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Lenin the liberal? A reply to Chris Cutrone

David Adam

Platypus Review 40 | October 2011


CHRIS CUTRONE’S RECENT ARTICLELenin’s Liberalism” (Platypus Review #36) claims that Lenin’s politics are distorted when characterized as a pure opposition to bourgeois conditions. In fact, he suggests that Lenin insisted on “the mediation of politics in society” even after the creation of a “workers’ state,” demonstrating a liberal desire to preserve certain features of bourgeois society. His use of Lenin’s theory regarding the continuation of “bourgeois right” betrays an inattention to the context of Lenin’s remarks, and the notion that Lenin applied a liberal perspective to the question of working class political power does not ring true. The essay seems to conjure an ideal Lenin that can more readily be used as a reference point for contemporary Marxism. Cutrone’s claim that Lenin sought to “fulfill the desiderata of bourgeois society” rests on a strategy of non-confrontation with the messy historical details of Lenin’s relationship with liberal political ideals.

In this response, I will appraise the content of Lenin’s liberalism in more concrete terms, particularly the claim that Lenin’s notion of the persistence of “bourgeois right” in socialism undergirds his belief in “an articulated non-identity of state, political parties, and other voluntary civil society institutions such as labor unions.” We will see that the notion of “bourgeois right” is not evidence of a liberal perspective in Lenin, and that within Lenin’s discussion of socialist transition it supports an understanding of the state as an economic actor, not as the site of political mediation.  Then I will show how the liberalism ascribed to Lenin is largely mythical in light of his political practice in the context of a so-called “workers’ state.” In the early Soviet state, the imperatives of economic construction and the management of power led Lenin both to a more radical rejection of liberal values in politics, as well as a reinforcement of bourgeois relations in production. While I reject Cutrone’s expansive interpretation of Lenin’s liberalism, there are other, more restrictive reasons for calling Lenin a liberal.

“Bourgeois Right” and socialist transformation

Lenin elaborates the idea of “bourgeois right” in The State and Revolution (1917), while discussing Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program [1875], where the phrase “bourgeois right” is used. In that text, Marx describes two phases of communist society that follow the transformation of capitalism into communism. The first phase of communist society is characterized as one that has just emerged out of capitalism, while the “higher phase” develops on the basis of communist society itself.

The distinguishing feature of the first phase of communism is that individual consumption is linked to labor expended in production. The individual producer “gets from society a receipt that he has contributed such and such an amount of labor (after a deduction of labor for common reserves) and withdraws from society’s stores of the means of consumption an equal amount costed in labor terms.”[1] This is a communist society, a “co-operatively organized society based on common ownership in the means of production,” in which the labor expended on products does not appear “as the value of these products.”[2] Nonetheless, insofar as the common standard of labor expenditure is applied to all, the equal right of the producers “is still—at least in principle—a bourgeois right,” according to Marx.[3] It is a bourgeois right because only in bourgeois society does the notion of abstract human equality, and thus the application of a common standard of justice to all people, become prevalent. In the context of Marx’s text, however, the notion of “bourgeois right” has little connection with the mediation of politics in society.

Marx writes of the “limited horizon of bourgeois right,” and describes how equal right on the basis of labor leads to inequalities due to the different needs and abilities of the producers.[4] Lenin describes this “equal right” as “a violation of equality and an injustice.”[5] He describes how communist society “is compelled to abolish at first only the ‘injustice’ of the means of production seized by individuals,” and is unable “to eliminate the other injustice, which consists in the distribution of consumer goods ‘according to the amount of labor performed’ (and not according to needs).”[6] It is worth noting that the distribution of consumer goods “according to the amount of labor performed” is not a feature of capitalism, as Lenin implies. In a capitalist society, workers sell their labor-power in exchange for wages. The wages they receive, and thus the consumer goods they are able to acquire, do not have a direct connection with the amount of labor they perform, which would be the case in Marx’s conception of the first phase of communism. Instead of an exchange of commodities, as in capitalism, the first phase of communism features a conscious social organization of production, replacing the capitalist opposition between the producers and the conditions of production. As Marx wrote in Capital, in such a society “the social relations of the individual producers, both towards their labor and the products of their labor, are here transparent in their simplicity, in production as well as in distribution.”[7] Lenin does not clearly distinguish the relation of the producers to their labor and their products in capitalism from this relation in socialism. Lenin therefore imagines that the concept of “bourgeois right” describes a determinate social relation that persists throughout the change from capitalism to communism.

