Lenin for today

Lenin for Today
By John Molyneux
Bookmarks, 2017
289 pages
£12.99; $44.01
Paperback Reviewed by Paul Le Blanc March 27, 2018
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The first chapter of John Molyneux’s newest book, Lenin for Today, is one of the best discussions one can find of the relevance of Lenin. It is also the best part of the book. Far from being an organic whole, Lenin for Today offers seven distinct essays, each of which can more or less stand alone. Some offer analysis and explication of Lenin’s own ideas and perspectives, with indications of their continuing relevance. Others – increasingly as the book goes along – present discussions of current issues and recent events from the standpoint of the author and his organization (the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and its sister organization of the same name in Ireland, where he currently resides.) In addition to the first chapter, Molyneux offers a second chapter focusing on Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, a third chapter focusing on The State and Revolution, a fourth chapter discussing the necessity of the party, a fifth chapter entitled “Lenin and the fight against oppression” (beyond simply the class struggle between workers and capitalists), a sixth chapter arguing that Leninism does not lead to Stalinism, and a summing-up chapter entitled “Leninism today.”

Lenin’s relevance

The brief introduction to Lenin for Today has what strikes me as the quite reasonable title: “We need a revolution.” And Molyneux makes the case quite succinctly and persuasively. This leads quite naturally into the opening chapter. He begins with this three-sentence assertion:
Lenin is relevant in the 21st century because the Russian Revolution is relevant. The Russian Revolution is relevant because the revolution of the 21st century will be a workers’ revolution and the Russian Revolution was a workers’ revolution. These are big claims that require justification. (p.28)
He goes on to make the case beautifully. “The working class here signifies that class of people who live exclusively or almost exclusively by the sale of their labor power,” he tells us. “It includes, therefore, both blue collar and white collar workers, teachers and nurses as well as factory workers and fire fighters, administrative staff along with office cleaners, shop workers and bus drivers.” Socialism, meaning rule by the people over the economy, must mean rule by such people as these, who make up the great majority (70 percent or more) of those living in the advanced capitalist countries, and more than 50 percent of the global labor force, with the numbers and percentages continuing to grow year after year. This dynamically growing and diversifying social entity has more and more been encompassing humanity’s majority since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels urged “workers of all countries unite” almost two centuries back. “If we take seriously the necessity of global revolution, and the crisis facing humanity compels us to take it seriously,” writes Molyneux, “then we have to talk about a social force that can defeat the immense economic and political power of global capital,” and he concludes: “There is only one force remotely capable of doing this: the 1.5 billion-strong international working class . . .” (28). Molyneux goes on to observe: “What distinguishes the Russian Revolution of 1917 from all other successful revolutions . . . and numerous failed attempts at revolution . . . is that in it and through it the working class actually came to power in society, at least for a few years” (33). He then proceeds to summarize what a substantial number of serious eyewitnesses and later social historians have conclusively demonstrated – that a “swift and dramatic radicalization of the Russian working class along with the soldiers and sailors [themselves made up of peasants and workers in uniform] is the main feature of the spring, summer and autumn of 1917 and the driving force of the Revolution” (37). He quotes Julius Martov, Lenin’s Menshevik adversary in the Russian workers’ movement, that with October 1917 “what we have before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat – almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising” (44). As indicated in Martov’s comment, Lenin was a key element in the making of the working-class revolution. How did Lenin do this? Molyneux goes on to present and demolish what he terms “the Machiavellian interpretation” – advanced by innumerable mainstream academics and the mass media – that “Lenin’s relationship to the mass of working people was elitist and manipulative,” and that “he was, more or less from the outset, a would-be dictator” (44). Combing through Lenin’s actual writings over the decades, probing the psychological improbability of someone motivated by power-lust becoming part of a persecuted movement struggling on behalf of the oppressed against existing power structures (as opposed to worming his way into such existing power structures), and making reference to serious scholarship (such as that of Lars Lih) on Lenin and other Russian Marxists, he concludes that “of all the socialist writers in Russia at the time, Lenin was the most consistently enthusiastic and optimistic about the potential politicization of the working class” (53) and that his orientation – organizationally, strategically and in regard to the society he was fighting for – was permeated by a deeply democratic ethos. Scholars who insist on “the Machiavellian interpretation” of Lenin without confronting the kind of argument that Molyneux develops here are not being serious. And activists who refuse to come to grips with the challenge that he is posing are selling themselves short.

