Adapted from an article originally published in The Socialist newspaper by Nick Chaffey of the Socialist Party Southern Region, UK
Stephen Bannon, chief strategist to Donald Trump, once called himself a “Leninist“–to the delight of Victor Sebestyen, a journalist for the Times, Spectator, and Standard.
Sebestyen puts Bannon and Lenin together in a “Comment is Free” article for the Guardian to link his two foes by showing their alleged similarities. “Bannon has an assortment of Leninist political tactics that could have come from the Bolshevik leader’s playbook.”
How could Stephen Bannon, investment banker, former vice-president at Goldman Sachs, and founder of ‘alt-right’ blog Breitbart News, call himself a Leninist? Vladimir Lenin was the leader of the Russian revolution that ended Russian capitalism and formed the first democratically elected workers’ government in history.
In 2013, Bannon apparently said, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too.” In reality, Bannon is thoroughly pro-capitalist. His real objection is not to the existence of the capitalist state, but to regulation and all other obstacles to maximizing profits. And his goal is not a society based on equality and solidarity, but rather to cynically tap into anger at the establishment to whip up racism and the forces of the far right, in order to advance the interests of the capitalist class.
But for Lenin, the capitalist state ensured the capitalists’ economic interests were maintained and was their tool to maintain a highly unequal society by repressing the working masses. The goal of the first workers’ state was instead to ensure that the majority ruled in the interests of the majority. Through the ‘soviets’, democratic workers’ councils, elected representatives from workplaces formed a government at local, regional and national levels.
Traditional conservatives like Sebestyen fear the right-wing populism of Trump, with his blows against the institutions of capitalism such as the judiciary, press, and free trade agreements. Trump’s populism threatens their control.
But they are even more fearful of the insurgent left. Bernie Sanders’ campaign against the billionaire class threatened the Democratic establishment of Hillary Clinton and her Wall Street allies. They fear the renewed interest in socialist ideas, growing mass protests, and struggles like the fight for a $15 minimum wage.
But how could Sebestyen conflate such diametrically opposed ideas? The title of his latest book, Lenin the Dictator, makes his intentions clear.
This is a familiar rehash of the view that the vicious Stalinist bureaucratic counter-revolution that emerged after the death of Lenin was inevitable, and a seamless and logical transition occurred from the Russian Revolution to Stalinism. It ignores the material basis for the counter-revolution under Stalin, following the isolation of the revolution after the destructive years of civil war, and the defeat of other revolutions, especially in Germany from 1918 to 1923.
From here, the first democratic workers’ government in history is slanderously heaped together with Stalin’s forced labor camps, along with generous doses of unsubstantiated character assassination, in Sebestyen’s attempts to bury Lenin and the Russian revolution.
Lenin was committed to the international struggle of the working class to replace the capitalist system of war, poverty and inequality with a socialist world, one where working class people democratically own and plan production to meet the needs of all. He was committed to building a mass revolutionary party with a clear Marxist understanding of capitalism, the Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks put forward a program to satisfy the needs of the masses: “peace, bread and land.” Their decisive leadership–while other political forces utterly failed to deliver on any of the demands which had given rise to the February revolution–led them to win a majority in the soviets, end Russia’s involvement in the bloodbath of World War I, and implement a completely unprecedented series of progressive gains for working people.
In reality, Lenin’s real “crime,” for which he has been demonized for a century by ruling classes across the globe, was his role in the abolition of capitalism and landlordism in Russia, and the example it continues to offer to working people looking for a way out of this failed system of crisis and inequality.