Dear Michael,

I’ve responded in my latest comment on your opening statement (and rejoinders) to your queries about my proposed principle of egalitarian justice: I hope this leaves you less confused. I want to concentrate here on the questions of Leninism, strategy, and state capitalism.

1. What is Leninism? Your response to my account of Leninism is similar to your comments on socialism: that is, you simply stipulate a meaning of Leninism inconsistent with my description. Thus when I call democratic centralism ‘a rigorous application of the majority principle’ you comment derisively: ‘Really? This is what you think Lenin was doing? And Trotsky? And communist parties throughout history?’

I’ll come back to Lenin and Trotsky below, but surely I’m entitled to recognition that I belong to a variant of Leninism that has contested the theory and practice of the Communist Parties from the mid-1920s onwards. People in my tradition – that of the Trotskyist movement – were massacred in their thousands when they went on hunger strike in the Gulag in 1936-7. In a very real sense, a river of blood divides my tradition from all versions of orthodox Communism. I know that you can reply by citing the mass violence practised by the Bolsheviks during the Civil War, a subject that I will touch on a bit later. Nevertheless, it simply isn’t on to present Leninism as a monolithic set of doctrines and practices, rather than – like Marxism and socialism more generally (and anarchism?) – a contested tradition.

To reassert my position: I stand for a version of Leninism that isn’t simply consistent with democratic forms of mass self-organization but that is necessary for self-emancipation to triumph. You assert that this is an impossible position to sustain; I disagree. History will show which of us is right.

2. Strategy Today:  You brush aside my claim that ‘the basic idea behind Leninism is that those on the left who share a revolutionary socialist perspective should form a common organization with the aim of winning over the majority to the idea of overthrowing capitalism’ with the comment: ‘Given your meaning of the word socialist, this would make most anarchists Leninists. It would make me a Leninist.’ This is too quick, just as you have in these exchanges been generally sped past the strategic problems currently facing the movement.

I know that you share my preoccupation by how to win over the majority to a radically emancipatory project. I don’t think this by any means true of all anarchists. It’s certainly not true of many anti-Leninists in the contemporary European anti-capitalist movement (because of the influence of Toni Negri and the Italian disobbedienti they tend to call themselves autonomists these days rather than anarchists or libertarian socialists). 

In my experience (and I write from very recent experience of the efforts of a broad coalition to organize the next European Social Forum in London) many autonomists are completely uninterested in winning over the majority. They have a principled hostility to trade unions that can merge into outright contempt for working-class people (here what you say about ‘coordinatorist’ attitudes within the movement does hit home). This stance is rationalized through a conception of the movement as the self-assertion of the subjectivity of the existing activists that in turn legitimizes an obsession with process to the exclusion of any consideration of either principles or outcomes. In practice this can lead to a manipulation of decision-making by consensus in which very small groups of people with very little interest in taking the movement forward hold everyone else to ransom.

One reason why Hardt and Negri are so influential is that Empire provides a very abstract, apparently profound philosophical language that, particularly in the way in which it stretches concepts such as ‘labour’ and ‘exploitation’ to the point of meaninglessness can be used to represent the kinds of practices that I have described as not merely revolutionary but as actually creating an emancipated society in the present. But what is striking is how often, in reality, this kind of stance can be very close to the positions taken by people on the right of the movement like Bernard Cassen in France.

In Europe this right wing is perfectly happy to adopt the language of ‘counter-power’, for example, because they see the movement as a pressure group to squeeze policies like the Tobin Tax out of actual or potential social-democratic governments. Like many autonomists they want to keep the Social Forums as pure ‘spaces for discussion’ and not, also, as means of mobilization in the way in which the ESF in Florence and the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre provided the launching pad for the global day of anti-war protest on 15 February.

So I don’t think that my definition of Leninism is merely platitudinous. The idea that we should build the movement through a dynamic process of mobilization that seeks to draw in wider and wider layers of those exploited and oppressed by capitalism is strongly contested from both the right and what purports to be the extreme left of the movement. Of course, you don’t have to be a Leninist to accept this idea. As I have already argued, there is a relatively broad and heterogeneous left including your kind of anarchist that does accept it. But I would argue that Leninists in my tradition pursue this approach is a relatively focused and strategically oriented way. I would believe this is to the credit of the revolutionary Marxist tradition and democratic centralist organization.

3. Bolshevism and state capitalism: But, you protest, how can you call yourself a Leninist given the terrible things that people who I accept are central to this tradition did and said? To hammer this point home you cite mainly some terrible things that Trotsky wrote. I haven’t had time to look them up, but they are pretty familiar: I would say that they come either from Terrorism and Communism (1920) or from Trotsky’s contributions to the associated debate in the Bolshevik Party in 1920-1, when he argued that trade unions should be strictly subordinated to the state (a debate in which, incidentally, Lenin strongly opposed him, arguing that workers needed their own organizations to defend themselves under a state that, though originating in the soviets, had developed ‘bureaucratic deformations’).

