Reframing Lenin: on the question of revolutionary organization

By Nathan Moore

August 28, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The “organization” question is an important one for revolutionaries. Revolution—the overthrow of capitalism and the reconstitution of society on a more humane socialist basis—will require militants among the working class consciously organizing together to help influence broader social struggle. Absent a politically confident working class that is organized to fight for political power internationally in order to democratically organize production on a global scale, revolution will fail and more reactionary alternatives will fill the political void. 

Socialist scholars and activists (past and present) involved in the Trotskyist movement have identified “organization” as a key component of what constitutes Leninism.[1] The reason is obvious: the October Revolution of 1917 remains one of the few examples of the working class coming to political power in history. Without the Bolshevik Party shaping this struggle, the revolution would not have gone as far as it did before counterrevolution and the rise of fascism throughout Europe severely curtailed its progress—a development itself attributable to the failure of revolutionary organization in these countries during the interwar period. Revolutionary organization is critical to the success of the revolutionary movement. Vladimir Lenin, the most prominent member of the Bolshevik Party, was a principal contributor to bringing a revolutionary organization of such a caliber together. Consequently, discussions regarding Leninism bring to the forefront ideas about what constitutes effective revolutionary organization.

However, perhaps it is time to reframe Lenin in a way that will be useful for socialists today. What I propose is nothing original; it is based on what others have already explained sufficiently in their work. The idea is simply to bring their examination to light, shift the focus from the organization and party question highlighted in their titles, and situate it within other important elements in Leninism.[2]

What is Leninism?

Leninism is not a distinct variation or school of Marxism; rather, it is an extension of the Marxist method. At the turn of the 20th century, Lenin applied Marxism to Russian conditions that, on the surface, resembled very little to the countries of industrial Europe. Socialist historian Paul Le Blanc notes how Nikolai Bukharin explained this continuity between Leninism and Marxism:

Comparing the views of Marx with those of Lenin, Bukharin argued, ‘it is clear that Leninist Marxism represents quite a particular form of ideological education, for the simple reason that it is itself a child of a somewhat different epoch.’ At the same time, Bukharin added, ‘if we regard Marxism not as the entirety of ideas such as existed in the time of Marx’, but as a distinctive tool and methodology, then ‘Leninism is not something that modifies or revises the method of Marxist teaching’ but ‘a complete return to the Marxism formulated by Marx and Engels themselves.’[3] 

So, to get at the question “what constitutes Leninism?”, we have to first ask: “what constitutes Marxism?” and capture the “methodology” Bukharin identifies. 

Marxism can best be summarized as a dialectical unity of three elements: revolutionary theory, organization, and strategy/tactics. These three elements mutually reinforce and shape one another in dynamic fashion. Marxism is the scientific analysis of capitalist motion and the development of resistance to it. Organization can only be understood, and developed fully, in relation to the theory guiding it and the strategy/tactics employed within the working class struggle. 

Socialists who have highlighted the organization question as central to Leninism in their work do discuss these other elements (revolutionary theory and strategy/tactics) that are important to Leninism. For example, Le Blanc—in a recent essay assessing the field of Leninism today— offers a critique of Negri’s framing of Leninism in their work Factory of Strategy with this alternative lens: “there should first be an analysis of society and how it should be altered, followed by the development of strategy on how to bring about such change, and only then the development of an organisation capable of carrying out that strategy for social change.”[4]

It is this idea that I want to develop further: to shine a light on all three elements equally so that the question of organization is not privileged, but properly situated. To reiterate what LeBlanc observes above, revolutionary Marxist theory is rooted in a scientific understanding of capitalism in all the concrete forms in which it manifests itself in a given historical period as well as analyzing the forms of resistance to capitalism. Through theory, one can grasp “a line of march”; a strategy and corresponding tactics (a plan of action) around which revolutionaries and the broader working class movement can discuss, implement, and assess in order to strengthen their collective resistance. Organization is the vehicle through which the theory and strategy/tactics (“practice”) are fused. A key ingredient to keep the three elements of theory, organization, and strategy/tactics growing and developing in tandem is a developing working class movement, and deep connection with it.

