Lenin and us: Into the past, back to the future

Image removed.

Cover of Lars Lih's latest book, Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011).

By Paul Le Blanc

June 14, 2011 -- Europe Solidare Sans Frontieres -- I will never forget, as the 20th century trudged through its final decade, a once-close comrade telling me and others that developments of our time had consigned the Leninist conception of the party to “the dustbin of history”. Yet its dusty tracks may be something we will discover as we make our way into the near future. Polemical sparks spraying out from those engaged in the vibrant renewal of Lenin scholarship suggest that it still has life.

In 2008 – while on a Left Forum panel entitled “Lenin’s Return”, and in surveying the recent proliferation of works on Lenin at that time, including Lars Lih’s huge and important book Lenin Rediscovered – I said:

It seems to me that such scholarship and intellectual broodings reflect something that is happening in the larger social and political reality. In the post-9/11 world, dominant ideologies are being undermined by political and social crises, crises that are generating insurgent forces that may be ready to see a new relevance in Lenin. Varieties of conservatism, reformism, anarchism, and fundamentalism (secular as well as religious) have been tried, continue to be tried, and yet the times in which we live seem to grow more terrible. That seems unlikely to change, regardless of which Democrat or Republican becomes president of the United States later this year. What masses of people are experiencing, feeling, and thinking today gives recent Lenin-influenced works a growing resonance, and so they may find a greater “market” than previously has been the case. With the appearance of such scholarship ... we may be on the eve of a Lenin revival.[1]

This seems more true three years later. Without going into detail regarding developments in the United States and throughout the world, the Leninist question “What is to be done?” is being asked with increasing urgency. If anything, the symposium on Lars Lih’s magnificent Lenin Rediscovered[2] – appearing in a recent issue of Historical Materialism – is particularly timely, and I would like to bounce off of that as I explore certain aspects of historical Leninism and its possible relevance for our time.[3]

Insights from 'activists in the Trotskyist tradition'

In my contribution to that symposium, I applauded the brilliant defence of Lenin’s 1902 classic What Is To Be Done? provided by Lars’s book, a defence that can largely be summed up in this way:

The theory and practice of the vanguard party, of the one-party state, is not (repeat not) the central doctrine of Leninism. It is not the central doctrine, it is not even a special doctrine… Bolshevism, Leninism, did have central doctrines. One was theoretical, the inevitable collapse of capitalism into barbarism. Another was social, that on account of its place in society, its training and its numbers, only the working class could prevent this degradation and reconstruct society. Political action consisted in organising a party to carry out these aims. These were the central principles of Bolshevism. The rigidity of its political organisation came not from the dictatorial brain of Lenin but from a less distinguished source – the Tsarist police state. Until the revolution actually began in March 1917, the future that Lenin foresaw and worked for was the establishment of parliamentary democracy in Russia on the British and German models. … Bolshevism looked forward to a regime of parliamentary democracy because this was the doctrine of classical Marxism: that it was through parliamentary democracy that the working class and the whole population … was educated and trained for the transition to socialism.[4]

In fact, this specific passage that sums up much of Lenin Rediscovered was written when Lars was about 12 years old – but not by him. These are the words of C.L.R. James.[5] And before Lars was born there is a point that he makes in Lenin Rediscovered articulated by James P. Cannon, that the criticisms made of Lenin’s Bolshevik organisation by Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg were seriously off-target – Cannon’s conclusion being that “Lenin’s policy was vindicated in life. Lenin built a party, something that Luxemburg was not able to do with all her great abilities and talents; something that Trotsky was not able to do because of his wrong estimation of the Mensheviks.”[6]

Ernest Mandel also emphasised part of the core argument advanced by Lih more than 30 years before the appearance of Lenin Rediscovered. In his classic essay of 1970, The Leninist Theory of Organisation, Mandel tells us:

The Leninist concept of the party cannot be separated from a specific analysis of proletarian class consciousness, that is, from the understanding that political class consciousness – as opposed to mere "trade union" or "craft" consciousness – grows neither spontaneously nor automatically out of the objective developments of the proletarian class struggle.

But he adds immediately:

This concept was by no means invented by Lenin but corresponds to a tradition leading from Engels, through Kautsky, to the classical doctrines of international social democracy between 1880 and 1905.

He goes on to quote from the 1888-89 of the Austrian Social Democracy and from a 1901 essay by Kautsky.[7]

The reason I go out of my way to quote James, Cannon and Mandel is not only because they are insightful and informative, but also because all are activists associated with the Trotskyist tradition – yet Lars argues that “activists in the Trotskyist tradition” (influenced by the 1904 critiques against Lenin expressed by Luxemburg and the young Trotsky) adopt or at least partially accept the so-called “textbook” interpretation of What Is To Be Done? by Cold War academics, projecting it as an undemocratic screed that looks down on the workers, when, in fact (as Lars, but also James, Cannon and Mandel would assert), it is a profoundly democratic document that demonstrates immense confidence in the revolutionary capacities of the workers.