Interpretive differences

Yet scholars and activists who are in basic agreement on so much (as is the case with Molyneux and myself) should not avoid taking issue with each other when there are actual differences. Only through such confrontations can political clarity and collective understanding advance. In this spirit, several interpretive differences (some quibbles, some more than that) can be offered here. One quibble is related to the fact that Molyneux’s sustained examination of only certain Lenin texts – What Is To Be Done; Imperialism; State and Revolution – results in less attention being given to other essential texts: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back; Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution; Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, etc. If this volume is to remain a manageable size, perhaps this choice is inevitable – though one wonders if engaging with more of what Lenin has to say might have forced somewhat different and more nuanced interpretations. Another quibble involves a tendency, hardly unique to Molyneux, in highlighting Lenin while filtering out some of the other voices and currents of thought that helped form the context in which Lenin evolved. There is, in much writing, insufficient comprehension of Bolshevism as a complex and democratic collectivity, which contributed, enhanced and sometimes corrected what Lenin himself was inclined to think and say. Here too, of course, the need to avoid an overly complex and cumbersome volume – and the validity of focusing on the contributions of a single theorist and activist such as Lenin – justifies the pathway that Molyneux has followed. Overall, the author has done a good job in presenting complex material in a clear and yet also critical-minded manner. At the same time, one can differ with some of the details – in some cases questioning the manner in which he defends Lenin, and in others questioning the manner in which he criticizes him. There is a factual slip as Molyneux presents what has been a standard interpretation of the Bolshevik/Menshevik split within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) of 1903: “At issue was a difference about the definition of membership of the party – Lenin and the Bolsheviks were for a ‘hard’ border based on participation in a party organization; Martov and the Mensheviks was a ‘softer’ looser definition – and a dispute about the composition of the editorial board …” (163). In fact, Lenin lost the vote on “hard” definition of party membership at this party congress, and far from wanting to split, was willing to accept that defeat, assuming that he could win this fight a later day. In addition, within a few years the Mensheviks themselves adopted this very same “hard” definition. The initial split, which astonished Lenin and many others, was actually over the absolute refusal by those who then became Mensheviks to accept a democratic decision to reduce the editorial board of Iskra from six to three (which was seen as an insult to the respected old veterans being removed, Pavel Axelrod and Vera Zasulich). What soon emerged as a far more decisive issue separating Bolsheviks from Mensheviks, a year after the 1903 split, involved divergent conceptions of the necessary alliances and strategic orientation for carrying out the democratic revolution that would overthrow Russia’s Tsarist autocracy. Since this was to be a “bourgeois-democratic revolution” leading to the thoroughgoing development of a capitalist economy that would be the eventual basis for socialism, the Mensheviks believed in the need for a worker-capitalist alliance, with the socialist workers’ movement making necessary compromises to ensure the possibility of such an alliance. Rejecting such class-collaboration, Lenin’s Bolsheviks called for a militant worker-peasant alliance to lead the democratic revolution, with no compromises to pro-capitalist liberals. This more militant approach was in harmony with the outlook of some socialists who had disagreed with Lenin on the initial organizational split (Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and – despite Molyneux’s simplistic reference to “the reformist nature of Kautskyism” on page 164 – the pre-1914 Karl Kautsky). The question of Kautsky’s revolutionary Marxism up to 1910 or 1914, and of his influence on Lenin’s thinking, has been contested by some scholars, but in my view has been argued well and persuasively by Lih, for whose outstanding study Lenin Rediscovered Molyneux himself expresses considerable respect. A younger scholar, Eric Blanc, has also been doing path-breaking work on the early Russian working class movement – especially in the so-called “borderlands” of the Russian empire. (See Eric Blanc, “Anti-imperial Marxism: borderland socialists and the evolution of Bolshevism on national liberation,” International Socialist Review #100, Spring 2016, 111-40.) The work of Blanc and others stands as a thoughtful challenge to the position of Lenin and others (including those who became prominent Mensheviks) in the early RSDLP. As a run-up to his critique of “identity politics,” Molyneux praises Lenin’s insistence in What Is To Be Done and elsewhere that the Jewish Labor Bund should not be allowed a separate existence – as he puts it, “there should be a single united organization, not separate organizations for women or Jews (or Blacks etc.)” (199). But Blanc’s research as to the logic, the actual politics, and the contributions of the Bund (and other separately organized oppressed nationalities in the Russian empire) will need to taken into account, and wrestled with, before Molyneux’s stark assertions can be accepted without question. From a different angle – one that advances a critique of aspects of Lenin’s thinking – Molyneux