January 21st marks 100 years since Lenin’s death. Kieran Allen why, a century on, there is still a huge amount that we can learn from Lenin.
Lenin once suggested that when revolutionaries are alive, they are vilified, but after they die, are treated as harmless icons. In his own case, it is the exact opposite.
When he was alive, Lenin and the Russian revolution were widely celebrated. The word ‘soviet’ was used to describe worker occupations during the Irish revolution. The Sinn Féin member, Aodh de Blacam, noted that ‘never was Ireland more devoutly Catholic than today… yet nowhere was the Bolshevik revolution more sympathetically saluted’.
But in more recent years, Lenin has become the main target of ruling class bile. Richard Pipes books in the 1990s on the Bolsheviks set the tone by portraying Lenin as a crafty manipulator, intent on becoming a dictator. Pipes, however, was never a neutral ‘value free’ historian. He served on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council and later headed up a CIA think tank. The former leader of the defunct Progressive Democrats, Michael McDowell, writes in a similar vein. He recently used his Irish Times column to charge Lenin with ‘personal addiction to mass execution of political opponents’.
In universities, Marx regularly crops up but Lenin never gets a mention. Why the contrast?
The primary reason is that Lenin led the first successful socialist revolution and has never been forgiven. In his short book on Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, György Lukács gets to the heart of the matter when he states, ‘The actuality of Revolution: this is the core of Lenin’s thought’. To explain what he meant, Lukacs drew a contrast between the way a social democrat thinks and Lenin’s method. The former sees:
“The foundations of bourgeois society are so unshakable that, even when they are most visibly shaking, he only hopes and prays for a return to ‘normality’, sees its crisis as temporary episodes, and regards struggle even at such times as an irrational irresponsible rebellion against an ever- invincible capitalist system.”
Lenin, by contrast, sought to
“detect beneath the appearances of bourgeois society those tendencies towards proletarian revolution which work themselves in and through it to their effective being and distinct consciousness.”
In other words, revolution was the touchstone for Lenin’s analysis of all the questions of the day and it was necessary to devise a strategy to accelerate it.
This confidence came from Lenin’s profound understanding of dialectics. Like the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, he knew that contrary to appearances, society underwent constant change. The prejudice of ‘normality’ assumes that what currently exists, will always be. But for a dialectical thinker, everything that is, will pass. To the question, ‘Do you really think a socialist society is possible?’ Lenin might well reply ‘Do you really think capitalism will exist forever?’ He knew that change occurs through rupture and contradiction. There is no smooth evolutionary glide in history.
This general approach, however, had to lead to a concrete understanding of concrete circumstances. And this is where Lenin’s genius mattered. In the modern anti-capitalist movement, there is often a culture of denunciation. So, we know that the arms industry or racism is disgusting and must be ‘called out’. And that is certainly a good starting point, particularly when it pulls away the mask of bourgeois hypocrisy. But for Lenin, moral anger had to be linked to specific tactics that helped to advance working class consciousness, and therefore revolution.
His writing on imperialism will serve as an example. In the midst of the horror of the first World War, Lenin wrote Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. He wanted to show that the war was not the result of ‘skidding off course’ because of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Instead, the war was an inevitable outcome of imperialist conflicts that arose from monopoly capitalism. In many ways Lenin’s theoretical argument was not as sharp as Nikolai Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy, written a year before. It probably lacked the sophistication of Rosa Luxembourg’s The Accumulation of Capital and borrowed key concepts from Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance Capital. But where it scored was in the concrete strategy that socialists should adopt.
Essentially, Lenin argued that the current stage of capitalism drew all countries, no matter how underdeveloped, into the maelstrom of the system. It stimulated demands by oppressed nations for national liberation but then crushed them. As a result, the alliance which Lenin fought for in Russia between workers and peasants to overthrow Tsarism had to be expanded on a global scale so that workers formed an alliance with national liberation movements by supporting them against their own imperialist rulers.
