Reading Raya Dunayevskaya: 1. Marxism and Freedom

Reading Marxism and Freedom

In general, I have little problem with Raya Dunayevskaya’s concept of Marxism-Humanism and how she arrives at her conclusions. I have a general problem with a major sub-thesis of the book: the role of revolutionary leadership. Throughout chapters 1-4, RD constantly refers to Marx criticising revolutionary leaders, e.g. ‘There would have been no revolution in 1848 if it had depended on the revolutionary leaders’. Should we not therefore be asking: what exactly do revolutionary leaders contribute to the process by which the working class achieves its emancipation? How do we place Lenin, Dunayevskaya and, indeed, Marx, in that question?

There are also some specifics with which I have difficulty, most notably her description of Lenin’s arguments and decisions after 1917 and the almost hagiographical tone she uses whenever she refers to Lenin. I think this suggests an ambivalence on Dunayevskaya’s part in relation to the role of revolutionary leadership.

I can concede that the attempt of the Bolsheviks to hold onto the gains of 1917 in the face of overwhelming odds was in difficulties almost from the start and doomed after the failure of the German Revolution in 1923. I can therefore also concede that mistakes would be made in trying to deal with such impossible circumstances and that, of all the Bolsheviks about whom we know, Lenin was by far the most intelligent in the leading cadres. [We know somewhat less about those in the lower ranks, that being one of the problems of history. There may have been better and younger comrades who perished or were silenced later.] However, there was one juncture in 1920-21 when Lenin could have taken a different line, opening possibilities I will outline later in these notes.

First, we should understand that Dunayevskaya’s accounts of the post-revolutionary events are second hand. She was not present and not directly involved. She was born Raya Shpigel on 1 May 1910 in the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire and emigrated with her family to the USA as a child. When very young she joined the revolutionary movement there and was a member of the US Communist Party until expelled in 1928 for supporting Trotsky. She broke with Trotskyism after a short period serving as his secretary in exile.

RD constantly praises Lenin’s observations on how the nascent workers’ state was being distorted by bureaucracy and how leading members of the Communist Party were responsible for these adverse changes. What she (and Lenin himself) seem oblivious to is that Lenin was himself at the centre of both the Party and the State and its developing bureaucracy. Critical of others, he was less critical of himself. He rightly condemned Trotsky’s advocacy of militarising the working class and of the administrative turn of mind that lay behind it, as he was also right to condemn the machinations of Stalin and his henchmen. The problems came to a head in the debates about the role of the trade unions in economic organisation, coincidental with the Kronstadt Mutiny and the emergence of the Workers’ Opposition.

The leader of the latter faction was Shlyapnikov, a Bolshevik trade unionist. He argued in 1920 that the trade unions, through an All Russian Congress of Producers, should be given responsibility for economic development. This was in turn taken up by the Workers’ Opposition, which included other Bolsheviks such as Alexandra Kollontai. Essentially Lenin reduced the debate to a conflict between Trotsky’s militarism and Shlyapnikov’s ‘anarcho-syndicalism’, as RD and Lenin characterise it. Close examination of the documents produced by Shlyapnikov show that this is a false characterisation. He was at pains in his Theses to the 9th Party Congress of 1920 to place the CP at the heart of political leadership, with the Producers in their organisations operating under CP direction to bring about the necessary economic changes and improvements that the workers and peasants were themselves best placed to achieve, and had been achieving despite problems until that date. What Shlyapnikov hoped to achieve by this was summed up in the final thesis 28: ‘to protect the Party from the rush into it of alien careerist elements’. In other words, the whole emphasis of the Theses was to counter the development of the very bureaucratic distortions about which Lenin fulminated by placing the democratic organisations of the (admittedly small) working class at the centre of the key parts of the economy.

The Theses of the Workers Opposition of 1921 built upon these ideas and on the foundations of decisions along these lines made at earlier Congresses, by incorporating the greatest possible workers’ democracy into economic organisation. Where Shlyapnikov and the WO were coming from is clearly outlined in an appeal to the Communist International in 1922, pointing out that the Party was only 40% workers and 60% non-proletarian[1] and that the latter were using all and every means to silence the former in the supposed interests of ‘unity’. This document explicitly rejected the accusation of ‘anarcho-syndicalism’ that had been levelled against them[2].

What was Lenin’s role? He took the ‘middle way’ between Trotsky and Shlyapnikov, incorporating both factions and viewpoints into the centre of the Party and then told everyone to shut up in the name of ‘Party Unity’. Maybe that seemed a sensible, pragmatic response at a time when the revolutionary gains were at huge risk. Silencing the leading proponents of the working class within the Party at the same time as suppressing the Kronstadt Revolt by force of arms (led by Trotsky) would however produce exactly the wrong result. It empowered the bureaucratic elements, whose particular skill was working in the shadows.

Those of us, with the benefit of hindsight, who have had experience in more recent decades of the suppression of debate within Communist Parties and Trotskyist organisations in the name of ‘unity’, presented as ‘democratic centralism’ and ‘party discipline’, know and recognize how this tactic works and how it debilitates the liveliest and most creative members in favour of those who progress through the ranks by dint of silent acquiescence. If you want to know how Lenin therefore led directly to Stalin, look no further.

In all fairness, however, it should be admitted that, even had Shlyapnikov and the Workers’ Opposition been supported by Lenin, the revolution would still have failed. The difference may have been that the result was not Stalinism and that, consequently, the concept of communism might not have been sullied for countless generations. The revolution might have failed honourably.

Debate please, and less about the details of 1920-22 than about the principles at stake.

[1] If this was the case with the Party in general, across Russia, how much more might it have been evident in the centre?

[2] Throughout I have used the versions of these documents found in the on-line Marxist Internet Archive.


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