Lenin: Responding to catastrophe, forging revolution
2024 marks the hundredth anniversary of the death of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — known to the world as Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In preparation for this, Pluto Press has published my new study, Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution. In the final months of 2023, there were several book launch activities in Chicago, Dublin and London, as well as an online launch sponsored by Pluto Press and Haymarket Books. The latter, which included presentations by Jodi Dean, Cliff Connolly, Linda Loew, and myself, can be accessed here. Below are my remarks, which were drawn from the prologue and epilogue of my book.
Lenin lived over a century ago. How could he possibly be relevant to our own times? In the twenty-first century the people on planet Earth live in wondrous times indeed. At our fingertips are amazing technologies connecting us with each other as never before, with immense quantities of knowledge, and with capacities to do and create things far beyond what previous generations had imagined.
We live in terrible times as well. The structure and dynamics of the global economy generate deepening inequalities, instabilities and destructiveness that throw into question the future of human civilisation — and even humanity’s ability to survive. An eroding quality of life for more and more of the world’s labouring majorities is matched by growing authoritarianism, irrationality and violence. A voracious market economy designed to enrich already immensely wealthy elites is intimately connected with environmental destruction engulfing our world.
On this last point, it seems there is good news and bad news.
The Good News: A scientific consensus projects that climate change — currently being driven by the immensely powerful fossil fuel industries — might still be halted, preventing us being overwhelmed by cascading catastrophes, provided that dramatic, decisive action is soon taken on a global scale.
The Bad News: The necessary changes will be too costly, in the short run, for the businesses and governments that make the decisions. So far, the necessary changes are not being implemented.
More Bad News: The scientific realities will not fade away despite strident denials, eloquent rhetoric, empty promises or “pragmatic” compromises. Nature does not compromise. Nor are the relatively limited protests (some of which I have been part of) likely to prove adequate to save the situation. We must prepare for catastrophe.
Even aside from climate change, a majority of labourers and consumers, whose lives enrich the elites, face increasing and sometimes horrific difficulties. Perhaps things are not quite that bad — or perhaps (as I suspect is the case) they are even worse. Either way, many already seem to feel the old ways of doing things no longer work, and this feeling will probably intensify and increase. With growing urgency, the question is being posed: what is to be done?
Sometimes our protests against social and environmental injustice and destruction assume mass proportions. Yet I am reminded of the impatience, half a century ago, of the sophisticated and highly political literary critic Philp Rahv, when he wrote (shortly before his death) about the mass movement of young activists arising in the late 1960s:
Historically we are living on volcanic ground… And one’s disappointment with the experience of the New Left comes down precisely to this: that it has failed to crystallize from within itself a guiding organization — one need not be afraid of naming it a centralized and disciplined party, for so far no one has ever invented a substitute for such a party — capable of engaging in daily and even pedestrian practical activity while keeping itself sufficiently alert on the ideological plane so as not to miss its historical opportunity when and if it arises.
Rahv was drawing on his own residual Leninism of the 1930s — yet even now his comment seems to resonate.
Many historians go out of their way to expose Lenin’s supposedly abhorrent character. Conservative scholar Stefan Possony condemned him as:
Self-righteous, rude, demanding, ruthless, despotic, formalistic, bureaucratic, disciplined, cunning, intolerant, stubborn, one-sided, suspicious, distant, asocial, cold-blooded, ambitious, purposive, vindictive, spiteful, a grudge holder, a coward who was able to face danger only when he deemed it unavoidable — Lenin was a complete law unto himself, and he was entirely serene about it.
But the way Possony saw things was conditioned by his conservative conviction that some people, some classes and some races are superior to others, as he argued in a book co-authored with Nathaniel Weyl, The Geography of Intellect. Possony despised revolutions driven by ideas of “equal rights” and “rule by the people.” From this standpoint, Lenin — committed to overturning the present social order to create a radically democratic society of the free and the equal — was a monster. Denouncing this radical democrat as an “architect of totalitarianism” has been a device employed to shoo people away from his ideas — but perhaps his personality and ideas are not so repellent after all.
