Is Leninism dead?

Phil Gasper member of the editorial board of the International Socialist Review and is editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document continues a discussion on Leninism, responding to a recent article from Ian Birchall.


What, if anything, do revolutionary socialists today have to learn from the experience and legacy of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks a century ago? In a recent thought-provoking article on this topic, Ian Birchall argues: “the term ‘Leninism’ may be a positive obstacle to developing the kind of political strategy and organisation we need for the coming decades.”

As Ian notes, the key question is not whether we should use the label ‘Leninism,’ but whether there is a coherent body of ideas in Lenin’s writings, and in the theory and practice of the Bolsheviks, that socialists can usefully draw on in the twenty-first century. But he seems to take the fact that “Lenin’s party varied enormously in form according to circumstances,” as a reason to conclude that with respect to questions of organisation, the answer should be in the negative.

It is undeniable that the Bolsheviks changed their organisation in response to specific historical circumstances. The way they operated before 1905, under conditions of extreme Tsarist repression, was very different from the revolutionary period of 1905-07. The years of reaction after 1907 were very different from the early years of the Russian Revolution, which were different again from the period after the Civil War.

In 1921, Lenin helped prepare theses on “The Organisational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work” for the Third Congress of the Communist International, which explicitly state: “There is no absolute form of organisation which is correct for the Communist Parties at all times… [E]ach Party must develop its own special forms of organisation to meet the historically determined conditions within the country.”

Nevertheless, while there is no cookie-cutter Leninist model of revolutionary organisation, good for all times and all places, there is what we might call a more general Leninist project that involves a commitment to build a disciplined, centralised revolutionary party based on the most militant, class conscious and politically advanced section of the working class.

That project stands in opposition to the “common sense” of many – probably most – on the activist left, who reject the need for a centralised party, or the role of the working class, or both.

There are two main reasons why we need a revolutionary party if we want to see a socialist revolution. The first is quite practical: without a coordinated, disciplined revolutionary organization, it’s impossible to take on and defeat the power of the capitalist state.

Although there is no discussion of revolutionary organisation in State and Revolution, which Ian praises as Lenin’s most important theoretical contribution, this is surely one of the implications of his analysis of the class character of the state and its role in maintaining the capitalist system and the rule of the capitalist class.

Like clockwork, capitalism provokes acts of resistance, large and small. But without coordination and leadership, the resistance can’t defeat the whole system. In Trotsky’s memorable metaphor: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box.”

The second reason why a revolutionary party is necessary is because of the highly uneven development of class-consciousness in the working class. Revolutionary organisation is needed to combat ruling class ideology and to overcome divisions between workers.

As we’re all too well aware, for most of the time revolutionary socialists are a small minority in capitalist society. But if the most class conscious, militant and politically advanced elements of the working class can be united in a revolutionary organisation, they can play a leadership role that in times of political and social crisis can attract much greater numbers.

That means revolutionary organisations have to play two related roles. One is participating in and, whenever possible, initiating struggles, both large and small. The second is the role of educating and training more socialists, while developing socialist theory to understand and explain a rapidly changing world.

Socialists have to spend years patiently engaging in smaller struggles, both to learn how to lead as individuals in their own workplaces and communities, and to build a party with the capacity to lead a successful revolution in the future.

That’s the Leninist project.

It’s important to emphasise that this is a project. We don’t have a revolutionary party consisting of the most advanced elements of the working class in Britain or the United States, and we’re unlikely to have one in the near future.

The main reason for this is that our side has suffered over 30 years of defeats. Moreover, the structure of capitalism and the composition of the working class have been transformed during that time. Whole industries have been wiped out or totally restructured. Unionised jobs have been replaced by low-wage service sector employment and contingent labour. And for 30 years there has been a right-wing ideological offensive that has disoriented and weakened most of the left.

The Leninist project involves bringing together the ideas of revolutionary socialism with the most advanced sections of the working class. When the socialist movement and the larger working class movement are both weak, that’s hard to do.

One of the biggest mistakes that relatively small groups of revolutionaries can make is to believe that they already constitute a revolutionary party, or that they will inevitably grow to become such a party. In his 1971 essay “Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party,” Duncan Hallas, with his customary insight, put it this way:

“The relevance of a party is, firstly, that it can give … the more advanced and conscious minority of workers and not the sects or self-proclaimed leaders, the confidence and the cohesion necessary to carry the mass with them. It follows that there can be no talk of a party that does not include this minority as one of its major components.”

If you imagine that you have already created such a party, or that your political clarity and understanding means that you are preordained to become the leadership of the international working class in the future, it can rapidly lead to delusions of grandeur that may undermine the democratic culture that is an essential part of living revolutionary organisation.

