Paul Le Blanc: The great Lenin debate -- history and politics

Lenin "favoured an organisation that functioned like a democratic, cohesive, activist collectivity".

[Read more by (and about) Paul Le Blanc HERE;more by (and about) Lars Lih HERE; and more on Lenin HERE. The Pham Binh-Paul Le Blanc- Lars Lih debate can be found HERE.]

By Paul Le Blanc

[A talk resented at the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Communist University, London, August 20-26, 2012.]

September 1, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The deepening of global crises, the intensification of popular protest and insurgency, and the spread of revolutionary possibilities have been generating renewed interest in Marxism and, along with that, a renewal of Marxism. A key figure in the Marxist tradition – and in the renewal – is the person who was central in the first revolution to be led by revolutionary Marxists: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

For those who are serious about Marxism, about challenging capitalism, and about revolutionary change, Lenin is a key figure who must be engaged with. Wrestling with and learning from the actual ideas and experience associated with Lenin has become a priority for a significant and growing minority of scholars and activists.[1]

Not surprisingly, efforts to get all of this right have generated different ways of understanding what happened in history and (for some of us) how this can be usefully applied to our own present-day realities and future efforts. One of the most recent controversies, in which I have become involved – at one point, tongue-in-cheek, I referred to it as the “Lenin wars” – was initiated by a young activist in the United States named Pham Binh.[2] Pham, a former member of the US International Socialist Organization (ISO), who left it a few years before I joined it, attacked the late Tony Cliff (a significant figure in the ISO tradition) for writing, a quarter of a century back, a massive political biography of Lenin whose purpose was, in part, to serve as a guide in the building of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and its international affiliates. Cliff created an historically inaccurate conceptualisation of Lenin, Pham tells us, in order to advance his own particular political agenda. This is something that Pham himself is guilty of, the purpose of his polemic being to advance his own particular views about the Occupy movement and the tasks of socialists in the United States. His modest contribution makes use of a few Lenin quotes and of the excellent work of Lars Lih, a serious historian and Lenin scholar.[3]

Lars and I were both drawn into this debate – initially on opposite sides. In the course of our debate, however, there have been fruitful convergences, although certain distinctions and differences remain in our interpretations of the historical material – yet there is between us, I feel, a mutual respect and an openness related to the fact that we more or less share a common methodology. What I want to do here is, first of all, to indicate what that methodology is. Then I want to map out the two areas in which Lars and I have disagreed – a 1905 debate among the Bolsheviks and the meaning of the 1912 Prague “All-Russia Conference” of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). I will indicate my own understanding of where things stand now in that dispute, offering my own take on the historical actualities. Finally, I will give some attention to the lessons – and also the non-lessons – for our own time of issues related to this controversy, and also related issues that go beyond these particular “Lenin wars”.

Methodology for historians and Marxists

A starting point for our understanding of historical methodology is grasping the fact that the word “history” has two basic meanings. As my good friend Wikipedia puts it: “History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented.” I would rephrase that to say that history is, first of all, all the stuff that happened in the past (in a sense, up to this very moment, which has itself just passed into history). But history is also a discipline, the study of the past. Sometimes this second meaning of history is called historiography, which Wikipedia tells us refers “either to the study of history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic” – for example, Lenin and the Bolshevik party. In a moment I want to talk a bit more about the methodology of history as a discipline, but first I want to touch on the connection of history and politics.

A starting point for me is to focus on the contributions of Marxism to historiography. A central aspect of Marxism is what has been called the materialist conception of history, or historical materialism, which has had a powerful impact on the discipline of history, just as it has had on so many other intellectual disciplines. There have naturally been raging controversies over how to understand historical materialism and how to use it. I will restrict myself here to summarising some of how I understand it and use it. If we want to understand human beings, a key thing we need to grasp is how they sustain themselves – the activities and relationships they enter into, and the resources they use, to get the things that they need (such as food, clothing shelter) and the things that they want. That is, we must look at economics.

Because of its centrality to the human condition and to the lived experience of us all, economics is a key to the shaping of human culture and consciousness and institutions. For at least the past 5000 years, there has been sufficient economic surplus in increasing areas of the world, to allow for economic inequality, with powerful minorities enriching themselves through exploiting labouring majorities – and history is shaped in large measure by these social-economic classes, and the tensions and conflicts and struggles that inevitably arise between them. History is a dynamic totality of contradictory and interacting factors, moved forward by conflicting and evolving potentialities inherent within it – which has led to the rise and decline of different forms of economy, and these different economic systems can be utilised to develop a coherent understanding of the actual shape of history over the centuries. All of these have become truisms in the discipline of history. But there is a key element of Marxism that is more controversial – the unbreakable link between the study of history and the commitment to revolutionary politics.[4]

Although some historians are not inclined to admit it, even to themselves, there is always an interplay of politics and historiography. If you are a liberal or a conservative or an anarchist or a fascist or a socialist or a racist or a misogynist or an egalitarian or whatever (and some political notions seep into the thinking of even those who see themselves as non-political), that will influence the way you interpret and study and write history. It influences the questions you ask, the answers you seek, the way you interpret the data you find as you explore historical questions. Marx and those who have embraced his orientation are clear and upfront – they seek an understanding of history in order to help change the world in the interest of the exploited and the oppressed, seeking a future without exploitation and oppression. This shapes the way they study and interpret history – and there is nothing wrong with that, especially if they are conscious and honest about it.

At this point, however, it may be fruitful to make a distinction between serious politics and what many of us have labeled sectarian politics. Serious politics seeks to engage with the world as it really is, and with the potentialities for change that are really there. If it is revolutionary politics, it seeks to connect with the actual lives and consciousness and struggles of the exploited and the oppressed in a manner that can have real impact, bringing into being consciousness and struggles that can positively change lives and create the possibility of an actual revolution. If it is sectarian politics, while the stated purpose may be the same, the actual purpose is to sustain a particular universe that is separate from the actual, real-world lives and consciousness and struggles of those inhabiting the larger society. The primary purpose is to validate and sustain the centrality and importance of one’s particular organisation and ideas and specialness.

