Although the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was dissolved as a political entity in 1991, no definite consensus has emerged regarding the relationship between Lenin, socialism, and the USSR. Investigation of this relationship remains important however, as consensus agrees the USSR was totalitarian; and, if Lenin was a socialist, then socialism may have been the primary source of the USSR's totalitarian bent. This matters today because Leninist-style, single-party communism remains a political force in China, Cuba, and Vietnam, and many observers insist these countries have totalitarian inclinations. Furthermore, popular support for communist and socialist ideas appears to be growing, and if socialism is innately totalitarian then modern socialists are effectively praying to Shiva, misdirecting social energies that should be aimed at reforming capitalism rather than replacing it with a system that could prove even worse. For these reasons, the question remains: was Lenin a socialist?
The task of answering this question is complicated by two major factors. First, World War One was the Leninist moment. Lenin agitated for revolt long before the Great War. But, it was only after the First World War broke out that his revolution began. Why was this? Was there something specific to war that was conducive to Lenin's revolution, and the consolidation of a professedly Socialist Republic? Second, while it is commonly accepted Lenin drew heavily from the communist tradition, communism was not the only, or even most prominent socialism in the period of his political education and activity. Lenin lived in an era when socialism was defined as much by anarchism as communism. Because there were deep antagonisms between these two socialisms, it's not possible to understand the connection between Lenin and socialism without an appreciation for socialism's anarchist strain. Thus we refine our line of inquiry, and ask: what was the relationship between Lenin, communism, and anarchism, in the era of the Great War?
To answer this, we will here develop a broad sketch of the two socialisms inherited by Lenin -- anarchist socialism also referred to as libertarian socialism, and communist socialism -- and define their essential characteristics. We will then survey the politics of Lenin, and compare his words and acts against the essential characteristics of these two socialisms. Because Lenin's deeds are well known, we will focus on his rhetoric. To capture Leninism as accurately as possible, we will quote him directly, and use his words to focus our attention on the historical evolution of the content of his politics, per his most prominent books, pamphlets, and speeches. Keeping this goal in mind, we will not examine the origins or sources of Lenin's political philosophy, and we will not investigate if, or how Leninism arose from the two socialisms. Rather, we will explore Leninism from its emergence in the pre-war period, trace its development through to the era of Great War and the Russian Revolution when Lenin came to power, and examine how his political philosophy compared with the two socialisms of his era. Beginning with his written works from 1901, we shall investigate the basis of Leninism, and analyze how it contrasts with the two socialisms. To achieve this, we will observe where each of the two socialisms made contact with Leninism and where they did not, up until 1921, by which time the full substance of Leninism was readily apparent.
Before sketching anarchism and communism, we begin with a high-level definition of socialism. Looking backwards, political observers date the origin of modern socialism to the 1820s and 1830s. Socialism arose as a direct response to the poor labour conditions and low wages of the early nineteenth-century, when industrialism and capitalism were on the rise, and the concentration of capital in the hands of business and political elites produced evermore discontent among the working poor. The upshot of socialist analysis was that capitalism was inequitable, and that political power and economic resources should be redistributed to create a society that was egalitarian, and provide a dignified quality of life for all, rather than resplendence for the few and destitution for the many. The basic tenets that all socialisms shared were anti-capitalism, and the belief that the ownership and management of resources, production, and government should be public rather than private; put briefly, the essence of Socialism is shared social control over social life. To achieve this end, the earliest works of socialist theory aimed at helping people unpack the political economy of capitalism, and devising anti-capitalist programs to solve society's most pressing problems.
Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Henri de Saint-Simon represented the first wave of socialists, and though their theories aimed at making practical improvements for all, their ideas were proven impractical in short order. Within a few years, by 1840, socialism undertook its first major step towards theoretical clarity, with the libertarian socialist tract What is Property?, wherein a foundation was developed for anarchism. Shortly after the arrival of Proudhon's anarchism, in the second half of the 1840s, The Communist Manifesto presented a theoretical basis for communist socialism, which defined itself in opposition to both capitalism and anarchism. Anarchism and communism were both forms of socialism, though they disagreed on means and ends; and, in order that we may compare these two socialisms against Lenin's words and acts, we will now develop an outline of their essential characteristics and oppositions, beginning with communism.
