On “Leninism” and Reformism

Against the Current, No. 37, March/April 1992

Ernest Haberkern

TIM WOHLFORTH begins his article “The Grip of Leninism” (ATC 36) with an appeal to socialists to rethink their position as a result of recent events beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is always a good idea to re-examine one’s views in the light of new facts. Unfortunately, Woh1frth’s new fails to do that.

Instead, he repeats the attacks on the Bolshevik Revolution and “Leninism” that have been standard for seventy years. There is no new information, no presentation of previously unknown or untranslated documents, no new, or even slightly different, theoretical approach The only new material is in the references to other writers who do not agree with him—and whom he misquotes.

As someone who collaborated with Hal Draper on some of the material WohIforth misuses I feel I have a responsibility to comment on the references to that work,(1) (I read, at Draper’s request, the manuscript of both the books Wohlforth quotes, and translated some relevant material from the Russian for Draper.)

First, however, ! think it is important to understand what Wohlforth is up to. The article gives the impression that the spectacular collapse of the Communist Party provided the impulse for his rethinking. Wohlforth’s own self-referential notes make clear that his political conversion took place several years before the “collapse of communism.”

The same references make clear that this conversion was precipitated by the collapse of the New Left and Wohlforth’s own experiences as a member and leader of several of the “orthodox” Trotskyist sects that bloomed briefly in the period following the first “collapse of communism in the mid-fifties.

His current uncritical embrace of parliamentary democracy as the only possible form representative democracy can take for the next several millennia is a reaction to the neo-Stalinist organizational practices and politics of these sects. That is the “Leninism” he rejects.

Roads Previously Taken

The historical irony here is that this “Leninism’ was a caricature devised by Zinoviev in the 1920s as part of the campaign to drive Trotsky out of the movement and transform the Communist Party into a bureaucratic machine. That “Leninism’ /did/ lead to Stalinism.

Wohlforth came to recognize the similarity between this “Leninism” and Stalinism not through historical research but through his own experiences in “Leninist vanguards.” He never doubted that this was Leninism, he merely changed his mind on its usefulness for anyone trying to create a more humane society. Any sane person would.

The difficulty is that Wohlforth has not been able to shake the premise that underpinned his former position. That premise is that there is no revolutionary alternative to the “vanguard party,” which exercises its educational dictatorship over the as yet unliberated mass “by any means necessary.” The only alternative is the reformist one. He would like to embrace this alternative unreservedly. (Wouldn’t you if you had spent months, let alone years, in the same organization as Gerry Healey and Vanessa Redgrave?)

But Wohlforth can’t do that He knows too much.

His way out of this dilemma has been tried before. When Edward Bernstein [German Social Democrat often regarded as the theoretical “father of reformism”–ed.], after years as the militant editor of one of the most successful and influential underground socialist newspapers in the history of the movement, and after more years as Engels’ collaborator, lost confidence in the ability of the working class to remake society, he also had to find a way to defend a position he himself had scathingly, and sincerely, attacked for years.

It took Bernstein some time to reorient his own thinking. He first tried to articulate his views in a series of footnotes and a preface to an obscure study of the Revolution of 1848. Then he tried in the prominent theoretical journal Neue 741 to present his views as a simple adaptation of Marx and EneIs’ own radical views to modem conditions.

Finally, in a pioneer deconstructionist work, Bernstein reinterpreted the texts of Marx, and especially Engels, showing that they themselves had already recognized that their early revolutionary views were outmoded. Of course, since he was an early and relatively unskilled deconstructionist, he was forced to use his position as literary executor of Engels’ work to suppress the latter’s actual text.

It was not until 1920, almost thirty years after he began his political move to the right, that Bernstein admitted openly in his pamphlet Wie eine Revolution zuundeging that he had begun by breaking with Marx and Engels’ revolutionary /politics,/ not their philosophical views.

Tim Wohlforth is somewhere in the middle of this process. He is not yet ready to admit (perhaps even to himself) that he no longer believes in the ability of the working class to refashion society in its own interest That is his problem. For the rest of us the problem is that his tortuous use of other authors’ work to buttress his position confuses the argument and muddier the record.