This approach to politics often spills over into one’s approach to history – a lack of seriousness, the creation of historical narratives on the basis of fragments grabbed from one or another source, but not fully understood, in order to make a particular sectarian point, to validate your own particular notion or argument about what you believe should be done. References to history are utilitarian – an actual immersion in historical sources and interpretations tends to be dismissed as adventures in esoterica, the primary point being create a sense of historical authority for what we should do – or say – today or tomorrow. This is not good historiography.

For serious Marxist historians, I think it is helpful to have a sense of the integrity of the discipline of history and also a keen sense of what I would call “the activist disadvantage and the activist advantage”. I want to connect this to similar and different qualities that I believe can be found in the approach of Lars Lih and myself. Some of the similarities can be found in our approach to the integrity of the discipline.[5]

A serious historian first of all needs to listen to others. This involves having some familiarity with what other historians have to say (that is, secondary sources) and also to what the actual people you are studying have to say (which refers to what we call primary sources). It is important to be able to give a sympathetic reading to what is being said (that is, trying to understand, really and truly, what the person says and means) but also to give it a critical reading (which means considering possible internal contradictions in what is being said and also contradictions between a secondary source and a primary source, or contradictions between one primary source and another). The right kind of listening also involves the insight that someone, whether an historian or an historical participant, may be wrong about many important things but still get some things right.

Related to all of this, an historian needs to reach for coherence, understanding that history is not simply a jumble of interesting or contradictory or annoying facts, or one damn thing after another. What are the meanings, the causes that bring about certain effects that themselves cause new effects? Where do the ever-present contradictions come from, and how do the contradictions fit together into a coherent whole and explain what happened next? At the same time, it is helpful to hungrily seek things that will challenge the coherence. Sometimes, something that seems to contradict your coherent narrative helps to illuminate something “new” that needs to be grasped in order to get the story right. If you take a short cut to dismiss it or pigeon hole it, you may create a false coherence that distorts the reality.

The secondary sources (that is, the accounts written by historians) that are best are those that utilise and do justice to the primary sources (materials from the period under study – including documents, journals and journalism, recollections from participants, and so on). This raises the question of how one uses primary sources. I have already touched on that, but there is more to be said. For any serious assertion, it is best to have more than one reference point in the pool of historical material, with at least some contextualisation of primary texts. Just because Lenin writes something, for example, does not by itself clinch anything. What was the purpose and what was the context of the document, how does it correspond with other documents by Lenin, how does it correspond to what others were saying at the time, and how does it correspond with retrospective overviews provided by other participants? (Of course, latter-day recollections of participants need to be correlated with documents from the time – the mind can play tricks, and memories are not always reliable.) Understanding how such things fit together helps us understand the actual meaning of the particular Lenin quote. In all of this, it is important, as already suggested, to reach for coherence but also to reach for complexity.

Given the kind of complexity involved here, it is important to understand that history is necessarily a collective enterprise. Various historians who immerse themselves in the historical material may provide useful information and interesting interpretations, but they will inevitably get some of it wrong. Others delving into the material and weighing-in on what they found and how they understand it all, come up with new insights and mistakes, which may be challenged (providing corrections and newer insights, sometimes with mistakes) by someone else. Some aspects of this collective enterprise may result in academic dead ends, or the collective building up of ideological dogmas (more often than not buttressing the status quo). But some of it results in the collective accumulation of more information, more insights, more understanding of what happened in history.

The activist approach: advantages and disadvantages

Before turning to the examination of Bolshevism in 1905 and 1912, I want to take a few moments to consider what I have referred to as “the activist advantage and the activist disadvantage”. Lars Lih’s marvelous book, Lenin Rediscovered, primarily sets out to demolish what he refers to as “the textbook” account of Lenin initiated by Cold War anti-communists. But he also advances, secondarily, a critique of Tony Cliff, John Molyneux and me (lumping us together despite our differences).

In this, he correctly notes that we are political activists, and sometimes refers to us as the activist historians. It seems to me that there are both advantages and disadvantages in such activism for one who is seeking to write about the history of Bolshevism. An obvious advantage is that we passionately care about the history and know something about it (for example, we are actually inclined to read Lenin seriously), and we also are absolutely unsympathetic to the project of the Cold War anti-communists – all of which puts us in the same camp as Lars himself. The additional advantage we have is an intimate, inside knowledge (which Lars cannot have) of the pull and tug and swirl of revolutionary politics and of organisational dynamics. Sometimes this can provide insights and clues, an “insider’s” familiarity with the practical meaning that certain theoretical texts may possess.

The activist disadvantage seems to me to have two aspects. I want to take some time on the first before moving on to the second. There is a very natural tendency – which I have already noted – to connect the history with what we perceive as the present-day requirements of our own political activity and projects, and this can all too often result in short cuts and distortions in the way we interpret the history – reading the present into the past in ways that distort what actually happened in the past. Left-wing activists are not the only historians who do this, but it is certainly a temptation and occupational hazard for us.

I think – on the other hand – that there is a strength in this aspect of the “activist disadvantage” that I am criticising. There is a desire, on our part, to ground our perspectives and activities in what actually happened in history, and to give people – our own comrades and others – a sense of what happened in history as part of a left-wing political education and the development of a socialist class-consciousness. There are popularised accounts of history that are consequently developed and shared, in some cases broad overviews such as A. L. Morton’s A People’s History of England, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World, Leo Huberman’s Man’s Worldly Goods, Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance and Revolution, Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, my own Short History of the U.S. Working Class, and so on. There are also popularised works on the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution, the history of May Day, Marxism and so on. Whatever their limitations or weaknesses, Tony Cliff’s multi-volume works on Lenin and Trotsky fit in to this category, as do a number of popular pamphlets and short books produced by various left-wing organisations. These serve a positive function of providing an entry point for larger numbers of people – activists, workers, students and so on – to an initial understanding of what happened in history and how this might relate to the struggles of today and tomorrow.