If organization is viewed abstractly from theory and strategy/tactics—and absent a vibrant working class movement—the danger is that revolutionaries become isolated and compensate for their lack of influence with grandiose characterizations of their “correct positions” and the limited scope of their activity. Even worse, this can create a culture of abuse perpetrated by a “leadership” that is perceived to be more politically experienced, and therefore trusted, over the general membership.[5] 

Today, in the context of a decades-long retreat of working class organization since the 1970’s, there is a particular need for developing quality revolutionary theory that can explain the changing complexities of capitalism and help inform a strategy and set of tactics to pursue in a given struggle, even if their impact will not be immediately felt among the broader working class. From this starting point, revolutionaries can experiment with modes of organization that are organically tied to broader movements of the working class and the left, regardless of their level of strength. Revolutionary organization, in any historical moment, should reflect a healthy connection between Marxism and the struggles of the time (no matter their level of development) that bring Marxist theory to life. 

To grasp why this is a better way for revolutionaries to approach the question of organization today, let’s take a look at the early political lives of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Lenin. 

The early political life of Marx and Engels (1842-1850)

Before the revolutions of 1848, Marx and Engels spent much of their time elaborating their materialist conception of history against the idealist trends of the time.[6] These ideas were shaped by the workers' struggles, in particular the workers uprisings in Silesia and Prague in 1844. Feeling confident in their materialist worldview, which saw the liberation of humanity as the historic mission of the working class—and having a sense that the working class movement in Europe was heating up, they made modest attempts at organization by setting up Correspondence Committees among revolutionaries to engage in the free flow exchange of ideas: a period of theoretical debate and clarification. Out of these committees, and through the League of the Just, the Communist League was launched—the first attempt to create an international proletarian organization. The Communist League commissioned Marx and Engels to produce the first popular exposition of the League’s views in a programme of action that represented the distillation of unity between revolutionary theory, organization, and strategy/tactics: The Communist Manifesto. 

This theoretical production and grounding proved critical in framing their understanding of the world, so that when 1848 arrived, they were able to participate fully and with confidence, seeing their ideas come to life in the struggle unfolding before their eyes. Their strategy during the revolution involved building the confidence of working class organizations within the broader democratic movement and outside of the recently formed parliamentary assemblies. 

Within this general strategy they argued for some tactics and against others: 

1. They disagreed with a proposal to assemble a German émigre army from France to march into Germany as a way to accelerate revolutionary events.[7] 

2. In the fall of 1848 they argued for people to refuse paying taxes to the government; in essence, refusal to fund the counter revolution that was beginning to position itself against the movement.[8] 

3. They gave critical support to democratic candidates of the Left elected to the various legislative assemblies throughout Germany at the beginning, although this changed as the struggle matured.[9] 

4. They defended themselves and others writing for their newspaper the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (NRZ) in court against charges of slandering Prussian state officials, being acquitted by a jury on two occasions.[10] 

5. Engels participated in a workers’ uprising in the German states of Baden and Palintate in 1849, engaging in armed confrontation with Prussian military detachments on a number of occasions.[11] 

The organizational formations in which Marx and Engels participated during 1848 changed as the struggle unfolded. At the beginning of the revolution—from the spring to fall of 1848—through their journal the Neue Rheinische Zeitung based in Cologne Germany, they organized themselves as a radical democratic group within a broader democratic movement and organization (The Democratic Society in Cologne). During a particularly pitched phase of the revolution in the fall of 1848, Marx and Engels concluded that the petty-bourgeois democratic forces in the revolution were not steadfast defenders of democratic principles. Instead, these groups sought agreements with the forces of reaction through their elected Left delegates in the National Assembly. From this experience, Marx and Engels helped form an organization that was both broad and more homogenous in working class composition (The Cologne Workers’ Association), and independent of the broader democratic movements. They advocated the extension of similar associations throughout Germany.[12] 

