From the May 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard
It really is ironic that those members of the Militant group who face expulsion from the Labour Party should complain about the lack of democracy and tolerance which they allege is being shown to them. After all, as worshippers of Lenin they must know that their hero was no democrat and showed little tolerance of his opponents outside or inside Bolshevik ranks. We have yet to hear them condemn this.
One of the most amazing legacies of the Russian revolution and its aftermath is Lenin’s image as a humane, even saintly figure, despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary. To this day thousands of people all over the world will revile Stalin but revere Lenin, yet the truth is that it was the latter who commenced the reign of terror after November 1917 and who deserves his own place in history as a brutal, lying, ruthless dictator.
Right up till the Bolshevik seizure of power Lenin had been agitating for the abolition of the state apparatus including the army, police and bureaucracy. Every official, he said, should be elected and subject to recall at any time. He was all for freedom of the press and the right to demonstrate for “any party, any group". Immediately on gaining power he even promised to uphold the verdict of the coming elections for the Constituent Assembly
As a democratic government, we cannot ignore the decision of the rank and file of the people, even though we may disagree with it . . . and even if the peasants continue to follow the Social-Revolutionaries, even if they give this party a majority in the Constituent Assembly, we shall still say, be it so. (Report on the Land Question, 8 November 1917.)
All of this was, of course, mere window dressing, for Lenin knew that the Russian people would never have supported what he really had in mind for them. Far from abolishing the state apparatus he set about strengthening it, especially the secret police (Cheka), in order to impose the Bolshevik dictatorship. And instead of officials being elected and recallable the Bolsheviks simply appointed their own men who were answerable to them alone.
Gradually all opposition press was outlawed and their demonstrations forbidden. When the long-called-for elections for the Constituent Assembly resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Bolsheviks Lenin dissolved the Assembly by force. Later on he explained away those earlier promises on the grounds that
This was an essential period in the beginning of the revolution; without it we would not have risen on the crest of the revolutionary wave, we should have dragged in its wake. (Report of the Central Committee to the 11th Congress of the Russian Communist Party, 27 March 1922.)
In the run-up to the November coup Lenin and the Bolsheviks had won widespread support with their slogan “peace, bread and land". Of course the promises of politicians are always easier to make than to fulfil, as the Russian workers and peasants very soon discovered. The peasants, having got rid of the landlord, now had their grain and cattle forcibly taken from them in return for worthless paper money. Those who resisted were shot and many villages were burnt. Lenin claimed that his policy of robbing the peasants was necessary to avoid famine but, inevitably, the peasants retaliated by burning their crops and killing their cattle and so Lenin’s policy produced famine anyway.
In the cities and towns unemployment was rife and the workers, in or out of a job, were starving. Lenin’s response to the plight of the Petrograd workers was to tell them to
. . . set out in their tens of thousands for the Urals, the Volga and the south, where there is an abundance of grain, where they can feed themselves and their families . . . (To The Workers of Petrograd, 12 July 1918.)
How the workers and their families were go get to these areas in view of the fact that the civil war had broken out in each of them, Lenin didn’t say.
Early in 1919 many strikes and protest demonstrations were crushed with great loss of life. Starvation continued to be the workers’ lot for several more years but anyone who argued that the chronic food scarcity could be eased by allowing the peasants to trade their produce instead of having it stolen by the state should, said Lenin, be shot. This argument was “counter-revolutionary” — until Lenin himself made it official policy early in 1921.
Another myth surrounding the period of Lenin’s dictatorship is that at least there was democracy within the Communist Party. This is the so-called “democratic centralism", but Lenin no more welcomed opposition from his own comrades than he did from anyone else. Communists who criticised him or his policies were denounced as “unsound elements", “deviationists” or worse, and their arguments “mere chatter”, “phrase mongering” and “dangerous rubbish".
Lenin’s anger boiled over at those communists who wanted free trade unions independent of party control. He raged at the “loudmouths" and demanded complete loyalty or else they would throw away the revolution because
Undoubtedly, the capitalists of the Entente will take advantage of our party’s sickness to organise a new invasion; and the Social-Revolutionaries will take advantage of it for the purpose of organising conspiracies and rebellions. (The Party Crisis, 19 January 1921.)
He also complained that the debate on the trade unions had been
. . . an excessive luxury. Speaking for myself I cannot but add that in my opinion this luxury was really absolutely impermissible. (Report on the political activities of the Central Committee to the 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party, 8 March 1921.)
In short, shut-up and don’t rock the boat. Faced with this attitude the dissidents had no chance. Their various groups, such as “Workers’ Opposition", were expelled (even when they agreed to abide by majority decisions against them) and many of their leaders and members were jailed or exiled.
All Lenin’s actions were the result of his single-minded determination to seize power and hold on to it. even if it meant that millions of Russian workers and peasants died in famine and repression. The seizure of power was, given the chaotic condition of Russia at the time, comparatively simple: to hold on to power he had to create a state apparatus which, under his personal direction, was used to terrorise all opposition into submission.
The Leninists of today will argue that all of this was a case of the end justifying the means, that it was done in order to bring about socialism. But undemocratic means can never bring about democratic ends; any minority which seizes power can only retain it by violent, undemocratic methods. In any case, even before 1917 the Mensheviks and many European social democrats had used Karl Marx’s theory of social development to demolish the idea that socialism could be established in a backward country like Russia. The absence of larger-scale industry and the consequent smallness of the working class, both of which are essential ingredients for socialism, plus the presence of a vast, reactionary peasantry made socialism impossible. This earned them Lenin’s undying hatred, a hatred which only increased as he saw their view justified by events. All that was left to Lenin in the circumstances was to commence building up state-capitalism. The Russia of today is a grim reminder of how well he succeeded.