Gabriel Teles & Rubens Vinicius – Elements for a Marxist Critique of Leninism


The unsuspecting or naive reader may have doubts about the title of this collection: Is a Marxist critique of Leninism possible? This question undoubtedly stems from the distortion of the correct and coherent understanding of the meaning of Marxism for the class struggle within capitalist society. History is told by the winners, George Orwell said. Leninism, especially since the coup in Russia in October 1917, has become synonymous with a true follower of original Marxism (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). Sweet mistake.

The constitution of Leninism, especially from the writings of its founder, the Russian Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, is the result of an action that hinders the very revolutionary development of the proletariat in the struggle. It is an ideology originating within the workers’ movement but which will express other interests, contrary to those of those who have nothing to lose and a whole world to gain. Leninism expresses the interests of certain fractions of the bureaucratic class, which seek to become autonomous and to become the ruling class.

This is what happened in the Russian experience of 1917. With the seizure of state power, the Bolsheviks (guided by the theses of Lenin and his comrades) operated one of the greatest counter-revolutions that the workers suffered in their history. Unlike the counter-revolution used in the Paris Commune (1871), instituted by the bourgeoisie itself from the repressive forces of the army, the Bolsheviks, by proclaiming themselves the “workers’ vanguard”, eroded the foundations of the autarkic organizations[1] of the Russian workers of the time (soviets – workers’ councils) and destroyed any possibility of social transformation aimed at the self-government of the producers. In a short time, the workers’ councils were emptied of their revolutionary content and were replaced by the incorporation of unions controlled by leaders of the Bolshevik party.

This is one of the various elements that allow us to affirm that the consolidation of Bolshevism in power in Russia meant the crystallization of State capitalism, whose maintenance of exploitation and domination over the underprivileged classes, in that historical context, took place in a clear and symptomatic way. Then the party bureaucracy merged with the state bureaucracy, transforming itself into a state bourgeoisie, a class which at the same time appropriates the surplus value extracted from the workers and leads society in its entirety in a bureaucratic manner.

Lenin was not only the great leader of the Russian counter-revolution but also the great ideologue who legitimized this process from bureaucratic interests. It was up to Lenin to systematize, based on his intellectual production, the development, and deepening of the Bolshevik practices which corresponded, at that time, to the process of radicalization of a certain fraction of the bureaucracy which was trying to become autonomous.

The content of the writings produced by Lenin expresses, in the most diverse forms, the attempt to control the workers’ movement. Such a process is perceived from certain aspects, which make up a totality and cannot be understood separately, they are: a) the development of the vanguard ideology; b) the importance given to the Party (bureaucratic organization); c) the creation of the idea of a period of transition called “socialism”; d) the distortion of Marx’s ideas. His work shows the antagonism with the revolutionary perspective proposed and expressed by Marxism. Leninism is, then, the result of the development of radicalized bureaucratic ideas throughout the history of capitalist society, whose process of constitution refers to the specific conditions of Russian society. It was up to Lenin to develop its ideological foundations. Thus Leninism here is defined as an ideology that expresses the attempt at statist modernization of capitalism or the constitution of a bureaucratic mode of production.

Based on these presuppositions, Marxist criticism of this ideology becomes absolutely necessary. Not only because Marxism and Leninism are antagonistic because they express different class perspectives, but also because the latter is confused with the former. Marxism, in the set of texts presented in this collection, is understood as a theoretical expression of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat. It is an authentic Marxism, which aims at proletarian self-emancipation towards social transformation. Its main task is to collaborate in the cultural struggle for the workers’ movement to radicalize its struggles and become a self-determined class. Being its theoretical expression, Marxism is also an anticipatory consciousness, because it expresses the class that brings in its core the future of humanity. Therefore, it is not a matter of guiding and bringing “consciousness” to the proletariat, as Leninism expresses it with its vanguard ideology, but of contributing theoretically to its radicalization.