The Trotsky-influenced activist writers that Lars has pointed to are Tony Cliff, John Molyneux and me (and in his symposium piece he throws in Marcel Liebman).[8] But as I demonstrate in my contribution to the symposium, I do not hold the positions that he attributes to me. I agree with him, and with James, with Cannon, and with Mandel, and as an “activist” scholar come out of that particular tradition. There are – on the points Lars is focusing on (not to mention other points) – different currents of thought among those associated with the Trotskyist tradition.[9]

Essentials of Leninism

Lenin’s 1902 classic calls for the fusion of the workers' and the socialist cause, for an unrelenting struggle for democracy (which ultimately must culminate in rule by the people over the economy), for the creation of a serious, tough, democratic organisation to advance this cause – whose members will function not simply as if they were trade union secretaries but rather as tribunes of the people, defending the cause of all the oppressed and helping to train working-class activists to lead a revolutionary struggle that will give power to the people.

“Lenin was an orthodox Marxist” is how Cannon once put it, when reviewing Lenin’s writings from the early Iskra period. “This fact leaps out from every page of his writings.”[10] As Lars has so compellingly demonstrated, what one might call “orthodox Marxism” in the early 1900s was best personified, theoretically, by Karl Kautsky of the German Social Democratic Party, whose penetrating literary contributions profoundly influenced all Russian Marxists – Mensheviks as well as Bolsheviks, but in some ways Lenin most of all.

Yet Lenin and the Bolsheviks – unlike the Mensheviks and ultimately unlike Kautsky – were prepared to follow the implications of the revolutionary Marxist orientation through to the end. It is not the case that Kautsky or the Mensheviks somehow “forgot” the Marxist ideas that Lenin and his comrades “remembered” – but they were forced to adapt, to compromise.[11]

With the Mensheviks, based on a dogmatic adherence to the notion that Russia could only go through a democratic-capitalist transformation (that a working-class socialist revolution would not be on the agenda until many years later), they became committed to a worker-capitalist alliance, which naturally created pressures that forced them to compromise the class-struggle elements of Marxism.

For Kautsky, by 1910, it became clear that he would become marginalised within the increasingly bureaucratic-conservative German Social Democratic movement unless he subtly but increasingly diluted his seemingly unequivocal and eloquent commitment to revolutionary Marxism. By 1914, when German Social Democratic Party supported the imperialist war policies of the kaiser’s government, and in 1917 in the face of the Bolshevik revolution, Kautsky became utterly compromised.

What is distinctive about Lenin’s Bolsheviks is that they did not compromise, they doggedly followed through to the end the implications of the revolutionary Marxist orientation – expressed in What Is To Be Done?, The State and Revolution and so much else in Lenin’s writings.[12]

There is another contribution that Lars begins to make in Lenin Rediscovered, and that is also to be found in his very fine new and all too brief biography of Lenin.[13] In stark contrast with the “textbook interpretation", the Bolsheviks were in no way “an exclusive faction of Lenin”, there being a considerable amount of internal democracy. “Within the Bolshevik faction there were different tendencies,” involving strong-minded comrades, and “at times some of them openly polemicized against Lenin.” [14] This description was written when Lars was six years old, yet here again, I am not quoting from Lars Lih but instead from James P. Cannon. The fact remains that sometimes Lenin was even voted down by his comrades. That’s how democracy works.

What is unfortunate in Lars’s lengthy contribution to the Historical Materialism symposium is a missed opportunity – perhaps because he was in too much of a defensive mode in dealing with his various critics. He does not allow himself to probe (or even to acknowledge fully) the meaning of a debate that arose among the Bolsheviks in the revolutionary year of 1905. Part of the problem is that some of the Trotsky-influenced “textbookers” – particularly Marcel Liebman but also Tony Cliff – use the 1905 developments to argue that Lenin, under the pressure of revolutionary events, abandoned the elitist-authoritarian elements in What Is To Be Done? that they, along with Cold War academics, claimed were there.

Debates between Lenin and some of his Bolshevik comrades are presented as his conflict with those still adhering to the old pamphlet that he has now rejected. There definitely were debates among the Bolsheviks in 1905, and because I am inclined to take these debates seriously, he lumps me together with Cliff and Liebman. He mocks all of us by asserting that we are projecting a wacky scenario that he calls “Lenin vs. the Bolsheviks”.[15] But the reality is far more interesting – a very serious democratic debate among the Bolsheviks, with Lenin lining up with some comrades and against others. They are disagreeing over how to apply general, agreed-upon perspectives (articulated in What Is To Be Done?, among other places) in a fast-changing reality.

As I noted in my book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Lenin did “‘bend the stick back’ away from one of his earlier formulations of 1902 [when he made the point that socialist consciousness must be brought to workers from outside of the working class], writing now that ‘the working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform that spontaneity into consciousness”.[16] But while this shift in a specific formulation in no way represents a shift away from the basic standpoint of What Is To Be Done?, it does reflect a different stress on what was actually to be done in 1905, a reorientation not fully accepted by some of his comrades.

Opening to mass struggle and democracy

The writings of Lenin and the accounts of several people on the scene – including Lenin’s comrade and companion Nadezhda Krupskaya, and also Solomon Schwarz, a Bolshevik agitator who later became a Menshevik, both of whom tell much the same story – indicate that Lenin and some of his comrades wanted to open the Bolshevik organisation up to much more involvement by workers in the practical functioning and decision making.[17] This had been difficult under the authoritarian conditions of tsarist Russia before 1905, but the revolutionary upsurges had opened up much more space for democratic participation while also drawing many more workers into the revolutionary orbit.

