Lenin, Luxemburg and Gorbachev’s failure (a Vladimir, Rosa and Mikhail story)

By Lorenzo

Vladimir Lenin gave his name to Leninism, a way of operationalising revolutionary socialism. In fact, essentially the only way that has proved effective, based on adopting the Jacobin model of political action. That is, totalist politics–no limit on the range, or means, of political action in pursuit of a specific political project.

Lenin was happy to adopt the title of Jacobin:

A Jacobin who wholly identifies himself with the organisation of the proletariat—a proletariat conscious of its class interests—is a revolutionary Social-Democrat (1904).

And also:

Bourgeois historians see Jacobinism as a fall (“to stoop”). Proletarian historians see Jacobinism as one of the highest peaks in the emancipation struggle of an oppressed class. The Jacobins gave France the best models of a democratic revolution and of resistance to a coalition of monarchs against a republic. The Jacobins were not destined to win complete victory, chiefly because eighteenth-century France was surrounded on the continent by much too backward countries, and because France herself lacked the material basis for socialism, there being no banks, no capitalist syndicates, no machine industry and no railways.

“Jacobinism” in Europe or on the boundary line between Europe and Asia in the twentieth century would be the rule of the revolutionary class, of the proletariat, which, supported by the peasant poor and taking advantage of the existing material basis for advancing to socialism, could not only provide all the great, ineradicable, unforgettable things provided by the Jacobins in the eighteenth century, but bring about a lasting world-wide victory for the working people.

It is natural for the bourgeoisie to hate Jacobinism. It is natural for the petty bourgeoisie to dread it. The class-conscious workers and working people generally put their trust in the transfer of power to the revolutionary, oppressed class for that is the essence of Jacobinism, the only way out of the present crisis, and the only remedy for economic dislocation and the war (1917).

Lenin was also clear on what that political approach involved:

Of course, the application of this principle in practice will sometimes give rise to disputes and misunderstandings; but only on the basis of this principle can all disputes and all misunderstandings be settled honourably for the Party. … The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party (1906).

In shorthand terms, Leninism was Karl Marx + Robespierre.

Revolutionary Marxist Rosa Luxembourg famously disagreed with Lenin’s approach to political organisation:

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege. …

Public control is indispensably necessary. Otherwise the exchange of experiences remains only with the closed circle of the officials of the new regime. Corruption becomes inevitable. (Lenin’s words, Bulletin No.29) Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois rule. Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc. No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly; repeats it more stubbornly than Lenin. But he is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror – all these things are but palliatives. The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralizes.

When all this is eliminated, what really remains? In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three-month periods to six-month periods!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc (1918).

Looking back on the history of Leninism, Rosa Luxemburg seems absolutely vindicated, prescient in her criticism of Lenin’s approach to politics.

Both correct

The problem is, this was a dispute where both disputants were correct. Yes, Lenin’s approach led straight to the brutalising dictatorship and rule by Party-bureaucrats, so Rosa Luxemburg was correct.  But Lenin was also correct; the Jacobin model of totalist politics was (and remains) the only way to make revolutionary socialism operational.

The arrest of Robespierre.

Which makes the entire revolutionary socialism project deeply problematic. Given that revolutionary socialism has been reduced in Western capitalist countries to undergraduate parlour politics, a few academic fossils and some lingering tiny networks of activists without supporting masses to activate, that seems to be a widely held judgement about the lessons of history.

One of the earliest obituaries on Lenin’s project was delivered in July 1920 by former radical socialist Benito Mussolini:

Lenin is an artist who has worked men, as other artists have worked marble or metals. But men are harder than stone and less malleable than iron. There is no masterpiece. The artist has failed. The task was superior to his capacities.

Coming out of the same revolutionary socialist milieu as Lenin (they even both had been in exile in Switzerland; Mussolini as a draft-dodger from 1902-4: Lenin as a political exile 1903, 1904-5, 1907-8, 1913-1917), Mussolini was an informed and acute observer of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The collectivism of nation

The experience of the Great War convinced Mussolini that the collectivism of nation was more powerful than the collectivism of class. This led Mussolini to create Fascism, which was Mazzini + Ropespierre by way of Charles Maurras‘s “integral nationalism“; identifying nationalism with the power of the state. In Mussolini’s words:

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state (1928).

The citizen in the Fascist State is no longer a selfish individual who has the anti-social right of rebelling against any law of the Collectivity (1928).

If the 19th [century] was the century of the individual (liberalism means individualism), you may consider that this is the “collective” century, and therefore the century of the state (1932).

