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Responding to the Legacy of George Orwell

Just yesterday I was a participant in a debate on George Orwell. One person argued that Orwell was opposed to Left Authoritarianism, and as a consequence would be opposed to ‘Antifa.’ (For those who don’t know, ‘Antifa’ is a broad anti-fascist popular front, often led by ‘anarchists’). Another person responded by saying Orwell was really a social democrat, and spent his life fighting fascism. Orwell is used to discredit the Antifa cause – in a process that is, well, ‘Orwellian’.

Both people were right in their own way; but despite the problems with Leninism it is best not to get it entirely mixed up with Stalinism. (Though they are historically linked). Orwell himself was a socialist, and fought in Spain against Franco. (With the POUM – which translates as ‘Workers Party of Marxist Unification’). The legacy of George Orwell is too important to reduce it to a critique of ‘socialist totalitarianism’. Yes, there is an anti-Stalinist aspect to ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’, but Orwell’s opposition to ‘totalitarianism’ is deeper than this; and capitalism is increasingly portrayed as an ‘absolute’: ‘total capitalism’.

Tactically and in principle it’s also dangerous to avoid the use of the word ‘socialism’ by arguing for ‘social democracy’ instead. By using both terms together we get a better sense that ‘socialism’ and ‘social democracy’ once meant the same thing (and perhaps could again). ‘Social Democracy’ is more complex than just ‘the post-war mixed economy, Keynesianism and welfare state’. And the original social democratic (socialist) tradition deserves to be rescued, despite Rosa Luxemburg’s insistence it had become a “rotting corpse” on account of its response to World War One.

In truth, most of global social democracy did capitulate on the issue of the War; and this was the flashpoint which saw the rise of Leninism and its opposition to the rest of the Left. (Importantly, Luxemburg herself was what we may call a ‘libertarian socialist’ and was critical of Leninism’s practice of ‘democratic centralism’ following the revolution as well). Here we have to distinguish, also, between ‘democratic centralism’ as a mode of organisation prior to 1917 on the one hand, and what it mutated into later under Lenin; and worse so under Stalin. But figures like Julius Martov and Karl Kaustsky resonated with their criticisms of Bolshevism, also, and in so doing left a legacy for radical social democracy (socialism). The Austro-Marxists and their so-called ‘Two and a Half international’ also stand as a reminder that there were alternatives between Leninism and Right Social Democracy. For many years ‘Red Vienna’ was considered a model of radical (socialist) social democracy. It also involved a ‘workers army’ (Schutzbund) which was meant to be a ‘final defence’ for ‘the democratic path’). Ironically, it succumbed to an indigenous ‘clerical fascism’ itself because it could not decide how to fight; or when. But Austria’s levels of high quality public housing are an enduring legacy as well.

When people criticise Leninism they often neglect that Leninism originally still allowed for mass participation in the Vanguard Party (ie: a party of professional revolutionaries whose job it is to lead the revolutionary working class; often under conditions of capitalist state repression). This goes to the question of whether a ‘one party state’ can be truly democratic. The answer depends on freedom of participation and organisation, and the absence of internal Terror. Stalin went one step further than Lenin and imposed Terror within the Party and the whole of society. Up until after the Revolution Leninism allowed for factions as well.

Terror is undesirable anyway, and tends to expand as centralism increases beyond a certain point. Thus far, Rosa Luxemburg is correct in her critique of Leninism. The problem is that war and foreign intervention left limited choices; and this helped lead to tragedy.

So it depends what you mean by Leninism. There’s democratic centralism and the Vanguard Party. Following the Menshevist/Bolshevist split of 1903 (see: ‘What is to be Done?‘ – it is the definitive text on Bolshevist organisation; written in 1901, published in 1902). And then there’s certain policies which followed: Terror (first outside of, then inside of the Party as well – increasingly pervasive and indiscriminate – labour militarisation, banning of factions and of other socialist parties, and so on. The point is that Stalinism took all this to a different level; and democratic centralism was originally predicated on freedom within the party (but discipline in between Conferences; partly as a defence against state repression).

That said, there was a logic to Leninism, which in the context of Entente and other foreign intervention, civil war, the threat of starvation and of people freezing to death – helped lead eventually to Stalinism. More and more extreme measures were taken (largely defensively); and led to permanent repression.