Krupskaya offers a generalisation about what is called in one of the translations of her memoirs the “committee-men” and in another the “Komitetchiks” and in Lih’s Rediscovering Lenin the “praktiki” – functionaries with some intellectual skills, operating in clandestine revolutionary committees, overseeing the practical work that was essential for the functioning of the party, particularly in the labour movement. The 1930 translation of Krupskaya’s memoir puts it this way:

The “Komitetchik” was usually a fairly self-assured person, who realized what great influence the work of the committees had over the masses; he generally did not recognize any inner-Party democracy whatever. "This democratism only leads us into falling into the hands of the authorities; we are already quite well enough connected with the movement,” the Komitetchiks would say. And inwardly, these committee members always rather despised “the people abroad,” who, they considered, just grew fat and organized intrigues. “They ought to be sent to work under Russian conditions” was their verdict. In period 1904-1905 these members of the committees bore tremendous responsibilities on their shoulders, but many of them experienced the utmost difficulty in adapting themselves to the conditions of increasing opportunities for legal work, and to methods of open struggle.[18]

It is not the case that Lenin somehow became anti-Bolshevik, but he and many other Bolsheviks did initiate a sharp debate with their “committee-man” comrades in favour of greater organisational openness, and especially in favour of a dramatic increase of insurgent workers in the Bolshevik committees – and the committee men, feeling that their routines were working just fine, were quite resistant. The issue was not whether or not the basic ideas in What Is To Be Done? were correct – both sides agreed on those ideas – but on how to understand and apply the ideas in the dramatically changed context.

Because I sympathetically quote Krupskaya, Lenin and others on this, Lars in his symposium contribution sees me as being “hostile” to the Bolshevik activists on the ground in Russia, the praktiki, and of adopting a variant of the hostile “textbook” critique of What Is To Be Done? – but that’s not the case at all.[19] There is nothing anti-Bolshevik about raising and debating tactical and organisational differences, and Lenin is not the only Bolshevik to have taken the positions that he took in 1905 – although he and his co-thinkers were voted down at the conference where they did so. It seems to me that Bolshevism continued to evolve, however, and it evolved very much in the direction Lenin was arguing for. That happens in a healthy, democratic-activist organisation. Debates culminate in decisions which are carried out, tested in practice and then revised as necessary.

In a footnote to his symposium piece, Lars raises another very interesting question, asserting that he sees “no reason to assume that the émigré Lenin had a more realistic view of actual conditions in Russia than Bolshevik praktiki”.[20] The possibility that Lenin could be wrong about something important is – it seems to me – not only a thinkable thought, but an essential component of a serious approach to Lenin’s thought and practice. I am not convinced that he was wrong in this instance, for a reason I will come back to in a moment, but the fact that a majority of his comrades could think so and vociferously say so and outvote him at a Bolshevik conference demonstrates – I think – that Lenin’s organisation was qualitatively different and better than the “textbook” anti-Leninists would have us believe.

Creating a revolutionary party

After the dust had settled after the defeat of the 1905-1906 anti-tsarist insurgency, another debate developed within the Bolshevik organisation, involving some of the same ideas and personalities but in a very different period – one of repression and reaction and relative stabilisation, a dispute stretching from 1907 to 1911. It ultimately led to a split-off, led by Alexander Bogdanov (Lenin’s second-in-command), from Bolsheviks who agreed with Lenin. Here is how Krupskaya, a Lenin “loyalist” if ever there was one, would later put it:

A Bolshevik, they declared, should be hard and unyielding. Lenin considered this view fallacious. It would mean giving up all practical work, standing aside from the masses instead of organizing them on real-life issues. Prior to the Revolution of 1905 the Bolsheviks showed themselves capable of making good use of every legal possibility, of forging ahead and rallying the masses behind them under the most adverse conditions. Step by step, beginning with the campaign for tea service and ventilation, they had led the masses up to the national armed insurrection. The ability to adjust oneself to the most adverse conditions and at the same time to stand out and maintain one’s high-principled positions – such were the traditions of Leninism.[21]

For Lenin and his co-thinkers, there was a need for the creation of a revolutionary workers’ party, guided by a serious-minded utilisation of socialist theory and scientific analysis, drawing increasing numbers of working people into a highly conscious struggle against all forms of oppression, and this could not be expected to arise easily or spontaneously. It had to be created through the most persistent, serious, consistent efforts of revolutionary socialists. The working class would not automatically become a force for socialist revolution, but it could develop into such a force with the assistance of a serious revolutionary workers’ party. Such a party – making past lessons, the most advanced social theory, and a broad social vision accessible to increasing numbers of workers – would be a vital component in the self-education and self-organisation of the working class, helping to develop spontaneous working-class impulses toward democracy and socialism into a cohesive, well-organised and powerful social force.[22]

If we shift our attention back to the future, it seems to me that this is the kind of organisation we need to be developing today – a democratic collectivity of activists, sharing a common revolutionary socialist perspective and program, democratic and critical minded but also functioning as a coherent political entity that is engaged in building mass social struggles and mass socialist consciousness among the broad working-class majority. I want to conclude with some thoughts on “what is to be done” to advance this process.

