Come back Ilyich, all is forgiven

In Issue 20 (November 2004) Joe Conroy reviewed an assessment of Lenin’s politics in 1917.

V I Lenin, Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917, edited and with an Introduction and Afterword by Slavoj Žižek (Verso)

Karl Marx is almost accepted in polite society these days. Guardian journalists write books about him and conclude that he was a decent old stick after all. But Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: he’s a different proposition. You can draw a picture of Marx—albeit a profoundly false one—scribbling away for himself in the British Museum, harmlessly working on his eccentric theories. But playing down actual involvement with revolutionary activity is virtually impossible in the case of Lenin, what with 1917 and all that. If the fact that “Marx was before all else a revolutionist” got covered up not long after Friedrich Engels said so at his graveside, Lenin has always, as György Lukács put it, symbolised “the actuality of the revolution”.

So you have to admire an academic who writes a book arguing that Lenin is far from a discredited dead dog, but a figure to learn from. Although the title page describes this as a selection of Lenin edited by Slavoj Žižek, there’s far more Žižek than Lenin. The cover of this edition (the hardback came out two years ago) is adorned with pictures of both men, and “Žižek on Lenin” is the most prominent legend. Žižek’s contrib­ution to the book is easily longer than Lenin’s. His mammoth afterword ‘Lenin’s Choice’ often has little to do with Lenin at all. When he asks “So where is Lenin in all this?” (p 292) it reminds you that he has wandered off the point for a hundred pages or so. Some of these ramblings are interesting ramblings, but they don’t really butter any parsnips as far as Lenin is concerned.

His selection of Lenin’s writings needs to be argued with. While he writes that “It is impossible to overestimate the explosive potential of The State and Revolution” (p 5), it’s not possible to estimate it at all when he decided not to include this, the best thing Lenin ever wrote. If consider­ations of space were at play here, some of his own musings could have made way for it. The pamphlet Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? has more right to be in there than some of what has been included. New translations would have been preferable to the Collected Works renderings, complete with the dull Muscovite footnotes that give you too much information on the ideological trend of some forgotten Russian periodical or other.

The predominant feature of Lenin in 1917 is his determination to seize the time, to take the opportunity to seriously go for all-out revolution. Others on the left, he wrote, “picture socialism as some remote, unknown and dim future”, unable to see the chance of realising that future in the present, when “socialism is now gazing at us from all the windows” (p 100). Against these, not to mention a considerable wing of the Bolshevik leader­ship, he insisted that unless the workers took over, the Tsarist generals would establish a dictatorship, and the working class internationally would be left in the lurch: “History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now” (p 116).

But this was no solo run, with the revolution emerging from Lenin’s bald head:

Indispensable as Lenin’s personal intervention was, however, we should not change the story of the October Revolution into the story of the lone genius confronted with the disorientated masses and gradually imposing his vision. Lenin succeeded because his appeal, while bypassing the Party nomenklatura, found an echo in what I am tempted to call revolutionary micropolitics: the incredible explosion of grass-roots democracy, of local committees sprouting up all around Russia’s big cities and, ignoring the authority of the “legitimate” government, taking matters into their own hands. This is the untold story of the October Revolution, the obverse of the myth of the tiny group of ruthless dedicated revolutionaries which accomplished a coup d’état.

p 6-7

Lenin spent much of 1917 trying to convince socialists that the workers knew better than they did, telling them they should listen

for the initiative of the revolutionary people to begin expressing itself as something majestic, powerful and invincible.
Let all sceptics learn from this example from history.… Don’t be afraid of the people’s initiative and independence. Put your faith in their revolutionary organisations… Lack of faith in the people, fear of their initiative and independence, trepidation before their revolutionary energy instead of all-round and unqualified support for it—this is where the SR and Menshevik leaders have sinned most of all.

p 109-10

It wasn’t just the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks who needed convincing. The Bolshevik party and Lenin himself had to change course. Faith in popular initiative and independence was a radical break with Lenin’s earlier theory that socialist consciousness had to be imported into the working class from outside by the revolutionary party. Many of Lenin’s followers still haven’t made that break, continuing (as Žižek puts it) “to dream that Revolution is round the corner: all we need is the authentic leadership which would be able to organize the workers’ revolutionary potential”. We need to realise that “This mysterious working class whose revolutionary thrust is repeatedly thwarted… simply does not exist” (p 307‑8).

