A Lazy Way of Explaining History?

In chapter 18 of his little pamphlet – A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin – Ian Birchall addresses the question: Did Lenin Lead to Stalin?  For Trotskyists, like Birchall, this is a crucial question.  The reason for this is that if Stalinism is the natural outgrowth of Leninism, then Leninism – as a strategy for bringing about a successful Marxist revolution – loses (all?) credibility.  In order for Marxism-Leninism to maintain relevance for revolutionaries in the 21st century, Trotskyists have to show that Stalinism represents a break, as opposed to a continuity, with Leninism. Clearly, however, this question is not just of importance to Marxists and Leninists. For if Leninism did lead to Stalinism then we all need to know about it!  Especially those currently organising for a post-capitalist society.

Birchall begins by asserting that, “Many academics, politicians and journalists claim that Lenin’s methods and policies led directly to the brutalities and atrocities of the Stalin era”, adding, “This is a lazy way of explaining history”. According to Birchall it is lazy because it “fails to examine the complex historical process that led to Stalin” and it “fits with the idea that history is all about great individuals, that all we need to understand is the psychology of a couple of leaders”.  Birchall also correctly points out that “anything can be proved with selective facts torn out of context”.

I would like to begin my reply to Birchall by stating that I agree that history is complex and that understanding the psychology of these “great individuals” can only tell us a small amount about the continuities and changes that make up our collective story of the past.  However, I also have to say that Birchall is guilty of the very thing he accuses others of doing, namely, he is being a bit lazy and distorting in his presentation of this particular episode of history.  I also think that he is completely ignoring a much more compelling and important argument – one that is grounded in an institutional analysis of democratic centralism – that I think Trotskyists, like himself, would find much more difficult to counter.  It is this latter point that I really want to focus on here.
Before getting into that, however, I would like to make a quick point regarding Birchall’s lazy and distorting presentation. In his discussion Birchall positively quotes Victor Serge as saying:

It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’,  Well, I have no objection.  Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not forget it.

Quoting Serge in this way gives the impression that Birchall is taking an open and balanced approach towards the subject.  As an historian with a keen interest in this particular episode in history, however, Birchall surely knows that Serge’s public statements about the Bolshevik party’s role within the Russian Revolution had been brought into question in 1921 by Gaston Leval, who accused Serge of being a “conscious liar” (1). Nevertheless, Birchall chose not to mention this important point. In editing this important point out, it seems to me, Birchall is simplifying a “complex historical process” by highlighting “selective facts” that serve his ideological objectives – which is exactly what he accuses his intellectual opponents of doing.

With that important detail aside I would now like to get to the main point that I would like to focus on here, namely that Birchall ignores the argument for a continuity between Lenin and Stalin based on an institutional analysis of democratic centralism.

Democratic centralism is a specific kind of organisation which, according to Lenin, accommodates both “freedom of discussion” and “unity of action” (2). Like all forms of organisation, democratic centralism is made-up of institutional structures that in turn generate a certain kind of organisational logic. The institutional structure that I want to focus on here is what is typically referred to as the corporate division of labour.  This may sound a bit technical but it is actually quite straightforward. The division of labour is simply a way of sharing out tasks – that can go to make up our jobs within the formal economy – within an organisation. Obviously, there are a number of options for us to chose from here. The corporate division of labour is one way of doing this.

The way in which the corporate division of labour shares out tasks within an organisation is, in a word, unevenly. But what does this mean?  How can tasks be shared out unevenly? Well, there seem to be two possible ways. One way has to do with the quantity of tasks.  For example, imagine two workers and one gets twice as many tasks as the other. That would constitute an uneven distribution of tasks. A second way has to do with the quality of tasks.  Again, imagine two workers.  This time, however, both workers have the same amount of tasks but one worker gets all of the empowering tasks whilst the other gets all of the disempowering tasks. By distributing tasks unevenly in these two ways the corporate division of labour, then, generates a hierarchy within the workplace / economy.

This, however, is not where the story ends.  As noted above, like all institutional structures, the corporate division of labour contributes towards establishing an organisational logic.  Put more simply, the uneven distribution of tasks has implications and consequences throughout the whole workplace and economy. Here I would like to highlight what I see as the two most important. As I hope to make clear, these two consequences of the corporate division of labour feed into and off of each other in a way that helps to stabilize the whole elitist system in which the corporate division of labour is embedded.

