100th anniversary of the death of V.I Lenin
January 21 this year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov). Along with Leon Trotsky and the Bolshevik party, Lenin (1870–1924) led the 1917 October socialist revolution that “shook the world” and changed the course of world history. For the first time ever, the working class succeeded in taking power and started the task of re-organising society along democratic socialist lines. For this, Lenin continues to earn the hatred and hostility of the capitalist ruling classes, who try to besmirch his name under a mountain of slander and lies. But for many class conscious working class people Lenin remains a heroic revolutionary figure. Increasingly, young people today are looking at Lenin’s life and ideas and those of ‘communism’ to help find a solution to a world of wars, oppression, austerity and environmental catastrophe.
To mark the centenary of Lenin’s death the Committee for a Workers’ International’s website, socialistworld.net, will post a series of articles over the next weeks looking at aspects of Lenin’s ideas and revolutionary struggles. This begins with an essay by Trotsky on Lenin which was printed in the 13th edition (1926) of the Encyclopædia Britannica. In this piece, Trotsky summarises Lenin’s life and political ideas. This is followed by a book review of ‘Lenin’, by Lars T Lih, first published in 2014, written by Peter Taaffe, a member of the CWI’s leadership. Peter defends Lenin from attacks from the right wing and reactionaries, and also from attempts to misrepresent his ideas by the reformist left.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870–1924)
[Lenin, the] founder and guiding spirit of the Soviet Republics and the Communist International, the disciple of Marx both in theory and in practice, the leader of the Bolshevik party and the organiser of the October revolution in Russia, was born on April 9 (22) 1870 in the town of Simbirsk, now Ulyanovsk. His father, Ilya Nikolayevich, was a schoolmaster. His mother, Maria Alexandrovna, whose maiden name was Berg, was the daughter of a doctor. His eldest brother (Aleksandr, born 1866) joined the “Narodnaya Volya” (‘People’s Will’ movement), and took part in the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Alexander III. For this he was executed in his 22nd year. Lenin, the third of a family of six, completed his course at the Simbirsk gymnasium (grammar school) in 1887, winning the gold medal. His brother’s execution, indelibly stamped on his consciousness, helped to determine his later life.
In the summer of 1887 Lenin entered the Kazan University to study law, but was sent down in December of the same year for taking part in a gathering of students and was banished to the countryside. His repeated petitions in 1888–9 for permission to re-enter the University of Kazan or to be allowed to go abroad to continue his studies met with refusal. In the autumn, however, he was allowed to return to Kazan, where he began the systematic study of Marx and first entered into relations with the members of the local Marxist circle. In 1891 Lenin passed the law examinations of the St. Petersburg University, and in 1892 he began to practise as a barrister at Samara. During this year and the next he appeared for the defence in several trials. His life, however, was chiefly filled by the study of Marxism and its application to the investigation of the course of the economic and political development of Russia and subsequently of the whole world.
In 1894 he moved to St. Petersburg, where he came into touch with the workers and began his propaganda work. To this period belong Lenin’s first polemical writings directed against the popular party, who taught that Russia would know neither capitalism nor the proletariat. These were passed from hand to hand in manuscript form. Soon after, Lenin started a theoretical struggle against the falsifiers of Marx, in the legal Press. In April 1895 Lenin first went abroad with the intention of entering into relations with the Marxist group abroad known as the “Osvobozhdenie Truda” (“Emancipation of Labour”), (Plekhanov, Zasulich, Axelrod). On his return to St. Petersburg, he organised the illegal “Union for the struggle for the liberation of the Working Class,” which rapidly became an important organisation, carrying on propaganda and agitation among the workers and getting into touch with the provinces. In December 1895 Lenin and his closest collaborators were arrested. He spent the year 1896 in prison, where he studied the lines of Russia’s economic development. In February 1897 he was sent into exile for three years to the Yenisei province in eastern Siberia. At this time, 1898, he married N. K. Krupskaya, his comrade in the work of the St. Petersburg Union and his faithful companion during the remaining 26 years of his life and revolutionary struggle. During his exile he finished his most important economic work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, based on a comprehensive and systematic study of an enormous mass of statistical material (1899). In 1900 Lenin went abroad to Switzerland with the intention of organising, with the “Emancipation of Labour” group, the publication of a revolutionary paper intended for Russia. At the end of the year the first number of the paper Iskra (The Spark) appeared in Munich, with the motto “From the Spark to the Flame!” The aim of the paper was to give a Marxian interpretation of the problems facing the revolution, to give the political watchwords of the struggle, and to organise on this basis a centralised “underground” revolutionary party of Social Democrats, which, standing at the head of the proletariat, should open the struggle against Tsarism, rousing the oppressed masses, and, above all, the many millions of peasants.