The idea of organizing independent organizations of the working class did not originate with the 1848 revolution. Engels, throughout the 1840’s, reported regularly on the state of the Chartist movement in England, an independent and broad organization of the English working class, and looked upon it as the best example of independent working class organization in Europe. What Marx and Engels sought was maximum unity of forces against feudal and bureaucratic reaction in the economically and politically less developed nation of Germany. They pushed the democratic movement as far as it could go, and when experience of the movement compelled them to push further than the democratic forces were willing to go, they advocated forming more homogeneous, but still broad, organizations of the working class independent of the petty-bourgeois democratic parties. 

After the revolutionary movement had passed and failed, Marx and Engels drew a number of important conclusions regarding strategy and organization: the need for independent working class organization; for the working class to participate in elections with their own candidates; to unite with other democratic forces in so far as they fight, while maintaining an independent political position and organization.[13] These conclusions did not lead them to subsequently organize narrow organizations composed only of the ideologically committed. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions and the dissolution of the Communist League, Marx and Engels returned to theoretical work and reporting on the important struggles of the day and the political questions of the moment. They supported the continued growth of Chartism in Britain during the 1850’s and 60’s and were key players in the founding of the First International: an amalgam of various radical groups with history and roots in the working class movement.[14] 

To summarize, a revolutionary movement requires quality theory, a scientific understanding of the world in the specific historical moment in which revolutionaries are situated. From there, modest attempts at revolutionary organization can come to be which channel a discussion among broader layers of the working class regarding the strategy and tactics (which are deeply informed by theory) needed to strengthen the collective resistance of the working class. The dialectical interaction between revolutionary theory, organization, and strategy/tactics accelerates in heightened periods of working class struggle and is the basis for fortifying genuine revolutionary organization; such organization can’t be prefigured with models. Organization is a tool to bridge theory with practice (strategy/tactics); nothing more. 

The early political life of Lenin (1893-1903)

A similar construction can be made of Lenin’s early political life. Lenin began his political life with an intense study of Marxist theory. By the time he began writing in 1893 he had already read the first two volumes of Capital, among other works by Engels and Georgi Plekhanov, the “father of Russian Marxism.” Leon Trotsky noted that Lenin’s study of Capital was so thorough that he could easily reference this work when engaging with others in political discussions and debate.[15] He also intently studied statistics regarding economic life in the Russian countryside. The combination of Marxist theory in Capital alongside an intense study and observation of production relations in the Russian countryside, enabled Lenin to understand that, even though Russia remained an autocracy and was not as industrial as Europe, capitalism had fully penetrated Russia undermining forever pre-capitalist relations that had existed for centuries. Lenin produced a monumental work during this time that grounded his political positions for the remainder of his life: The Development of Capitalism in Russia.[16]

This study informed a critical debate taking place at the end of the 19th century among liberals, democrats, and revolutionary socialists on the nature of capitalism within Russia. Some liberal democrats (like Peter Struve) uncritically supported the growth of capitalist development no matter how such “progress” trampled upon the people. The political party that formed a little later from these ideas was the Constitutional-Democratic Party (“Cadet” Party). Other radical democrats, like the Narodniks and later Socialist Revolutionaries, denied that capitalism was a predominant force in Russia and that the foundation for socialism lay in peasant production of the countryside.[17] 

These competing theories had a profound impact on political practice later on. Whereas the Cadets downplayed the need for revolution to achieve democracy in Russia, the Socialist Revolutionaries sought a detour around capitalist development, focused on organizing among the peasantry and even advocated—and carried out—the assasination of members of the autocratic government (“terrorism”). 

Lenin and other Russian Marxists of the time—organized within the Russian-based League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class and the emigre-based Emancipation of Labor group—took a different position. Their grounding in Marxist theory corroborated the predominance of capitalist relations of production throughout Russia, and pointed to the leading role of the working class in the cities and countryside and their revolutionary role in overthrowing the autocracy. 

