Joe Conroy began a look at Lenin’s life and work in Issue 6 (March 2000).
November 1918: Lenin is engaged in a fierce polemic with an opponent. He tears his antagonist’s arguments to pieces, shreds the pieces some more, and heaps contempt on his foe. The archetypal Lenin, some would say, and not without reason: the dogged polemicist refusing to yield an inch. And yet, in the midst of all the flying accusations, Lenin points out that his anger isn’t caused by someone daring to disagree with his own answer to the question of the day. On the contrary: “Perhaps my answer is wrong”, he says. “Nothing would have been more welcome to us than a Marxist criticism of our analysis by an outsider.”1
This is precisely what Lenin has not got. Attacks upon him and his ideas have come in abundance. But there have been all too few attempts to judge him by the standards he himself set, to soberly examine how far his ideas can help in the liberation of the working class. The towering figure of twentieth-century socialism needs above all to be critically reviewed if his work is to play a part in the twenty first century.
On 10 April 1870—22 April by the western calendar—Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in Simbirsk in central Russia. He was the son of a schools inspector, and his upbringing was comfortable and apolitical. Politics forced itself upon his mind at the age of seventeen, however, when his older brother was executed for attempting to assassinate the Tsar. Later that year he took part in a student protest and was expelled from university.
It was still a few years before he got involved in the Russian socialist movement. When he did, he wasn’t long in earning himself a prominent place in the Marxist propaganda and agitation groups of St Petersburg. That wasn’t all he earned: he was sentenced to a year in prison in 1895, followed by deportation to Siberia. In 1900 he moved abroad, joining many other socialists forced to work beyond the clutches of the repressive Tsarist empire. Here he began using the pen name by which history knows him: Lenin.
Establishing a party
The most pressing task facing Russian socialists at the start of the twentieth century was uniting their scattered individual groups into a unified organisation. Some—nicknamed the ‘economists’—believed that this could best be achieved by limiting the role of socialists to practical support for the economic struggles of the working class. Lenin fought the idea tooth and nail.
The working class had a duty, he wrote, to fight against all oppression, not just their own.
Working-class consciousness cannot be genuinely political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases, without exception, of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected. Moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic [i.e., socialist], and not from any other point of view.…
The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be a trade-union secretary, but a tribune of the people, able to respond to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression…2
The socialist party Lenin envisaged would consist not so much of workers, but “first and foremost and mainly of people who make revolutionary activity their profession”.3 In the conditions of Tsarist Russia, an open party of workers was obviously not on: it would have to be a secret underground organisation of revolutionary intellectuals. But Lenin resorted to some strange theoretical propositions in support of this idea.
“The history of all countries”, he wrote, “shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness”. Socialism, on the other hand, was a theory elaborated by intellectuals from the propertied classes. The working class couldn’t come to socialism under its own steam or through its own struggles: “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without”. No good could come if the workers were left to their own devices, because “the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads precisely to its subordination to bourgeois ideology”, and the job of socialists was therefore “to combat spontaneity”.4
History, however, is full of examples of workers becoming socialist with little or no input from middle-class socialists, and even taking power on the odd occasion. It is true that most of the great socialist theorists up till now have been intellectuals from middle-class origins, but all of them, including Marx and Engels, learnt their socialism from the movements of the working class. And all of them realised that their theories could only have any effect if they guided the struggles of workers, rather than combating them.
Of course Lenin was arguing against people, middle-class socialist intellectuals, who saw their role as praising the efforts of the working class instead of helping them with their own understanding of socialist theory. He obviously exaggerated in his polemic with them. He later argued that “the Economists bent the stick in one direction. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it in the other direction, and that is what I did.”5
But if the metaphor has any meaning, it should be to remind us that a stick breaks when it is bent beyond a certain point. There is nothing wrong with putting heavy emphasis on the main task at hand. If Lenin had said that the spontaneous movements of the working class weren’t enough, and that socialist intellectuals should stop admiring the workers and get down to spreading their socialist ideas amongst them, then no one could argue. But opposing a wrong theory with another wrong theory didn’t help Lenin’s attempts to put together a coherent socialist party to fight against all oppression. If someone believes that 2+2=3, telling them that 2+2=5 isn’t correcting them, it’s adding another error to theirs.