Communism began with Marx's and Engels' class analysis: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Building from this, communism explained socioeconomic conditions in terms of historically contingent class antagonisms. As civilization progressed, those with power used violence to create systems that aggrandized their power, which further disenfranchised the rest of society, and over time concentrated ownership of the means of production and exchange in the hands of the powerful. This created a permanent split between the lower class, dubbed the proletariat, and the upper class, dubbed the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie continue to maintain themselves as the upper class because they reap the products and profits of the proletariat's hard work, and this is unjust. However, because the bourgeoisie control the economy they also actuate society's ideological superstructure, which consists of an interconnected totality of explanations for why things must remain as they are. In this way, bourgeoisie mentality and morality sustain bourgeoisie society by bourgeoisie norms, which the proletariat are born into and accept. For communist socialism, it is the unconscious acceptance of capitalist ideology that must be overcome before the proletariat can undertake the task of claiming society for all peoples.
However, the job of nineteenth-century communist socialists was not so straightforward as passing around copies of the Manifesto. Marx and Engels were acutely aware that the intellectual conditioning of the proletariat did not yield autodidacts. Even worse, the size of the contemporary proletariat belied the possibility of theoretical or practical cohesion. Cohesion however was not the only issue facing communists, as Shlomo Avineri observes; "Marx's and Engels' theoretical awareness of the limitations of proletarian revolutions and their need for intellectual guidance was coupled with disdain, if not outright contempt, for those leaders of the movement who were themselves of working class origin."
Ultimately, Marx and Engels believed they themselves were furthest removed from the intellectual limitations of the proletariat, and that socialist unity would no longer be problematic, because the agent of cohesion was now at hand: communism. Communists were already "the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country," and they would be the section of the proletariat that "pushes forward all others." Communists would form the revolutionary socialist elite, and because Marx and Engels were the most forward-thinking revolutionaries, they should assume the burden of commanding the communists. Under their direction, the proletariat would attack the bourgeoisie, take physical control of the state, and centralize all economic and political power in the communist state:
the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class ... is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal contradiction, the shock of body against body, as its final denouement?
The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State ...
to concentrate increasingly in the hands of the state all capital, all agriculture, all transport, all trade
Importantly, the state apparatus would not be sustained in the long term because it was bourgeoisie in its foundations, and so could not help preserving bourgeoisie and capitalist characteristics. Once revolution was won, both the state and bourgeoisie mentality would be induced to wither away, as control and ownership over the means of production and exchange were redistributed among the proletariat. Under the communist political economy, competitive production and market exchange would be replaced by central management of production and distribution. Property, ideas, and resources would be shared in common, and the products of labour would be distributed as required; "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"
Like communism, anarchism sought to overthrow capitalism and place control and ownership of production in the hands of the workers. Unlike communism, Proudhon's libertarian socialism planned to immediately decentralize the control of production and distribution, and place it directly in the hands of independent workers living in independent communities, to avoid supporting capitalist middlemen as well as unproductive freeloaders. Furthermore, the libertarian socialist revolution would be peaceable, and forswear the state from the outset, for if (socialist) violence was used to combat state-capitalist violence, then state-capitalists would simply respond with more violence using the organs of repression they already controlled, and how could the cycle end? Accordingly, trying to turn the already violent organs of the state towards socialism would merely taint socialism. As Ferdinand Lassalle (who was not anarchist, but understood their concern) phrased it: "Show us not the aim without the way. For ends and means on earth are so entangled, that changing one, you change the other too; Each different path brings other ends in view."
Instead of engaging the state or bourgeoisie politics in any way, the anarchist "proletariat must emancipate itself without the help of the government" or capitalism. Producers should ignore politicians and capitalists, and set up their own locally managed communities. Each community could establish its own political assembly, and freely engage in economic exchanges and social interactions with other communities, or not. Under these arrangements the state, capitalism, and inequality would disappear, because the working class was the largest segment of society and the structures of bourgeoisie life would play no role in the ever-expanding communities of the anarchists.
Picking up where Proudhon left off, Mikhail Bakunin championed the importance of revolutionaries agitating amongst the people, and emphasized the organization of a libertarian, inter-regional federation. Bakuninist anarchism agreed with communism that there would always be a small subset of the most forward-thinking revolutionaries. However, Bakunin's anarchism claimed the socialist revolution should not be controlled by forward-thinking revolutionaries, but must in all cases be made "from the bottom up, by the free association and federation of workers." For Bakunin, these federated activist-workers were "the flower of the proletariat," the "great mass, those millions of the uncultivated, the disinherited, the miserable, the illiterates, whom Messrs. Engels and Marx would subject to their paternal rule by a strong government." Here, the role of forward-thinking revolutionaries was not to direct the masses, but to teach and challenge them, while learning from them and being challenged by them. Anarchism maintained that management of the revolution by the most cultured revolutionaries can never bring about socialism, because only the "great mass, those millions of the uncultivated ... carries in its inner being and in its aspirations, in all the necessities and miseries of its collective life, all the seeds of the Socialism of the future."