The working class has to draw its own conclusions and work out its own salvation. The arguments and proposals put to them are one—very important—factor in this, but the actual victories and defeats that workers go through teach lessons in themselves. Lenin always maintained that it was the concrete experience of the 1905 revolution that gave the Russian working class such a head start in 1917. The Bolshevik party that succeeded in 1917 wasn’t bringing socialism to the workers from outside: it had essentially fused with a working class that had set out upon a revolutionary road.

And this only happened after Lenin had fought for the Bolsheviks to abandon what had long been their defining standpoint, their interpretation of the nature of Russia’s revolution. They, and Lenin most of all, had always believed that it wouldn’t be a socialist revolution, only a radical capitalist one that would clear the way for socialist struggle. Not only did he now argue for this position to be dropped, he wanted socialists outside the party who had disagreed with it brought into the Bolshevik leadership. Imagine any of today’s far-left organisations ditching its definition of Stalinist Russia, and then inviting members of an opposing group to make up half of its central committee!

The transformation of the Bolshevik party in 1917 bears comparison with a similar process taking place in Ireland around the same time. Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin party had spent a decade advocating a dual monarchy: a self-governing Ireland linked with Britain by the one king. The 1916 rising was linked with Sinn Féin’s name despite the party’s lack of involvement with it. When the upsurge in republican sentiment later swept the country, thousands took over the existing Sinn Féin organisation and essentially changed its policy to a republican one. To some extent, the revolutionary workers of Russia did the same with the Bolshevik party, pressuring it to fit their own aspirations. By October Lenin could write: “the Bolsheviks, i.e., the representatives of revolutionary proletarian internationalism, have now embodied in their policy the idea which is motivating countless millions of toilers” (Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?).

Amidst today’s movements for global justice, Žižek sees a role for the party (p 296-7):

How do we invent the organizational structure which will confer on this unrest the form of the universal political demand? Otherwise, the momentum will be lost, and all that will remain will be marginal disturb­ances, perhaps organized like a new Greenpeace, with a certain efficiency, but also strictly limited goals, marketing strategy, and so on. In short, without the form of the Party, the movement remains caught in the vicious cycle of “resistance”… the last thing we want is the domestication of anti-globalization into just another “site of resistance” against capitalism.

He has a point here. The various aspects of capitalism can’t be overcome in splendid isolation: a broad, generalised assault on the system as such is needed. And like any form of political activity, that assault will need to organise itself as effectively as possible.

But, firstly, building a movement to get rid of capitalism is not all—or even mainly—a matter of organisation. The desire to have such a move­ment, and the belief in its practical possibility, will have to take shape first, and that comes down to political argument and experience before it comes down to taking organisational form. Secondly, if we “invent the organiz­ational structure”, it is unlikely to resemble previous structures, least of all “the form of the Party” with or without a capital P. The horrible experience of “the Party”—Stalinist, Trotskyist or otherwise—has discredited the name so much that we need to find another name for what we want. As Lenin wrote in 1917, when calling on socialists to abandon the name ‘social democrat’, “it is time to cast off the soiled shirt and to put on clean linen” (The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution).

The Lenin of 1917 is not all of Lenin: there is a Before and an After. Up to a few years before, he had more often than not been an advocate of elitist and arrogant party-building, of a workers’ revolution that would shrink from taking a socialist direction, of a deadeningly static interpretation of Marxist philosophy. A few years after, he was more often than not an advocate of party dictatorship, of compulsory obedience to the party line, of reducing socialism to featureless economic construction.

But the honeymoon period in between was something else. In 1914 the international socialist movement collapsed as war engulfed Europe. Lenin’s response was to go back and rediscover the emancipatory heart of Marxist thought, to discern the revolutionary possibilities created by capitalism at its height. Lenin was a new man by 1917, someone determined not to let the prospect of socialism slip by.

This is the Lenin from whom we still have something to learn.… The idea is not to return to Lenin, but to repeat him in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation. The return to Lenin aims neither at nostalgically re-enacting the “good old revolu­tionary times”, nor at an opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old programme to “new conditions”, but at repeating, in the present world­wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of reinventing the revolution­ary project…

p 6,11

Half the power of Lenin, says Žižek, is in the name, “the extent to which the signifier ‘Lenin’ retains its subversive edge” (p 312). That name stands for the harsh reality of revolution in flesh and blood, which is why it still enjoys the contempt of the intellectual prizefighters for the powers that be. Even people committed to overthrowing those powers are ignorant of Lenin’s revolutionary inspiration, his commitment in 1917 to win a world without classes or states, a socialism where “all will govern in turn and soon become accustomed to no one governing” (The State and Revolution). If the things this Lenin stood for are the same things we stand for, we would be mad to spurn his help in the fight.

