Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 16, 2012

Was Lenin a lying manoeuvrer?

Filed under: Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

Weekly Worker 901 Thursday February 16 2012

Falling out over a Cliff

by Lars Lih

Was Lenin a lying manoeuvrer? Were the Bolsheviks a cult led by an all-knowing leader and staffed by narrow-minded minions? Lars T Lih joins in the debate over Tony Cliff’s biography and debunks some myths held by both left and right

An interesting debate has broken out concerning certain issues in the history of Bolshevism. Pham Binh started things off with a vociferous attack[1] on the first volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of VI Lenin.[2] Paul Le Blanc leapt in to defend Cliff and to dismiss Pham’s criticisms.[3] Pham and le Blanc had a further exchange,[4] and Paul D’Amato also weighed in.[5]

My contribution to this discussion restricts itself to two specific issues: the 3rd Congress in 1905 and the Prague Conference in 1912. I feel compelled to make a statement because my work is cited both by Pham and Le Blanc; more to the point, I have familiarised myself with the original Russian-language sources for both episodes and therefore feel I have something to say. On one issue – the 1905 Congress – I will repeat a critique of Cliff that I have made twice before, since, insofar as I know, no-one has really responded to it. On the other issue – the 1912 Conference – recent study of primary sources has caused me to change my mind, with the result that I am cited in defence of views I no longer hold.[6]

full: http://cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004719


  1. Have not read Lars’ “work”, since he wants $213 for it. Cliff’s “work” is on MIA and I have read some of that. Interesting that Lars is debating in a Korean-oriented forum, that the name of Trotsky appears as one of the central players, and that people who identify with Trotsky are in the debate, at least as objects. The histories are useful for understanding how the organizations operated, and that can be of use to revolutionaries today. Perhaps important points are not just whether or not workers should be members of a workers’ party, but the debates on how the party controlled membership-whether that was active or passive. In the context of the anarchists and Occupy the World, is a successful movement to replace the globalist states and capitalist economies going to achieve its goal when the masses of people informally swirl around an idea and then self-define their ties to organizations that organize and define goals? Wasn’t one of the key concepts in the RSDLP that it was the organization that defined membership and for a central purpose- to preserve meaning, clarity, and calls to action? Whether or not workers were considered for membership seems laughable now, but back in the day, the divisions between the intelligentsia and workers in factories was more defined, elitist, and backward. I suppose Cliff could have taken this angle to rationalize his theories regarding the usurpation of power by the party bureaucracy and the creation of “state capitalism”.

    Tony Cliff’s conception of party is of less importance than his conception of post-capitalist or “state capitalist” economies:

    “The fact that the Russian economy is directed towards the production of certain use values does not make it a socialist economy, even though the latter would also be directed towards the production of (very different) use values. On the contrary, the two are complete opposites. The increasing rate of exploitation, and the increasing subordination of the workers to the means of production in Russia, accompanied as it is by a great production of guns but not butter, leads to an intensification, not a lessening of the oppression of the people.”

    People who are interested in the end of capitalism are also interested in what comes next. Much of the old anti-communist rhetoric is based on reactions to the soviet economy as propagandized by the capitalist press. Very little in the capitalist press has concerned itself with the faction fights in the RSDLP. But the relationship between the consumer and commodities even circulates today in the form of internet email jokes: “The difference between, capitalism, socialism, and communism is. . .” This type of exchange came up during the legislation over a change in health care laws.

    To a certain extent, Cliff’s dumping on the soviets and workers’ power seems to have been his ratification of the pre-revolutionary and Menshevik opposition to the revolution in Russia based on it’s economic development being “too backward” and therefore a rationalization for leaving capitalism in the driver’s seat (through its bourgeois government) as a progressive force in history. He certainly cites to the period before the rise of Stalin to confirm his thesis that the soviet state became a capitalist employer and therefore a capitalist exploiter within the imperialist world economy, i.e., the state takes on the role of the individual capitalist vis-à-vis the capitalist’s employees within the individual enterprise, with the external competition to “the enterprise” being the international markets and the external bourgeoisie. Lenin would have been the first director of Russian State Capitalism.

    That seems to be a more important conversation.

    Comment by Eustacius — February 19, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

  2. A softcover version of Lih’s book is available from Haymarket for under $50.

    Comment by sam w — February 21, 2012 @ 1:21 am

  3. Comment 1 does not address Lars Ti Lih’s very specific article and it completely misunderstand’s Cliff’s theory of state capitalism. Cliff was vehemently for the October revolution, against the Menshevik arguments. October only ever made sense in the context of a wider European revolution.

    Lenin did discuss a ‘state capitalsm’ but, as Cliff emphasised, it was not the state capitalism Cliff spoke of. Lenin’s was the workers’ state (or what was left of it) regulating a capitalist or mixed economy for a while in a crisis situation (a large-scale NEP?). Cliff’s was a counter revolution (Stalin) followed by a state capitalism run by those who benefitted from a permanent new economy. A difference might be that the one regime ensures there is no infringement of an eight hour day and the other regime increases the working day.

    Comment by D_D — February 21, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

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