The working class movement in Russia had grown considerably by the mid 1890’s. The objective for the Russian Marxists at this time was to become more rooted in the actual struggles of the working-class movement, first by understanding their workplace conditions and the political questions they faced. They disseminated their ideas among workers in the factories through writing, leafleting and study circles.[18] These were the first modest attempts to develop revolutionary organization and a strategy for winning wider groups of workers to the idea of organizing for socialism and revolution against the autocracy. As growing numbers of 'conscious workers' became active in the revolutionary organization, at the same time earning increased confidence of and authority among broader sectors of the working class, the goal of bringing together socialism and the working class would be realized.

Riding on the crest of this burgeoning movement alongside a fully developed socialist movement organizing mass parties in Europe, the Russians understandably felt a little behind and attempted to match—as much as they could in very undemocratic conditions—the level of political organization their comrades in other countries were able to achieve.[19] Lenin, and others in the League, argued that Russian Marxism had firm theoretical grounding against liberal democratic and agrarian democratic trends predominant in the country; the time had come to establish a political program (a distillation of their theoretical ideas communicated publicly) that could serve as a strategic guide for revolutionary activity. The discussion of political program and strategy naturally dovetailed with having an organization.[20] They attempted to organize the first Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1898 but the police successfully infiltrated the gathering, arrested its members and forced them into exile in Siberia. Lenin, after serving his exile in Siberia, left Russia to live and organize the Russian movement abroad in Europe. 

Following the First Congress, the growing workers movement continued to give life to localized struggles throughout Russia from which local organizations with a Marxist outlook began to develop. Lenin, along with other Russian emigres living abroad, launched the newspaper Iskra. The objective of producing Iskra was to open frank discussion and debate among Marxist revolutionaries through their publications around a number of theoretical and strategic issues concerning the path to revolution in Russia.[21] Lenin’s critical contribution to this debate was his work What is to be Done?

The first successful congress to convene with the hope of creating a formal Russian party was the Second Congress of the RSDLP held in London in 1903. It is important to emphasize that the Congress was the culmination of an extensive discussion among all Russian Marxists. Only through this period of clarification among the disparate Russian Marxist groups, could a politically confident Marxist movement form, hitherto localized, throughout the country behind the project of a unified party that could give national coordination to the socialist struggle. 

Lenin’s contentious positions at the Congress—concerning a more strict definition of party membership (on which he was initially willing to compromise), a more restricted editorial board composition, and respecting the democratic decisions of the Congress—followed the seriousness with which Lenin approached the theoretical disputes (that informed strategy) aired in the previous two-and-a-half years. Even though a fully united party did not form following the Second Congress because of what seemed at the time to be acrimonious hair-splitting, this gathering is seen as the foundation of his views on questions of organization, and consequently, the “birth of Leninism.”[22] But it would be erroneous to view this Congress as a question of party organization absent the serious theoretical and strategic debate and struggle of the previous years (also very much constituent elements in Leninism, and Marxism). In Lenin’s view, if the Russian revolutionary movement were to be taken seriously, its organization would have to match the high level of theoretical and strategic thinking that Russian Marxists had elaborated over the previous decades as well as the high level of agitation among the emergent working class movement. Otherwise, their attempts at influencing this movement would founder. 

To summarize, the Second Congress only came to be because of an insurgent movement on the part of the Russian working class on the one hand, and the already advanced stages of workers organization achieved in other countries on the other. The question of organization was not settled before a vibrant working class movement took off; on the contrary, it was developed as a result of advances in the level of struggle within Russia in particular. Alongside a strengthening movement, the years between 1900 and 1903 was an important period of clarification among Russian Marxists. Before a national party could cohere, rigorous and honest debate and discussion needed to happen grounded in the theoretical and strategic questions of the day. 

What does this mean for today? 