In October 1905 the All-Russian strike began. On the 17th of the month the Tsar issued his manifesto about the “Constitution.” In the beginning of November Lenin returned to Russia from Geneva, and already, in his first article, appealed to the Bolsheviks, in view of the new situation, to increase the scope of their organisation and to bring into the party wider circles of workers, but to preserve their illegal apparatus in anticipation of the counter-revolutionary blows which were inevitable. In December Tsarism began to counter-attack. The rising in Moscow at the end of December, lacking as it did the support of the army, without simultaneous risings in other towns and sufficient response in the country districts, was quickly suppressed.
In the events of 1905 Lenin distinguished three main features—(1) the temporary seizure by the people of real political freedom, real in the sense of not being limited by their class enemies, apart from and in spite of all existing laws and institutions; (2) the creation of new and as yet only potential organs of revolutionary power in the shape of soviets of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies; (3) the use of force by the people against those who had employed it against them. Those conclusions, from the events of 1905, became the guiding principles of Lenin’s policy in 1917 and led to the dictatorship of the proletariat in the form of the Soviet State.
The suppression of the December rising in Moscow threw the masses into the background. The Liberal bourgeoisie came to the front. The epoch of the first two Dumas began. At this time, Lenin formulated the principles of the revolutionary exploitation of parliamentary methods in immediate connection with the struggle of the masses and as a means of preparation for a fresh attack.
In December 1907 Lenin left Russia, to return only in 1917. Now (in 1907) began the epoch of victorious counter-revolution, prosecutions, exile, executions and emigration. Lenin led the struggle against all decadent tendencies among the revolutionaries; against the Mensheviks, the advocates of the liquidation of the “underground” party—hence those known as “liquidators”—and of the change of their methods of work into purely legal ones within the framework of the pseudo-constitutional regime; against the “conciliators” who failed to grasp the complete antagonism between Bolshevism and Menshevism and tried to take up an intermediate position—against the adventurist policy of the Socialist revolutionaries who tried to make up for the inertia of the masses by personal terrorism; finally, against the narrow partisanship of a part of the Bolsheviks, the so-called “callers-off,” who demanded the recall of the Social Democratic deputies from the Duma in the name of immediate revolutionary activity, though conditions at that moment offered no opportunity for this. In this dim epoch Lenin showed very vividly a combination of his two fundamental qualities—that of being an implacable revolutionary at bottom, while yet remaining a realist who made no mistakes in the choice of methods and means.
At the same time, Lenin carried on an extensive campaign against the attempt to revise the theoretic basis of Marxism on which his whole policy was founded. In 1908 he wrote a major treatise dealing with the fundamental questions of knowledge and directed against the essentially idealistic philosophy of Mach, Avenarius and their Russian followers, who tried to unite empiric criticism with Marxism. On the basis of a deep and comprehensive study of science Lenin proved that the methods of dialectical materialism as formulated by Marx and Engels were entirely confirmed by the development of scientific thought in general and natural science in particular. Thus Lenin’s constant revolutionary struggle, in which he never lost sight of the smallest practical details, went hand in hand with his equally constant theoretical controversies, in which he attained to the greatest heights of comprehensive generalisations.
Lenin was prepared for his struggle on an international scale not only by his profound knowledge of Marxism and his experience of the revolutionary struggle and party organisation in Russia, but also by his intimate acquaintance with the workers’ movement throughout the world. For many years he had followed closely the internal affairs of the most important capitalist States. He was a thorough master of the English, German and French languages, and could read Italian, Swedish and Polish. His realistic imagination and political intuition often enabled him to reconstruct a complete picture from isolated phenomena. Lenin was always firmly opposed to the mechanical application of the methods of one country to another, and he investigated and decided questions concerning revolutionary movements, not only in their international interreactions, but also in their concrete national form.
The revolution of February 1917 found Lenin in Switzerland. His attempts to reach Russia met with the decided opposition of the British Government. He accordingly decided to exploit the antagonism of the belligerent countries and to reach Russia through Germany. The success of this plan gave occasion to Lenin’s enemies for a fierce campaign of slander, which, however, was powerless to prevent him from assuming the leadership of his party and shortly afterwards of the revolution.
On the night of April 4, on leaving the train, Lenin made a speech in the Finlyandsky station in Petrograd. He repeated and developed the leading ideas it contained in the days which followed. The overthrow of Tsarism, he said, was only the first stage in the revolution. The bourgeois revolution could no longer satisfy the masses. The task of the proletariat was to arm, to strengthen the power of the Soviets, to rouse the country districts and to prepare for the conquest of supreme power in the name of the reconstruction of society on a Socialist basis.