challenges the conception of an “aristocracy of labor” (a privileged working-class layer) being “bribed” into settling for a limited reformism through the super-profits that capitalists make through the lucrative economic expansion of imperialism. Molyneux quite correctly emphasizes that it is not the most oppressed, downtrodden, impoverished layers of the population that are most radical or revolutionary or class conscious. In fact, crushing oppression can often make it difficult for the victims to think clearly about their objective situation as opposed to simply, almost blindly in some cases, trying to survive. As Molyneux emphasizes, “in the Russian Revolution itself and in the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1919-1920 and on many other occasions, it was precisely the better paid skilled workers, such as engineers and metal workers (in the Putilov works, in the Fiat factories in Turin and in the Clyde shipyards) who were the most advanced and most militant, not only in terms of economic struggle but also in political consciousness” (86). A problem with this is that Lenin himself was quite aware of the point that Molyneux uses to “refute” him. There is no doubt that some of the profits gained – for example – through US imperialism in the early twentieth century facilitated a tendency to buy-off a privileged layer of skilled workers who embraced Samuel Gompers’ ideology of “pure and simple trade unionism” in the American Federation of Labor. Gompers’ soul-mate (despite a mildly socialist gloss) Karl Legien, heading the massive General German Trade Union Federation, represented a similar layer of imperialist-inclined working-class reformists. There were other examples in Lenin’s time as well as before and after. But Lenin hardly believed in the notion too often attributed to him, that the better-off workers inevitably sell out to imperialism and only the poorest of the poor can be trusted to be truly revolutionary. Instead, he insisted that the better-off workers can and should become an essential part of the revolutionary vanguard – provided that the revolutionary workers’ party does its job in advancing class consciousness (as opposed to deferring to economistic reformism) among its ranks. In short, a valid point is overstated in a manner that obscures Lenin’s actual position. A different overstatement involves Molyneux’s assertion that Lenin was “keen that socialist propaganda should not give offense to people’s religious feelings” (195). Although Lenin opposed all religious persecution, as Molyneux shows, and although he wanted to work with workers, peasants and others who held religious views, asserting that religious people should be able to join the revolutionary party, he also argued for an approach by such a party that would certainly have given offense to some people’s religious feelings. A Marxist party, Lenin insisted, must work to spread the understanding, flowing from science and the Enlightenment, that religious views are superstitions drugging the minds of those who hold them, and that Marxist education is necessary to facilitate the outright rejection of religion, which he believed would die out naturally with the triumph of socialism and science after the revolution. Whether Molyneux’s impulse or Lenin’s makes more sense is a matter that can be debated by socialists of today and tomorrow. There is one more issue – and this one quite important – that should be raised here. Molyneux does, on the whole, an admirable job of confronting the question of why the working-class power established in 1917 lasted only “a few years” and in fact soon gave way to one of the worst dictatorships in human history – the murderous bureaucratic authoritarianism associated with one of Lenin’s comrades, Joseph Stalin. Stalin always insisted on a unity of his perspectives and those of Lenin’s, and Cold War anti-Communists were happy to agree. In the chapter “Does Leninism lead to Stalinism?” Molyneux marshals a considerable amount of historical material and lucid analysis to explain what happened and why and how. In doing this, he makes the case that what Stalin represented from the mid-1920s up to his death in 1953 was increasingly and profoundly in contradiction to all that Lenin had stood for and struggled to accomplish. Yet in analyzing why and how Stalinism triumphed over the 1917 revolution, his emphasis very definitely is on objective factors: the impacts of World War I and the civil war, the relentless assaults of imperialist powers and domestic counter-revolutionaries, the economic blockade, the backwardness of Tsarist Russia, the isolation of the revolution in a hostile capitalist world as the expected spread of socialist revolution failed to triumph. But did Lenin and his comrades do absolutely nothing that also contributed to the tragic outcome? Molyneux seems willing to consider that Lenin and his comrades made mistakes in the post-1917 period, but he also seems inclined to veer away from considering to what extent such mistakes may have contributed to the rise of Stalinism. He asserts that “what really matters is not forming an exact estimation of the degree of the responsibility of Lenin and the Bolsheviks for later Stalinism,” but instead building a Leninist revolutionary party that will “succeed in leading a successful revolution” (245, emphasis added). Yet the odd fixation on exactitude hardly justifies skittishness among those of us who agree that a contemporary equivalent of Bolshevism is needed to advance the socialist cause. We can afford to look critically at our revolutionary predecessors. Learning from possible mistakes is no less important than learning from what was done right. This is something with which, I imagine, Molyneux would not disagree when all is said and done.