And by way also of Georges Sorel on violence as activism and ideology as energising myth. As Mussolini was quoted as saying:

I owe most to Georges Sorel. This master of syndicalism by his rough theories of revolutionary tactics has contributed most to form the discipline, energy and power of the fascist cohorts.

As Mussolini’s project of Italian national greatness was a much more limited project than Lenin’s, the death toll of Italian Fascism was a tiny fraction of that of Leninism.

Uncooperative nature

In the 1920 quote on Lenin’s failure, Mussolini puts his finger directly on the problem of the revolutionary socialism project–to work, revolutionary socialism required human nature to be malleable in specific ways. For Leninism to work, human nature has to be malleable by Lenin’s vanguard Party. Neither was true, hence Lenin’s project failed in its own terms and, in so failing, fulfilled Rosa Luxemburg’s predictions, becoming a vehicle for brutalising dictatorship and rule by party-bureaucrats, the nomenklatura.

In the case of North Korea, Leninism even became a vehicle for dynastic rule under the Kim dynasty. (We shall see if Cuba is also going to be a case of Leninist multigenerational dynasticism, depending on who succeeds Fidel Castro‘s brother Raul Castro.) There is nothing stopping the control of the mechanisms of totalist politics being captured by a particular family. The would-be transformers of human nature are as caught in its consistencies as is their project–hence what their project becomes.

Failed reconciliation

That Lenin and Luxemburg were both right also, ironically, framed the end of the Soviet Union. Historian Stephen Kotkin, in his Armageddon Averted: the Soviet Collapse 1970-2000, argues that Gorbachev was both much the cleverest political operator in the Soviet Politburo and a sincere Leninist. Indeed, his actions make much more sense if we see Gorbachev as someone who wanted to reconcile Lenin with Luxemburg. That is, he wanted the transformational project of Lenin without the problems presciently analysed by Luxemburg.

It is possible that Gorbachev envisaged something like a Leninist “Deep State” on the Iranian model. That is, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) would continue to set the boundaries of political action, within which more freedom and openness would operate. If that was so, there was a series of basic problems for any such project.

The first was the burden of history. When Ayatollah Khomeini set up the Supreme Leader system, the Islamic Republic of Iran was a new state (in the sense of a new constitutional order), fresh out of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It had all the excitement of a new revolutionary project without any burden of past failure.

By contrast, that Gorbachev was trying to change so much was a massive signal that the CPSU had a legacy of failure. Why would anyone believe in its capacity to guide Soviet society when the entire enterprise of reform, of perestroika and glasnost, was an admission of failure? As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, the most dangerous time for a bad regime is when it attempts to reform:

The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and experience teaches that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform.

Not only is there the burden of past oppressions and failures–which the attempt to reform itself is an admission–but there is also the signalling effect between people, as Tocqueville also noted:

It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable.

Which steadily and increasingly became a problem for Gorbachev; particularly as national identities and grievances came to the fore. That national identities had far more enduring power than Soviet identity would have surprised Mussolini not at all. People simply did not believe in Leninism: at least not insofar as it was built around the vanguard role of the CPSU. Conversely, in Iran, Islam has continued to have the coordinating power of shared belief.

Loss of asabiyyah

After the coup attempt of August 1991, Gorbachev had a much more personal problem. The leaders of the coup were the people he had picked, and they had attempted to overthrow him. Nor could he take credit for the defeat of the coup. Boris Yeltsin, who could and did, mercilessly and publicly used that Gorbachev himself had appointed the coupists against him. Gorbachev’s personal authority was fatally undermined, and with it any lingering notion of a Leninist “deep state” melted away.

Indeed, so weak had the power of Leninism as a coordinating belief system become, even the coup plotters themselves were pathetically unable to act effectively. As Rosa Luxemburg had predicted, the only “live” element left in Lenin’s project was bureaucracy, and it turned out that bureaucratic self-interest alone simply could not provide the coordinating impetus needed in a crisis situation.

Leninism is a secular philosophy, promising transformation in this world. After 73 years of the CPSU’s failure to achieve any such transformation, why would anyone believe in it or its motivating ideology? Even if their own position rested on that claim. (In some ways, especially so–at least in a crisis situation.)

Gorbachev might had believed, since it buttressed his authority, but it could no longer provide him with the necessary number of sufficiently dedicated cadres. Not least, because his policies were so overtly a departure from the past, that it became very unclear where he was leading people to.

Ibn Khaldun (Cairo).