Nonetheless, while anarchists largely agreed on the role of workers, there was divergence of opinion with regard to the application of force. Bakunin believed some measure of violence was necessary to make revolution. Bakunin's view was not however the dominant one. Beyond Bakunin, anarchism writ large might be described as politically protectionist (though it did not yet have anything to protect), because it sought to avoid interaction with existing sociopolitical structures, by avoiding or limiting contact with the state and capitalism, and creating completely new communities and structures.
In summary, anarchism held that socialism should be anti-statist and decentralist in its economic and political arrangements, avoid the state and capitalists, and make non-violent revolution from the bottom up, and that each of these principles should be upheld as both means and ends. Communism also posited socialism should abolish the state, but only after the revolution had been won. To establish socialism, communism claimed socialists had to enact and protect the revolution with violence, and that revolution should be made top down by centralizing all economic and political management in the hands of the communist state, which would coordinate and control labour and the free distribution of goods, until such time as those controls could safely be redistributed among the masses. These basic disagreements continued to split anarchists from communists through the era of Lenin and the Great War (and to this day), and though the two socialisms continued to evolve they maintained the core characteristics outlined above.
Importantly, the main thrust of socialism also remained the same, as seen for example in the program of the Socialist Second International, which convened in 1889. In the words of historian Donald Sassoon, socialism
had, as its long-term goal, the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of a society where production would be subjected to the associated control of the producers, and not left to the mercy of the spontaneous decisions of millions of consumers and the calculations of thousands of capitalists
The Second International described here was less libertarian than communist, and formally adopted state-based reformism and party activity. However, with respect to the subject of violence, both anarchists and communists agreed they would not support an international war, and if war became unavoidable it should be turned towards socialist revolution.
With this overview of the two socialisms in hand, we now turn to Lenin's theory and practice, and a comparison of Leninism with anarchism and communism.
Lenin began his political activity in the early 1890s, and when the twentieth-century arrived he had already published a number of works on capitalism, socialism, and democracy. Prominent among his early works was the 1901 pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (WITBD?), in which he argued that left to their own devices, proletarians are unable to achieve a fully developed revolutionary socialist consciousness. Proletarians may achieve the level of social consciousness and theory required to unionize, but this form of political organization is limited, and doomed because unions remain isolated from each other, and present no challenge to the well-organized forces of the existing political economy.
For Lenin, this fact was proven by the Russian labour strikes of the 1890s, which "were simply trade union struggles, not yet Social Democratic struggles." These struggles were important, because they "marked the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers," and proved workers want a socialist revolution. But the striking trade union "workers, were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system," because their thoughts were bound to the ideological superstructure of bourgeoisie capitalism. Such workers were unaware that what they sought was socialism. These workers might therefore be called socialistic rather than socialist, as they were only just beginning to break out of their limited awareness and consciousness; "theirs was not yet Social-Democratic consciousness."
Per Lenin, any political action that lacked Social-Democratic consciousness was ill-fated, because the tsarist system was a highly developed anti-Social-Democratic system that could easily extinguish disjointed protests, no matter how numerous. To stage viable protests Social-Democratic consciousness was necessary. However, the "history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness," which is merely "the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation." Trade union consciousness might have inspired uprisings, but was not enough to win them. If true, what was to be done?
Lenin argued that because history proved workers could only develop trade union consciousness, the source of Social-Democratic consciousness must be external to the working class. For Lenin there was no difficulty here. He appealed again to history, which he believed showed the "theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia." The path to victory therefore, was to "divert the working-class movement from ... spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of ... revolutionary Social Democracy." Knowing that Social-Democratic consciousness developed apart from the working class, the working class could not be the agents of revolutionary Social Democracy. Who could? Social-Democratic "professional revolutionaries."
As discussed, both the libertarian and communist strains of socialism held that by dint of unequal material and intellectual conditions, there would always exist degrees of revolutionary socialist consciousness. This translated in to the existence of a small subset of revolutionaries who were most forward-thinking, as they were least beholden to the existing bourgeoisie ideological superstructure of society. In this aspect, Lenin's statements about "professional revolutionaries" jelled with both anarchism and communism. Beyond this however, there is the question of the role of the most forward-thinking socialists, Lenin's "professional revolutionaries." Here, in WITBD?, Lenin explained what he saw as the historical fact and political necessity of professional revolutionaries, but he did not fully elaborate their role.
