Lenin warned that when capitalism is seriously threatened, fascism is always the default option, not only for the ruling elites but for the liberal class. The liberals, who fear the radical left, become in a revolutionary moment the revolutionary's enemy. Lenin, like Trotsky, closely studied the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. When the French elites could not get the invading Prussians to destroy the Commune, they did it themselves, leaving 30,000 dead, of whom 14,000 were executed, both men and women.
After World War I, the German minister of defense, Gustav Noske, a member of the Social Democratic Party, organized war veterans into the Freikorps, a right-wing militia. Noske used the militia, the antecedent of the Nazi Party, to crush the German Revolution of 1918-19 and the Marxist Spartacist League uprising. In doing so, the Freikorps abducted and assassinated Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on Jan. 15, 1919. During World War II in France, Marshal Philippe Pe'tain and the Vichy collaborators allied themselves with the Nazi occupiers to thwart what they feared would be a communist uprising.
Lenin argued that the most effective way to weaken the resolve of the ruling elite was to tell it exactly what to expect. This audacity and brazenness attract the notice of state security, but it does not lead to public hostility to the revolutionary movement; indeed it gives the movement an allure and cachet. The revolutionary, he wrote, must make unequivocal demands that, if met, would mean the obliteration of the current power structure. And the revolutionary must never compromise on these demands. The public exposure of corrupt centers of power, including the military, saps the confidence and credibility of the ruling elites. As a revolutionary force gathers momentum, the ruling elites attempt to make concessions that further weaken their credibility and strength.
Imperial powers, he saw, were especially vulnerable and fragile. They were not self-contained, but instead depended on the exploitation of foreign resources and foreign labor as well as on vast military machines that drained the state of resources. Imperialism brings with it corporate monopolies, a characteristic of the late stage of capitalism. It shifts power away from the manufacturing class to a parasitic class of financiers, the rentiers, whose profession, Lenin wrote, "is idleness." The late stage of capitalism inverts classical economics. What was considered unproductive -- the parasitism of the rentier class -- becomes the real economy. And what was considered the productive sector of the economy -- labor and industry -- is treated as the parasite. The ascendancy of global speculators is deadly to the capitalist system, which consumes itself.
Luxemburg, who was perhaps the only contemporary Marxist that was Lenin's intellectual equal, foresaw the danger of Lenin's iron rule over the party and eventually Russia itself. She was as fierce an opponent of the capitalist order and imperialism as Lenin, but opposed centralized authority and chastised Lenin's implicit contempt for the working class. Any revolution that justified, as Lenin did, a dictatorship, even if he insisted it was temporary, was dangerous. The only way to protect revolutionary socialism from autocracy and calcification was to empower the population through democratic institutions and freedom of expression.
"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."
Luxemburg, in this sense, was the truer revolutionary. A socialist revolution would not be built through a self-anointed vanguard that dominated all aspects of society and culture but through endless experimentation, creativity, dissent, open debate, reverses and advances. "Socialism by its very nature cannot be introduced by ukaz [edict]. ... Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light a creative force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts."
She went on:
"But with the repression 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 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 however of the proletariat, but only a handful of politicians. ... Such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc."
Leninists, of course, will argue that the authoritarian tools Lenin and Trotsky used to build and protect the Soviet state were essential, that without them the revolution would have been destroyed. We cannot glibly dismiss this analysis, given the very real existential threats faced by the new revolutionary order and the multiplicity of forces arrayed against it. Bakunin and the anarchists may have been correct in their analysis of the dangers inherent in a centralized Bolshevik state, but then what? They do not offer, to me, convincing solutions but instead present dreamy platitudes about voluntary cooperation and the federalism of communes.
History has amply illustrated that if there is no revolutionary party, or if a revolutionary party is destroyed, the forces of reaction triumph. We need only to look at the rise to power of the French general Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, who crushed the 1848 uprising in Paris; Louis Napoleon; the German general Wilhelm Groener, who brutally put down the popular uprisings following the country's defeat in World War I; Benito Mussolini; Adolf Hitler; and in our own era Suharto andAugusto Pinochet. The old czarist generals, starting with Lavr Kornilov, who a fellow general said was a man with "the heart of a lion, brains of a sheep," were preparing, backed by their Western allies, to pounce on the new revolutionary order and snuff it out.
But we can ask if the cost Lenin imposed is worth it. If we must create mirror images of autocracy and terror to endure, then we are no better than the monsters we sought to slay. Luxemburg was right: The ends never justify the means. Those who go down that road, who cast all morality aside, as Lenin did, do not come back, and there is some evidence that as Lenin neared the end of his life he was revolted by his creation. "You think you are driving the machine, and yet it's driving you and suddenly other hands than yours are on the wheel," he lamented.
Perhaps Lenin's greatest legacy is his political realism, his hatred of dogmatisms and his meticulous study of power. If we do not understand power and how it works, we are doomed. Che Guevara's belief in his own propaganda -- the doctrine of foquismo, which argues that revolution is ignited by small, armed rebel bands -- not only led to his own death in Bolivia but a series of failed uprisings in Latin America and Africa and the foolish decision by the leaders of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, the largest anti-war movement in the United States during the Vietnam War, to implode itself to form its own foco, the Weather Underground. We can learn much from Lenin the revolutionary about what to do, and much from Lenin the dictator about what not to do. Lenin would have insisted we do so.