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Paul Le Blanc: International conference in China on Lenin’s thought

Paul Le Blanc presents the keynote address to the international conference on “Lenin’s thought in the 21st century: interpretation and its value”, held October 20-22, 2012.

[Read more by (and about) Paul Le Blanc HERE and more on Lenin HERE.]

By Paul Le Blanc

December 8, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The People’s Republic of China was the location of a remarkable international conference on “Lenin’s thought in the 21st century: interpretation and its value”, held October 20-22, 2012. It was jointly sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and several components of Wuhan University – the School of Philosophy, the Institute of Marxist Philosophy and the Institute of Western Marxist Philosophy. Almost all papers were made available in both languages, and simultaneous translation was carried out in English and Chinese.

In attendance were approximately 100 scholars – a majority from China, but roughly one-fourth from outside, including a cluster of European students studying in China. Among the countries represented, one way or another, in addition to the host country, were Austria, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia and the United States. The effort was headed by Professor He Ping, an outstanding scholar responsible for a similar international conference on Rosa Luxemburg at Wuhan in 2006. (For a report on the earlier conference, see: http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article4928.)

Conference organisers explained:

The aim of this conference is to develop the study of Lenin, Marxist thought and contemporary issues in the today’s world and enhance the academic exchanges between Western and Eastern scholars.

Among the themes explored by speakers and panels were the relationship of Lenin to Marx, the Marxism of the Second International, Russian Marxism, Chinese Marxism, and the Western Marxist tradition. Attention was also given to the relationship of Lenin’s thought to issues of imperialism and international economic development, nationalism, democracy and feminism, and also to official domestic and international policies of the People’s Republic of China.

Plans exist to publish the conference proceedings both by Wuhan University in China and by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany. There were diverse perspectives, among the Chinese scholars and the scholars from other countries, and the nature and quality of the presentations varied – some were quite good. Informal discussions were also quite interesting. In the future, I hope to write a more substantial report. Here I must restrict myself to sharing the keynote address that I had been invited to prepare for the conference.

Keynote address to the international Lenin conference, Wuhan University: New trends in scholarship on Lenin -- impacts of the quest for revolutionary democracy

This international conference on “Lenin’s thought in the 21st century” reflects a worldwide phenomenon. There have been increasingly intense stirrings of discontent in the face of the deepening problems of global capitalism. Yet despite considerable protest and insurgency, there is a sense of disappointment and frustration as those deepening problems persist.

Conservative and neoliberal policies, social-liberal and social-democratic reformism, religious fundamentalism, the individualist dissidence of libertarians and anarchists, and ideologies less defined have all failed to eliminate the problems – so the discontent persists, spreads, deepens. This is the case in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas. It is the case throughout Europe. It is the case from South Africa to Egypt and throughout the Middle East. It is the case in India and right here in China. There is a need – a market – for ideas that address this reality. This has caused a significant uptick, a renewal among scholars and intellectuals and activists, of interest in and studies of the ideas and long-ago activities of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – known to the world as Lenin – and of his close comrades.[i]

Among the examples of this phenomenon (in addition to my own modest efforts) are the 2007 collection of essays edited by Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kovalakis and Slavoj Žižek entitled Lenin Reloaded, putting forward the work of an impressively diverse collection of scholars. One can also find more of the same in the impressive British journal Historical Materialism and the flood of books it has been providing. There are also the immense efforts of John Riddell and his collaborators in making available, and helping to popularise, the remarkable proceedings of the early Communist International, which Lenin helped to found and lead. One of the earliest innovators was Kevin Anderson, whose Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism helped pave the way for taking Lenin’s thought more seriously than was common in the era of the so-called “collapse of Communism”. From India we have the revolutionary feminist Soma Marik, whose impressive study Reinterrogating the Classical Marxist Discourses of Revolutionary Democracy focuses its attention on Lenin and his Bolshevik revolution. Her work retrieves the profoundly democratic qualities of Lenin and Bolshevism.