This far-reaching programme was not only unwelcome to those engaged in propagating patriotic Socialism, but even roused opposition among the Bolsheviks themselves. Plekhanov called Lenin’s programme “crazy.” Lenin, however, built up his policy not on the inclinations and views of the temporary leaders of the revolution, but on the interrelations of the classes and the logic of mass movements. He foresaw that the distrust of the bourgeoisie and of the Provisional Government would grow stronger daily, that the Bolshevik party would obtain a majority in the Soviets and that the supreme power would pass into their hands. The small daily Pravda became at once in his hands a powerful instrument for the overthrow of bourgeois society.
The policy of coalition with the bourgeoisie pursued by the patriotic Socialists, and the hopeless attack which the Allies forced the Russian Army to assume at the front—both these roused the masses and led to armed demonstrations in Petrograd in the first days of July. The struggle against Bolshevism became most intense. On July 5th grossly forged “documents” were published by the counter-revolutionary secret service. These purported to prove that Lenin was acting under the orders of the German general staff. In the evening “reliable” detachments summoned from the front by Kerensky and Cadet officers from the districts round Petrograd occupied the city. The popular movement was crushed. The hounding of Lenin reached its height. He now began to work “underground,” hiding first in Petrograd with a worker’s family and then in Finland; he managed, however, to keep in touch with the leaders of the party.
The July days and the retributions which followed aroused a burst of energy in the masses—Lenin’s forecast proved right in every particular. The Bolsheviks obtained a majority in the Soviets of Petrograd and Moscow. Lenin demanded decisive action to seize the supreme power, and on his side began an unremitting fight against the hesitations of the leaders of the party. He wrote articles and pamphlets, letters, both official and private, examining the question of the seizure of supreme power from every angle, refuting objections and dispelling doubts. He drew a picture of Russia’s conversion into a foreign colony if the policy of Miliukov and Kerensky continued, and he predicted that they would consciously hand over Petrograd to the Germans in order to destroy the proletariat. “Now or never!” he repeated in passionate articles, letters and interviews.
The rising against the Provisional Government coincided with the opening of the second Congress of the Soviets on October 25. On that day, Lenin, after being in hiding for three and a half months, appeared in the Smolny and from there personally directed the fight. In the night sitting of October 27 he proposed, at the session of the Congress of the Soviets, a draft decree about peace which was passed unanimously and another about the land, which was passed with one dissentient and eight abstentions. The Bolshevik majority, supported by the left wing of the Socialist revolutionaries, declared that supreme power was now vested in the Soviets. The Soviet of People’s Commissaries was appointed, with Lenin at their head. Thus Lenin passed straight from the log cabin where he had been hiding from persecution to the place of highest authority.
The proletarian revolution spread quickly. Having obtained the land of the landed estate owners, the peasants forsook the Socialist revolutionaries and supported the Bolsheviks. The Soviets became masters of the situation both in the towns and the country districts. In such circumstances the constituent assembly which was elected in November and met on January 5 appeared a patent anachronism. The conflict between the two stages of the revolution was now at hand. Lenin did not hesitate for an instant. On the night of January 7 the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, on Lenin’s motion, passed a decree dissolving the constituent assembly. The dictatorship of the proletariat, said Lenin, meant the greatest possible degree of actual and not merely formal democracy for the toiling majority of the people. For it guaranteed to them the real possibility of utilising their abilities, putting as it did in the hands of labour all those material goods (buildings for meetings, printing presses and so on) lacking which “liberty” remains an empty word and an illusion. The dictatorship of the proletariat in Lenin’s view is a necessary stage in the abolition of class divisions in society
Final years and legacy
The exhaustion brought on by excessive hard work over a number of years ruined Lenin’s health. Sclerosis attacked his cerebral arteries. At the beginning of 1922 his doctors forbade him daily work. From June to August the disease made rapid progress, and for the first time he began to lose, although transiently, the power of speech. At the beginning of October his health had so much improved that he once again returned to work, but not for long. His last public utterance ends with the expression of his conviction that “from Russia under N.E.P. will come Socialist Russia.”
On December 16 he became paralysed in the right arm and leg. However, during January and February (1923) he still dictated a number of articles of great importance for the policy of the party on the struggle against bureaucracy in the Soviet and party organisation; on the importance of co-operation in gradually bringing the peasants into the Socialist organisation; on the struggle against illiteracy; and finally on the policy in regard to nationalities oppressed under Tsarism.
The disease progressed and he lost completely the power of speech. His work for the party came to an end, and very soon his life also. Lenin died on January 21, 1924, at 6:30pm, at Gorky, near Moscow. His funeral was the occasion for an unexampled manifestation of love and grief on the part of millions.