After describing the first phase of communism in terms of the notion of “bourgeois right,” Lenin deduces from this notion that “there still remains the need for a state, which, while safeguarding the common ownership of the means of production, would safeguard equality in labor and in the distribution of products.”[8] The continued existence of economic functions for a political state separate from society as a whole reveals that economic relations have not completely been brought under the collective control of the producers. Lenin further describes this state as a “bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie.”[9] Lenin’s assertion of the necessity for a bourgeois state does not follow from Marx’s argument in The Critique of the Gotha Program. Marx had long identified the state as an expression of class rule, and the existence of a state in a communist society is incompatible with Marx’s basic framework. Paresh Chattopadhyay has pointed to the strangeness of Lenin’s conclusion:

Inasmuch as the first phase [of communism] is inaugurated only after the transition period has come to an end—along with the proletarian dictatorship which had arisen on the ruins of the bourgeois state—the existence of the bourgeois state in this phase, then, would imply that, in the absence of the bourgeoisie (by Marx’s as well as Lenin’s assumption), the workers themselves recreate the bourgeois state (however partially) after having abolished their own. Does not this sound a little far-fetched, to say the least?[10]

It seems probable that this is not quite what Lenin had in mind. It seems likely that the “proletarian state” associated by Lenin with proletarian dictatorship was not clearly distinguished from the “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie.”

For Lenin, the economic revolution presided over by the “armed workers” (proletarian dictatorship) consists of nationalization of industry, such that the state continues to persist as an economic actor and employer during the first phase of communism. From this, it seems inconsistent in the extreme to imagine that, after the workers’ state successfully nationalizes industry, the state withers away and is replaced by a bourgeois state that manages that same industry. It seems more consistent to interpret Lenin as describing the same state as both a “proletarian state” and as a “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” in different contexts. That Lenin uses Engels’s description of the Paris Commune as “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word” to refer to the state in the first phase of communism appears to support this interpretation.[11]

In The State and Revolution, Lenin’s notion of a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie is central to his understanding of socialist transition. While Lenin’s discussion of the Paris Commune does focus on the theme of democracy and political emancipation, the discussion of “bourgeois right” grounds an understanding of the state as an economic actor in the transition period. The latter is all the more important in light of Lenin’s politics in the Soviet “workers’ state.”

Lenin understands the first phase of communism as necessitating the transformation of all workers into “hired employees of the state.”[12] He writes, “the whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory, with equality of labor and pay.”[13] His notion of a bourgeois state resting upon “bourgeois right” elides the difference between the capitalist organization of production and the socialist organization of production. While Marx assumed a fundamentally different organization of production from capitalism, and then discusses a parallel with capitalism—“bourgeois right”—Lenin deduces the existence of the main organizer of production—the state—from the abstract level of right. While the producers must co-operatively administer production for Marx to talk about communism, Lenin writes that, during this socialist phase (he describes the first phase of communism as socialism), all workers are to learn to “independently administer social production.”[14] After this is accomplished, “the door will be thrown wide open for the transition from the first phase of communist society to its higher phase, and with it to the complete withering away of the state.”[15] Essentially, Lenin conflates the revolutionary transformation of capitalism into communism with the transition to what Marx had called “the higher phase of communist society.”

The transformation of capitalism into communism, which for Marx must take place before we can speak of a new society, finds its equivalent for Lenin in something that occurs “overnight,” namely the replacing of the economic control of capitalists and bureaucrats with that of the “armed workers.”[16] While Lenin writes of a long transitional period, the introduction of socialist economic planning is actually surprisingly swift, insofar as it merely consists of replacing the capitalists and bureaucrats. In a text written within months of The State and Revolution, Lenin explains that “a single State Bank” will constitute

as much as nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus…We can ‘lay hold of’ and ‘set in motion’ this ‘state apparatus’ (which is not fully a state apparatus under capitalism, but which will be so with us, under socialism) at one stroke, by a single decree, because the actual work of book-keeping, control, registering, accounting and counting is performed by employees, the majority of whom themselves lead a proletarian or semi-proletarian existence.[17]

This socialist apparatus, with a bourgeois state run by armed workers at its center, extends a certain factory discipline to the whole of society.[18] Lenin’s understanding of “bourgeois right” leads him to see the “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” as an enforcer of equality and equal rights in production. It does not, contra Cutrone, lead to a liberal political perspective, or any notion of independent political parties whatsoever, despite the fact that the phrase “bourgeois right” sounds exceedingly liberal. Since it is the workers’ state that ends up enforcing “bourgeois right,” the liberal virtues of this state depend fundamentally on how the workers’ state is conceived. In The State and Revolution, Lenin supports the idea of a vanguard party assuming power and “directing and organizing the new system.”[19] By Cutrone’s standards, this vision is discontinuous with the liberal tradition: he claims that, “the articulation of [political parties] with political power struck classical liberal thinkers as particularly dangerous.”[20] If such a vanguard party enforces something called “bourgeois right,” this does not make it any more liberal.

