Charlie Post, a supporter of Solidarity, a US revolutionary socialist organisation, continues a discussion on what is meant by ‘Leninism’ today


Two developments have sparked a renewed debate on revolutionary socialist organisation. On the one hand, the emergence of “new left parties” and the continued crisis of the self-identified revolutionary left, of which the recent split in the British Socialist Workers Party is only one symptom, have forced revolutionaries to rethink much of the received wisdom concerning how a revolutionary working class movement will be built and organized. On the other, a wave of new scholarship, in particular the work of Lars Lih,[1] has raised serious challenges to our historical understanding of the place of Russian Bolshevism in pre-1914 social democracy. At stake in this debates are the continued relevance of “Leninism” to revolutionary politics in the 21st century.

There is, however, little consensus on what is exactly meant by “Leninism.” Generally the term has two distinct, but interrelated, meanings. The first is a distinct theory of revolutionary socialist organisation. Lenin, either in What is to Be Done? (1903) or by time of the split in Russian social-democracy in 1912, had formulated a theory of a “party of the new type.” This new type of socialist organisation was based on a rejection of two key aspects of European social-democratic theory and practice. First, social-democratic parties were “all-inclusive,” uniting revolutionaries with ‘opportunists’ (Lenin’s term for reformists) in an attempt to represent the working class “as a whole.” Lenin understood the need to build a “homogeneous” party united around a revolutionary program – a party of the revolutionary vanguard of the working class organized separately from “backward” workers and their reformist leaders. Second, that social democracy was too organisationally decentralised, allowing reformists the right to publically criticise and act against the decisions of the party. The Bolsheviks pioneered “democratic centralism,” in which an authoritative central leadership determined the outlook and activity of all party organisations.

The second meaning of “Leninism” – often codified as “Marxism-Leninism” – is the notion that Lenin and the Bolsheviks produced a distinctive body of Marxist theory. Whether used by Stalinists or anti-Stalinist revolutionaries, “Leninism” is a distinctive and accurate explanation of the path of the Russian Revolution of 1917, of opportunism and reformism in the workers movement, and of a new “stage” of capitalism – imperialism/monopoly capitalism. Together these theoretical innovations are presented as the bedrock of revolutionary practice since 1917.

Unfortunately, much of the recent debate on Leninism is marked by a confusion of Marxist theory and socialist practice.[2] Marxist theory, like all scientific theories attempts to provide a relatively abstract, conceptual explanation of the world. For example, Marx’s theory of capitalism moves “from the abstract to the concrete” – from the difference between use and exchange-value, through the buying and selling of labour-power, to the production of surplus-value in the capitalist labour-process, to the concentration and centralisation of capital and reproduction of a reserve army of labour, to capitalist competition and finally to the necessity of capitalist crisis. Put simply, Marxist theory provides a relatively abstract explanation of a social phenomenon, rooted in the most basic categories of historical materialism. Thus, a theory of revolutionary organisation would be based in an explanation of how capitalist social relations of production shape the dynamics of working class consciousness. All Marxist theories must be both conceptually coherent and, most importantly, explain actual history. As the late Ernest Mandel put it:

From the standpoint of historical materialism, ‘tendencies’ which do not manifest themselves materially and empirically are not tendencies at all. They are the products of… scientific errors… As soon as ‘laws of development’ come to be regarded as so abstract that they can no longer explain the actual process of concrete history, then the discovery of such tendencies of development ceases to be an instrument for the revolutionary transformation of this process.[3]

By contrast, socialist practice refers to the actual activity of socialist militants in the workers’ and social movements. Despite the Marxist left’s striving for a unity of theory and practice, there have often been discrepancies between them. Put another way, there is no one to one correspondence between a theory and a political practice. For revolutionaries, the best known rupture between theory and practice is social democracy before the Second World War. While major social democratic parties, including the German party, ostensibly maintained theoretical loyalty to Marxism until the early 1950s, their practice had diverged from their theory in the decade before the First World War.[4] Similar discrepancies exist between different theories of capitalist crisis and political strategies. For example, most proponents of “under-consumptionist” theories of capitalist crisis, which emphasize purported insufficiencies in demand, tend to support social-democratic or Keynesian “demand-management” policies. They are, quite simply, reformists.[5] However, one of the most sophisticated defenders of “under-consumptionism” was Rosa Luxemburg,[6] a leading figure in the revolutionary wing of pre-1914 social-democracy.