A more complete elaboration came in 1904, with One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. Here, Lenin claimed that because trade union strikes always end in failure, what the working class needed was discipline and direction, which only Social-Democratically conscious professional revolutionaries could provide. Furthermore, the only available professional revolutionaries are the Bolsheviks, so they are just the revolutionaries for the job: "We are the party of a class, and therefore almost the entire class (and in times of war, in a period of civil war, the entire class) should act under the leadership of our Party, should adhere to our Party as closely as possible." Lenin believed professional revolutionaries should be managed by those who were most advanced, and he and his coterie were well suited to the task. All of this runs counter to the anarchist tenet of decentralization, while mirroring the communist plan to centralize "all instruments of production in the hands of the State, to concentrate increasingly in the hands of the state all capital, all agriculture, all transport, all trade," and, proportionately, centralizing the control of society in the hands of those who controlled the state -- those who were "most advanced."
With respect to the role of Lenin's conception of advanced revolutionaries circa 1904, Lenin's politics were semi-libertarian and unmistakably communist. Like anarchists (and communists), Lenin held that if war should arise it should be turned towards socialist revolution. Also, Lenin's professional revolutionaries were libertarian in that they should go out among the workers and propagandize socialism, so the proletariat could begin the task of breaking free from capitalism, psychically and physically. But Lenin's professional revolutionaries were also anti-libertarian, because libertarian socialism continued to hold that the most advanced revolutionaries should not simply direct workers but learn from them, and work alongside rather than above them, so that all social groups could obtain full control of their lives.
This is an important point, and the anti-libertarian bent of Lenin's position comes out when the political characteristics of his professional revolutionaries are considered more closely. In terms of political power, Lenin's description of how the workers' revolution should be organized was remarkable, because if workers themselves had no Social-Democratic consciousness but the Bolshevik Party did, and it was the Bolsheviks that organized workers, then what would be the resulting distribution of political power? Stated another way: what would be the result of combining isolated and Social-Democratically unconscious proletarians "under the wing" of the centralized and Social-Democratically conscious Bolsheviks? The Bolsheviks would be the sole group that possessed the details of how the workers and their groups were organized. That was not all, because the very organizational structure of the workers' groups would have been designed by the Bolsheviks. Even if members of the proletariat managed to achieve Social-Democratic consciousness, they would not have access to, or control over the structures and relationships by which their lives were organized, and they would not know how the proletariat was being deployed. As communism taught, all political power would be concentrated in the hands of the professional revolutionary leadership.
This brand of socialism was both supported and criticized, by communists and libertarians alike. In the same year that Lenin wrote One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Rosa Luxemburg, one of Lenin's most poignant critics, presented a libertarian critique decrying his centralism:
the Social Democratic movement cannot allow the erection of an air-tight partition between the class-conscious nucleus of the proletariat already in the party and its immediate popular environment, the nonparty sections of the proletariat ... the two principles on which Lenin's centralism rests are precisely these:
1. The blind subordination, in the smallest detail, of all party organs to the party center which alone thinks, guides, and decides for all.
2. The rigorous separation of the organized nucleus of revolutionaries from its social-revolutionary surroundings.
Lenin dismissed these comments, describing Luxemburg's anti-centralism as untenable because it lacked revolutionary force. In his eyes, this judgment was soon confirmed by the revolutionary deficits of 1905, which failed to topple the existing system.
Lenin updated his theories in 1906, in response to the revolutionary shortfall of 1905. Now, Lenin stated revolutionaries should not merely pass political control to the Bolsheviks when revolution occurred, but that all revolutionaries must organize themselves under the leadership of the Bolsheviks in preparation for the moment of revolution. The moment of revolution would then be determined by the Bolsheviks. "The experience of October-December has provided very instructive guidance." In 1905 socialists learned "Soviets of Workers' Deputies are organs of direct mass struggle," and "they very quickly became the organs of the general revolutionary struggle against the government." But it "was not some theory, not appeals on the part of someone, or tactics invented by someone, not party doctrine, but the force of circumstances that led these non-party mass organs to realise the need for an uprising." "This means that on their own 'soviets' and similar mass institutions are in themselves insufficient for organising an uprising." With the failure of the 1905 revolt in mind, Lenin asked: what is sufficient?
What is needed is a "military organisation alongside the organisation of soviets, for defending the latter, for carrying out an uprising," that would be called upon to start the revolution by the Bolsheviks. These new small "military organisations" would be lead by three to ten people, and recruit from "the masses that are immediately taking part in street fighting and civil war." These organizations should be operationally flexible, but not strategically flexible in and of themselves, for they should take up arms against the government only when "informed of the decision of the vanguard of the workers and peasants to begin the fight for land and liberty in the very near future."