The practice of politics

Cutrone claims that Lenin supported the non-identity of party and state, and states that Lenin’s party was meant to be “one party among many parties.” He wants to portray Lenin’s model of the party as a more liberal, less authoritarian formation than a social-democratic “party of the whole class,” but he is unable to offer a compelling argument. For at the Eleventh Party Congress in March 1922, Lenin identifies the party with the state: “… the state is the workers, the advanced section of the workers, the vanguard. We are the state.”[21] This is hardly an isolated comment, and it reflected the political reality—the dictatorship of one party, which Lenin had defended for years. As he said in July 1919,

When we are reproached with having established a dictatorship of one party and, as you have heard, a united socialist front is proposed, we say, “Yes, it is a dictatorship of one party! This is what we stand for and we shall not shift from that position because it is the party that has won, in the course of decades, the position of vanguard of the entire factory and industrial proletariat. This party had won that position even before the revolution of 1905. It is the party that was at the head of the workers in 1905 and which since then—even at the time of the reaction after 1905 when the working-class movement was rehabilitated with such difficulty under the Stolypin Duma—merged with the working class and it alone could lead that class to a profound, fundamental change in the old society.”[22]

Not only did Lenin believe that the Bolshevik party in some sense “merged with the working class,” but he also berated the German Left for the “most incredibly and hopelessly muddled thinking” in distinguishing between party dictatorship and class dictatorship.[23]

Lenin often tried to justify a lack of democratic rights by identifying such rights with bourgeois society, as if they are merely identical with the freedom of capital.[24] Rather than try to preserve “the possibility of politics within the working class,” as Cutrone imagines, Lenin refused to support freedom of the press for opposition parties.[25] Within the party, the ban on factions moved by Lenin at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921 helped contribute to a decidedly illiberal party culture.[26] One could argue that Lenin’s approach was the only realistic one in Russia at the time or surmise that freedom of the press and free elections to the Soviets would have swept the Bolsheviks from power and empowered the forces of reaction. Lenin, however—and this is a crucial point—did not seem to see the fusion of party and state (inevitable or not) as problematic with respect to the building of socialism. The justice of this fusion was predicated on the assumed identity of interest of the masses and the Bolshevik Party, a party described by Lenin as having “as far back as 1905 and even earlier merged with the entire revolutionary proletariat.”[27]

With regard to the trade unions, while Lenin did not identify them with the state or the party, he was also not a principled champion of their independence. In January 1918, for example, Lenin called for the expulsion from the Party of the Bolshevik trade unionist A. Lozovsky, who, according to Lenin, refused “to accept the idea that it is the duty of the trade unions to take upon themselves state functions.”[28] In “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder, Lenin denounced as one of the “counter-revolutionary machinations” of the Mensheviks their defense of trade union independence from the state, despite the fact that Cutrone cites this text as exemplifying some sort of liberal approach.[29]

The trade union debate of 1920-1921, mentioned by Cutrone, highlighted Lenin’s opposition to the complete subsumption of the unions in the state. This should not be seen, however, as a principled rejection of his previous positions, but rather as a response to a changing political situation. Lenin came to characterize the function of the trade unions as contradictory: as “participants in the exercise of state power” the unions would need coercion, but in their key educative role, persuasion had to be their mode of operating.[30] Lenin had accused Trotsky of ignoring the latter function of trade unions. Unlike Trotsky, Lenin acknowledged the need for the trade unions to play a mediating role between the workers and the state. Since Lenin saw the state as fundamentally representing working class interests, workers’ struggles could only be justified as a correction of “bureaucratic distortions of the proletarian state.”[31] Lenin’s overall view of the unions was instrumental rather than liberal or democratic:

Just as the very best factory, with the very best motors and first-class machines, will be forced to remain idle if the transmission belts from the motors to the machines are damaged, so our work of socialist construction must meet with inevitable disaster if the trade unions—the transmission belts from the Communist Party to the masses—are badly fitted or function badly.”[32]

While the trade unions were supposed to play an educational role, the party was to have authority in industry until the time when the workers become capable of self-management. During the trade union debate, Lenin stigmatized the “syndicalist deviation” of those who wanted the unions to take on managerial functions. “Why have a Party,” Lenin asked in January 1921, if industrial management is to be left to the trade unions, “nine-tenths of whose members are non-Party workers?”[33] It is here, in the relation between the workers and their work—and not in regard to the function of a political party—that Lenin could be said to be a liberal.