It is my contention that there was a disjuncture between the theory and practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, particularly before 1914. While Lenin and his comrades were practical innovators in revolutionary organisation and revolutionary strategy, their theory remained within the mainstream of the “orthodox Marxist” current of social-democracy best represented by Karl Kautsky. The task of revolutionaries in the 21st century is to recognize this disjuncture, critically evaluate Lenin’s theory in light of historical developments, and develop a theoretical foundation for their breakthroughs in revolutionary practice.

The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of the Party”[7]

Despite claims to the contrary, there is little evidence that Lenin or other leaders of the Bolshevik party developed a distinctive theoretical perspective on socialist organisation at least prior to 1914. As we will see, the organisational practice of the Bolsheviks was radically different than the rest of pre-war social democracy. However, these practical innovations remained untheorised for most of the history of Bolshevism.[8]

Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered presents a powerful critique of the notion – common to both the “Leninist” left and the anti-Leninist right – that Lenin broke with the dominant theory of socialist organisation as early as 1903. He clearly demonstrates that Lenin (as he stated himself) was an enthusiastic supporter of the dominant model of pre-war socialist organisation – the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD). Quite simply, Lenin was a quite orthodox follower of Karl Kautsky, the premier theorist of pre-war social-democracy, in matters of both socialist politics and organisation. Through an exhaustive reconstruction of Kautsky’s writings, in particular the SPD’s Erfurt Program of 1891, Lih argues that Lenin was a “Russian Erfurtian.”

Both Kautsky and Lenin understood the specificity of the Marxist socialist movement – its insistence that socialism must be the product of class struggle, not of a blueprint model – in much the same way as Hal Draper in Two Souls of Socialism.[9] Earlier, pre-Marxist socialist theorists (and many post-Marxist theorists in the social democratic and Stalinist traditions) viewed workers’ struggles in the workplace as “narrow” and “selfish” – obstructing the development of a collectivist and planned social order. An enlightened elite of intellectuals would impose socialism on the backward masses. In the Erfurt Program, Kautsky was clear that Marxism rooted socialism in the day-to-day self-organisation and self-activity of the workers themselves. Thus, it was through fusion of the socialist intelligentsia with the most active and “purposeful” worker activists that a mass socialist party would be built.[10]

Lih’s thesis that Lenin remained an “Erfurtian Marxist” has been the subject of a renewed debate on the meaning of the 1912 dispute in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP).[11] For many on the revolutionary left, the 1912 decision of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP to exercise its majority was actually a split – the creation of a new, exclusively revolutionary party. Clearly, the RSDLP was “for all practical purposes”[12] under the leadership of the Bolsheviks after 1912 – and most of the Menshevik minority refused to recognize the majority’s leadership. However, Lenin and his supporters insisted that they were merely defending “Congress democracy” – implementing the democratic decisions of the Prague conference of the RSDLP – and that the minority was free to continue their membership and participation in the party, including publically disagreeing with the majority when they differed.[13] Put simply, while Lenin and the Bolsheviks may have split the RSDLP in practice, they neither viewed their exercise of majority rights as a split nor did they develop a new theory of the party to justify their actions. Even in practice, the split did not impact much of the base of the RSDLP, with Bolsheviks and Mensheviks continuing to meet and attempt to act together in February and March 1917.[14]

There is also considerable historical evidence that the organisational practice of the Bolsheviks before 1921 bore no resemblance to those imposed on the Communist Parties under the banner of “Leninism” after 1923. Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin[15] documents a Bolshevik faction and RSDLP that was anything but “politically homogeneous” in way post-1923 “Leninists” used the term. Not only were there vibrant debates on theory and strategy, in particular on the role of capitalists, workers and peasants in the coming Russian revolution; but political and ideological currents and factions were free both to form at any time (not merely during limited periods of ‘pre-congress’ discussion) and to express their differences publically. Lenin was quite clear about the need for public discussion in his “An Appeal to the Party by Delegates to the Unity Congress Who Belonged to the Former ‘Bolshevik’ Group,” written in April 1906, as the first Russian Revolution was in retreat. While praising the renewed unity of the RSDLP and the dissolution of the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, Lenin points to continued differences on the party’s attitudes toward peasant struggles, participation in the Tsarist Duma (parliament) and the need for continued underground organisation to prepare for an armed insurrection against Tsarism:

We were all agreed on the principle of democratic centralism, on guarantees for the rights of all minorities and for all loyal opposition, on the autonomy of every Party organisation, on recognizing that all Party functionaries must be elected, account able to the Party and subject to recall. We see the observance in practice of these principles of organisation, their sincere and consistent application, as a guarantee against splits, a guarantee that the ideological struggle in the Party can and must prove fully consistent with strict organisational unity, with the submission of all to the decisions of the Unity Congress.[16]

As Lih has argued, Russian social-democrats, both Menshevik and Bolshevik, always emphasized the democratic aspect of “democratic centralism” prior to 1921.[17] Put simply, rank and file Bolsheviks enjoyed more democratic rights to dissent (including publically) with the “party line” and greater democratic control over their leaders in conditions of Tsarist autocracy in the early 20th century than most members of ostensibly “Leninist” organisations do under conditions of capitalist legality a century later.

