““Because the horror of Communism, Stalinism, is not that bad people do bad things — they always do. It’s that good people do horrible things thinking they are doing something great.”
‘But as in all cults, what’s central to the Communist Party is the belief system and the elimination of nuance. From there you’re very slowly led down the road to fanaticism and mass murder.’
– Alexei Sayle
I have found a way to tell apart Leninists (otherwise known as Communists or Bolsheviks in the common parlance) from what you might call the reasonable left. It is not the outfits, stained by take-away and Tippex, or their odour, because deodorant is a bourgeois affectation. Instead it is their answer to one rather simple question: ‘Do you trust people to make their own decisions?” I have never met a Leninist that didn’t say No. An addendum to that might be the question: “If you could have your revolution but it would make people poorer and less free, at least in the short term, would you still want it?” Once again I have never met one that didn’t answer in the affirmative. It is the same toxic combination of misanthrope and fanaticism that you can now see in Brexiteers in Britain, and amongst Fascists the world over. It is the belief that you and your tribe alone have received the revealed truth from on-high, and however you see fit to make that a reality is acceptable. It is the language of a cult.
It’s a word that is thrown around a lot and there are even multiple competing definitions, but it is essential to understand what a cult is if we are to understand the toxicity at the heart of Leninist parties of the past and present. What are the obvious signs of a cult? In my opinion, there are 10 unequivocal signs:
1. A small group of people united by a Utopian ideology (or religion) who stand outside normal society.
2. A dominant leader/s that hold complete power over the lives of its members.
3. An all-or-nothing worldview. “Either the Revolution comes or the world will end.”
4. A cadre or administrative class that directs the majority of members.
5. Gaslighting. The changing of facts and reality to suit the party.
6. Mental, physical or sexual abuses (see the SWP in the UK)
7. The policing of language, opinions and the effective creation of secular blasphemy.
8. The welding of the social and the political. The party becomes your only community, sometimes to the detriment to your family and older friends.
9. Those that leave the party become apostates and are to be shunned and demonised.
10. A uniform. In this case conformity of clothing is encouraged through bullying and mocking rather than an order from above.
It is hard to explain to those that have not experienced life in a cult why anyone would willingly join such a toxic entity. Left wing cults, like all cults, don’t look toxic from the outside. In fact, when you first join you are often showered with not only attention, but with a sense of purpose. You feel that finally you are with people that see the problems of the world as you do and are motivated by high ideals of humanism and solidarity. This is described by some psychologists as the lovebombing stage. It is a very powerful indoctrinating tool and often keeps individuals attached to the party long after the toxic nature of the party has become apparent.
In this I can at least speak from personal experience. I was a member of a Trotskyist party, that shall go unnamed, in my youth and I got a firsthand experience of cult tendencies within the left. All the cliches were there; the lovebombing; the close social circle; shadowy General Secretary; the strict hierarchy; the self-censorship of speech; the pandering to party leaders; the Gaslighting; the blasphemy; and the apostates. I have done a large amount of study of what are known as cluster B personality disorders (anti-social, narcissistic and Borderline) since, to try and understand what had happened to me, and I can attest to the presence of these toxic behaviours within all levels of the party structure. I am not the first to notice the cult tendencies within Leninist parties, in fact a cursory google search will present you with ample evidence of how commented upon this is. It really is one of the worst kept secrets on the left. Yet, these parties still persist and in the case of Ireland are the only real alternative to the parties of the Landlord class. As an Anarchist with a sense of history and responsibility this is exceedingly worrying.
This is not to suggest that Anarchist groups can’t become cult like. I spent time in a certain British anarchist group, that again shall not be named. In many ways it functioned along similar lines to the Leninist party I had formerly been part of . While there was a rotating leadership role, the same small group of people swapped the officer positions, and there was the same narrow mindedness to new ideas. Thankfully there is a great deal more individualism amongst Anarchists and this small toxic group were eventually expelled from the organisation. To some extent cult behaviour is a human failing. The legitimate and noble desire to make the world a better place can easily be perverted by disordered people for their own pleasures. You can see this in countless churches, sects, and organisations of every hue. In the case of political groupings, at least, anarchism has an answer and it is in our very DNA. A distrust of authority. Leninists parties can never be reformed from within given their very inspiration was taken from the mind of an authoritarian cult leader, Vladimir Lenin.