Hallas again:

“unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.”

Here, Hallas is echoing ideas that Lenin articulated at the beginning of the twentieth century: “there must be wide and free discussion of Party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life.” To that end the Bolsheviks explicitly defended the right of a minority “to advocate its views and to carry on an ideological struggle, so long as the disputes and differences do not lead to disorganisation.”

But while it is a serious error for any group of revolutionaries simply to declare themselves the leadership of the working class, the opposite mistake is to put off the task of building a revolutionary party into the indefinite future. Education is vital, but revolutionary socialists need to create more than just study groups. Activism is equally vital, but movements by themselves are not enough.

So how does a group of a few hundred people attempt to build a revolutionary party that will eventually need hundreds of thousands of members? It’s unlikely that we are going to grow ourselves there by recruiting a few members at a time. Most likely, the path will involve merging with other forces that are part of the working-class movement and the left, broadly conceived, but the specifics will vary greatly depending on the concrete situation that exists in different places and countries.

Ian Birchall is right that socialists today still have much to learn from Lenin’s writings. But to change the world, we also need to remain committed to the Leninist project of building a revolutionary party. In that sense we should say yes both to Lenin and to Leninism.


  1. Michael Rosen says “berating this or that trade union leader for not backing this or that strike may or may not be helpful.” I don’t know anyone who is doing that.
    Clearly, if you just denounce trade union leaders you do not build a rank and file. Trotsky understood that at various times you have to have temporary alliances with sections of the bureaucracy.
    But what your general political understanding of these leaders is clearly makes a difference. If you think like Tony Cliff that in a capitalist crisis the bureaucracy fears the workers more than they fear restrictions put on them by the state, and will therefore side with the bosses unless strong pressure is applied from below you will act differently to if you think like Martin Smith that the trade union leaders want to fight, they just lack confidence.
    Matt Wrack of the FBU is due to speak at the UTR conference, now this could be argued as a positive development, because all though the union leadership has tried to wind down the fight against attacks on pensions, pressure from below has stopped this happening. But a ginger group strategy cannot play any real positive role.
    As I still await somebody to answer – what benefit is there in inviting the union leader who sold out the postal workers to the UTR conference?
    The 100,000 workers who demonstrated with TUC clearly shows a willingness to fight. But it does matter if a worker thinks the election is the biggest hope, or if they lack the confidence to act independently from union leaders. These union leaders prefer the one day occasional strikes because it stops the growth of grassroots independent initiative. They do not want to loose control to workers, so you ‘let off some steam’.
    Workers militancy is perishable, it does matter that action by 2 million workers was called off over pensions. it does matter when UNISON, GMB and Unite back off from fighting to defend pay. It leads to many workers being demoralised.
    You cannot fudge, you have to orientate on building a rank and file movement. The Tories have not smashed the workers, they are being held back. The Tories understand they are not powerful enough to take on all the workers, thats why they had the Ridley plan and why they gave a knighthood to Brendan Barber for his services to the ruling class.
    We need to get back to the times when the bosses favourite union leader, Joe Gormley, was unable to stop many of them fearing revolution was around the corner.

  2. Further: it’s probably time to look again at just how unimaginative we are. The main idea of what a revolutionary socialist is and does is sell newspapers, go to meetings, organise strikes, demos, vigils, petitions and the occasional benefit and/or memorial. Surely we have to do better than this. One of the consequences of the grip of the Leninist model is that it’s about getting everything that the party organises being absolutely correct. So if it’s a ‘party’ event then it’s party people telling it how it is. Given that the quality of what the ‘party ‘ (and this applies to all the Leninist parties) can offer, this may well be deadly dull. If it’s a ‘front’ meeting, then the meeting may well be better but of course the format is nearly always the same: the jam packed platform, the repetitious speeches, the recruitment agenda, the whip round etc etc. I’ve done hundreds of them. Meanwhile, for example, people like Mark Thomas, Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy, Anna Chen, Billy Bragg and probably a hundred or so other people (including of course Russell Brand) have experimented with a variety of styles of event, entertainment, agitation, resistance. Mark Thomas in particular has experimented with various kinds of guerrilla agitation/entertainment.

    A vibrant left would have found ways to have put this sort of thing centre stage – without trying to dominate or control it. There are left-minded organisers (‘impresarios’ if you like) with massive experience of organising festivals, being part of ongoing festivals etc etc who can organise events. So instead of these being sporadic, there needs to be something like a left clearing house that gave just a bit of direction – very light-handed – to what would in effect be a semi-permanent road show. I’m not saying anything new here. People like Roland Muldoon and Red Saunders knew this years ago with ‘New Variety’ and Rock against Racism. Both of them were in IS and Red is still in the SWP, as far as I know. They have massive experience of how to organise and run rolling events. Dave Marshall from Faithless has been doing massive gigs all over the world for the last ten years at least. Same goes for Benjamin Zephaniah, Billy Bragg, Mark Thomas and of course, now, Russell Brand.