Rather than creating our own little universes inside left-wing groups and networks (which is just the kind of thing we see Lenin arguing against), we need to become part of, and help develop, a broader radical working-class subculture that would be necessary for a broad vanguard layer of the working class to have a revolutionary consciousness or even a clear class-consciousness in the Marxist.

Such a layer had existed and evolved at least from the end of the American Civil War in 1865 to World War II and its immediate aftermath. It had great influence and importance in the history of the US working class. Over a period of two decades and more after the end of World War II, this labour-radical subculture, and the material conditions, the socioeconomic realities sustaining that subculture, that radical class-consciousness, passed out of existence. I discuss this at some length in my recent book Work and Struggle: Voices from US Labor Radicalism.[23]

Today’s unfolding realities seem to be increasing possibilities for the recomposition of a labour-radical subculture and class-conscious layer of the US working class, the precondition for something approximating the revolutionary party of Lenin. Discussions like this, multiple forms of educational and cultural activities, but also real struggles against war, for economic justice, for human rights, may bring into being the subculture and consciousness and vanguard layer of the working class necessary for a Leninist rebirth.


[1] See on ESSF "Lenin’s Return?". Also see Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin’s Return,” WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, volume 10, issue 3, September 2007, 273-285. The huge book is Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done’ in Context (Leiden: Brill 2006), republished in paperback (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).

[2] Lars Lih, Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done’ in Context (Leiden: Brill, 2006), republished in paperback (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).

[3] See “Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered”, with contributions by Paul Blackledge, Ronald Grigor Suny, Robert Mayer, Chris Harman, Alan Shandro, Paul Le Blanc, and Lars T. Lih, Historical Materialism 18.3 (2010), 25-174.

[4] See “Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered”, with contributions by Paul Blackledge, Ronald Grigor Suny, Robert Mayer, Chris Harman, Alan Shandro, Paul Le Blanc, and Lars T. Lih, Historical Materialism 18.3 (2010), 25-174.

[5] C.L.R. James, “Lenin and the Vanguard Party”, in The C.L.R. James Reader, ed. Anna Grimshaw (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1992), 327.

[6] James P. Cannon, The Struggle for Socialism in the “American Century”, ed. Les Evans (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), 139.

[7] Ernest Mandel, "The Leninist Theory of Organization”, in Ernest Mandel, Revolutionary Marxism and Social Reality in the 20th Century, ed. by Steve Bloom (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994), 78, 116 fn1.

[8] Lih lumps my own Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1993) with Tony Cliff, Lenin, Vol. I: Building the Party (London: Pluto Press, 1975), John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party (London: Pluto Press, 1978) and Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975).

[9] Obviously misled by Lih’s assertions, Charlie Post, in “Party and Class in Revolutionary Crises”, Against the Current #150, January/February 2011, cites my book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party as “a good example” of “activist” accounts asserting that “Lenin was the first Marxist of his generation to understand that without the conscious self-organization of revolutionaries, workers’ struggles would not spontaneously lead to a revolutionary seizure of power” (39, 41 fn16.) In fact, I argued that other Marxists of Lenin’s generation shared this view, specifically pointing to Julius Martov, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky (see Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 61, 65, 84-85, 168).

[10] James P. Cannon, The Left Opposition in the US 1928-31, ed. Fred Stanton (New York: Monad Press/Pathfinder Press, 1981), 332.

[11] This responds to a comment in Lars Lih, “Lenin Disputed”, in the above cited Historical Materialism symposium, 131: “According to Le Blanc, the Mensheviks ... forgot that the working class was not automatically or spontaneously a force for socialist revolution ...” Lars derives this from my comment that “Lenin was one of the few leaders of the Iskra-current who was prepared to follow the implications of the orientation to the end” – unfortunately garbling my meaning.

[12] For a survey collection of Lenin’s writings consistent with this argument, see V. I. Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, ed. Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008).

[13] Lars Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011).

[14] James P. Cannon, Speeches to the Party: The Revolutionary Perspective and the Revolutionary Party (New York: Pathfinder, 1973), 186.

[15] Lih, “Lenin Disputed”, 145-157; Tony Cliff, Lenin, Volume 1: Building the Party (London: Pluto Press, 1975), 168-183; Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 84-96.

[16] Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1993), 121. Lih transforms my comment on a shift in formulation into an assertion that I believe he shifts away from the “standpoint” of What Is To Be Done? – which is not what I actually say. He also asserts that I am in error “the role of professional revolutionaries” in the 1905 article “The Reorganization of the Party” (Lih, “Lenin Disputed,” 155, 154). A careful reading of the article (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 10 [Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972], he makes explicit reference to the role of “Party functionaries” and “Social Democratic intelligentsia” (for example, pages 34, 36), what came to be known as “professional revolutionaries.”

[17] Lih mentions Schwarz but unfortunately avoids serious engagement with what he writes. It is, nonetheless, an important source – Solomon M. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905: The Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

[18] In Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and my contribution to the Historical Materialism symposium (“Rediscovering Lenin,” 90-107) I utilise Nadezhda Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, translated by Bernard Isaacs (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 124-125. Lih’s expressed unhappiness with the translation ("Lenin Disputed", 153, fn 108) has inspired me to turn to another translation here – N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, volume 1, translated by Eric Verney (New York: International Publishers, 1930), 137-138 – the both translations are quote similar regarding the matters discussed here.

