The Leninist Conjuncture Prabhat Patnaik

The basic theoretical presumption underlying the October Revolution was that because inter-imperialist rivalry had unleashed an epoch of wars that forced workers of different imperialist countries to kill each other across the trenches, capitalism had reached a climacteric. It had become historically “moribund”, ushering in an era of social revolutions, which would not just be confined to the advanced capitalist countries but would also encompass the oppressed countries whose peoples too got dragged into these wars as “canon-fodder”. What could hold back such revolutions was vacillation on the part of some sections of the working class deriving from the pusillanimity or “corruption” of a segment of working class leadership (e.g. the union officials belonging to the “labour aristocracy”). This required that the revolutionaries must break with them and “go it alone” if necessary.

The rationale for forming the Third or Communist International lay in this belief. In the programme of the International, the concept that appeared prominently was the “General Crisis of Capitalism”, whose reference was precisely to this conjuncture. Even though “going it alone” led to a narrowing of the social base of the revolution, the alternative was foregoing the possibility of revolution altogether, which amounted to a betrayal of the historic cause of the working class.

Put differently, the belief was that even if certain segments, not just of the leadership but even of the working class underits influence, did not join the revolution or remained hostile to it in the beginning, they would not remain so permanently; they would come over to the revolutionary side eventually. Or, to use the distinction between “historical” and “practical” that Lenin employed in criticizing Lukacs on the question of parliamentarianism, even if the practical obsolescence of capitalism was not evident to some sections of the working class at the moment, its historical obsolescence would eventually make it so. In the meantime whatever difficulties arose from the possible narrowness of the revolutionary base because of the policy of “going it alone” could be overcome by the fact thatthe revolution would be happening in several countries one after the other, countries which could support one another and thereby prevent the conversion of the country where the revolution had occurred into “closed space”.

This point about the perception of the historical conjuncture is extremely important. It is often argued that the October Revolution, notwithstanding its enormous scope, reach, and significance, represented nonetheless the seizing of power by a determined minority, and the authoritarianism of the post-revolution regime and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union that followed was an inevitable outcome of it. Simply saying this howevermisses the fact that the seizure of power was not just some sort of opportunist Blanquism but was based on the firm belief that history was on the side of the revolutionaries. When Yuli Martov walked out of the Congress of Soviets, Leon Trotsky’s remark to his former mentor “Go to the dustbin of history” expresses in a pithy form this conviction on the part of the Bolsheviks.

It is not only the right-wing commentators who have seen the revolution as a mere conspiracy (sometimes as a Jewish conspiracy), or the liberal writers who have seen the revolution as a seizure of power by a determined group in the name of and on behalf of workers but not an upsurge by the mass of workers themselves, but even several Marxists who can be accused of missing this particular point. Many Marxists for instance have seen in the Bolshevik decision to dismantle the Soviets not just a turning point in the history of the revolution, a point where it began to go wrong, but a usurpation of power by a centralized party from the working class. Such a view however misses the fact that those who carried out the so-called “usurpation” did so on the basis of an understanding that history was on their side, i.e. that their action was valid and that this validity would be confirmed by the march of history.

The so-called “usurpation” in other words, no matter what its later consequences, appears in a very different light, when we recognize that it was informed not by some “self-interest” of the Party, let alone any individual “self-interest”, but by a certain understanding of what was historically necessary at a particular juncture, namely that a party dictatorship was the need of the hourfor preserving the dictatorship of the proletariat itself. This understanding may have been wrong, but it is not synonymous with the idea that a party dictatorship was necessarily the form in which the dictatorship of the proletariat had always to be exercised. The latter perception came to prevail later, but it did not underlie the decision to dismantle the Soviets, however one may criticize that decision.

Interestingly, the view that the need for preserving the revolution should over-ride even majoritarian democratic norms if ever a conflict arose between the two, was propounded not by Lenin himself or the Bolsheviks under his leadership, but by Plekhanov, often referred to as “the father of Russian Marxism”. Plekhanov’s position on this question, according to Krupskaya, had a profound influence on Lenin and tilted his decision at that crucial juncture. The point I am making in short is that we must not reduce complexities of history into a mere desire for partyor personal aggrandizement.

The belief that history was on their side, that seizing power on behalf of the proletariat, and holding it, even through a Party dictatorship, was justified, was sustained by the perception of the imminence of revolutions elsewhere. Lenin was clear that the Bolshevik Revolution would survive if revolutions occurred elsewhere to sustain it. Hopes were initially reposed in a German Revolution, but after those hopes were belied, Lenin shifted his attention eastwards and saw China and India as the new prospective sites for revolution, even remarking that Russia, China and India together accounted for a majority of humanity, so that revolutions in these countries would decisively tilt the balance of forces in a favourable direction for socialism.