I have no intention of defending what Trotsky says in these passages. Terrorism and Communism is an awful book. How, then, can I consider myself, not only a Leninist, but also a Trotskyist? Because what he wrote there doesn’t exhaust Trotsky’s achievements as a revolutionary socialist over more than 40 years. More specifically, because Trotsky died at the hands of the state that he helped to create – and not just, like millions of others, a bewildered victim, but a clear-eyed opponent on a principled basis that included a serious attempt to discover the social roots of Stalinism. There is plenty in The Lessons of October, The Revolution Betrayed, and Trotsky’s voluminous political writings – for example, on the rise of National Socialism in Germany – that I would be happy, indeed proud, to defend.

What this highlights is that central to any serious assessment of Trotsky – and Lenin – has to treat them as the protagonists of an enormous historical tragedy, as political leaders whose pursuit of what they conceived to be a radically emancipatory project lead to an outcome profoundly different from what they had intended, an outcome that destroyed Trotsky and that left Lenin in his final months of self-conscious existence struggling despairingly against the monster that he had helped to create? This then poses three questions:

(i) Was this outcome built into their political project from the start?

(ii) Were the measures that they took that helped to produce this outcome – the Red Terror, the more general centralization of economic and political power, the militarization of social relations, etc., etc. – dictated at least in large part by the necessities of resisting counter-revolutionary forces in a disintegrating, predominantly agrarian society? 

(iii) Even if the answer to (ii) were ‘Yes’, did Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolshevik leaders make a virtue of (what they perceived to be) necessity, producing, as the passages you cite might be taken illustrate, theoretical rationalizations of practices that were in fact evolved pragmatically in the course of consolidating a revolutionary regime?

Now I know perfectly well that we’re not going to agree in our answers to these questions. (Mine are No to (i), and Yes to (ii) and (iii).) Nevertheless, implicit in these questions is the more general problem of the respective roles of objective context and subjective projects in producing historical outcomes. One way of summing up our disagreement about Leninism is that we differ in the relative weight we give to these two elements in the emergence of Stalinism. You attach more importance to the Bolsheviks’ political intentions, I to their historical circumstances. But we differ also about how to characterize the objective context.

For you Stalinism represents the triumph of the coordinator class whose ‘agenda’ Trotsky articulated in the passages you cite. Sociologically this is enormously implausible. The Bolsheviks were an overwhelmingly working-class party at the time of the 1917 Revolutions; whatever we say about the ‘Stalin revolution’ of the 1930s (I would prefer to call it a counter-revolution), it was an engine of enormous social mobility as industrialization and the Great Terror swept hundreds of thousands of worker and peasant lads into managerial positions. Of course, once the bureaucratic structures of power had emerged by the early 1920s, powerful social interests worked to maintain and strengthen them. But I don’t think this enough to explain the huge economic and social upheavals the USSR underwent in the 1930s.

The correct explanation takes us back to the question of how to characterize capitalism. You allege that my insistence on describing the Stalinist societies as state capitalist reflects the theoretical poverty of Marxism: we only have concepts for capitalism and socialism. This isn’t true, actually: there is plenty of theoretically and historically sophisticated work on pre-capitalist modes of production. But in any case capitalism, I have argued, has two defining features: the separation of labour-power from the means of production and the accumulation of capital impelled by the competitive struggle between rival capitals.

In the USSR in the 1930s we have the separation of the direct producers from the means of production on a vast scale, as the peasants were brutally expropriated and driven in their millions as wage-labourers into the new industries. And what drove this process on? We have Stalin’s own answer in a famous speech of 1930: the need to catch up economically with the West in ten years by building up the industrial base to provide the military technologies required to face the other Great Powers on equal terms. Competition – in this case military – imposed the dynamic of capital accumulation on the USSR and continued to do so for the next 50 years. 

You reject this explanation because, among other reasons, you make private ownership and competitive markets necessary conditions of the existence of capitalist economic relations. But then you have the problem of explaining the enormous role played by geopolitical competition and the highly statized military-industrial complex in Western capitalism – not least, of course, in the contemporary United States.

Irrespective of these important disagreements, we both want to make sure that nothing like Stalinism happens again. I believe that that the twists and turns of 20th century history indicate that there can be no absolute guarantees. All we can do is work together to build an anti-capitalist movement that is as broadly based, as democratically self-organized, as socially powerful, as theoretically self-conscious, as globally united as possible. That’s why the problems of strategy that I’ve tried to highlight matter so much.


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