The first consequence of the corporate division of labour that I would like to highlight is what I will refer to as the anti-democratic dynamic.  This dynamic flows naturally from the uneven distribution of tasks for the simple reason that, as the old saying goes, knowledge is power. Meaningful democracy relies on informed participants. As a matter of elementary logic, it follows from this truism that where we have an uneven distribution of tasks we cannot have equally informed participants and therefore we also cannot have meaningful democracy.

This understanding feeds into the second implication that the corporate division of labour has on the broader workplace / economy. This anti-democratic dynamic, described above, is only anti-democratic for those who are unfortunate enough to be ladened with the disempowering tasks / jobs. This is because those who are lucky enough to get jobs made up of empowering tasks will also have the knowledge and skills that are required for full and meaningful participation. Imagine, for example, a meeting of one hundred workers, where roughly 80% do disempowering jobs and 20% do empowering jobs. For the sake of experimentation, also imagine that this meeting is totally free and open. Now ask yourself, who in this meeting is likely to dominate the discussion? The answer, of course, is those from the 20%.

Furthermore, we can easily imagine how, under such circumstances, the 80% might stop attending such meetings and how the 20% might start to think that they are the ones who should be making all the decisions anyway. After all, why would people attend a meeting if they do not have the necessary information and confidence that is required for meaningful participation. And why would the 20% want to waste time in meeting with people who do not know what they are talking about. Such conclusions can then, very easily, be used to rationalise the monopolisation of decision-making authority within the hands of the 20%.

So, in addition to this anti-democratic dynamic we also see that the corporate division of labour tends towards elitist and authoritarian decision-making and the emergence of what has been called the coordinator class:

Planners, administrators, technocrats, and other conceptual workers who monopolise the information and decision-making authority necessary to determine economic outcomes.(3)

To bring this all back to our discussion at hand, we can now ask the simple question: does democratic centralism contain the corporate division of labour? The answer to this question seems to me to be obvious. Furthermore, by undertaking the above kind of institutional analysis we can clearly see that a continuity between Lenin and Stalin exists – that the corporate division of labour has an inherent tendency to shift power away from the democratic and towards the centre. This is not to say that had Trotsky, instead of Stalin, followed Lenin the “brutalities and atrocities” that Birchall highlights would have been as severe.  But that is not the only criteria by which we measure historical continuity, nor is it the most appropriate here. The criteria by which to measure any possible continuity between Lenin and Stalin should be in relation to class, or more precisely any shift towards classlessness. By this criteria, it seems to me, Trotsky would have done as badly as Stalin. I draw this conclusion, not because I think Trotsky is as big a monster as Stalin, but because of the organisational logic of democratic centralism – a logic that systematically undermines Lenin’s own stated desire for “freedom of discussion” with “unity of action”. Either way – Trotsky or Stalin – the coordinator class would have ruled over the working class.

Trotskyists, like Birchall, have also argued that the rise of Stalinism was due precisely because of the failure of other revolutionary organisations, that were active around the time of the Russian Revolution (most notably the Germans), to adopt democratic centralist structure (4). In light of the above understanding, regarding the relationship between the corporate division of labour and the coordinator class, this argument makes little, if any, sense. We can only assume that all that would have resulted from such a situation would have been more coordinator class rule.  This brings us to the heart of the problem. The only reason Trotskyists can think such things is because they are blind to the existence of the coordinator class. As Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have been pointing out for decades:

… neither the class struggles in the twentieth-century capitalist economies, nor the class dynamics in the communist economies could be understood without recognising the importance of a new class whose power was based on monopolizing knowledge and administrative authority, a new class that Marxist theory was completely blind to. (5)



(1) For a brief account of this see “Anarchism in the Russian Revolution” in Daniel Guerin’sAnarchism.
(2) See Lenin’s Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.
(3) This defination of the coordinator class is taken from Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel – available online here:http://zcomm.org/looking-forward/
(4) For example, see Tony Cliff’s footnote to his Notes on Democratic Centralism.
(5) For more on this see chapter 3 – Debilitating Myths – of Robin Hahnel’s Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation.  Also see chapter 15 – Marxism – of Michael Albert’s Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism.

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