Dictatorial methods: did the Bolsheviks have other options?

Submitted by Matthew on 9 November, 2011 - 12:47

By Martyn Hudson

Mark Osborn (Solidarity 223) correctly raises issues about the intentions of the Bolsheviks, the struggle of Lenin and Trotsky against the bureaucracy, the decisive or not so decisive break between October and Stalinism and, I think, critically the question of what the Bolsheviks did as they were struggling for their existence.

The usual take of Leninists on this is the following: Bolshevik intentions were good (agreed), Lenin and Trotsky did as much as they could in the struggle (well, this wasn’t what Adolph Joffe and Serge felt but there you go), that there was a decisive break or river of blood between the traditions, and finally that the Bolsheviks made some mistakes in the heat of the struggle but these were justified and in any case they had no option to do anything else in the context of the Bolshevik party ruling in the name of a working class that no longer existed (I dispute this entirely).

The recent work of Simon Pirani (The Russian Revolution in Retreat 1920-24) persuasively argues against the myth of working class “pulverisation” — that proletarian numbers did fall, but that the workers’ movement, inside and outside the Bolshevik party, was extremely active. Much of this was hostile to Bolshevik control but much of it recognised the difficulties in the context of famine, war, and the hostility of external powers. 25% of representatives elected to the Moscow soviet in 1921 were non-partyist. In the Kronstadt uprising Trotsky himself pointed to 30% of Communist Party members supporting the rebellion, 40% remaining neutral, and only 30% supporting the government. Entwined with this was the resurgent socialism outside the Communist party amongst the Mensheviks and internal to the party in the Workers’ Opposition and the Dem Cens.

There was also a large rump of oppositionists expelled from the party who were liquidated in mass arrests in September 1923. Pirani points to Bolshevik repression as eliminating whole swathes of socialists who to a large extent were committed to the gains of October but were now postulating a different route out of Bolshevik “dictatorship”. And let’s be clear that this was a dictatorship of the Bolshevik party and not the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin was clear that he was for party dictatorship. As Hal Draper notes Lenin never surrendered the idea that “the scientific term ‘dictatorship’ means nothing more nor less than authority untrammelled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force,” (Marx to Lenin). The Soviet working class were the recipients of this despotism.

If the Bolsheviks were compelled to take this route then, yes, we would be in the position of accepting that historical fact and moving on. But this is not just about hindsight — there were many voices documented internally and externally of the Party postulating other routes. Worse, the dictatorship clearly made it more possible for a nascent Stalinist despotic bureaucracy to emerge. Sam Farber expresses this different route well: “This would have involved the legalization of all parties and political groups willing to accept, and pledge loyalty to, the Soviet system of government. The government would have also immediately closed all punitive labour camps, placed the secret police under strict judicial control and declared an immediate amnesty for all people imprisoned for nonviolent political offences. The alternative was the steady bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution, and the increasing alienation of the state’s political leadership from the mass of the population,” (Against the Current 2011).

For Farber (in his great book Before Stalinism and elsewhere), even though there are clear differences (breaks and continuities as I have already noted) between Stalinism and Bolshevism, this dictatorship politically disarmed the Soviet working class and destroyed their capacity to resist the rising bureaucracy. For Farber there was absolutely no Marxist justification for Bolshevik dictatorship. The banning of factions in the context of the Kronstadt rebellion in March 1921 dealt the revolution “a definitive and maiming blow” that the proletarian cause would never recover from — not in 1921 or even in 2011. Even worse is the contemporary Leninist abasement to the idea that these dictatorial measures were necessary or even virtues!

There were other options, there were other routes and other voices — roads to the future liquidated by Bolshevik dictatorship.


Submitted by AWL on Wed, 16/11/2011 - 12:11

Yes, Trotsky was brutal and ruthless in the battle against reaction. Whereas Stalinists are brutal and ruthless in the battle for a new kind of reaction. That's the difference. (Which doesn't mean we can't discuss whether everything Trotsky and other Bolsheviks did was well-judged, of course.)

Sacha Ismail

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