Stalin - quoting from Lenin's last testament, completed days before his death - "I propose to the comrades to find a way to remove Stalin from that position [General Secretary] and appoint to another person who in all respects differs from Stalin... namely, more patient, more loyal, more polite, and more attentive to comrades, less capricious etc."

A Balance Sheet and Reconciliation

On balance, it does not seem tenanable to claim that Lenin engaged in any "butchering" of the Marxist theory of the state. They did not attempt to reform the Tsar of the Duma. They supported the "direct democracy of producers" - the Soviets. They did not attempt to reform the armed forces, or seek advancements within that body. They set up a workers' and peasants' army where their most senior figures from the Imperial Army were non-commissioned officers and a sub-lieutenant. In short, the Bolsheviks did not seek to perfect or reform the institutions of the State: they sought to smash them.

In terms of socialist economics, it does not seem tenanable to claim that Lenin engaged in any "butchering". There can be no doubt that they reversed the rule of capital over labour. The first act of the Soviet government was the socialisation of land . The major factories and means of production were socialised - and, according to the recommendations of the Manifesto of the Communist Party - the wealth of the petty artisan and small peasant was for the most part left alone. Most importantly, these changes occurred with the direct involvement of workers and peasants through Soviet management - initially elected, recallable and multiparty.

Further, it is most unreasonable to suggest that Lenin made any claim that the new Soviet Union was the dawn of some "Marxist utopia". Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. At the Sixth Congress of Soviets in November 1918, Lenin declared: "The complete victory of the socialist revolution is unthinkable in one country, but demands the most active cooperation at least of several advanced countries, among which Russia cannot be numbered".

Finally, it cannot be suggested that the Soviet Union under Lenin was "state capitalist" (it was most certainly however, "state socialist"). Capitalism, if one recalls, is the political domination of capital over labour. It is inherited, like feudal rank, as property and as a birthright. It is reflected in the cultural lifeworld with a motivational ideology that any individual can attain the material wealth enjoyed by the few against the many. It is processed in the political and economic system through the search of the maximum rate of profit. Yet, none of this is the case with the Soviet Union, during Lenin's time or after.

Lenin - or to be precise, Leninism, as putting a dead man on trial is clearly ludicrous - does not carry guilt over charges claimed offenses. This does not mean that he did not make errors. Specifically;

Firstly, approving Toukhatchevsky's supression of the Kronstadt Soviet and garrison that arose that from the requsition policies of 'War Communism'. These were the most loyal supporters of the principles of the Soviet Union. Their demands could have met through negotiation.

Secondly, the suppression of the anarchist federation of Makhno in the Ukraine. Apart from a breach of the socialist principle of the rights of nations to self determination the suppression of the anarchist federation didn't even meet pragmatic grounds. Such a federation would have been undoubtly become a useful ally against the forces of international capital.

Thirdly, in accepting the Constitution of 1918, drafted by Stalin, which allowed for the eventual abolition of political opposition, of suppression of civil the suppression of human rights, the suppression of individual liberty.

But for this third error of judgement, guilt does not lie completely on Lenin, but rather on Marx and Engels, for not being sufficiently explicit that such acts were antithetical to socialist democracy. This is something that the Marxist organisations must learn. That Marx and Engels did not just make errors of judgement in the future tense. They were often incomplete on basic units of analysis.

Whilst the Bolshevik Party and its leadership under Lenin, are indeed in guilty of the aforementioned, it is requested to the people assembled here you find Lenin not guilty of the specific charges presented. But also, it is humbly requested that tonights discussion is not used for another sectarian division between anarchists and socialists. Despite differences of historical intepretation it is important that all progressive forces work together for advances in personal freedom and the democratic control of society. That is, to use Trotsky's dictum of the United Front - march separately, but strike together!

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