Socialism and revolutionary democracy: Lenin’s legacy for our time of catastrophe
The following presentation was given by Paul Le Blanc as the inaugural keynote address to the four-month long “Leninist Days/Journadas Leninistas” series of lectures. For more information or to register for “Leninist Days/Journadas Leninistas” visit its website here.
In the hundredth anniversary year of Lenin’s death, the importance of engaging with the ideas and work of this uncompromising revolutionary flows not only from our need to comprehend the past but also the present — and possibilities of the future.
The agenda of this presentation is quite ambitious. The overarching theme involves the democratic qualities and continuing relevance of Lenin’s orientation. Within that framework, we will touch first on why Lenin has often been seen so negatively, and then sketch his actual political and organizational views, briefly tracing how this played out in the Russian Revolution of 1917. In our remaining time, we will touch on complications in all of this — particularly in regard to applying Lenin’s ideas to our own time.
1. Critics and distortions
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — known by his revolutionary alias, Lenin — is a central figure in the history of the twentieth century. In support of this view, one relevant set of facts involves his role as a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution and a founder of the modern Communist movement. Another set of facts involves how he has been perceived by millions of people — for some as Evil Incarnate, for others as a Benevolent Genius. A third factual cluster involves his development of Marxism’s revolutionary cutting edge, which has relevance for the future.
Contrary to the notions of critics and even partisans, I will argue that Lenin’s understanding of socialism, and of methods necessary in the struggle for it, are profoundly democratic, in harmony with the perspectives of such revolutionary and democratic-minded socialists as Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. His legacy continues to have relevance, especially for activists in our own catastrophic time.
But why have so many flocked to reject Lenin? In part because he is a revolutionary exemplar — perceived as an outstanding example for those who would like to see a socialist revolution. There are some, however, who for a variety of reasons embrace the status quo and do not take kindly to those like Lenin who threaten to disrupt it. Over the years, we have also seen revolutionaries becoming disillusioned with socialist revolution’s possibility. In some cases, one-time adherents, out of weariness or frustration, feel a need to draw back from the struggle. And there are yet others who would like to see a better world, but who are not inclined to subject themselves to the incredible stresses connected with efforts to actually overturn capitalism. Some of these people are therefore moved to explicitly reject the revolutionary exemplar.
More than this, a great many people have a false understanding of Leninism — as elitist, manipulative, and authoritarian — that has been spread far and wide both by critics and partisans of Lenin. There are peculiar similarities in the way Lenin is perceived both by some anti-Leninists and by some who claim to be Leninists. It is worth spending a moment on this.
The variety of critical viewpoints regarding Lenin, can be illustrated through the evolution, from Communism to anti-Communism, of a very influential interpreter of Leninist thought named Bertram D. Wolfe. He was a pro-Lenin enthusiast for a quarter of a century, first as a leading figure in the US Communist Party, then in a dissident Communist group which sought acceptance back into the mainstream of the pro-Stalin Communist movement. None of this worked out in the way that he hoped. As a disillusioned ex-Communist, he initially developed a nuanced critique in which Lenin’s conscious commitment to democracy was subverted by some of his own undemocratic assumptions and impulses. Later, as an employee of the US State Department during the Cold War, Wolfe ended up simply denouncing Lenin as a cynical architect of totalitarianism who — similar to Adolf Hitler — should never have been born.
There are varieties of Lenin partisans as well. The most powerful were Joseph Stalin and his co-thinkers, who adhered to an incredibly stilted, narrow, undemocratic understanding of Lenin’s thought and practice. They used their version of Leninism to justify policies and practices which they wanted to implement in the 1920s, the ’30s and beyond. Because Stalin was at the pinnacle of state power in the Soviet Union and was a prime influence in the world Communist movement for about a quarter of a century, he had the ability to destroy Communists who opposed him and also had the authority and resources to widely propagate his own particular understanding of Leninism. Given the prevalence of this authoritarian understanding of Lenin, it is little wonder that many millions of people are inclined to accept such an interpretation as representing the truth.
In contrast to this, a growing number of serious scholars and thoughtful activists have been finding in Lenin’s actual thought and practice qualities which are far more interesting, valuable, and democratic than is commonly thought.
