By Max Shachtman
THE Independent Socialist League does not subscribe to any doctrine called Leninism. It does not have an official position on the subject and I am pretty certain that nobody could get the League to commit itself officially on a term which has been so varyingly and conflictingly defined as to make discussion of it more often semantic than ideological or political.
To me, and surely to most of our comrades, Leninism is a question primarily of historical importance in our time. Most often what is in people’s minds is the Russian Revolution and democracy as the road and aim of socialism. In our view the Russian revolution has long ago been crushed. What is the fundamental and urgent political question is the relation between democracy and socialism. These questions concern socialists today and I want to outline my views on them.
We regard the Russian revolution of 1917, which Lenin led, as a socialist revolution that established a genuine workers’ government. I have always defended this proposition and so have our comrades. You yourself have often in the past taken a similar view. I think it worth while here to note the fact that four years after the revolution, Morris Hillquit, a pretty severe critic of the Bolsheviks, wrote these interesting words: “It is pretty idle cavilling to dispute the Socialist character of the Russian revolution… The Russian revolution has taken possession of the government in the name of the workers. It has effectively expropriated capitalist owners and nationalised the greater part of the industries. It has also written into its program the socialisation of the land. Measured by all practical tests it is therefore a Socialist revolution in character as well as intent. If it has not come as a result of the course of historic and economic development outlined by Marx, it has occurred through the working of another set of social conditions and forces, which have proved potent enough to create and maintain it. Its continued existence, year after year, in the face of almost incredible domestic difficulties and embittered foreign attacks, prove that we are not dealing with a mere freakish episode, but with a monumental historic event. This will remain true even if the Soviet government should not prove able to maintain itself indefinItely and should yield to another and substantially different form of government.”
Now, I believe that the Soviet government finally yielded to “another and substantially different form of government” under the rise and consolidation of Stalin’s power. I believe it to be as different as counter-revolution is from revolution, as different as the destruction of socialism is from the movement toward socialism. When you say that one grew out of the other “by natural processes,” I would agree with that it it means “as a result of objective material forces.” To that, I believe it important to add that Stalinism based itself to a considerable extent upon some of the ideas and institutions defended by Lenin. These it exploited or distorted to serve its own totalitarian and anti-socialist ends. Plainly, they were put forth originally in the desperate, groping attempt to get out of the blind alley formed around the revolution by the walls of the terrible backwardness of the country and the isolation of the republic.
I have in mind, most particularly, the decision of the Tenth Bolshevik Congress to prohibit factions inside the party, which played an enormous role in facilitating the rise of totalitarianism; and the point of view which became a principle defended by the Bolshevik leaders that all parties must be outlawed and kept outlawed. I must say that I unthinkingly accepted this proposition for years in the Communist and Trotskyist movements. But the grim realities of Stalinism forced a reconsideration of many questions. This one was not the least important. Fourteen years ago, I tried to re-examine this vital question, and I hope you will bear with a quotation from the article of 1943:
“The idea of one party in power is one thing, and not at all in violation of either bourgeois or workers’ democracy. The idea that all other parties must be, not in opposition, with the rights of oppositions, but in prison, violates both bourgeois and workers’ democracy, and it is with the latter that we are concerned here. Even if every non-Bolshevik group, without exception, had resorted to armed struggle against the Soviet power, it was a disastrous mistake to outlaw them in perpetuity...
“The whole Bolshevik party was politically miseducated and ideologically intimidated against the very idea of more than one party in the country, and for this miseducation none of its leaders can escape his share of the responsibility...
“The revolutionary Marxists must learn, and then must teach, that the struggle for democratic rights is not just a clever device for embarrassing the undemocratic bourgeoisie, that the struggle is not confined to the days of capitalism. On the contrary, it is precisely when the new revolutionary power is set up that the struggle for democratic rights and democracy acquires its fullest meaning and its first opportunity for complete realisation.
“The revolutionists after the overturn of capitalism differ from revolutionists before that overturn not in that they no longer demand them, but in the fact that they are for the first time really and fully able to promulgate them and to see to it that they are preserved from all infringement, including infringement by the new state or the bureaucrats in it. The right of free speech, press and assembly, the right to organise and the right to strike, are not less necessary under the dictatorship of the proletariat, but more necessary and more possible.
“Socialism can and will be attained by only the fullest realisation of democracy... That is what the revolutionary Marxists should teach. But first of all they must learn it, and thoroughly. It is one of the most important lessons of the Russian revolution and its decay.”
In the past fourteen years, I have expressed these views with increasing insistence and emphasis. I consider them today to be of fundamental importance to the coexistence and cooperation of all socialists whatever other matters they may differ on. It is from this socialist standpoint that I want to fight against the Stalinist regime, the Communist movement, their supporters, defenders and apologists. I am completely agreed that the regime is not just a “mistaken form of socialism” or any kind of socialism, but its betrayal and negation. And as you know, for years I defended the view that far from being some kind of socialism, the Russian regime represents a new form of totalitarian exploitation dominated by a new ruling class.
But I cannot see the political wisdom, or the factual foundation, for considering such an anti-socialist regime as the logical, inevitable and authentic continuation of a socialist revolution. This in precisely the main claim to socialist justification and legitimacy made by the Stalinists. I want to be able to say in any polemic it is necessary to conduct against them: You have not carried out the ideal and principles of the socialist revolution to a logical conclusion — you have betrayed and destroyed it. And I believe that the basic and relevant facts enable me to make that assertion honestly and sincerely. By defending everything that was said and done by Lenin or the other leaders of the revolution? Certainly not, but by emphasising the radical differences between the revolution and the present regime.
I have looked back on some of your own writings of fairly recent times and find them highly relevant to my point. You have written: “In Lenin’s time the Communist Party was itself democratic.” And: “Everybody knows that Lenin started with an extreme approach to equalitarianism.” And: “It is true that in the very early days of the revolution the degree of workers’ control in the factories was very great.” And more along similar lines.
Now: I want to be able to say, in such debates as I have mentioned, that the Stalinist regimes have wiped out and betrayed all of that. To me, this is dictated by good political sense and is justified by ascertainable facts. I consider it of high political value and significance to say, as you do in your letter to me: “… if Lenin had lived, he might have repudiated Stalinism or been repudiated by it.”
If anything, I would put it more emphatically, for it is my deep conviction. I say this without any thought of absolving Lenin or any other Bolshevik leader from their own responsibilities, excesses in the revolution, or of mistakes afterward. But also without any thought of making it mandatory upon all members of a democratic socialist party what you called “absolute identity of opinion” on a subject that is primarily of historical importance, and on which a pretty wide diversity of view exists — as it should — in every part of the socialist international with which I am familiar.
Only a sterile sect demands uniformity of opinion on all questions, historical, theoretical, philosophical, political and tactical. A political movement should and can be built only upon the degree of agreement that is necessary for its to carry out its political tasks effectively. Organisations like the Socialist Labour Party or the Socialist Workers Party are sorry examples of the former. I would like to see the SP-SDF as an encouraging model of the latter.
• From the internal bulletin of the Independent Socialist League, September 1957. This is from a letter to Norman Thomas in the negotiations about the entry of Max Shachtman and his co-thinkers to the Socialist Party. In fact, Shachtman went over very quickly to social democracy, though as far as we know he never repudiated the 1917 revolution. See introduction.