At the beginning of 1905 the Tsarist edifice began to crack. The regime was engulfed by revolution as workers and the oppressed attacked, by demonstration, strike, and uprising. Lenin was able to return to Russia, but all talk of the impossibility of working-class socialism had to go out the window. “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic”, he wrote,6 and later recalled how the workers “became Social-Democratic as if by the wave of a hand”.7
His earlier arguments came back to haunt him as many of his comrades in the Bolshevik party insisted on maintaining a tightly knit organisation of professional revolutionaries, wary of the untamed actions of the workers. He was forced to retreat from some of his earlier positions—while never explicitly saying as much—as he called for the party to open itself up to the masses of workers who were revolutionised by the events of 1905. The freedoms won in the revolution meant that the party could be organised on a democratic basis, from the grassroots up instead of from the leadership down, with every right for members to disagree. It should be run on the principle “unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism”, he wrote; “the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticize”.8
The Russian working class faced not just an ordinary capitalist government, but a dictatorship that suppressed the most basic of democratic rights and presided over an economy that was still largely feudal. The revolution’s job, according to Lenin, was to overthrow this dictatorship, but not the capitalist system. The changes to be won “do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule”, he wrote, claiming that “Only the most ignorant people can close their eyes to the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution now taking place”. The working class was not big enough or class-conscious enough in Russia to carry out a socialist revolution.9
Lenin was not advising the workers to follow in the train of the capitalists: they were so weak and cowardly that the workers would have to fight for democracy without them and even against them, and do so in their own interest: “We cannot get out of the bourgeois-democratic boundaries of the Russian revolution, but we can vastly extend these boundaries, and within these boundaries we can and must fight for the interests of the proletariat, for its immediate needs and for conditions that will make it possible to prepare its forces for the future complete victory.”10 He saw Russia’s democratic revolution sparking off socialist revolution in Europe, which the Russian workers would then join; and he built no brick wall between the two revolutions: “from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way.”11
But despite Lenin’s insistence on working-class independence, and his hope of moving as quickly as possible from one revolution to the other, he clearly saw two distinct and separate revolutions ahead: first overthrow Tsarism, and then overthrow capitalism. His scenario supposed that the Russian working class would go to the trouble of winning political power and then refuse to use that power to fight against their subjection to the capitalists. If the capitalists tried to sabotage this revolution by closing down factories and locking out workers, would the workers in the revolutionary government not be forced to take those factories over, to subordinate the capitalist economy to the interests of the working people—and thereby undermine the foundations of capitalism? In practice the revolution would have to burst the banks of capitalism, to combine its ‘bourgeois-democratic’ work with socialist work. Socialists arguing for democracy first, socialism second would end up with neither; they would have to fight for both at the same time.
Squabbling in exile
The 1905 revolution eventually went down to defeat, and by the end of 1907 Lenin was once more forced out of Russia. Not for the first time, defeated revolutionaries faced a period of crisis and dissension. “Life in exile and squabbling are inseparable”, Lenin wrote.12
One section of the socialists wanted to abandon underground work and restrict themselves to legal activity. This would mean an end to the socialist party, as Lenin argued, because socialism tailored to fit what Tsarism allowed would be no socialism at all. On the other hand, some argued that socialists should abandon legal activity altogether, taking no part in elections or the trade unions. This, as Lenin pointed out, would isolate socialists from the mass of the working class, giving up valuable platforms for socialist ideas. Even in Russia’s undemocratic excuse for a parliament the Bolsheviks put their handful of deputies to good use, although they were, to use Lenin’s phrase, “not a general staff… but rather a unit of trumpeters”.13
But Lenin’s method of putting these arguments generated more heat than light. His polemics in this period consist for the most part of an accumulation of accusations, of varying degrees of accuracy, liberally garnished with insults and name-calling. Those who went too far to the left were lumped together with those on the right under Lenin’s sledgehammer, and those who tried for a rapprochement amongst socialists came off worst of all. The broad democracy that had blossomed in the party was cast aside as Lenin insisted on laying down a party line and making it prevail, by means of expulsion if necessary. While Lenin’s position was right against his opponents, his approach meant that his internal victories were Pyrrhic ones, leaving little of the vibrant Bolshevik party of 1905 standing.
