Lessons from Uncle Tom, a Review of Thomas Riggins’ Lessons and Conclusions from Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism An Infantile Disorder

[Here is the piece to which this is a response.]

Thomas Riggins’ review of Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism An Infantile Disorder is a typical repackaging of the same old diversions the latter’s devotees have employed since the object of their veneration began shutting down workers’ soviets, in other words, since the very beginning of Bolshevik rule. Nothing new here, Leninists have to lie, as a truthful synopsis of their hero’s dictatorship over the proletariat would be enough to create an aversion to Leninism in the heart of even the most credulous worker. It would be a tall order indeed to correct all the misrepresentations in Riggins’ besotted account, so I will concentrate on the most important at the expense of the most inaccurate.

The most fundamental distortion Lenin thralls make of their eponym’s legacy is that they try to make his policies as head of state cleave with his writing, particularly State and Revolution. This is no mean feat as the former are more a complete break with the latter than a exigency-driven synthesis (although this last is sometimes adopted by his apologists as a fall-back position). Indeed, Lenin as dictator and Lenin as pre-revolutionary theorist do not comport at all.[1]

There are two visions of socialism, a libertarian and an authoritarian. For those of us in the former camp the social revolution is a simple thing: It is the devolution of all power into the hands of the toiling classes. It is bottom-up, industrial democracy, with decision-making power being exclusively the prerogative of workers in the various industries, confederated one to another under such terms as they see fit, with no power above them interdicting their decisions and issuing binding instructions. The social revolution is the full and final emancipation of labor, all labor, here and everywhere, now and forever.

Libertarian socialists do not believe in political action or political parties. Revolution, real revolution, is effected by the workers themselves, and through such institutions as arise directly from the struggle against capital (trade unions, soviets and the like). Political parties, on the other hand, are seen to pander to capital by working within the capitalist system, that system which must be eliminated. Moreover, it is the opinion of most libertarians that to the degree that political parties do succeed in capturing power, they do so at the expense of worker power, hence they are intrinsically counterrevolutionary. From the libertarian point of view, political power and worker power are in dialectical opposition.

Authoritarian views differ more widely than libertarian, but essential to all is the need for a workers’ state which will centrally plan and govern the activities of the toiling masses for an indefinite period in the aftermath of a successful revolution. Consequently political parties and political action are entirely consonant with this orientation, some would say indispensible to it. And nobody said that more forcefully than Vladimir Ulyanov, aka Nikolai Lenin.

Lenin is the chief theoretician of the revolutionary socialist party, the godfather of socialism by diktat from above, prescriptive and proscriptive. He argued, quite inaccurately as subsequent events would show, that the masses could not achieve class consciousness on their own, and needed the assistance a a vanguard of elite theoreticians to guide them on the road to socialism. It is this unfortunate fact that propagandists like Riggins and his ilk go to great lengths to conceal. Whatever elegantly democratic sentiments Lenin may have offered in State and Revolution and elsewhere, his Bolshevik regime was marked by hostility to the organs of working class power. And, as we shall see, this disenfranchisement of the working class was accomplished by ruthless, sometimes lethal means. Leninism is the marriage of authoritarian Marxism and Macchiavelli, and a divorce from revolution from below. From a libertarian perspective, from a workers’ perspective, Lenin was the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution.

Before we go on, we should review the Bolshevik putsch; just how Lenin seized power, and just what he did once he had.

What follows has been documented in a thousand places. My account mirrors that found in John Reed’s in Ten Days that Shook the World. I recommend it as it was written when the author was still a Bolshevik supporter. The book was enthusiastically endorsed by Lenin himself, in fact he wrote an introduction for one of the editions. Reed eventually came to his senses and denounced Lenin, but at the time he penned the famous tome he was solidly in the Bolshevik camp.

In early November (by their reckoning) when an all-Russian congress of soviets was to convene, Lenin and his followers plotted a coup. Lenin speculated that in order to legitimize his seizure of power, he would need the support of the all-Russian soviet. The problem was that he didn’t have enough backing in the soviets save for a few, and certainly didn’t have a majority in the all-Russian. He calculated that if the Bolsheviks seized power before the congress convened he could not claim that it was sanctioned by it. If, on the other hand, he waited for everyone to arrive, he would have no support. He determined that if he waited for the first delegates to arrive, he might have a favorable audience. He would launch the coup against the Kerensky regime, and then appeal to the then partially assembled congress to sanction the move and homologate Bolshevik power.

And that’s what happened. We would do well to remember that the soviets were workers’ councils. These were the bodies for which the Bolsheviks, at Lenin’s insistence, had demanded “all power.” The soviets were the organs of workers’ and not bourgeois power, and it was these that Lenin usurped.

