Reading Lenin Between the Lines

I’m reading a collection of articles and essays by Vladimir Lenin. For me it’s a lesson in history. I’m a communist, not necessarily a fan of Lenin, but I believe there must be something important to learn from him.

One item that struck me as I was reading was Lenin’s response to an insurrection that occurred early on in the Bolshevist reign. Known as the Kronstadt rebellion, it was a cadre of sailors who rebelled against the communist government but were put down. Lenin declares that these mutineers were openly Bolshevist while secretly plotting a white rebellion against the communists.

Lenin’s declaration that there were “traitors in our midst” was a theme his successor, Joseph Stalin, would soon carry out to an extreme. Lenin’s government came about through civil war and always remained on guard for pro-tsarist, capitalist uprisings. Stalin, though he inherited a far more stable Russia, infamously became almost paranoid schizophrenic when it came to seeking out traitors. Stalin scholars often point to the show trials of the Stalin era where seemingly loyal communist party members were seemingly accused of subversion randomly.

Slavoj Zizek, a contemporary Marxist and part-time USSR historian, portrays an interesting view of Stalinist ideology, succinctly, “If, in the Leninist dictatorship, one could be shot for what one said, in Stalinism one could be shot for what one did not say.”

I have nothing insightful to say about the Stalin phenomenon. He was a paranoid, sociopathic despot who took advantage of a destabilized society to enact some of the worst human rights abuses the world has known. There’s no redeeming him. But I don’t think the fault of Stalin is on Lenin’s shoulders. Granted, Lenin instituted what he called “the dictatorship of the proletariat” but the dictatorship he spoke of needs to be qualified. For Lenin martial law was deemed necessary to protect the gains of the revolution from a counter-revolutionary backlash. Lenin took power to prevent the old system of Russian despotism and exploitative capitalism from returning. Violence was seen as a temporary defense until a stable, democratic and working-class got its legs.

The death of Stalin marked the death of the dictatorship. But by then the revolution had ended. The emancipatory rhetoric of Marx and Lenin, gone. What emerged was a highly centralized government (against Lenin’s ideal of empowered workers councils, soviets) and an elitist bureaucracy (Lenin hated bureaucracy.) Although the USSR did successfully transform one of Europe’s most backward societies into an international power, the Behemoth eventually succumbed to it’s own clumsiness.

Getting back to where I began. Why read Lenin? I think the answer to that is simply because we never really “got” him. There are two mainstream views in America when it comes to socialism. 1.) The view that socialism was an experiment conducted by the USSR, which ultimately failed and highlights the teleological supremacy of capitalism. 2.) That “socialism” is what Democrats are pushing in universal health care coverage.

I’ll tell you, both are wrong. On the first claim, the USSR broke from traditional Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy by making the state the central economic power. Marx, Engels and Lenin all conceived of the state as transitory and contingent; economic decisions, they say, belong to democratic worker organizations. Lenin called communism “democratic centralization.” Stalin and Krushchev kept the centralization but abolished the democracy.

As for the second claim, it’s simply untrue. Universal health care only proposes to cover those who have been left out of the free market. If anything the proposal *affirms* the market system by supplementing it.

But logic and reasoning will get you no where in today’s politics. “Socialism” is no longer an alternative, but a political cuss word, a Pavlovian reflex for the conservative. But this was true as much in Lenin’s time as in ours. And say what you will about his methods, Lenin got shit done. He had conviction. I don’t see conviction in the mainstream left anymore.


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