War and renewal
The outbreak of world war in 1914 came as little surprise to Lenin, but he was taken aback by the betrayal of the socialist movement. In country after country labour parties and unions conveniently forgot their speeches about peace and international brotherhood, and mobilised workers to take part in a war to see which group of empires would exploit the world most. Lenin was one of the quickest off the mark organising opposition to the war both in Russia and internationally. He called on socialists to break with the traitors in the labour movement, and turn the war into a chance for revolution.
His break with the reformists was more than just an organisational one. The depth of their treachery led him to rethink and renew his socialism. Until now his understanding of Marxist philosophy went no further than a stubborn but rigid defence of orthodoxy; now he went back to the roots of Marxist dialectics, replacing the old fatalism with a new, dynamic view of the world. He unearthed the original Marxist teaching on the state in place of the distorted version then prevailing. He studied the new developments in the capitalist economy and their political implications.
Not least of these was the increased importance of the national question, and the duty of socialists to uphold nations’ right to independence. This gave the revolution a wider sweep than before:
The socialist revolution is not a single act, it is not a battle on one front, but a whole epoch of acute class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e., on all questions of economics and politics, battles that can only end in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It would be a radical mistake to think that the struggle for democracy was capable of diverting the proletariat from the socialist revolution or of hiding, overshadowing it, etc. On the contrary, in the same way as there can be no victorious socialism that does not practice full democracy, so the proletariat cannot prepare for its victory over the bourgeoisie without an all-round, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy.14
So the revolution would be more complex and layered than previously imagined. It wouldn’t be that “one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism’, and another somewhere else and says, ‘We are for imperialism’, and that will be a social revolution!”
Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.… The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements.
Many of these elements would bring confused views with them, but their struggles would nevertheless attack capitalism. The job of socialists was “to unite and direct” the discordant upsurge, not to belittle it.15
Lenin also tried to come to grips with the basis of reformism. How come the leaders of labour parties and trade unions believed in receiving reforms from the capitalist system instead of overthrowing it? How come so many workers supported them? It arose, he concluded, from the superprofits available in modern capitalism: “The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists… makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie”.16 The upper layer of the working class, the labour aristocracy, was bought off.
Obviously, capitalists with higher profits can afford to concede higher wages to their workers, and this may well lead workers to support them. But why should this only apply to the better-off section of the working class, and not the class as a whole? And there are countless cases of better-paid workers opposing capitalism, even when their wages are paid out of imperialist profits. Lenin’s understanding of reformism was weak, which is hardly surprising when reformism—and indeed reforms—were all but non-existent in Russia.
- The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918).
- What is to be Done? (1902) chapters III, I.
- Ibid, chapter IV.
- Ibid, chapters II, III.
- Quoted in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New Jersey 1990) p 63.
- ‘The Reorganisation of the Party’ (23 November 1905).
- ‘Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution’ (24 September 1908).
- Quoted in Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914 (London 1986) p 269.
- Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905) chapters 6, 2.
- Ibid, chapter 6.
- ‘Social-Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement’ (1 September 1905).
- Letter to Maxim Gorky, 11 April 1910.
- ‘Two Letters’ (13 November 1908).
- ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ (April 1916).
- ‘The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up’ (October 1916).
- Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) chapter X.