Lenin and the Bolshevik Party: A revolutionary collective

By Paul Le Blanc July 10, 2018
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal The Russian Revolution of 1917 clearly reveals the complexities of Bolshevism – Lenin’s party – as a revolutionary collective. In fact, there is a convergence of complexities related to several different factors I would like to touch on in these remarks. These include party structures, personalities, and outlooks. One set of complexities involves the organizational conceptions that animated Bolshevism, involving democratic centralism, an interplay of democracy and cohesion, as well as an interplay of centralized leadership and relative local, on-the-ground autonomy. Another involves the pulls and tugs of the diverse and vibrant personalities among the Bolsheviks – particularly at the leadership level. Experienced and articulate individuals powerfully influencing the thinking and actions of a layer involving hundreds and thousands of Bolshevik activists, who in turn influenced the thinking and actions of thousands and millions of workers, sailors, soldiers, peasants, intellectuals, and others. Yet another sub-set of complexities involves the employment of a relatively complex ideology (Marxism), which in itself is open to divergent interpretations, and which can be applied in different and sometimes contradictory ways to political, social and economic realities that are themselves complex and ever-changing. There is also a complexity in the ongoing tension between those leaders engaged in developing and adapting Marxist theory on the one hand, and the practical on-the-ground organizers on the other – and among these practical organizers we can perceive tensions between those whose primary focus is to maintain the organizational structures and cohesion of Bolshevism, and others whose primary focus is to influence and lead mass struggles and mass movements. We could go on and on with this – defining further complexities within each of the complexities. The point is that we cannot really understand the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 with conventional but simplistic conceptualizations which focus on a Heroic Lenin (or an Evil Genius Lenin) leading an abstract entity – The Party, or Party-and-Soviets – to take political power. There is no doubt that Lenin’s role in history merits a focused study of who he was, and what he thought and wrote and said and did. But Lenin cannot be understood as the personification of the Bolshevik party. What he thought and wrote and said and did cannot be comprehended if we abstract these things, and the man himself, from those who were his comrades. If we fail to understand Bolshevism as a revolutionary collective that was an integral part of a broader working-class movement, and as a vibrant and complex living entity, we will not be able to comprehend the actualities either of Lenin or of the Russian Revolution. This comes into better focus if we engage with some of the historical specifics. Let us start with “the Word” – Marxist theory and analysis as developed by the Bolsheviks – before we move on to the Flesh and the Bone (the personalities and the structure) of the Bolshevik party. The theoretical orientation of Marxism was grounded in a dialectical, materialist and humanistic methodology, one that viewed history as being shaped by economic development and class struggle. It saw an increasingly dominant capitalism as immensely productive and dynamically creative, but also as compulsively expansive and exploitative, and as a violently destructive global system. Yet capitalism was proletarianizing more and more people in society and throughout the world, creating an ever-growing working class of people dependent on the sale of their labor-power. Such laboring people potentially would have the need, the will, the consciousness and the power necessary for effectively challenging the oppressiveness of capitalism and replacing it with the humanistic economic democracy of socialism.[1] Of course, Marxism is far more complex than this, with more than one interpretation being possible, and more than one way of applying this complex and sophisticated approach to the specifics of late 19th and early 20th century Russia. Marxists in Russia generally agreed that the country’s small but growing working-class was the hope for the future in both challenging the Tsarist autocracy, and helping to overthrow it in what they termed a “bourgeois-democratic revolution.” The development of capitalism after this democratic revolution would, most agreed, create the preconditions for a socialist revolution. But there were disagreements over how this working-class scenario would relate to the peasant majority. Marxists in the Menshevik faction argued that the peasants were too backward-looking to be a reliable ally, and that the obvious partner in overthrowing Tsarism would be pro-capitalist liberals. The Bolsheviks led by Lenin insisted that the principle of working-class hegemony would be most consistent with a worker-peasant alliance for a democratic revolution. Menshevik spokesman Raphael Abramovitch was not the only one to scoff that this added up to “a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie, against the bourgeoisie, by means of a dictatorship of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie” – but Lenin and his comrades called for a revolution that would culminate in what they termed “a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.”