[19] Lih, “Lenin Disputed”, 148, fn 93.

[20] Lih, “Lenin Disputed”, 153, fn 108.

[21] Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 167.

[22] This is a passage from my book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party which Lars approvingly quoted in his own book – we basically stand on the same ground, I think – Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 67; Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 20.

[23] Paul Le Blanc, Work and Struggle: Voices From US Labor Radicalism (New York: Routledge, 2011), 1-59.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sun, 11/27/2011 - 12:47


Lenin Reconsidered: Review of Lars T. Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion Press, 2011)

240 pages, $16.95

By Charlie Post

[Charlie Post is a member of the US socialist group Solidarity, active in the faculty union at the City University of New York. He would like to thank David Camfield for comments on an earlier draft. This essay has also appeared on the Canadian New Socialist website:http://newsocialist.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=531:lenin-reconsidered&catid=51:analysis&Itemid=98]

Few historical figures on the international revolutionary left have been the subject of as much historical myth-making as Lenin. Born V.I. Ulyanov in 1870, the son of a liberal Tsarist educational official, Lenin (the pseudonym he adopted in the 1890s) became a central leader of the Russian socialist movement, in particular its Bolshevik (majority) wing. The Bolsheviks not only led the world’s first successful workers revolution in 1917, but launched the revolutionary Communist International in 1919.

For most commentators--from the revolutionary left to anti-communist conservatives -- Lenin was a political innovator. According to mainstream historical accounts, Lenin abandoned the strategy and tactics of the pre-1914 European socialist parties that made up most of the Socialist (Second) International: building broad, class-based political parties committed to combining political and social democracy. He rejected the pre-war movement’s optimism about the capacity of workers to build their own organizations and the inevitability of socialism. Lenin was the inventor of a new form of political organization—a tightly organized, highly centralized, conspiratorial party of “professional revolutionaries” (intellectuals) well versed in Marxist theory. This party would take power and rule for the workers.  In this account, there is a straight line from Lenin’s pre-revolutionary politics to Stalin’s bureaucratic dictatorship.

Few on the left have done more to debunk these myths than Lars Lih. His Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context thoroughly discredits the claims that Lenin, worried about the capacity of workers to make a revolution, advocated a new form of political organization.[1] Instead, Lenin emerges as a mainstream left-wing European social democrat (the term all pre-1914 socialists used to refer to themselves), a loyal follower of Karl Kautsky, the leading theorist of the Second International, and an advocate of building a party like the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) “under Russian conditions.” Lenin’s famous 1902 pamphlet What is To Be Done? was Thoroughly unoriginal, embracing the SPD’s vision of a fusion of socialism with the worker movement, and prioritizing the struggle for democracy, the “light and air of the worker movement.”

Lih’s short new biography combines interesting insights into Lenin’s personal life (the likelihood of his grandfather being a converted Jew, his much debated relationship with Inessa Armand, and his indifference to food) with a systematic contextualization of the entirety of Lenin’s thought and practice. Again, Lenin emerges not as a political innovator, but a quite mainstream pre-1914 left-wing socialist. His nearly religious belief in the capacities of workers and worker leaders to win democracy and socialism shaped his rejection of the “opportunism” (reformism) that led the leaders of European socialism to limit the movement to parliamentary and bureaucratic union activity and support for their “own capitalists” in the First World War. Throughout his political career, Lenin remained a devoted follower of Kautsky -- even when Kautsky himself, in Lenin’s words, “reneged” on his political commitments during the war. Only in the last years of his life, facing the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the emergence of a conservative bureaucracy in the Soviet state, did Lenin take his first, tentative steps beyond the theoretical and political orthodoxy of the Second International.

Lih’s account of Lenin’s political activity starts with the dilemma of Russian socialists and revolutionaries in the late nineteenth century. The growth of mass socialist working class parties in Western Europe --in particular the SPD --was founded on the fusion of socialist theory with the actually existing worker movement (unions, cooperatives, political organizations).[2] One of the main preconditions for this merger were the democratic rights --free press, free assembly, free association and elected, representative government -- that did not exist in late Imperial Russia. The Tsarist state practiced a repression of all forms of dissent that made the emergence of a mass socialist movement impossible. The populist underground of the late 19th century advocated terrorism, in particular assassination of Tsarist officials, as the only way of overthrowing the absolutist Tsarist regime, establishing democracy and creating the conditions for a mass socialist movement in Russia. The abject failure of the populists, led many young revolutionaries to seek “another way.”

Lenin was part of a new generation of Russian revolutionaries in the 1890s who came to understand that the development of capitalism in Russia was creating new social forces that could become the mass base for a successful radical democratic revolution. On the one hand, industrialization was creating a highly concentrated urban working class that could lead the struggle for democracy and socialism. On the other, capitalism was transforming the countryside, undermining feudal class relations, increasing inequality (“social differentiation”) among the peasants and transforming the peasantry into a mass potentially revolutionary force against Tsarism.