Like the anarchists, in particular Anarcho-Syndicalists, Lenin held that socialists should create their own social structures, to lay a strong foundation for revolutionary activity. But like Lenin's statements in 1901 and 1904, his statements from 1906 are strongly anti-libertarian. The centralist communist bent of Lenin's position comes out in two ways when considering the role of the soviets, and his small "military organisations." First, the claim that "on their own 'soviets' and similar mass institutions are in themselves insufficient for organising an uprising" is exactly the argument from WITBD? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: that the proletariat can only develop trade union consciousness, and what is needed to achieve revolution is the leadership of professional revolutionaries with a higher level of sociopolitical consciousness. Second, Lenin's description of how the revolution should be organized continued to focus political power in the hands of the Bolsheviks. If the Soviets of Workers' Deputies and military groups consisted of proletarians whose mentality could never match the advanced level of consciousness of the Bolsheviks, and the Bolsheviks arranged the soviets and the military groups so they would be "sufficient for organising an uprising," where sufficiency was decided by the Bolsheviks, then which of these groups would wield political power? The isolated and intellectually limited proletarians, or the centralized and advanced Bolsheviks? As before, political power would be centralized in the hands of the Bolsheviks, in accordance with communist theory and contrary to the decentralism of libertarian theory.
Lenin's emphasis on the centralization of political power was not new, and the major post-1905 updates were that the Bolsheviks should determine when the revolution should begin, and the Bolsheviks should control their own militia to control their revolution. This fit the communist conception of socialist revolution, as it permitted workers to advance their revolutionary abilities while also advancing the revolution. In a narrow sense this was also libertarian, as it endowed workers with local control over the operations that affected them. However, after the failure of 1905 Lenin no longer relied on the "average people of the masses" to carry out street "battles with the police and the troops," but wanted to control prearranged "military organisations" of motivated radicals who would set out with weapons and induce workers to join the fight for Bolshevism.
Lenin understood that radicals who were deputized in the Bolshevik militia would have a sense of duty and be more likely to heat things up, and foment revolutionary activity more forcefully than the "average people of the masses." Also, while the militia and their recruits were carrying on the fight against the considerable forces of the counter-revolution, the risk to the Bolsheviks would be minimized, and they could focus on the task of consolidating the revolution. In this way, the organization of militias was anti-libertarian in a broader sense: first, because militias would not act of their own will, but only according to the strategic design of the Bolsheviks; second, because the very creation of militias went against libertarianism, which continued to eschew violence.
In any case, all of these updates to Leninism remained well within the bounds of socialism in general, though they reflected Lenin's personal experiences and ideas. This is significant because it is commonly remarked that Lenin was above all an opportunist, but even were he not, he could not have ignored the fact that by 1906 his communism was facing evermore competition from libertarianism. Support for libertarian socialism had increased dramatically across Europe and the United States since the 1890s, and particularly since the rise of anarcho-syndicalism. In a short span, anarcho-syndicalism had developed a platform and apparatus that attracted and maintained millions of adherents, and claimed over one million active members in France alone. Anarcho-syndicalism was among the fastest growing, most organized, and popular socialist opportunities circa 1904-1906. Communists, Kaisers, and Tsars alike were concerned about its rise, which threatened to interrupt their plans if something wasn't done. Because of this, we must ask: if Lenin was an opportunist, and anarcho-syndicalism was the most prominent socialist opportunity, why did he not profess libertarian anarcho-syndicalism?
Lenin answered in 1912: "The syndicalists inclined towards Anarchism, slipped into revolutionary phrase-mongering, destroyed the discipline of the working-class struggle and opposed the use of the parliamentary platform." Lenin was not anarcho-syndicalist because of his focus on party discipline, which anarcho-syndicalists held debates about but did not enforce. Also, Lenin believed it was always necessary to use the most powerful tools available, which continued to include state-based devices, such as parliaments. Furthermore, undisciplined "phrase-mongering" was not the only problem with anarcho-syndicalism, because Lenin was "for centralisation and ... opposed to the petty-bourgeois ideal of federal relationships." In any event, regardless of the specific reasons Lenin abjured anarcho-syndicalism, he made the winning political choice. The spectacular rise of anarchist syndicalism was matched only by its incredible decline (due in no small part to the rise of communism, and its coming successes in Russia).
It's crucial to note that while Lenin publicly renounced anarchism, by no means did he ignore it. Following the libertarian outcry in response to his claims about professional revolutionaries, Lenin moderated the anti-libertarian tone of his speeches. In 1908, he stopped making references to "professional revolutionaries." He also stopped comparing professional revolutionaries against working class revolutionaries, and stopped expounding on the superior characteristics of the former. This is an important trend to mark because it continued through 1913, and increased once the Great War arrived.