The organisational form that today claims the mantle of “Leninist” was invented after Lenin’s death in 1924. In the wake of the defeat of the German Revolution in October 1923, the leadership of the Communist International short-circuited any political discussion of the roots of this historic set-back. Instead, the Comintern under the leadership of Zinoviev argued that a lack of organisational discipline and ideological homogeneity in the German Communist Party (KPD) was the cause of the defeat, and launched a campaign to “Bolshevize” the newly founded Communist Parties.

The origins of what most of the revolutionary left considers “Leninism” and “democratic centralism” today – the bans on organised minority currents (either factions contending for leadership or ideological tendencies) except for extremely limited periods of time; the notion that disagreements within the revolutionary movement reflect the influence of “alien class forces;” the subordination of the ranks of the organisation to the unquestionable authority of “higher bodies,” including their ability to dictate tactics; and the ultimate authority of International bodies to determine the political orientation of the national organisations, including the selection of their leadership – can be found in the “bolshevisation” campaigns launched after 1923.[18]


The claim that Lenin developed a body of original and useful theory is also highly questionable. Most accounts of “Marxism-Leninism” claim that Lenin made enduring theoretical breakthroughs on three key issues – the roots of reformism (“opportunism”), the strategy for the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the theory of imperialism-monopoly capitalism. First, none of these theories were original. As Lih has consistently argued, Lenin remained a consistent Kautskyian theoretically throughout his life.[19] Nor was Lih alone in this assessment. Leon Trotsky, in his 1938 obituary for Kautsky argued:

The attempts of the present historiography of the Comintern to present things as Lenin, almost in his youth, had seen in Kautsky an opportunist and had declared war against him, are radically false. Almost up to the time of the world war, Lenin considered Kautsky as the genuine continuator of the cause of Marx and Engels.[20]

An explanation of reformism and the dynamics of working class consciousness are essential elements of any theory of revolutionary organisation. Lenin’s account of the roots of reformism – the notion that monopolies and imperialism allow the capitalist class to ‘bribe’ a ‘labor aristocracy’ with higher wages and more secure employment – owes much to Kautsky’s early writings. In his classic The Social Revolution, first published in 1902, Kautsky claimed that English capital’s dominance of the world market and colonial empire explained the dominance of non-Marxian, reformist socialism there:

England was the classic ground of capitalism, the one upon which industrial capital first gained the mastery. English capitalism came into power the economic master not only of the upper class of its own land but also of foreign lands… It gave up violent suppression of the laboring class and depended much more upon peaceful diplomacy, for a while granted political privileges to the powerfully organised, and sought to purchase and corrupt its leaders by friendly advances in which it was too often successful.[21]

As I have argued in tremendous detail elsewhere,[22] the theory of the labor aristocracy in all of its variants is theoretically inconsistent and empirically unfounded. A much superior explanation of reformism in the workers’ movement is found in Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike[23] written in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1905-1906. For Luxemburg, and those contemporary Marxists who have developed her analysis,[24] the necessarily episodic character of working class struggle and the emergence of a full-time officialdom in the unions and social-democratic parties are the social foundation of reformism – not a layer of well-paid workers purportedly “bribed” by imperialist and monopoly ‘super-profits.’

Nor was Lenin’s theory of the Russian Revolution particularly original or accurate.[25] For Lenin and the Bolsheviks prior to 1917, the goal of the Russian Revolution was a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” In feudal-absolutist Russia, the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution was on the agenda. Rejecting the Menshevik argument that the feeble Russian capitalist class would lead this revolution, Lenin argued that only a radical democratic revolution of workers and peasants, relying on their own organisations, could establish a temporary revolutionary government that would carry out non-socialist tasks – abolishing Tsarism, organizing a Constituent Assembly to found a democratic republic, distribute land to the peasants and establish the eight-hour day. Having accomplished these tasks, the revolutionary government would hand over power to a democratic capitalist regime.

