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The Anarcho-Leninist Debate on the State
Essay 152 Ben Seattle October 16, 2002

Ben's reply to Irving (part 2)
Why did Lenin suppress
all competing trends
after the civil war ended in 1920?

question Saturday • 12-Oct-2002 • 8:24 pm
Irving da Naile post # 103-3002
Ben, if your so-called "proletarian state" controls the media (ie, printing presses, paper supply, airwaves, etc.) isn't it logical to assume that, given the nature of every state to make self-preservation its primary concern, you state will either deny or put roadblocks in the way of those it deems "enemies of the state" (ie, anarchists and/or other socialist parties) to freely utilize the media? This is the experience of the Boshevik (counter) Revolution, is it not?
Part 2 of Ben's reply (ie: dealing with the past) is on this page. Click here for part 1 of Ben's reply (dealing with the future): "The future proletarian state and the media"

reply • Wednesday • 16-Oct-2002 • 8:25 am • by ben
Why did Lenin suppress all competing trends
after the civil war ended in 1920?

(part 2 of my reply to Irving)

Many people (not simply anarchists) are quite sceptical about the working class making use of a state machine to defend its interests after the overthrow of bourgeois rule. These people often point to how Lenin and the bolsheviks suppressed all competing political trends in the early 1920's--and the permanent police state which became established in the following years. As a result of this historical experience the equation has been established that:

workers' state = suppression of all opposition
This equation is promoted not only by all trends of bourgeois thought (conservative, liberal, social-democratic, eclectic, etc) but also by nearly all trends on the left which claim to support the idea of working class rule. Many of the trends on the left which promote this equation do not do so directly. Rather they tend to avoid the subject entirely or to reduce discussion of the principles involved to rote, meaningless, mind-numbing phrases which explain nothing and which fail to address the legitimate concerns activists have about the relationship between democratic rights and workers' democracy.

Back from the dead

However as the anti-war and anti-globalization movements develop, as activists increasingly make use of the emerging revolution in communications to link up with one another, sort out the serious questions--and confront the central task of eliminating the system of bourgeois rule--all questions connected to the idea of a workers state will emerge again, so to speak, from the dead.

In particular, the equation: "workers' state equals suppression of all opposition" is bound to come up for re-examination. This question will re-emerge because the goal of the elimination of bourgeois rule will eventually force activists to confront the need for a realistic alternative to the bourgeois state.

The concept of a proletarian state stands alone as the only realistic alternative to the current bourgeois state. And the principle ideological obstacle standing between activists and the concept of a proletarian state--is this equation.

For these reasons, and because this equation does not conform to the material conditions that exist in modern society--this equation is going to be demolished, smashed up, crushed.

Smashing the equation

We must therefore ask ourselves three questions about this equation:

The first question we must ask ourselves--is whether it is true that the bolsheviks suppressed all competing trends in the early 1920's. Yes. It is true. Not withstanding meaningless doubletalk by modern-day cargo cult Leninists--it is incontrovertible that Lenin and the bolsheviks took harsh measures to ruthlessly crush all opposition (including from well-meaning political trends such as the anarchists).

Why did they do it?

The second question we must ask ourselves is why this suppression took place. This question is almost universally ignored. When this question is addressed at all it is usually to give a bullshit answer (ie: power corrupts, etc). It is true, of course, that power corrupts. But this corruption does not take place overnite. The bolshevik party did eventually become corrupt and degenerate. But this happened later (probably in the later 1920's) and does not explain why the bolsheviks suppressed all opposition in the early 1920's--in the period when Lenin was alive.

The real reason that the bolsheviks suppressed all opposition in the period following the end of the civil war in 1920--is actually very simple:

if they had not acted like this
the bourgeoisie and landlords would have
returned to power within a few months

Many of the critics (social-democratic as well as anarchist) of Lenin's suppression of opposing trends imagine that some kind of third alternative was possible. "Neither the whiteguards nor the bolsheviks" was the cry of the mutineers at Kronstadt (ie: the navel fortress that commanded all shipping lanes into Petrograd--Russia's only Baltic seaport). But history had no room for such a third alternative in the conditions of 1920's Russia. In the material conditions which existed at that time there were only two possible alternatives: harsh and brutal rule by the bolsheviks--or harsher and more brutal rule by the bourgeoisie and landlords.