The main work of Lenin’s life was the organisation of a party capable of carrying through the October revolution and of directing the construction of Socialism. The theory of the proletarian revolution—the methods and tactics to be pursued—constitutes the fundamental content of Leninism which as an international system forms the culminating point of Marxism. Lenin’s single aim filled his life from his school days onwards. He never knew hesitation in the fight against those he considered the enemies of the working class. In his passionate struggle there was never any personal element. He fulfilled what he considered to be the demands of an inevitable historical process. Lenin combined the ability to use the materialistic dialectic as a method of scientific orientation in social developments with the deep intuition of the true leader.
Lenin’s outward appearance was distinguished by simplicity and strength. He was of middle or rather below the middle height, with the plebeian features of the Slavonic type of face, brightened, however, by piercing eyes; and his powerful forehead and his still more powerful head gave him a marked distinction. He was tireless in work to an unparalleled degree. His thoughts were equally concentrated whether in his Siberian exile, the British Museum (in London) or at a sitting of the People’s Commissaries. He put the same exemplary conscientiousness into reading lectures in a small workmen’s club in Zurich and in organising the first Socialist State in the world. He appreciated and loved to the full science, art and culture, but he never forgot that as yet these things are the property of a small minority. The simplicity of his literary and oratorical style expressed the extreme concentration of his spiritual forces bent on a single aim. In personal intercourse Lenin was even-tempered, courteous and attentive, especially to the weak and oppressed and to children. His way of life in the Kremlin was little different from his life as an emigré abroad. The simplicity of his daily habits, his asceticism in regard to food, drink, clothes and the “good things” of life in general in his case did not spring from so called moral principles, but came about because intellectual work and intense struggle not only absorbed his interests and passions but also gave him such intense satisfaction as to leave no room for subsidiary enjoyments. His thoughts never ceased to labour at the task of freeing the workers till the moment of its final extinction.
Lenin’s revolutionary legacy
A review of “Lenin”, by Lars T Lih
In an attempt to answer the description of Lenin by capitalist historians as a brutal dictator, some on the left turn to Lars T Lih. He has tried to reinvent the leader of the Russian revolution as some kind of woolly liberal. In so doing, Peter Taaffe writes in the February 2014 issue of Socialism Today, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party England and Wales, the understanding of how to build a movement capable of transforming society is in danger of being lost.
In the recent ‘revolution’ in Ukraine – aimed against Vladimir Putin’s attempts to blackmail the Ukrainian government to keep within Russia’s sphere of influence – a crowd demolished the last remaining statue of Lenin in the capital, Kiev. Statues like this were erected in the past in the former ‘Soviet Union’ by the privileged Stalinist bureaucratic elites, who wished to screen themselves from the anger of the masses by basking in the political authority of Lenin. In reality, they were separated by a colossal gulf from Lenin’s real ideas about socialism and workers’ democracy.
In the capitalist West there were few if any statues of Lenin to be toppled. So capitalist historians and academics, particularly after the collapse of Stalinism – and with this, unfortunately, the planned economies in Russia and Eastern Europe – did the next best thing. They vilified Lenin, and his co-leader of the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky, in an attempt to systematically discredit the ideas of socialism and genuine Marxism.
In a series of weighty tomes a small army of modern ‘historians’, like Richard Pipes, Orlando Figes, and not forgetting the inimitable Robert Service, undertook a colossal rewriting of history. Figes was publicly exposed as criticising other historians’ works while secretly writing laudatory reviews of his own books! Service’s ‘biography’ of Trotsky, which we answered as soon as it was published, has now been discredited even by non-Marxist historians as lacking any objectivity.
Today, however, a new, more ‘subtle’ approach is required given the protracted crisis of capitalism, which has seen a renewed interest in socialism and Marxism. There is already a revolt in academia against the previous concentration on pro-market, capitalist economic teaching. There are increasing demands by students and lecturers that they be familiarised with the ideas of Karl Marx, as well as the more ‘radical’ of the capitalist Keynesian economists. In this can be perceived an element of the reappearance of the 1960s within the hallowed institutions of learning. The enormous radicalisation of students and academics which developed then was a reflection and, to some extent, precursor to the mass movements of workers in the 1960s and 1970s.
This book by Lars T Lih – first published in the ‘Critical Lives’ series in 2011 – is a response to this new situation. In it, and in his other writings, he is more sympathetic to Lenin than those historians mentioned above. But the claim on the jacket that the book “presents a striking new interpretation of Lenin’s political outlook” is overblown, to say the least. Lars himself admits: “My view of Lenin is not particularly original and chimes in closely with most observers of Lenin and his time”. Unfortunately, ‘most observers’ are still not ‘sympathetic’ to Lenin’s views. This is particularly the case when it comes to the character of the kind of party the working class will need for a successful struggle against capitalism and for socialism.