2. Revolutionary democratic program
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels link the working class “winning the battle for democracy” with society moving forward to the creation of socialism, a society of the free and the equal (Le Blanc 2016, p. 172). For Lenin, the struggles for democracy and for socialism were similarly inseparable. When he was first presenting the case for Russia’s rising layer of Marxist revolutionaries in the 1890s, Lenin called for a growing and militant socialist party that would lead struggles of the working class in Russia around two interrelated focal-points — socialism and democracy.
Or as he put it in 1897, “the Russian Social-Democrats … have always emphasized the dual manifestation and content of the class struggle of the proletariat and have always insisted on the inseparable connection between their socialist and democratic tasks.” The socialist task was defined as “the fight against the capitalist class aimed at destroying the class system and organizing socialist society.” The democratic task was defined as “the fight against [tsarist] absolutism aimed at winning political liberty in Russia and democratizing the political and social system of Russia” (Lenin 1897).
He went on to explain that “the proletariat alone can be — and because of its class position must be — a consistently democratic, determined enemy of absolutism, incapable of making any concessions or compromises. The proletariat alone can be the vanguard fighter for political liberty and for democratic institutions.” There were, he argued, two reasons for this. First, “political tyranny bears most heavily upon the proletariat whose position gives it no opportunity to secure a modification of that tyranny — it has no access to the higher authorities, not even to the officials, and it has no influence on public opinion.” Second, “the proletariat alone is capable of bringing about the complete democratization of the political and social system, since this would place the system in the hands of the workers” (Lenin 1897).
In 1899 Lenin was elaborating on the same points. The essence of the Russian Marxist program, he explained, was “to organize the class struggle of the proletariat and to lead this struggle, the ultimate aim of which is the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the establishment of a socialist society.” He went on to clarify that this involved “the economic struggle (struggle against individual capitalists or against individual groups of capitalists for the improvement of the workers’ condition) and the political struggle (struggle against the government for the broadening of the people’s rights, i.e., for democracy, and for the broadening of the political power of the proletariat)” (Lenin 1899).
In 1903, the Russian Marxists broke into two contending factions — Lenin’s militant Bolsheviks and the more moderate Mensheviks. But one year earlier, in his classic What Is to Be Done?, Lenin underscored the agreed-upon notion of the need to “expound and emphasize general democratic tasks before the whole people, without for a moment concealing our socialist convictions.” In a key passage, he asserted that a Marxist must function as “the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat” (Lenin 1902a).
Another classic work was Lenin’s polemic in the midst of the revolutionary upsurge of 1905, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution. Here he argued for a militant worker-peasant alliance to overthrow tsarism, rejecting the worker-capitalist alliance advocated by his Menshevik comrades. He expressed the view of both factions that “whoever wants to reach socialism by a different road, other than that of political democracy, will inevitably arrive at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and the political sense.” He noted that “the slogan of a democratic republic is necessary both as a matter of logic and in point of principle, for it is precisely complete freedom that the proletariat, as the foremost champion of democracy, is striving to attain” (Lenin 1905).
Lenin was forever pointing out the hypocrisy and falseness of the so-called “democracy” and “freedom” represented by pro-capitalist liberals, because capitalism’s inherent inequality of wealth and power always stacks the deck against the laboring majority. As against this, Lenin’s Bolsheviks insisted on the “fullest possible measure of political liberty,” both from the standpoint of the immediate interests of the proletariat and from the standpoint of the “final aims of socialism” (Lenin 1905). Genuine freedom and democracy are inherently anti-capitalist and revolutionary.
In the midst of the First World War, the nature and role of democracy was a key question animating Lenin’s thinking, and by 1916 he had arrived at “a very clear and definite view of the relationship between economics and politics in the epoch of struggle for socialism.” This is the judgment of his close comrade Nadezhda Krupskaya in her Reminiscences of Lenin (Krupskaya 1970, p. 328).
Stressing that “the role of democracy in the struggle for socialism could not be ignored,” Krupskaya quotes Lenin as insisting that democracy is necessary for the achievement of socialism in two respects: first, the working class cannot carry out a socialist revolution unless it is prepared for that through struggles for democracy; and second, “socialism cannot maintain its victory and bring humanity to the time when the state will wither away unless democracy is fully achieved” Krupskaya 1970, p. 328).
