March 3, 2015

The Tragedy of Party Communism

Michael Brie

Never in history has a political movement so quickly captured the imagination of so many people and shaped so many societies after its own image as did the twentieth-century party communism founded by Lenin. And never before were so many supporters of such a movement so repressed, persecuted, jailed, and murdered by its leaders and their apparatuses as in the period associated with Stalinism (and also with Maoism). The greatness and misery of party communism are without parallel in world history.

At the 1956 Twentieth Congress of the CPSU Nikita S. Khrushchev used the following words to refer to Stalin’s Great Terror: ‘It was precisely during this period (1935-1937-1938) that the practice of mass repression through the Government apparatus was born, first against the enemies of Leninism—Trotskyites, Zinovievites, Bukharinites, long since politically defeated by the Party—and subsequently also against many honest Communists, against those Party cadres who had borne the heavy load of the Civil War and the first and most difficult years of industrialization and collectivization, who had fought actively against the Trotskyites and the rightists for the Leninist Party line.’1

In his novel Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman has a communist prisoner in the gulag say, ‘I do not envy those who are on the outside and free. I envy those who have ended in a German concentration camp. How wonderful to be in gaol and know that you are being beaten by a fascist. But here we are in the most horrible situation; we are being mistreated by our own people.’2

One person who was imprisoned both under fascism and party communism was Walter Janka, who with Wolfgang Harich headed what was probably the most important opposition grouping of the 1950s in the German Democratic Republic. Janka was twice incarcerated in ‘the yellow misery’, Bautzen prison—the first time for a year and a half after 1933 and the second time for four years starting in 1957. What perfidy! In the first instance he was accused of preparing high treason—how could he have contradicted the National Socialist judges—and in the second he was condemned to five years imprisonment with solitary confinement, as ‘the person directly behind and participating in a counter-revolutionary group’, for inciting a boycott. He never accepted this verdict, in contrast to the one in 1933.

How did the relevant paragraphs of the GDR’s 1949 Constitution (Article 6, § 2), referred to in the judgment against Walter Janka and the co-accused, read? ‘Incitement to boycott against democratic institutions and organizations, incitement to murder democratic politicians, expressing religious, racial, or ethnic hatred, military propaganda, as well as warmongering and any other actions directed against equal rights, are crimes according to the Penal Code.’3 Janka was thus condemned in the GDR using exactly the paragraphs intended for the offensive protection of democracy against fascist attacks. The crucial sentence immediately following—‘the exercise of democratic rights as provided in the Constitution does not constitute incitement to boycott’—was ignored.

In short, the claimed protection of democracy was transformed into a means to destroy democracy and deny the elementary fundamental rights chartered in the Constitution. Criticism of the party and state leadership of the GDR—articulated principally from the point of view of insufficient democracy—was identified with an anti-democratic position.

These paradoxes are characteristic of party communism of the Soviet type. They are not Stalinist but Leninist. What is Stalinist is only the terror that developed against the party itself and the complete loss of control over the exercise of personal power.

Leninism—the most radical humanist vision with the most effective political form of struggle in the modern era

In contrast to its misery, the greatness of the party communist project is quickly forgotten nowadays. It resulted from combining the most radical humanist vision that has ever existed (the communism of free and equal human beings, or an ‘association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’4) with the most effective modern political form of struggle—the Leninist party and the military, security, social, and cultural organizations led by it. Because it was radical, that is, went to the root cause of evil, Communism promised to wipe out every form of exploitation, oppression, discrimination, and violence: the relations of property from which interests and power grew, which, in its conviction, was the sole factor keeping capitalism, racism, patriarchalism, and war alive. And whatever quite visible weaknesses the Soviet order may have had, it did keep one promise under the leadership of Stalin, who abruptly terminated the New Economic Policy in 1929: it broke with private property.

The experiences of the First and Second World Wars, as well as the struggles against colonialism, imperialism, and fascism, furnished a justification of communist radicality. Whole generations of revolutionaries and freedom fighters swore allegiance to the ‘vision of world revolution under the flag of Red October.’5 It was many of the most consistent fighters against war, oppression, and fascism, those who deployed themselves despite all the personal consequences, who were prepared to make the greatest sacrifices, who allowed themselves to be led by principles of extreme selflessness, and many of those who took humanism absolutely seriously, who became communists in this period. The communist movements were thus, above all, moral movements without rival in the twentieth century. In the whole modern era there has probably been no other political tendency that was built so completely and in such a lasting way on the ethos of its many million followers.