The capitalist transformation of Russia allowed Lenin, in his first major political work, Who Are These “Friends of the People” and How Do They Fight Against the Social Democrats?, (1894) to formulate a “political credo” which guided his politics for the rest of his life:

When the advanced representatives of this class [the working class --CP] assimilate the ideas of scientific socialism and the idea of the historical role of the Russian worker --when these ideas receive a broad dissemination --when durable organizations are created among the workers that transform the present uncoordinated economic war of the workers into a purposive class struggle,-- then the Russian WORKER, elevated to the head of all democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism and lead the RUSSIAN PROLETARIAT (side by side with the proletariat of ALL COUNTRIES) by the direct road of open political struggle to THE VICTORIOUS COMMUNIST REVOLUTION. [Cited on p. 46; http://www.marxist.org/archive/lenin/works/1894/friends/08.htm#v01zz99h-271-GUESS]

Lih divides his biography of Lenin into three major episodes, each corresponding to a key element of the “historical drama” Lenin outlines in Friends of the People. The first episode (1894-1904) sees Lenin focused on the creation of a clandestine Russian socialist party that would merge socialism with the most conscious (“purposive”) worker leaders. With the founding generation of Russian Marxists living in exile, a young generation began organizing clandestine socialist circles of workers and young intellectuals in various Russian towns and cities. Despite repression and lack of coordination, these circles played a crucial role in promoting and generalizing the wave of workers’ strikes that shook Tsarism and won legislation limiting the working day in 1896. Buoyed by the success of the scattered social democratic organizations and convinced that greater coordination could bring even greater victories, in 1900 Lenin and other newly exiled revolutionaries launched Iskra, the first, national, underground socialist paper in Russia.

What is To Be Done? (1902), rather than reflecting a “worry about the workers,” expressed Lenin’s boundless optimism about the possibilities of a merger of socialism with the worker movement in Russia. While building a party modeled on the SPD “under Russian conditions” required a centralized, underground organization schooled in konspiriatsiaa (the “fine art of evading the police”), this party of “revolutionaries by trade” would be able to sink deep roots among the “purposive,” class conscious worker leaders. Lenin’s project came to fruition with the establishment of the Russian Social democratic Worker Party in 1903. Contrary to historical myth-making, the subsequent split in the party into Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) wings was not the result of Lenin’s authoritarianism, but his insistence that the editorial board of Iskra elected at the congress be preserved.

The second episode of Lenin’s “drama” (1904-1914) centers on the emergence of Bolshevism as a distinct political current during the first Russian Revolution of 1904-1906. The experience of the first mass uprising against Tsarism confirmed Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ vision of the role of the workers and peasants in the Russian “bourgeois-democratic” revolution against the autocratic regime.

All Russian socialists, with the exception of Leon Trotsky and his small group of supporters among the Mensheviks, believed that the dominance of peasant agriculture would limit the Russian revolution to “bourgeois-democratic” tasks --distribution of land to the peasants, the eight hour day and a democratic republic created by an elected Constituent assembly.[3] For Lenin and his followers, the Russian capitalist class, tied by “thousands of threads” to the landlords and Tsarist officials and fearful of popular revolts, was incapable of leading the Russian “bourgeois-democratic” revolution. Only the workers and peasants, acting independent of the capitalists, could overthrow Tsarism, establish a temporary revolutionary regime that would organize a constituent assembly and create a democratic capitalist state in Russia. Unlike Trotsky, Lenin did not believe that a provisional revolutionary government supported by the workers and peasants would begin “socialist tasks” (measures that attacked capitalism, such as the nationalization of industry). But Lenin did believe that a radical democratic revolution in Russia would spark socialist-workers’ revolutions across the rest of Europe.

The majority of Mensheviks drew a very different conclusion from the revolution of 1905. They believed that the working class (and peasants, whose revolutionary potential the Mensheviks tended to minimize) had to support liberal capitalists organized in the Constitutional Democratic Party in the struggle for a democratic regime in Russia, even if that required abandoning struggles for land reform, the eight-hour day or a democratic republic. Many Mensheviks believed that the establishment of a parliament (Duma) with extremely limited powers had created a sufficient democratic opening that Russian socialists could abandon their illegal underground organization.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks rejected this perspective, arguing that Russian socialists had to continue the struggle for a democratic revolution “to the end” -- the overthrow of Tsarism. Against those within their ranks who refused to take advantage of small openings for open political agitation, like the Duma and quasi-legal trade unions, Lenin argued for the combination of an underground organization that could openly agitate for the end of the Tsarist regime wherever possible. After years of post-revolutionary repression, Lenin and his supporters saw the strike wave of 1912-1914 as confirmation of their strategy.

The final episode of Lenin’s drama was the years between 1914 and 1924, which opened the prospect of global socialist revolution. Lenin was initially shocked when the leaders of European socialism, in particular Kautsky, supported their respective states in the First World War. Lenin and other revolutionary, anti-war socialists attempted to preserve the pre-war socialist movement’s commitment to build opposition to the war into a revolutionary movement that would overthrow capitalism.