When the First World War began Lenin realized the situation presented unparalleled opportunities for revolution, far beyond those of 1905. He understood it was a moment of flux and believed the revolution was near to hand, and immediately urged for a broadly based communist revolt: "it is imperative to appeal to the revolutionary consciousness of the working masses." Lenin set about the task of studying the situation so he could avoid the pitfalls of the past, and successfully guide society through its revolt against the existing system. The result of his studies was Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, in which he ruminated on the evolution of capitalism since the late nineteenth-century, and observed "Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and ... wars are absolutely inevitable under such an economic system, as long as private property in the means of production exists." But, the might of international capitalism notwithstanding, it was not inevitable that such an economic system persist, for "Imperialism is the eve of the social revolution of the proletariat." On this point, Lenin, libertarians, and communists agreed. However, Lenin diverged again from libertarianism by advancing the communist theory for arriving at socialism: capitalism first.
Lenin argued imperialism was indeed the final stage of capitalism before socialism. However, while it was feasible to establish socialism in the most advanced capitalist countries, socialism remained a few steps away in less advanced countries like Russia. Lenin stated Marx and Engels had shown it was not possible to skip from proto- or nascent capitalism straight to socialism. This meant Russian socialists must first create capitalism, so they could overcome and abolish it, and finally establish socialism. This theory was drawn directly from the communist interpretation of history and based on communism's vision for the future, and was anti-libertarian as it entailed the aggrandizement of both capitalism and the state, rather than their abolition.
In terms of strategy, Lenin's plan did retain a libertarian element, because he stated that when establishing capitalism in Russia communists should ally with "the small proprietors ... and the millions of working people who enjoy more or less petty-bourgeois conditions of life." This was important, because this was a cross section of the population that had expanded under capitalism, as capitalism had a "tendency to create privileged sections" of the working class that elevated them economically and therefore socially, and thus detached "them from the broad masses of the proletariat." These newly privileged sections must be won back "from the bourgeoisie," and reminded their goal was the same as the lower proletariat: the end of capitalism. There was no use in doing anything to alienate potential class comrades, and there was every reason to work with them against the upper layers of power. Such an appeal was both libertarian and communist, as both socialisms believed in struggling to win the hearts, minds, and resources of the bourgeoisie.
Despite libertarian aspects, taken altogether Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism was fundamentally communist. Although Lenin discussed how to place government in the hands of the proletariat without reference to "professional revolutionaries," he continued to claim the Bolsheviks must be accepted as the "party of the proletariat" -- a centralized socialist core, intellectually and hierarchically above the masses. This was a prescript for communist leadership. So, while Lenin expanded his ideas about who should be subject to the leadership of the Bolsheviks, he did not change the demand for communist leadership itself, even if he described this demand in a manner that was less overtly anti-libertarian than in prior years.
Directly in line with his decreasingly anti-libertarian tone, Lenin drastically reduced the centralist and statist content of his rhetoric. Following his exile and the installation of the Provisional Government after the February Revolution, in his April Theses of 1917 Lenin announced:
This peculiar situation demands of us an ability to adapt ourselves to the special conditions of Party work among unprecedentedly large masses of proletarians who have just awakened to political life ...
The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution -- which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie -- to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants
The idea of placing power in the hands of the poorest peasants and forming Soviets of Agricultural Labourers' and Peasants' Deputies was remarkably libertarian, considering Lenin's longstanding communism, which had consistently stressed placing power in the hands of the "party of the proletariat." Building on his new statement, that power should be placed in the hands of the poorest peasants, Lenin defined the main tasks at hand to include
Nationalisation of all lands in the country, the land to be disposed of by the local Soviets of Agricultural Labourers' and Peasants' Deputies ...
to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers' Deputies.
Taken alone, these statements sounded more anarcho-syndicalist than communist: workers would select their own deputies, and these deputies would represent the workers at assemblies, and coordinate production and distribution in the interests of the workers. Many of the April Theses expressed similarly libertarian sentiments, but these sentiments could only be considered libertarian when taken alone, as the following thesis makes clear: "Not a parliamentary republic -- to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers' Deputies would be a retrograde step -- but a republic of Soviets of Workers', Agricultural Labourers' and Peasants' Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom." As before, Soviets would be composed of labourers' and peasants' deputies, but they would be directed "top to bottom." In any case, because the tenor of the April Theses was quasi-libertarian, and because events were moving quickly, it is doubtful the public scrutinized the Theses closely. In the event, Lenin's program appealed to communists as well as anarchists.
Libertarian support was not however enough for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to achieve power, because the Provisional Government had been the new "top to bottom" power since February. To help the Bolsheviks combat non-Bolshevik forces, whether those of the Provisional Government or otherwise, Lenin pressed again for the creation of a "people's militia." Here he echoed his statements from 1906: "Just how this people's militia can be brought into existence is something which experience will show ... There is no harm in the different districts adopting different procedures -- in fact, it would make for richer experience." As in 1906 this remained an anti-libertarian plan, because workers would have local control over local operations but would remain subject to Bolshevik strategy, and also because the creation of militias was against the libertarian tradition.