To use the language of the first (and arguably greatest) of historical sociologists, ibn Khaldun, the asabiyyah of the Party-State elite had dissipated and so the regime crumbled. (A nice discussion of ibn Khaldun’s concept is here.) Especially when Gorbachev’s own policies allowed folk to publicly signal how much they did not believe, while propaganda was no longer signalling the strength (pdf) of the regime.

The Islamic Republic of Iran continues to be able to use Shia Islam as coordinating belief for its necessary controlling cadre running the “Deep State”. The contrast with “we are the end of History” Leninism is a rich irony for those familiar with modernisation theory.

A doomed project

But the any project of trying to marry Lenin with Luxemburg was doomed. The project of social and human transformation requires such a concentration of social power that any attempt to bridge the gulf between those doing the transforming and those being transformed must fatally undermine the entire project. For if those being transformed have sufficient standing to have a serious say, how can the transformers possibly have the knowing authority to undertake the transformation? If mechanisms are created that give those being transformed as serious say, how can those doing the transformation have sufficient power to do so?

Which is why Lenin and Luxemburg were both right. Yes, that level of concentration of power is needed for the project to be attempted (Lenin) but doing so creates brutalising dictatorship where bureaucracy (the power of the Party-State apparatus) becomes the only “live” element (Luxemburg). So, you have to pick one. You either go with the Jacobin model as updated by Lenin and give up any notion of significant popular participation in politics. Or, you accept the human costs are too high and accept the primacy of popular participation in politics–the Social Democratic option. Which, given the limitations of command-and-control for economic coordination, means going down the capitalist road of market economics.

Though there is, in fact, a third option. You keep the political domination that totalist politics involves but give up the transformation project; accept the limitations of command-and-control for economic coordination and go down the capitalist road without popular participation in politics. The path that the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam are on. Both are states with ruling Leninist parties presiding over market economies but retaining their political domination. A path where national greatness rather than social transformation becomes the central political project.* Hence contemporary China resembles the vision of Chiang Kai-shek far more than it does that of Mao Zedong. [See also.]

Mussolini would approve. He would also feel vindicated. For that is precisely how he built Fascism–accepting the totalist model of politics Lenin had updated but changing the political project. You might even call it the Third Position.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

* Of course, Slobodan Miloševi? of Serbia also went down that path. Wasn’t that fun.


  1. Posted August 22, 2015 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Brilliant article.

    Agree almost completely.

    Only disagreement is that Lenin himself created State Capitalism. He recognized the problems that Musollini did — but Stalin was very effective at selling Stalinism as “Leninism.”

    Lenin called it the New Economic Policy, or State Capitalism. Deng was in school in the Soviet Union while that was still taught at the future. China and Vietnam are evidence of what the Soviet Union could have been, if Stalin hadn’t wrecked it.

  2. Posted August 22, 2015 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Ta muchly. The NEP is a fascinating example, as it is striking how little role it played in either Gorbachev’s reforms or the Chinese reform process. It is not mentioned at all in Coase & Wang’s excellent short book “How China Became Capitalist”. Kotkin mentions it, but to contrast it with both Gorbachev and Deng’s policies — the latter being not a “partial, temporary retreat from a non-market policy” but a “kept deepening push toward full-bore capitalism” (p.213).

    I suspect that the problem was the NEP had been temporary, which was precisely not the impression that either Gorbachev or Deng wanted to convey.

  3. Posted August 23, 2015 at 10:00 pm | Permalink


    Thanks for the reply.

    I know virtually nothing about Gorbechev beyond pop history, so I’ll be completely silent there.

    I actually suspect something similar is a problem here. # of people with interest in early Soviet economic history and # of people with interest in mid-regime Chinese Communist history is very small, and rarely covers historians of either eras.

    Coarse & Wang’s oversight seems more like an indictment of C&W, rather than a discussion of the event. Deng Xiaoping and other key folks were at Sun Yatsen University in Moscow being trained to be operatives by a Leninist professoriate still not purged by Stalin.

    Factions & Finance in China, by Victor Shi
    Deng Xiaoping, by Ezra Miller
    The Generalissimo’s Son, by Jay Taylor (another would-be communist at SYU — the future leader of Taiwan)

  4. Posted August 24, 2015 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Agree on the problem of scholarly specialisation.

    Coase & Wang’s book is excellent, but it is short and it focuses on the dynamics which led to reform. Central to their analysis, is that it was not something that sprung from the mind of Deng, but out of series of interactions, shaped by the fact that authority within the Party was divided.

    While the NEP connection would be certainly worth exploring, it was decades earlier. The dynamics of policy making after the fall of the Gang of Four are unlikely to have been fundamentally shaped by that.

    Thanks for the recommended texts.

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