Lenin’s linkage of the socialist goal with “the withering away of the state” is grounded in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program. Lenin sees the achievement of the goal of a stateless socialism evolving over time, as democracy becomes a habit in the way people function as decision-makers (Lenin 1917a, p. 30). But he also sees the existence of genuine democracy as an essential element in a political strategy that will replace capitalism with socialism. Details of that strategic orientation are suggested in this lengthy quotation from The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, written in 1915:
We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics in respect of all democratic demands, including a republic, a militia, election of government officials by the people, equal rights for women, self-determination of nations, etc. So long as capitalism exists all these demands are capable of realization only as an exception, and in incomplete, distorted form. Basing ourselves on democracy as already achieved, and showing up its deficiency under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism and expropriation of the bourgeoisie as an essential basis both for abolishing the poverty of the masses and for fully and thoroughly implementing all democratic transformations. Some of those transformations will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of this overthrow, and still others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle but an epoch of a series of battles on all and every problem of economic and democratic transformations, whose completion will be effected only with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It is for the sake of this ultimate goal that we must formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary manner (Lenin 1915).
3. Democratic revolutionary organization
We can see the profoundly democratic aspirations guiding Lenin’s organization, which flowed into helping to make the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Before examining the democratic dynamics of that revolutionary overturn, it would make sense to touch on democratic dynamics within the organization itself. We will then conclude by touching on several problematical points related to using Lenin’s orientation within our own reality.
In the early 1900s, Lenin held up for Russian revolutionaries the ideal of Germany’s massive Social Democratic Party (the SPD), then the largest socialist workers’ party in the world. Perceiving it as an outstanding example of working-class democracy, he also extolled the SPD’s practice of developing revolutionary cadres, rooted in the advanced layer of the working class. Such a working-class activist was trained in multifaceted skills. “He acquires experience and dexterity in his [revolutionary] profession,” Lenin commented, adding: “He broadens his outlook and increases his knowledge; he observes at close quarters the prominent political leaders from other localities and of other parties; he strives to rise to their level and combine in himself the knowledge of the working-class environment and the freshness of socialist convictions with professional skill.” Lenin hoped that ever-increasing numbers of working-class comrades would develop in this way. He concluded that without this, “the proletariat cannot wage a stubborn struggle against its excellently trained enemies” (Lenin 1902b).
Lenin stressed the difference between the very repressive conditions of tsarist Russia and the freer conditions existing in European countries to the West. Not inclined to indulge in what he termed a “toy democracy” that could get everyone arrested, Lenin insisted the Russian organization must maintain secure underground practices to protect the working-class revolutionary so that “he may go underground in good time” when necessary. While emphasizing “the fine art of not getting arrested,” he projected the development of a network of “an increasing number of talented agitators, but also talented organizers, propagandists, and ‘practical workers’ in the best sense of the term,” intimately connected with “the spontaneous rise of a mass workers’ movement [that] becomes broader and deeper.” Lenin envisioned the revolutionary party as “a close and compact body of comrades” in which all are infused with “a lively sense of their responsibility.” The “forces of specially trained worker-revolutionaries who have gone through extensive preparation,” Lenin believed, “boundlessly devoted to the revolution, will enjoy the boundless confidence of the widest masses of the workers” (Lenin 1902b).
As 1905 began to blend into 1906, an influential concept of democratic centralism became prevalent within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. All factions, Mensheviks as well as Bolsheviks, favored democratic decision-making and democratic elections within all party organizations, with the understanding that “decisions of the guiding organizations are binding on the members of those organizations of which the collective is the organ,” and “decisions of lower-level organizations are not to be implemented if they contradict decisions of higher organizations.” The Bolsheviks emphasized that “while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall [by the membership], their actions are given wide publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities” (quoted in Le Blanc 2015, p. 116).
Critics commonly describe democratic centralism as a Leninist mechanism far more centralist than democratic, requiring on the one hand “a strong leader” and on the other hand a rank-and-file membership “consciously and joyfully submitting to the leadership imposed on it by senior members,” as Cold War scholar Alfred G. Meyer once put it. Indeed, the Stalinist variant of “Leninism” asserted that it was developed to ensure “complete inner unity of outlook” (Meyer 1967, pp. 93, 100; Peters 1935, p. 23). But this is not how the term was understood by Russian revolutionaries of 1917.