Hal Draper On Democracy

If socialists really want to rethink the history of the movement we need clarity. If Wohlforth wants to argue, with Bernstein, that the attempt of the working class to take power into its own hands as it did in 1917 can only lead to disaster, he should do so.

If he believes that we must accept the limits the ruling classes place on our right to represent ourselves, let him argue that openly. Maybe our ruling class will be kinder and gentler to us, and to Wohlforth, than the German ruling class was to Edward Bernstein and the Social Democracy that took his advice.

Hal Draper, however, did not share Wohlforth’s views on democracy and parliamentarism. To refer to his work as if it were politically on the same wavelength confuses rather than clarifies the issuer And that serves Tim Wohlforth’s purposes better than it serves those of his opponents.(2)

I am particularly concerned with Wohlforth’s attempt to enlist Draper in his campaign to insist on parliamentary democracy as the /only/ road to socialism. This is Wohlforth’s paragraph:

“Draper proves that Lenin’s distortion of the Marxist heritage had another, more subtle side. He conflated the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat with that of the commune stale in such a manner that they became inseparable in the thinking of Leninists. This permitted him to attack parliamentary democracy, claiming the higher ground of the purported superior structure of the commune state.” (Wohlforth, ATC 36, 44)

Then Wohlforth proceeds to a garbled and heavily edited quote from Draper’s “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin (130-131), and attacks Sam Farber’s Before Stalinism for missing Draper’s point.

I am not going to submit a similarly edited quote in evidence. Check Draper’s book out for yourself. If you do you will find that the reference is to a passage by Draper whose main target is not Lenin, but /Kautsky/‘s insistence on the parliamentary form as the only form of representative democracy.

What is Draper’s position on the alleged necessity of the council form? As he explains in a section of the paragraph that Wohlforth does /not/ quote:

“I have no intention of taking up answers to this question; it is so important that it needs a book to itself. My sole reason for raising it is—to set it aside. /For this question is not covered by Marx’s view of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’/ which embraced no idea about specific governmental forms as a necessary part of the concept.”(3)

As Draper emphasized in every way he could, even to the quotes around the term “Dictatoiship of the Proletariat” in the title of the books, he was not discussing Marx’s views on the nature of a workers’ state, nor Lenin’s views on the subject, nor his own, nor anybody else’s.(4) He saved that for another book, specifically the fifth and final volume of Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution.

Draper’s two books on the “dictatorship of the proletariat” were designed to clear up the confusion surrounding the history of the slogan. There was more than enough material for one book.

As the party assigned the task of working up Draper’s notes for volume 5 of KMTR, I can assure Wohlforth that there is no evidence that Marx shared his view that “representative government—that is, the parliamentary form—is the most effective democratic system for the immediate transitional period.” (Wohlforth, ATC 36, 44)

In fact, as Draper points out in the very passage Wohlforth misquotes, Kautsky was the only one to claim this as a “Marxist” position let alone /the/ “Marxist” position. At least, he was the only one until Wohlforth.

Revolution and Counterrevolution

I cannot go into the whole question of Marx’s views on the ‘road to power,” which is covered at length in the final volume of KMTR. However, a few points should be made.

To begin with, Marx and Engels’ alleged endorsement of “the parliamentary road” to socialism is based on a few remarks scattered throughout their career. One of the earliest such references is mentioned by Draper: an article by Engels making a passing remark to the /possibility/ of a victory by a working class party in the House of Commons if the Chartist program were won, which it wasn’t.

Draper’s comment in “This was only one of a series of statements by both Marx and Engels, throughout their lives, acknowledging the possibility that in England workers’ power might be /initiated/ through a parliamentary majority”(5) (emphasis in original). Although hardly a full discussion of Marx and Engels’ views on parliamentarism even in 1850, and not intended to be, this does make two relevant points.

The first is that the possibility of a “peaceful” accession to power was one Marx and Engels contemplated from the beginning. It was not, as the Bernstein myth claims, a late development following some unrecorded conversion from previous “blanquist” views. The year 1850 was also the one in which The Address to the Communist League was published. There Marx and Engels most dearly outlined their views on the role of soviets in the revolution, although of course they did not use that term.

