Are there Leninists in the White House?
With each new attack Donald Trump has inflicted on working people and the oppressed, new struggles have broken out to fight back. Women, immigrants, and even scientists have moved into struggle, many of them for the first time. Faced with these new struggles, it’s only reasonable that people would look to the struggles of the past for lessons and inspiration. Of those historical struggles, the Russian Revolution of 1917 is particularly significant. First of all, because this year marks the revolution’s centenary. And second of all, because the Russian Revolution was the first time that workers and the oppressed successfully took power and abolished capitalism.
But recently, a different comparison with the Russian Revolution has come up. Shortly before the 2016 election, the ex-Stalinist turned anti-Trump conservative Ronald Radosh revealed a startling new “fact”: that Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, is a Leninist. Bannon allegedly confessed his Leninism to Radosh at a party in 2013. Now a wave of think pieces have sprung up looking to the Russian Revolution, not as a source of inspiration for anti-Trump protesters, but as a source of fear for what the Trump administration is up to.
Normally, people are inclined to treat the statements of Steve Bannon with extreme skepticism, since he’s a notorious and compulsive liar. The claims of Leninism are especially curious given that Bannon has also cited Darth Vader and Satan as political influences. But for some reason, this time commentators are inclined to believe that this poster boy for “post-truth politics” might be telling the truth just this once.
Andrew O’Hehir on Salon made the first tentative steps, suggesting that “the Lenin comparison is not entirely ludicrous.” Then Anastasia Edel devoted an essay in Quartz Media exposing the “disturbing parallels between Lenin and Trump.” More recently Victor Sebestyen in The Guardian found that the Trump administration’s policies can finally be understood if only you recognize them as “an assortment of Leninist political tactics that could have come from the Bolshevik leader’s playbook.”
The fundamental rationale for comparing Trump to Lenin is the notion of “Horseshoe Theory”. This is a pseudoscientific sociological principle which holds that the far right and the far left, rather than being opposites, converge like the ends of a horseshoe. Thus, the only way to defend freedom is to preserve the status quo at all costs. There are plenty of figures in the political establishment who may not like Trump, but fear the growing militancy of the anti-Trump protests across the country. For them, Horseshoe Theory-inspired comparisons between Lenin and Trump are an ideal way to challenge that militancy and push the opposition to Trump toward safe channels.
The other thread running through all these comparisons is the amazing ignorance of these pundits, willful or otherwise, about what Leninism actually is. Otherwise, they’d be forced to admit that Trump and Lenin have next to nothing in common.
A common trend in Horseshoe Theory is to identify all non-mainstream politics, whether left or right, with “demagoguery”. And Trump certainly is a demagogue, raging against the elite in speeches while aiming his fire at the most oppressed layers in society in practice. But attempts to make the same claim of Lenin fail under even the most cursory examination.
Edel specifically sees parallels to Trumpism in Lenin’s “demagoguery summed up in the slogans ‘Peace to the Peoples,’ ‘Land to the Peasants,’ and ‘All Power to the Soviets.’”
Trump’s main slogan, “Make America great again,” has nothing in common with Lenin’s approach. That’s just standard substance-free, faux inspirational politician-speak, far more comparable to Hillary Clinton’s slogan of “I’m with her” or Barack Obama’s “Change we can believe in”. Lenin’s slogans, by contrast make specific demands that the Bolsheviks, Russian workers and peasants, fought for and carried out.
Trump’s more specific slogans, like “Build the wall and make Mexico pay for it”, reveal something else. They clearly show the source of Trumpsim in right-wing, nationalist populism, something completely at odds with the approach of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Trump cynically takes advantage of concerns about loss of jobs and a declining standard of living – and riles up anti-immigrant hatred amongst the native-born working class while appointing billionaires to his cabinet and carrying out anti-worker policies. The Bolsheviks sought to unite the working class against capitalism on an internationalist basis. They prominently took up the concerns of oppressed minorities, including demanding the full right of oppressed nationalities to secede from Russia.
If you want to look for similar demagoguery in the Russian Revolution, you should look on the other side of the barricades, at the conspiracy theories that flourished at the time accusing the Bolsheviks of being German agents. These conspiracy theories were used to justify arrests, violent attacks on workers, and smashing of Bolshevik printing presses. But our judicious commentators miss the Trump parallels staring them in the face, and instead Sebestyen praises this Trumpian fake news as the work of a “free press . . . vigorously opposed to Lenin.” Edel, meanwhile, incredibly repeats these long discredited conspiracy theories as fact before quietly admitting the lack of evidence backing them up.