If you have the time or inclination to read about the father of 20th century Communism, you will learn many things, none particularly endearing, whether it be his: accepting German Imperial help in 1917; crushing the Soviets, snuffing out workers’ democracy; the invasion of Poland in 1920; the founding of the vile gulags; the rejection of a democratic vote in 1917 that the Bolsheviks lost; the creation of the brutal Checka, etc. The figures vary, but Lenin’s Red Terror is believed to have killed anywhere between 100,000 and 1.3 million people. The fanatic view of the Lenin towards any challenge to the new regime was published within the organs of the party: ‘anyone who dares to spread the slightest rumor against the Soviet regime will be arrested immediately and sent to concentration camp”. By 1921 70,000 were imprisoned in the brutal gulag system. The authoritarian and genocidal views of the Leninists were apparent quite early with Grigory Zinoviev declaring in 1917: ‘To overcome our enemies we must have our own socialist militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia’s population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated”. The fact that so many within the left still celebrate this man is stunning to behold, but then again he had the good fortune to die before the experiment of Leninism reached its apex under his protege Stalin. He would order the deaths of tens of millions of his own people, whether through the repression of the secret police or through man made famines, and after World War II enslave the population of Eastern Europe for half a century. And yet, the failure of the Left to ever really exorcise the ghost of the USSR and Leninism is one of our greatest failings. The supposed unique evil of Josef Stalin is a lazy way to avoid the truth, that the Bolsheviks were totalitarians in their very DNA, due to the teachings of Lenin. The USSR was in its origins a cult of Leninism extended to the entire Russian Empire. The Left need to except that the USSR is ours to own much like the right must accept Fascism as the logical extension of their own ideology. There is little to salvage in this experiment and the left should have long ago acknowledged Leninism as the twin evil of Fascism in the 20th Century. Unfortunately, it has not and we are left in a situation where anarchism remains at the fringes and the Leninist parties remain the only likely alternative to what must soon follow another violent collapse of Capitalism.
Any reasonable look at the enormous debt bubble forming around the world can not help, but lead you to the conclusion that a major global depression is looming. The conservative estimate is that there is 420 trillion dollars of debt worldwide. In Ireland we are one of the most indebted countries in the western world. Our debt to GDP ratio is 170% of GDP with some estimates as high as 210% of GDP. Each Irish citizen owes 42,000 Euro of debt. We will never be able to pay that off. This global debt can be combined with the huge wealth now centred in the hands of a very small cabal of oligarchs. Less than 100 persons now own over half the wealth of the entire globe. A vampiric ruling class long ago tore up the post-war social democratic settlement and could give a shit about the long term cost of their greed. As a result, the middle class’s spending power has shrunk to a fraction of what it once was. (Economics 101: the middle class buy the products of the ruling elite. If they have no money, and cannot borrow anymore, a crisis of capitalism ensues. It is that simple!) This makes a major depression almost inevitable, with some recent estimates saying it will arrive by as early as 2021. A collapse of capitalism will in rather short order unleash not only the demons of Fascism, but also the demons of Leninism. If, as I fear is likely, we are in the midst of another era of capitalist crisis similar to the 1920s and 30s, the corrupt parties of the centre across Europe will fall, and the masses will look for answers and alternatives to croney capitalism. At the moment the working class is bearing the brunt of neoliberalism and are looking to Trump, Brexit and the European Fascist right, the Orban’s and Le Pen’s. In the future there is no reason to suppose that some of remaining middle class will not make the same choice. In such a situation, it will seem wise to align ourselves with the Leninists in hopes of preventing another epoch of Fascist authoritarianism, but I would ask all anarchists to consider the old Bakunin quote: ‘When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called the People’s Stick’. We have been here before and we know what the Leninists will do if they get a whiff of power, therefore ‘What is to be done?’
Well, surprise, surprise, I recommend anarchism, but not in its current form. These days anarchists are a scattered and clicky sect within the left, rightly mocked for both the black block and its disinterested hipster membership alike. We must accept some of the blame for failing to take advantage of the post-Leninist era of the 90s-today. There were even some signs of anarchist ideas permeating the general left in the Seattle demonstrations of 1999, the occupy movement of 2011, the Arab Spring, and the yellow jackets, but these were to come to nothing. Clearly we have not learned from our own mistakes of the 20th century. Here I will perhaps lose some of my audience when I say that our principles held us back in the past. We were firm believers that ‘the Great is not enemy of the Good’. That ‘pragmatism was defeatism’. We, too, believed in an ‘all or nothing revolution’. Either it was complete eradication of the state and class system or it was not worth fighting for. This did us no favours in the past and it will do us little favours in the future. The world is not as we hope it to be, but rather as it is. Who will our allies be in the times to come? Unless we want to repeat our ancestors mistakes in Russia and Spain, it can’t be the Leninists. Rather I suggest the reasonable left I mentioned at the start of this article: Socialists, Left-Communists, Social Democrats, Republicans and even Liberals have all proved in the past to be determined enemies of the cults of Bolshevism and Fascism and capable of pluralism, though not always willing. It is possible to imagine a society of differing political structures coexisting, and of this being a truer reflection of the will of most people than any monolithic authoritarian Leftism can provide. These are our logical allies, some more than others, but to ensure history does not repeat itself we will have to find a way to both defend ourselves and inspire hope for a better future. For such a pluralist society of state socialists, anarchists, and even liberals, must not sap the hope and idealism of a genuinely Libertarian Socialist Revolution. We will have to walk a tightrope between reactionaries, both left wing and liberal. For without going down another rabbit hole, it was not just the Leninists that betrayed the Anarchists of Spain, it was also their republican and liberal allies. It will not be easy and much like our ancestors we will probably fail, but the difference between fighting for a society that allows differing political ideals the chance to bloom and the totalitarian cult of Leninism, seems a worthy trade off.