With regard to the socialist transformation of industry, Lenin argued that the question of collective or individual and dictatorial administration of industry has nothing to do with which class is the ruling class. Against opposition from the left, Lenin appealed to the example of liberal capitalism in a March 1920 speech:

You know that one of the points in dispute, one that arouses the liveliest discussion both in the press and at meetings, is that of one-man management or corporate management. I think that the preference for corporate management not infrequently betrays an inadequate comprehension of the tasks confronting the Republic; what is more, it often testifies to insufficient class-consciousness. When I reflect on this question, I always feel like saying that the workers have not yet learned enough from the bourgeoisie….Look how the bourgeoisie administer the state; how they have organized the bourgeois class. In the old days, could you have found anyone who shared the views of the bourgeoisie and was their loyal defender, and yet argued that individual authority is incompatible with the administration of the state? If there had been such a blockhead among the bourgeoisie he would have been laughed to scorn by his own class fellows, and would not have been allowed to talk or hold forth at any important meeting of capitalists and bourgeois. They would have asked him what the question of administration through one person or through a corporate body had to do with the question of class. The shrewdest and richest bourgeoisies are the British and American; the British are in many respects more experienced, and they know how to rule better than the Americans. And do they not furnish us with examples of maximum individual dictatorship, of maximum speed in administration, and yet they keep the power fully and entirely in the hands of their own class?[34]

In a December 1920 speech on the trade union question, Lenin made a decidedly liberal argument as well, denouncing the slogan of “industrial democracy”: “Democracy is a category proper only to the political sphere,” he insisted.[35] The liberal assumption is that democracy is rightfully restricted to the sphere of politics, while the workplace is governed by purely economic imperatives.

Lenin’s liberalism, to the extent that it exists after the October Revolution, is not the sort that Cutrone imagines. On the basis of an understanding of socialist transformation as nationalization, Lenin was able to reconcile the task of economic development on the backs of the workers with the idea of proletarian dictatorship. In this theoretical universe, an incredible amount of weight was put on the correct politics of the ruling party, the minority that was actually implementing this proletarian dictatorship. In this way, a certain preservation of bourgeois conditions was coupled with a decidedly illiberal narrative regarding the just dictatorship of a party that had “merged” with the masses. |P

[1]. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in Later Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 213. Available online at <>.

[2]. Ibid., 213.

[3]. Ibid., 214.

[4]. Ibid., 214.

[5]. V. I. Lenin, "The State and Revolution," in The Lenin Anthology, Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1975), 376. Available online at <>.

[6]. Ibid., 377.

[7]. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (London: Penguin, 1990), 1: 172. Available online at <>.

[8]. Lenin, The State and Revolution, 378.

[9]. Ibid., 381.

[10]. Paresh Chattopadhyay, “The Economic Content of Socialism: Marx vs. Lenin,” Review of Radical Political Economics 24, no. 3&4 (1992), 108.

[11]. Lenin, The State and Revolution, 383.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. Ibid., 384.

[16]. Ibid., 382.

[17]. Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” in The Lenin Anthology, 401. Available online at <>.

[18]. Lenin, The State and Revolution, 383.

[19]. Ibid., 328.

[20]. Chris Cutrone, “Lenin’s Liberalism,” Platypus Review #36 (June 2011), available online at <>.

[21]. V. I. Lenin, “Political Report of the Central Committee of the R.C.P. (B.),” in Collected Works, vol. 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 278. Available online at <>.

[22]. V. I. Lenin, “Speech at the First All-Russia Congress of Workers in Education and Socialist Culture,” in Collected Works, vol. 29 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 535. Available online at <>.

[23]. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder, in The Lenin Anthology, 567. Available online at <>.

[24]. Lenin, “Speech at the First All-Russia Congress of Workers in Education and Socialist Culture,” 534.

[25]. Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite (New York: Routledge, 2008), 100-101.

[26]. Ibid., 89.

[27]. V. I. Lenin, “Letter to the Workers and Peasants Apropos of the Victory Over Kolchak,” in Collected Works, vol. 29 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 559. Available online at <>.

[28]. Hal Draper, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987), 100-101.

[29]. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder, 573.

[30]. V. I. Lenin, “The Role and Functions of the Trade Unions Under the New Economic Policy,” in Collected Works, vol. 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 193. Available online at <>.

[31]. Ibid., 187.

[32]. Ibid., 192.

[33]. V. I. Lenin, “The Party Crisis,” in Collected Works, vol. 32 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 50. Available online at <>.

[34]. V. I. Lenin, “Speech Delivered at the Third All-Russia Congress of Water Transport Workers,” in Collected Works, vol. 30 (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1977), 426-427. Available online at <>.

[35]. Lenin, “The Trade Unions, the Present Situation and Trotsky’s Mistakes,” in Collected Works, vol. 32 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 26. Available online at <>.