No one knows just why Steve Bannon, then an obscure media figure and now President Trump’s special adviser, would have walked up to Ronald Radosh at a dinner party in 2014 and told him “I’m a Leninist.” Even Radosh, who once upon a time was a Leninist, doesn’t know. Nor has anyone, in fact, been able to confirm Radosh’s assertion including Steve Bannon who claims not even to remember the meeting let alone what he might have said. Let’s assume, however, since Bannon hasn’t denied the story or claimed that it’s “fake news” that it happened. What, we might ask, would a former naval officer and employee at Goldman Sachs who grew up in a working class home in Norfolk, Virginia have possibly meant by saying he was a Leninist?
This anecdote has occasionally been glossed with reference to Vladimir Lenin’s tract, “The State and Revolution,” a work neither Bannon nor Radosh mention. Bannon may only have had a sophomoric desire to shock a neoconservative intellectual whose political background is well known. Or, in a colossal mis-reading of the Russian revolution, he may think of himself as a system-destroying revolutionary.
Odd as it may seem, however, we have much to learn by considering how Bannon, or indeed many contemporary Republican voters and Tea Party activists, might read what Lenin wrote in the months before the November 7 coup in Saint Petersburg brought him to power. Lenin’s pamphlet has little relevance to Soviet governance, but it may have been and may remain far more useful as a guide to American practice. My aim here is not to write about what Lenin really meant and whether Leninism betrayed Lenin or the Russian revolution. It is to consider the themes of “The State and Revolution” as they might be read by right-wing radical American activists. “The State and Revolution” is far more concerned with bureaucracy, regulation and the political power of expertise than it is with class structures, dialectical materialism, or the role of a vanguard party. It may be the least Leninist thing Lenin ever wrote.
The contemporary bureaucratic and regulatory structures that most Americans know and that the Tea Party generally abhors are just about 100 years old in this country. In France and Germany they are somewhat older. American academics tend to focus on the German scholar Max Weber as the earliest and most important student of bureaucratic structures but at the turn of the twentieth century there were eminent scholars around the world who noticed the sudden emergence of bureaucracy and state regulation as new methods of governance. As Harvard Law School Dean Roscoe Pound noticed shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, administrative law—the law of the bureaucracy—was so new in the US that it was almost unstudied in law schools.
It is not surprising that Karl Marx paid relatively little attention to the state because in the country that most affected his view of the world and that he saw as the most advanced, England, the administrative state was relatively unimportant. Despite the existence of a theoretically strong parliament, government in the United Kingdom of the late 19th century, although the most advanced industrial and capitalist country in the world, still existed primarily as a set of highly local practices. Marx’s view of socialism was largely colored by his concern that labor be joyful and that governance be, in essence, amateur. It is instructive that Marx saw the state as a committee rather than as a set of administrative and regulatory structures. Marx understood that the state employed coercion, but neither the Rhineland nor England—the two societies that most strongly shaped his understanding of capitalism and government—had powerful bureaucracies during his lifetime.
Lenin was heir to mid-19th century debates about the nature of society and the state. During his study of law at the University of Kazan in the 1880’s, the first Tsarist experiments in creating codified law were still being implemented and the peasantry, the vast majority of Russia’s inhabitants, lived with almost no contact with the new legal structures, their courts, or their administrative edicts. Unlike his near contemporaries, Weber and Pound, Lenin had a significant impact on the creation of modern political structures. Not least of these was his insistence that political parties be made up of disciplined professionals who carried particular discourses and practices (the party “line”) into society. Lenin’s invention was thus of a party that ultimately allowed the state to organize and agitate society rather than being a mechanism for the projection of social and civic interests into government.
On the eve of the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, Lenin briefly looked back at earlier utopian debates on the ultimate goal of the socialist movement and discussed one of Marx’s old and only briefly elaborated themes: the withering away of the state. It was far easier in Marx’s day to imagine the progressive disappearance of still weakly bureaucratized governing structures than it would be in the aftermath of the mobilization for total war that occurred for the generations that lived from 1914 until 1945. Lenin fully grasped that when Marx proposed the necessity of smashing what he called the bureaucratic-military machine his words only applied to France and the situation of French revolutionaries in 1871 during the year of the Paris Commune. England then, and by extension the United States, lacked both a military clique and an extensive bureaucracy. Consequently Lenin wrote, in Britain, it was possible to imagine a people’s revolution (his words) without the need to destroy the already existing machinery of the state.