Revolutionary Lives: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (part two)

Joe Conroy‘s reassessment of Lenin’s life and work concluded in Issue 7 in July 2000.


Revolution broke out in Russia again in February 1917. Workers overthrew the Tsar, set up their own councils or soviets, and power was precariously balanced between them and a provisional government that failed to solve the most basic problems of the working people—ending the war, feeding the people, giving land to the peasants, and establishing a democratic system.

From exile in Switzerland Lenin called for the workers to take power through the soviets. Only they could satisfy the basic democratic demands, by breaking with capitalism. At the same time they would have to start bringing the capitalists under their control, implementing socialist measures. The schema of 1905 went out the window: Lenin understood that the fight for democracy and the fight for socialism could only succeed in combination. As he later wrote, looking back on the 1917 revolution:

We solved the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in passing, as a “by-product” of our main and genuinely proletarian-revolutionary, socialist activities.… [Others] were incapable of under­standing this relation between the bourgeois-democratic and the proletarian-socialist revolutions. The first develops into the second. The second, in passing, solves the problems of the first. The second consoli­dates the work of the first.1

When Lenin returned to Russia in April his new position met with stiff resistance from the leadership of the Bolshevik party, most of whom wanted to stick to his former position. He replied: “The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have turned out differently; they are more original, more peculiar, more variegated than anyone expected.” The slogan of 1905 was now outdated.2

This kind of argument was a bit jesuitical, to say the least. Lenin’s old approach hadn’t been proved right in an unexpected way: it had been proved wrong in a very straightforward way. It hadn’t passed its sell-by date: it was no good to begin with. Lenin effectively dropped it, but the reorientation of the Bolshevik party would have been clearer and easier if he had openly admitted and corrected his mistake.

While in hiding from the forces of the provisional government during 1917 Lenin wrote The State and Revolution. Continuing his rediscovery of the original Marxist teaching on the state, he reiterated that the capitalist state was not a neutral force but an instrument to maintain class rule. The socialist revolution could not take over or reform this state: it had to get rid of it altogether. The working class would have to replace it with a new type of state, that wasn’t really a state at all, a temporary rule to defeat capitalist resistance. It would mean “Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people”.3

As in the Paris Commune of 1871, workers would elect representatives who would be paid no more than a worker’s wage and could be replaced at any time. Armed force would be under the control of the working class, not the monopoly of an army separate from them. Bureaucracy would be swept away:

Under socialism much of “primitive” democracy will inevitably be re­vived, since, for the first time in the history of civilised society, the mass of the population will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn. and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.4

Even this minimal state would go as soon as its work was done:

Only in communist society, when the resistance of the capitalists has been completely crushed, when the capitalists have disappeared, when there are no classes… Only then will a truly complete democracy become possible and be realised, a democracy without any exceptions whatever. And only then will democracy begin to wither away, owing to the simple fact that, freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copy-book maxims. They will become accustomed to observing them without force, without sub­ordination, without the special apparatus for coercion called the state.5

The State and Revolution is very much a product of 1917: as the soviets of workers’ deputies sprang up and jostled for power, the potential for socialist society was there for Lenin to see as he wrote. He abandoned a planned chapter on the experience of the Russian revolution because “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it.”6

As Lenin went through the experience of the revolution his abilities came into their own. From the early months when he called for the Bolsheviks to patiently explain the need for soviet power, through the times when he had to dampen the enthusiasm of those who wanted to take power before they had the support to keep it, to October when he fought for the Bolsheviks to organise an insurrection before it was too late—Lenin’s tactical skill shines through.

None of it would have been possible, though, without him mobilising rank-and-file Bolsheviks, and even workers outside the party, to put pressure on the conservative leadership. The Bolshevik party was itself revolutionised in 1917. It was as much a case of the working class winning the Bolshevik party as the other way round. While the party’s traditions played their role, without the discontinuity of its development during the revolution, its growth into a mass organisation alive with debate and activity, it would have got nowhere—and neither would Lenin’s influence over it.

The rise and fall of the revolution

On 25 October the provisional government was overthrown in the capital and a government based on the soviets, with Lenin at its head, took control. For workers in Russia and throughout the world the October revolution held the promise of real freedom. But even as it tentatively began to fulfil that promise, it came under an onslaught that ultimately proved too strong for it. Within a decade the workers of Russia were once again under the heel of a dictatorship. The death of the Russian revolution remains the greatest of socialism’s lost possibilities.