The other point made here, somewhat obliquely, is in the emphasis on the word “initiated.” Especially in their later works, Marx and then Engels emphasized that an initial victory would almost certainly be followed by a “slave holders insurrection,” which would have to be beaten back by force.

The reference, certainly fresher in the minds of Marx and Engels’ audience than it is in ours, was to the American Civil War. Our image of that event is of a Public Television special all sepia-colored nostalgia, haunting country tunes and the kindly twinkle in Shelby Foote’s eye as he recounts amusing, folksy anecdotes of Jeb Stuart, Nathan Bedford Forrest and other proto-fascist psychopaths. For Marx and Engels’ audience the image was of the bloodiest carnage yet known.

To sum up a very complicated history, Marx and Engels never believed that the bourgeoisie or any other ruling class could be talked into giving up power. They insisted from beginning to end that the only possible transitional state form would be based on a class-conscious, organized /and armed/ working class.

Where more or less democratic representative bodies existed they also insisted that a workers’ movement had to fight to be represented these. To abstain meant giving up the opportunity to win the majority of the people to your program.

Winning a majority in such a body, before the ruling class reacted by shutting off democratic rights, would be an enormous advantage; counting on any ruling class to act in such a sportsmanlike way would be foolish. It is good to ponder the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is also useful to remember the fall of Salvador Allende.


1. These works are Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume 3 (New York; Monthly Review Press, 1986) and The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” From Marx to Lenin (New York; Monthly Review Press, 1987).

2. It would be digressive in this short note to discuss Wohlforth’s views on democracy, at length. It is hard to ignore, however, the two examples of “democratic counterrevolution” he points to, namely Nicaragua and Eastern Europe. To describe the last election in Nicaragua as democratic is stretching the concept. The Nicaraguan people, exhausted by economic boycott and a U.S.-sponsored guerilla war, were voting with a gun pointed at their head. The winning side was a disparate coalition held together by CIA money. In the United States, a political candidate openly financed by a foreign power, a candidate like Ms. Chamorro, would be in prison even if the foreign power were not carrying on an undeclared war against the country. Whatever you think of the Sandinistas’ politics, it is nonsense to argue that they were defeated in a free election. In Eastern Europe, the recent elections have been plebiscites in which all parties ran on the same platform, dictated to them by the International Monetary Fund. These parties were dominated, except in Poland, by the reform wing of the bureaucracy. Former dissidents have been marginalized or, in a few cases, coopted. The exception, Poland, proves the rule. There the precondition for a government led by former Solidarity leaders was the destruction of Solidarity as a movement. The former Solidarity leaders had as their collaborators the same reform wing of the bureaucracy that elsewhere is openly in power. Of course, the present system in Eastern Europe is preferable to the old totalitarian one. But there is a lot of room between a totalitarian state and a functioning bourgeois democracy, let alone a workers’ state. Tim Wohlforth, like most other commentators, has given the word “democracy” a purely Orwellian meaning. Finally, I can’t help but point out that Wohlforth, for all his rethinking, still identifies socialism and some form of collectivized property. Only in that definition of socialism does it make sense to talk of a ‘democratic counterrevolution.” If socialism is defined as a state in which the working class rules through representatives it controls, then such a statement makes no sense. In that case the only possible “counterrevolution” is the loss of control by the working class over its representatives or the elimination of representative democracy—that is, either a step away from democracy or its destruction. From at least June 1848 to the present, this process has everywhere been accomplished by a bloody repression which destroyed the democratic organizations of the working class.

3. Hal Draper, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin, 130-131, all emphasis is Draper’s.

4. I have seen other reviews and references to The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” which overlook this important point Sam Farber’s study, while not hostile to Draper’s point of view as is Wohlforth’s, occasionally goes too far in attributing to Draper a position on the general question of the nature of the Soviet regime in the civil war period based on Draper’s discussion of the much narrower issue of the meaning and use of the slogan “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

5. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume 3, 214.

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March-April 1992, ATC 37