Workers and peasants
Trotsky, who barely gets a mention in this book, gives a much richer account of the real history of Bolshevism in its initial phase in his unfinished biography of Stalin, albeit in a sketchy fashion. He also outlines clearly the views of Lenin on the crucial issues of the character of revolutionary party needed, and on the structures and practices of such a party, including democratic centralism and its origins.
Lars on the other hand, writes in a misleading, cloudy and abstruse fashion: “Lenin had a romantic view of leadership within the class. He sought to inspire the rank-and-file activists… with an exalted idea of what their own leadership could accomplish”. In the same vein the book is irritatingly peppered throughout with phrases like Lenin’s “heroic scenario”. Then there are crude assertions on relations between the working class and the peasantry in Russia: “His insistence on the peasant as follower did not exclude an exalted, even romantic view of the peasants in the revolution. Heroic leaders required heroic followers”.
Of course Lenin, like most Marxists, could be enthusiastic. In turn, they could be enthused by the spectacle of workers in struggle, especially when it reached a high point of revolution. Marxism is saturated with the spirit of optimism. At the same time, Lenin is deadly realistic about the prospects of the class struggle in general and all the issues involving the fate of the working class. His view of leadership, as with the need for the party, was not ‘exalted’ but practical and flowed from what was necessary.
Then again, what are we to make of Lars’s conclusions at the end of the book when he writes: “Old Bolshevism was defined by its wager on the revolutionary qualities of the peasantry. Yet less than a decade after his death, the regime founded by Lenin was waging war on the peasants and imposing a revolution from above during the collectivisation campaign, contributing to a devastating famine”. (p202)
Firstly, Bolshevism never put a ‘wager’ on the peasantry, but recognised that it could never play an independent role. Therefore, the issue was who would lead them in the revolution – who would satisfy their demand for the land – the working class or the bourgeoisie? History attested to the fact that the working class satisfied the peasantry in action, after the bourgeois and its parties had demonstrated that they would never give the land, as well as peace and bread, to the masses, including the peasant masses. Secondly, it is ludicrous to identify “the regime founded by Lenin”, as Lars does, with that presided over by Stalin, already, ten years after Lenin’s death, one dominated by a privileged bureaucratic elite. Indeed, Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, famously stated in 1926 that if Lenin had lived, he would have been imprisoned under the Stalinist regime.
The revolutionary party
There are many misleading, and consequently erroneous, statements like this in the book and it cannot therefore be fully embraced as a correct account of Lenin’s role in history. But it has been taken up by some on the left, even in certain quasi-Marxist circles. This is because Lars’s presentation, particularly in relation to democratic centralism, chimes with a layer who rejects this idea, the ‘hard’ Lenin, in favour of an allegedly ‘more open’ one. It is not the first time we have confronted this phenomenon. In the 1960s and 1970s, journals like New Left Review would ‘discover’ woolly ‘ground-breaking new theoreticians’ who would then invariably disappear almost as quickly as they had appeared.
Lars’s ideas have become the current fashion for those who are fleeing from genuine Marxism and the real traditions of Lenin and Trotsky. Vital in this respect is the need for a revolutionary party based upon the traditions of democratic centralism. This in no way contradicts the broader task of organising a mass workers’ party at this stage. Of necessity, this will be required to organise on a much looser basis, involving a form of federation and in Britain, of course, rooted in the trade unions. The maintenance of a clear Marxist core within such broader formations is absolutely necessary. Without this, there will be no long-lasting gains for the working class.
History, including recent history, reinforces this point. For instance, the main forces behind the formation of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1998 came from our party. The leadership of Militant supported the formation of such a broad party; in fact, we were the first to advance this idea. But the leaders of Scottish Militant Labour (SML) proposed and carried out, at the same time as forming the SSP, the effective winding up of SML into this party. This, in turn, led to their separation from the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in Scotland and internationally. They were not expelled but voluntarily departed from our ranks.
We warned at the time that not only would this mean the tragic weakening of a distinct revolutionary organisation and tradition in Scotland but, at a certain stage, the complete disintegration of the SSP as well. Unfortunately, this was borne out. A similar process happened in Italy, where different Marxist organisations joined Rifondazione Comunista (RC) when it was formed in 1991, but were incapable over time of winning the ranks of this party to a clear Marxist position. The RC has now effectively disintegrated.