    When people like that put their minds (and their contact books!) together, you attract thousands to the events, there is a mix of politics and culture, and you trust the material that singers, poets, actors, comedians, musicians etc do to critique the political situation. Now, of course, some of this goes on. Again, I’ve turned up to many of them myself. I would suggest that a creative thing to have done in the anti-austerity fight, would have been to have created a cultural-political roadshow along the lines of Rock Against Racism – a mix of huge bloody events with bands and comedians – alongside medium and small-sized events. The core message could have been simple: austerity is a hoax, it was another trick to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Resist it how you can, where you can. ‘Rock Against Austerity’ – or something like that – better please! Old hands like Red and Roland could have been enlisted for advice and new people brought in.

    I’d put it this way: another ‘assembly’, another ‘conference’, another ‘let’s all unite’ meeting will not do it. When I think of my own children and step-children they just won’t get involved in stuff like that. Something that engages them culturally AND politically – that’s a different matter. The watchword phrase has to be ‘resistance through fun; fun through resistance’.

    Ask Red Saunders. He knows. How ironic that he has spent the last twenty years saying this in private, his expertise from Rock Against Racism ignored and yet he’s been in the SWP all this time. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of meetings later, what have we got? A vista of tens of thousands more meetings ahead of us in which the struggle has not been generalised, in which the ‘corridor’ effect goes on and on (people joining then leaving), in which the ‘revolution is round the corner’- ism goes on and on, (one more push, comrades) and so on.

    And I don’t need to mention (OK I will) that Martin Smith was getting a lot right with LMHR but it was the absurd response by the SWP to the allegations which screwed that up…and the direct reason for that screw-up was that a greater priority was put on keeping him in place than on doing what any Trade Union would have done in that immediate circumstance.

  3. This discussion (between James and Sparky) is interesting but I wonder if either of you have got anything near an answer to the matter of why – no matter what shape an industrial dispute ends up taking – the process of a) supporting strikes, b) writing them up in the ‘the party’ newspaper and c) selling the paper has not succeeded in ‘generalising the struggle’. Be clear, I’m not ‘against’ this method. And I don’t think saying – ‘it’s the fault of social democracy and trade union leaders’ is a sufficient explanation. So, for example, now more than almost any other time in my lifetime, we have the possibility of people generalising the struggle against austerity across the public sector, across public and private and indeed internationally. (What I mean is that the ‘one enemy’ argument is clearer than it often is, and likewise, ‘we (the workers) are in the same situation’ argument is clearer than it often is. Yes, we know that TU leaders and Labour will shy away from putting all this together,) but if it’s the argument put by all the left-of-Labour groupings, why doesn’t it result in ‘generalising’ ?There are times when the Daily Mirror has laid it out as clearly as the Left of Labour papers – certainly around a year or two into this government with their attacks on fat cats etc.

    By the way, berating this or that trade union leader for not backing this or that strike, may or may not be helpful. I mean by that, that relatively small groups of workers, taking action without mass sympathy action can be picked off and smashed relatively easily. The rule: every strike must be right, is dangerous because the outcome can be the opposite of what’s intended i.e. despair instead of victory. And even the regular victories of the RMT in the London Underground was hard to translate into ‘well we could do that too’, wasn’t it? Why?

  4. I take it back on October the 10 there was the solitary article…very interesting for Sparky to comment mention of the key role McClusky played in getting the strikes called off clearly left wing union leaders shouldn’t be criticised !..then amazingly the article ends with the London Underground strike being called off..quotes the new gen sec of the RMT and doesn’t even say if the calling off of the strike was right or wrong..Sparky it reads like a morning star piece…and you call the SWP centrist…no link provided to any rs21 leaflets being distrubted re local govt and London Underground strikes being ditched! By the way SW argued against pulling the underground strike off ….

  5. So Sparky is at it again…please Sparky where is the article about the fight against sell out over pay on this site..meanwhile former allies of the unison leadership have broken ranks in many branches and the North west region and the biggest revolt amongst unison activists against the leadership is unfolding…socialist worker has and is covering this development and SWP members are alongside many others are organising to try and overturn the retreat…meanwhile the monumental failure of the right and left leaderships in unite, GMB and unison are not worthy of a single article on this site. Of course in relation to UKIP there are some on the left who say they are not really a problem and you seem to think if a socialist newspaper runs articles about the threat they pose this equates to letting the union leaders off the hook over pay!!!!!! Frankly your logic is can be against UKIP and the retreat over pay.!!
    Look forward to RS21 writing at least something over the arguements in UNISON.