For communists, the means that was to guarantee the attainment of the great goals became Lenin’s centralized and disciplined party of the new type: a party of professional revolutionaries and the masses they led, whose claim to absolute hegemony was based on a scientifically irrefutable truth, whose sweeping effect was to result from the unity of the consciousness, will, and actions of its members and supporters. Outside and beyond the party this communism appeared to be nothing other than an empty word.

This kind of party was a contradiction in itself: It was supposed to anticipate the future society of free and equal individuals, to prefigure the free association of the future within the present at the same time as being characterized by blind trust in the leadership and unconditional obedience to it. Both were anchored in the inner-party law—the most complete freedom and total subordination.

The most complete freedom and total subordination

The self-identity of communists completely depended on their ties to such a party. What they recognized only late or never was the tragedy of this communism: This type of organization was suited to the taking of power under the very specific circumstances of war and civil war, but by the same token it made impossible any lasting progress on the path to liberation. At the point when party communist rule, or Leninism, was established, the source of any kind of political freedom was stamped out—the possibility for people freely to express and organize themselves in a self-determined way. Democratic space, ‘as a space only to be built by the many, in which everyone moves among his or her peers’, which is ‘freedom-centered’6 in the sense of ‘not being dominated and not dominating’, was irreparably destroyed.

The motivations that had led to the revolt against capitalism, imperialism, and war were to be suppressed when the jackboot of the members of a communist party and its organs stepped on the workers, peasants, and intellectuals. As Stalinism cautioned and Ernst Bloch still hoped, there is ‘simply no separating rift between yesterday and tomorrow’.7 ‘… [I]t should be the same banner of human rights that exalts the workers of capitalistic lands by means of the construction of socialism, and the right (and even obligation) to criticize. Otherwise, authoritarian socialism would prevail—in contradictio adjecto—even though the Internationale fought for the human right of organized maturity and responsibility.’8

It was not only political opponents who experienced the contradiction between dictatorship and the claims to freedom but also increasingly communists themselves, in so far as they did not give up as individuals but wanted to shape the path to liberation as a path of growing freedom. The persecution of convinced communists was a possible consequence of this kind of communism. The survival of party communism depended on that emancipatory awakening being stifled, from which the energy for communist activism arose. The denial of its own goal of a free society during the process of the Leninist realization of the goal was inevitable. Party communism forbade that Marx’s categorical imperative ‘to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence’,9 be applied in a radically critical way to the relations of the actually existing state socialist society.

The combatting of evil and the ‘dialectic of the good’

The party communist tendency of the twentieth century was so consistently fixated on the combatting of evil that it believed it was exempt from the dialectic of the good. However, it is part of the human condition that people are forced as social beings to accept the ‘compulsion to use the means of evil’10 to stabilize social relations. Order can only be established if it, also, uses force. A complete separation of good from evil is in principle not possible. In so doing the ends must always be considered in relation to the means.

Party communism was tempted to exempt itself precisely from this. Each conflict was, almost without nuances, translated into the antagonism of socialism or barbarism, socialism or fascism. The serious misnomer of ‘social fascism’, as a defamation of social democracy, was only one of the expressions of Manichean reductionism. In this propaganda the emerging Federal Republic of Germany appeared as the continuation of German fascism by the bourgeoisie through other means.

Under conditions of such exaggerated polarization, the use of force against people became a lesser evil, a necessary evil, or even something good. And, as the incarnation of evil, people who thought or acted differently also lost their human dignity. Stalin’s chief prosecutor in the Moscow Trials, Andrey Vyshinsky, ended his summation in the trial against Kamenev and Zinoviev by saying that they were mad dogs that had to be shot. On the twentieth anniversary of the October Revolution in November 1937, after he had proclaimed the unity of the USSR, Stalin raised to the level of a drinking toast a statement that spelled death even for old comrades in struggle: ‘Therefore everyone who tries to destroy this unity of the socialist state is […] an enemy, a sworn enemy of the state, of the peoples of the USSR. And we will liquidate every one of these enemies, even if he is an old Bolshevik; we will completely wipe out his clan, his family. […] To the liquidation of all enemies, they themselves, their family—to the end!’11

‘Against the bourgeois parliamentary republic—a fight to the death’

The consciousness that violence is always something evil, that it always violates human dignity, and therefore needs to be controlled very strictly—requiring the strongest moral and institutional checks—could quickly be lost in Leninism. Rosa Luxemburg’s dictum, that the ‘true essence of socialism’ is the connection between ‘ruthless revolutionary energy and tender humanity’,12 was continuously reduced to the remorselessness of the communist ‘cause’ and its political expedience. At the same time, however, this provoked the incomprehension, the displeasure and finally the protest of precisely the people who had become communists out of their humanity. How could they remain humanly true to themselves if the communist project did not become more humane in the process of its political actualization?