Once all the delegates had arrived, they were presented with a fait accompli. They roared their objections from the floor and accused the Bolsheviks of infamy. But, alas, it was too late. The Bolsheviks had, as Trotsky put it, “anticipated the will of the all-Russian soviet.”

Now that the scepter was in Lenin’s hand, he immediately moved against the workers. Within days he began to liquidate small soviets. The post office was the first, then the admiralty soviet, and then others. In those workers’ councils which Lenin spared, workers lost the right to elect their own representatives, thenceforth they would be appointed by Lenin’s party.

Within a very short period, Lenin established the Sovnarkom and the Vesenka, the supreme political and economic bodies (respectively) which would govern the workers thoughout Russia. The voice of the workers was thereby styfled.

Lenin then re-commissioned the tsarist terror apparatus, the Ochrana, under a new name, the Cheka. The justification for this was to fight counterrevolution, in reality this force was loosed against Lenin’s opponents Left and Right. Indeed the tsarist prisons which were emptied by the revolution were reopened under Lenin, and in no small number of cases were the very same “enemies” of the state sent back to the cells they once occupied under the tsar.

Aside from the Whites, the first and most immediate threat to Lenin’s power came from the factory committees. These were shop-floor organizations which were running the factories and coordinating with similar bodies. At the time of the Bolshevik putsch, they were aggressively uniting and had, or were on the verge of, creating an all-Russian federation along roughly anarcho-syndicalist lines. Moreover, these committees did not recognize the putsch and payed no heed to Lenin’s orders. They were proceeding with the revolution, the Bolsheviks be damned.

Lenin was terrified. He resolved to enlist the trade unions to undermine the factory committees. Where the unions were unable to convince the committees to submit to Bolshevik rule, the workers were subjected to violence with the Red Army being sent in on occasion to disarm them. Eventually Lenin succeeded in crushing yet another organ of workers’ power.

(It is worth noting that once this was done Lenin then turned on the trade unions. He moved to make them an organ of his government. This sparked outrage even within the party to which Lenin responded angrily saying that many worker organizations had been brought into the government and that this debate really “bored” him, and that the best approach to this issue was “silence.”)

Needless to say, the reaction against Bolshevik rule came quickly, even within the party. From Bolsheviks and workers’ control: the state and counter-revolution – Maurice Brinton [Linked below]

The issue of workers’ control was now being widely discussed within the Party. Leningrad District Committee publishes first issue of Kommunist (a ‘left’ communist theoretical journal edited by Bukharin, Radek and Osinsky, later to be joined by Smirnov). This issue contained the editors’ “Theses on the Present Situation”.

The paper denounced “a labour policy designed to implant discipline among the workers under the flag of ‘self – discipline’, the introduction of labour service for workers, piece rates, and the lengthening of the working day”. It proclaimed that “the introduction of labour discipline in connection with the restoration of capitalist management of industry cannot really increase the productivity of labour”. It would “diminish the class initiative, activity and organisation of the proletariat. It threatens to enslave the working class. It will arouse discontent among the backward elements as well as among the vanguard of the proletariat. In order to introduce this system in the face of the hatred prevailing at present among the proletariat against the ‘capitalist saboteurs’ the Communist Party would have to rely on the petty – bourgeoisie, as against the workers”. It would “ruin itself as the party of the proletariat”.

The first issue of the new paper also contained a serious warning by Radek: “If the Russian Revolution were overthrown by violence on the part of the bourgeois counter – revolution it would rise again like a phoenix; if however it lost its socialist character and thereby disappointed the working masses, the blow would have ten times more terrible consequences for the future of the Russian and the international revolution”. (44)

The same issue warned of “bureaucratic centralisation, the rule of various commissars, the loss of independence for local soviets and in practice the rejection of the type of state – commune administered from below”.

“It was all very well”, Bukharin pointed out, “to say as Lenin had (in State and Revolution) that each cook should learn to manage the State. But what happened when each cook had a commissar appointed to order him about?” The second issue of the paper contained some prophetic comments by Osinsky: “We stand for the construction of the proletarian society by the class creativity of the workers themselves, not by the ukases of the captains of industry. . . if the proletariat itself does not know how to create the necessary prerequisites for the socialist organisation of labour no one can do this for it and no one can compel it to do this. The stick, if raised against the workers, will find itself in the hands of a social force which is either under the influence of another social class or is in the hands of the soviet power; but the soviet power will then be forced to seek support against the proletariat from another class (e.g. the peasantry) and by this it will destroy itself as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Socialism and socialist organisation will be set up by the proletariat itself, or they will not be set up at all – something else will be set up – state capitalism”.