The approach Lenin and the Bolsheviks adopted was later elaborated by fellow Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky as the “transitional method.” Lenin and Trotsky understood that capitalism couldn’t be reformed and that a revolution had to be made by the masses themselves in the struggle for their common interests. At the same time, most of the masses at any given time were, and still are, fighting for reforms under capitalism, or against counter-reforms. The task was to build a bridge in consciousness from those day-to-day struggles to the need for revolutionary change. And this was done through “transitional demands”, which popular consciousness would accept as necessary, but which capitalism would be unwilling to grant. While Trump and Bannon serve to obscure the brutal reality of capitalism behind a cloak of racism and sexism, Lenin and Trotsky sought to reveal that reality.
When Lenin put forward the demands that Edel finds so “demagogic,” the Russian workers and peasants had already risen up in the February revolution of 1917 and overthrown the Czar. But a new provisional government had come to power in its place headed by Alexander Kerensky. Under pressure from below, Kerensky was forced to grant some democratic reforms, but sought to hold things back at every opportunity, for fear of upsetting the Russian capitalists and nobility. Given that the revolution had been largely the product of anger at the destructive and meaningless first world war, the Russian workers and peasants were understandably upset when Kerensky launched a new offensive against Germany rather than ending the war. Meanwhile, Kerensky refused to give into the decades-long demand of the peasantry that they be given the land that had been long concentrated in the hands of a dated feudal elite.
The slogan “peace to the peoples” served to expose that the provisional government was not actually delivering on the very basic promises that brought it to power in the first place. And “land to the peasants” served a similar purpose, coming from a long-established demand of the peasantry themselves. The demand of “all power to the soviets” (democratic councils of workers, peasants and soldiers) went farther than the other two demands, directly posing the question of who runs society and pointing the way for revolution.
While this method of the Bolsheviks has nothing in common with Trump it does provide a useful approach for fighting him. When Trump began his attacks on immigrants moves were made to establish “sanctuary cities” across the country. But in order for those sanctuary cities to live up to their name, they have to refuse to cooperate in assisting ICE raids and deportations. But Trump’s pro-capitalist opponents aren’t willing to do this, and instead allow police to be used against protesters. So when people begin their struggle for basic rights only to encounter the repression of the state, a bridge is built towards the idea that the capitalist state is not on their side. As working people continue to struggle they encounter this fundamental reality again and again, and move toward the conclusion that capitalism itself needs to be done away with.
Smashing the State
It’s the question of the state that supposedly provides the “smoking gun” linking Lenin to Bannon and, by extension, Trump. When Radosh asked Bannon why he considers himself a Leninist Bannon responded saying “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” This argument, however, reveals again how upside down Radosh and Bannon’s understanding of Leninism is. Tough talk about taking on “big government” is par for the course for right-wing politicians, with some right-wingers even calling themselves “anarcho-capitalists.”
But the right-wing hostility to the state is quite different from Lenin’s, or the anarchists’ for that matter. And Trump’s anti-statist credentials are quite dubious when he aims to ramp up police repression, massively expand military spending, and pour mounds of state resources into building a border wall. The state that Trump and Bannon want to abolish are the social services that workers forced the state to provide as the result of decades of struggle: welfare, public education, environmental protections, etc. But that’s the state that Bill Clinton also railed against when he promised to end welfare as we know it.
Lenin’s actual theory of the state was articulated in his book The State and Revolution, written between the February and October Revolutions of 1917. There, he argued: “The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.” The state exists to defend and maintain the brutal inequalities of capitalist class society. And hence, the liberation of workers and the oppressed requires “destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class” to defend their interests.
Lenin advocated the struggle for democratic rights within the existing state. But, when the struggle sharpened into a revolutionary situation, it directly posed the need to overthrow the capitalist state and replace it with a new type of state, one run by and for working people. Trump is doing the exact opposite, using the capitalist state apparatus to carry out his goals while stripping away all the reforms won by workers from that state through class struggle.
