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Politicians & Soldiers; Social Democracy and Leninism May 6, 2003 by RedStar2000


The history of 20th century communism can, I think, be summed up as a history of two paradigms...two distinct views of revolutionary organization. Broadly speaking, I'll call them the Social Democratic model and the Leninist Vanguard Party model; politicians and soldiers.

The social democratic model--as best exemplified by the Social Democratic Party of Germany--was characterized by a formal adherence to Marxist "orthodoxy" (class struggle, proletarian revolution, etc.), while in practice it looked forward to a steadily growing representation in the Reichstag (parliament) until it finally won a formal majority...whereupon it would begin to construct the new socialist order.

It also very much considered itself to be the "new order" growing within the womb of the old--like capitalism grew within the womb of feudalism. By 1912, or thereabouts, it was quite possible for a German Social Democrat to engage in much of life's activities within the "socialist" sector. His doctor and dentist and attorney were all social democrats. His kids went to a "socialist school" and, in the summer months, to a "socialist" camp. He would be a member of a social democratic trade union and might work for one as well. For relaxation, he might well be a member of a "socialist" hiking club, a "socialist" marching band, or a "socialist" chess club. For all I know, he may well have looked forward to a "socialist" funeral and to burial in a "socialist" cemetary.

As it turned out, the funeral--in August 1914--was for social democracy itself. The German working class and its social democratic leaders (with only a few exceptions) enthusiastically plunged into a orgy of patriotic murder and suicide...and the same was true of all the European social democratic parties, members and leaders alike. The thin crust of formal "Marxism" turned out to conceal a pathetic backwardness and willingness to loyally serve aristocratic madness...pre-capitalist and capitalist alike.

(Curiously, the American social democrats--the Socialist Party of Gene Debs--proved an exception. They opposed imperialist war both before and after the U.S. became involved. On the other hand, this opposition didn't mean very much--the American S.P. never had the enormous support in the working class that the European parties had.)

After the first world war, as everyone knows, the social democrats shed their Marxist veneer and started down the path towards accomodation with capitalism. They became "responsible" political parties...responsible to the capitalist ruling class. They did win majorities in several European countries from time to time...but never did anything in the way of constructing a new socialist order. The German Social Democrats are in power today--the German capitalist class doesn't feel threatened at all. More pathetic is the American Socialist Party--which still retains a kind of formal "socialism" in its platform, but which devotes its practical efforts to electing candidates for the (conservative) Democratic Party.

In the struggle for a communist society, the social democrats--politicians--proved unequal to the task.

Back around 1900 or so, the Russian Social-Democrat, V.I. Lenin, had already begun to formulate an alternative paradigm. The complete absence of bourgeois democratic institutions in Czarist Russia made the "politician" model obviously untenable. Thus Lenin's unique contribution: the "tight" vanguard party of "professional" revolutionaries. The leadership of this kind of party, armed with superior understanding of Marxist theory, would be "the general staff" of proletarian revolution, mobilizing and guiding the working class to victory in the same way that the generals of an army plan and carry out a victorious campaign. In other words, revolutionaries are soldiers.

This "military" conception of what would come to be called "communist" parties had a number of consequences. If the ordinary members of such a party are the "officer corps" of the proletariat and if the central committee of such a party is the "general staff", then the General Secretary of the party, however modest his title, is, in fact, the "Commander-in-Chief". The potential for abuse was "built-in" right from the beginning.

But the worst aspect of the Leninist model was the kind of "communist" it created. The primary duty of a soldier is obedience to his superiors. A disobedient soldier is a contradiction in terms.

The communist in the Leninist mould could not win people to communist ideas; he could only recruit people into a communist army. And, by and large, Lenin's Bolsheviks did exactly that; they built a successful communist army in Russia without ever winning more than a handful of people to the ideas of a communist society. When visitors to Russia in the 1920s commented on the strange passivity of the Russian working class, they were honestly puzzled. They thought that a working class that had just taken power and won a bloody civil war would be full of vitality, passionately struggling over conflicting visions of a new society under construction, etc. It never occurred to these visitors that what they were really seeing was a demobilized army.

The communist parties in other countries, founded on Lenin's paradigm, had a worse fate. They were soldiers in an army that never won, that was always in retreat (with occasional exceptions), that could only repeat their mantra: obedience to orders is the only virtue of the true revolutionary.

Everyone knows the outcome of all this, so I won't belabor the obvious. But I think the lesson is painfully clear: We can never make a communist revolution, a real one, unless we first of all are rebels ourselves. Mindless obedience to superiors--even when it's wrapped in a pretty red flag and has a label called "proletarian discipline"--is, in fact, counter-revolutionary.

Over the wretched decades of the 20th century, we have seen many, many attempts to replicate both of these paradigms. Very sincere and intelligent people have "tinkered" with them this way and that, convinced that "this time" one or the other of them could be "made to work". Even as this is written, some people are still trying.

It all reminds me of alchemy or ptolemaic astronomy--the paradigms of politician and soldier are hopelessly wrong, no matter what "improvements" one might try to make to them.

If we are sincere in our desire for working class revolution and a communist society, the lesson of history is undeniable: a new paradigm must be discovered.
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Originally posted at Che-Lives on Dec. 31, 2002
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