Kautsky’s The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution and Its Prospects (1906)[26] outlined an analysis and strategy that the Bolsheviks claimed as their own. However, this perspective proved to be wrong. In 1917, the workers and peasants’ revolution did not limit itself to the destruction of Tsarism, the implementation of land reform and the eight hour day or the establishment of a capitalist democratic republic. Instead the workers and peasants overthrew the capitalist provisional government, established a workers’ state based on the councils (soviets) and began to undermine capitalist private property. Put simply, the outcome of the Russian revolution did not confirm the theory and strategy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but of the dissident Menshevik, Trotsky. Trotsky had argued since 1906 that not only would the working class overthrow Tsarism with the support of the peasantry, but that they would not limit themselves to ‘bourgeois-democratic’ tasks. Again, while the Bolshevik’s practice in 1917 broke with Lenin and Kautsky’s strategic vision, neither Lenin nor any other Bolshevik leader ever explicitly jettisoned the ‘democratic dictatorship.’

Finally, even Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism,[27] was not wholly original. Clearly, Lenin rejected Kautsky’s post-1912 notion of “ultra-imperialism,” where a single, dominant imperialist power could make inter-imperialist military conflict a thing of the past. However, Lenin does rehearse Kautsky’s arguments from 1902 on the relationship of monopolies, finance capital and global capitalism.[28] Nor was Lenin’s Imperialism an accurate analysis of capitalism in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Michael Kidron, one of the founders of the International Socialist tradition, pointed out in his 1970 essay “Imperialism – Highest Stage But One”[29] challenged Lenin’s claims that capitalist imperialism was characterized by the universal fusion of banking and industrial capital into finance capital, the division of the world into colonies and spheres of influence, and the export of capital from the global North to the global South. Kidron sought to preserve the notion of monopoly capital, a notion has also come under considerable theoretical and empirical criticism since the late 1970s.[30]

Clearly, there is much that contemporary Marxists can gain from a careful and critical reading of Lenin. His conjunctural analyses of the Russian workers and peasants’ struggles, his consistent rejection of reformist politics and his internationalism are all inspirations for revolutionaries today. Two theoretical works, however, stand out as both original and of enduring value. The first is State and Revolution and its ‘companion’ The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.[31] Lenin points to Kautsky’s ambiguity in his 1909 The Road to Power on how the working class will take political power. Kautsky’s formulations leave open the possibility of a socialist party taking power through parliamentary elections and beginning the transition to socialism. Lenin clearly rejected this scenario, affirming Marx’s dictum that the “emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself.” Only through the self-organisation of an alternative working class political power – workers’ councils – and the destruction of the existing capitalist state could the working class take power, abolish capitalism and construct socialism.[32]

Of even greater importance for revolutionaries in the West, where reformism in the workers’ movement has proved to be much more durable than the classical Marxist tradition ever imagined, is Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.[33] In an attempt to grapple with the failure of the revolutionary wave of 1918-1920 in Western Europe, Lenin takes some initial, hesitant steps beyond the notion that a privileged labor aristocracy is the main source of “opportunism” in the labor movement. He moves towards recognizing that the uneven character of working-class struggles under conditions of capitalist rule produced a layer of union and parliamentary officials who were unconditionally committed to reformist politics. Lenin was clear that only through participation in any and all working class struggles – in the workplace, in neighborhoods and even in the electoral arena – would growing sectors of the working class experience the limits of reformist politics in practice. Put simply, only through their own self-organisation and self-activity would the working class be won to revolutionary politics. If revolutionaries abstained from such struggles as insufficiently “radical” or “revolutionary,” they effectively surrendered the leadership of the working class to forces of official reformism.[34]

Clearly, revolutionary Marxists in the early 21st century need to break theoretically, with the Marxism of the Second International. Kautsky’s notions of the automatic growth of the power and consciousness of the working class, a mechanistic ‘breakdown’ of capitalism, the reduction of the role of socialists to “easing” the inevitable transition to socialism through educational and electoral activity are, clearly, without foundation. After the experiences of Stalinism and fascism, we need to develop a Marxism that clearly rejects teleology and places working class self-organisation and self-activity at the center of the socialist project. However, we need to recognize that Lenin – like most of the revolutionary wing of pre-1914 social democracy – broke with this Marxism in practice, but not in theory.

What’s left of Leninism?

The most enduring legacy of “Leninism” is to be found in the study and theorisation of unique practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.[35] The Russian social-democratic movement, like International social democracy as a whole was the product of three major strike waves (1890s, 1905-1907, 1912-1914) that swept the advanced capitalist world.[36] These strike waves framed the great theoretical-political debates of this period (“revisionism” 1899-1901; “mass strike” 1906-1910 and war and revolution, 1912-1914), and created the social base of the distinct wings of social democracy.