Lenin himself insisted the health of the revolutionary organization required “that the ideological struggle in the Party on the question of theory and tactics … [be] conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible,” just so long as this not “disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action.” He also underscored the necessity for “the rights of all minorities and for all loyal opposition” as well as for the relative autonomy of local organizations. He summarized democratic centralism as “freedom of discussion, unity of action” (Lenin 1906a; Lenin 1906b).
The highest decision-making body in the party was not a party dictator or central committee or political committee but rather the party congress (or convention). The central committee was elected by and answerable to the party congress. The congress was to be held every year or two, consisting of elected delegates from every local branch of the party. These elections were to take place after a period of written and oral discussion and debate on the issues facing the party. It was the decisions of such a congress that were considered binding on the lower-level organizations — on the leadership and on the membership. Lenin “always, as long as he lived, attached tremendous importance to Party congresses,” recalled Krupskaya. “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” (Krupskaya 1970, p. 89).
A growing number of scholars have found, as Ronald Suny puts it, that “the Bolsheviks operated not as a tightly centralized party in which orders that came down from above were faithfully carried out without question but as a loose and disputatious collection of strong-willed activists who had to be persuaded of the right course to take.” They were “an argumentative lot. They were Protestants without an infallible pope. Many were well-read in the classics of Marxism and kept abreast of the controversies at party congresses and in the party press. … [who were] dedicated to … using a body of political theory and historical interpretation to analyze the politics of the moment and predict possible outcomes.… Strategy followed from their reading of the class configuration in Russia and in Europe” (Suny 2020, pp. 159-60).
4. Making sense of Russia’s Revolution
How did this play out in the Russian revolutions of 1917 — both the February/March overthrow of the tsar, and the October/November replacement of the Provisional Government by “all power to the Soviets”?
The 1917 reports from knowledgeable New York Tribune foreign correspondent Isaac Don Levine give a sense of the revolutionary dynamics. While the “mainstream” politicians in the rather lame tsarist parliament (the Duma) reared back in fear, an upsurge in late February challenged the power of the tsar, demanding: Peace, bread, land, liberty! According to Levine, “the leaders of the socialistic, revolutionary, and labor elements organized for a general attack ... against the old regime.” Forming democratic-activist councils (soviets), Levine tells us, they mobilized “a revolutionary army, composed of soldiers, armed students, and workers. Red flags were now waving in the air everywhere, and, singing the songs of freedom and revolution, the masses continued their victorious fight” (Levine 1917, pp. 223, 225).
The tsarist autocracy collapsed. The revolution was triumphant. Traditional liberal and conservative politicians, with support from moderate socialists, hastily composed a Provisional Government, but its power was limited. “It was the workers and soldiers that actually fought and shed their blood for the freedom of Russia,” Levine reported at the time. “The Duma [from which the Provisional Government arose] took a hand in the situation only after the revolution had achieved its main success” (Levine 1917, pp. 219-220).
“The gulf between the Provisional Government and the Council of Deputies [that is, the soviets] is as wide as between the United States Government and socialism,” Levine explained to his readers. “Only such an upheaval as the revolution could have bridged this chasm between the two extremes.” While the Provisional Government “represents . . . business and commerce,” he noted, “the ultimate aim of the Workers’ Council is social revolution. To achieve this revolution it is necessary to de-throne the political autocrats first, they say. Then the capitalistic system must be attacked by the working classes of all nations as their common enemy.” This account from Levine was in June 1917 (Levine 1917, pp. 273, 276, 278).
A tumultuous swirl of events swept through Russia from June to October, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks demanding: “Down With the Provisional Government! All Power to the Soviets!” By October, the Bolsheviks and their allies had won substantial majorities in key soviets, and the soviets they led went on to depose the Provisional Government.
The morning after the seizure of power, Lenin — speaking for the new revolutionary government — proclaimed: “Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your Soviets are from now on the organs of state authority, legislative bodies with full powers” (Lenin 1917).