It was not difficult for Lenin, in the chaotic Russian summer of 1917, to assert that both the bureaucracy and the standing army were “parasites” on the body of bourgeois society. Relying on Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune and on the assumption that by 1917 Russian revolutionaries as well as those in England and the US would need to smash the state, Lenin considered what would replace it, or more accurately just who would replace the state.
Despite the association of Lenin’s name with the pervasive and rigid bureaucracy of the Soviet state and its highly privileged elite—the so-called nomenklatura—he foresaw a very different outcome than the self-proclaimed leaders of twentieth century totalitarianism. “All citizens,” Lenin wrote in State and Revolution, “are transformed into hired employees of the state, which consists of the armed workers.” With rising levels of literacy and numeracy, Lenin predicted that “all members of society, or at least the vast majority, have learned to administer the state themselves, have taken over the work into their own hands….from this moment the need for government of any kind begins to disappear altogether.”
Whatever similarities exist between the bureaucracies in the fascist and communist states in the 1930s, the utopian ideal proposed by Lenin is distinctly different than that of contemporary fascist leaders. Both Hitler and Mussolini considered the state a tool to be seized and used. Hitler in Mein Kampf and Mussolini in “The Doctrine of Fascism” saw the state as an instrument for social order and cohesion. It might be necessary to purge state officials (an idea with which Stalin agreed) and it might be necessary to develop new and more hideous instruments of coercion and murder. Eliminating the state, even as an ideal, was alien to their thinking and to their movements as it was for Lenin when he finally acquired state power and even more so when he was succeeded by Stalin.
Eliminating the state solves one of the most acute problems of government as a socially autonomous institution. Political thinkers from Plato to Madison, to Foucault and Hobbes, all wondered who governs the governors. More specifically what prevents those with administrative authority from using it on their own behalf? There are many different answers and Lenin was not reluctant to propose, at least in theory, his own:
“When all have learned to administer and actually do independently administer social production, independently keep accounts and exercise control over parasites…escape from this popular accounting and control will inevitably become so incredibly difficult, such a rare exception, and will probably be accompanied by such swift and severe accounting (for the armed workers are practical men and not sentimental intellectuals, and they will scarcely allow anyone to trifle with them), that the necessity of observing…the rules of the community will very soon become a habit.”
European socialists and revolutionaries at the turn of the 20th century strongly opposed the use of violence against minorities and Lenin was no exception. Nevertheless the independent action of armed workers against government officials is close to lynch law which was usually justified by asserting that the competent government officials were derelict in their duty. One place where armed workers possessed the capacity to threaten officials was the United States and especially the American South, where tradition, statute, and constitutional law (the Second Amendment) sanctioned white violence against black citizens accused but not convicted to criminal acts. Lynching was never promoted as a substitute for the judicial system but it was frequently excused as the direct action of an emotionally mobilized community.
Those who defended lynching recognized that it undermined the state. Benjamin Tillman participated in the Hamburg Massacre of 1876 which was one of a long chain of events in which armed insurrection overthrew the Reconstruction government. He later served as state governor and US Senator. Speaking of lynching to the legislature in 1895 he argued that in a government dominated by white supremacists, whites had no reason to resort to lynching. Yet, as Tillman knew lynching often required not only a mob but the collusion of state officials who (to paraphrase Lenin) undertook to obey the rules of the community as a habit.
A far more common use of arbitrary authority in the South occurred in voter registration. The states of the Old Confederacy after Reconstruction never legislatively denied African-Americans the franchise directly. Much as they might have wanted to, white politicians understood that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution precluded such a direct assault. Instead they created literacy and administrative requirements that gave voter registrars significant leeway in determining who could vote and how to validate ballots. The administrative mechanism they created was therefore quite distant from what Weber or Pound might have expected. Registrars and other officials therefore had both the incentive and the authority to eliminate the influence of large sections of the population on government. In many Southern states ultimately more white than black voters were disenfranchised. The broad democracy that Reconstruction was supposed to plant in the south withered.