The discontinuity of these, like all working struggles under capitalism, produced two distinct social layers whose unity would mark pre-1914 social democracy. On the one hand, the mass struggles before 1914 generated hundreds of thousands of radical and revolutionary workplace leaders. These mostly well-paid skilled metal workers led countless battles over speed-up, deskilling and wages and political struggles for democratic and social rights – often against the wishes of the social-democratic leaders of their unions and parties. This ‘militant minority,’ the actual workers’ vanguard, were the mass audience for the revolutionary, left-wing of social-democracy – Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, and, before 1914, Kautsky. On the other hand, the stabilization of parliamentary institutions, the spread of suffrage among working-class men and ‘trade union legalization’ allowed the consolidation of a layer of full-time party, parliamentary and union officials. With the support of the less active segments of the working class (the mass of social-democratic voters and party and union members), these officials sought a ‘place at the table’ of capitalist society. Committed to normalising class relations through parliamentary reforms and institutionalized collective bargaining, these officials were social base of reformist politics in the pre-war socialist movement.

The Russian social democratic movement took a different path from the rest of Europe. Put simply, it was impossible to build a ‘party like the SPD under Russian conditions.’ Tsarist Absolutism short-circuited the stabilisation of parliamentary institutions and trade union legality, thus limiting the development of the layer of full-time party and union officials that was the social foundation of reformism in the West. As a result, the Bolsheviks built a party of revolutionary worker leaders, independent of and capable of politically contesting the forces of capitalist liberalism and working class reformism. Those Russian social democrats who were more sympathetic to reformism, in particular many Mensheviks, enjoyed the support of skilled workers in small-scale industries (printing, etc.). However, they were unable to establish their dominance in workers movement because of the absence of parliamentary institutions and legal trade unions in Russia.

The First World War ended the uneasy alliance between reformist union and party officials and militant rank and file workers. While the party-union officials, with the support of the passive majority of workers, rallied to the ‘defense’ of their national capitalist states; radical and revolutionary workers attempted to continue the class struggle during war-time and prepare for revolutionary upsurges in the near future. While the anti-war wing of the socialist movement was initially small and isolated, war-time struggles over inflation, deskilling, speed-up and food shortages strengthened them and deepened the crisis of the European socialist parties. In Russia alone, where the ‘militant minority’ was organized independently and the forces of reform were socially weak, did the war lead to a successful revolution. The victory of the Bolshevik-led revolution of 1917 produced an attempt to create new, revolutionary parties – Communist parties – that organized the revolutionary minority of the working class independently of the forces of official reformism.

Put simply, Leninism cannot be reduced to the post-1923 caricature of ‘democratic centralism’. Instead, the enduring legacy of Leninism remains the goal of constructing an independent organisation of anti-capitalist organisers and activists who attempt to project a political alternative to the forces of official reformism not only in elections, but in mass, extra-parliamentary social struggles.[37] Building such an organisation today will not be a simple task. The “human material” for a mass revolutionary workers party – a sizeable layer of workplace and community activists who are willing and able take action independently of the forces of official reformism – does not exist today. Four decades of nearly continuous defeats across the capitalist world, which has undermined the workers combativity, is only partially responsible. Of even greater importance is the impact of Stalinism, in particular the legacy of the popular front, on socially and politically disorganizing the “militant minority” – the workers’ vanguard – in the working class.[38] As a result, the tasks of revolutionary socialists in the early 21st century are two-fold. On the one hand, we need to organise and educate a cadre of militants in broadly revolutionary Marxist politics and theory, and develop a common practice in the labor and social movements. On the other, we need to participate in the reorganisation of the workers’ vanguard through the construction of independent “transitional organisations” of militants,[39] who are not yet revolutionaries.

[1] Lih’s work is voluminous. His two most important contributions are Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008) and Lenin (London: Reaktion Press, 2011).

[2] Much of the ostensible disagreements between myself and Paul LeBlanc [Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a revolutionary Doctrine (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), Chapter 7] flows from a confusion of Leninism as a theory and a political practice.

[3] Late Capitalism (London: New Left Books, 1975), p. 20.

[4] One of the best discussions of this disjuncture is Carl E. Schorske, German Social-Democracy, 1905-1917: The Origins of the Great Schism. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955

[5] Anwar Shaikh, 1978. “An Introduction to the History of Crisis Theories” in URPE, U.S. Capitalism in Crisis (New York: Union of Radical Political Economists) http://homepage.newschool.edu/~AShaikh/crisis_theories.pdf.

[6] The Accumulation of Capital (New York: Monthly Review, 1968), Sections One and Two.

