A discussion article by Ian Birchall, historian and author of Tony Cliff: a Marxist for his time
It is currently a commonplace on the left and not-so-left to announce that Leninism is dead. Indeed, one might wonder why it is necessary to keep repeating the point. Nobody is writing articles to explain that alchemy or social credit are dead. The enthusiasm to bury Leninism tells us that this is something that people want to be dead.
In most cases what they really want to commit to the grave is the experience of 1917 and its aftermath. In the years following 1917 a revolutionary wave swept across Europe. The Russian Revolution, whatever its limitations, offered tremendous hope to working people that the system that had produced the slaughter of 1914-1918 could be replaced by a world based on cooperation and planning in the common interest.
Those of us who, today, want to replace the market economy with a society where working people run the world for themselves, will echo Lenin’s words from 1917:
At all costs, we must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and disgusting prejudice that only the so-called “upper classes”, only the rich, and those who have gone through the school of the rich, are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society.
If we get into an argument about whether workers can run the world, we may cite the Paris Commune, Spain 1936-37, Hungary 1956 or Portugal 1974-75. But pretty soon we shall come back to October 1917.
And for the Revolution’s friends and enemies alike, the name Lenin serves as a symbol of the achievements of the Russian Revolution. Without the Revolution Lenin would have been a nobody, perhaps the subject of an obscure PhD on organisational debates in Russian Marxism, but certainly not a guide, authority and “great teacher”.
It is fascinating, if ultimately futile, to ask what would have happened in Russia in 1917 if Lenin had not been there. Three points in particular can be emphasised:
- Lenin’s ability to grasp the new conjuncture created by the February Revolution and the fact that, as he argued in the April Theses, it was possible to move directly to working-class power.
- The fact that, because of consistent activity over the previous twenty years, there was a party, in which he could argue for the new perspective. Without a party, Lenin’s words would have been wasted.
- And finally, Lenin’s political self-confidence was such that he welcomed into the party leadership people who were prepared to stand up to him, notably his old adversary Trotsky. Lenin thought that the party itself should call the insurrection. Trotsky, who had greater experience than Lenin of the soviets, had to persuade him that the party’s support alone was not broad enough, and that the call should come from the soviets.
But for Lenin the Revolution was made by the working class; he vigorously rejected any suggestion that any political force could replace it:
To be successful, revolutionary insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy, and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism.
The phrase “and not upon a party” may be a bit perplexing to those who have been brought up to think of “Leninism” and “party-building” as synonymous.
Freedom versus the state
What distinguished Lenin as a revolutionary above all was his theory of the state. His State and Revolution, written when insurrection was just weeks away, is his most important work. Not only did it make clear than the transfer of power could not be contained within the existing institutions of the society, it also made clear that socialism cannot be equated with state control of the economy. Lenin summed up his position with the words: “So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.”
To understand the originality and significance of Lenin’s view of the state, it is useful to see how he was perceived by his contemporaries, some of whom had come to support the Russian Revolution from very different political traditions.
Victor Serge had been a hardline anarchist before 1914, taking positions that were elitist and even anti-working class; then he had been active with Spanish syndicalists at the time of the Barcelona insurrection. On arriving in Russia he rallied to the Bolsheviks, who, though they represented an alien political current, were at the very heart of the action. In 1924, just after Lenin’s death, he wrote a pamphlet Lenin In 1917 in which the former anarchist summarised Lenin’s view of the state as follows:
… there is only a difference between the Bolsheviks and the Anarchists over the means, and not over the end; … it is necessary to smash the bourgeois state; … it is necessary to create a profoundly new revolutionary state, the first glimpse of which was given to us by the Paris Commune.
Alfred Rosmer was a syndicalist journalist; he met Trotsky in Paris during the First World War, but had no contact with the Bolsheviks until he arrived in Russia in 1920. He described the impact of the newly published State and Revolution on the European socialist movement:
Some copies of a book by Lenin called State and Revolution had arrived in France early in 1919. It was an extraordinary book and it had a strange destiny. Lenin, a Marxist and a Social Democrat, was treated as an outcast by the theoreticians of the socialist parties which claimed to be Marxist. “It isn’t Marxism,” they shrieked, “it’s a mixture of anarchism and Blanquism”. One of them even found a witty turn of phrase and called it “Blanquism with sauce tartare”. On the other hand, for revolutionaries situated outside the mainstream of orthodox Marxism, for the syndicalists and anarchists, this Blanquism, sauce and all, was a pleasant revelation. They had never heard such language from the Marxists they knew.