The free-spirited Rosa Luxemburg, a humanistic and democratic revolutionary who would have wasted no time with the terrible person described by Possony, had a rather different impression of Lenin: “I enjoy talking with him, he’s clever and well educated, and has such an ugly mug, the kind I like to look at.” An opponent within the Russian revolutionary movement, Menshevik leader Raphael Abramovitch ,who was Lenin’s guest when they were both living in Swiss exile in 1916, reported “it is difficult to conceive of a simpler, kinder and more unpretentious person than Lenin at home.”
Angelica Balabanoff, who had worked closely with Lenin, was able to specify — many years after she had broken from him — precisely the qualities a conservative such as Possony would have found so monstrous: “From his youth on, Lenin was convinced that most of human suffering and of moral, legal, and social deficiencies were caused by class distinctions.” She explained “he was also convinced that class struggle alone … could put an end to exploiters and exploited and create a society of the free and equal. He gave himself entirely to this end and he used every means in his power to achieve it.”
Coming from the right end of the political spectrum, Winston Churchill sought a balanced measure of his mortal enemy. He hated what Lenin represented no less than Possony, and even hailed Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Italy for its “triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” Yet he wrote of Lenin: “His mind was a remarkable instrument. When its light shone it revealed the whole world, its history, its sorrows, its stupidities, its shams, and above all its wrongs… It was capable of universal comprehension in a degree rarely reached among men.” It is worth adding an insight from sometime-sympathiser Max Eastman, who suggested that one of Lenin’s contributions in “the theory and practice of Marxism” was a rejection of “people who talk revolution, and like to think about it, but do not ‘mean business’ … the people who talked revolution but did not intend to produce it.”
The shrewd observations of anti-Communist journalist Isaac Don Levine capture an additional quality. “His mentality … may have been extraordinarily agile and pliant as to methods, his erudition may have been vast and his capacity to back up his contentions brilliant, his character may have been such as to readily acknowledge tactical mistakes and defeats,” Levine commented shortly after Lenin’s death in 1924, “but these he never would have ascribed to the possible invalidity of his great idea … the Marxian theory of class struggle as the form of the transition of the capitalist society to a socialist one.” Levine himself judged the “great idea” to be invalid, but there were many in Russia and beyond who felt otherwise.
Animated by such convictions, Lenin helped build a powerful revolutionary movement in his native Russia, culminating in the Russian Revolution of 1917, which he and his comrades believed was the beginning of a global wave of socialist revolutions. He was a key architect of modern Communism, designed to bring about such an outcome.
Yet many who shared his ideals were critical. Among revolutionaries in Russia there were standpoints in contradiction to those of Lenin’s organisation — for example, varieties of anarchists who joined with Lenin’s forces to make the 1917 revolution, but then came into conflict with the Communists afterward. An imprisoned anarchist in the United States, the soon-to-be-martyred fishmonger Bartolomeo Vanzetti, wrote in early 1924: “Lenin has passed away. I am convinced that unintentionally he has ruined the Russian Revolution. He has imprisoned and killed many of my comrades.” Vanzetti felt compelled to add: “And yet he has suffered much, toiled heroically for what he believed to be good and the truth, and I felt my eyes filled with tears in reading of his passing and his funeral.” But in the end, and for reasons worth reflecting over, Lenin remained for him “my great adversary.”
However, around the world, many revolutionaries adulated Lenin. Among the many in the funeral processions was a young Vietnamese revolutionary in Soviet Russia, going by the name Nguyễn Ái Quốc (born Nguyễn Sinh Cung, later known as Ho Chi Minh). “In his life he was our father, teacher, comrade, and advisor,” wrote the youthful Communist. “Now he is our guiding star that leads to social revolution.” Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes expressed a similar sentiment years later:
Lenin walks around the world.
Black, brown, and white receive him.
Language is no barrier.
The strangest tongues believe him.
These testimonies come from the twentieth century — an age of hopeful revolution, horrific civil war, often triumphant counter-revolution and ongoing class struggles. But does Lenin’s project offer anything useful for us in our own time?