The February 1917 revolution in Russia again confirmed Lenin’s vision in practice, as war-weary Russian workers, peasants and soldiers overthrew the monarchy and formed radically democratic councils (soviets) which coexisted alongside the pro-capitalist, pro-war Provisional Government that replaced the Tsarist regime. Returning to Russia in 1917, Lenin issued his “April Theses,” arguing that a government based on the councils would not only root out the last remnants of absolutism (convoke a constituent assembly, distribute land to the peasants) and end the war but would begin “socialist tasks.” Lih argues that while a majority of “old Bolsheviks” -- the underground cadres of the party --were won over to the struggle for soviet power, they were not convinced that socialist tasks could be initiated, rejecting Lenin’s claims of looming struggles within the peasantry between capitalist farmers (kulaks) and the poorer peasants and rural wage-laborers. [4]

Despite these internal disagreements, the Bolsheviks (now including Trotsky and his supporters, since Lenin’s new perspective converged with theirs) were able to win the support of a majority of the radicalized Russian working class and significant portions of the peasantry for the struggle for a council government that would end the war, implement radical land reform and establish workers’ control (co-management) of industry. In October 1917, the councils, in which the Bolsheviks had majority support, overthrew the Provisional Government, moved to end the war, abolish landlordism and, in Lenin’s words, “begin the construction of socialism.”

Lih insists, correctly, that Lenin remained a relatively consistent “Kautskyian” Marxist through 1921.[5] The only partial exception was on the question of the state, where Lenin’s State and Revolution points to Kautsky’s failure in The Road to Power (1909) to see the need to smash the capitalist state and replace it with a totally new, highly democratic, revolutionary workers’ state in order to begin a transition to socialism. In light of Lih’s magisterial Lenin Rediscovered, it is clear that Lenin never developed an original “theory of the party” -- he merely adapted the SPD model to “Russian conditions.” While Lenin’s practice clearly broke with the Kautskyian model -- in particular after 1914 -- he never produced a distinct theory of socialist organization.

Nor was Lenin’s strategy for the Russian Revolution --a radical democratic revolution made by the workers and peasants -- unique. Kautsky’s The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution and Its Prospects (1906) outlines an analysis and strategy that both the Bolsheviks and Trotsky’s supporters claimed as their own. Lenin’s explanation of “opportunism” (reformism) in the workers’ movement – he saw it as the result of the influence of a privileged layer of workers, “the labor aristocracy” -- was also derived from Kautsky’s early work. Even Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, which polemicizes against Kautsky’s post-1912 notion of “ultra-imperialism” (where a single, dominant imperialist power would make inter-imperialist military conflict a thing of the past), only rehearses Kautsky’s earlier writings on the relationship of monopolies, finance capital and global capitalism in The Social Revolution (1902). There is evidence that Lenin’s argument in April 1917 that growing conflicts within the Russian peasantry would allow the Russian workers to take power and “initiate socialist tasks” was derived from an essay by Kautsky published after the overthrow of the Tsar.[6]

Three developments forced Lenin to begin to reconsider the “textbook a la Kautsky” after 1921. First, workers in Germany, Italy, and Hungary failed to seize power in the immediate post-war upsurge. Second, the class struggle within the peasants between kulak capitalists and the village poor never materialized. Finally, the Soviet state was developing its own bureaucracy -- including many former Tsarist officials --contrary to Lenin’s expectations in State and Revolution.  Each of these developments forced Lenin to begin, with great hesitation, to innovate politically and theoretically.

The failure of post-war revolutions forced Lenin to rethink socialist strategy and tactics for the west. While splits in socialist parties across the capitalist world had produced mass, revolutionary Communist parties that won the allegiance of many radical working-class militants, the majority of workers remained loyal to the reformist parties.  The “united front” policy, in which Communist parties would seek united actions with  other workers and their leaders against capital and the state, while maintaining their own independent organizations, aimed to “win the masses to Communism.” Through common activity, revolutionary workers would demonstrate the limits of the social democratic trade union officials and parliamentary politicians’ strategy of relying on bureaucratic collective bargaining and parliamentary maneuvering in defending or winning gains under capitalism.

While Lih has little to say about what is perhaps Lenin’s most original work, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, it is here that Lenin takes some initial, hesitant steps beyond the notion that a privileged labor aristocracy is the main source of “opportunism” in the labor movement towards a recognition that the uneven character of working-class struggles produced a layer of union and parliamentary officials who were committed to reformist politics.[7] Ultimately, the fate of the Russian revolution and state continued to depend, for Lenin, on the ultimate success of workers’ revolutions in the advanced capitalist world.

The failure of class struggle between kulak capitalist farmers and rural wage earners to emerge during the Civil War of 1918-1921 led Lenin and the Bolsheviks to seek, under the auspices of the New Economic Policy, an alliance with the “middle peasants” based on state industry providing manufactured goods in exchange for foodstuffs. By the late 1920s, this strategy had also failed as middle peasants joined better off peasants withholding grain from the cities unless prices were increased radically.

