Heroic class leadership: Lars T. Lih's ‘Lenin’

By Lars T. Lih. London: Reaktion Books, 2011
235 pages

[Click HERE for more by or about Lars Lih. For more discussion on Lenin, click HERE.]

Review by Doug Enaa Greene

January 19, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Too often, when the name of Lenin is brought up in this day and age, it conjures up certain uncomfortable images in the popular and academic mind. Lenin is seen as the founder of the Bolshevik Party, who was hell-bent on establishing a totalitarian state. It is time that this image of Lenin be discarded. Lenin should be embraced by revolutionaries the world over desiring to build a society free of exploitation.

Lars T. Lih’s biography of Lenin helps immensely to grasp the true essence of Lenin. Lih is already well known for his work, Lenin Rediscovered, which demolished the standard academic interpretation of Lenin’s What is to be Done? This biography of Lenin can serve as an introduction to that earlier work. Lih looks at Lenin as largely a consistent thinker desiring human liberation.

Lih’s biography looks at the arc of Lenin’s life from birth to death. He does an admirable job of laying out the backdrop of what tsarist Russia was like. Lih details how Lenin maintained a basic continuity in his thought until after 1917. Lih’s primary goal is to be short and concise. However, to accomplish this, Lih has to sacrifice looking in-depth at many of Lenin’s works (such as Imperialism and State and the Revolution).

Lih sees Lenin’s political activity as divided into three phases: Social Democratic (1894-1904), Bolshevik (1904-14) and Communist (1914-24). He uses the final paragraph of an early Lenin work, Who the Friends of the People Are? to make this point:

When the advanced representatives of the class assimilate the ideas of scientific socialism and 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 [note 1 -- The above would correspond to the Social Democratic period] then the Russian WORKER, elevated to the head of all democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism, [note 2 -- Bolshevik period] 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 COMMUNUNIST REVOLUTION [note 3 -- Communist period].

He uses separate parts of the quotation above to delineate Lenin’s political activity.

In the first phase, that of the Social Democratic, Lenin was primarily concerned with creating a stable Social Democratic movement in Russia. Central to Lenin’s vision of what a Social Democratic Party should be do is to inspire heroic class leadership in the struggle against tsarism. To Lenin, heroic class leadership should be embodied by the rank-and-file activists of the party. These activists should be encouraged to act as apostles of socialism. They should inspire workers in their mission. Lenin firmly believed that because of the oppression that workers suffered in Russia the message of the activists would be heeded because it would be needed.

Furthermore, Lenin believed that activists needed to know conspiracy. This doesn’t mean that party activists would seek to control disparate social movements, rather it means eluding the forces of the police. In tsarist Russia, as Lih makes clear, police repression was omnipresent and had crushed many organisations. This was a lesson Lenin knew all too well. The activists also needed to be revolutionaries by trade, which meant doing all the tasks that the party had in mind (i.e. writing leaflets, distributing them, leading strikes, etc.) Through these revolutionaries by trade, the party would draw ever larger numbers of workers into the movement.

This was Lenin’s transplanting of Karl Kautsky’s merger formula (enshrined in the German SPD’s 1891 Erfurt Program) to Russia. Lenin saw that the workers’ movement (the day-to-day struggle) needed to be fused with socialism (a new society). This was to be done via heroic class leadership.

Yet Kautsky (and other socialists too) knew that socialists needed political freedom to spread their message. In tsarist Russia, political freedom was conspicuously absent. Lenin knew this and believed that socialists had to strive to push for every democratic advance. For Lih, Lenin is not anti-democratic, but recognised the need to struggle for political democracy.

Still, agitating for socialism in conditions of political repression was not easy. Lenin came up with a formula to carry out the revolutionary mission under a police state. This was done via Iskra (The Spark), the party newspaper. The paper would be printed by activists abroad and would be smuggled in. Those doing the smuggling would need to know the fine art of conspiracy to carry out their mission. In smuggling and distributing the paper, this would coordinate the activity of the scattered party committees activity going on across Russia. The activists would distribute the paper, bringing unity and centralisation to the larger movement. The paper itself would contain the message that would spread to factories and countryside.