[2] We should linger over an ambiguity in Lenin’s position, as articulated in 1905. On the one hand, he was inclined to agree that the democratic revolution must usher in capitalist economic development, in order to establish wealth and productivity, and a working-class majority that would make socialism possible. In his polemic Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, he argued that because the democratic revolution was, in fact, a “bourgeois-democratic revolution,” it would “for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid … development of capitalism,” and would “for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.”[3] On the other hand, Lenin seemed to leave open the possibility that some variant of Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” scenario might be possible – that (as Lenin put it in his article “Social Democracy’s Attitude Toward the Peasant Movement”) “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 organized proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way.”[4] This openness to the possibility of the democratic revolution flowing into the socialist revolution expanded with the explosion of the First World War. As Lenin emphasized time and again, this was a war “waged ‘for the sake of the profits of the capitalists’ and ‘the ambitions of dynasties’ on the basis of the imperialist, predatory policy of the great powers,” and that it must be opposed with “the tactics of revolutionary struggle by the workers on an international scale against their governments, the tactics of proletarian revolution. … Socialists must … take advantage of the governments’ embarrassments and the anger of the masses, caused by the war, for the socialist revolution.”[5] According to his companion Nadezhda Krupskaya, during the war Lenin “spoke a lot about the questions that occupied his mind, about the role of democracy,” arriving at “a very clear and definite view of the relationship between economics and politics in the epoch of struggle for socialism.” Krupskaya elaborated:
The role of democracy in the struggle for socialism could not be ignored. "Socialism is impossible without democracy in two respects," Vladimir Ilyich wrote ... "1. The proletariat cannot carry out a socialist revolution unless it has prepared for it by a struggle for democracy; 2. Victorious socialism cannot maintain its victory and bring humanity to the time when the state will wither away unless democracy is fully achieved."

These words of Lenin's were soon fully borne out by events in Russia. The February Revolution [of 1917] and the subsequent struggle for democracy prepared the way for the October Revolution. The constant broadening and strengthening of the Soviets, of the Soviet system, tends to reorganize democracy itself and to steadily give greater depth of meaning to this concept.[6]
Krupskaya went on to quote at length from one of Lenin’s war-time polemics:
We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics in respect of all democratic demands, including a republic, a militia, election of government officials by the people, equal rights for women, self-determination of nations, etc. So long as capitalism exists all these demands are capable of realization only as an exception, and in incomplete, distorted form. Basing ourselves on democracy as already achieved, and showing up its deficiency under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism and expropriation of the bourgeoisie as an essential basis both for abolishing the poverty of the masses and for fully and thoroughly implementing all democratic transformations. Some of those transformations will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of this overthrow, and still others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle but an epoch of a series of battles on all and every problem of economic and democratic transformations, whose completion will be effected only with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It is for the sake of this ultimate goal that we must formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary manner.[7]
To sum up Lenin’s orientation, he believed that the revolutionary party must interweave socialism with working-class consciousness and struggles, that it must emphasize struggle for full democracy as pathway to socialism, and that it should press for working-class hegemony, predominance, in the struggle for a democratic revolution – with no confidence in pro-capitalist liberals. Related to this was the distinctive Bolshevik perspective of a worker-peasant alliance in the struggle against Tsarism. The anti-bourgeois orientation was further intensified with the eruption of World War I, as opposition to the imperialist war was accompanied by an intensified revolutionary internationalism and class struggle thrust. The heightened concern to interweave struggles for democracy and socialism, and the conviction that the conflict would facilitate the spread of socialist