An exploration of how these were shattered under the impact of historical calamities is offered in Arno J. Mayer’s magisterial work, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions. One of the most powerful and penetrating contributions has been Lars Lih’s massive work Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done’ in Context. Some of the new studies of the Hegelian-Leninists of Western Marxism, Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukács, also fit into this category, as does the renewed scholarly interest in Leon Trotsky. The growing work on and interest in Rosa Luxemburg is also part of this phenomenon. As I will argue in another presentation at this conference, it is a mistake to portray them as opponents – despite real and important differences, Luxemburg and Lenin can more accurately be seen as close comrades and co-thinkers in the project of the workers’ revolution for socialist democracy.

It seems likely that such stuff will be of increasing interest for those in the future who continue to seek, and – with increasing urgency – struggle for, a better world, a world in which the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all, and in which the great laboring majority of humanity can finally win the battle for democracy.

In Lenin’s writings one sees the breadth and coherence of his thinking in his emphasis on the need for socialist and working-class support to struggles of all who suffer oppression, in his way of integrating reform struggles with revolutionary strategy, and in the interconnecting of creative Marxist theory with practical political activity. Such qualities enabled Lenin, in 1917, to provide leadership for the first working-class seizure of power in Russia, a profoundly democratic triumph. John Reed, in his classic eyewitness account, Ten Days That Shook the World, asserts:

If the masses all over Russia had not been ready for insurrection it must have failed. The only reason for the Bolsheviks’ success lay in their accomplishing the vast and simple desires of the most profound strata of the people, calling them to the work of tearing down and destroying the old, and afterward, in smoke of the falling ruins, cooperating with them to erect the framework of the new. [ii]

The interplay of Lenin, the Bolshevik party, the broader Russian working-class movement and the insurgent masses of workers and peasants animates most serious studies of the Russian Revolution. This comes through in accounts by John Reed’s fellow journalist, Albert Rhys Williams. Reed and Williams, along with Louise Bryant and Bessie Beatty, found themselves travelling from the US to Russia (before the Bolshevik seizure of power) with a small cluster of returning Russian-American revolutionaries, whom Williams described as “free, young, sturdy spirits”, but who “were neither fools nor imbeciles. Knocking about the world had hammered all of that out of them. Nor were these men hero-worshippers. The Bolshevik movement was elemental and passionate, but it was scientific, realistic, and uncongenial to hero-worship.” Williams emphasised certain qualities: “their faith in the historic role of the workers, their hardheaded reasoning, their compassion – [and] probably the most essential ingredient: self-discipline. That, and their relentless optimism, a spirit of courage and daring.”[iii]

Lenin himself had made the point in the 1900 essay, “The Urgent Tasks of Our Movement”, insisting – in the language of classical Marxism – that the Russian working class must “fulfill its great historical mission – to emancipate itself and the whole of the Russian people from political and economic slavery”. But this would not happen, he insisted, unless it produced “its political leaders, its prominent representatives able to organize a movement and lead it”. He added that “the Russian working class has already shown that it can produce such men and women”. He concluded:

We must train people who will devote the whole of their lives, not only their spare evenings, to the revolution; we must build up an organization large enough to permit the introduction of a strict division of labor in the various forms of our work. … Social-Democracy does not tie its hands, it does not restrict its activities to some one preconceived plan or method of political struggle; it recognizes all methods of struggle, provided they correspond to the forces at the disposal of the Party and facilitate the achievement of the best results.… Before us, in all its strength, towers the enemy fortress which is raining shot and shell upon us, mowing down our best fighters. We must capture this fortress, and we will capture it, if we unite all the forces of the Russian revolutionaries into one party which will attract all that is vital and honest in Russia.[iv]

Max Eastman, a close comrade of John Reed and Albert Rhys Williams, described Lenin’s party in such terms as these in 1926:

It is an organization of a kind which never existed before. It combines certain essential features of a political party, a professional association, a consecrated order, an army, a scientific society – and yet it is in no sense a sect. Instead of cherishing in its membership a sectarian psychology, it cherishes a certain relation to the predominant class forces of society as Marx defined them. And this relation was determined by Lenin, and progressively readjusted by him, with a subtlety of which Marx never dreamed.[v]