Related to such work, however, is the second activist disadvantage: a tendency on our part to settle into a basic, overarching historical narrative – consistent with the traditions in which our organisations are rooted – which we do not question, and which sometimes close us off from seeking new insights into what actually happened in history. This is in contrast to an historian like Lars. In one of my polemics, I shared my appreciation for Lars by noting that “he is a scholar of considerable integrity, in my opinion, whose work is greatly enhanced by the fact that he is fluent in Russian and has an incredibly fine mind and delicious wit and iconoclastic bent, facilitating a fruitfully critical-minded approach to the study of Lenin”. I would repeat the critical side of this too – “being an iconoclast with integrity does not mean that one is inevitably right when he smashes some presumably ‘iconic’ interpretation of what happened in history”. Sometimes he can overstate his case (which enhances the drama of smashing the particular icon), and sometimes even he can get something wrong. But unencumbered by the “activist disadvantage”, Lars has been feeding invaluable and challenging contributions into the collective enterprise of comprehending what actually happened in the history of Bolshevism.

Creating Bolshevism

The recent disagreements between Lars and me have involved two issues: the meaning of a debate that arose among the Bolsheviks at a conference in April 1905, and whether the Bolsheviks became a distinct party as a result of a conference in Prague in January1912. It seems to me Lars has two primary concerns here. One is to defend his interpretation of Lenin’s pamphlet What Is To Be Done? – as a document that is absolutely consistent with the revolutionary-democratic essence of Marxism and that is profoundly optimistic about the capacity of the working class to make a revolution. (I agree with his interpretation.) His other concern is related to this – that Lenin’s conception of the revolutionary party has nothing to do with the conspiratorial elitism attributed to him by the “textbook interpretation”, but was actually the conception agreed upon by most Marxists throughout the world at that time, including the German Social Democrats grouped around August Bebel and Karl Kautsky (I basically agree with this too). Others in the debate have sought the authority of Lars’s work with a somewhat broader concern in mind – to establish historical-Leninist authority in support of projects involving some variety socialist unity. If Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were part of the same organisation, and if Lenin thought this was fine (as a good Social Democrat embracing – as did the Mensheviks – the orientation of Karl Kautsky), then obviously we should go and do likewise. I will address that question in another talk. Lars has no position on this – he is focused on what actually happened in history.

It seems to me that the dispute between Lars and me has narrowed dramatically on both questions of 1905 and 1912. I will first try to sum up where things stand on the first controversy in a manner that I think Lars might agree with.

In April 1905 at a Bolshevik conference a dispute opened up with Lenin on one side, and on the other some practical Bolshevik activists operating in underground conditions inside Russia who were known as committee men. The debate seems to have involved the question of how open the revolutionary party now could and should be, particularly related to the question of bringing more workers onto the party’s revolutionary committees in the midst of the 1905 workers’ insurgency. A Belgian historian named Marcel Liebman, in his book Leninism under Lenin, argued that this was part of a larger pattern of Lenin’s history – swinging from authoritarian-elitist inclinations (reflected, for example, in What Is To Be Done?) to revolutionary-democratic inclinations (reflected in the dispute with his rigid committee man comrades). Following this interpretation, Tony Cliff argued that the committee men wanted to adhere to the undemocratic ideas in What Is To Be Done? while Lenin wanted to abandon those ideas. It seems clear, however, that the Liebman-Cliff interpretation of Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet is wrong – and that their interpretation of the 1905 debate is therefore seriously flawed.

It is clear, at the same time, that there was a sharp debate in 1905 – with Lenin and some Bolshevik comrades on one side and with a number of Bolshevik committee men on the other – over the question of creating greater openness and workers’ involvement in the Bolshevik organisation inside Russia, and Lenin lost the vote on this question. There are documents from the April conference themselves that show this to be true, and also two “inside accounts” in English – one by Solomon Schwarz, who was a Bolshevik at that time but later became a Menshevik, and another by Lenin’s companion and close comrade Nadezhda Krupskaya. Schwarz’s conclusions are designed to demonstrate dogmatic, sectarian qualities in Bolshevism that even Lenin was uneasy about, while Krupskaya’s conclusion was that these were growing pains in Bolshevism that eventually were overcome in part through Lenin’s efforts – but both tell basically the same story, which is critical of the triumphant committee men. The question remains, who was right – Lenin or the committee men (a leading spokesperson of that time, according to Lars, being Lev Kamenev). Until proof is offered otherwise, I am inclined to trust Krupskaya’s account, with its assumption that Lenin was right. At one point in our debate, Lars leaned toward Kamenev and the committee men as having a firmer grip on the Russian realities. It’s a tantalising question – and only someone like Lars, who is fluent in Russian, can help us to come closer to a resolution of that question.[6]

Lars Lih is in the forefront of those rejecting the Stalinist notion – propagated in the 1930s (and later embraced by Cold War anti-communists) – that as early as 1902 Lenin set out to establish a “party of a new type” (one that would be qualitatively different from the old Social-Democratic model). At long last this party of a new type came into being – according to that interpretation – with the formal split from the Mensheviks in 1912. More than simply rejecting this, with an iconoclastic flourish Lars announced in a 2012 polemic that he was revising his own judgement, as presented in his excellent short biography Lenin, published one year earlier, and siding with Pham Binh’s rejection of (as Pham put it) “the myth that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks separated into two parties in 1912”. Actually, the formulation that Lars advanced was more restrained. He says: “Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not set out to organize their faction as a separate party, they vehemently denied that they had done so after the Conference, and they were justified in making this denial”.

