Paul Le Blanc on Tamás Krausz's 'Reconstructing Lenin': Sorting through Lenin’s legacy

Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography
By Tamás Krausz
New York: Monthly Review Books, 2015
564 pages; Order HERE

For more discussion on Lenin, click HERE. For more by Paul Le Blanc, click HERE

Review by Paul Le Blanc

March 10, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- This edition of Tamás Krausz’s study of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is compelling and imposing in more than one way. It is not, strictly speaking, an intellectual biography. So much is offered in this remarkable volume, however, that many readers will not complain that they are not actually treated to a chronological narrative tracing the evolution of Lenin’s thought.

Physically the book is massive, attractive, beautifully designed. The architecture of the text – the chapters into which it is organised – is well conceived. A sparkling biographical chapter entitled “Who Was Lenin?” is followed by the appropriate topics that reflect his distinctive theoretical contributions – Russian Capitalism and the Revolution; Organization and Revolution; The War and the National Question; The State and Revolution; Dictatorship and Democracy in Practice; World Revolution; The Theory of Socialism; concluding with summary comments, a chronology of Russian history, informative biographical sketches and a substantial bibliography.

Central to the entire study is the perception of Lenin’s political approach. Insistent that “the Leninist tradition of Marxism is the only one that has offered, at least for a time, an alternative to capitalism” (p. 356), Krausz believes that “the legacy of the primacy of Lenin’s Marxism is not a thing of the past” (p. 357). Since “the ‘end of history’ did not occur in 1989 [with the collapse of Communism], one need not be a prophet to foresee that the need for the revolutionary salvation of the world will arise again” (p. 364). Rule by the people over their collective economic life, and the free development of each and every person, brought about through revolutionary struggles of the world’s labouring majorities, constituted the animating vision of Marx – “the conscious human activity to transform society ... the self-movement and self-creation of history through social classes and individuals” (p. 355).

Not seeking to create an independent “ism within Marxism”, what Lenin did was to “rediscover, reenergize, and deepen elements of the Marxist tradition that mainstream European social democracy was intent on burying” (p. 360). In the process of doing this, Krausz argues, Lenin “contributed many original ideas to the theoretical reconstruction of revolutionary action and movement in opposition to reformist social democratic tendencies” (p. 357).

Democracy was “one of the cornerstones of his political concept prior to 1917”, Krausz tells us, buttressing Lenin’s “critique of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois approaches to democracy with the economic and social dimensions of democracy – demonstrating the oppressive functions of the bourgeois system aligned with his critique of capitalism”, and with revolutionary political solutions through which “bourgeois democracy in turn becomes plebian democracy and then a workers’ democracy (semi-state)”, with an increasingly just and democratic society ultimately giving way to a stateless communism (p. 367). Krausz concludes that “Lenin’s topicality resides in the fact that he transformed his own historical experiences into a set of theoretical concepts that undermine and destroy any justifications for bourgeois society and, in spite of the contradictions involved, he provides tools for those who still think of the possibility of another, more humane world” (p. 370).

Tamás Krausz is one of the most prominent in the diminished circle of Marxist intellectuals in Hungary. Identified with the tradition associated with the brilliant philosopher Georg Lukács, his life and work as historian and activist have been shaped by revolutionary and critical-dissident currents that have long been part of a richly layered Eastern European culture. He brings to this contribution in the growing field of Lenin studies a lifetime accumulation of knowledge and insights, but also a critical sensibility, helping to extend and deepen the intensive explorations and debates about what happened in history and what is to be done. An additional strength related to these last points is the fact that Krausz is able to convey a rich sense of Eastern European sources and debates, which is unique among English-language Lenin studies.

Without question, then, here is a revolutionary activist-scholar who has much to share with us, and Monthly Review Press has performed a service in helping to connect him with an English-speaking readership.

Lost in translation

A brilliantly conceived and intellectually rich work such as this – translated as it is from Hungarian to English – deserves a translator who is fluent in both Hungarian and English, capable of employing a bit of artistic-literary flair and considerable familiarity with the history, theory and terminology of Marxism (especially Russian Marxism from the time of Lenin). It is unfortunate that such a translator was not found to present this volume to the English-language reader. Sometimes the translators’ choices may complicate the reader’s task of absorbing what Krausz has to say.