The emancipation of the workers is the work of the workers themselves, as Marx already said in writing the inaugural manifesto of the International Workers Association (IWA). This is a fundamental element in the Marxist perspective. It is not only a mere time-limited political principle, but it is essential in the very dynamics of the proletarian struggle in its history for self-emancipation. In that milieu, the embryos of new sociability are developing, which points to a moment of negation (the destruction of capitalist society) and a moment of affirmation (social self-management, what Marx called the self-government of the producers/communism).

The role of revolutionaries, especially Marxists, is to help accelerate this process by radicalizing the struggles and fighting their enemies. The latter not only hinder the possibility of achieving a social transformation based on a counter-revolution: they also want to maintain the workers’ movement determined by capital, without radicalizing its struggles and retaining the proletarians in their daily lives. In other words, it is a matter of systematizing a complex set of thoughts and practices based on the reproduction of the relations of exploitation, domination, and alienation that constitute the various forms of misery (psychic, cultural, sexual, etc.). In this way, Marxism combats not only the most direct enemies of the proletariat (the bourgeoisie) but also its auxiliaries who are found within capitalism (the bureaucracy).

The bureaucracy is one of the most important classes in the dynamics of capitalist society. The function of social control depends on it. While within the social division of labor the proletariat is characterized by the production of surplus-value, and the bourgeoisie by the extraction and appropriation of that surplus-value, the bureaucracy is characterized by domination and control. As an unproductive wage-earning class, in addition to its role of control, it contributes to the reproduction of the capitalist relations of production. The bureaucracy emerges as a social class in the capitalist process of production of commodities (entrepreneurial bureaucracy) and the main form of regularization of bourgeois social relations, the State (state bureaucracy). With the development of the process of bureaucratization of social relations due to the emergence of successive regimes of accumulation,[2] the class fractions of the bureaucracy appear and consolidate in the organizations of civil society, such as the party and union bureaucracy.

The bureaucratic class also has divisions within it, we can speak of more conservative fractions, its high rank, which is closer to the bourgeoisie (in the sense of income, values, etc.), and the lower bureaucracy, which is located on the lowest rung (it expresses lower income and is closer, in certain aspects, to the disadvantaged classes). It is not our aim here to provoke a long and extensive discussion about bureaucracy as a class and its functions in capitalist society. Such a digression is justified by the fact that the elements mentioned above are fundamental to understanding the true character of the ideas contained in Leninism. Leninism expresses, in an ideological way, the lower fraction of the bureaucratic class that is radicalized in the search for autonomy and the seizure of state power for itself. The process was crystallized, as we have said before, in the Bolshevik coup d’état in October 1917.

Marxism (because of its antagonistic character to the bureaucratic class and its ideological representatives) seeks from the beginning to highlight and criticize the bureaucracy, which has the objective of dominating the working class (in the various possible forms) and reproducing the existing capitalist society. Leninism would be no different. Marxism, throughout its historical development, has contributed to the critique of bureaucracy and Leninism from its conception. Even Marx, who did not live long enough to understand the constitution of the vanguard ideology, had already written about the individuals and organizations that sought to control the workers’ movement. In a circular letter to August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Bracke, and others,[3] he positions himself thus:

“So far as we are concerned, after our whole past only one way is open to us. For nearly 40 years we have raised to prominence the idea of the class struggle as the immediate driving force of history, and particularly the class struggle between bourgeois and the proletariat as the great lever of the modern social revolution; hence, we can hardly go along with people who want to strike this class struggle from the movement. At the founding of the International, we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.
We cannot, therefore, go along with people who openly claim that the workers are too ignorant to emancipate themselves but must first be emancipated from the top down, by the philanthropic big and petty bourgeois.”
(MARX & ENGELS, 1978, p. 30). [English translation from]

Even during his lifetime, Marx began to criticize the nascent social democratic party in his home country of Germany. The confusion and deformation of the aspiring Marxists who contributed to the founding of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) led Marx to affirm his famous phrase, observing those who claimed to be his “disciples,” especially the French: All I know is that I am not a Marxist.