In June of 1917, Lenin's anti-libertarianism came in sharper relief, when he emphasized the necessity of revolutionary leadership by the Bolsheviks. Unlike his pre-war rhetoric, when he explicitly stated workers could not be "conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests," Lenin now extolled the virtues of those who possessed a more advanced revolutionary consciousness, and deftly suggested subordination to the latter was the sole path to victory;
every dissatisfied, class-conscious revolutionary, every angered fighter who yearns for his village home and sees no end to the war, and sometimes simply men who are out to save their own skins, rally to the banner of Bolshevism.
Where Bolshevism has a chance to air its views openly, there we find no disorganisation.
In other words: no Bolshevism, no organization, and no success. This was a warning against non-communism; "Where there are no Bolsheviks or where they are not allowed to speak, there we find excesses, demoralisation, and pseudo-Bolsheviks." That is: true revolutionaries had to watch out for non-Bolshevism and pseudo-Bolshevism, because these could only lead to "excesses, demoralisation," and failure. Lenin now sustained his rhetorical focus on the weakness of non-communism, and ramped up the communist content of his speeches and writings. As the months passed, it became increasingly clear that Lenin's plans were anti-anarchist, as he jettisoned libertarianism entirely in both the content and form of his speeches and his actions.
In March of 1918, Lenin informed Russians they should not believe it was wise for workers to take control of the political economy, because to establish socialism Russia first had to become capitalist. The problem here was that Russia was pre-capitalist, and the "Russian is a bad worker compared with people in advanced countries." To fix this, the "resolution adopted by the recent Moscow Congress of Soviets" -- which Lenin and the Bolsheviks dominated -- "advanced as the primary task of the moment the establishment of a 'harmonious organisation', and the tightening of discipline." Contrary to what Russians had been told by Lenin less than one year earlier, they were now told that what "bad worker" Russians actually needed was discipline, and discipline could never be achieved if power was "in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants." Indeed, "it would be extremely stupid and absurdly utopian to assume that the transition from capitalism to socialism is possible without coercion and without dictatorship." If Lenin truly believed this was the case, had he simply made a mistake less than a year earlier, in April 1917, when he stated the task of the revolution was to place power directly in the hands of peasants via the soviets? To answer this, let us look at the events that followed Lenin's declaration that Russia needed dictatorship.
Within a few months of the declarations outlined above, the Bolsheviks adopted the program of war communism, and began the process of centralizing the control of all enterprises, the economy, and military groups in the hands of the Bolshevik state. By mid-1918, the Bolshevik state controlled industry, railroads, war policy, the media, and censored the arts. Beyond de facto subordination to the Bolsheviks via the state, people joined the Bolshevik party not because they supported its policies, but because they feared the return of the Whites to power. Context was important here, because this was all closely tied to the exigencies of the Great War and the opportunities that arose, which Lenin studied, understood, and decisively seized upon to further his program.
After the White threat subsided, circa 1920, libertarianism and the anti-Bolshevism of Russian workers became the main threat that faced the Bolsheviks. But, just as the masses were unable to topple the tsarist system in 1905, so they were unable to wrest any control from the new Bolshevik system. Lenin's power became firmly entrenched, and by the end of 1921 there could be no question regarding Lenin's position towards libertarian socialism; the Communist International demanded syndicalist organizations defer to the authority of the Third International, and the bulk of Russian anarchists were rounded up and imprisoned, executed, or exiled by the end of the year.
With this survey of the interactions between anarchism, communism, and Lenin's politics in hand, we may now present an answer to our original question: was Lenin a socialist? As suggested by our investigations above, the answer to this question is found by observing the definitions of anarchism and communism, and considering their relationship to the form and content of Lenin's words and acts.
Beginning with Lenin's ideas in 1901, he claimed that professional revolutionaries were necessary to win the socialist revolution. In this aspect, his socialism agreed with communism and anarchism. Unlike anarchism however, Lenin stated that professional revolutionaries stood above the working class, and should direct and manage them. In this respect Lenin's ideas were markedly anti-libertarian.
After the experiences of 1905, Lenin stated that he believed the proletariat was not just intellectually inferior to professional revolutionaries, but also unable to activate a revolution, let alone consolidate one. Lenin's solution for this was to create local soviets and local militias that were under the control of the Bolsheviks, and then tell them when to unleash the revolution. In these new aspects, Lenin was again communist and anti-libertarian. Further to this, Lenin soon thereafter stated unequivocally that he was anti-anarchist because anarchism was decentralist and federalist, and he supported political centralization and reformist parliamentary activity, which were both basic features of communism.