revolution in various countries, strengthened the inclination to consider the possibilities of “uninterrupted revolution” in Russia. Much of this orientation was the collective product and property of the Bolsheviks as they evolved from 1905 to 1917, shared (sometimes with significant nuances of difference) among various comrades. Its contours and specifics are particularly well explained by Krupskaya, in her Reminiscences of Lenin. The crystallization of the Bolshevik political perspective of a worker-peasant alliance to push forward the democratic revolution was collective, as was the translation of that perspective into social and political action. This brings us to the organizational structures that made this so. Krupskaya emphasized that Lenin “always, as long as he lived, attached tremendous importance to Party congresses. He held the Party congress to be the highest authority, where all things personal had to be cast aside, where nothing was to be concealed, and everything was to be open and above board.” The “Draft Rules of the RSDLP,” which Lenin wrote in 1903, establishes the party congress, or convention, as the “supreme organ of the Party.” Composed of representatives of all units of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the congress was to meet “not less than once in two years” and was to be responsible for determining party policies and perspectives and for appointing a central committee and an editorial board for the party’s central organ (its newspaper). The central committee “coordinates and directs all the practical activities of the Party,” while the editorial board “gives ideological guidance.” The draft rules suggest a balance between democracy and centralization. For example: “Each committee … organization or group recognized by the Party has charge of affairs relating specifically and exclusively to its particular locality, district or national movement, or to the special function assigned to it, being bound, however, to obey the decisions of the Central Committee . . .” Most important, however: “All Party organizations and collegiate bodies decide their affairs by a simple majority vote …”[8] Lenin’s organizational perspective could be summarized in this way:
• Members are activists, who agree with the basic Marxist program of the party and are committed to collectively developing and implementing the program, and who collectively control the organization as a whole.
• The party functions openly and democratically, with the elective principle operating from top to bottom. All questions are decided on the basis of democratic vote, and the decisions are carried out.
• The highest decision-making body is the party congress, made up of democratically elected delegates.
• Between congresses, a central committee (elected by and answerable to the congress) ensures cohesion and coordinates work on the basis of the party program and the decisions of the congress.
• Local units of the party operate within the party program and decisions of the party as a whole, but within that framework they operate under the democratic control of the local membership.
It is interesting to consider the conception of the Bolshevik party which John Reed’s old friend, Max Eastman, had absorbed through his studies in Soviet Russia. In his 1926 book Marx, Lenin, and the Science of Revolution, Eastman wrote:
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.[9]
In fact, there were different personalities and personality types giving life to the Bolshevik organization. Of course central from beginning to end was Lenin, who by most accounts combined in his person considerable warmth, humor, selflessness, zest for life, and tactical flexibility interwoven with revolutionary intransigence.[10] Women were a minority among the Bolsheviks in patriarchal Russia. Among those who played central roles were Krupskaya and Alexandra Kollontai. Krupskaya, an educated Marxist and devoted revolutionary activist, deployed her considerable talents and energies in the practical work of building up and maintaining Bolshevik communications and organizational functioning. This enabled her to write her authoritative Reminiscences of Lenin, which surveys Lenin’s development very much within the revolutionary collective that was Bolshevism. Playing a more public role, Kollontai channeled her keen intellect and passion into theorizing and organizing around the so-called “woman question” – pushing hard against male chauvinist attitudes and patterns within the revolutionary movement. Her contributions bore fruit as increasing numbers of women workers flowed into the revolutionary movement. This was an essential development. International Women’s Day in 1917 helped spark the upsurge that overthrew the Tsar.