Already in January 1918, at the first and last session of Russia’s Constituent Assembly, Nikolai Bukharin had declared a fight to the death against the bourgeois parliamentary republic.’13 The freely elected people’s representatives were given an ultimatum: accept all resolutions of the Soviet regime and immediate self-dissolution or be dissolved by the power formed by the Bolsheviks and left Social Revolutionaries. From February 1918 the representatives of the other parties, beginning with the right Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, which had a majority in the Constituent Assembly, were removed by administrative means from all political offices. The civil carrying out of political conflicts became impossible. Now it was only ‘Comrade Mauser’ (Mayakovsky, ‘Left March’, 1918) who spoke. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly made total civil war inevitable. It resulted in about one million victims, either directly as soldiers or through the terror unleashed by both sides as well as through anti-Jewish pogroms. The number of civilian victims (through epidemics, famine, etc.) is estimated at eight million—four times higher than in the First World War.14 The ‘freedom of those who think differently’ came to a bloody end.

Lenin assumed that in the first try in Russia, and under conditions of international isolation and indeed foreign intervention, socialism and democracy would not be simultaneously possible, and he decided on behalf of dictatorship. In order to secure it he adopted every compromise—in the national question he conceded state independence to Finland and the Baltic countries. He took the position of the Social Revolutionaries and divided the land among the peasants instead of nationalizing it. He even concluded a separate peace with the German Empire. It was in the taking and maintenance of the political power of the communist party that Lenin saw the decisive key to finally forcing open the door to socialism. He was ready to pay any price for it and demanded every price from others.

Here we see that Leninist policy was not unprincipled; on the contrary, it had only one principle—the securing of Bolshevik power as the guarantor of a socialist transformation of society. The construction of secret police on a scale never before seen in world historical terms and the extension of a comprehensive camp system into a permanent form of the internment of actual or potential opponents, systematic terror, a militarized command economy, and the suppression of the last remnants of internal party democracy—all this seemed to be legitimated by this one principle. The means seemed successful in at least one decisive point: the power of the communist party in Russia was in the last analysis secured by dictatorial means; and in most western or central European countries after 1918, on the other hand, general elections, legislative assemblies, free speech, and the freedom to organize politically led to bourgeois democracy. Armed uprisings, whose victims included Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and many others, did the rest in terms of hindering socialism—which was also hindered in reaction to the events in Russia.

People as objects

The horror of Leninism is that it broke with the most important maxims of the Enlightenment and treated people as objects, as a mere means and not also as an end in themselves. Party communism demolished the barrier between a person and a thing. It transformed the individual into ‘tools’ of the communist cause; indeed the communists themselves formed themselves into a mere means of politics up to and including their self-liquidation. This is the original sin of Leninism in the history of the left.15

Stalinism only became possible because Leninism had become generally accepted in the communist movement. However, while for Lenin and the original Bolshevism the power of one’s own party was ultimately a dictatorial means for solidary-emancipatory goals and always measured against these, in Stalinism it became an end in itself. Through Stalin (and a series of other leaders of communist parties) the decisive civilizing self-commitment of Leninism—the commitment to the solidary self-emancipation of the oppressed classes—was abandoned. Stalinism is at once the inheritor and the violent break with Leninism.

As far as party communism became Stalinist—and it became this completely in a very short time and never completely rid itself of it—the supremacy of the party itself, of the party leadership and finally of the leaders, became its sole purpose. At this moment the compulsory disciplining and self-discipline of communists turned into their systematic persecution and even liquidation. From then on the main enemy of personalized rule was found in their own ranks. Everyone embodying even a hint of autonomy became a potential traitor—whether they were the so-called specialists, the military, the intellectuals, foreigners, the Jews, cultural workers … everyone who had contact with groups beyond the party and its control. Persecution thus became impersonal and systematic. The Leninist weakening of the civilizational commitment of communism turned into the dissolution of this commitment. Now it was socialism in one country and million-fold barbarism! Only when the self-liquidation of Stalin’s party threatened his own power, only when later the attack from Hitler’s Germany brought the weakened Soviet Union to the edge of destruction was there a taming of the terror. The late 1940s saw a new wave.