In contrast, though, I don’t believe in Leninist centralism. One reason is that in certain contexts it means the suppression of debate between Conferences. I also believe its inevitable factions will organise; and suppressing factions just favours the ruling stratum. Finally, I share Rosa Luxemburg’s love of freedom, and recognise that while Leninism and then Stalinism resulted in certain ‘victories’, over the long-term these resulted in an object lesson which was used to discredit the Left, and justify policies like McCarthyism (anti-socialist hysteria and repression).

The problem is: What was the ‘way out’ in Russia at the time? A purely liberal response may have ended in White victory, a continuation of the slaughter of World War One, and Tsarist Restoration. Also remember that the Bolsheviks were the only Party willing to pull out of World War One pretty much unconditionally. Maybe the solution was ‘dual power’ – with co-existence of Soviets, the Constituent Assembly and the Red Army.

Leninism – warts and all – has problems; but remember the context of World War One, threatened starvation and social collapse as well. And the liberal parties wanted to continue that war. Even the Left Social Revolutionaries took this approach – resulting in an assassination attempt on Lenin.

Remember that the French Revolution was bloody as well; but the tactics of the Jacobins didn’t forever discredit democracy or liberalism. By contrast we are constantly told that Leninism and Stalinism have forever discredited socialism.

Better to avoid the dilemmas the Bolsheviks faced in the first place – because it was bound to end tragically. But appreciate the moral complexity. The Russian Revolution came on the tail end of a War that killed over 20 million people. Some of the same people who are critical on Leninism will try and justify the First World War. And ignore the long list of Western Cold War atrocities. (For example, the brutal mass murder of half a million communists and labour movement activists in 1960s Indonesia).

Importantly: liberal democracy ultimately triumphed. But only because it was able to ‘tame’ and internalise the broad left within a practical capitalist consensus. And eventually a virtual neo-liberal consensus. Still: “liberal democracy” is worth defending as opposed to the alternative of Stalinism or a Corporatist State (ie: fascism). Now that it lacks opponents on the Left, we see liberal democracy attracting critics on the Right. (So much for ‘The End of History – a term coined by the liberal Hegelian, Francis Fukuyama after the collapse of the Soviet Union). Here it is well to defend Liberal Democracy. At least it retains freedoms which make liberation imaginable; and even its limited freedoms are preferable to the Rightist alternative.

Libertarianism of both the Right and the Left when authentically expressed are not as bad as fascism. A true libertarian would defend the rights of unions and their workers to withdraw labour. And would treat free speech as a universal. A fascist would work through a corporatist nationalist state that suppressed opposition violently, and promoted a literally illiberal Ideology. By ‘corporatism’ we mean the forcible union of capital and labour under authoritarian nationalism. A true Left-libertarian would be sympathetic to the cause of ‘Antifa.’ A Right-libertarian would accept their right to participate and exist. Personally, I consider myself a socialist liberal. That said, all organisations can be penetrated by agent provocateurs. And ‘ultra-leftism’ is often mistaken.

Remember, also, Marx said of the bourgeoisie that it would ‘snort’ at its republic “Better end with Terror than Terror without End.” (Written in 1852, largely in response to the context of the 1848 Revolutions). Trump understands this and seeks a predicate for repression based on ‘law and order’. Agent provocateurs understand this also and act accordingly. (‘End with Terror’ itself can also lead to ‘Terror without End’ under Fascism; and Hitler came close to winning the Second World War at several points).

The Left needs to respond strategically. We should not disavow militancy generally; and practically disarm ourselves. But neither should we support every act of militancy when this will result in our isolation. There is a dilemma. Rosa Luxemburg talked of “spontaneity of the masses”: a ‘dialectic’ between revolutionary working-class self-initiative and the leadership of a revolutionary party. In a way she is right. On the other hand, unrestrained rebellion can work as a pretext for State Terror. Think of the rise of Mussolini and fascism in the 1920s in Italy following a period of revolutionary upsurge.

Also, under Stalinism Western Communist Parties were often restrained to further Soviet Foreign policy. Dulling ‘the class struggle’. But sometimes there is wisdom in restraint.

There is also wisdom in taking the initiative at the right time; including militant strategies. The Left needs to be nuanced enough to know the difference.