This belief in the imminence of revolutions elsewhere arose from the perception of the conjuncture mentioned earlier, a conjuncture that was captured under the concept of a “general crisis of capitalism”. The entire Leninist position, onthe necessity of seizing power by the workers wherever possible, even if some segments of the workers had not come over to the side of the revolution, and on holding on to power by these workers under the leadership of the revolutionary party even whenthis went against majoritarian democratic norms, derived from the belief that a world revolutionary conjuncture had arrived, which would entail the breaking away from capitalism of a substantial part of the globe. I shall henceforth refer to this conjuncture as the Leninist conjuncture.

The fact that the Leninist conjuncture actually existed in Lenin’stime was widely recognized at that time, even by many who were opposed to Marxism. John Maynard Keynes was one such whose Economic Consequences of the Peace was extensively quoted by Lenin at the Second Congress of the Comintern. Of course for a person like Keynes the problem was that something had to be done to save capitalism in that conjuncture, but this also meant recognizing the conjuncture for what it was. But the Leninist conjuncture continued to characterize the world for a long period even after Lenin’s death. Indeed one can say that the entire period from 1914 to 1945, was marked by the Leninist conjuncture. The first world war, the Bolshevik Revolution, the revolutionary attempts over large parts of Europe in the aftermath of the first world war, the Great Depression of the 1930s which was itself a manifestation of disunity among capitalist powers, the rise of fascism in the wake of the Depression and as a sequel to the failed German Revolutions, and the unleashing of the second world war, were all manifestations of the prevalence of the Leninist conjuncture, a conjuncture where rivalry among capitalist powers had brought humanity to the threshold of a world revolution because it offered, in Rosa Luxemburg’s words, a choice only between socialism and barbarism.

With the end of the second world war however the Leninist conjuncture in my view came to an end. To say this may appear odd, since the Chinese Revolution was completed only in 1949, and the Vietnamese Revolution even later; and in between there was the Cuban Revolution. Besides, the end of the second world war itself saw the spread of socialism to large tracts of Eastern Europe. In fact Lenin’s vision of a large part of the world opting out of the orbit of capitalism had been realized only after the war; hence to say that the end of the war, which represented a validation of the Leninist vision, also marked the end of the Leninist conjuncture may appear odd.

But the Leninist conjuncture ended precisely at its apogee. The Chinese and the Vietnamese Revolutions were the mere delayed realizations of events whose roots lay earlier; indeed the delay in the case of the latter may be held to be the cause of much unnecessary and tragic bloodshed. But the basic factor which contributed to the formation of a post-Leninist conjuncture after the war was shaped as a result of the war itself. It consisted in a twin-development: the emergence of the clear hegemony by one capitalist power, the United States, in the place of the inter-imperialist rivalry that had existed earlier, and hence a muting of inter-imperialist rivalry; and the willingness of capitalism to make concessions because of its getting weakened by the war.

Three such concessions were important. One was decolonization, or the end of formal colonial empires. The old capitalist powers were too weak to hold on to their formal colonial empires in the face of the liberation struggles that were sweeping the third world. And the new capitalist power, the U.S., though it did have colonial ambitions and colonial possessions earlier, like the Philippines, was interested in newer forms of domination than direct colonial rule. (Even in Vietnam it took over the colonial mantle from the French to prevent a communist revolution, rather than imposing any colonialism of its own ab ovo).

The end of formal colonialism did not of course entail ipso facto the liberation of third world countries from imperialist domination: the control over their economies and natural resources was sought to be retained by the big powers by other means despite their formal independence and a bitter struggle had to be waged by them, usually with the help of the Soviet Union, to wrest back such control. But formal decolonization, no matter how flawed, did entail the inauguration of an altogether new era.

The second concession was with regard to the working class in metropolitan economies. The working class had emerged much more powerful from the war in political terms. All over Eastern Europe, in the wake of the triumphant march of the Red Army, regimes came up which transcended capitalism and sought to represent workers’ power. In France and Italy the Communist Parties emerged as the most powerful political forces. Elsewhere in Europe social democracy rose to ascendancy, with Winston Churchill, Britain’s war-time Prime Minister, losing the post-war election to the Labour party. Everywhere in the capitalist world the working class had made immense sacrifices during the war and was unwilling to go back to the pre-war days of Depression and distress. In the United States too, a return to pre-war unemployment was simply not acceptable, especially since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had given a whiff of what was possible. Everywhere in the advanced capitalist world therefore State intervention in demand management, the theoretical ground for which had been prepared by Keynesianism, came to be the acceptable policy.

