What’s left of Lenin?

150 years after the birth of V.I. Lenin, Charlie Jarsve argues that we must resist the attempts at canonisation. Leninism offers us urgent and fundamental lessons about what it means to practise politics in capitalist society.

‘What’s done is done’ featuring Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Moscow 1918 and Froissart at Leeds Castle, 1395.

150 years ago, in the town of Simbirsk, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born. This is not a particularly important event; after all, all of us have to be born somewhere, and sometime. Ulyanov would become better known under the name of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, a theorist and leader in the 1917 Russian revolution. Lenin’s passage with exiled Bolsheviks in a sealed train across Germany, his arrival at the Finland station, and the presentation of the April Theses to the jubilant revolutionary masses have all become part of the mythology of the Russian revolution. But as Marxists we understand that history is not made by great men and women. The masses make history, engaged in class struggle under conditions which are determined for them by both exploitation and resistance. Throughout all of his contributions to Marxist theory Lenin himself took this insight seriously, applied it, and developed conclusions from it. Though today’s date may be unimportant, it does at least give us a pretext to examine the theoretical insights which have come to be associated with Lenin, and to evaluate the contributions of Leninism to Marxist theory.

The 1917 revolution struck like a bolt from the blue, and it is this event which means that Lenin is remembered to the extent that he is. For the first time in world history it was demonstrated that the capitalist state, with all its refinements and the sophistication of its repression, was not invincible. Furthermore, that this should have been demonstrated, not in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe with their mass parliamentary Workers’ Parties, but in ‘backward’ Russia scandalised the orthodoxy of early 20th Century Marxism. Lenin declared the establishment of a Third International, breaking from the discredited Second International, whose leaders had been drawn into chauvinistic support for the First World War in their respective countries. In the years that followed, Lenin’s participation and leadership in the revolution turned him into an icon, both a champion of the oppressed all across the world, and especially in the successful anti-colonial movements which shook the world since the World Wars, but also as a bogeyman of Cold War paranoia.

However, to reap the value of Leninist theory we must learn to disentangle it from the specific history of the Russian revolution and the historically limited mythologies this has produced, and instead make use of the understanding Leninism represents in our own activity. Leninism is something more than the property of an individual, we must understand it as a set of practices and analyses which, whilst first developed in the context of revolutionary Russia, are relevant to all class society. 

‘Leninism’ has often been used as a synonym for a certain model of ‘democratic centralist’ party building, both in the mouths of Lenin’s supporters and his detractors. Lenin’s texts have been used as if they were gospel verses or commandments both to celebrate and condemn Leninism; inconsistencies have been leapt on or denied. But we must be clear: Lenin was not always right, not even in his own time. Lenin the individual changed his mind, reassessed positions, and made mistakes. Many who now insist that Lenin is of only limited historical significance also fall victim to the myth of the infallible Lenin, a man who, for his own time, could do no wrong. This celebration of the romantic image of ‘Lenin the leader’, a master strategist who had the answer to every event, is in fact a way of canonising Leninism, of placing it firmly in the past.

But for revolutionaries today Leninism’s profound importance is as a theoretical orientation which takes seriously the issue of ‘organisation’. This means something more than the mechanical appeals to ‘build the party’ which Lenin has come to be associated with. Reading Lenin’s works one gets a deep sense of an appreciation for the importance of talking to people, of sharing experience, of all the prosaic nuts and bolts of organising. Whilst Lenin was by no means the first organiser, nor the first to take seriously the question of organisation, what Lenin did do was to draw organisational conclusions within Marxist theory. These conclusions often bore on abstract topics, such as the nature of state power or world imperialism. Yet they always returned to the fundamental thesis: ‘The soul of Marxism is a concrete analysis of a concrete situation’.

‘A concrete analysis of a concrete situation’ may seem like a simple thing, but what is ‘concrete’ is not just what is ‘immediate’; what you see in front of you with your own two eyes. Anyone involved in political organising will know how easy it is to drift into the practice of building lifeless structures, or on the other hand to have wins and successes which you aren’t able to generalise because you haven’t built the organisational forms and practices to carry them forward. Anyone who has been involved in campaigns will know the frustration of missed opportunities and the tedious formalism of empty habit. A ‘concrete analysis’ involves the practical work of listening and planning towards a clear and defined goal. What is ‘concrete’ is intimately determined by the parameters both of what is necessary and what is desired. Developing a ‘concrete analysis of a concrete situation’ means meeting people where they are, and taking them where they need to go. This involves the work of making an assessment of things ‘as they are’ in the context of a set of abstract goals which help to define what winning looks like.