[7] This is, of course, the title of Hal Draper’s seminal 1990 essay, [https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1990/myth/myth.htm] to which I am deeply indebted.

[8] For a similar perspective on the Bolsheviks organisational theory and practice, see D. Gluckstein, “The Missing Party,” International Socialism Journal 2 (22) 1984.

[9] http://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/index.htm.

[10] Lih’s thesis was challenged by the late Chris Harman and Paul LeBlanc in a 2010 symposium in Historical Materialism, to which Lih responded. See the “Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin RediscoveredHistorical Materialism 18 (2010), pp. 64-74, 90-108 and 108-174.

[11] All the contributions to the debate are collected at http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/665. For subsequent contributions see LeBlanc, “The Great Lenin Debate of 2012” in Unfinished Leninism, pp. 95-114; and Kevin Corr and Gareth Jenkins, “The Case of the Disappearing Lenin” International Socialism Journal 2 (144) (2014) [http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=1008&issue=144]

[12] LeBlanc, “The Birth of the Bolshevik Party in 1912” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal (April 17, 2012) [http://links.org.au/node/2832].

[13] Lih, “A Faction is Not A Party,” Weekly Worker (May 2, 2012) [http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/912/a-faction-is-not-a-party/] and “How Lenin’s Party Became (Bolshevik),” Weekly Worker (May 15, 2012) [http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/914/how-lenins-party-became-bolshevik/]

[14] Jason Yanowitz, “February’s forgotten vanguard: The myth of Russia’s spontaneous revolution,” International Socialist Review 75 (January 2011) [http://isreview.org/issue/75/februarys-forgotten-vanguard]

[15] (London: Merlin Books, 1975). Alexander Rabinowitch’s pathbreaking work – Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July Uprising (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1968); The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1976) and The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 2007) demonstrate that prior to late 1918 there was barely a hint of the political “homogeneity” that purportedly characterized the Bolsheviks.

[16] http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/apr/26.htm. Thanks to Neil Davidson for this citation.

[17] “Democratic Centralism: Fortunes of a Formula,” Weekly Worker (April 11, 2013) [http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/957/democratic-centralism-fortunes-of-a-formula/].

[18] On the discontinuity between Bolshevik practice and what is today described as “Leninism,” see Valentine Gerrantana, “Stalin, Lenin and ‘Leninism'” New Left Review I/103 (May-June 1977). For the impact of Zinoviev’s organisational perspectives on the Trotskyist movement historically, see J. Geier, “Zinovievism and the Degeneration of World Communism,” International Socialist Review 93 (Summer 2014) [http://isreview.org/issue/93/zinovievism-and-degeneration-world-communism].

[19] Lih, “Lenin’s Aggressive Unoriginality, 1914-1916,” Socialist Studies, 5,2 (Fall 1990); Lih, “‘Kautsky As A Marxist’ Data Base” (2011) [http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/journal/online-articles/kautsky-as-marxist-data-base/Kautsky%20Post-1914%20Data%20Base.pdf/view]

[20] “Karl Kautsky” (November 1938) [http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/11/kautsky.htm]

[21] (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1902), pp. 61-62.

[22] C. Post, “Exploring Working Class Consciousness: A Critique of the Theory of the Labor Aristocracy,” Historical Materialism 18,4 (2011); “The Myth of the Labor Aristocracy, Part I,” Against the Current 123 (July-August 2006) [http://www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/128].

[23] The Mass Strike, The Political Party and the Trade Unions (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1971)

[24] Robert Brenner, “The Paradox of Social-Democracy: The American Case,” in M. Davis, et al. (eds.) The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook 1985 (London: Verso, 1985); Ernest Mandel, “Leninist Theory of Organisation,’ International Socialist Review, 31,9 (December) 1970, [http://www.ernestmandel.org/en/works/txt/1970/leninist_theory_organisation.htm], Chapters 2-4.

Paul LeBlanc (Unfinished Leninism, pp. 116-117) challenges my claim elsewhere that Mandel explanation of reformism owes more to Luxemburg than Lenin. Given that Mandel explicitly rejects Lenin’s theory of the labor aristocracy in both “Leninist Theory” and in his essay “What is the Bureaucracy?” in T. Ali (ed.), The Stalinist Legacy: Its Impact on 20th Century World Politics (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), and embraces Luxemburg’s analysis of the labor officialdom, I am a bit puzzled.

[25] L. Trotsky, “Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution” in Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941). [www.internationalist.org/three.html]

[26] In Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido (eds.) Witness to Permanent Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011).