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  1. Steve Davis

    Thanks for a great article.

    You said “There is also wisdom in taking the initiative at the right time; including militant strategies. The Left needs to be nuanced enough to know the difference.”

    I think the problem on the left is that too many see others on the left as the enemy, due to perceived differences in ideology.

    Those who think that way forget the old maxim; “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

  2. Josephus

    What a relief to read a carefully researched and nuanced article. I happen to be reading a bio of Rosa Luxemburg at present, and have spent my whole working life trying to help the next generation or two to understand the complexities of social aspirations. For example let us admit the horrendous terrors of the late GDR while in my case remembering that a Berlin based female engineer told me in 1991 how she hated the womens’ magazines now polluting the streets with their images of grinning, compliant bimbos, whereas women in the totalitarian state she grew up in gave women equality and freedom to ditch abusive husbands, religion being muzzled, and had free holidays, schools, health care , cheap heating.
    To your excellent correctives I would add these comments:
    Orwell hated smug conservatives; for me his best work remains , ‘Coming up for air’.
    It is well to remember not only the French Revolution, but also after that the libertarian Commune of 1870-1 in Paris, lyon and Marseille, which had its tensions between anarchists and other left groups . But is anarchism of the Left? Marx did not think so, even though he admired the repressed Commune de Paris. 1848 needs to be remembered also for its rebellions against dictators and kings. And I have read and been moved by the pre 1711 testimony of one Jean Meslier, history’s first atheist communist, who unlike the upper class atheists of 1740s-80s Europe, as a peasant priest saw the wealth divisions in his monarchy, and whose anger might be needed today .

    Anarchists are perhaps impossible to classify and are not one body of thought either; Proudhon opposed female emancipation, and even in the various 1968 or so revolts, in many places women were the cleaners and often sex objects too.
    I also want to mention that liberal democracy last century mostly adopted the welfare state first established by the authoritarian Bismark, who saw the danger of communism as the workers starved and lived in hovels , and that state welfare would ensure their loyalty. Today still the Nordic states and the earlier members of the EU today continue this tradition, and their citizens remain mostly content. Alas , the end of the communist enemy has allowed the rightist slide of many newer EU and other states including our own, where our former freedoms are also being eroded steadily.

  3. wam

    There is no left as there is a right because there is no connecting glue. The right has churches and mosques and the god of Abraham.
    The left has responsibility for all, especially those whom are left out by the right. The extremes are the divisive force putting the fear to the 50% below average

    till my enemy is no more

  4. Phil Pryor

    I enjoyed the article and also the points offered by Josephus, to improve an otherwise dreary day. As a vague instinctive believer in (my own) social democracy, always guided by a decent liberalism, I found Marx of great interest (especially as a sociologist), Lenin to be hard, Russian, ruthlessly keen to achieve as he knew his mortality, and, Stalin to be incomprehensible, repulsive, attention getting and brightly patient. Many have flirted with a personal Trotskyism, but have those days gone? Today, it seems wrong to assume all the left and potential recruits are bright, well informed, experienced, broadly aware. And, consider a book by H Kedward on Fascism, in which he has a pie graph, showing that, as one goes left and right, around the circle past ninety degrees, the two extremes tend to meet, This may be used to explain how operatives in the old East Germany seemed fit to serve or to have served both Hitler and Stalin, while swallowing and doing “duty”. May a participatory, informed, citizen’s social democracy emerge more fully, to squash the greedy evils of conservative political and media perverts.

  5. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Mind you Proudhon wrote some good stuff on “Mutual Aid” and co-operatives. Yes, Marx couldn’t stand him. Or was it Kropotkin who wrote about Mutual Aid? I’m not an expert on Anarchism ; but I know Proudhon was big on workers’ co-operatives.

  6. Andrew Smith

    Good article. Reminds one how ideologues and messengers of the far right use/distort language (and sometimes the left too) to describe what they are against re. left but, help their key corporate supporters and have govt./voters cater to their policy needs i.e socialism for the top 10% (plus buy votes when needed).

    On the other hand too many of the left are dragged down rabbit holes by culture wars of the right leading to never ending circular wars of words and provocations that leaves too many voters confused…..