In the epoch of the emergence and consolidation of the Bolshevik Party, under the ideological aegis of Lenin, authentic Marxism continued to express theoretically the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, criticizing and condemning Leninism. From Makhaiskhi, passing through the internal tendencies in the party and abroad with the writings of Rosa Luxemburg (even with their ambiguities), it contributed by analyzing the question of the spontaneity of the workers’ movement in the face of the avant-garde declared by the Bolsheviks, denouncing many practices before, during and after the Russian experience that culminated in the Bolshevik coup d’état. With the consolidation of state capitalism after the defeat of the workers’ movement, as well as the process of spreading more reliable news close to the class struggle in the country, it was up to the communist councilors to systematically and mercilessly carry out the criticism of Leninism. A group of militants and theorists (like Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter, Paul Mattick, Otto Ruhle, Helmut Wagner, etc.) sought to theorize and express the workers’ organizations that first appeared in Russia in 1905, and became generalized only at the beginning of 1917, reaching other places as well, such as Germany, Hungary, Italy, etc.

Despite authentically expressing the revolutionary proletariat, the council communists were extremely marginalized and little known after the radicalization of the workers’ struggles at the beginning of the 20th century. However, Leninism, with the success of the coup d’état in October 1917 and the consolidation of its power, not only in Russia but also in the Third International (since the Bolshevization of the communist parties in the world), adding to the defeat of the workers’ councils, becomes hegemonic and places itself as the authentic heir of Marxism. History, in short, is told by the winners. Thus, the criticism of Leninism, although it exists, will be little known and marginalized, surviving in small revolutionary groups that will spread throughout the world, but without much strength. Even anarchism (which includes certain tendencies within the revolutionary bloc) confuses Leninism with Marxism, criticizing the former and referring to the latter in a general way.

Only with the resurgence of workers’ struggles, especially in the 1960s, authentic and revolutionary Marxism takes on a new breath and emerges with force. At that moment there is an updating of Marxism. Organizations and theoreticians emerge (although in a contradictory manner and with limitations) seeking to rescue Marx’s thought without distorting it, in addition to recovering the writings of the councilors. Especially in France, several important intellectual collectives and productions appear, such as the International Situationist group (1957-1972) with the theses of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, which rescue the criticism of bureaucracy, especially Leninism/Bolshevism; in addition to the militants who revolved around the magazine Socialisme ou Barbarie (1948-1965), such as Cornelius Castoriadis in his youth, Claude Lefort, Alain Guillerm, Yvon Bourdet, etc., who also rescued revolutionaries from Marxism. Even the editors of Socialism or Barbarism had contact and debate with Anton Pannekoek, one of the main references of the council communists. In England, the group Solidarity (1960-1992) appeared, with the important figure of Maurice Brinton, who said he was anti-Leninist and favorable to the council communists.

The synthesis of this updating of Marxism is given above all by the rethinking of the word self-management. With the Leninist deformation of the word communism,[4] the Marxist revolutionaries replaced it with self-management to express what Marx called the self-government of the producers or communism. Thus was born the expression of the contemporary epoch: self-management Marxism.

Self-management Marxism leads in Brazil to the figure of the intellectual and militant Mauricio Tragtenberg. Throughout his career, Tragtenberg contributed to the translation and recovery of Marx’s revolutionary character, as well as to the presentation of various militants and organizations unknown to the Brazilian public. An example of this is the collection of texts he organized under the name of Marxismo Heterodoxo. There, the Brazilian researchers are introduced to the discussions of the Russian and German dissidents within the intensification of the class struggles at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the time of the revolutionary experiences.