This delicate interplay of the concrete and the abstract is something which we find in what has come to be seen as the first major ‘Leninist’ text. In ‘What Is To Be Done’ Lenin identified the two tendencies which threaten all attempts at organising: ‘spontaneism’ and ‘dogmatism’. The first involves moving at the pace of the slowest, giving in to the timidity of present conditions and failing to provide the leadership needed to identify and win objectives beyond the battles imposed by immediate material necessity. The second, ‘dogmatism’, describes the stubborn refusal to take account of things as they are, and instead trying to apply abstract judgements to situations where they do not fit. In the Russian workers’ movements of the early 20th century, Lenin condemned the spontaneism of those who would simply take the lead from the developing trade unions. He argued that if this strategy were adopted it would lead to political barrenness, constrained to struggles over workers’ pay and conditions which failed to take account of the wider picture of Tsarist dictatorship.

Instead, Lenin argued that ‘without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’. In order to organise it is necessary to develop a theoretical conception of the world; to draw abstract conclusions which can move us beyond merely reacting to events and can help us chart a path to transforming the terrain on which we struggle. 

But just as we must use theoretical conclusions to guide our activity, we must also understand that Marxism is not a case of transcendent truths. The insights we can develop from our activity and the activity of others are not facts which hang in the air like so many data points, but observations of tendencies. When Lenin analysed imperialism, he identified a tendency, from the monopolisation and centralisation of capital, towards imperialist competition between states, just as he identified spontaneism and dogmatism as tendencies which limit our efforts to organise. Analysing tendencies bears on our practical organising so much more immediately because, rather than identifying a set destination and tramping off to meet it, it allows us to understand the push and pull of the political and social currents which affect us now, even when they relate to abstract phenomena, whether imperialist competition or a stock market crash. Understanding, through analysis, the different tendencies that act upon our organising allows us to know how and when to intervene to press events in our favour and transform the aspirations and capabilities of ourselves and those we organise with.

It is in this respect that we can understand Lenin’s insistence on identifying the ‘weak link’ in a chain. When we organise, we are faced with a vast multitude of different possibilities for development, a multitude of strategies we could pursue. The key, however, is to take account of the situation and identify the ‘weak link’, the single issue or pressure point which, if actively addressed, will ‘break the chain’, transforming the possibilities for action.

‘Figurines’ by El Lissitzky: Globetrotter (In Time); The Sentinel; The New Man.

It is little wonder, then, that so many of the texts which Lenin left us take the form of ‘interventions’; hurried pamphlets and treatises to correct and clarify political issues. We should not draw from this that Lenin was merely a pedant, setting the facts straight. These interventions tell us something about the practice of intervention itself; they demonstrate that Leninism entails an urgent engagement in what Lenin called the ‘theoretical struggle’: the struggle over interpretations and applications of theoretical insights. The importance of theoretical struggle is based on a fundamental understanding about knowledge: that theoretical conclusions do not exist apart from the push and pull of political events. Theoretical questions are organisational questions, and they are forged in struggle.

At the beginning of ‘The State and Revolution’ Lenin wrote that Marx had been ‘canonised’ as a ’harmless icon’, allowing his theory to become ‘robbed of its substance’. This blunting of Marxist theory demonstrates that theory itself is a question of class struggle. Offences can be made against hard won understandings, points must be ruthlessly defended. Theory does not exist on a separate plain, safe from deterioration or distortion. This is why, despite being a lawyer by training, Lenin could not be satisfied to treat politics as a question of immutable laws. In the to-ing and fro-ing of political struggle it is often necessary to place greater emphasis on certain points, on certain weak links, to over-correct, since politics is a question not of static and unbending rules, but of tendencies.