In describing the workers’ state, Lenin used a much misinterpreted phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” that had been coined by Marx. And our current commentators aren’t helping things. Edel claims that “Lenin viewed the world as a space in which he could build the dictatorship of the proletariat with himself at the helm.” O’Hehir, at the very least seems to be aware that the term “wasn’t supposed to sound as scary then as it does now”, but he then assumes that smashing the state, whether by Lenin or Trump, must entail building a dictatorship, and wonders what type of dictatorship Trump and Bannon intend to build.
Marx talked about capitalism and capitalist democracy as “the dictatorship of capital.” During the 1848 revolution in France, the attempt to impose a democratic parliament against the will of the monarchists was referred to by some as “the dictatorship of the democracy”. And Marx and Engels often contrasted their “dictatorship of the proletariat” to the “dictatorship of one or several individuals” that some of the more putschist revolutionaries advocated. The term “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant that the working class, or proletariat, would rule as a class through their own workers’ state, like the capitalists currently rule, as a class, through their state. The reason why the term “wasn’t supposed to sound as scary then as it does now” is because it was generally understood what the term meant until the rise of a bureaucratic dictatorship under Stalin in the U.S.S.R. distorted the meaning of the term to what it is today.
Soviets and Workers’ Democracy
In the struggles of today in the United States, from Standing Rock to immigrant rights to Black Lives Matter, the experience of Trump should make it increasingly apparent that the state apparatus represents the interests of the ruling class. But other aspects of Lenin’s theory, such as the overthrow of the capitalist state, the establishment of a workers’ state and its withering away, can seem somewhat abstract and theoretical in today’s world. But Lenin’s theory was drawn from historical experience, from the 1848 revolutions in Europe to the Paris Commune of 1871, to the first failed Russian Revolution of 1905. And it has been confirmed through subsequent experiences like France in 1968, Chile in 1973, and the Arab Spring of 2011. And, when Lenin wrote The State and Revolution in 1917 it was a very practical problem he was dealing with.
When Edel describes the October revolution she insists that the Russian people “woke up to the news that the legitimate provisional government had been disbanded by the Bolsheviks, whose stated agenda was the destruction of the Russian state and building a completely different—Soviet—entity in its stead.” Sebestyen similarly declares that “Lenin abolished the existing legal system and started afresh. Within a few weeks his regime closed down the first freely elected parliament in Russia’s history – and the Soviets never allowed another one.” Both of these commentators mention these things called “Soviets” but never bother to say what they were.
The Soviets weren’t something the Russian people simply “woke up to.” Soviets were democratically run councils of workers, peasants, and soldiers that were built in the course of the revolution. They were first created during the failed revolution of 1905 and re-established again in the February revolution in 1917. The Petrograd Soviet had 3,000 delegates elected from most factories and workplaces. Delegates received no economic privileges and were subject to immediate de-selection, making this the most democratic political system ever seen and the embryo of a workers’ government. Soviets sprang up across Russia, also drawing in the rural masses.
Edel refers to the provisional government as the “legitimate” government. But the provisional government was set up after the soviets. Its “legitimacy” stemmed from the backing it had from the old Tzarist establishment and the liberal politicians. And, unfortunately the backing given to it by the more conservative socialist parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, as well as a conservative wing of the Bolsheviks around Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Between the February and October revolutions, Russia was in a state of “dual power”, with two different state forms ruling uneasily side by side, the soviet organs of democratic working class rule, and the provisional government of the capitalists and feudal elites.
When the Bolsheviks first advanced the slogan of “all power to the soviets”, they were still a minority in those soviets, which were dominated by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Far from being about Lenin “putting himself at the helm,” the demand, if implemented, would have put his more moderate political opponents at the helm. By the time of the October revolution, the Bolsheviks had managed to win majority support in the soviets on the basis of convincing people of their ideas through the democratic process. Sebestyen laments the Bolsheviks closing down the first “freely elected parliament in Russia’s history”. But the provisional government cynically put off holding elections to a constituent assembly, hoping to exhaust the revolutionary impulse of the masses, while the far more democratic soviets were able to hold countless elections, before and after October.
The United States is a country with formal democratic rights. But, as Lenin put it, it gives us the right “to decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people.” The 2016 election forced us to choose between Trump and Clinton, two of the most hated politicians in U.S. history. When Trump crushes social services while empowering the police, ICE and the National Guard, he’s not smashing the state. He’s strengthening state forces and revealing their naked class character. The Leninist view of “smashing the state” instead points to the possibility of building real workers’ democracy to democratically plan and use the resources of society.