Lih never discusses the theoretical roots of Lenin’s overestimation of the level of social differentiation among the peasants or his unrealistic hope that the increased availability of manufactured goods would induce middle peasants to produce more food for the cities. Both rested on faulty notions, inherited from Kautsky’s The Agrarian Question (1899), that once pre-capitalist restraints were removed and new consumer goods became available, peasants would respond to market incentives by specializing output, introducing labor-saving tools and machinery and accumulating land and labor. Lenin did not understand that in Russia after the revolution peasants – now free of landlord exploitation and in control of their own land – were under no economic compulsion to increase output to feed people in the cities.[8]

Finally, the emergence of a bureaucratic state, which Lenin saw as the “haven for the shattered remnants of the capitalists and the landowners,” forced Lenin to rethink the Marxian expectation that the workers’ state could dispense with a bureaucracy and allow “every cook to rule.” Lenin believed that the new Soviet bureaucracy was the product of the low level of kultura -- literacy, elementary habits of organization and the like -- among Russian workers and peasants. As an antidote, Lenin advocated the creation of a “Workers’ and Peasants Inspectorate” to supervise the officialdom. He also demanded the recruitment of more workers to serve in the state apparatus. Lenin failed to realize that the abolition of capitalism, especially in a relatively economically underdeveloped society, could still create an environment in which a new post-capitalist officialdom (—many of whom had been workers) could emerge.[9] As a result, Lenin tended to underestimate the importance of socialist democracy -- including competition among pro-working-class parties -- at the level of the state and the workplace. This was reflected in his belief that the existing “capitalist economic apparatus,” including “scientific management,” could be adapted to “socialist construction.” Unfortunately, Lih has little to say about the democratic deficiencies of Bolshevik practice before, and especially after, 1921 that Samuel Farber details in his Beyond Stalinism.[10]

Lih’s biography is both an excellent introduction to Lenin’s and a provocative interpretation that will challenge those familiar with his life and work. But revolutionaries trying to create a socialism for the 21st century also need to ask “what is living and what is dead” in Lenin’s political legacy? To be blunt, there is little of “Leninism” as a theory -- an invention of Bolshevik leaders Zinoviev, Bukharin and Stalin after Lenin’s death in 1924 -- that remains viable. Lenin was, by his own admission, a Kautskyian -- an advocate of the Marxism of the Second International before World War One. Since the Second World War, growing segments of the anti-Stalinist revolutionary left have rightly rejected Kautsky’s belief in the inevitability of socialism as the result of the continued degradation of the working class under capitalism. Instead, they understand that while capitalist crises intensify class struggle, the outcome of the class struggle depends upon the organization and activity of growing layers of the working class acting independently of the reformist bureaucracies of the unions and social democratic political parties.

While there is little of Lenin’s theory -- with the exception of State and Revolution and Left-Wing Communism -- that is either original or of enduring value, the practice of the Bolsheviks through 1917 remains relevant.[11] While revolutionaries in the capitalist democracies today live in societies fundamentally different from early 20th century Russia and do not have to create clandestine, illegal organizations, the experience of the fusion of revolutionary socialism with rank and file worker leaders and the creation of workers’ political and economic organizations independent of the forces of official reformism (union officials and reformist political  leaders) remains of enduring importance for contemporary socialists.

[1] For a more detailed discussion of Lenin Rediscovered see my “Party and Class in Revolutionary Crises,” ATC 150 (January-February 2011) [http://www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/3119].

[2] For a discussion of the historical process of this “merger,” see my “The Emergence of the Mass Workers' Parties and Trade Unions” [http://radicalsatwork.org/blog/content/radical-history-bottom]

[3] For a discussion of the different currents in the Russian socialist movement, see L.D. Trotsky, “Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution’, in Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941). [www.internationalist.org/three.html]

[4] L. Lih, “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context,” Russian History, 38 (2011) 199-242.

[5] L. Lih, “Lenin’s Aggressive Unoriginality, 1914-1916,” Socialist Studies, 5,2 (Fall 2009), 90-112.

[6] L. Lih, “Kautsky, Lenin and the 'April Theses,'” Weekly Worker  800 (January 14, 2010) [http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker2/index.php?action=viewarticle&article_id=1002027]

[7] For an alternative theorization of reformism, derived from Luxemburg and Trotsky’s work, see R. Brenner, “The Problem of Reformism,” ATC 43 (March-April 1993). [http://www.solidarity-us.org/pdfs/cadreschool/rbrenner.pdf]

[8] See E.M. Wood, The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002), Parts I and II for a critique of the “Commercialization Model” of capitalist development.

[9] Trotsky’s initial analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy suffered from the same problems. See T. Twiss, “Trotsky and the Problem of the Soviet Bureauracy,” (Ph.D. Diss.: University of Pittsburgh, 2009), Chapters 3-5 [forthcoming as part of the Historical Materialism book series published by Brill].

[10] London: Polity Press, 1990.

[11] Victoria Bonnel’s excellent study Roots of Rebellion: Workers’ Politics and Organizations in St Petersburg and Moscow, 1900–1914, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) provides important insights into the actual practice of the Bolsheviks in the workers’ organizations, legal and illegal, in Tsarist Russia.

Ernest Mandel produced a convincing theoretization of the Bolshevik (and early Comintern) practice, based on a theory of consciousness that owes more to Luxemburg than Lenin and Kautsky, in “The Leninist Theory of Organization: Its Relevance for Today,” in Revolutionary Marxism and social Reality in the 20th Century: Collected Essays (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994) [http://revolutionarystrategy.wordpress.com/leninist/]