Debating the present, creating the future

More than issues of historical fact and interpretation, there are more current political differences worth raising. This should be comprehended within the context of considerable political and theoretical kinship. For example, Molyneux offers a beautifully articulated critical analysis of how capitalism (political liberals to the contrary notwithstanding) systemically and necessarily makes an utter sham of genuine democracy. And as already noted, his arguments for the necessity of revolution and a revolutionary party are of high quality. The question of questions is how such a revolutionary party is to be brought into existence. Molyneux suggests the answer when he writes, “in order to be able to grow into a truly mass party in such [a revolutionary] situation, the revolutionary organization needs already, at the onset of the revolution, to have reached a certain critical mass; it needs to appear to the masses as a potentially credible force and it has to have a voice in the national political debate” (254, emphasis added). This suggests the revolutionary party already exists in embryo, its nucleus being a specific revolutionary organization which has a politically correct program and leadership around which a critical mass – and ultimately a majority of the working class – gathered around it. In the specific context of 1920 – one year after the founding of the Communist International, with a European working class that had more than three decades’ experience through mass socialist-oriented labor parties, reform struggles, and trade unions – this approach made obvious sense. But our context is different – our working class is a quite different one from that of Lenin’s time, as is its experience and consciousness. To forget this is to risk an outcome against which Lenin himself warned in Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, when “attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrase-mongering and clowning.” A revolutionary party, he insisted, can be “created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience,” guided by theory which “assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.” In our own specific context, so different from the one that Lenin was writing about, this warning and advice must be even more deeply taken to heart and applied. To assume or pretend otherwise can lead to disastrous mistakes that will set back the creation of a genuinely revolutionary party. Certainly in such countries as Britain and the United States, no single organization is the nucleus of the future party – reality is presently too much in flux and contradictory for that. Other theoretical rigidities crop up. For example, Molyneux intones against “the banners of separatism …, identity politics of one kind or another and, more recently, of privilege theory and intersectionality” (191). This disdainful and simplistic amalgam can get in the way of understanding and fruitfully engaging with the radicalizing consciousness of various oppressed sectors of the working class majority. Some activists are currently most conscious and engaged around non-class aspects of their specific oppression (having to do with race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). Molyneux himself acknowledges (citing Lenin’s call for revolutionaries to be “tribunes of the people” opposing all forms of oppression) that there is an elemental validity in each and every struggle against oppression of any element in the human identity. As Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James emphasized, sometimes it is necessary for an oppressed group (such as African Americans) to organize separately in order to wage their struggle for liberation. And as theorists of “intersectionality” have insightfully demonstrated, to perceive the interconnections of racial, gender and other forms of oppression with each other, and particularly with class oppression, can contribute profoundly to a revolutionary understanding of one’s own life and of the need to struggle for socialist liberation. Nor is the consciousness of today’s working class sufficiently developed, nor are the experiences of our class sufficiently evolved, for some of Molyneux’s other strictures to be on target. His clarion-call against “an alliance between reformists and revolutionaries” (181) seems to assume a different reality than the one in which we live. Actually, it may be precisely through alliances of theoretically/politically diverse forces, in actual struggles, that many reformists-of-the-moment as well as would-be revolutionaries (of various currently-existing organizations) will be enabled to develop the genuinely revolutionary consciousness that Molyneux is projecting in his stern warning. In fairness, it must be acknowledged that Molyneux pushes against dogmatic and sectarian inclinations. This comes through in advice that he generously offers to US socialists near the end of his book – a suggestion that the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative (both of which he sees as “serious Leninist groups”) find a way to merge with the newly expanded mass membership of the Democratic Socialists of America “to launch a credible national alternative to the Democrats” (259, 283 n458). Readers with experience either in or with these specific organizations will need to consider the extent to which such advice is practical or problematical. Nonetheless, the growth of each of the groups Molyneux mentions reflects a developing socialist consciousness in the United States. Such a radicalization process is proceeding, with distinctive variations, in other countries as well. In this context, efforts to consider the relevance of “Lenin for today” may contribute to fruitful discussions and debates among activists. To the extent that this brings greater clarity, activists can more effectively challenge the oppressions and destructiveness of global capitalism, in the quest for a future of the free and the equal.