Can Workers Run Society?
A common charge against Leninism is that it’s “elitist” or “undemocratic”. Central to that charge is identifying Lenin with the Stalinist counter-revolution that took place in the Soviet Union in the ’20s and ’30s. For O’Hehir, it’s enough to declare, “It didn’t work out too well” and write off Leninism. But most of the attempts to link Trump to Lenin have an anti-democratic undercurrent that should repulse anybody interested in stopping Trump’s attacks.
Victor Sebestyen’s attacks on Lenin reek of contempt for ordinary working people. When Lenin attacked the capitalists, feudal elite and the imperialist armies, Sebestyen declares “Lenin needed to invent enemies he had to be seen to defeat.” Despite Sebestyen’s protestations, these enemies were not “invented” by Lenin. They were very real and launched a “white terror” against the revolutionary government that killed hundreds of thousands in pogroms. But for Sebestyen, the idea that one would oppose a ruling elite in power is the height of demagoguery. He denounces the very idea of attacking the “elite,” which he emphasizes is “a word Lenin used frequently.” This, for Sebestyen is Lenin’s biggest crime and his biggest link to Trump.
Sebestyen declares that Lenin “despised so-called ‘experts’ who claimed a monopoly of knowledge.” Lenin was indeed very concerned that a small group of experts could obtain special privileges. And during the course of the civil war following the October revolution, the role of those experts became a big problem as they demanded privileges above and beyond what ordinary workers made. Concessions to these experts, made out of necessity in the midst of war and famine, helped a privileged bureaucracy to develop in the country, and provided the social basis for Stalin’s counter-revolution. Lenin spent the last months of his life struggling against the development of a privileged bureaucracy behind Stalin. But for Sebestyen, the problem is that Lenin dared challenge their privilege in the first place.
Trump of course does rail against the “elite.” He famously declared his intention to “drain the swamp” in Washington. But he soon exposed himself by filling his entire cabinet with elite businessmen and lobbyists. Edel, unlike Sebestyen, seemingly shows concern for the common man when she declares: “Trump’s decision to appoint billionaires, bankers, and oil tycoons to his cabinet signifies that his administration does not plan to even pay lip service to a democratic government.” But in the very next sentence, she abandons any pretense to democratic concerns: “The fact that many of the new cabinet members lack relevant expertise doesn’t matter; Lenin famously maintained that ‘any cook can run the state.’”
And that’s Horseshoe Theory in a nutshell. Lenin’s defense of workers’ self-rule and Trump’s further empowering of billionaires are lumped together. Like Edel, Sebestyen reacts in horror that Lenin “often said that a worker with five days’ training could run a government department.” While both Edel and Sebestyen may pay lip service to democracy, the bigger crime for them is that Lenin would disrespect the authority of the “experts” who alone were fit to rule the capitalist state.
In fact, Lenin’s own thoughts were far more nuanced. The commentary about cooks running the state came from an essay “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” written a month before the October Revolution. In that essay, he actually declared: “We are not utopians. We know that an unskilled laborer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration.” But he then proceeded to demand “an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration.”
Lenin was not arguing in favor of bringing a small band of cooks to replace the existing government officials. And he definitely wasn’t advocating a government of “billionaires, bankers, and oil tycoons.” He was advocating for expanding the democratic control over the state, bringing masses of workers into various aspects of administration. And that through that process, the workers as a class would learn how to run things for themselves:
“Is there any way other than practice by which the people can learn to govern themselves and to avoid mistakes? Is there any way other than by proceeding immediately to genuine self-government by the people? The chief thing now is to abandon the prejudiced bourgeois-intellectualist view that only special officials, who by their very social position are entirely dependent upon capital, can administer the state.”
During the 2016 election, supporters of Hillary Clinton defended her primarily on the fact that she had the experience necessary to run the country. This was directed, not only against Trump, but challengers to Clinton’s left, such as Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, all of whom were accused of lacking Clinton’s expertise. But, in the current protests against Trump, workers and the oppressed are beginning to see their potential power once again. And through this experience, we will find that the workers do have the capacity to organize themselves, to win victories through struggle, to go on strike and take the levers of the economy into their own hands, and ultimately to run society. And that is nothing like Trumpism.