April 3, 2021
By Patricia Sohn
What do Leninists and neoconservatives share in common? Economic determinism: the idea that economics drives human history, civilization, action, options, ideas, politics, and even religious persuasions and permutations.
These two sets of ideologies may also share a propensity to close down the hatches of political freedoms: the latter particularly in the context of national security issues; the former also in the context of national security but in which absolutely everything under the sun counts as national security.
The Leninist tendency to shut down political freedoms and to rule directly from the center (in the extreme) with a politburo of a small number of people making life decisions regarding jobs, education, as well as a state-run command economy takes me to my reason for writing today. Are we seriously considering our Democratic institutions failed to the extent of needing such corrections? That is, if we in the U.S. – as a People, or as a willfully-joined amalgam of Peoples with shared loyalties to a civic identity and set of political institutions and processes – are going to take seriously adding some options of socialism as presented by Bernie Sanders and some Democrats today, I think that it is high time that we look seriously at what those options are in empirical terms.
The socialist options that have been available in the West, historically, are distinct and bounded. (I do not attempt to address Eastern permutations of the same, as I think they are somewhat different in ideological content and practices; and I have not yet made sense of them to my satisfaction.) In my opinion, our Western socialist options can be broken down with surprising simplicity to three core available models, those of: (1) Lenin; (2) Stalin; and (3) Trotsky. Those reading who know these Marxist, Bolshevik leaders and thinkers – and who know me – will know that, for me, there is only one even remotely acceptable option in this list. And, in my opinion, most voters, and perhaps even some politicians, do not know the options well enough to be able to say what we are going to get in a specific socialist leader once voted into office in terms of policy: Lenin, Stalin, or Trotsky?
With Lenin comes the command economy ruled from the center by a politburo. We can commend Lenin for including the notion of an executive committee to run the lives of individuals around the largest single coterminous territory governed by any national state in its day, for at the least that meant that he did not rule alone as an individual. However, with a politburo, in the early days, of five to twelve full members, we can hardly hope for this type of rule ourselves. Access to jobs and education were distributed and allotted by party affiliation and along – among other rather arbitrary considerations – religious, ethnic & racial lines with minorities sometimes shut out entirely, or else subjected to quotas in the extreme. My own interviews with a few Russian immigrants to Israel have attested as much in unhappy detail (as do some of the links below, in part). Some have argued that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, while claiming to constitute a revolutionary social change replacing the “traditional” and ostensibly backward rule of monarchs, itself only re-entrenched a new system of elites (with new elites who were, judging only by results, less talented and skilled than their ruling royal predecessors).
Lenin’s politburo used food shortages and famines, which reflected either executive incompetence or supreme executive competence in construction of the same, in order to control populations in the Western ruling provinces, as well as in the more remote periphery. Wages were low. Access to goods was terrible. Rationing – also most likely an executive construction for social control rather than an empirical necessity – was the rule of the day. Does this system sound like a good way to live our lives; that is, in a newly enslaved America in which the state (or politburo) chooses how many cabbages and zucchini you can take home to cook for your family on a given day? I, for one, choose – No! – to the Leninst option. And I ask you to note how many times you have endured such pressures from random, self-appointed rationing-moralists at the grocery store here at home over the last decade. (As far as my own moralizing note, I would counter: Buy up your dry-stores and economize any way that you see fit! We are still a free country as of today. So-called “Progressive” moralists – who seem to bring together, theoretically, some congruous or incongruous combination of the political thought of Napoleon and Lenin – do not get to make those choices for you, nor for every individual. Let us keep it that way.)
Cuba and Angola are noteworthy historical followers of the model of Lenin. Cuban-Americans who I have spoken with in Florida – very much across the board – reflect stories of waking in the morning to find a violently authoritarian regime ruling the streets, their businesses, their schools, their bodies, and those of their children. The question of what you get, as a society, the morning after is not a matter of rhetorical nicety. It is a matter of empirical horror. Lenin is not an acceptable option.
Let us move, then, to option number 2: Stalin. Stalin was a natural reflection of a violently domineering personality put in an institutional position with unchecked powers. (Our founders foresaw such potential outcomes as those of Stalin and implemented checks and balances precisely in order to avoid them. Stalin is an excellent example of why it is critical that all officials protect and discharge our checks and balances meticulously. In this sense, I am a True Believer, not in the apartheid way of the original southern states, but in the lofty principles of the Constitution as applied across all lines of difference – which include freedom of thought and an open market-place of ideas.) Stalin’s gulag of millions of murders is a well-known story of executing opposition – through formal-legal means, as well as those not even attempting the guise of formal-legality. “Opposition,” at times, meant ideological opponents in the political sphere – that is, actual politicians (e.g., Stalin had his own friends killed – being a politician, or even a friend, did not make one safe.) At other times, “opposition” meant poets, philosophers, musicians, religious leaders, playwrights, as well as a variety of assaults based upon ethnicity & race, as well as religious identity. It is worthy of note that religion, and ethnicity & race, far from being objects of legal protections, were, in fact, objects of persecution – and sometimes murder. If you happened to be from a “suspect” people, by any of these measures, and you wrote a “suspect” play, your chances of being subjected to the gulag were very great. If you were a homosexual, you were – by law – a suspect person. Homosexuality, and other behaviors, political and social attitudes defined as dissidence were subjected to legal and violent persecution – and remedy. (Note, while there is a debate as to whether the Tsars or Lenin were most supportive or hostile to homosexuals, most agree that Stalin was uniformly hostile).