This ultra-democratic vision incorporated an explicit commitment to move forward to socialism, in Russia and globally. He concluded: “Gradually, with the consent and approval of the majority of the peasants, in keeping with their practical experience and that of the workers, we shall go forward firmly and unswervingly to the victory of socialism — a victory that will be sealed by the advanced workers of the most civilized countries, bring the peoples lasting peace and liberate them from all oppression and exploitation” (Lenin 1917b).
Lenin’s final point in this statement indicates the central importance of revolutionary internationalism — what some have called solidarity across borders — for the Russian Revolution and for revolutionary strategy altogether. This is why Lenin and his comrades formed the Communist International, to help build up effective revolutionary parties throughout the world. As he explained in his Letter to American Workers, “We are banking on the inevitability of the world revolution,” adding: “We are now, as it were, in a besieged fortress, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief” (Lenin 1918).
Luxemburg also noted that “the whole calculation behind the Russian fight for freedom is based on the tacit presumption that the revolution in Russia ought to become the signal for the revolutionary rising of the proletariat in the West,” and if that failed to happen, “even the greatest energy and the greatest sacrifices of the proletariat in a single country must inevitably become tangled in a maze of contradiction and blunders” (Luxemburg 2024, pp. 168, 217). Making common cause with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in the final weeks before she was killed, Luxemburg helped establish the German Communist Party and labored to help make a socialist revolution in Germany.
At the same time, she was increasingly critical of what she saw as the contradictions and blunders that moved developments in Soviet Russia away from the workers’ democracy that she, Marx and Lenin had always stood for — veering instead in the direction of the one-party dictatorship and bureaucratic tyranny that would become consolidated in future years under the Stalin regime. Luxemburg noted that such developments were taking place “under conditions of bitter compulsion and exigency amid the swirling maelstrom of events” (Luxemburg 2024, p. 217). This maelstrom of events included the incredible violence of immensely powerful global forces prepared to destroy the revolution through economic strangulation (with consequent waves of famine and disease), military invasion, and the generous funding of counter-revolutionary forces in a brutal civil war. Hostile capitalist governments also labored to create around revolutionary Russia a “cordon sanitaire” — a chain of anti-revolutionary dictatorships that would prevent the spread of revolution and cause the Soviet Republic to fester and finally die in its isolation.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks resorted to extreme authoritarian measures: the Red Terror and a dictatorship not of the workers and peasants, but of a beleaguered and increasingly dictatorial Russian Communist Party. This was not meant to be some new pathway to build socialism, but simply a desperate effort to survive until socialist revolutions spread to more countries that would join with Soviet Russia to build a better world. Luxemburg knew the revolution’s leaders and felt there could be no “doubt that it has only been with the greatest internal misgivings and extreme inner reluctance that the gifted figures at the vanguard of the Russian Revolution — ie, Lenin and Trotsky — have taken certain decisive steps on the thorny path they navigate, with snares of all kinds on either side” (Luxemburg 2024, p. 217).
Luxemburg’s sharp critique of the Russian Revolution was designed to help strengthen the global struggle for socialism in order, as she put it, “to distinguish the essential from the inessential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the politics of the Bolsheviks” (Luxemburg 2024, p. 245). To help advance socialist revolution throughout the world, she believed, the positive “essentials” of Lenin’s approach (which have been the focus of this presentation) must be separated from the “non-essentials” associated with the authoritarian swerve taken by Lenin and his comrades in the desperate years following 1917. Due to the failure of the revolutionaries — Luxemburg as much as Lenin — Russia’s revolutionary regime remained isolated in a hostile capitalist world, and the result was the eventual consolidation, after Lenin’s death, of the dictatorship of Stalin. The “non-essential” qualities that Luxemburg critiqued became essentials of Stalinism.
Lenin himself, from his youth to his death, sought to remain true to the original essentials. It is worth noting that one element of this was his approach to revolutionary theory. Lenin insisted that Marxism is not a dogma but a guide to action. He saw the relationship between theory and practice, between Marxist thought and practical political activity, as a complex interplay. He insisted that genuinely revolutionary theory “assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement” (1920a). He sought to explain to comrades of other countries that the history of Bolshevism could not be understood in a simplistic way. It must include a variety of qualities: adherence to basic revolutionary conceptions combined with the struggle for more modest reforms, knowing the difference between revolutionary practice and revolutionary phrase-mongering, the interplay of democracy and class-consciousness, being able to push forward against opponents on the left, flexibility to compromise and form a united front, knowing when to attack and when to retreat, always learning from experience.