Lenin reacted very sharply. The usual vituperation followed. The views of the ‘left’ Communists were “a disgrace”. “a complete renunciation of communism in practice”, “a desertion to the camp of the petty bourgeoisie”. (47) The left were being “provoked by the Isuvs (Mensheviks) and other Judases of capitalism”. A campaign was whipped up in Leningrad which compelled Kommunist to transfer publication to Moscow, where the paper reappeared first under the auspices of the Moscow Regional Organisation of the Party, later as the ‘unofficial’ mouth – piece of a group of comrades. After the appearance of the first issue of the paper a hastily convened Leningrad Party Conference produced a majority for Lenin and “demanded that the adherents of Kommunist cease their separate organisational existence”.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, Lenin’s “workers’ state” produced a workers’ opposition and a Left opposition. We fail to note this to our disadvantage.

The workers had an even less charitable view of Leninism, but because of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks retained the support of the rank-and-file revolutionary workers for as long as reactionary troops were on Russian soil.

So in light of these facts, let’s look at Riggins’ review:

“[Lenin] begins by looking at the Russian Revolution of 1905 and remarking that two lessons can be drawn from it. First that the industrial working class (the proletariat) has far more power and influence in society  than its actual numbers would suggest…Granted that 1905 was premature, but the tactics developed then paid off in 1917. Second, the creation of Soviets in 1905 was the beginning of a new way to organize the masses and to lead a mass struggle against capitalism…I think we can give Lenin high marks here…

As stated at the top, Leninists must lie, as the truth reveals Lenin to be a second-rate theorist at best, and a reactionary at worst.

What Riggins doesn’t mention here is that the revolution of ’05 occurred in precisely that unplanned, spontaneous, vanguard-free fashion which Lenin insisted was impossible just a few years before in his What is to be Done. So apparently Lenin should have drawn not two but three lessons from event as the first revolution of 1917 happened in much the same manner.

“Granted that 1905 was premature…”

Was it? How so? What did not exist in that year which did in 1917? If there is an argument here (and I doubt it), then Riggins needs to make it. This is a common tactic for propagandists, simply bury insuperable obstacles in the sand and sprint over them. There are volumes of dispute hidden within this “grant.”

“The creation of Soviets in 1905 was the beginning of a new way to organize the masses and to lead a mass struggle against capitalism…I think we can give Lenin high marks here…”

Here Riggins lies. Lenin disapproved of the soviets and said so plainly. His party continued to echo this anti-soviet line well into 1917. Lenin was the first Bolshevik (or close to it) to realize that the soviets were extremely popular with the workers and it would not be in the best interests of the party to place themselves in opposition. Then and only then did the Bolsheviks shout “all power to the soviets.” But as history would demonstrate conclusively, they were not sincere. Leninism and sovietism are antithetical conceptions. The former postulates that the working class such as it is is not ready to effect a revolution and a vanguard is needed to lead the way. The soviets, imperfect as they were, were expressions of workers power and control independent of any oversight. Lenin’s objection that the soviets weren’t proletarian enough is well taken, indeed they contained bourgeois elements, but object Lenin did. Riggins’ assertion that in the aftermath of the failed 1905 revolution Lenin embraced the soviet system is just so much nonsense.

Good marks here? Only if one utterly misrepresents Lenin’s views could one consider such a thing. In reality, here again we see Lenin overmatched by events.

” “Soviets” is a Russian word, so whether you want to use it  or the term “worker’s councils” or “the occupy movement” organizations similar to these will have to be eventually set up…Lenin was convinced that “communism”– i.e., revolutionary Marxism was on the ascent  in the working class movement against its two  main enemies “Menshevism” (by which he meant nationalism and opportunism under whatever forms in different countries) on the one hand, and ultra-leftism (“Left-Wing” communism) on the other…After a hectic century of struggle we currently have five “communist” countries in which both those currents have been nominally overcome (at least as openly argued for positions). In the rest of the developed world Menshevism is alive and well as a popular option in the working  class movement and “revolutionary” Marxism, where it exists at all, is a very small fraction of the working class (although in some countries it is growing and radicalizing thousands of workers in response to the calls for “austerity” in response to the general crisis of capitalism). “Ultra-leftism” has been reduced to small cult-like extremist groups on the fringes of the anti-capitalist struggle with little or no influence within the working class.”