Within this insight is contained the understanding that there are no final judgements, nor are there institutions which can keep court over our understandings and speak with ultimate authority. The violence done to Leninism by the destructive politics of Stalinism teaches us this all too well, with Lenin himself being ‘canonised’ as the icon of Russian state capitalism, stuffed and preserved in the Kremlin mausoleum.

But Lenin’s orientation to the state is set out clearly, for everyone to see in black and white. In ‘The State and Revolution’ Lenin produced an intervention ‘to re-establish what Marx really taught on the subject of the state’. In a text dismissed under Stalin as an anarchist deviation Lenin notes again and again how a chief lesson of Marxism, that the state is an organ of class oppression which emerges from class antagonisms, is curiously forgotten. Once again, this reminds us that our understandings, our knowledge, our theory, can suffer from hostile offensives, but it also reminds us that those who claim to speak with the authority of the last word, those who govern our lives, are not immutable. Their destiny is also determined by struggle. 

The vast collection of texts that Lenin has left us come primarily in the form of scattered and insistent salvoes on innumerable questions, but they all return to the question of how to mobilise ordinary people. How to speak in a language both of slogans and of theoretical clarifications; to zig-zag between the abstract and the concrete. At the end of the day, we might even say that what all these questions return to is the essence of what it means to think politically. To simultaneously take account of the immediate situation and situate it in a wider context. To develop a perspective at once urgently subjective (with all the immediacy of practical activity) and social (understanding the opportunities and limitations imposed by the conjuncture). 

Leninism does not so much add to Marxism like bricks in a wall, any more than Einstein ‘added’ to Newtonian physics. What Leninism does is mould Marxism in a new form; it conveys to us a particular way of practising politics. Leninism realises in new form Marx’s statement that whilst ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it’.

This is not to say, however, that Leninism did not break new ground. Lenin was one individual who lived and struggled alongside millions in the first successful socialist revolution in world history. This experience forced new questions to the fore, questions which urgently required answers. How can the working class govern itself? How can the masses hold out against the forces of state power and imperialism that they have only just begun to dismantle? Because of this, Leninism also gives us something very special; by addressing questions which go beyond the outer limits of what can be posed within capitalist society, it gives us a glimpse of our own future. We can read in the experiences of the Russian revolution the first tentative answers to questions which we will have to settle ourselves in our struggle to build a new world.

Even Lenin’s most infamous legacies in the hands of ideologues exhorting others to ‘build the party’ – are not really the product of dogmatic judgements. The necessity of ‘party-building’ was not announced from on high as a commandment to serve the interests of party elites, as liberal historians would like us to believe. The necessity of independent revolutionary infrastructures and organisation, and ultimately, the necessity of a revolutionary party, was also for Lenin a response to a concrete analysis of a concrete situation; a necessary conclusion from the observation of tendencies within capitalist society towards the co-option and distortion of workers’ organising and consciousness by the forces of state power.

What Leninism leaves us, in the vast array of its interpretations which we have been bequeathed, is a particular set of lessons from the hundreds of thousands of men and women who dared to storm heaven a century ago. These lessons are lessons about what it means to think politically, to move between the concrete and the abstract; and to apply them we need to separate them from the concrete history of Lenin and the revolution – to take the abstract conclusions we have at our disposal and apply them to our concrete situation. With a world under lockdown, slipping into ruin amidst the greatest capitalist crisis those of us living have ever seen, we owe it to ourselves not to ‘canonise’ Lenin, nor to rob revolutionary theory of its substance. Over a hundred years ago the Russian masses already made the first tentative steps into our future. They showed us that it is possible to change the world, and it is left to us to follow them. If we learn their lessons, we can hope to go further.

‘New Planet’ by Konstantin Yuon


Further reading

What Is To Be Done? (1902)
Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916)
The April Theses (1917)
The State and Revolution (1918)
The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918)

On 1917:
Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (1930)
John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World (1919)
Nadezhda Krupskaya, The Lessons of October (1925)

Leninism and the Revolution on the rs21 website:
Paul LeBlanc, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Ernest Mandel
Ian Birchall, Lenin: Yes! Leninism: No?
Barnaby Raine, How to learn from Lenin
Max Stein, Re-reading Reed: Ten Days that Shook the World
Estelle Cooch, Interview: Women in the Revolution
Christine Bird, Six Red Months in Russia: Louise Bryant’s view of the revolution



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