While the revolution might not be about to break out in one or another particular country, Lenin and his comrades argued, “every struggle for the most limited immediate demand is a source of revolutionary education, for it is the experiences of struggle that will convince working people of the inevitability of revolution and the significance of communism” (Riddell 2012, p. 1158).
5. Lenin’s reality and our reality
Flexibility was a key to Lenin’s orientation. “History as a whole, and the history of revolutions in particular,” Lenin emphasized, “is always richer in content, more varied, more multiform, more lively and ingenious than is imagined by even the best parties, the most class-conscious vanguards of the most advanced classes.” An effective Communist International, he insisted, “can never be built up on stereotyped, mechanically equated, and identical tactical rules of struggle.” Lenin urged comrades of different countries “to seek out, investigate, predict, and grasp that which is nationally specific and nationally distinctive,” to correctly adapt and apply revolutionary perspectives to their specific contexts. He rejected as “stupid” the notion that the Communist International would ever call upon revolutionaries of other lands “slavishly to imitate the Russians.” He commented to his Italian comrades: “The revolution in Italy will run a different course than that in Russia. It will start in a different way. How? Neither you nor we know” (Lenin 1920b; Lenin 1921). One must be open to a variety of possibilities.
This brings us to the penultimate point of this presentation. Lenin’s actual ideas and practice developed and made sense within a specific context which no longer exists. While we live in a very different world than he did, however, it is not totally different.
In the hopeful struggles and horrific experiences of the 20th century, global mass movements of the workers and oppressed were ultimately defeated and largely destroyed. Capitalism remains the most dynamic economic system in human history, and so it has continued to evolve in amazing ways — evolving in the face of immense challenges, and through seemingly overwhelming crises brought on by its own contradictions.
The inevitable proliferation of new technologies and techniques, the voraciously expansive reach developing within industrial capitalist society, and the amazing processes of globalization have transformed capitalism in multiple ways — but the need for profit-driven business enterprise to exploit humanity’s life and labor has remained the same. More and more aspects of our lives have been invaded and battered through the capital accumulation process. Through this, the old working class has been largely overwhelmed and much of it even obliterated. Yet, through capitalism’s continued dynamic development, more and more people within sectors of our planet’s labor market are proletarianized, dominated, exploited, oppressed and endangered.
The structure and dynamics of the global economy generate deepening inequalities, instabilities, and destructiveness that throw into question the future of human civilization — and even humanity’s ability to survive. An eroding quality of life for more and more of the world’s laboring majorities is matched by growing authoritarianism, irrationality, and violence across the face of our planet. A voracious market economy designed to enrich already immensely wealthy elites is intimately connected with the environmental destruction engulfing our world.
Today’s presentation will conclude with a further consideration of this matter of environmental destruction. But first it makes sense to re-emphasize more strongly a fundamental difference between Lenin’s time and ours. Much of what Lenin had to say and tried to do made sense within a global political context that no longer exists.
In his time, socialist and labor parties — with massive working-class constituencies, profoundly influenced by Marxist theory and explicitly committed to replacing capitalism with socialism — were the largest political parties within each of the major European nations. Angelica Balabanoff later recalled the mighty Socialist International on the eve of World War I, embracing “millions of men and women in every nation of the world,” including “the most advanced and articulate workers, the most influential leaders of labor, many of the ablest journalists and foremost intellectuals of the day.” A bulwark of working-class consciousness and socialist commitment, “its leaders sat in parliaments and trade union councils,” and “its hundreds of newspapers were daily fare of the European masses, animated by a common faith” (Balabanoff 1973, pp. 113-4).
Today this movement exists as shreds and tatters and faded residues in much of the world where it was once vibrant and powerful. A primary task of those who would be guided by the perspectives of such people as Marx and Luxemburg and Lenin will have to involve re-building something approximating this massive political-cultural-social force for socialism.