A common charge that Marxists have leveled against anarchists is that they prefigure the future egalitarian/communist society at the expense of understanding the level of political organization required to defeat the capitalist class. But a similar charge could be brought against Marxists for prefiguring the type of organization that is required to bring about a successful revolutionary movement of the working class. 

Revolutionary organization on par with Bolshevism can only develop organically from periods of heightened struggle, where conscious revolutionaries rooted in working class life organize together to advance the struggles of the class. There is a danger of overstating what constitutes “real” revolutionary organization. These pretensions of having the answer to what constitutes revolutionary organization has certainly played a role in the many splits (and even dissolutions) that many revolutionary socialist groups have suffered since the 1950’s—although at root to every split is the presence of acute theoretical disagreements. 

Much has been written to capture an authentic picture of what constitutes revolutionary organization from the Bolshevik experience. Important characteristics have been gleaned: flexibility in structure and organization to adapt to changing circumstances; democracy and frank discussion and debate among the membership alongside unity in action (without subservience but with continual reflection and assessment); connection with working class life and the political questions it faces; etc.[23] These qualities are valuable and need to be kept in mind but they are necessarily abstract. Accordingly, the question of what kind of organization revolutionary socialists should build today can only be resolved within the concrete conditions we face and not through overly abstract reference to past “models” of organization. 

The conditions of the late United States, and global, capitalism of today resembles little the political period of the early 20th century, when the socialist movement was broad, powerful, and independently organized. Today most of the combative struggles are not taking place within workplaces, but around issues of working class oppression within communities (BLM/#Defund, Standing Rock, immigrant rights, MeToo and Abortion rights defense). There is a need to develop quality theory that can capture the complexity of the capitalist world in which we live and inform the resistance to it. 

Some of the important theoretical contributions that come to mind today are: analysis of the transformations of the US and global working class;[24] the centrality of social reproduction work to the functioning of capitalism and its oppressive role over the lives of women and other oppressed groups;[25] the return of the “mass strike” as a form of resistance central to many struggles worldwide that do not spawn from the traditional unionized sections of the working class but from the spheres of social reproduction;[26] the need to place a politics of race and gender at the center of socialist struggle and revolution over reductionist arguments that treat these oppressions as peripheral to economic exploitation;[27] and the need for genuinely revolutionary internationalism.[28] Such internationalism involves not only opposing all aspects of imperialism and supporting all struggles for human freedom and dignity, but also helping to build coordinated global struggles against environmental degradation, against racial and sexual oppression, against class exploitation, and against the new upsurge of fascism. It includes the need for revolutionaries and activists of all countries to gain insights and strength from each other in their common struggle.

Revolutionary socialists should be flexible on the question of organization and not attempt to prefigure what can only develop naturally in organic connection with the struggles of the working class as they exist today. After all, the level of struggle will dictate the kinds of organization that will make sense and be possible in any given historical moment. Revolutionaries should organize together and within broader formations of like-minded socialists and radicals in order to facilitate a collective effort to shape local struggles at a level commensurate with their numbers and resources. Healthy revolutionary organizations will produce well-rounded Marxist theory that accurately captures the new forms of capitalist reality that we face today in order to inform the strategy and tactics (“practice”) that will help strengthen the future workers’ movement.

Capitalism continually changes in form but its essence remains the same. The tasks for revolutionaries are to study and discuss these changes in order to develop theory that can guide and inform actions today that will help shape the future and bigger battles of tomorrow. Without revolutionary theory there can be no practice (strategy and tactics). Without revolutionary practice, theory becomes dogma. The interaction of theory and practice can only occur with some degree of organization and coordination among revolutionaries rooted in the working class; the forms of organization that revolutionaries use to advance struggle will change with the times and level of struggle. Today this will require flexibility and experimentation, the key to any process wishing to emulate the authentic scientific method of Marxism. 


[1] Ernest Mandel, “Leninist Theory of Organization.”, Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), and Tony Cliff, Building the Party, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002).