The 1916 rebellion in Ireland served as a test case. Socialists like Luxembourg and Radek had argued that because capitalism was ripe for overthrow, national revolts belonged to the past. Oppressed countries would, it was claimed, achieve their freedom after a socialist revolution. Lenin disagreed and trenchantly supported the 1916 rising. Her wrote:
“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution…..Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”
The key to Lenin’s method, therefore, lay in grasping the practical revolutionary conclusions from a generalised analysis. This was linked to his concept of a party, a topic that had not been properly explored by Marx. The Leninist concept of a party stems from the recognition that there is tremendous unevenness in working class consciousness and that many workers are subject to the ideology of their so-called betters. Think, for example, of the number of people who barely question the notion of ‘competitiveness’. A party, therefore, is not identical with the working class nor does it seek to ’represent’ the class. It is an organisation by which the revolutionaries intervene to challenge bourgeois ideas among workers and to promote the best experiences of the working class. That does not mean imposing abstract dogmas but listening and learning from workers.
The notion that one both learns from workers and argues with ideas which hold them back appears contradictory. But it is not a contradiction at the level of logic – but in reality itself. And sometimes Lenin got it wrong – or rather held a position that reflected one moment in the working class struggle, rather than being true for all times.
His pamphlet, What is to Be Done was published in 1902 and written when the socialist and working class movement in Russia was at their infancy. The early socialist circles had moved from general propaganda to intervening in working class struggles by publishing factory bulletins. The result was an ‘over-correction’ as the emphasis shifted to talking about and learning the details of economic conditions. Lenin challenged this ‘economism’, arguing that the workers movement could not limit its programme to bread and butter issues. Socialists, he famously argued, had to act as a ‘tribune of the people’ opposing all forms of oppression from a distinct socialist point of view. But his formulation was too rigid. He argued that workers could only develop a trade union consciousness and that socialist consciousness could only come from outside. He wrote:
“The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.”
After the 1905 revolution in Russia when workers developed the first soviets of workers councils, Lenin took a different view. Noting that he himself had over-corrected against economism, he wrote that ‘the working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic’. (The term social democratic at that time meant socialist).
What are we to make of Lenin’s inconsistency? First, that his Marxism arose in a relationship with the working class. It was not honed in a theoretical vacuum or propounded as a dogma for small groups who saw themselves as teachers. Lenin’s consistency was in pointing to a real contradiction in how working class people become conscious of their own interests. That same rejection of dogmatism and the same contradictory approach can be found in Marx when he wrote to the one of the Young Hegelians that:
“We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”
But, second, the solving of the contradiction between listening and ‘showing the world what it is really fighting for’ is dependent on what workers are doing. When the mass of workers are passive and accepting of the system, there is a big gap between trade union and socialist consciousness. But in the course of struggle – and depending on its scale – this gap narrows, sometimes to an identity of terms.
This gets to the heart of the Leninist method. The dial is set to revolution and the general task of socialists is to act as ‘tribunes of the people’ – able to lead all revolts against a system which breeds oppression. But if the principle is rock solid, the specific tactics, the way arguments are framed must arise from a concrete understanding of concrete circumstances. This helps to explain Lenin’s revolutionary opportunism, his ability to be tactically flexible because the goal was clear – socialist revolution.
In 1917, when he was in hiding, Lenin wrote a brilliant pamphlet, State and Revolution, that retrieved the revolutionary essence of Marxism from the actual practice of the Second International, the international network of socialist organisations led by the German SPD and its theoretical leader, Kark Kautsky. This suggested that socialists concentrate on elections to take control of the state and then steer it in a left direction. In the first chapter of State and Revolution, Lenin returns to the writings of Marx and Engels to show that a state arises when society is rent asunder by class conflict and it is an instrument by which a ruling class maintains its position. Even when a state becomes a parliamentary democracy, it is so structured that the corporations can operate behind the scenes to dominate. He wrote:
“To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament – this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics.”
He concluded that workers could not simply take control of the existing state but had to smash it. In its place, and contrary to anarchists, workers needed a new type of state that ensured that the majority exercised their power over an exploiting minority. What is remarkable about the book is that Lenin restores the concept of democracy – and specifically a form of worker democracy – to the heart of Marxism. It, therefore, stands as a fundamental challenge to all those who identify socialism with state ownership and end up claiming that the former USSR or even present day China are somehow ‘workers’ states’. No wonder, then, that the Irish Communist Party once refused to stock this book.
There is indeed a lot to be learnt from Lenin.