After a substantial interchange, which included my substantial and fully documented article entitled “The Birth of the Bolshevik Party in 1912”, Lars offered the following judgement which seems to me to reflect a convergence in our views:

Recently Paul Le Blanc has written a long and instructive essay on the Prague conference which concludes that “for all practical purposes, the party that emerged from the Prague All-Russian RSDLP conference of 1912 was a Bolshevik party”. The key words here are “for all practical purposes”. Paul points to a number of reasons for equating Bolshevism and the party: the new central committee was composed overwhelmingly of Bolsheviks; the Bolshevik effort to forge a coalition with “party Mensheviks” never amounted to much; the other factions did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the central institutions voted in by the Prague conference and they tried (not very successfully) to set up competing institutions; there is direct organisational continuity between the 1912 central committee and the Communist Party of 1918 that added “Bolshevik’ to its official name. All this is true, but in no way clashes with my earlier statement about the outlook and aims of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1912.[7]

As Lars goes on to say, there remain a number of unresolved issues. One of them he identifies in this way: “I believe that Paul does not sufficiently allow for the possibility that the Bolshevik outlook in 1912 cannot be directly deduced from what turned out to be, ‘for all practical purposes’, the actual outcome.” I think that is an important question, and I think it is even more complicated than what Lars indicates. What did Lenin say in certain polemics and how do some of his formulations compare to what he actually thought (to the extent that this can be determined from correspondence and other documents) is another question. Yet another involves the possibility – probably the inevitability – that what Lenin believed and what some of his Bolshevik comrades believed and said might not be quite the same.

No definitive answers can be provided in this talk, but there are a few things that can be said about the work remaining to be done. To answer these and other questions, it is necessary to give serious attention to what went before, and this in two different ways.

One factor to consider is that the April 1905 Bolshevik conference referred to earlier was actually the Third Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. But only the Bolsheviks attended – the Mensheviks boycotted. Christopher Read, in his 2005 biography of Lenin (a book hardly perfect, but with genuine strengths) puts it this way:

It was thus not entirely Lenin’s fault that when the Third Congress convened in London on 25 April 1905 all the delegates were Leninists. Lenin used the congress ... to establish a Leninist grip on key Party institutions. Existing papers – Iskra and Vpered – were declared disbanded, and a new paper, Proletarii, set up as the official Party newspaper under Lenin’s editorship. An all-Leninist Central Committee was elected... Lenin even wrote to the International Socialist Bureau in Brussels in June demanding it recognize Proletarii as the only official newspaper and derecognize Iskra.[8]

In this situation, of course, Lenin was not inclined to completely and definitively split from the Mensheviks, and there were soon efforts – partially successful amid the revolutionary turmoil of 1905 – to heal the breach. The point is, however, that in 1912 we see a very similar scenario, but Lenin and others had already had this experience under their belts and had seen how “unity” turned out in the years following 1905. There were growing frustrations with the growth of liquidationism (abandonment of the revolutionary underground) among a large sector of the Mensheviks, combined with the toleration of and the adaptation toward liquidationism among another large sector of Mensheviks, the passage and flouting of anti-liquidator resolutions, ongoing Menshevik hostility toward the Bolsheviks, and the relative paralysis of the RSDLP.

By 1911 Kamenev and Lenin collaborated in producing the intransigent polemic, The Two Parties, and the Leninist Bolsheviks were committed to organising an RSDLP conference in Prague – in a manner similar to what happened in April 1905. With a difference – this time there was an intention to exclude the majority of Mensheviks, and also the anticipation that there might well be a boycott by others. It is interesting to note the take on the situation according to Rosa Luxemburg, speaking for the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, in the autumn of 1911. By this time, Luxemburg was much closer to Lenin and the Bolsheviks than had been the case six years earlier – but she was alarmed with the practical possibility that two parties would actually be created out of the RSDLP. “In view of the cynical excesses of the factional entities that side with the Liquidators Martov, Dan and Company”, she wrote, “Lenin and his friends began to address the question of convening a Party Conference that would exclude the Golos tendency [that is, Martov, Dan and company]”, adding that “in the political estimation of the Mensheviks, there are no significant differences between our tendency and Lenin’s”.

This agreement is evident in how Luxemburg described the internal situation in the non-Bolshevik sectors of the RSDLP: “The orgies of opportunism of the ‘Mensheviks’ and their open support of the Liqduidators led ... to the split in the heart of their own faction and to the secession of the ‘party Mensheviks,’ led by Georgi Plekhanov”. While respectful of the party-Menshevks, Luxemburg was as scornful as Lenin was toward the ultra-left Bolsheviks – the Forwardists – associated with Bogdanov, and also toward Trotsky’s “anti-faction” faction. But she was concerned that the Bolsheviks, in “wanting to form a bloc only with the ‘party-Mensheviks’”, were adopting what she considered a destructive effort to shut out the Mensheviks around Martov and Dan and also the smaller groups. “This stubborn Bolshevik war against all other groups even had the result”, she noted, “that Plekhanov ‘s group also, made fearful by the isolation of the Leninist faction, definitively back out from an alliance that Lenin saw as the only possibility”.[9]

The Prague conference of 1912 did not declare the existence of a new Bolshevik Party. It declared the reorganisation and renewal of the RSDLP – but one as much under Bolshevik control as had been the case in 1905. Except now there were no efforts to backtrack in the interests of unity. As Lars Lih indicates, the formal position of Lenin and his comrades was that this version of the RSDLP would not simply and exclusively be the Bolsheviks. And I think Lars is correct when he says (in “Bolshevism and Revolutionary Social Democracy”, the concluding article of his three-part series on Bolshevism in the Weekly Worker), Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades were “not propagating a ‘new type of party,’ as later Stalinist historians had it. They were propagating the party principle as it had always been understood in the Second International.[10] Their goal was of an organisation conforming to an idealised notion of the German Social Democratic Party, one that did not compromise away its revolutionary birthright but remained true to revolutionary Marxism. What emerged in 1912 was, nonetheless, a Bolshevik party, with a Bolshevik leadership, following a Bolshevik line. To deny that Lenin could even imagine that such a thing might emerge from the 1912 Prague conference is interesting and worth considering, but not entirely persuasive to me. But there is work to be done to clarify what the most plausible answers might be to this and other questions.