To understand why no such third alternative was possible we must consider the concrete conditions which existed. The Russian economy had been shattered. Hunger was universal. The peasantry, in particular, was extremely unhappy with the bolshevik policy of grain requisitions at gunpoint. The peasants had put up with these policies during the civil war only because they hated the landlords and whiteguards more than they hated the bolsheviks--and they were willing to support the bolsheviks until such time (and only until such time) as the landlords and whiteguards were defeated. This is why the widespread peasant revolts against the bolsheviks only broke out after the civil war ended with the defeat of the whiteguards.

If Lenin and the bolsheviks had allowed oppositional political trends (such as the mensheviks, the anarchists and many similar trends) political space to exist (ie: the right to to make their views known, to agitate, assemble and organize)--these oppositional trends would have made promises to the peasants which would have been extremely unrealistic but which would have been believed. The bolsheviks (and their extremely unpopular restrictions, for example, on the freedom to buy and sell grain) would have been swept from power relatively quickly. Unfortunately this would not have been the end of the story.

"thank you very much but
you are no longer needed"

Once the bolsheviks had been swept from power the bourgeoisie and landlords would have returned--because none of the other political trends (despite their best intentions) would have been able to stand up to the bourgeoisie and landlords. Once the bolsheviks were gone the bourgeoisie would say to these other trends: "thank you very much but you are no longer needed" and then slapped them down as the insignificant non-entities they were. (This is the part that the anarchists, in particular, do not want to understand.)

Note well: I am not characterizing these oppositional trends as insignificant from the point of view of activists. As activists we consider all these trends significant and we strive to understand these trends (and their appeal) in a conscious way. Rather I am simply asserting that all of these trends were insignificant in terms of their ability to stand up to the bourgeoisie and the immensely powerful economic and political forces (for example) that would have been unleashed once restrictions were ended on the freedom to buy and sell grain (ie: one of the demands of the Kronstadt mutineers).

And now we must ask the third question.

The third question is whether it is in the nature of a workers' state to suppress all opposition.

For example were the actions of the bolsheviks in the early 1920's some kind of general policy good for all times, places and conditions ? Or were they a necessary response to the specific conditions (ie: a shattered economy, famine, a majority of the population peasants who were extremely dissatified) of the time?

This is, so to speak, where the rubber hits the road. The bourgeoisie (and most groups on the left who claim to support the goal of working class rule) equate a workers state with a monopoly of power by a single party which suppresses all opposition.

This is bullshit.

Workers' state not possible
without democratic rights

In the first place--the bolshevik state was never really a workers' state in the full sense of the word. Without the essential democratic rights (ie: speech, assembly, the right to agitate and organize independently) it cannot be said that workers really ran the state. What existed was closer, in its nature, to being a lottery ticket: a fighting chance (the only chance they had) to establish a workers' state. In order for this attempt to succeed it would have been necessary to create a functioning economy before the ruling party degenerated (ie: a race against time that was lost). With a functioning economy it would have become possible to give the peasants manufactured goods (ie: farm equipment, tractors, etc) in exchange for their grain (instead of simply taking it from them at the point of a rifle) and lessened their dissatisfaction. At this point the basic democratic rights could have been restored to the working class and the general population. Real workers' rule is not possible without these democratic rights because these rights (and the political and economic competition that spring from them) are necessary in order to (a) expose, correct and clean-up incompetence, hypocrisy and corruption within the state and (b) unleash the initiative of workers in the economic, cultural and political spheres.

Suppression of political trends not possible
under modern conditions

Secondly--in a modern society (ie: such as exists in the U.S. today) with a functioning economy and a working class majority there would be no need for a workers' state to suppress all organized opposition. Why should such a thing be necessary? Not only would it be unnecessary to suppress all opposition--it would also be impractical in the extreme. The impracticality of suppressing organized political opposition in the era of the internet becomes clear once the relationship between the communications revolution and the productivity of labor is understood. This profound relationship, involving questions of culture, politics and economics, is more than I could go into in a short essay. I will only say that the release of worker initiative will prove to be inseparable from unfettered access to all the fruits if the revolution in communications.

The suppression of political trends, in the modern world, will prove to be impossible without crippling the development of the revolution in communications--which in turn--would cripple the development of the economy. But any government which cripples its economy will also cripple its military power, its ability to defend itself and, in a dangerous world, will pass out of existence. This is the contradiction faced, for example, by the Chinese government. It needs the internet in order to survive. It is hoping that it will be able to maintain control of the internet with an online population of 45 million and rapidly growing. But the genie is coming out the bottle and, once out, is not going back in. Nor will US imperialism be able, in the long run, to withstand the forces that will be unleashed as the revolution in communications deepens decade after decade and captures the imagination of working class activists everywhere. But that is a story for another day.