Leadership, mistakes, splits
Rosmer and Serge also give us a fascinating picture of Lenin’s leadership style. Rosmer recounts his first meeting with Lenin:
One remark he made suddenly revealed to me the secret of the exceptional position he held in his party, and of the predominant influence he had got there. As we were talking about the Zimmerwaldian minority in the French Socialist Party, he said to me, “It’s time for them to leave the Party now to form the French Communist Party; they’ve waited too long already.” I replied that this was not the view of the leaders of the minority. Previously they had sometimes been impatient to leave the Party en bloc, but the recent Strasbourg conference had been so favourable that they were now opposed to the idea of leaving. They had hopes of becoming the majority quite soon. “If that’s the case,” he said, “I must have written something stupid in my theses. Ask for a copy of them at the secretariat of the Communist International and send me the corrections you are proposing.”
This willingness to learn, the readiness to accept that he had been mistaken and to change his mind, were an essential part of what made Lenin such an exceptional leader. Serge testifies to Lenin’s ability to work collectively, to learn from his comrades:
Lenin, Trotsky, Karl Radek, and Bukharin had, beyond any doubt, become the brains of the Revolution. They spoke the same Marxist language, and had the same background of experience with the socialism of Europe and America. Consequently they understood one another so well, by the merest hints, that they seemed to think collectively. (And it is a fact that the party drew its strength from collective thinking.)
Another witness to Lenin’s leadership skills was Clara Zetkin, the veteran German socialist. In 1921 the German Communist Party launched an adventurist insurrectionary strike which led to disaster and massive loss of membership. One of the Party’s leaders, Paul Levi, publicly attacked his own party and was disciplined. The question, naturally, was central to the Third Congress of the Communist International three months later.
Zetkin, who agreed with Levi’s analysis, but had stayed with the party framework, recorded her discussions with Lenin, and his insistence on the need for compromise; he told her:
As far as the probable attitude of the Congress to the “March action” is concerned, you must realize that it is essential to have a basis for compromise. You will have to be content with the lion’s share of the Congress spoils. The principles of your policy will triumph, triumph brilliantly. And that will prevent a repetition of the “March action.” …
The Congress will utterly destroy the famous “theory of the offensive”, will adopt the tactics which correspond to your ideas. But for that very reason it must also distribute some crumbs of consolation to the adherents of that theory. If in criticising the “March action” we emphasise the fact that the workers fought under provocation from the lackeys of the bourgeoisie, and if, in general, we show a somewhat fatherly “historical” leniency, that will be possible. You, Clara, will condemn that as hushing it up and so on. But that won’t help you. If the tactics to be decided upon by the Congress are agreed upon as quickly as possible, and with no great friction, becoming the guiding principle for the activity of the Communist Parties, our dear leftists will go back not too mortified and not too embittered. We must also – and indeed first and before all – consider the feelings of the real revolutionary workers both within and outside the Party …
“Well, we shan’t deal roughly with the leftists, we shall put some balm on their wounds instead. Then they will soon be working happily and energetically with you in carrying out the policy of the Third Congress of our International.
Lenin had organised a number of splits in his time, but here he realised that the important thing was to hold the German Communist Party and the Comintern together. Splitting is a lot easier than pulling together, which is why his self-styled followers have usually found it easier to imitate him by splitting.
Was Lenin a Leninist?
Like the rest of us, Lenin was a complex human being with weaknesses and limitations. He had an underdeveloped aesthetic sense and was given to telling mother-in-law jokes that were in bad taste if not sexist. As CLR James put it, Lenin was “neither God nor Stalin“.
That Lenin was an important revolutionary leader, and that his life and work repay study, are scarcely in doubt. But what of “Leninism”? Marx famously protested that he was not a Marxist; would Lenin have proclaimed himself a Leninist? There is good reason to think he would not.
Serge quotes Kamenev, who edited the first edition of Lenin’s Collected Works, as saying that Lenin was opposed to the project, believing there was no point collecting obscure writings from many years earlier. And in 1922, the last time he spoke to the Communist International, Lenin told delegates that the resolution on organisation “is too Russian, it reflects the Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners, and they cannot be content with hanging it in a corner like an icon and praying to it.” He was applauded with great affection; whether anyone was listening is a different matter.
After Lenin’s death the term “Leninism” was rapidly promoted by both Zinoviev, at a speech at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, and by Stalin, in a series of lectures called Foundations of Leninism (1924). In the plodding banal style which makes his work virtually unreadable, Stalin informed the world:
And so, what is Leninism? Some say that Leninism is the application of Marxism to the conditions that are peculiar to the situation in Russia. This definition contains a particle of truth, but not the whole truth by any means. Lenin, indeed, applied Marxism to Russian conditions, and applied it in a masterly way. But if Leninism were only the application of Marxism to the conditions that are peculiar to Russia it would be a purely national and only a national, a purely Russian and only a Russian, phenomenon. We know, however, that Leninism is not merely a Russian, but an international phenomenon rooted in the whole of international development.
It was indeed central to Stalinism to claim the legacy of Lenin, in order to legitimise the new ruling class that emerged by 1928 as the sole true heir of October 1917. But for Stalin’s opponents the claim to be the heirs of Lenin was equally pressing, and far more legitimate.