By the second, Bolshevik, period Lih shows that a more or less stable party organisation had come into being. For Lenin, the party had to take the lead in the developing the democratic revolution (such as in 1905). Yet in this revolution, Lenin believed that the party should push for proletarian hegemony. Lenin urged armed struggle and faith in the broad masses of Russia (including the peasantry). For Lenin, the Menshevik wing of the party was condemned for not supporting proletarian hegemony in the revolution, but tail ending the bourgeoisie (who were not willing to carry the revolution to the end).

Lih looks at the continuing party struggles that developed after the failure of the 1905 revolution. He shows that the Bolsheviks were able to navigate the downturn in activity. When agitation picked up again in 1912, Lenin and the Bolsheviks took the lead. The Iskra formula was revived and put into action through the distribution of Pravda. The stable party organisation allowed the Bolsheviks to be a leading force in the strikes that were engulfing Russia.

The second period of Lenin’s activity came to an end in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. The outbreak of the war also brought a rallying of a majority of socialist parties of Europe (including Kautsky) to the war effort. Lenin, on the contrary, remained true to the old principles. He urged no support to the capitalist state. Lenin urged activists to turn the imperialist war into a civil war. In 1917, Russia, exhausted from war, went through two revolutions. At the end of the second, Lenin’s vision had led the Bolsheviks to power.

As Lih points out, victory was not without consequences. Throughout his career Lenin had remained firm on principle, but flexible when it came to tactics. Now Lenin was faced with a situation that was calling into question his very principles. The Russian Revolution unleashed a ferocious civil war. The civil war brought with it imperialist intervention, famine and societal breakdown. Russia was nearly ruined and the specter of Stalin was on the horizon.

Lih says that at this juncture, three new preoccupations came upon Lenin. One was the developing world revolution. Lenin had faith in the world revolution and urged it forward. In the war’s immediate aftermath, from Scotland to Germany to Hungary, that Europe was going to raise the scarlet banner. However, these revolutions were ultimately crushed. In this circumstance, Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to hold out in a situation of capitalist encirclement and make what deals were necessary with capitalism in order to survive.

The second preoccupation on Lenin’s mind was that of the peasantry. During the revolution, Lenin had supported the poor peasants against the rich ones. Lenin believed that there was a developing situation of class war in the countryside. He furthermore urged the establishment of collective experiments in the countryside. However, Lih points out that there was no class warfare in the countryside and the collective experiments were failing. Lenin didn’t want to use force to bring collective solutions to the peasantry (unlike Stalin). Rather, he urged persuasion and reliance on the middle peasant. Lenin hoped that the development of industry would benefit the peasantry. Industry could sell goods to the peasantry and win their support. The development of the New Economic Policy was an outgrowth of this idea.

Lenin’s third preoccupation was the growth of the bureaucracy and decline in culture. Lenin wanted to bring the advanced workers into the state. He also wanted to eliminate tsarist habits that he saw coming back into the organs of power. He hoped to raise the cultural level of the country through a large-scale campaign of mass education. Yet Lenin died before his ideas took off and the bureaucrats were able to take over.

It is at this point that Lih points out the paradox of Lenin. Lih recognises that Lenin was a supporter of political freedom, but once in power the Bolsheviks suppressed their opponents. Lih sees a link between these actions of the Bolsheviks and the later Stalin dictatorship. Lih believes that the Bolsheviks saw it as easier to spread their message through the organs of power than by persuasion. Although Lih doesn’t ignore the civil war context, it doesn’t seem that Bolsheviks’ actions were so much a short cut as finding a means to survive when surrounded by bayonets.

Overall, Lih lays out the central thought and action of Lenin in a short and highly readable biography. This book is probably the best sympathetic biography of Lenin currently available.