Lessons for our time (and non-lessons)

At this point I would like to turn to the question of finding lessons – and non-lessons – in all of this for our own time. Obviously, if we are being serious about studying and understanding history, we can’t be satisfied with an approach through which we construct morality tales to validate ourselves, our organisations and specific political projects. Nor can we expect to find ready-made recipes with which to cook up revolutionary dishes for the here and now. We can find lessons and insights that can help us figure out what to do – but we have to be serious as we do that, avoiding uncritical idealisations, and trying to identify similarities and differences between, for example, Lenin’s context and our own.

Nothing that we face is just as it was for Lenin and his comrades. Our 1903 and 1905 and 1912 and 1917 may not look at all like theirs, and the sequence of events may differ dramatically. We should avoid acting and talking as if we were in the equivalent of their 1912 or 1917 when, in fact, we may be closer to the equivalent of their 1898 or 1901. More than this, in our present-day contexts, to the extent that the socialist movement and the working class are not intertwined and interacting in significant ways, we have not gotten beyond square one of revolutionary politics. In some ways, our reality has little to do with the reality in which there was a Second International or Third International – it is in some ways closer to the reality existing before the creation of the First International.[11]

By the way, this notion that our pathways cannot possibly duplicate those of Lenin and his comrades happens to constitute a central tenet of “Leninist orthodoxy”. In 1919 he commented that “each nation is travelling in the same historical direction” but each must follow “very different zigzags and byways”. He added that “the more cultured nations are obviously proceeding in a way that differs from that of the less cultured nations. Finland is advancing in a different way. Germany is advancing in a different way.” In 1921 he urged yet other comrades to “refrain from copying our tactics but thoroughly vary them and adapt them to the different concrete conditions”. He told Italian comrades that principles “must be adapted to the specific conditions of various countries. The revolution in Italy will run a different course from that in Russia. It will start in a different way. How? Neither you nor we know.” In 1922 Lenin told comrades in the Communist International that they should not “hang Russian experience in a corner like an icon and pray to it”. I should add that this last comment did not – contrary to some misinterpretations – mean that Lenin believed the Russian experience was irrelevant, but rather that it should be critically studied, assimilated and applied creatively to new and different contexts.[12]

Related to this, there are certain commonalities between Lenin’s reality and ours. And there seem to be very positive qualities in what Lenin and his comrades were about. Before considering those, I think it may be worth considering what it would mean to give Lenin the attention he deserves – which involves an approach of critical engagement. To study Lenin’s work means in part to read what he had to say in order to understand his thinking. It is important to see not only what he had to say, but to see what he did. What was he hoping to do, what did he think he was doing, what was he actually doing – and to what extent was he aware of what he was actually doing? What were the contexts in which all of this was unfolding? What went wrong and what went right? How did his thinking match up with the historical experience of Lenin and his comrades, and how does it match up with our own experience?

Even though there are many questions to answer, I believe there are clearly certain positive qualities of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that are worth learning from. Despite the frequent assertions of critics and even some would-be supporters, it is not the case that Lenin wanted to create an organisation that would simply be dominated by him. More than once, a majority of his comrades concluded (sometimes rightly, sometimes perhaps not) that he was wrong about one thing or another, and they voted him down – such as in April 1905. In certain contexts, such as whether or not to run some of his polemical articles in the party newspaper, they simply ignored him, to his great chagrin.[13] While Lenin did not particularly enjoy being disagreed with or voted down, and would fight fiercely for positions he believed to be correct, as was the case in April 1905, he favoured an organisation that functioned like a democratic, cohesive, activist collectivity. In response to a 1921comment by Adolf Joffe that “the Central Committee – c’est vous”, Lenin strenuously objected that this was simply not true, elaborating: “The old Central Committee (1919-20) defeated me on one gigantically important question, as you know from the discussion. On organizational and personal questions I have been in a minority countless times. You yourself saw many instances when you were a Central Committee member.”[14] Also worth noting is a point emphasised in Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin:

He 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. He always took great pains in preparing for Party congresses, and was particularly careful in thinking out his speeches.[15]

Along with this commitment to building a democratic revolutionary organisation, I believe there is sufficient scholarship to demonstrate how seriously Lenin absorbed and engaged, utilised and developed Marxist theory – not as an abstract intellectual disconnected from the workers’ movement, but as a revolutionary intellectual who had become an integral part of the workers’ movement. Analysis, political education, program, strategy and tactics were drawn together by him as a clear, coherent, dynamic totality. And despite inevitable limitations and mistakes, his record as a revolutionary Marxist theorist and political leader adds up to something that is quite impressive and matched by few.

The Bolshevik organisation that Lenin was so central in shaping was impressive as well, infused with a relatively high quality of Marxist theory, containing a diverse range of talented and creative activists and serious thinkers – not afraid to disagree with each other and with Lenin, determined to defend their views, to help test the majority perspectives in practice, and to help make revisions and adjustments as called for, learning through debate and activism and experience. It was a democratic-activist organisation that found a way to engage with the actual consciousness and in the real struggles of working-class activists, and to help forge a class-conscious vanguard organisation that could provide leadership in practical struggles of the here and now in a manner that helped a layer of class-struggle fighters to lead the revolution of 1917.

Kamenev, his longtime comrade and the first editor of Lenin’s collected works, commented that while “the teachings of Lenin as a whole and in all their ramifications are based on the scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels”, there is also a new element, which “consists in the adaptation of the basic principles and methods of Marxism to a historical setting and period entirely unknown to Marx”.[16]

To do the same thing in adapting the basic principles and methods of Lenin and Bolshevism to our own setting and period, entirely unknown to Lenin and his comrades, strikes me as a challenge that is worth taking up.