Whatever Steve Bannon’s views on race, ethnicity, religion and gender, however, he’s no Ben Tillman at least in public. Any listener to recordings of his somewhat rambling talks available on the internet can attest that his speech is devoid of racial slurs or ethnic epithets. That listener can also attest to Bannon’s view that he believes in the superiority of Western civilization and the culture of Christian religiosity without necessarily showing any great familiarity with either. Compared to the rants of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman or “The Great White Chief” James Vardaman of Mississippi, Bannon is a mild-mannered politician. But again neither Tillman or Vardaman would have described themselves as Leninists who hoped for the destruction either of the elite or the state. Where Bannon’s vision is reminiscent of Lenin’s is when he reassures his audience that their values—rather than the actual laws—ought to be what animates government.
Donald Trump has no desire for the state to vanish. Someone must keep track of deeds, clean the streets, patrol the borders, and prosecute violent crime. Beyond those tasks, however, Trump and much of the leadership of the Republican party question the need for the regulatory and social service bureaucracy of the contemporary state. Trump and the Republican majority in Congress are in agreement to dispense, as far as possible, with these institutions of the state. Many of Trump’s appointments, notably Betsy DeVos at Education and Ben Carson at Housing, have little experience either with large bureaucratic institutions or with the substance of the policy disputes they must address. They also both prefer private and for-profit solutions to public and governmental ones. They will therefore be neither inclined nor able to ensure that their agencies function well either in society or in the conflict for funds, influence, and the president’s attention. It is unlikely they will defend their agencies vigorously against threats of dissolution such as bills recently introduced into Congress to dissolve the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency.
Someone must also defend the rights of owners of private property. Trump exhibits greater ambivalence about government property. During Cliven Bundy’s April 2014 armed stand-off with Bureau of Land Management employees over grazing rights in Nevada, Trump acknowledged respect for Bundy. He also recognized that government would collapse if everyone did what Bundy was doing. While not exactly Lenin’s concept of armed workers enforcing their will on bureaucrats, Bundy’s action was remarkably close.
Bundy’s armed actions posed a problem for Trump but not primarily because it was armed. Trump does not support transferring Federal land to state governments. As a real estate developer who has frequently benefited from it, he supports the right of government to take private land with compensation (eminent domain). Many Trump voters are closer to Bundy’s way of thinking. Thus, Trump proposed a solution to the crisis in which Bundy negotiated his way out of the standoff and his unpaid arrears to the government. In 2016, Bundy’s son, Ammon, took over the Malheur Federal wildlife refuge. Trump asserted that if he were President he would end the occupation by calling the leaders and asking them to stand down and bring their complaints to him. Gerald DeLemus, co-chair of the New Hampshire Veterans for Trump Committee, saw the armed take-over of Federal offices in a different light. He flew to Malheur to join the protest where he was arrested.
Although they intervened with arms against government officials, Bundy father and son are not Leninists. They descend from a long tradition of the use of armed force against officials by farmers that began western Pennsylvania with the whiskey rebellion of 1791. This armed protest, like later ones, sought to change government policy by preventing officials from carrying it out. Limiting the power of the government to tax and regulate was the issue, not the destruction of the state.
So, too, neither Trump nor Bannon seek the end of the state although they both, like paleo-conservatives and neo-liberals, seek to roll back the administrative state. What is different and what Bannon may have recognized in “State and Revolution” if he ever read it is a two-fold idea. The first is simply that armed protest—of a kind that is almost impossible to imagine outside a constitution that guarantees the right of private citizens to bear arms—plays an extremely disruptive role with the institutions of the modern state. The second is that increasing the discretion of police officers to enforce law can enhance the ability of an executive to accomplish popular but formally unconstitutional goals.
This suggests a different way to understand Trump’s executive orders and especially his most recent conflict with the Ninth Circuit. That these orders are poorly written and that Trump had little understanding of their content or how they would be received by the courts is clear. Neither Steve Bannon nor Donald Trump has a legal education and the President reads little and certainly not closely. Something of an argument has developed about whether the poorly drafted orders are the result of incompetence or some extraordinarily diabolic cleverness. I suggest a third possibility: the executive orders are not primarily meant as legal documents. They are messages conveying to officials such as immigration officers at the border or police in the field that, rather than being strictly commanded to engage in extreme vetting, they have been given extreme latitude to enforce the law.
If Steve Bannon really bounced up to Ronald Radosh and provocatively announced that he was a Leninist, he didn’t mean destroying the bureaucracy. He meant transforming it from an organization bound by law into one inhabited by a million little Trumps.