Friday, 1 January 2010

Lenin, democracy and freedom of criticism

In my opening post in this series, Lenin's 'What is to be done?', I briefly summarised how Lenin envisaged revolutionaries' relationship with the wider working class, especially when working people fight back in response to capitalist exploitation. It is also worth considering how organised revolutionaries conduct their political relationships with each other - this, after all, is an area of great misunderstanding in relation to Lenin.

The most common negative perception of Lenin is the view of him as a dictatorial authoritarian presiding over an undemocratic party and, later, an undemocratic society. The truth is somewhat different. Paul le Blanc's selection of Lenin's writings, 'Revolution, Democracy, Socialism', foregrounds (as the title suggests) Lenin's democratic spirit, ideas and practices. This applies, first and foremost, to the internal democratic culture of the revolutionary party itself.

Le Blanc includes a good example from 1906, when there was a difference of opinion about the scope of freedom of criticism permissible to members of the Russian Social and Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). There was disagreement amongst leading figures in the party. Lenin wrote a short reply - called 'Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action' - to a proposal from the party's Central Committee (CC), which then had a Menshevik majority. The CC made what seems a reasonable series of proposals:

'1. that in the Party press and at Party meetings, everybody must be allowed full freedom to express his personal opinions and to advocate his individual views;

2. that at public political meetings members of the Party should refrain from conducting agitation that runs counter to congress decisions;

3. that no Party member should at such meetings call for action that runs counter to Congress decisions, or propose resolutions that are out of harmony with congress decisions.'

These proposals combine freedom of criticism with unity in action. They reflect democratic centralism, whereby members' opportunities to democratically express their views and discuss the way forward are combined with collectively acting on what is agreed through that discussion and debate. Point 1 emphasises maximum freedom of expression inside the party; points 2 and 3 simply note that members shouldn't actively oppose democratically agreed decisions when they're in public forums (they 'should refrain from conducting agitation').

Lenin's objection was perhaps an unexpected one: he argued the CC didn't go far enough in promoting members' right to criticise. He makes the following astonished observation: 'at Party meetings, members of the Party have the right to call for action that runs counter to congress decisions; but at public meetings they are not 'allowed' full freedom to 'express personal opinions'!!'

Lenin thought this an unnecessary limitation on freedom of expression - and this, recall, was at a time when state repression was a real problem, so Lenin might be expected (if anything) to recommend curtailing freedom of criticism. He argues: 'Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party programme must be quite free... not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such 'agitation' (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited.'

Some might wonder if this goes too far - perhaps it undermines unity of action. But Lenin insisted that curtailing free criticism should be applicable only when party members make calls that 'violate the unity of definite actions'. What does this mean? Lenin provides a very useful example:

'The Congress decided that the Party should take part in the Duma elections. Taking part in elections is a very definite action. During the elections... no member of the party anywhere has any right whatever to call upon the people to abstain from voting; nor can criticism of the decision to take part in the elections be tolerated during this period, for it would in fact jeopardise success in the election campaign. Before elections have been announced, however, Party members everywhere have a perfect right to criticise the decision to take part in elections.'

This seems to me to be striking the correct balance - it is authentic democratic centralism. By writing this piece, Lenin is himself practising what he preaches, showing willingness to criticise a Central Committee majority view: 'The Central Committee's resolution is essentially wrong and runs counter to the Party Rules. He urges the wider party membership to overturn the CC's ruling that members shouldn't be allowed to publicly criticise the party line: 'We call upon all Party organisations to discuss this resolution of the Central Committee now, and to express a definite opinion on it.'

This is the real Lenin, and the real tradition of Leninism. It is a tradition those who are normally hostile to Leninism should attend to and engage with. It is also a tradition that some who are ostensibly Leninists might wish to re-engage with.

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