Facing problems

While I am inclined to view very positively the Bolshevik-Leninist experience up through 1917, and to assume that we can draw useful insights and lessons from a critical-minded engagement with that 14-year experience, it is also the case that there was a six-year experience after that, before Lenin died, in which what Lars Lih calls “the heroic scenario” failed in the face of disastrous realities. In the pre-1918 scenario, class-conscious workers and their steadfast allies among the poor peasants establish a revolutionary-democratic commune-state which inspires workers’ revolutions throughout the world, setting the stage for the development of a global socialist order of the free and the equal. That’s the scenario.

“Almost from the very first day of the October Revolution”, according to Christopher Read, “Lenin’s hopes and expectations for it began to collapse”. Perhaps this is overstated, but there is enough truth here to help us understand what Lars Lih tells us:

From 1919 his speeches lose their earlier sharpness and become progressively more unfocused, repetitive, digressive. He becomes halting as he searches for a way to match his ideological scenario with events. A new and unexpected quality appears: Lenin is unsure of himself.

Read notes that “Lenin was deeply conscious of the fragility of the forces that had brought him to power, but also of the epochal significance of what was happening”, adding that “in the middle of the First World War, at that time of the most massive human blood-letting ever, refinements of morality seemed not only constricting but obscene. A few sacrifices, a moment of ruthlessness, was not only justified but demanded if millions were to be saved at the front and from the worldwide tentacles of imperialist exploitation”.[17] Speaking of the same period, Isaac Deutscher commented many years ago:

Then comes the great tragedy of the isolation of the Russian Revolution; of its succumbing to incredible, unimaginable destruction, poverty, hunger, and disease as a result of the wars of intervention, the civil wars, and of course the long and exhausting world war which was not of Bolshevik making. As a result of all this, terror was let loose in Russia. Men lost their balance. They lost, even the leaders, the clarity of their thinking and of their minds. They acted under overwhelming and inhuman pressures. I don’t undertake to judge them, to blame them or to justify them. I can only see the deep tragedy of this historic process, the result of which was the glorification of violence. But what was to have been a glassful of violence became buckets and buckets full, and then rivers of violence. That is the tragedy of the Russian Revolution.[18]

There is much more to be said about this period, and about what Lenin and his comrades did and failed to do, and about the mistakes and blind spots one can find in the earlier period (up through 1917) that may have contributed to the catastrophe that followed.[19]

Here too, there are lessons to be learned. For some the appropriate lesson is the injunction that we must reject Lenin and all that he stood for. Given the historical realities and our present-day realities, and the outstanding achievement that preceded the catastrophe, I don’t think we can afford to do that. It is, however, especially important for us not only to critically sift through Lenin’s thought and actions during these tragically violent and authoritarian developments, but also to consider the positive ways that he himself sought to overcome and transcend and move beyond the horrors in this final period of his life.

We cannot afford to settle for the superficiality or the morality tales or the dogmatic certainties of sectarianism as we wrestle with the question of what happened in history and with the question of what is to be done. We need to take Lenin more seriously than that, because what the sociologist C. Wright Mills said of Marx is also true of Lenin: “To study his work today, and then come back to our own concerns is to increase our chances of confronting them with useful ideas and solutions.”[20]


[1] See Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin’s Return”, WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, volume 10, November 2007, 273-285, and also my introductory essay “Ten Reasons for Not Reading Lenin”, in V. I. Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, ed. by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 3-80.

[2] Most of the relevant material in the debate can be found through Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal,

[3] Despite problems in Pham’s methodology, he usefully drew attention to the fact that Lenin did not have the intention, in 1912, of creating the “party of a new type” attributed to him by many – for example, P. N. Pospelov et al., Lenin, A Biography (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 82, 189-191, and Bertram D. Wolfe, “A Party of a New Type”, in Lenin and the Twentieth Century: A Bertram D. Wolfe Retrospective, ed. by Lennard D. Gerson (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1984),12-41.

[4] Material relevant to this can be found in: Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996), especially 2-23; Isaac Deutscher, “Marxism in Our Time”, in Marxism in Our Time (San Francisco: Ramparts Press, 1971), 15-30; Victor Kiernan, “History”, in David McLellan, ed., Marx: The First Hundred Years (Oxford, UK: Fontana Paperbacks, 1983), 57-102; Eric Hobsbawm, “Marx and History”, New Left Review, I/143, January-February 1984; Ernest Mandel, The Place of Marxism in History (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996); Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).

[5] For interesting and informative discussions on the discipline of history, see: Edward Hallet Carr, What Is History? (New York: Vintage Books, 1961); Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000); Alex Callinicos, Theories and Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).

[6] See extensive discussion and documentation in Paul Le Blanc, “The Lenin Wars: Over a Cliff with Lars Lih”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 12, 2012,

[7] Lars Lih, “A Faction is Not a Party”, Weekly Worker 912, May 3, 2012,; for the article on 1912, see Paul Le Blanc, “The Birth of the Bolshevik Party in 1912”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, April 17, 2012,

[8] Christopher Read, Lenin, A Revolutionary Life (London/New York: Routledge, 2005), 78.

[9] Rosa Luxemburg, “Credo: On the State of Russian Social Democracy”, in Peter Hudis and Kevin Anderson, eds., The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 269, 272, 273.

[10] Lars Lih, “Bolshevism and Revolutionary Social Democracy”, Weekly Worker 917, June 7, 2012,

[11] These points are made in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1996), 360, 372.

[12] Read, 226. A faulty interpretation of this last quote is presented in Paul Kellogg, “Leninism: It’s Not What You Think”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal,, which has Lenin dismissing a presumably bungled and dogmatic text on party organisational principles, allegedly adopted by the Communist International due to the highhandedness of Gregory Zinoviev, a document that, we are told, Lenin himself had no hand in writing. In fact, Lenin actively assisted Otto Kuusinen in the drafting of the document and was very supportive of it, see Aino Kuusinen, The Rings of Destiny: Inside Soviet Russia from Lenin to Brezhnev (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1974), 37, and Lenin’s letters to Otto Kuusinen and Wilhelm Koenen in Collected Works, Volume 42 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971), 316-319, and to Gregory Zinoviev in Collected Works, Volume 45 (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 185-186. Also see John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2012), 303-305. My own quite different interpretation of the material Kellogg deals with can be found in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 316-317.