The socialist movement of the late 19th century was created in an era of expansive and surging capitalism. Of course, the revitalization of the revolutionary socialist component of that movement, under the banner of Communism in the early twentieth century, took place within a context of capitalist crisis and the horrific catastrophe of imperialist war. But revolutionaries such as Lenin had the advantage of building on recent socialist achievements. Still, Lenin understood that they would need to build up their movement within and in contraposition to a catastrophic world war.
Our own daunting task of recreating a global mass socialist movement will have to occur in an era of catastrophe even more horrific than the mass slaughter of World War I — the destabilization and unraveling of the global environment and a consequent wave of economic calamities and mass fatalities. In this we are cursed by good fortune turning to bad fortune.
Fortunately, a scientific consensus projects that climate change — currently being driven by the immensely powerful fossil fuel industries — might still be halted, preventing our planet from being overwhelmed by cascading catastrophes. This will require dramatic, decisive immediate action on a global scale. Unfortunately, the necessary changes will be too costly, in the short run, for the businesses and governments that make the decisions. So far, the necessary changes are not being implemented.
Liberal politicians offer reassuring rhetoric, phony compromises, and inadequate policies. Fake populists on the extreme right deny the realities of climate change altogether, resorting to authoritarian, bigoted, and violent policies in response to ominous problems threatening our world. As increasing millions of the world’s people are impacted by the cascading catastrophes, a mass disillusionment with the capitalist status quo is likely, with a deepening radicalization.
In contrast to Lenin’s time, we lack the mass labor and socialist movements in most countries where they existed in the early 20th century. We must create the mass movements we need — more or less from scratch. But how?
Some analysts have urged what they call a Green New Deal. “In tackling the climate crisis, we can create hundreds of millions of good jobs around the world, invest in the most systematically excluded communities and nations, guarantee health care and childcare, and much more.” So says social critic Naomi Klein. She adds: “The result of these transformations would be economies built both to protect and regenerate the planet’s life support systems and to respect and sustain the people who depend on them” (Klein 2019, p. 28). This transitional approach combines multiple goals: people before profit, decent homes and good communities for all, health care for all, education for all, mass transit and communication systems for all, nourishing food, access to cultural and recreational nourishment, creative outlets, genuine liberty and real justice for all.
Stemming from today’s conditions and from the consciousness of expanding layers of youth and the experiences of the laboring majority, it may be possible to build a fundamental challenge to the existing system of power and to create a better world. As we strive to advance that process, there is much to learn from the ideas, the insights and the experiences of freedom fighters who went before. Lenin — with all of his accomplishments and insights, all of his mistakes and heroic efforts — is among the freedom fighters we should look to.
During this anniversary (as the conference poster puts it) of “a hundred years without Lenin, and a hundred years with Lenin,” there is a swelling flood of books, articles, interviews, and events — including this four-month extravaganza of “Leninist Days.” The many, many thousands of words and ideas flowing from all of this will, throughout the remainder of 2024 and into the next several years, be blending with increasingly challenging experiences, some of which promise to be truly catastrophic. It is inevitable that more and more masses of people around the world will be wrestling with the old question “What Is To Be Done?” It is likely that at least elements of the answer will emerge from our engagement with these “Leninist Days.”
(items marked with asterisk [*] are quoted in the presentation)
*Balabanoff, Angelica 1973, My Life as a Rebel, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973
Egan, Daniel 2022, “Saving the Vanguard: Lenin’s Military Metaphors for Today,” The Future of Lenin: Power, Politics, and Revolution in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Alla Ivanchikova and Robert R. Maclean, Albany: SUNY Press.
Hessen, Robert, ed. 1990, Breaking with Communism: The Intellectual Odyssey of Bertram D. Wolfe, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.
*Klein, Naomi, 2019 On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, New York: Simon and Schuster.
*Krupskaya, N.K. 1970, Reminiscences of Lenin. New York: International Publishers.
*Le Blanc, Paul 2016, From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics, second edition, Chicago: Haymarket Books.
*Le Blanc, Paul 2015, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, second edition, Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Le Blanc, Paul 2023, Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution, London: Pluto Press.
Le Blanc, Paul 2006, Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience: Studies of Communism and Radicalism in the Age of Globalization. New York: Routledge.
Le Blanc, Paul 2017, October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy 1917-1924. Haymarket Books.
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