  6. I don’t think you can lump a Tankie organisation like the CP as the same as the SWP.

    But the lack of democracy in both organisations has nothing to do with Lenin.

    Any organisation has a tendency to conservatism. Lenin would constantly fight against the “committee men” by appeals to the Bolshevik rank and file. Michael is right to say Capitalist structures affects us all, but it is the political mistakes, not the particular way of organising which has led to the crisis on the revolutionary left. I can understand listening to Alex Callinicos waffle, some may think what he is really saying is “Lenin made me do it!”.

    The Tories want 500,000 public sector jobs to go by 2015. What are the trade union leaders doing about this?
    The truth is, rather than lacking confidence, these leaders at least partly accept that major cuts have to be made because they want to nurse Capitalism back to health.
    Revolutionaries should be saying we need to learn from the Sparks, and be prepared to act independently of the trade union bureaucracy when necessary.
    How are you going to get postal workers black or white to come to a meeting to hear how great Billy Hayes is after he has sold out the fight against privatisation?
    Rather than explain why the strikes were sold out just a couple of weeks ago, Socialist Worker talks about the threat from UKIP. Defeats lead to despair, you have to look reality in the face, or the racism will rise.
    When Michael talks about how the system creates passivity, this is not decisive, if it was, all those organised trade unionists would have not voted for strike action in October.

    It was not democratic centralism that won a vote on the issue of democracy and fighting women’s oppression. It was a bureaucratic manoeuvre which won. A revolutionary party has to be seen to have had a real debate and the argument clearly won. This didn’t happen, that’s why hundreds left the organisation.

    The top down centrist organisation needs to be replaced by a new genuine revolutionary party.

  7. …and so to ‘power’. Yes, classical marxists have tended to come down heavy on people like Foucault who seem to have described power as having a force of its own, or existing in social groups for no other purpose than that it feels good to those in power…or some such. No, we’ve said, the power ultimately links to the purpose and function of capitalism (in present circumstances) i.e. ultimately ‘power’ serves capital.

    That’s OK (if that’s a very rough summary of the positions) but when we see e.g. power operating in left groupings, we might be excused for a moment saying, hang on, how is this possible? How can it be that this executive clique is throwing its weight about, bullying, humiliating, hectoring others when we know that we are socialists? One solution to this pickle is to deny it: ‘no we weren’t bullying, we were explaining’ or ‘we’re not in a position to heavy others because we come up for election every year’ and so on.


    I personally think that if we stick to our view that capitalism creates and manifests and reproduces and is (in part) reproduced by the ‘prevailing ideology’ then one aspect of this is that a) capitalism is run through a hierarchical system in which power is vested in capital, capital is vested in power – that is, the process of ruling, dominating and controlling others. Because ideology is all-pervasive, none of us can escape the ‘normality’ of this..even if we try hard to resist a tendency to accept power (or be dominated by it), even the conscious act of resistance is as a result of its all-pervasiveness. However, we can also be in a position in which we are not aware of ‘trying it on’, trying to dominate, rule and control others even as we say that we’re not, even as we might think it is undesirable.

    I think this latter position is the pickle that Leninist organisations keep getting themselves into. People on committees who’ve been on the same committee for years start to think of themselves in terms of their entitlement, their apparent ability to tell others what’s what, and believe in their wisdom in such a way that it starts to move towards a sense of infallibility (supported by sacred texts). Given the process of power (in capitalism) what’s then sad is that some people ‘make way’. They accede to the power of the people who just so happen to stay year in year out in these positions. You only have to talk to ‘survivors’ of the Gerry Healey era in the WRP to get a sense of how this acceding power to the powerful went on even as people thought they were being ‘revolutionary’.

    I suspect that unless the left comes to terms with these ways in which capitalist structures do indeed affect our relationships within the left, we won’t get anywhere. It’s not a ‘sufficient’ condition of our advance but I’m sure it’s a necessary one.

  8. Here’s another cause for thought: at their height(s) the Anti-Nazi League and Stop the War were both very successful campaigns in terms of numbers, mobilisation, organisation etc. If the best structural and organisational way to proceed and progress is through Leninism + united front-ism, how come for example the result of those campaigns was not a massive swelling in the ranks of a permanent cadre of socialists? And, given the emphasis of those campaigns, how come neither campaign resulted in a massive increase in the numbers of people of recent migrant origin? What was/is the obstacle?


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