[13] Carter Elwood, “Lenin and Pravda, 1912-1914”, in Carter Elwood, The Non-Geometric Lenin: Essays on the Development of the Bolshevik Party 1910-1914 (London/New York: Anthem Press, 2011), 37-55. For a fine review of this volume, see Lars T. Lih, “The Non-Geometric Elwood”, Canadian Slavonic Papers/Revue canadienne des slavistes, vol. LIV, nos. 1-2, March-June/mars-juin, 2012, 45-73.

[14] Quoted in Robert C. Tucker, Stalin as Revolutionary 1879-1929 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 51.

[15] N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 89.

[16] Kamenev quoted in Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 19.

[17] Lars Lih, Lenin (London Reakiton, 2011), 188; Read, 208.

[18] Isaac Deutscher, “Marxism and Nonviolence”, in Marxism in Our Time, 86. Also see Read, 246-255, and Arno J. Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[19] Among sources useful for this effort are Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007);Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (London: Writers and Readers, 1984), especially 70-243; the somewhat counterposed studies of Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24 (New York: Routledge, 2008) and Kevin Murphy, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007); Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (New York: Vintage Books, 1970); V. I. Lenin, Lenin’s Final Fight, Speeches and Writings 1922-23, ed. by George Fyson (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1995).

[20] C. Wright Mills, The Marxists (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1962), 35.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 09/25/2012 - 11:43


[Posted on behalf of Paul Kellogg]

Footnote 12 of Paul's interesting article references a little piece I wrote on Lenin a few years ago, indicating that I had offered a "faulty interpretation" of Lenin's "Too Russian" speech from the Fourth Congress. In that speech, Lenin makes quite harsh criticisms of a resolution on party organizational principles, passed the previous year at the Third Congress. Lenin was quite concerned about this. As I pointed out in my article, he devoted about one-fifth of his speech to it, quite remarkable given how ill he was at the time, and how many serious issues were confronting the Fourth Congress of the Comintern. He doesn't mince words saying they had "made a big mistake with this resolution … we blocked our own road to further success."

Paul's point is that my article obscures the fact that in 1921, Lenin himself had a significant hand in writing the resolution that, one year later, he is criticizing. I honestly don't know exactly who wrote the resolution. I made some guesses in the article. I don't think the exact authorship is the point, however. The point is that Lenin thought it was an excellent resolution in 1921 (he wrote to the person who presented it, Koenen, to say "I think you have done a very good job"), and in 1922 he thinks it is not such a good resolution. That is the point. Lenin changed his mind.

We need to take this change of position seriously. Lenin and his political current, by  1922, were up against the huge problems of spreading socialism into the advanced capitalist west. Lenin's speech is a reflection of the deep rethinking that was going to be necessary to make this possible. The resolution which he thought was excellent in 1921, by 1922 he has concluded is "too Russian, it reflects Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners".

And indeed, the Russian experience remains pretty hard to understand. Paul's article is devoted, in part, to the significance of a 1912 Bolshevik meeting in Prague. I see that there is some controversy over how to interpret this century-old meeting.  I think there were only 14 people present. Am I right? As an historical materialist I instinctively recoil from putting too much significance onto one little meeting by one faction of a deeply divided, isolated movement operating in exile.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asked provocatively "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Let's take this seriously. I have an inclination that the key to building the workers' party which was to emerge in 1917 was work being done by the radical workers themselves in the workplaces and neighbourhoods of Russia in 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914, 1915, etc. There were some among those radical workers who thought that the leaders in exile were quite out of touch. There were some who, with respect, thought that Lenin and his inner circle didn't really have a clue as to how to operate in the difficult conditions on the ground.

That's hard to prove. The voices of these radical worker activists have left only the tiniest echo in the 21st century. Their Collected Works weren't lovingly collected and printed by the State publishing machine. But I think a good way to avoid the "too Russian" problem, is to listen for that echo. Lenin and Trotsky have something to teach us. The real teachers are always, however, the masses themselves.

[Posted on behalf of Paul Le Blanc]

I like and have much respect for Paul Kellogg, especially for his efforts to develop a revolutionary Marxist approach unencumbered by sectarian, dogmatic text-quoting.  There are several differences we have that deserve to be aired, but my examination of such differences is not meant to be in contradiction to my esteem for these positive qualities. 

It seems to me there are three differences between the two Pauls (Kellogg and Le Blanc): 1) the meaning of the debate on the 1912 Prague Conference; 2) the proposition that “the real teachers are always the masses themselves”; and 3) the question of Lenin’s attitude toward a 1921 resolution on organization adopted by the Communist International. 

Regarding the first difference, Paul Kellogg tells us he has a negative reaction regarding what I write about the 1912 Prague Conference which resulted in the formation of an independent Bolshevik party.  He writes: Paul's article is devoted, in part, to the significance of a 1912 Bolshevik meeting in Prague. I see that there is some controversy over how to interpret this century-old meeting.  I think there were only 14 people present. Am I right? As an historical materialist I instinctively recoil from putting too much significance onto one little meeting by one faction of a deeply divided, isolated movement operating in exile.”  The trouble with this is that this has, in fact, been given a considerable amount of significance by many different people – then and more recently.  The recent controversy is over what actually happened.  One could shrug and say: “Who cares?  It’s about a meeting of fourteen people a hundred years ago!”  But for an historian who is concerned to nail down – factually – what actually happened, that is not particularly useful.  Nor does it seem to be particularly “historical materialist.”

Regarding the second difference, presumably in the name of “historical materialism,” Paul tells us: There were some among those radical workers who thought that the leaders in exile were quite out of touch. There were some who, with respect, thought that Lenin and his inner circle didn't really have a clue as to how to operate in the difficult conditions on the ground. . . . The voices of these radical worker activists have left only the tiniest echo in the 21st century. Their Collected Works weren't lovingly collected and printed by the State publishing machine. . . .  Lenin and Trotsky have something to teach us. The real teachers are always, however, the masses themselves.” 

