Was Lenin Actually For Democracy?

Among Marxist circles In recent years, there has been a re-evaluation of Lenin as wanting to construct a democratic party organization but because of war-time circumstances, had to create a top-down hierarchical organization. Of course, this points to something positive, since the radical left is advocating for democracy instead of the short flirtation with authoritarianism after the collapse of Occupy. But this rehabilitation is itself troubling because it simply is not true: for all of Lenin’s libertarian writings before the revolution, none of the proposals were actually carried out and instead a regression happened.

It’s Not Democracy If We Lose: The 1917 Election

If there was an obvious point where the Bolsheviks could have implemented full democracy, it was after the 1917 Russian elections. In the first free and fair elections since taking power, the Bolsheviks overwhelmingly lost the vote to other left parties. Instead of stepping down, they threw out the results and justified it on the grounds that the true power was with the worker’s councils. Unfortunately, that power was quickly broken apart as well.

Lenin and Worker’s Control

It is worth remembering that, independent of the Bolsheviks, worker takeovers were spreading throughout Russia. In a detailed history by Maurice Brinton, it shows how Lenin attempted to suppress much of what was happening right from the beginning.

While political maneuvering to break self-management were occurring earlier, the first full attempt at repression occurred in early November 1917, when Lenin published the “Draft Decree on Workers’ Control.” In it he outlined that if enterprises were designated “of importance to the State” they would then be “answerable to the State for the maintenance of the strictest order and discipline and for the protection of property.

To be considered such an enterprise it would either be involved in defense or “in any way connected with the production of articles necessary for the existence of the masses of the population.” That is, almost any workplace could be taken over.

In fact, the decree was so odious it was resisted by the workers: the decree failed to pass because of resistance. After a two week stalemate, the Bolsheviks had agreed to a “compromise” where the workplaces could be given orders by a “Regional Council of Workers’ Control,” which-surprise!-was appointed by the Bolsheviks. This occurred on Novemebr 14th, all but ending worker’s control in Russia.

But, the Civil War!

The biggest defense for all this is the Russian Civil War, which, as an existential threat, necessitated brutal repression. Between the war and Lenin’s death then is the tragic rise of Stalin, who supposedly ruined everything. Let’s leave aside whether secret police, torture and forced labor are justified in war-time conditions, what this history shows is that workers control in Russia was ended a month before any signs of war (December being when the Volunteer Whites were formed).

Even later pre-Stalin propaganda justified the November repression for efficiency’s sake, it’s impossible to argue that these were done for the war when no signs of war were even close to present.

We need to accept that there is no rehabilitating Lenin or Leninism, he set out to subordinate the workers as soon as he could.