Lenin repeated again and again that the workers’ revolution in Russia could only survive if it became part of an international socialist revolution. Only a few months after the revolution he said: “there would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone”.7 He repeated the point years later:

It was clear to us that without the support of the international world revolution the victory of the proletarian revolution was impossible. Before the revolution, and even after it, we thought: Either revolution breaks out in the other countries, in the capitalistically more developed countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish.8

The Russian workers were holding on until workers took power in other countries: “We are now, as it were, in a besieged fortress, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief.”9 Sacrifices would have to be made in the meantime, but “I repeat, our solution from all these difficulties is an all-Europe revolution”.10

In Russia itself, the strength of the revolution was that it was the crea­tion of the working class itself. In the first weeks of the revolution Lenin stressed that

Creative activity at the grass roots is the basic factor of the new public life.… Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach; living, creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.11

He drove the point home the following day in a proclamation:

Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your Soviets are from now on the organs of state authority… Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.12

He insisted that “socialism cannot be introduced by a minority, a party. It can be introduced by tens of millions of people when they have learnt how to do everything themselves”.13

Lenin’s faith in international revolution was by no means misplaced. The end of the war saw a wave of revolutionary upheavals from one end of Europe to the other. But when none of these revolutions succeeded, the Russian workers were left high and dry.

Within Russia the working class suffered a serious decline. Hundreds of workers were killed in the civil war, as the world’s capitalists tried to strangle the revolution at birth, and in the famine and disease that followed. Thousands of others left the factories to work in the apparatuses of the state, the Red Army, and the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks had renamed themselves). Even more went back home to the countryside where the chance of eking out a living was slightly easier than in the devastated cities. The industrial working class, said Lenin, “owing to the war and the desperate poverty and ruin, has become declassed, i.e., dislodged from its class groove, and has ceased to be a proletariat.… the proletariat has disappeared.”14

Working-class democracy cannot survive where there is no working class; nor can it survive in a single isolated, beleaguered country. The soviet power rapidly declined to a one-party rule, a state that was not withering away but piling on the pounds—the opposite of what Lenin envisaged in The State and Revolution. The view that this was due to a lust for power on Lenin’s part cannot be supported: the situation arose in spite of his intentions, not because of them. Questions can and must be asked, however, about his reaction to it.

Lenin began to justify the divergence between the theory of workers’ power and the reality of Communist Party rule. He claimed that “the dictatorship of the working class is being implemented by the Bolshevik Party”.15 He bluntly characterised the situation: “The proletarian class equals the Russian Communist Party which equals the Soviet state. Don’t we agree on all this?”16 The theoretical excuse for party rule rather than class rule came later: “the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of that class… It can be exercised only by a vanguard that has absorbed the revolutionary energy of the class.” This vanguard supremacy was necessary not only in the harsh conditions of Russia but “in all capitalist countries”.17

Lenin at the same time said that “ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it”.18 It would be closer to the truth to say that, by this stage, it was more of a bureaucratic state with a working-class twist to it, the socialist good intentions of the best Communists keeping some elements of socialism alive. Lenin cursed the bureaucracy of the state incessantly, but put the problem down to bureaucrats inherited from the Tsarist apparatus, who the Communist Party had to bring under control. All the time, the biggest danger lay in the bureaucratisation of the party itself, and increasing its power only added to the problem.

It was further worsened by the silencing of revolutionary opposition. The repression directed against the counter-revolution and those who went along with it was completely justified: no socialist revolution can roll over and allow the capitalists to organise resistance against it. But the re­pression of those who opposed the Communist Party while supporting soviet power cannot be excused, and in fact weakened the revolution by depriving it of the criticism it needed. The Communist Party itself, which had enjoyed a wide freedom of debate, became increasingly monolithic. “We will not permit arguments about deviations, we must put a stop to this”, Lenin told the party congress,19 and successfully proposed a ban on the right of members to organise against the leadership’s policies, with expulsion for those who disobeyed.

International revolution remained the only salvation for the ever weaker revolution in Russia. But this became a much rarer note in Lenin’s speeches and writings. By the end of 1920 he was saying that “today we can speak, not merely of a breathing-space, but of a real chance of a new and lengthy period of development”. A year later he asked:

Is the existence of a socialist republic in a capitalist environment at all conceivable? It seemed inconceivable from the political and military aspects. That it is possible both politically and militarily has now been proved; it is a fact.20

Lenin never ceased to hold out hope for world socialist revolution. He devoted a great deal of time and effort trying to foster it, by means of the Communist International. But he did begin to hedge his bets when that revolution seemed unlikely to appear.