Yes, there are many teachers – “the masses themselves,” as Paul says, and sometimes segments of the masses, and sometimes small groups (for example, “the radical workers,” that Paul points to were sometimes small groups), and sometimes individuals such as Marx or Lenin.  We can learn from all.  It is not clear to me, however, in what sense it is correct or meaningful to say that “the real teachers are always the masses themselves.”  Of course, we can always learn from the varied individuals – those who agree with Lenin and those who don’t (and those who never heard of Lenin), pro-union and anti-union, socialist and anti-socialist, racist and anti-racist, sexist and anti-sexist, patriotic and anti-patriotic, and others who don’t know what they think about such stuff – who make up “the masses.”  We can learn something from all of this, and we can learn something from shifting tides among “the masses,” etc.  But it sounds like Paul means something more positive, more cohesive, more romantic when he exhorts us to understand that “the masses are always the real teachers.”  To the extent that he is going in that direction, I think Paul is indulging in an overstatement.

Yet even when we are not learning the lessons to guide our present and future political work – which is what Paul seems concerned with – there is also the task of learning what actually happened in history.  And that is the point of my article, taking issue with the morality-play approach to history (playing fast and loose with what actually happened) in which, with all due respect, Paul seems to indulge in the original article of his that I criticized in footnote 12 of “The Great Lenin Debate – History and Politics.”

In our exploration of this third difference, related to my disagreement with the account presented by Paul in his original article, let’s agree that what Lenin said and thought is not correct simply because Lenin said it or thought it.  Let’s agree that Lenin could be wrong.  Let’s agree simply to focus on what Lenin actually said – not in order to make some political point about what is “correct,” but simply to determine what happened in history. 

In Paul Kellogg’s earlier article, he attributed the resolution on organization, adopted at the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921, to the bureaucratic-authoritarian excesses of Zinoviev and other Comintern personalities who were presumably carrying out Zinoviev’s assignment.  We are told that Lenin disapproved of the resolution and expressed this disapproval at the 1922 Fourth Congress of the Comintern.  Paul uses all this to buttress the case for a less rigid approach to the question of organization.  I fully agree with Paul on the desirability of not having a rigid approach to organization, but I disagree with his account of what happened in history.

There is clear evidence that Lenin was involved in helping develop the 1921 resolution on organization.  In the book by Aino Kuusinen, she tells us that Lenin called her husband Otto, a leading Finnish Communist active in the Comintern, to Moscow “and gave him the task of planning the ‘organizational principles’ which were approved by the third Comintern Congress in July 1921.”  She adds that “Lenin stated that no one but Kuusinen could have formulated the principles so well.  Otto wrote them in German and Wilhelm Koenen, a German Communist, had the task of correcting his style” (Aino Kuusinen, The Rings of Destiny, 37).

We know from correspondence from Lenin to Kuusinen, and again from Lenin to Kuusinen and Koenen, that he was supportive of their drafts, but also that he put forward suggestions on revisions which were incorporated into the final version – which means that he was, in fact, directly involved in the composition of the resolution (see his Collected Works, Volume 42, 316-319).

Third, from Volume 45, 185-186, we know that Lenin wrote the following note to Comintern chairman Gregory Zinoviev:

     I have just received Kuusinen’s theses and one-half of the article (the report).

     I have returned them to him with my remarks.

     I do insist that he and he alone (i.e., not Bela Kun) should be allowed to give a report at this congress without fail.

     This is necessary.

     He knows and thinks (which is a great rarity among revolutionaries). 

     What needs to be done right away is to find one German, a real one, and give him strict instructions

to make stylistic corrections at once,

and dictate the corrected text to a typist.

     And at the congress read out for Kuusinen his article-report (tell Kuusinen to complete the second half within three days).

     The German will read it out well.  The benefit will be enormous.

     The question will be posed: and this will be very much more than enough for a start.


Several points should be made about this short note.  Lenin not wanting Bela Kun (at this time an ally of Zinoviev) to be associated with the report may be related to Lenin’s critical attitude toward Kun’s sectarian and authoritarian mismanagement of the ill-fated Hungarian revolution of 1919 and his negative role in the ill-fated and ill-advised “March Action” in Germany.  It also seems obvious that Lenin is actively supportive of, and involved in helping develop, the resolution Kuusinen is working on, that he is responsible for the involvement of Koenen (the German), and that he – not Zinoviev – is the prime mover of the resolution on organizational at the 1921 Comintern Congress.  All of this goes in a different direction than the “guesses” that Paul tells us he made in his original article.  It could be that all of this was a terrible mistake on Lenin’s part, but whether or not that is the case, this is the way it happened.

Paul now says: “The point is that Lenin thought it was an excellent resolution in 1921 . . . and in 1922 he thinks it is not such a good resolution.  He emphasizes:   He doesn't mince words saying they had ‘made a big mistake with this resolution … we blocked our own road to further success.’” 

But if we turn to Lenin’s full remarks, presented in John Riddell’s recently published Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (but also available in the Collected Works), we find Lenin actually saying that “the resolution is an excellent one . . . I am prepared to subscribe to every one of its fifty or more points . . . that resolution must be carried out.”  The “big mistake” is foreign comrades having adopted it without understanding it, because “we have not learned how to present our Russian experience to foreigners.”  The point, Lenin emphasized, is that “they must assimilate part of the Russian experience” in order to be able to comprehend and implement the resolution in their own countries and contexts (Riddell, 304-305).  Lenin may be wrong or he may be right, but this is what he is actually saying. 

I should conclude by saying that I find these particular comments of Lenin’s to be useful (as I do the 1921 resolution on organization) and am inclined to find them relevant to our own efforts today.  I have explained what I mean by that more than once in recent talks and writings.  At the same time, my perception is that – despite these interpretive differences on certain aspects of history – there is significant agreement between Paul Kellogg and myself on the practicalities of “what is to be done.”