[11] The two brothers-in-law, Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev, were incredibly different in multiple ways. While Kamenev was a capable speaker, writer, organizer, and political analyst, in each of these realms Trotsky could be incandescent. Kamenev was extremely sociable in ways that Trotsky could not be, yet he was also prone to be influenced by others – including political opponents – in ways that, also, Trotsky could not be. Yet Trotsky (a relative newcomer to Bolshevik ranks) had a reputation for arrogance, and his immense popularity and demonstrated ability to work with people was offset by an often prickly personality. Kamenev’s charm could often be a valuable asset – and it matched epicurean tastes that Trotsky found repellent. Trotsky’s combination of energy, brilliance and Spartan inclinations served him well as he organized the October 1917 insurrection, and also when he assumed the role of organizer and commander of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War.[12] Gregory Zinoviev, often associated with the far steadier and more consistent Kamenev, sometimes could match Trotsky in oratory and arrogance, but like Kamenev he was one of Lenin’s closest collaborators over many years. All three (Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev) – at various moments, and on different issues – were also in open conflict with Lenin amid the hurly-burly of internal democracy within Bolshevism. Zinoviev’s intellectual breadth and feel for revolutionary politics come through clearly in his valuable popularization History of the Bolshevik Party. His organizational abilities were certainly greater than those of another popular figure, the youthful and impetuous Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin was an innovative theorist who proved more than once quite willing to challenge Lenin from the left. Both Zinoviev and Bukharin were to play important and influential roles in the Communist International that would be formed after the Russian Revolution. But in 1917 as well, although in quite different ways and from different standpoints, the influence of these two prominent Bolsheviks had significant impact.[13] Two eminently practical organizers – not inclined to be distracted by theoretical fireworks – were Alexander Shlyapnikov and Joseph Stalin. A worker-Bolshevik par excellence, with a reputation for courageous and principled action, Shlyapnikov’s strength was organizing among factory workers and in trade unions. A former divinity student, inclined to be blunt and sometimes brutal, Stalin’s specialty was as an organization man devoted to building and maintaining Bolshevik structures. Shlyapnikov’s qualities brought him close to Lenin’s intensified revolutionary-democratic drive predominant from 1914 to 1917. With Lenin’s turn to more authoritarian expedients (temporary as they were supposed to be) amid the horrific difficulties of civil war and social collapse in 1918-1921, Shlyapnikov’s qualities put the two at loggerheads. With assistance from Kollontai, he formed the Workers’ Opposition. Other Bolsheviks also formed oppositional groups to defend the revolutionary-democratic goals of the October Revolution. Stalin’s inclinations, of course, went very much in the opposite direction – to the point of developing a bureaucratic-authoritarian apparatus that would eventually destroy the revolutionary collective that had been Bolshevism. This process unfolded with increasing velocity from the mid-1920s to mid-1930s.[14] The cause was the isolation of the revolution, turned in on itself in an economically backward Russia. As Lenin explained more than once, “we are banking on the inevitability of the world revolution,” and “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. These detachments exist, they are more numerous than ours, they are maturing, growing, gaining more strength the longer the brutalities of imperialism continue. … Slowly but surely the workers are adopting communist, Bolshevik tactics and are marching towards the proletarian revolution, which alone is capable of saving dying culture and dying mankind.”[15] In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, then, we can see the attempt to internationalize Bolshevism, with the creation of a global revolutionary collective, or a centralized network of such collectives – the Communist International. By the time of the Second World Congress in 1920, the assembled delegates from revolutionary organizations proclaimed: “The Communist International has made the cause of Soviet Russia its own. The international proletariat will not lay down its sword until Soviet Russia is but a link in the world federation of soviet republics.” Comintern President Zinoviev, optimistically suggested that “probably two or three years will be needed for the whole of Europe to become a Soviet republic.” According to a retrospective account by two participant-observers (Julian Gumperz and Karl Volk), “hundreds of delegates came from all countries of the world: real labor representatives elected and re-elected a hundred times [to mass workers’ organizations], revolutionaries and opportunists, workers from the factories and shrewd attorneys, terrorists and elegant Socialists from the salons of Europe.”[16] Another eyewitness, Alfred Rosmer, would recount: “There was something intoxicating about the atmosphere of Moscow in that month of June 1920; the quiver of the armed revolution could still be felt. Among the delegates who had come from every country and every political tendency, some already knew each other, but the majority were meeting for the first time. The discussions were heated, for there was no shortage of points of disagreement, but what overrode everything was an unshakable attachment to the Revolution and to the new-born communist movement.” The history of this movement contains much that has the quality of comic opera, also much that constitutes deep and sometimes horrific tragedy, but also – despite its ultimate failure – a remarkable heroism, with lessons to be learned.