But it is only in the early 1990s that self-management Marxism will begin to structure itself in Brazil more cohesively and solidly. It was at this time, more precisely in 1988, that the Movimento Autogestionário [Self-Management Movement] was born (which until 2001 was called Movimento Socialista Libertário [Movement of Libertarian Socialism], a revolutionary group that has been expressing self-management Marxism until today. The authors of the texts in this collection (with the obvious exception of Paul Mattick, a representative of communist councils) are members of the Movimento Autogestionário (MOVAUT) collective. The criticism of bureaucracy (especially Leninism) is part of a set of reflections raised by its members during the last three decades.

After these quick considerations, we can answer our initial question: Is a Marxist critique of Leninism possible? It is not only possible, as it is necessary! The history of authentic Marxism, from its beginnings, expresses such a critique and demonstrates its antagonistic character with this bureaucratic ideology. In this way, the contributions in this collection seek to analyze Leninism in its diverse manifestations: both in its theoretical and practical elements.

The book begins with the article entitled What is Bolshevism? by Edmilson Marques. In the text, the author seeks to rescue the historical significance of Bolshevism and its ideological product (the focus of this work) Leninism. Thus, Edmilson Marques analyzes the origin of Bolshevism, the constitution of the Bolshevik party, the ideological importance of Lenin, and, finally, the incompatibility of Leninism with Marxism.

In the following text, Lenin and Materialism, by Diego Marques Pereira dos Anjos, he breaks Lenin’s ideas on materialism, contained mainly in his book Materialism and Empiriocriticism. Supported by Karl Korsch and Anton Pannekoek, the author makes a merciless criticism of Lenin’s philosophical ideas, observing the philosophical abstractions of the Russian author and how he did not overcome the pre-Marxist bourgeois materialism. Besides, he puts Lenin’s bureaucratic interests in the writing of this book that, apparently only deals with “philosophy”, but has direct importance with the class struggle in Russia of that period. As the author says: “This conception was philosophically based on the separation of subject and object of knowledge: hence the political results were materialized in the ideology of the vanguard party (subject) over the class (object)”.

The following text, Russian Revolution and Bolshevik Counterrevolution, by Leonel Luiz dos Santos, analyzes the dynamics of the class struggle within the Russian Revolution. For the author, there are three main versions and interpretations of this revolutionary experience: the bourgeois perspective, which links the event to “communist totalitarianism”; the bureaucratic perspective, constituted especially by Bolshevism, conceiving it as the “communist victory”; and the proletarian perspective, the most marginalized, but which concretely expresses the events of that period. The purpose of his text is to rescue the self-managing character of the Russian experience and to teach the counter-revolutionary character of Bolshevism and its ideological product, Leninism.

After that, there is the text Stalinism and Trotskyism by Paul Mattick, being the only text in this collection that is the product of a translation, written at the end of the first half of the 20th century (1947). This is a fundamental discussion about the development of Leninism after Lenin’s death. With this event, the then Soviet Union falls into a fierce inter-bureaucratic war to establish who will take control of that country of state capitalism. Trotsky was Lenin’s great heir, but lost to Stalin who, despite having a bad reception among the Bolsheviks, was an accomplished bureaucrat. Thus, Josef Stalin became head of the central committee of the Soviet Union and gradually began to pursue his enemies, especially the former leaders of the Bolshevik Party who might eventually threaten to take his “throne. Two currents then emerged within Leninism: Stalinism, which will dictate and command the Communist parties in the world; and Trotskyism, a dissent that denounces Stalin’s totalitarianism, behaving as the true continuator of “Marxism-Leninism. Mattick’s text will demonstrate how Stalinism and Trotskyism are twin brothers and not so different. His conclusion is surgical: “Whatever the perspective of overcoming the capitalist system of exploitation, Trotskyism and Stalinism are nothing but relics of the past.