[27] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest State of Capitalism, in Lenin: Selected Works, Volume 1, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970; originally published 1916) [http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/pref02.htm.]

[28] The Social Revolution, pp. 56-60. Lih, in “Lenin, Kautsky, and the ‘New Era of Revolution'” Weekly Worker (December 22, 2011) [http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/895/lenin-kautsky-and-the-new-era-of-revolutions/] argues that Lenin’s vision of imperialist war ushering in an era of world revolution was based in Kautsky’s The Road to Power (1909)

[29] International Socialism 1st Series/Number 9 (Summer 1962) [http://www.marxists.org/archive/kidron/works/1962/xx/imperial.htm]

[30] See Howard Botwinick, Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparity Under Capitalist Competition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993 – new edition forthcoming as part of the Historical Materialism book series); and my summary of more recent material in “Exploring Working Class Consciousness,” pp. 25-28. For a defence and application of the theory of capitalist competition to Argentina, see Juan Kornblihht, Critica del Marxismo Liberal: Competencia y Monopolio en el Capitalism Argentino. (Buenos Aires: Ediciones RyR, 2008).

[31] The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution (1918) [https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/]; The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918) [http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/]

[32] Lenin reached the conclusion that Kautsky had “reneged” on his original Marxist commitments and embraced a parliamentary road to socialism only after 1914 – at least four years after Luxemburg had reached the same conclusion during the German social-democracy’s debates on the mass strike. See Luxemburg, “Theory and Practice: A Polemic Against Comrade Kautsky’s Theory of the Mass Strike” (1910) [https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1910/theory-practice/]. While Kautsky’s formulations on working class political power in The Class Struggle (The Erfurt Program) (1892) and The Social Revolution (1902) echo the ambiguities of The Road to Power (1909); a recent translation of his work on the Paris Commune from 1905 appears to argue for the need to smash the capitalist state. See Kautsky, “The Second Empire and the Paris Commune,” Weekly Worker (May 25, 2011) [http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/867/the-second-empire-and-the-paris-commune/]

[33] (1920) [https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/]

[34] This fundamental insight was systematically developed by both Leon Trotsky, in particular in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971); and Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, Volumes 1-3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). The best (but differing) interpretations of the often misinterpreted Gramsci are Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” New Left Review I/100 (November-December 1976) and Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010).

[35] Again, the best theoretization of the practice of the Bolsheviks before 1921 and of the early Communist Parties is Mandel’s Leninist Theory of Organisation.

[36] I present this analysis of pre-World War I social democracy in greater detail in “What’s Left of Leninism?: New European Left Parties in Historical Perspective” in L. Panitch, G. Albo and V. Chibber (eds.), The Question of Strategy: Socialist Register 2013 (London: Merlin Books, 2012), pp. 175-180.

[37] Paul LeBlanc (Unfinished Leninism, p. 125) claims that this formulation owes more to the work of the radical community organizer Saul Allinsky than the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, Allinsky in his seminal Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971) and elsewhere is quite clear in his rejection of “injecting politics” (strategic and tactical debates that would into community struggles). “Politics” would undermine the “unity” of community activists and militants with the forces of official reformism – union bureaucrats, full-time staff of community organisation and ‘sympathetic’ Democratic politicians.

[38] This argument is made in greater detail in Post, “What’s Left of Leninism?” pp. 180-187; and C. Post and K.A. Wainer, Socialist Organisation Today (Detroit, MI: Solidarity Pamphlet, 2006) [http://www.solidarity-us.org/pdfs/socialistorgtoday.pdf]

[39] “Transitional organisations” and their relation to rebuilding a socialist movement is discussed in the US context in Kim Moody, “The Rank and File Strategy: Building A Socialist Movement in the U.S.” (Detroit, MI: Solidarity Working Paper, 2000) [http://www.solidarity-us.org/pdfs/RFS.pdf]



  1. […] Minor weaknesses include its caricatured idea of Leninist “organizational philosophy” severed from the revolutionary socialism of the Bolsheviks and a misleading depiction of the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and Western Europe. (For a good discussion of Leninism see Charlie Post, “Leninism?”) […]

  2. […] http://rs21.org.uk/2015/03/08/leninism-2/ I think communist left is stalled and the inability of leftist parties to expand at a moment of such global crisis is ominous. To me the problem is not hard to analyze in principle, whatever the solution in practice: social historical forces ‘freeze’ after a prolonged period of stasis or stability in the mechanization of habit, and conditioned action. This can befall even successful organizations. But the spectre of stalinism in one’s historical account makes the problem almost impossible. But the tide is turning. The case for market domination is beginning to lag even in the minds of ordinary TV consumers of ideology. And yet the moment for a new left is likely to stall again, …and again. What is needed is a clear rethink of fundamentals, a complete restatement that eliminates all cliches, boilerplate and all the stale arguments about Marx’s theories, etc… […]

  3. “….having accomplished these tasks, the revolutionary government would hand over power to a democratic capitalist regime.”