The last fight

At the end of 1922 Lenin was struck down by illness and forced to take a back seat in the work of government. The distance gave him the chance to consider more thoughtfully what had become of the revolution. Battling against the party leadership’s attempts to withhold information from him (for the good of his health, supposedly) he began to realise just how profound the problem was.

He condemned the imperialist way that the Russian state and party bureaucracy treated the non-Russian nationalities. He proposed measures to counteract the growth of bureaucracy. He even tried to get Stalin removed from the power base he had built up for himself. Right to the end Lenin was fighting a rearguard action against the betrayal of the revolution.

But who would put these reforms into effect? The working class was in no fit state. Those in the Communist Party who would oppose the leadership faced marginalisation and exclusion, and Lenin’s personal prestige only went so far. In the circumstances, the anti-bureaucracy institutions Lenin proposed could only become bastions of bureaucracy themselves. His reforms seem more and more like shifting deckchairs around on the Titanic, when only international workers’ revolution could tow Russia away from the iceberg.

A stroke in March 1923 put an end to Lenin’s political career. He died on 21 January 1924.

At the Communist Party congress in 1920, some bright spark hit upon the idea of celebrating Lenin’s approaching fiftieth birthday. Lenin did all he could to stop it, but soon speakers were rising to laud the great leader of the world’s proletariat. He got out of the room as fast as his feet would carry him, and phoned up every couple of minutes to see if all this rubbish was over, so he could return.

Praise is the last thing Lenin needs. He fought to build an effective socialist organisation; for opposition to every kind of oppression; to raise revolution from the ruins of world war; to bring the 1917 revolution to victory; to spread that revolution worldwide. Lenin is praised even if we say nothing.

But it’s a poor tribute to say nothing about his mistakes. His own advice is better:

we must drop all empty phrase-mongering and immediately set to work to learn, to learn from mistakes, how best to organise the struggle. We must not conceal our mistakes from the enemy. Whoever is afraid of talking openly about mistakes is not a revolutionary. If, however, we openly say to the workers: “Yes, we have made mistakes”, it will pre­vent us from repeating those mistakes in the future…21

Lenin was wrong on many occasions, and was often unwilling to admit it. But “for the most part people’s shortcomings are bound up with their merits”, as he once noted himself.22 His faults were the faults of one dedicated to the socialist cause, and anyone who engages in real struggle is bound to make mistakes. Lenin’s faults, however, shouldn’t be overlooked or excused, but criticised and corrected, if his goal of making the world socialist is to be achieved.


1    ‘Fourth Anniversary of the October Revolution’ (14 October 1921).

2    Letters on Tactics (April 1917).

3    Chapter V.

4    Chapter VI.

5    Chapter V.

6    Ibid, Postscript.

7    Speech at Communist Party congress, 7 March 1918.

8    Speech at Communist International congress, 5 July 1921.

9    ‘Letter to American Workers’ (20 August 1918).

10  Speech at Communist Party congress, 7 March 1918.

11  Speech at meeting of Central Executive Committee of the soviets, 4 November 1917.

12  ‘To the Population’.

13  Speech at Communist Party congress, 8 March 1918.

14  Speech at Political Education Departments congress, 17 October 1921.

15  August 1919: quoted in Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin (London 1975) p 269.

16  Note to Nikolai Bukharin, 11 October 1920: quoted in Louis Fischer, The Life of Lenin (New York 1965) p 492.

17  Speech to Communist Party activists, 30 December 1920.

18  Ibid.

19  8 March 1921.

20  Quoted in Liebman, p 370.

21  Speech to Communist International congress, 1 July 1921.

22  ‘A Single Economic Plan’ (22 February 1921).

Revolutionary Lives: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (part one)

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.

part two


  1. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918).
  2. What is to be Done? (1902) chapters III, I.
  3. Ibid, chapter IV.
  4. Ibid, chapters II, III.
  5. Quoted in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New Jersey 1990) p 63.
  6. ‘The Reorganisation of the Party’ (23 November 1905).
  7. ‘Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution’ (24 September 1908).
  8. Quoted in Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914 (London 1986) p 269.
  9. Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905) chapters 6, 2.
  10. Ibid, chapter 6.
  11. ‘Social-Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement’ (1 September 1905).
  12. Letter to Maxim Gorky, 11 April 1910.
  13. ‘Two Letters’ (13 November 1908).
  14. ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ (April 1916).
  15. ‘The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up’ (October 1916).
  16. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) chapter X.