Compare this to the achievements of Militant, both when it was in the Labour Party – in 1964, we had no more than 40 supporters – and during our expulsion in the late 1980s. The conclusion to draw from this is that in the case of both Scotland and Italy there was not a sufficiently organised and politically trained Marxist core capable of either winning a majority in the party or at least gaining more significant numbers, which could then form the basis of a new organisation or party.
The class, party and leadership
These mistakes flow from an incorrect understanding on the part of some Marxist forces of the relationship between the class, a party and its leadership. ‘Democratic centralism’ – the term itself – was not an invention of Lenin, but was first used in the Russian workers’ movement by the Mensheviks within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). However, the conception of a party, its methods of organisation, and how discussion and internal debates should be conducted, have a long pedigree, beginning with Marx and Engels themselves.
This is shown, for instance, in the rules of the Communist League of 1847, of which Marx and Engels were members. Even before the term ‘democratic centralism’ was used, the concept was adopted within this, the first distinct international party of the working class.
In its statutes the Communist League states the conditions of membership: “Subordination to the decisions of the League… The circle [comprising a number of ‘branches’ as we would understand it today] authority is the executive organ for all the communities of the circle… The various circles of a country or province are subordinated to a leading circle… The Central Authority is the executive organ of the whole of the League and as such is responsible to the Congress… The Congress is the legislative authority of the whole League. All proposals for changes in the rules are sent to the Central Authority through the leading circles and submitted by them to the Congress… Whoever violates the conditions of membership… is according to the circumstances removed from the League and expelled”.
Lenin took these and other examples from the historical experience of the workers’ movement, including the German social democracy, and attempted to apply them to the specific conditions of Russia. Lenin’s famous book, What is to be Done?, written in 1901, was devoted to the need for a centralised party in Russia. Lars deals, not very adequately, with some parts of the history. He touches on the disagreements over the formulas of Lenin in answer to the ‘Economist school’, who believed in concentrating on the purely day-to-day struggles. Lenin “bent the stick” too far, in his own words, in his description of how socialist consciousness arises in the working-class movement.
Lenin’s assertion that socialist consciousness could only be brought to the working class from the outside by the revolutionary intelligentsia was wrong. He borrowed this also from the German social democratic leader and Marxist at the time, Karl Kautsky. Although Lenin corrected this later, it has been used to justify the haughty approach of self-appointed ‘leaders’, usually by tiny organisations, proclaiming to be ‘the’ leadership of the working class.
Trotsky paid tribute to Lenin’s stubborn and painstaking work in laying the basis through the struggle of the Bolsheviks for the mass party approach. Nevertheless, he emphasised that it was the ‘steam’, the working class, which is the driving force in the revolution. The party, if it acts correctly, plays the same role as a ‘piston box’ in harnessing this to a revolution.
Lenin emphasised the same point in opposition to the ‘committeemen’ who took shape in the underground. They were suspicious of the initiatives of workers. Trotsky had warned of the dangers of the emergence of such figures in his 1904 pamphlet, Political Problems. He pointed out that these types of committeemen have “forgone the need to rely upon the workers as they had found support in the principles of ‘centralism’.” Lenin recognised the dangers of a one-sided interpretation of what he was trying to build when he wrote: “I could not contain myself when I heard it said that there were no working men fit for the committee membership”. Trotsky remarks: “Lenin understood better than anyone else the need for a centralised organisation; but he saw in it, above all, a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced working man. The idea of making a fetish of the political machine was not only alien but repugnant to his nature”. (Stalin, p103, Panther edition)
Lars T makes sweeping, incorrect comments about democratic centralism. He writes that there was no “exposition of the meaning of the term – Lenin used it in passing to make particular points”. He also states: “Lenin’s points would have been: ‘Democratic centralism is not possible in underground conditions. Genuine interparty democracy is mandatory when possible and dispensable when not’.”
But he is completely wrong in asserting, with no basis in the actual practice of Bolshevism, that democratic centralism was practised at one stage and then withdrawn in a completely arbitrary fashion at another. The Bolsheviks, as with all genuinely revolutionary organisations, based themselves at all times on the general principles of democratic centralism: maximum discussion until a decision is arrived at and then a united effort by the whole party, group or organisation to implement the decision. Even then, it is totally false to imply that all discussion and debate ended after the decision was taken. The history of the genuine workers’ movement showed that vital discussion on unresolved issues continued in the form of internal bulletins, debates, etc, outside of the framework of the national congress of the party.
The different sides of this question might be difficult for isolated intellectuals to grasp but it is an idea that the working class readily understands, particularly its more advanced, guiding layers. It flows from the very position of the working class under capitalism.