In Europe, Welfare State measures were enacted which boosted public expenditure; even though such expenditure was financed partly by taxes on the workers themselves, it had the effect of boosting aggregate demand and employment. In the U.S. what has been called “military Keynesianism” was implemented which entailed high employment sustained by military expenditure. In short, high, and even near-full, employment of an order never witnessed throughout the history of capitalism over such a sustained period became the norm.

The high level of demand in turn caused high investment and growth, and hence a high rate of growth of labour productivity, which, given the prevalence of near-full employment which greatly strengthened the bargaining power of the workers, also resulted in a high rate of growth of real wages. This period which lasted till the early-seventies (on this more later) and which saw high output growth, high employment and high growth of real wages, came therefore to be labeled as the “Golden Age of Capitalism”. It was, in contrast to the pre-war years, a period of ascendancy of the working class within the capitalist countries, an ascendancy that owed much to the legacy of the October Revolution itself  but that also meant a change in the conjuncture that had underlain and been assumed by that Revolution.

The third change entailed the introduction of political democracy based on universal adult suffrage. In Britain itself women got the right to vote only in 1928 (and even then some residual restrictions on suffrage continued to remain till the post-war period). In France, one of the original sites of bourgeois revolution, universal adult suffrage was introduced only in 1945. In short, post-war capitalism saw something which neither Marx nor Lenin had witnessed. It even went contrary to Lenin’s remark in his response to Lukacs that parliamentarianism had become historically obsolete under capitalism, though not practically obsolete. Parliamentarianism, it turned out, had not even become historically obsolete, which is a symptom of the change that had occurred in the conjuncture.

To be sure, the coming of democracy in the advanced capitalist countries was long after the bourgeois State had consolidated itself in these countries, so that democracy based on universal adult suffrage did not per se present a threat to the bourgeois State. And the close links of the bourgeois State with monopoly capital was by no means undermined by the democratic structures; besides, capitalism developed a whole new array of mechanisms to ensure that these links continued. Democratic structures however did make new ways of struggle available to the working class. They widened the scope for political intervention by the working class, and opened up ways of undermining the bourgeois State that did not exist earlier. The subsequent spread of democratic structures to third world countries represented a further advance of great historical significance.

These changes, progressive though they were in empowering the oppressed classes, also meant that the impasse that had marked the Leninist conjuncture had been broken. Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase quoted earlier for describing this impasse, namely that it offered mankind a stark choice between socialism and barbarism, was no longer as apposite in the post-war era as it had been in the period between 1914 and 1945. New possibilities and new choices emerged even within capitalism, not because capitalism wished them to emerge but because in the new situation it had to acquiesce in their emergence. It had in short to restructure itself.

But while capitalism restructured itself and thereby brought about a change in the Leninist conjuncture, socialist countries did not engage in any comparable restructuring. The end of the Leninist conjuncture therefore meant that the spread of the socialist camp, instead of leading to a breaking out by the Soviet Union from the “closed space” into which it had been pushed earlier, merely led to the creation of a multiplicity of “closed spaces”.

The non-restructuring of socialist countries meant in particular that the two main inter-related and mutually sustaining features of the Soviet system, a “command economy” and a “one-Party dictatorship”, continued as before. The “Command economy” no doubt had much to its credit. In particular, as even Janos Kornai, one of its critics, has pointed out, it built up a “resource-constrained system” as opposed to the “demand-constrained system” that capitalism typically constitutes. Instead of the unemployment that perennially afflicts capitalism, the socialist economies were characterized by labour shortage, which was an unprecedented phenomenon in modern times and which, by bringing women into the work-force in large numbers, also had a deep impact on gender relations.