When a supporter said to Trotsky “If only Lenin had lived! You would be with him to this day in Moscow!” Trotsky reputedly replied: “Not at all, he would be with me in Mexico.” In the mid-1930s the early British Trotskyists called themselves “the British Bolshevik-Leninists” – a bit like calling oneself an “agricultural farmer”. The Trotskyists were on the defensive, faced with a massive wave of Stalinist lies and slanders. Their insistence that they represented the true continuity with the politics of Lenin was a necessary and legitimate response.
At the time of the split between Russia and China in the early 1960s something similar happened. The Maoists again claimed legitimacy by calling themselves “Marxist-Leninists”. Maoism proved itself to be just as prone to splintering as Trotskyism, but usually the Communist Party of Ruritania Marxist-Leninist would be the group in Ruritania that was most Stalinist and most loyal to Beijing. As recently as the 1980s an oppositional group in the British Communist Party, forerunner of today’s Weekly Worker, published a paper called The Leninist.
It is commonly said that in 1968 the International Socialists, forerunners of the SWP, turned from Luxemburgism to Leninism. This is an oversimplification – “Luxemburgism” is an even more slippery concept that Leninism. What did happen is that IS made efforts to turn itself into an interventionist organisation – a decision amply justified by the events of the following few years (Saltley pickets, Pentonville Five, miners’ strike bringing down the Heath government, Chilean coup, Portuguese revolution). If Cliff and the rest of us were inspired and guided by Lenin, so much the better – though as I recall in those days we talked a lot about Lenin and not much about “Leninism”. (However, to claim that an organisational form chosen in 1968 remains appropriate for 2014 strikes me as distinctly “unLeninist”. But that is another story.)
Organisational truisms; tasks ahead
So there are many claimants to the label “Leninism”, and many arguments about who can claim it most legitimately. But is there a coherent body of thought that can be defined as “Leninism”? As Tony Cliff pointed out, “Authority by quotation is nowhere less justified than in the case of Lenin. If he is cited on any tactical or organizational question, the concrete issues that the movement was facing at the time must be made absolutely clear.” (Whether Cliff always heeded his own warning is not so certain.)
That Lenin made the question of organisation central is undeniable. But to reduce “Leninism” to the truism “we’ve got to get organised” is a bit thin. And on the question of how we should be organised he was extremely flexible. The whole of Cliff’s study of Lenin is a sustained polemic against the myth of “the Leninist party”. There is no such thing; Lenin’s party varied enormously in form according to circumstances.
Since the end of the Cold War a great deal of historical work has enabled us to refresh our understanding of Lenin, and get away from traditional stereotypes. Whatever reservations one may have about the work of Lars T Lih (in my view Lih overstates the continuities in Lenin, and does not bring out sufficiently his ability to learn from the class), he has undoubtedly enriched our understanding of Lenin. Pierre Broué‘s history of the Comintern and John Riddell‘s carefully edited recordings of the proceedings of its first four congresses mean that many of the old clichés must be abandoned or rethought. A recent study by Eric Blanc challenges the view of Lenin as the source of all wisdom on support for national liberation.
I would argue therefore that the term “Leninism” may be a positive obstacle to developing the kind of political strategy and organisation we need for the coming decades.
Being a revolutionary socialist in the 21st century rests on some essential propositions: (a) if the structures of society are not radically transformed in the direction of cooperation and equality we face barbarism; (b) any such change requires the active participation of a substantial proportion of the exploited and oppressed; (c) the process of change will overspill andeventually destroy the existing political structures of society.
Nothing there that Lenin would disagree with (though he died too soon to see the full potential for barbarism). But it leaves a great many questions unanswered. History does not repeat itself and all revolutions are surprises. The future is not scripted in advance so that all the revolutionary party needs to do is learn its lines and make sure it turns up on stage at the right moment.
Among the many open questions facing those trying to develop a revolutionary organisation in the present period, I would mention three:
- How do we combine the maximum democracy (so that the organisation can draw on its members’ experience) with the structures that permit a rapid and coordinated response to events?
- How do we liberate the initiative and imagination of new comrades while enabling the organisation to educate them by drawing on the knowledge and experience of long-standing members?
- How do we build united fronts that combine the broadest possible unity with the maximum political clarity about the objectives of the campaign?
There are many more. They are questions of balance, of art not science, which cannot be resolved by a neat formulation or a quote from the classic texts. A study of Lenin – as part of a much broader historical study – will undoubtedly be of value, but will provide no readymade solutions.
At some point in the future we shall undoubtedly need centralised political organisation to focus all the different forms of struggle against the most concentrated form of capitalist power, the state. But it is hardly the problem at present. Our first task is much more basic, to rebuild the revolutionary left in a difficult period. So I shall end with a quote, not from Lenin, but from William Morris (who had a lot more in common with Lenin than admirers of his wallpaper might imagine): “We believe then, that it should be our special aim to make Socialists.”
This article was first published in the Summer 2014 edition of rs21 magazine