There are quite minor matters – a well-known Bolshevik named Rykov is rendered here as Rikov, and the famous “Economist” Menshevik Martynov is presented as Martinov. A little more serious is that the Bolshevik call for a worker-peasant alliance is translated with the potentially confusing phrase “worker and peasant union”. More serious than this, some formulations seem internally contradictory or unnecessarily dense. For example, even a knowledgeable and sympathetic reader might be confused when faced with something like this: “The ‘disorganization’ of social democracy did have a positive by-product, however. The party base began to spread in the direction of organization by occupation which, after the counterrevolutionary dismantling of the soviets, remained the sole root of social democracy among the proletarian masses” (p. 123).

Or this:

We have not yet uncovered the economic origins of labor union consciousness or the revolutionary political class consciousness of the proletariat. The historical and economic nature of their difference remains largely hidden. It seemed that the “ideological redemption” was the revolution itself. But the failure of the European revolution to materialize, and the isolation of the Russian Revolution, created a new historical foundation for the “ideological redemption” of the workers (p. 141).

I believe an important point is being made here, but I’m not quite sure what it is. A friend who has some knowledge of such things has told me that Hungarian sentences are structured differently from English sentences, sometimes with multiple clauses preceding the main noun, verb and object of the sentence. He adds that a mistake over which word is modifying could change the meaning entirely. It is even possible that a sentence could be translated to mean the opposite of what was intended. One suspects that in some instances such an error may have cropped up in certain passages in this book – more than once, a point Krausz appears to be making on one page is flatly contradicted on the next.

Strengths and questions

Nonetheless, this book is a precious gift. Krausz has obviously been immersed for many years in the material with which he engages. He firmly establishes his credentials for those without access to his Hungarian-language works, in the marvelous first 100 pages of this book. We are presented with a splendid and substantial preface, then a fine sketch of Lenin’s biography and personality in chapter 1. This is followed by an exploration in chapter 2 presenting Lenin’s analysis of Russian historical development and its emergent capitalism, which crackles with strategic and tactical implications. “Lenin’s analysis of Russian capitalism links with his outline of the capitalist world system”, he writes. “This analysis ... gains more depth and becomes more differentiated in the course of his theorization of the concept and phenomenon of imperialism. In the end, it was this analysis that determined the intellectual the intellectual framework for Lenin’s work within the movement that defined the other applications of his theoretical practice” (p. 109).

What comes through with particular force, through the very structure of this book, and (despite all ambiguities and questions that might crop up) through the immense accumulation of information, analysis and insights, is the powerful and distinctive quality of Lenin’s Marxism. It is precisely here that Krausz offers a self-critical reflection – “there was a constant effort to bring the theory and political practice into organic correlation, [yet] I nevertheless got a sense that in certain questions – due in particular to the way in which the question is put – I unwittingly exaggerated the theoretical footing on which Lenin’s political actions stood” (p. 20).

One could argue that this would be a problem particularly from 1918 through 1923 – the first devastating years when the Soviet Republic fought for its very survival – since innumerable policies and decisions were generated under the impact of overwhelming hardships and violence amid civil war and foreign assaults. In these five final years of Lenin’s political life, he and his comrades sometimes articulated theorisations to rationalise pragmatic policies developed in desperate contexts. On the other hand, for the crucial period stretching from the 1890s to 1918, the method that Krausz employs does justice to organic correlation between theory and practice that was characteristic of Lenin for most of his life.

A 40-year immersion in the study of the specifics and historical contexts of Lenin’s thoughts enables Krausz to offer succinct and penetrating judgements – but some of his comments, presented in this way, can also be problematical if there is a point being made that is open to question. For example, almost as a throw-away line he comments that “when Lenin referred to the workers, he usually had the most skilled laborers in mind” (p. 147) – although there seem to be, in fact, a number of examples where Lenin does not do this.