The Command economy has been criticized for its inefficiency of resource use, and its incapacity to innovate. But if the comparison is with capitalist economies, as it usually is, then these criticisms do not hold. Unlike the capitalist economies which are invariably saddled with unutilized capacity and unemployment, the socialist economies, as we just noted, experienced full utilization of resources; hence any talk about their inefficiency must refer to misdirection of resources. When we remember the enormous misdirection of resource under capitalism into unproductive uses like advertising and sales effort, it is clear that whatever misdirection occurred under socialism could not have been so large as to offset the combined benefits of both full utilization and the absence of sales effort.As for innovations, the Soviet Union not only had remarkable achievements to its credit, but it is not even clear in principle why a command economy should lag behind in innovations. Since much of the advances underlying innovations occur even under capitalism under the aegis of the State or at best through research undertaken by Multinational Corporations, there is no reason why a command economy should be any worse in introducing innovations: it can in fact “command” innovativeness on behalf of the economy as a whole just as MNCs command innovativeness on behalf of themselves. The only type of innovations that may be discouraged in a socialist command economy is what is pioneered by individuals in capitalism in anticipation of big personal fortunes, and this is because personal fortunes do not exist under socialism. This however presupposes that people work only when motivated by personal gain. There is no necessary reason why this should be so, and the point of a socialist economy is to break this. The socialist system that existed did not of course do so, and that, as opposed to any lack of innovativeness per se, is the real criticism one can level against it.

The real problem with the command economy therefore lay elsewhere, namely that it did not provide an alternative motive for work and work-discipline which is what socialism must do. Under feudalism work is extracted by direct coercion, through the monsignor’s whip. Under capitalism it is extracted through the maintenance of a reserve army of labour, being pushed into the ranks of which acts as a coercive force. Under socialism where there must be full employment, the motive for work must be the desire to work for the collective as the means of individual self-realization which alone is a condition for overcoming alienation. (And when this happens, individual innovativeness ceases to be linked to any notions of personal gain or “just desserts” but occurs as a matter of course, which is why a socialist economy should be potentially far more innovative than a capitalist one). The command economy that came into being in the socialist countries did provide full employment to all workers but the work-motivation was not the coercion of being thrown into the reserve army of labour but the political coercion of State punishment. And this coercion was linked with the general ambience of authoritarianism associated with the one-Party dictatorship. The command economy and the one-Party dictatorship sustained one another and even though they brought enormous benefits to the workers, they introduced a new form of alienation. It became a dictatorship for the proletariat, i.e. for the benefit of the proletariat and exercised over the proletariat, but not a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Among its many consequences was an atrophy of intellectual life. It is because of this atrophy that communists continued with the understanding that the Leninist conjuncture persisted, that the general crisis of capitalism under which world revolution would advance in the manner anticipated by Lenin, still held sway. This lack of recognition of a change in the conjuncture did not matter in the beginning because the Soviet Union, and with it the communist movement all over the world, enjoyed immense prestige. In the advancedcapitalist world its sacrifices and struggles in defeating fascism evoked wide admiration and gratitude among the people, and in the third world its role in the anti-feudal and anti-colonial struggle and in sustaining the dirigiste regime that came up after decolonization, had the same effect. But this appeal waned over time, as it had to, with a new generation coming up for which these memories meant little. And that is when the problem of existing socialism became clearer.

This problem, to recapitulate, lay in the fact that while capitalism restructured itself, the socialist regimes that had come up continued to be characterized by one-party dictatorships which progressively depoliticized the working class and introduced a new kind of alienation, different from the alienation immanent in capitalism, but an alienation nonetheless. The regime of one-party dictatorship which had been contingent in the aftermath of the revolution became the normal practice of socialism and was even theorized as such. And this phenomenon persisted even after the Leninist conjuncture itself had ended, and with it any hopes for a change in the situation arising from the sheer advance of history. Hence, once the memory of the struggles and sacrifices of the Communists in the anti-fascist or anti-colonial struggles had faded, the persistence of un-restructured Communist regimes and Communist parties became simply unsustainable. The rapid collapse of Communism that we find today over large parts of the world is a result of the fact that its theory, and consequently its practice and structure have not adjusted to a post-Leninist conjuncture. The movement has survived, only where, as in India, it has been innovative enough to cope with and adjust to the new situation to a certain degree.

This lack of adjustment, indeed the lack of recognition of the shift in conjuncture, as already suggested, is a result partly of the political structure itself. What may have been apposite in the earlier context has become a hindrance to change; and this has operated in the realm of thought as well. The forte of the revolutionary socialist movement had been its intellectual brilliance. At a time when bourgeois thought had been marked by crude apologetics and mindless conformism, not to mention its deeper malaise of a reified perception of the world, the revolutionary movement had produced thinkers of the calibre of Karl Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg, Lunacharsky, Bukharin, Gramsci, Lukacs and many others. The revolutionary movement had been the cradle of brilliance in the realm of intellectual and artistic activity. But the snuffing out of all dissent and the imposition of a uniformity, and of conformism, via a combination of one-Party dictatorship and of democratic centralism as the basis of Party functioning, which in practice degenerates over time into mere centralism, destroys creativity, originality, and even a desire to confront the truth.