Never in history has capitalism been more centralised than today. Never have the means of coercion – witness the revelations of Wikileaks, the massive surveillance by capitalist governments of their own populations, as well as other governments – been so concentrated in the hands of the capitalist state. It is inconceivable therefore that a loose network would be capable of mobilising to defeat this colossal power. Without a centralised mass party capable of unifying working people and then acting in a decisive fashion when the time requires it, it is impossible to carry through the socialist transformation of society, the greatest change in human history.
The working class instinctively understands the need for a centralised party and the discipline that goes with it. This is shown in every serious struggle, particularly strikes, involving the working class. When shop stewards, for instance, are called to discuss and debate an issue, and sometimes heatedly, they will usually strive to adopt one voice when putting the issue to a mass meeting. There will, of course, be occasions when a minority of stewards and workers will disagree with a recommendation, and in that situation Marxists would argue for a full debate to take place.
These methods, which involve elements of democratic centralism, are instinctively understood by working people. This is demonstrated by the recent statement of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). When they announced a break from the ANC and supported the idea of a new mass workers’ party, they declared: “Numsa is a revolutionary union and as such plays a leading role in the defeat of capitalism and the exploitation that is associated with it. We are democratic centralist – we believe in robust, vigorous and democratic debate leading to a united decision and action”.
Discussion and decision
What is then posed is the balance between democracy, full debates and discussions and upholding the rights of all members to participate in the formulation of policy, and centralism, the need to act in a unified fashion, at each stage. This cannot be decided a priori – through general principles applicable at all times irrespective of the concrete circumstances. Organisation, even in the mass revolutionary party, is not an independent factor for a Marxist. It is an inference from policy. It is politics, perspectives and programme, as well as the concrete circumstances, which determine what forms of organisation should be applied at each stage. But it is not true, as Lars T suggests, that democratic centralism is applied only in some circumstances, and not in others. For Marxists, democratic centralism means a ‘mobile balance’ between democracy and centralism, with emphasis being given to democracy or centralism depending upon the concrete circumstances.
In underground conditions, centralist methods tend to dominate over the full expression of democratic discussion, rights and principles. But this does not in any way mean complete centralism with little democracy. On the contrary, while struggling against the brutal tsarist regime and its police, the Russian revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks, debated and fought with each other over programme and policy. This was a necessary means of sharpening the political and theoretical weapons in preparation for the revolution. There were even regular congresses, both in the underground and during the civil war.
There was full freedom of discussion and debate. But this did not mean for the Bolsheviks, particularly Lenin and Trotsky, that the revolutionary party should become a debating club. To those who characterise this method as inherently ‘unhealthy’, Trotsky had a word of advice. Faced with the disarray in the ranks of his followers in France in the 1930s, he commented: “An organisation smaller but unanimous can have enormous success with a clear policy, while an organisation which is torn by internal strife is condemned to rot”. There are some organisations in Britain and internationally today to whom Trotsky’s words are very apt.
Lars T tries to present a softer Lenin, more ‘open’ and ‘democratic’ than the ‘centralist’, if not authoritarian, figure that is usually invoked by bourgeois and most ‘Marxist’ historians alike. This ‘new’ Lenin is almost a ‘liberal’ in his alleged acceptance of open, public, unrestricted discussion in a revolutionary party.
This new approach towards Lenin distorts his real views. There were times when Lenin and Trotsky advocated the most open kind of discussion, even in public forums and at difficult times, which to some extent took place outside of the party. Nikolai Bukharin and the so-called ‘Left Communists’, who supported him in his advocacy of a ‘revolutionary war’ at the time of the Brest-Litovsk controversy of 1918, had a daily newspaper which argued against the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky.
The mass communist parties in France and Italy argued in their daily papers against the idea of the united front. But after two years they were compelled to implement the decision of the Communist International.
There are many other such examples, including Trotsky’s initial support for the minority within the American SWP in the 1930s for a public discussion on the class character of the Soviet Union. However, he withdrew his proposal when his American co-thinkers pointed out that this minority was appealing in the main to the petty bourgeois milieu outside the party who had moved from support of the Soviet Union under the pressure of ‘democratic’ public opinion. This did not prevent a vigorous discussion within the ranks of the SWP on this issue.
Part of the capitalists’ campaign in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism was to feed the popular mood, particularly among the new generation, against ‘parties’ and the model of Lenin’s supposedly closed, authoritarian type of party. We argued against this but also recognised that anything that appeared to be tainted with the mark of Stalinism would repel the new generation looking for a political alternative.
This ‘anti-politics’ and ‘anti-party’ mood represented, in reality, a deep hostility towards all ‘official’, ‘traditional’ parties; in other words, the capitalist parties, including the social democrats and even the Communist Party who were identified with the old order.