Leaders who have followed, been fans of, or admired Stalin have included the likes of Saddam Hussein, and a brief alliance with Hitler. Idi Amin, supported by a more Leninist Soviet Union in the 1970s, is another of the many affiliations with this sort of politics; he violently persecuted opposition in smaller numbers than Stalin, but his was also a smaller context in terms of population. Let us accept, then, as a People, that Stalin is a completely inappropriate option for us as far as models of socialist political institutions and leadership.
The third ideological model of socialism, then, is Trotsky. He favored an on-going revolutionary democracy with an emphasis on local non-elites as well as national levels – one might call it a revolutionary self-governance (e.g., constant rotation of leadership). He was so much in favor of this likely more honest Marxist model (considering the extent to which Marx hated Napoleon and the new, centralized state), centering upon local self-governance of non-elites being represented to the national level, and regular rotation of power, that Stalin had Trotsky exiled from the Soviet Union early in his leadership, called Trotsky a dissident, and ultimately had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico City. Trotsky favored a “dictatorship” of workers (possibly by contrast to the highly controlled access to jobs, professions, education, etc., by ethnic, religious, and other lines of difference in much of Europe at the time), and he favored cross-society democracy; that is, he was against Aristocracy as a model for political and economic order, and he was against elite-driven models of political leadership. Some Kibbutznics will tell you that it is Trotsky whose model has been most influential in kibbutz circles (at the very least, some scholars may mention Lenin and Trotsky as ideological influences, and leave out or problematize Stalin). Moreover, there is reason to believe that Trotsky may be one of the ideological roots of the more “soft” forms of social democracy as found in Northern Europe.
Because of his advocacy of democracy, Trotsky is the only option that could be appropriate as a source for political thought regarding socialism in our political context. That is, indeed, we should not be an Aristocracy; the arbitrary and irrational incentives inherent in such a system serve us poorly to the extent that we see vestiges of it today. And we should be a revolutionary democracy, where that means consistent and non-violent rotation of power – at the local, state, and national levels – including non-elites in the representation process. We intend to achieve such rotation and inclusion in our regular elections. We should not have any form of dictatorship, of course, even that of moralizing, brow-beating, self-appointed enforcers of rationing of goods at the local grocery check-out line. On the other hand, any return to (ostensibly populist) ideologies suggesting that people who have become wealthy – through offering goods and services, technologies and innovation to our citizens – should somehow become subjects, again, to the guillotine have no more business here than does Stalin. If someone has become wealthy through theft or illegal activities, he or she should be subjected to prosecution. Otherwise, it is no one’s business; the anti-elitist rhetoric in some circles today is not acceptable, either. But, by all means, prosecute people who gain economically or peddle influence through corruption or other illegal behaviors; if we are not willing to follow through and do so, then we cannot complain about the clientelist, irrational, non-merit, patronage-based Aristocracy that will result.
For a Marxian analysis of some of the processes related to the Bolshevik revolution; the differences between Trotsky and Stalin; and a challenge to the notion (which I intimate here) that the Soviet dictatorship of Stalin was inherent in the original Bolshevik revolution as led by Lenin and others (although not Trotsky), see, for example, Raquel Valera in Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory.
The moral of my story is this: We are woefully undereducated on socialism and communism in their real, empirical, historical, institutional, and ideological trajectories. They have been subject of so much punditry and ideological politics from various vantage points that we know surprisingly little about them in practice – except that we think we do not like them. Or, we come full circle and allow ourselves to believe that their critics were just not multi-culturalist enough, and that socialism and communism are therefore now Ok.
I am suggesting that there is not one communism, nor one socialism. There are three very important variants, core roots, that are our real models and sources of both socialism and communism in the West. Do you know enough about Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky to know who you are seeing on the podium, and what sorts of policies he or she will implement once given the power of office? Do you think that same man or woman on the podium knows the differences between the three? Or, just as important, will he or she be cognizant enough of those models and their likely outcomes to resist his or her own party colleagues on the fly in the process of policy making? Who do we get the morning after the elections: Lenin, Stalin, or Trotsky?
If you are not 6000% sure of the answer to that question, vote elsewhere.
The first two options are world-changing in their violence, deception, and cruelty to their own populations; the difference in their violence against opposition is only in matters of degree. We do not need it.
Even the Kibbutz, while a laudable and excellent (set of) system(s), had its drawbacks. Those included such small matters as not getting to choose your own sleeping schedule, dining schedule, food items, childcare options, content of education, sometimes job options, clothing options, goods and services, etc. That is, there are gains and losses derived from access to choice in jobs, content and quality of education, managing your own day, and the like by contrast to knowing that you will be fed, clothed, educated, and housed – and the lack of any of these on either side.
I have written all of this as a Durkheimian, and a bit of a Weberian, wherein culture (and ritual) is more of what matters in driving human history, not economics – Ideas, yes, and sometimes ideology. And, I would add to that interpretive framework, for me, analyses of power as constructed by the likes of the French sociologist, Bourdieu. Perhaps I may paraphrase and re-apply an old adage: Know thy ideologies (and their outcomes) well before you vote for them. For you may be lucky if you only have to live with 70 years of tyranny as a result of lack of accurate and complete information.
Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is an associate professor. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of religion and politics, courts and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society. A prime example of the American melting pot, she has heritage from Prussia, the Philippines, Spain, Ireland, and Holland.
Note: The views herein represent only myself, not my employer. –PJS