In discussing Lenin’s controversial philosophical polemic Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Krausz asserts that “Lenin was mobilizing not so much the Marxist philosophical tradition, but rather that of Plekhanov, in which materialism is formulated within a framework of monist reflection theory”, adding: “In this work a kind of ‘biological determinism’ relegated historical materialism into the background” (p. 130).

Such interpretations – whether dealing with the proletariat or philosophy in Lenin’s thought – are open to question. But there is not sufficient textual analysis or documentation to make the case for possibly problematical conclusions, which are presented as simple assertions with perhaps a fleeting quote or reference.

The fact that this book was 40 years in the making means that it consists of an accumulation of layers of study and analysis, and this too can generate problems when more recent scholarship throws earlier interpretations into question.

For example, although he indicates a positive awareness of Lars Lih’s scholarship, Lih’s central point regarding what Lenin says in What Is To Be Done? is not integrated into Krausz’s account. Instead we are told: “As a result of his analyses, Lenin came to the final conclusion that, in general, under a bourgeois regime, it is not possible for the workers to develop a social democratic consciousness. Later, in 1907, in the aftermath of the revolutionary experience, he gave up this thesis” (p. 115).

For more adequate discussions of this point, readers will need to look elsewhere, such as Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered and Alan Shandro’s Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony. Which is simply to say that this book is not “the last word” in Lenin scholarship.

Yet throughout this volume, thanks to an intimate knowledge of what the author is writing about, its pages crackle with apt and insightful commentary. This certainly comes through in his succinct and penetrating critiques of such anti-Lenin scholars as Richard Pipes, Robert Service, A.J. Polan and François Furet. In commenting on the negative reaction of many Marxists to Lenin’s call for a worker-peasant alliance, seeming to many to be “some sort of ‘Leninist heresy,’ ... as if the Russian peasantry was still some sort of reactionary pulp”, he directs our attention to Lenin’s analysis of the changes capitalist development was generating in the Russian countryside (p. 95).

Krausz deals well with the meaning of the oft-distorted notion of the revolutionary vanguard party, explaining:

The party as vanguard meant simply that the organization must find roots as part of the social class and incorporate al progressive and revolutionary elements (that is, “those who are first to mount the barricades”) as mentioned in the Communist Manifesto. This description of vanguard, of course, has no real kinship with the structure that came about in a later period, the bureaucratic embodiment of the “Stalinist state party,” in spite of the fact that the latter kept referring to Lenin and its so-called origins in 1903 (pp. 118-119).

Krausz pinpoints Lenin’s splendid critique of liberalism – which seeks nothing more than reforms within a capitalist framework – and of the “socialist opportunism” which folds itself into this approach, as representing “peace with the slave-owners” (p. 147). The point, of course, is for the oppressed majority to take control (revolution) and create an alternative – a world without slaves (socialism). In discussing what is often seen as a hallmark of Leninism, he provides a rich characterisation of genuinely revolutionary politics, worth quoting at length:

The concept of democratic centralism as the “law” of party bureaucracy was a product of a later historical period – the combination of power, pragmatism, and a messianic “future expectation.” It is easy enough to define the basic concept of democratic centralism: democracy in reaching decisions and unity in implementing them. The difficulty resides only in how to apply this basic principle to small propaganda groups that do not have an organic relationship with the working class. That is, groups whose constituencies are not created from among the most class-conscious members of this class through a hard-fought process of selection. The Russian Social Democratic Party, and later the Bolshevik Party, benefited from real feedback thanks to its close relations with its social base. The Social Democratic Party, at least potentially, was a real mass party from the beginning. It had an ideology and an organization chart [organizational structure?], for example, that were recognized by politically conscious members of the working class in 1905 and 1917 as valid expressions of their politics (p. 118).

This remains a reasonable model for revolutionary activists of today. But that is far easier said than done. To Krausz’s credit, he also offers critical comments with which he suggests issues we must deal with today if we wish to move forward. In doing this, he touches on what he views as limitations in Lenin’s approach. The Russian Revolution of 1917 that Lenin and his comrades led was made with the expectation that it would be part of a global working-class socialist upsurge – but the workers of Western Europe did not end up joining their Russian comrades in overcoming the capitalist order. Much can be explained by the bureaucratic-conservative and opportunistic developments that took hold in the workers’ movement, yet Krausz feels that this cannot explain everything.