Through great effort after Stalin’s death in 1953 the reversal was introduced, civilizational commitments reconstructed, the liberatory mission remembered, and Stalinism pushed back in favor of Leninism, even if there were continuous new instances of repression after 1956 and later. However, it was only the bloodless renunciation of power by party communists in 1989 that closed this cycle. Only in 1989, in the German Democratic Republic, did the Institute for Marxism-Leninism of the SED’s Central Committee begin to deal with the fate of those who had gone to the Soviet Union on orders of the German Communist Party or on its behalf and became victims of Stalinist terror. As Christa Wolf said in fall 1989 at Walter Janka’s reading of Schwierigkeiten mit der Wahrheit [Difficulties With Truth] in the Deutsches Theater, ‘For the first time that basic evil was discussed in the most radical way conceivable, from which for decades almost all the other evils of the GDR’s state derived: Stalinism.’16

Since that time the task has been to harmonize the major goal of ‘free association’ (Marx) with the path of liberation in a new way and with new means. Capitalism’s civilizational crisis is the background against which this is happening today. In all this, and beyond the petty debates over whether the GDR was an ‘illegitimate state’, we see that the political and moral credibility of socialist politics does not only depend on dealing with Stalinism. Still, if one’s own history of Stalinism and of Leninism is not dealt with, then one’s history can never be recovered and preserved in the long term.

1 Nikita S. Khrushchev, ‘Speech to the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU’,

2 Quoted from the German edition: Vasilij S. Grossman, Leben und Schicksal, first unabridged edition: Berlin: List, 2008, p. 219.

3 ‘Die Verfassung der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik [7 October 1949]’ [‘The Constitution of the German Democratic Republic [of 7 October 1949]], accessed 18 January 2014,

4 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, chapter two.

5 Eric J. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes. The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, London: Michael Joseph, and New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, p. 71.

6 Hannah Arendt, Was ist Politik? Fragmente aus dem Nachlass, Munich: Piper, 1993, p. 39.

7 Ernst Bloch, Naturrecht und menschliche Würde, [fourth edition], Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007, p. 227; Ernst Bloch, Natural Law and Human Dignity, translated by Dennis J. Schmidt, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

8 Ibid., German edition p. 204; English edition, p. 178.

9 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction.

10 Vincent Ostrom, The Human Condition, Workshop Archives, Bloomington, IN: Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University, 1982, p. 2.

11 Quoted in Wladislaw Hedeler and Inge Münz-Koenen, eds, ‘Ich kam als Gast in euer Land gereist …’ Deutsche Hitlergegner als Opfer des Stalinterrors. Familienschicksale 1933-1956 [‘I Came as a Guest in Your Country …’: German Opponents of Hitler as Victims of Stalinist Terror. Family Destinies 1933-1956], Berlin: Lukas-Verlag, 2013, p. 48.

12 Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Eine Ehrenpflicht’, Werke, vol. 4, Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, 1974, p. 406; ‘A Duty of Honor’, Robert Looker, ed., Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings, New York: Random House, 1972, pp. 258-261.

13 ‘Aus den stenographischen Aufzeichnungen über die Tagung der Konstituierenden Versammlung. 5. und 6. Januar 1918’ [From the Stenographic Notes of the Meeting of the Constituent Assembly, 5 and 6 January 1918], Wladislaw Hedeler, Horst Schützler, and Sonia Striegnitz, eds, Die Russische Revolution 1917. Wegweiser oder Sackgasse? [The Russian Revolution 1917: Guidepost or Dead End?], Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, 1997, p. 412.

14 ‘Russischer Bürgerkrieg’, Wikipedia, accessed 6 January 2014,

15 Michael Brie, ‘Der Bruch mit dem Leninismus als System Sozialismus und Demokratie – eine historische Tragödie. Vortrag in Leipzig am 20.4.2013’ [The Break With Leninism as a System of Socialism and Democracy—A Historical Tragedy. Lecture, Leipzig, 20 April 2013], Online-Publikation der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2013,

16 Quoted in Walter Janka, Spuren eines Lebens, first edition, Berlin: Rowohlt, 1991, p. 11.