A make-believe world, sustained by the mutual-reinforcement within the leadership of a tendency not to deviate from “acceptable” ideas, gets substituted for the real universe; and it is not just that the rank-and-file dare not express views different from what the leadership asserts, but within the leadership itself views are publicly expressed which are at variance even with what is privately subscribed to by the leaders themselves. The fact which became apparent later, namely that not a single person in the entire leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union believed in Communism, because of which almost all of them later became the new non-Communist leaders in the various republics into which the Soviet Union got fragmented, only establishes this point.The “official” refusal to cognize that the world had entered a post-Leninist conjuncture was an outcome of this atrophy in the realm of thought.

This atrophy of thought is ironical since the theoretical conception of the “Leninist Party” is that of a self-correcting vanguard consisting of professional revolutionaries who are armed with theory and apply it to an understanding of the concrete situation in its totality to work out the correct way to carry the revolution forward. Why then do we end up with the opposite consequence, of an atrophy of thought and a palpable disjuncture between thought and the world, of a “closure” of the official conceptual universe into which the real world does not intrude?

There are two problems with this conception of the “Leninist Party” which, as his intervention in the trade union discussion shows, is not Lenin’s own. First, it is an idealist conception which sees the group of professional revolutionaries constituting the Party entirely in non-human terms: they have no personal likes and dislikes, no tactical manoeuvres or adjustments within the Party, and no personal elements affecting their judgements; they are marked only by a pure commitment to a correct dialectical analysis of the concrete situation. It is an idealist conception because even Georg Lukacs had to make a theoretical compromise for getting an “entry ticket”, as he put it, for fighting fascism. A political arrangement involving a dictatorship by a Party that conceptualizes itself in an entirely unreal manner increasingly detaches it from the real world. A “closure” that increasingly makes the Party in its “official” positions insulated from the world (though Party members in real life may be aware of this fact), as opposed to correctly comprehending the world which was its original rationale, takes over. And when the illusion breaks the theoretical atrophy that had preceded makes the Party or its different fragments fall easy prey to the hegemony of bourgeois ideology.

Precisely because of this possibility it is important to prevent a “closure” of the Party by institutionalizing its accountability to the working class. An obvious way of doing so is by the working class having the possibility of choosing between Parties, i.e. though a multi-Party system. The question may be asked: how can a rejection by the working class of the Party be theoretically justified when the working class is not as theoretically advanced as the band of professional revolutionaries constituting the Party? A naïve commitment to “democracy”, it may be argued, would justify such a rejection, but is there any theoretical justification for it in the context of class struggle? The justification I believe lies in the fact that the working class which may not be theoretically as advanced as the band of professional revolutionaries constituting the Party, nonetheless has a “class instinct” (to use Lenin’s phrase). Its class instinct entitles the working class to be an arbiter in the course of class struggle, and hence gives it agency even above the Party.

The political arrangement of a socialist society in short has to be different from what had historically emerged in post-revolutionary societies. At the same time however the shift in conjuncture I have been talking about has an important implication. An enormous amount of discussion has taken place within the Left intelligentsia on how to prevent the revolution from atrophying, how to prevent the working class from getting depoliticizedafter the revolution, and how to fulfill the promise of the revolution to unleash creativity instead of shackling it.  Communist Party intellectuals have generally not participated explicitly in this discussion since atrophying of revolutions has not been officially cognized by Communist Parties except in cases where inter-Party relations have got soured. Independent Marxists like Jean Paul Sartre or Paul Sweezy have been more active in such discussions. The relation between the Party, the class and the State that must obtain in a post-revolutionary situation has been the focus of such discussion.

But this entire discussion has occurred within a perspective where it has been taken for granted that future revolutions will occur much like those in the past (though differing in their class basis and modus operandi between the first and the third worlds). The entire discussion of how the authenticity of the revolution can be preserved has occurred in other words on the presumption that the Leninist conjuncture persists. But if it is recognized that this conjuncture itself has changed and hence the trajectory which a revolutionary transformation must now follow has to be different from what had occurred earlier, then the earlier problem itself may no longer be relevant. One party dictatorship for instance even as an interim means of protecting the revolution may not be necessary. The very problem in other words is likely to be different, since the trajectory of revolutionary transformation in the new conjuncture will be different in ways we shall discuss in subsequent lectures.