“While Lenin attributes great importance to the hierarchic structure of the world system”, Krausz muses, “he nonetheless underestimated, when considering the unification of the workers of the world by capital, the strength of factionalism, the cultural and linguistic obstacles, the psychological and political barriers, and the economic and social potency of central capitalism” (p. 95).

That this is an “internal” critique within the Leninist framework is indicated in his comments regarding his old mentor Georg Lukács. Commenting on “the surprising ideological crisis” of the workers’ movement in the early 1920s, a younger Lukács (as a Hegelian-Leninist within the leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party) argued in History and Class Consciousness that “economism” and “bourgeoisification”, manifested in the role played by “worker-aristocrats” within the proletariat, must be overcome by Leninist organisations playing “the decisive role”. According to Krausz, “the old Lukács, in contrast with the young one, did not locate the basic problem in the backwardness of ‘the proletariat’s ideology,’ but rather in the changing character of the capitalist economy and its impact on mentality and consciousness”. As Lukács put it in his later years, “Lenin’s grandiose concept, contrasting Marx with the present in a truly revolutionary way ... concentrates too exclusively upon revolutionizing the ideology and as a result does not direct the ideology sufficiently toward the object to be revolutionized, change in the capitalist economy” (pp. 140-141).

One need not fully embrace this critique in order to benefit from it, and there is indeed much to wrestle with and learn from in this massive book. A salient feature of the chapter “War and the National Question” involves the tracing of Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory to Lenin’s approach: “His whole theoretical-economic and political concept for the national question was determined by a thought already examined in relation to imperialism, born from his recognition of the hierarchical tripartite subdivision of the world system on the basis of the ‘law’ of unequal development” (p. 165).

The chapter, “The State and Revolution”, not only analyses Lenin’s classic 1917 study of that name but also connects it to a close examination of the strategic and tactical specifics of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The chapter, “Dictatorship and Democracy in Practice”, ranges from the complexities related to the revolutionary regime’s dissolution of the Constituent Assembly to the question of personal dictatorship (which Lenin decisively rejected when it was proposed to him, while Stalin – disastrously – implemented it several years later), also taking up in some detail the violence, terror and repression that engulfed the early Soviet Republic. The chapter on World Revolution comes to grips with the impacts of the 1920 Polish-Soviet War and the specifics of Lenin’s struggle against “messianic leftism” in the Communist International.

The chapter, “The Theory of Socialism – Possibility or Utopia?”, offers much information and food for thought regarding the conceptual origins of socialism, the transition from market economy to “war communism” and the subsequent shift to the New Economic Policy. It also wrestles with issues of the nature of power and party dictatorship, the role of “state capitalism” and “bureaucratic centralism”, and Lenin’s confrontation with the possibility (suggested hopefully by a brilliant counter-revolutionary theorist, N.V. Ustryalov) that the Bolshevik regime could develop into a sort of “national-communist” authoritarianism capable of advancing the reactionaries’ age-old goal of building up Great Russian power – Caesarism with a revolutionary mask. As it turned out, Krausz notes, in the face of the failure of world revolution and despite Lenin’s own efforts, elements within his own party would crystallise around Joseph Stalin and bring the Soviet Union onto the pathway to which Ustryalov pointed.

Second edition

For more than one reason, this rich volume is far from the last word on Lenin. But its structure and content will contribute to thinking about Lenin in a fruitful way. Reflecting a rich engagement with Eastern European sources and debates, and significant engagement with English-language sources and debates, it stands as a vital resource in Lenin studies and revolutionary scholarship.

Perhaps in a couple of years a new edition can be published that clears away some of the remaining translation problems and allows Krausz to clarify, revise or strengthen certain aspects of his work. Sorting out and making use of Lenin's ideas is a collective process, not only for scholars but especially for activists. This book is a positive element within that process, a resource for current and future struggles.