If Mattick analyzes Stalinism and Trotskyism, Nildo Viana in Reflections on Maoism analyzes another variant of Leninism, or more precisely, a tendency within it: Maoism. Viana offers us a general and historical panorama, its limits, weaknesses, distance from concrete reality, and its possibility of “survival” even in the contemporary world. Also, he points out the doctrinal character and dogmatism, especially in the writings of the founder of that current: Mao Tse-Tung. The writings of the latter are, in fact, ways of legitimizing his actions within the inter-bureaucratic disputes in the Chinese state capitalism of his time. Finally, the author unmasks the Maoist ideology that expresses bureaucratic interests, antagonistic to the revolutionary perspective of the proletariat.

And finally, the last text, Marxist Critique of Prestismo, by Gabriel Teles and Rubens Vinícius da Silva, deals with a Leninist tendency in the context of the Brazilian class struggle. The so-called “prestismo” is a Leninist tendency influenced by the writings and political practices of the Brazilian Luiz Carlos Prestes. It arises from Prestes’ break with the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). With it, some of the militants also left the party. These individuals, with the death of Prestes, formed a group called the Polo Comunista Luiz Carlos Prestes (PCLCP), as well as a youth organization, the Young Communist League Forward (JCA). In this paper, the authors analyze the historical constitution of Prestes’ political career, his political links, as well as the organization that bears his name and teachings, the PCLCP. In this sense, they state that: “The purpose of this text will have been fulfilled by showing that the relationship between the prestistas (from their organization) and the labor movement is one of domination and control, moving away from the own and authentic workers’ organizations.

This is the itinerary of this collection. Criticism of ideologies, especially those that find an echo and contribution within the labor movement, is fundamental in the cultural struggle against capitalist society. However, the set of criticisms announced and made here is not an end in itself. The moment of negation, that is, of criticism of Leninism, must coincide with a moment of affirmation: the establishment of social self-management. Only with proletarian self-emancipation can we glimpse human emancipation. We hope this book will be a contribution to social transformation!

Introduction to the book Crítica Marxista ao Leninismo [Marxist Critique of Leninism], published in 2018, organized by Gabriel Teles and Rubens Vinícius. Translation of the introduction into Spanish: Isis Schinzel.

Gabriel Teles & Rubens Vinicius, 7-12-2020


Translated from Spanish into US English with help of (free version) and Grammarly (free version)

[1] Autarkic organizations are forms of self-organization, in which there is no relationship between the leaders and led in the process of decision making and goal setting. Throughout the history of the class struggle, the proletariat has formed autarkic organizations, such as workers councils, strike committees, etc. The forms of self-organization must be linked to the process of autonomy of the proletariat and articulated to the project of self-management, synonymous with human self-emancipation.

[2] The history of capitalism, the cradle of bureaucracy, is the history of the succession of regimes of accumulation. The regimes of accumulation are relatively stabilized forms of a process of class struggle, crystallized in a certain correlation of forces marked by a certain form assumed by the process of valorization (extraction of surplus value), a certain state formation and a certain configuration of the relations between the capitalist states (international relations). The regime of combined accumulation, also called intensive-extensive, was characterized by the hegemony of Fordism, the integrationist state of “social welfare” and transnational imperialism.

[3] MARX, Karl & ENGELS, Friedrich. Carta a Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke e outros. In: MARX, Karl et. al. A questão do Partido. São Paulo: Kairós, 1978.

[4] Especially made by the CP (Communist Party) spread all over the world, controlled by Soviet state capitalism.

3 Comments on “Gabriel Teles & Rubens Vinicius – Elements for a Marxist Critique of Leninism

  1. Pingback: Anibal: Critique of self-management Marxism | Left wing communism

  2. Pingback: Elementos para uma crítica Marxista ao Leninismo – Gabriel Teles & Rubens Vinicius – Crítica Desapiedada

  3. Pingback: Elementos para una crítica Marxista hacía el Leninismo – Gabriel Teles & Rubens Vinícius – Crítica Desapiedada

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