[17] Those who not only wish to understand what happened in history – but also how a world (badly in need of change for the better) might actually be changed – will need to wrestle with and learn from the convergence of complexities that add up to Bolshevism as a revolutionary collective. [This was one of the keynote presentations opening the International Conference on Russian and Soviet History – “The Centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution(s): its Significance in World History” – at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University, May 15-16, 2017. It was also presented in a panel on the Russian Revolution at the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam, November 4, 2017, and at the fourteenth annual Historical Materialism conference in London, November 9-12, 2017.] Notes [1] For an extensive introductory survey of Marxism, with a sampling of writings from prominent figures associated with it, see Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016). [2] Raphael Abramovitch, The Soviet Revolution 1917-1939 (New York: International Universities Press, 1962), p. 214. [3] Lenin, “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution,” Collected Works, Volume 9 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1962), p. 48. [4] Lenin, “Social Democracy’s Attitude Toward the Peasant Movement,” Collected Works, Volume 9 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1962), pp. 236-237. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is summarized in Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, pp. 46-47, 94-96. [5] Lenin, “Socialism and War,” in Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, ed. by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p. 227. [6] N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1970), p. 328. [7] Ibid., pp. 328-329. [8] Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), p. 48 [9] Max Eastman, Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1926), pp. 159-160. [10] Outstanding sources presenting an array of prominent Bolsheviks can be found in Anatoly Vasilievich Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968) and Georges Haupt and Jean-Jacques Marie, Makers of the Russian Revolution: Biographies of Bolshevik Leaders (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974). Efforts which focus on presenting Lenin in his actual context can be found in Lars Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), Paul Le Blanc, Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), especially pp. 25-75, and Tariq Ali, The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution (London: Verso, 2017). [11] On Krupskaya and Kollontai, in addition to Haupt and Marie, pp. 156-158 and 353-360, see Robert H. McNeil, Bride of the Revolution: Krupskaya and Lenin (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973) and Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai, A Biography, Updated Edition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014). Also see Barbara Evans Clements, Bolshevik Women (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,1997) and Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of the Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and women workers in 1917 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1999). [12] On Kamenev, in addition to Haupt and Marie, pp. 41-47 and 100-106, see Leon Trotsky, Portraits Personal and Political (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), pp. 164-173, 179, 180; on Trotsky, see Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky (London: Reaktion Books, 2015). [13] Gregory Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party from the Beginnings to February 1917, A Popular Outline (London: New Park, 1973) remains a valuable source on the history and nature of Bolshevism. On Zinoviev, in addition to Haupt and Marie, pp. 95-106, and Lunacharsky, pp. 75-82, see Lars T. Lih, “Zinoviev: Populist Leninist,” in Ben Lewis and Lars T. Lih, eds., Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (London: November Publications, 2011), pp. 39-60. On Bukharin, in addition to Haupt and Marie, pp. 31-40, see Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1988-1938 (New York: Vintage Books, 1975). [14] On Shlyapnikov, in addition Haupt and Marie, Makers of the Russian Revolution pp. 212-221, see Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016). On Stalin, in to addition Haupt and Marie, pp. 65-75, see Robert C. Tucker, Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879-1929 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974). [15] Lenin, “Letter to American Workers,” in Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, pp. 299-300. [16] Ypsilon, Pattern for World Revolution, (Chicago: Ziff-Davis, 1947), p. 19. [17] Alfred Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow (Chicago: Haymarket Books 2016), p. 46.