    Recenty in conversation with an American of the centre left who highlighted how the right uses Orwellian double speak, and one needs to then infer what they have not spoken of…. the latter is in fact their objective, while inducing votes, to achieve desirable policies.

  7. New England Cocky

    @Phil Pryor: An impressive comment Phil, particularly the ’round the circle’ bit that I espoused in high school history to some class levity.

    My take on this excellent piece is that elites form for whatever reason and pursue their goals to the expense of all else for the benefit of their membership; viz-a-viz the present Scummo corporate socialism policies.

    @Josephus: Enjoyed your thoughtful comments, as always. As a scholar of Germany and the Nazi period, I am aware of Bismarck’s impact of religious freedom in 1870 allowing immigration of Jews into the ‘new” Germany to escape persecution elsewhere in Europe but now need more study to discover his social welfare role.

  8. Phil Pryor

    Greetings, Cocky; the round the circle concept in Kedward’s book suggests that middle and lower operatives, devotees, followers, are able to embrace the necessary vocabularies, dogmas, practices and proud superficialites of appearance and do as they are told, not ever thinking of subtleties of higher political theorizing. The Trumpites have banners, cards, armbands, home and car stickers and signs, USA flags, as much as any old nazi or fascist types did in action or principle. Exerting ego, righteousness, orthodoxy, intensity, “belief” or lack of any, is enough. It gives “meaning” to the meaningless of progress and daily crushing boredom. And, Bismarck was a natural supporter of intensifying nationalism, loyalty, the good burger and peasant “coalition” of Germanness. See Pinson’s Modern Germany.

  9. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Ferdinand Lassalle wanted to manipulate Bismarck into granting universal suffrage in return for working class support against the middle classes. He failed utterly. Bismarck had no intention of granting a free vote ; but knew the working class needed some kind of security if its loyalty could be extracted despite the class struggle.

  10. calculus witherspoon.

    It is amazing how the Preppie types continue to perversely and myopically misread Orwell’s message.

    I think Ewins’ last few paras make a good point.

    The system is deeply involved in and with Nacht und Nebel tactics and against the creeping Kafkaesque fear this generates, with its psychology tricks, disinformation and denial of actual information,it can be a battle to keep calm and stick to the Parmenidian “no distraction” course.

    To watch in horror at the Julian Assange dystopia is to reread the cloyingly suffocating Kafka book, “The Trial” as well as events imagined in the most ferocious of other dystopian works, like Fahrenheit 451, Handmaid’s Tale and the Huxley, Wells and Orwell novels.

    Morlocks want to eat your brains WHILE YOU ARE STILL PAINFULLY ALIVE, dupes!!

    This is the WASP mentality.. unreflexive, appetitive, reactive, lashing out fear and ego psychosis driven…look at the Canberra politicians and think on.

  11. calculus witherspoon.


    It’s a bit superficial a sort of barometer measure of how feeble western MSM has become, that so few articles of its type continue crit thinking on the slo mo trainwreck that is global civilisation this century. It doesn’t/can’t expand on some of the obvious consequences, probably due to lack of space, in relation to past current and future dumbing down, death of critique. But just reading it reminded me of that macabre performance from that unfortunate women Coney Barrett last week.

    The Stepford Judge is come, like the frail figure from old paintings who brought down plague and pestilence on the civilisation of an earlier age.

  12. Stephengb

    Dr Tristan Ewins, and others! With great respect to yourself (and other academics) this sort of analysis and commentary of the vareties of society, the social sciences including the various guru’s of the LEFT/RIGHT is too difficult to even read.
    For the uneducated folk (like myself) we are unable understand much of the vagaries of the many variations of extreme governance let alone the apparently benign but clearly dangerous forms of governance that become extreme. Indeed the very terms socialism, communism, facism, conservatism liberalism, etc etc, are just too convoluted even linked, and extraordinary for most of us ordinary folk to actually understand with any degree of accuracy.

    What we the ordinary uneducated need is less indepth analysis and more easily understandable comparisons that fall within our level of education.

    Yes I can imagine that is a difficult task to ask of you academics, but to be honest is it not an unreasonable expectation for us to make – that your academic insight, gives you the ability to break things down to easily digestible facts for those of us less fortunate.

    So I am saying Dr Ewin, whilst your article is probably interesting for other academics, it left me so confused that I gave up within a few paragraphs, sorry !

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