Moreover, this mood lasted for a considerable period of time and is still an important factor in the political situation in many countries today. We have had the phenomenon of the ‘indignatos’ in Spain, with similar trends in other countries. In Spain, it reflected the entirely justified hatred of the so-called ‘Socialist Party’, PSOE. This was a factor in the formation of the indignatos in the first place. But this hostility was also often directed against Marxist groups, although the most active promoters of this within the indignato movement were themselves members of small political organisations. They were, in effect, ‘anti-group groups’.
But what was the net result of this abstention from politics? In Spain, the disastrous election of the present right-wing PP government, which has presided over a devastating crisis, with youth unemployment levels well over 50%. Therefore, there has been a reassessment by this new generation who are once more returning to the idea of building a political alternative.
A similar mood was present in the Occupy movement, which developed on a world scale following initiatives in the US. Subsequent experience demonstrated that an amorphous movement, albeit fuelled by youthful energy and idealism but which lacked clear direction and organisation, represented little danger to the highly centralised and organised forces of capitalism. A new road was sought and a significant layer of workers and youth found this road in the spectacular election campaigns in Seattle and Minneapolis.
The election of a socialist to the Seattle council for the first time in 100 years represents a real leap forward in the possibility for political struggles not just in the US, but worldwide. Socialist Alternative took the initiative in this case, but similar radical political movements were expressed elsewhere: in New York with the election of Bill de Blasio, and his invocation of a ‘tale of two cities’, with 73% of the vote, and the election of 24 independent Labor candidates in Lorain County, Ohio.
A similar process has unfolded in Argentina, where a Trotskyist electoral front received 1.2 million votes in the recent elections. This arose from the completely changed situation compared, for instance, to 2001. Then, despite a catastrophic economic situation, parties were discredited; Marxist parties, in particular, made little headway.
These elections indicate that the situation has completely changed with the more conscious workers now aware of the need for organisation and parties. A layer has consequently transferred their hopes to this ‘left front’, which is in a particularly favourable situation to grow if it employs the correct tactics and openness to the new layers of the working class who will be looking for a mass party of their own in the battles to come. This is likely to involve the maintenance of a revolutionary core – in a distinct and separate organisation – seeking a wider base in a larger mass formation. There have been other opportunities in the past which have been lost because this open approach has not been adopted.
Look at Lenin in the round
Millions of workers are looking for a new way forward. This can be provided for them by the building of new mass parties of the working class. Because of the period that we have passed through, these are unlikely in most countries to immediately adopt a clear revolutionary, Marxist programme. But a Marxist organisation, working in an honest and open fashion, will be welcomed into the ranks by the best workers looking for a way forward.
Unfortunately, books like this of Lars T – and particularly those who uncritically praise his ideas – will not be able to prepare working people for the stormy but exciting period ahead. It does not present the ideas of Lenin clearly. It scandalously ignores the contribution made by Trotsky, in particular.
Our criticisms are not restricted just to the organisational plane. The author does not adequately explain Lenin’s ideas in relation to the perspectives for the Russian revolution. The central idea of Lenin of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ was different to the ideas of the Mensheviks, who saw Russia developing in a capitalist direction with socialism relegated to the mists of the future. Lenin completely rejected the idea that the weak Russian capitalists could carry through the tasks of the democratic capitalist revolution: of land reform, solution of the national question, the introduction of democracy, etc. Only an alliance of the workers and peasants, the overwhelming majority of the population of Russia, was capable of carrying through these tasks.
The weak point in Lenin’s scenario, that Lars T in no way fully explores, is who would be the dominant force in the alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry. The whole of history attests to the fact that the peasantry has never played an independent political role because of its heterogeneity. Its upper layers tend to merge with the capitalists, its lower layers tend to sink into the ranks of the working class.
This is where Trotsky’s famous theory of the permanent revolution comes in, which correctly anticipated how the Russian revolution would develop. Although a minority, the working class, because of its social position in society and its special features, dynamic and organised in big industry, would be able to lead the mass of the peasantry in revolution to overthrow the autocracy. Having come to power, it would then pass over to the tasks of the socialist revolution in Russia and the world. In Lenin’s Letters From Afar, as well as his April Theses, he completely concurs with these ideas of Trotsky. This is not even mentioned in this book.
Lars T Lih’s book undoubtedly presents an advance over the malicious distortions of Lenin and Trotsky’s ideas. But at the same time, unless filled out and corrected, it will introduce further confusion as to what Lenin and Trotsky really stood for.
Lenin, by Lars T Lih, published by Reaktion Books