    Lenin never argued for such a stupid idea.
    Far from handing over power to another “regime”, he argued that the Social Democrats should participate in a PRG in order to:-

    “mobilise scores of millions of the urban and rural poor, and … make the Russian political revolution the prelude to the socialist revolution in Europe.”

    There was an extensive debate about this issue at the 3rd Congress of the RSDLP in 1905.
    Lenin argued against those who said the party should not “sully itself” by participation in a government unless it implemented the maximum programme of socialism.
    He employed arguments taken from Marx and Engels writings on Germany in 1848-50.

    The answer to this question depended on the relation of forces at the time, but: –

    “ irrespective of whether participation of Social-Democrats in the provisional revolutionary government is possible or not, we must propagate among the broadest sections of the proletariat the idea that the armed proletariat, led by the Social-Democratic Party, must bring to bear constant pressure on the provisional government for the purpose of defending, consolidating, and extending the gains of the revolution.”

    Indentifying with the Jacobins in the French Revolution, Lenin wrote:-
    “We, too, prefer to settle accounts with the Russian autocracy by “plebeian” methods and leave Girondist methods to Iskra “ (which was under the control of Plekhanov and Martov)

    In practice, the events of 1917, particularly the growth of Soviets, precluded Bolshevik participation in the Provisional government.
    Far from being the “Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship” they’d envisaged, this was preventing land reform and perpetuating the War.

    It was the Soviets which were the concrete expression of the Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship. But, due to the subjective weaknesses of their leadership, they were ceding power to the capitalists and their backers in the Entente. This meant it was necessary to win over the majority in the Soviets before taking power.

    Trotsky’s differences with Lenin in 1905 centred on different issues; in particular his view that the Bolsheviks wanted adopt a “self-denying ordinance” which would limit their programme to something less than socialism.
    If Lenin had adopted a schematic approach to politics, Trotsky’s criticism might have remained valid in 1917.
    But, unlike Kautsky, Lenin thought dialectically.

  4. How would one apply these theoretical and practical concepts to the lessons of Chile from the Allende period to the 1973 coup? It’s not enough to say that they should have been better prepared to fend off or prevent a coup. The general and abstract lesson “educate and arm the workers and all participants and stakeholders” does not address the incredible patchwork of glorious and foreshadowing developments and obstacles that characterize democracy and coalition efforts for decades as well as years, months and days leading up to September 11, 1973. What I’m saying is that one way or another, a crunch will come, like the breaking of ice as it accumulates near the shores and even not so close to shore, given the building of a critical mass of ice that cannot remain uniform or fortified as the forces of nature bring to bear pressure and temperature dynamics.

  5. Reblogged this on bolshevikpunx and commented:
    “Put simply, Leninism cannot be reduced to the post-1923 caricature of ‘democratic centralism’. Instead, the enduring legacy of Leninism remains the goal of constructing an independent organisation of anti-capitalist organisers and activists who attempt to project a political alternative to the forces of official reformism not only in elections, but in mass, extra-parliamentary social struggles. Building such an organisation today will not be a simple task. The “human material” for a mass revolutionary workers party—a sizeable layer of workplace and community activists who are willing and able take action independently of the forces of official reformism—does not exist today. Four decades of nearly continuous defeats across the capitalist world, which has undermined the workers combativity, is only partially responsible. Of even greater importance is the impact of Stalinism, in particular the legacy of the popular front, on socially and politically disorganizing the “militant minority”—the workers’ vanguard—in the working class. As a result, the tasks of revolutionary socialists in the early 21st century are two-fold. On the one hand, we need to organise and educate a cadre of militants in broadly revolutionary Marxist politics and theory, and develop a common practice in the labor and social movements. On the other, we need to participate in the reorganisation of the workers’ vanguard through the construction of independent “transitional organisations” of militants, who are not yet revolutionaries.”

  6. In shorthand, then, you’re saying that attempts to justify democratic centralism as meaning e.g. no factions, election to executive committee through a slate, exec committee packed with full-timers – can’t claim that these structures can be based on ‘leninism’. If anything, they’re based on post-Lenin’s-death ‘Leninism’, which wasn’t an organisation that super minded a revolution. If anything, it was counter-revolutionary…is that it?


    Ray B and James will be back to put you right.


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