After the First World War began, Lenin toned down his anti-libertarianism, and stated that socialists should unite with the petty-bourgeoisie against the upper bourgeoisie. In this regard, his politics agreed with anarchism and communism, though he still maintained the proletariat must be subject to the management of the Bolsheviks, which was anti-libertarian. In April of 1917, Lenin declared that political and economic power should immediately be distributed among the working class, a declaration that was more anarchist than communist, as he advocated for soviets controlled by workers' deputies, and imputed the power to decide economic and political matters to those soviets. By June of 1917 however, Lenin began again to claim the proletariat must be subordinated to the control of the Bolsheviks, and in 1918 he declared that Russia required his dictatorship. After the White threat diminished, the working class actively battled Lenin's party, and Lenin responded by main force, cementing his position as dictator.
This overview of Lenin's politics demonstrates he was consistently communist and anti-libertarian, but began to abate his anti-libertarianism in 1908 and more so in 1914, then appealed heavily to libertarianism in early 1917, and developed a totalitarian form of communism soon after. Based on this, we can now see the relationship between Lenin and socialism. Lenin's words and his presentation of socialism after 1914 and through 1917 was not openly anti-libertarian, but mirrored exactly the early anti-libertarian content of his WITBD? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. It is reasonable to conclude that as time went on, Lenin recognized it was not merely unproductive to advertise his anti-libertarianism but counter-productive, because libertarianism had a large support base. Lenin surely realized his plans would be better served by posturing in such a manner that he appealed to communists and libertarians alike. This was no easy task, because the two socialisms had fundamentally different visions. Nevertheless, Lenin successfully updated the presentational mode of his ideas to minimize offending libertarians, and he obtained their support even though his ideas remained communist and anti-libertarian, as they always had been.
This was critical to Lenin's success, because his April Theses had seemed libertarian to many. This was no accident. Lenin was well aware that libertarianism was popular among the masses, and he knew he would need as much support as possible to achieve his revolution. Hence statements such as: the revolution "must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants." Because of this statement, and others like it, many believed Lenin had a libertarian streak, and that he believed power need not be fully concentrated in the hands of a Bolshevik state, but could be placed directly in the hands of the proletariat. This won Lenin and the Bolsheviks a huge amount of support, as people joined the Bolsheviks in droves to bring an end to the Provisional government, establish soviets, and take personal control of the political economy. Contrary to the libertarian plans of the people however, Lenin had not abandoned his plan for the formation of a communist state controlled by professional revolutionaries. Instead, what he had done was briefly temper down his communist rhetoric and accentuate the potential of libertarianism. Soon, the fact of his deep-seated anti-libertarianism was obviated by the Bolshevik persecution of anarchists and the Bolshevik's battle against the masses, and the establishment of a dictatorship in Russia.
So then: was Lenin a socialist? Lenin adhered to communist socialism in action but moderated it in his rhetoric, to appeal to libertarian socialists and gain the broadest political support. This is not to suggest Lenin did not believe what he was doing was absolutely necessary, only that he was never a libertarian socialist, but was and remained communist socialist in his methods and his means. However, Lenin's devotion to the means of communism notwithstanding, if we abide by the general definition of socialism and its goals as presented in the opening of this paper, which both communists and anarchists agreed upon — that "political power and economic resources should be redistributed to create a society that was egalitarian," and "the ownership and management of resources, production, and government should be public rather than private" — and combine this with the observation that Lenin took communism in a direction that was opposed by many socialists and the population of Russia, we have no reason to believe his totalitarian communism was a fully accepted form of socialism, or that the USSR's totalitarianism was a necessary product of the socialisms inherited by Lenin. The Leninist USSR that took shape after 1921 was neither libertarian or communist, but was instead a new and expressly dictatorial political form, patterned on Bolshevism; and, the Bolshevist USSR was a system that was anti-socialist, because it was a top down hierarchy that centralized power and abolished worker participation in the control of production and government.
This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that a sizeable segment of the libertarian socialist and communist socialist communities of Lenin's era maintained a commitment to direct worker control over production and political governance (and importantly, also non-violence). This result suggests that modern socialisms need not produce totalitarianism, though they may yield to it. Ultimately, if modern socialists are to avoid the totalitarianism of Leninism and the historical impracticability of libertarian socialism, it behooves them to investigate the relationship between Leninism, communism, and anarchism, so they might come to understand the pitfalls and real-world potentials of all three.
Part of the series: UWO