Monday, August 15, 2011

Lenin and the Early Bolsheviks on Democracy

The project for socialism set out in The State and Revolution and "Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?" (both written in August/September 1917) was, by any standards, extraordinary. It was a project that sought to eliminate the relations of power, of domination and subordination, that had always characterized society. Socialism was identified with self-government. All the powers hitherto arrogated to the state were to be reclaimed by the people in arms. The armed assemblies of the popular masses were to debate and decide upon public business (the legislative function); and they executed punishments and provided for their own defense (the coercive functions of the police and army). There were to be no more special powers and the complex checks and balances that had characterized the liberal constitutions and made parliaments into the ineffectual "talking shops" were to be swept away. They were now irrelevant and harmful, for their whole point and purpose had been to construct so many bulwarks and obstacles to the power of the people. They comprised the web of mediations through which popular power was purposely emasculated. Now, according to the Bolshevik programme, the power of the people was to be direct, immediate and unrestricted. It was meant to be a clarion call to the people of the whole world to recover their potency as makers of their own politics and as participants in a transformed democracy.
-From Neil Hardings essay "The Marxist-Leninist Detour" in Dunn (ed.) Democracy: The Unfinished Journey. (Cambridge UP: 1992).

This ideal of a completely self-governing society free from all forms of domination is more relevant today than ever. That this was a vision Lenin shared is clear to anyone who has read State and Revolution. It is often claimed that there is no room for democracy in Marxist thought, but I can't think of a more radically and uncompromisingly democratic political vision in human history. No constraints on the power of the people are countenanced: not the allegedly sacred "natural right to property", not the needs or interests of dominant groups (whether their dominance is based on gender, race, etc.), not the toxic forces of militarism /nationalism. It is a thoroughly internationalist vision in which the ultimate goal is the complete and full liberation of all human beings.

Of course, it's a complex and important question for socialists why the promise of early years of the Soviet experiment was ultimately extinguished by counter-revolution from within. Internationally and internally isolated, devastated by civil war and famine, the promise of the early days of the revolution was lost. The ideas of workers control and radical democracy fell by the wayside. Soon enough, workers were being disciplined and exploited. It is in this context that Stalin rises to power, who has the distinction of having murdered more Marxists and revolutionaries than the Tsar ever did. The top-down authoritarianism that marked the rest of the years that the Soviet empire existed was anything but socialist. But this oppressive, ossified bureaucratization doesn't tarnish the early vision that united the oppressed and exploited of Russia in rising up against the ravages of capitalism and war. That basic emancipatory vision is more valid today than ever.


Devin Finbarr said...

Solzhenitsyn wrote about 1917: "The intelligentsia proved incapable of taking action, quailed, and was lost in confusion; its party leaders readily abdicated the power and leadership which had seemed so desirable from a distance; and power, like a ball of fire, was tossed from hand to hand until it came into hands which caught it and were sufficiently hardened to withstand its white heat (they also, incidentally, belonged to the intelligentsia, but a special part of it). The intelligentsia had succeeded in rocking Russia with a cosmic explosion, but was unable to handle the debris."

The problem with an ideology of anti-domination, is that when the revolution happens, it creates a power vacuum. The result of that power vaccuum is that you are likely to end up with a leader far more ruthless and than any that came before.

Anonymous said...

That Solzhenitsyn quote is nonsense. The workers councils and soviets, and other organs of self-governance from below, were more than capable of handling this "ball of fire." A brutal counter-revolution and devastating Civil War, however, are not conditions in which self-governance and robust democratic life are possible.

The revolution was made by activated masses of people entering onto the stage of history. They, like the revolutionaries of the Paris Commune, took power into their own hands without the need of saviors from above. The fear of power vacuums and the like is nothing but a disguised counter-revolutionary call for "law and order" and, maintenance of the status quo.

Non-domination is not abstract negativity. It is the way that we learn what it means to be free and equal with one another; by experiencing what it means to be dominated and oppressed we get clearer on what kind of social relations we DO want to enter into.

Devin Finbarr said...

"A brutal counter-revolution and devastating Civil War, however, are not conditions in which self-governance and robust democratic life are possible."

The counter-revolution and the civil war were not inevitable, exogenous events.

If the "organs of self-governance from below" were capable of activating a revolution and seizing the ball of power, and were as you say, capable of handling power, why couldn't the prevent the civil war and counter revolution?

t said...

@ Devin Finbarr

You write: "If the "organs of self-governance from below" were capable of activating a revolution and seizing the ball of power, and were as you say, capable of handling power, then why couldn't the prevent the civil war and counter revolution?"

I find everything that follows the "then" part of this sentence to be a non-sequitur. The counter-revolution and civil war were largely fueled by an external invasion of 14 capitalist nations (including the USA, Britain and France) who aimed to strangle the revolution in the cradle. The "allied" armies, including Japan, invaded Russia and didn't withdraw completely until 1922. So I'm not sure what the decision of imperialist powers to intervene has to do with the workers councils and other organs of grassroots self-rule that sprung up in course of the revolution.

I basically agree with Anonymous 7:09. The Civil War required swift, coordinated military resistance to resist violent attack by reactionaries. Taking up arms to defend the revolution was the only viable course forward. At the time, Europe was undergoing a revolutionary upsurge not seen since 1848, and it made sense for socialist internationalists (which the Bolsheviks certainly were) to hold the line against reaction. The devastation that followed the war (famine, destruction, etc.) left the organs of self-rule in shambles. Much of the working-class died resisting counter-revolution. To be sure, the Bolsheviks made plenty of mistakes (extending the militarization of labor after the fighting ended, dissolving trade unions, substitutionism, etc.). But both subjective and objective conditions matter here. It wasn't all the Bolsheviks fault, because the objective conditions were horrible; but neither was it inevitable that things turned out as they did, because the Bolsheviks could have done certain things differently.

None of this obscures the emancipatory, radically democratic character of the October Revolution. Read John Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World. The Russian Revolution was an inspiring event that, as you put it, hardly initiated an inevitable causal chain leading to Stalinism. The future was wide open, and anything seemed possible; but for reasons that we must continue to come to grips with today, the revolution was eventually lost after the Stalinist counter-revolution was complete by the early 30s.