This book, in its subtext suggesting an affirmative answer to that question, dispenses with six historiographical myths: 1) that Lenin favoured dictatorship over democracy; 2) that his so-called “Marxism” was a cover for his own totalitarian views; 3) that he favoured a super-centralised political party of “a special type” — with power concentrated at the top and himself as party dictator; 4) that he favoured rigid political controls over culture, art and literature; 5) that he believed a socialist “utopia” could be imposed on backward Russia through such authoritarian methods; and 6) that, flowing naturally from all this, he was one of history’s foremost mass murderers. This book rejects all such false negatives — and, at the same time, seeks to identify actual negatives that, inevitably, can be found in Lenin and the tradition to which he was central.
Faced with the complex swirl of Lenin’s life, times and ideas, one can focus on matters and select ideas, adding up to a “Leninism” from which decent people must turn away. This book’s approach is different. In her critique of the Russian Revolution, Luxemburg emphasised her determination to “distinguish the essential from the non-essential,” with her critique of the non-essential designed to help advance the triumph of what was essential in Lenin’s revolutionary Bolshevism. In this brief study, the focus is on what seems to me to be those essential qualities.
Without the accumulation of experience, cadres, relationships and authority within the working class, a would-be revolutionary organisation cannot actually become a revolutionary organisation. This can only be achieved through practical activism.
For some would-be revolutionary organisations, its members seem to feel it is sufficient to develop and express revolutionary thoughts and revolutionary “positions” through discussions and study groups. Defining and expressing “politically correct” positions becomes primary for some would-be revolutionary groups. This may take the form of arguing against the capitalist ruling class, against non-revolutionary groups or against other would-be revolutionary groups. It is certainly the case, as we have seen, that Lenin was fully prepared to engage in polemics and arguments. But what was primary for him was helping to mobilise practical struggles capable of materially defending and advancing the urgent needs of workers and the oppressed — struggles that can make sense to people in the here-and-now but also tilt toward mass revolutionary consciousness and, if fought effectively, insurgency, power-shift and, ultimately, revolution.
For Lenin, theory, education and the articulation of “principled positions” was inseparable from such practical work. The Bolsheviks engaged in practical campaigns that helped define them, that created a practical framework of struggle in which they might form united fronts and, in some cases, converge with other groups prepared to fight the good fight and push toward victory. Only in that way could an organisation of would-be revolutionaries become a revolutionary organisation.
This approach was expressed simply in the explanation of V. R. Dunne, leader of the militant and victorious Minneapolis teamster strike of 1934: “Our policy was to organize and build strong unions so workers could have something to say about their own lives and assist in changing the present order into a socialist society.”
One key revolutionary principle involves the political independence of the working class — the refusal to subordinate the struggles of the working class to the leadership of pro-capitalist parties. “No democracy in the world puts aside the class struggle and the ubiquitous power of money,” Lenin noted, adding that while in a country such as the United States capitalists and workers had equal political rights, in fact “they are not equal in class status: one class, capitalists, own the means of production and live on the unearned product of the labor of the workers; the other, the class of wage-workers, … own no means of production and live by selling their labor-power in the market.” He warned that the “so-called bipartisan system” of the pro-capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans, “has been one of the most powerful means of preventing the rise of an independent working class, i.e., genuinely socialist party.”
Another principle involves opposition to all forms of racism, ethnic bigotry or oppression based on gender or sexuality. A third involves opposition to imperialism and war. A fourth, which is becoming increasingly urgent in our time, is uncompromising opposition to the destruction of a liveable environment. A fifth principle is commitment to genuine democracy (rule by the people) as essential both to our future world and within the movement to create that better future. A sixth principle involves an internationalist orientation — solidarity across borders, a commitment to global collaboration among the workers and oppressed of all countries.
The process of testing different perspectives and learning from actual struggles — accompanied by debates and splits, but also united efforts and fusions — will be necessary on the way to creating a revolutionary party worthy of the name. Lenin insisted “we must at all costs set out, first, to learn, secondly, to learn, and thirdly, to learn, and then see to it that . . . learning shall really become part of our very being, that it shall actually and fully become a constituent element of our social life.” But he also insisted we must learn through doing — through actual struggles against oppression and exploitation, collectively evaluating that experience, and thinking through what to do next.