Really, what convolution! In the first line above Riggins likens the Soviets (note the capital denotes the Bolshevized soviets), workers’ councils, and the occupy movement, three things with little in common. The first represents Leninism, the last a conscientiously anti-Leninist, libertarian conception, and we can argue as to what the middle means (although it is clear how Lenin felt about all forms of worker power). The point is Riggins is taking antithetical political orientations and attempting to delude his readers into thinking they are the same.

Opportunism may have been what Lenin opportunistically meant by Menshevism, but that is not what it was. No doubt some Mensheviks were, just as a great many Bolsheviks were, but it is inaccurate to characterize Menshevism that way. And this bit about Mensheviks being nationalists is equally deceptive.

What Lenin calls Ultra-Leftism most revolutionaries call socialism. And the Occupy- Movement, of which Riggins speaks favorably, was conceived and dominated (in a numerical sense) by “ultra-lefts.” Occupy- was a libertarian event in which some non-libertarians participated. Unlike what Riggins would have you believe, Occupy- was by its very nature a repudiation of Leninism, not a manifestation of it. This is a thorn trying to pass itself off as a rose, and to bask in its glow. Shameless!

“Lenin was blinded by the stunning successes of the Bolshevik revolution and its positive reception by the international working class. The founding of the Soviet Union in 1922, just two years after his book on left-wing communism came out would seem to have justified all this optimism.”

“Blinded by the stunning success of the revolution”? To what stunning success does the author refer? The destruction of the factory committees, trade unions and soviets? What Riggins and Lenin call revolution survived the Civil War, and that was indeed an accomplishment, but what else could qualify as success? Any skilled propagandist knows that the best way to cover-up contradictory facts is simply to assert the opposite as fact and move along rapidly.

Positive reaction by the international working class? What a shame he couldn’t get a better reception from the Russian working class.

The founding of the USSR justified his optimism? This is just astounding! Lenin was the dictator of Russia, the USSR came into existence under and upon his command. Accomplishment?

“There are, he said, two FUNDAMENTAL principles of communism that parties have to work towards– one is Soviet power (i.e., working people actually meeting in councils and taking political and economic power as a result; the other is “the dictatorship of the proletariat”– an infelicitous  expression these days– but this only means that the working people once in power will not allow the bourgeoisie to engage in active opposition to the worker’s new government.”

Not a word of truth in this as we have seen how Lenin reacted to workers’ power. As for the dictatorship of the proletariat: That might be what Engels meant by the phrase, and probably what Marx meant, but it is certainly not what Lenin meant, let alone did. He took the term literally, and spent the last years of his life defending that position against his detractors. There is a fairly large corpus of writing on this issue and I recommend that readers research it for themselves. They will discover that Riggins is lying again. As we saw above, Lenin even eliminated free speech for party members. Lenin ruled, everyone else obeyed or suffered the consequences.

” Even so this “vanguard” was not able to pull off the NEXT step in the struggle–i.e., “the search after forms of the TRANSITION or the APPROACH to the proletarian revolution.” It was unable to convince the majority of the working masses to follow its lead and remained a militant contingent of the working masses but not THE vanguard (except in a theoretical sense).”

The vanguard was unable to convince the workers to follow its lead. Gee, did we workers disappoint our vanguard! Gosh we are awfully sorry.

The workers failed Lenin, not the other way around, that’s priceless.

“Lenin was well aware of the necessity of winning over the majority as he said, “Victory cannot be won with a vanguard alone.” And the broad masses of the people cannot be won over by agitation and  propaganda “alone.” No, “the fundamental law of all great revolutions” is that “the masses must have their own political experience.”  


I’m going to end on that humorous note. I strongly urge you, dear readers, to read Maurice Brinton’s pamphlet on the subject. Or the works of one of the Red Army soldiers who refused Lenin’s orders to disarm workers, particularly “Lenin’s Terror within the Bolshevik Party.” For those interested in the Russian Revolution or revolution in general, there are Voline’s The Unknown Revolution and, more relevant to this topic, his 1917. Angelica Balabanoff’s Impressions of Lenin is also instructive. But wait you say, these are all “ultra-Lefts”, mostly anarchists. Read Victor Serge’s The First Year of the Russian Revolution. The three volumes of E. H. Carr’s Bolshevik Revolution comprise the single best treatment of the subject I have encountered, much more objective and accurate than Trotsky’s. Even as sympathetic a writer as Manya Gordon takes Lenin to task in her superb book about the workers before and after Lenin’s regime. And if this isn’t enough, I refer the readers to Isaac Deutscher’s book on Bolshevism and the trade unions. Even as breathless a hagiographer as he is critical of Lenin’s autocratic treatment of the Russian workers and peasants. All of the above will disabuse the reader of Riggins’ absurd account.

[1] State and Revolution was written before the revolution and published afterwar

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