A problem with Eastman’s portrayal of Lenin as Heroic Individual is that it loses an essential element of the Bolshevik party aptly captured in this observation by Soma Marik, who reminds us that “the Bolshevik party that emerged by February 1917 was not a personal creation of Lenin. While he was its foremost theoretician, the party was created by protracted interactions between practical workers and theorists, and repeatedly remodeled.” She notes that “many ideas and organizational concepts had to be modified and discarded under the pressure of events and under class pressure”.[vi]

A fundamental challenge to this democratic essence and understanding of Lenin, however, was posed in the years that followed the revolutionary triumph. To understand and explain what happened remains for us a troubling and terrifying responsibility. There was the rise and consolidation, from 1918 through the 1920s, not of a soviet democracy – the hoped-for rule by democratic councils of the toiling masses – but instead an authoritarian bureaucracy. After Lenin’s death, after some initial pushing and shoving among what was left of the Communist leadership, Joseph Stalin emerged to oversee what happened in the 1930s: the murderous collectivisation of land and the intensely exploitative super-industrialisation, capped by the intensified authoritarian controls established over various realms of culture, the redefinition of socialism to exclude freedom of expression and democracy, the glorification of bureaucratic dictatorship, the personality cult of Stalin, the increasingly fierce repression, the explosive expansion and brutalisation of forced labour camps, the infamous “purges” with phony accusations and torture and show trails leading to innumerable executions.[vii]

There were elements in the Bolshevik experience under Lenin, however, that could be said to contain seeds of what came to be known as Stalinism. The wonderful quality of Lenin's Marxism, especially in 1915-1917, was the unity of revolutionary strategy and revolutionary goal – each permeated by a vibrant, uncompromising working-class militancy, insurgent spirit and radical democracy. This was Lenin's triumph, culminating in the Bolshevik revolution. Lenin's tragedy is that this broke down in practice in 1918 – not simply because of the debilitating and murderous violence of civil war and foreign aggression, but also because the simple solution of “workers’ democracy” became problematical when the abstract visions were brought down to the level of concrete realities. Workers’ committees and councils in the factories and neighbourhoods did not have enough information and knowledge to form practical decisions nor enough skill and practical experience to carry out decisions for the purpose of running a national economy, developing adequate social services throughout the country, formulating a coherent foreign policy, or running a factory. This was especially so in the context of the overwhelming destructiveness of World War I, the various and unrelenting foreign military interventions against the revolution, the economic blockade and the horrors of the civil war.[viii] 

And in that context, the rights of speech, press, assembly and association – providing the possibility of spreading confusion, or putting forward super-revolutionary but unworkable alternatives, or fomenting counter-revolution – could not be tolerated. So Lenin was insisting by 1919. According to Albert Rhys Williams in 1921:

“Repressions, tyranny, violence,” cry the enemies. “They have abolished free speech, free press, free assembly. They have imposed drastic military conscription and compulsory labor. They have been incompetent in government, inefficient in industry. They have subordinated the Soviets to the Communist Party. They have lowered their Communist ideals, changed and shifted their program and compromised with the capitalists.” Some of these charges are exaggerated. Many can be explained. But they cannot all be explained away. Friends of the Soviet grieve over them. Their enemies have summoned the world to shudder and protest against them…. While abroad hatred against the Bolsheviks as the new “enemies of civilization” mounted from day to day, these selfsame Bolsheviks were straining to rescue civilization in Russia from total collapse.[ix]

This extreme crisis was given an additional twist with the failure of the anticipated spread of socialist revolution to other parts of the world, whose triumph would have relieved horrific pressures that were so badly distorting the revolutionary regime. This defeat and isolation guaranteed the consolidation of a bureaucratic dictatorship that created a much different political and social order to that which Lenin and his comrades had devoted their lives. The late historian Moshe Lewin sees “the year 1924 [as] the end of ‘Bolshevism’”. He concludes:

For a few more years one group of old Bolsheviks after another was to engage in rearguard actions in an attempt to rectify the course of events in one fashion or another. But their political tradition and organization, rooted in the history of Russian and European Social-Democracy, were rapidly swept aside by the mass of new members and new organizational structures which pressed that formation into an entirely different mold. The process of the party’s conversion into an apparatus – careers, discipline, ranks, abolition of all political rights – was an absolute scandal for the oppositions of 1924-28.[x]

But these indignant dissident communists were swept aside and savagely repressed by what Michel Reiman has aptly described as “a ruling social stratum, separated from the people and hostilely disposed toward it”.[xi] By the early 1930s, a dissident communist in Soviet Russia, Mikhail Riutin, was complaining that “Stalin is killing Leninism, [killing] the proletarian revolution under the flag of the proletarian revolution, [killing] socialist construction under the flag of socialist construction.” A former associate of Nikolai Bukharin and one-time leader of the Communist Party in Moscow, expelled in 1930 for opposing the forced collectivisation of land, Riutin wrote that “the most evil enemy of the party and the proletarian dictatorship, the most evil counterrevolutionary and provocateur could not have carried out the work of destroying the party and socialist construction better than Stalin has done”, adding that “the main cohort of Lenin’s comrades has been removed from the leading positions, and some of them are in prisons and exile; others have capitulated, still others, demoralized and humiliated, carry on a miserable existence, and finally, some, those who have degenerated completely, have turned into loyal servants of the dictator”.[xii]

As history has demonstrated, such a social and political tyranny could not endure for long. Yet the oppression and violence of capitalism have persisted and in many ways have gotten worse. As we have noted, the quest for revolutionary democracy has, in our time, begun to intensify. Growing numbers of social activists are urgently seeking pathways to a better future, just as Lenin and his comrades did so many years ago. There is much to learn – both negative and positive lessons – from what they thought and did. Those of us at this conference have a great responsibility.

[Paul Le Blanc is professor of history and political science at La Roche College, Pittsburgh. He is the author of a number of books on revolutionary and radical politics.]

Notes

[i] See Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin’s Return”, Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, Vol. 10, No. 3, September 2007, and Paul Le Blanc, “Introduction: Ten Reasons For Not Reading Lenin”, in Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings 1895-1923, ed. by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008).

[ii] John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World (New York: Signet Books, 1967), p. 256. This and what follows draws substantially from Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin and Revolutionary Democracy”, Critique, Journal of Socialist Theory, Vol. 38, No. 4, November 2010.

[iii] Albert Rhys Williams, Lenin, The Man and His Work (New York: Scott and Seltzer, 1919), pp. 45, 48; Albert Rhys Williams, Journey into Revolution: Petrograd, 1917-1918 (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969), pp. 51, 62.

[iv] V. I. Lenin, “Urgent Tasks of Our Movement”, Collected Works, volume 4 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), pp. 370-371.

[v] Max Eastman, Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1926), pp. 159-160.

[vi] Soma Marik, Reinterrogating the Classical Marxist Discourses of Revolutionary Democracy (Delhi, India: Aakar, 2008), p. 289.

[vii] See Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power: The Revolution From Above, 1928-1941 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992); Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, Revised Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989); Vadim Z. Rogovin, 1937, Stalin’s Year of Terror (Oak Park, MI: Mehring Books, 1998) and Stalin’s Terror of 1937-1938: Political Genocide in the USSR (Oak Park, MI: Mehring Books, 2009); Wendy Z. Goldman, Terror and Democracy in the Age of Stalin: The Social Dynamics of Repression (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Indispensible is Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1937).

[viii] Exploration and documentation of this is offered in Le Blanc, Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience, pp. 77-151.

[ix] Albert Rhys Williams, Through the Russian Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967), pp. 276-277, 278.

[x] Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century (London: Verso, 2005), p. 308.

[xi] Michel Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism: The USSR on the Eve of the “Second Revolution” (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 119.

[xii] Quoted in Paul Le Blanc, Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience: Studies of Communism and Radicalism in the Age of Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 133-134.

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