[2] This discussion is the extension of one started by David McNalley with the former International Socialist Organization (ISO), subsequently published in their online publication Socialist Worker: “The Period, the Party, and the Next Left,” March 22, 2019 

[3] Paul Le Blanc. “Lenin Studies: Method and Organization.” Historical Materialism, 25.4: (2017), 107

[4] Le Blanc, “Lenin Studies: Method and Organization,” 116. Le Blanc also discusses this in his book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 302 as well as the potential pitfalls in overapplying what worked during Lenin’s time in Russia to very different conditions today, 304-305.

[5] Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 312-320. See also David McNally, “The Period, the Party, and the Next Left,Socialist Worker, March 22, 2019. 

[6] Some key works elaborating their materialist theory during this time were The German Ideology (although never published) and The Poverty of Philosophy.

[7] See Karl Marx, Marx and Engels Collected Works: Volume 6 (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2013), endnote 205.

[8] See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works: Volume 8 (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), XV.

[9] August Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets or Both? (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2019), pp. 6-7.

[10] See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works: Volume 8 (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), endnote 1.

[11] See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works: Volume 10 (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), pp. 211-237.

[12] See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works: Volume 7 (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), endnote 245. 

[13] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Address of the Central Authority to the League, March 1850,” Marx and Engels Collected Works: Volume 10, 277-287.

[14] See Johnstone, “Marx and Engels and the Concept of the Party,” Class, Party and Revolution, 77-86 and Nimtz, “Marx and Engels on the Revolutionary Party,” Class, Party, and Revolution, 263-268.

[15] Lenin wrote to his sister on December 13, 1894, inquiring about her ability to obtain a copy of Capital Volume III for him. See VI. Lenin, “3. To his sister Maria” (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1977). Leon Trotsky, Trotsky On Lenin (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2017), 176. 

[16] Neil Harding’s central insight is the extent to which Lenin’s theoretical grounding around the question of Russian capitalist development shaped his political and strategic framework in these early years: Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, Volume 1, (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2009).

[17] VI Lenin, “The Economic Content of Narodism and the Criticism of it in Mr. Struve’s Book: the Reflection of Marxism in Bourgeois Literature,” Collected Works: Volume 1 (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1963), 333-508.

[18] For summaries of revolutionary Marxist activity in Russia during this time see Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 13-34 and Cliff, Building the Party, 35-57.

[19] Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).

[20] See VI. Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats, 1897,” Collected Works: Volume 2 (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1972), 323. VI. Lenin, “Articles for ‘Rabochaya Gazeta’: Our Immediate Task, 1899Collected Works: Volume 4 (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1964), 215-220, and VI. Lenin, “A Draft of our Party Programme, 1899,’ Collected Works: Volume 4 (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1964), 227.  

[21] Le Blanc and Cliff give good summaries of this period: see Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 35-70 and Cliff, Building the Party, 59-84. Lih challenges the assumption Le Blanc and Cliff maintain regarding the centrality of “economism” being central to the discussion among revolutionaries of the time, despite Lenin’s emphasis in What is to be Done? (WITBD): See Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 217-278. However, even Lih’s work does show that there still did exist a lack of clarity among Russian Marxists on the relationship between “economic” and “political” struggle (see pages 279 to 334). Also, it is important to note Lenin’s organizational conclusions in WITBD work are a product of discussions around a number of questions debated among Marxists since the mid-1890’s. For a good summary of these theoretical and strategic discussions see Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 21-26. 

[22] Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 51.

[23] Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 250-251.

[24] Kim Moody, On New Terrain (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017) and Kim Moody “On the Global Working Class” New Politics 70: pp. 41-50

[25] Tithi Bhattacharya ed., Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto Press, 2017). 

[26] David McNally, “The Return of the Mass Strike,” Spectre 1:1 (2020), 3-34

[27] See Spectre Journal

[28] Ashley Smith and Kevin Lin, “The New China-U.S. Cold War,” New Politics, Vol. 28:1 (Summer 2020), 80-90.