Review: Lenin’s revolutionary legacy

‘Lenin’ by Lars T Lih

Peter Taaffe, from Socialism Today (No.175, February 2014)

In an attempt to answer the description of Lenin by capitalist historians as a brutal dictator, some on the left turn to Lars T Lih. He has tried to reinvent the leader of the Russian revolution as some kind of woolly liberal. In so doing, the understanding of how to build a movement capable of transforming society is in danger of being lost.

In the recent ‘revolution’ in Ukraine – aimed against Vladimir Putin’s attempts to blackmail the Ukrainian government to keep within Russia’s sphere of influence – a crowd demolished the last remaining statue of Lenin in the capital, Kiev. Statues like this were erected in the past in the former ‘Soviet Union’ by the privileged Stalinist bureaucratic elites, who wished to screen themselves from the anger of the masses by basking in the political authority of Lenin. In reality, they were separated by a colossal gulf from Lenin’s real ideas about socialism and workers’ democracy.

In the capitalist West there were few if any statues of Lenin to be toppled. So capitalist historians and academics, particularly after the collapse of Stalinism – and with this, unfortunately, the planned economies in Russia and Eastern Europe – did the next best thing. They vilified Lenin, and his co-leader of the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky, in an attempt to systematically discredit the ideas of socialism and genuine Marxism.

In a series of weighty tomes a small army of modern ‘historians’, like Richard Pipes, Orlando Figes, and not forgetting the inimitable Robert Service, undertook a colossal rewriting of history. Figes was publicly exposed as criticising other historians’ works while secretly writing laudatory reviews of his own books! Service’s ‘biography’ of Trotsky, which we answered as soon as it was published, has now been discredited even by non-Marxist historians as lacking any objectivity.

Today, however, a new, more ‘subtle’ approach is required given the protracted crisis of capitalism, which has seen a renewed interest in socialism and Marxism. There is already a revolt in academia against the previous concentration on pro-market, capitalist economic teaching. There are increasing demands by students and lecturers that they be familiarised with the ideas of Karl Marx, as well as the more ‘radical’ of the capitalist Keynesian economists. In this can be perceived an element of the reappearance of the 1960s within the hallowed institutions of learning. The enormous radicalisation of students and academics which developed then was a reflection and, to some extent, precursor to the mass movements of workers in the 1960s and 1970s.

This book by Lars T Lih – first published in the ‘Critical Lives’ series in 2011 – is a response to this new situation. In it, and in his other writings, he is more sympathetic to Lenin than those historians mentioned above. But the claim on the jacket that the book “presents a striking new interpretation of Lenin’s political outlook” is overblown, to say the least. Lars himself admits: “My view of Lenin is not particularly original and chimes in closely with most observers of Lenin and his time”. Unfortunately, ‘most observers’ are still not ‘sympathetic’ to Lenin’s views. This is particularly the case when it comes to the character of the kind of party the working class will need for a successful struggle against capitalism and for socialism.

Workers and peasants

Trotsky, who barely gets a mention in this book, gives a much richer account of the real history of Bolshevism in its initial phase in his unfinished biography of Stalin, albeit in a sketchy fashion. He also outlines clearly the views of Lenin on the crucial issues of the character of revolutionary party needed, and on the structures and practices of such a party, including democratic centralism and its origins.

Lars on the other hand, writes in a misleading, cloudy and abstruse fashion: “Lenin had a romantic view of leadership within the class. He sought to inspire the rank-and-file activists… with an exalted idea of what their own leadership could accomplish”. In the same vein the book is irritatingly peppered throughout with phrases like Lenin’s “heroic scenario”. Then there are crude assertions on relations between the working class and the peasantry in Russia: “His insistence on the peasant as follower did not exclude an exalted, even romantic view of the peasants in the revolution. Heroic leaders required heroic followers”.

Of course Lenin, like most Marxists, could be enthusiastic. In turn, they could be enthused by the spectacle of workers in struggle, especially when it reached a high point of revolution. Marxism is saturated with the spirit of optimism. At the same time, Lenin is deadly realistic about the prospects of the class struggle in general and all the issues involving the fate of the working class. His view of leadership, as with the need for the party, was not ‘exalted’ but practical and flowed from what was necessary.

Then again, what are we to make of Lars’s conclusions at the end of the book when he writes: “Old Bolshevism was defined by its wager on the revolutionary qualities of the peasantry. Yet less than a decade after his death, the regime founded by Lenin was waging war on the peasants and imposing a revolution from above during the collectivisation campaign, contributing to a devastating famine”. (p202)

Firstly, Bolshevism never put a ‘wager’ on the peasantry, but recognised that it could never play an independent role. Therefore, the issue was who would lead them in the revolution – who would satisfy their demand for the land – the working class or the bourgeoisie? History attested to the fact that the working class satisfied the peasantry in action, after the bourgeois and its parties had demonstrated that they would never give the land, as well as peace and bread, to the masses, including the peasant masses. Secondly, it is ludicrous to identify “the regime founded by Lenin”, as Lars does, with that presided over by Stalin, already, ten years after Lenin’s death, one dominated by a privileged bureaucratic elite. Indeed, Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, famously stated in 1926 that if Lenin had lived, he would have been imprisoned under the Stalinist regime.

The revolutionary party

There are many misleading, and consequently erroneous, statements like this in the book and it cannot therefore be fully embraced as a correct account of Lenin’s role in history. But it has been taken up by some on the left, even in certain quasi-Marxist circles. This is because Lars’s presentation, particularly in relation to democratic centralism, chimes with a layer who rejects this idea, the ‘hard’ Lenin, in favour of an allegedly ‘more open’ one. It is not the first time we have confronted this phenomenon. In the 1960s and 1970s, journals like New Left Review would ‘discover’ woolly ‘ground-breaking new theoreticians’ who would then invariably disappear almost as quickly as they had appeared.

Lars’s ideas have become the current fashion for those who are fleeing from genuine Marxism and the real traditions of Lenin and Trotsky. Vital in this respect is the need for a revolutionary party based upon the traditions of democratic centralism. This in no way contradicts the broader task of organising a mass workers’ party at this stage. Of necessity, this will be required to organise on a much looser basis, involving a form of federation and in Britain, of course, rooted in the trade unions. The maintenance of a clear Marxist core within such broader formations is absolutely necessary. Without this, there will be no long-lasting gains for the working class.

History, including recent history, reinforces this point. For instance, the main forces behind the formation of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1998 came from our party. The leadership of Militant supported the formation of such a broad party; in fact, we were the first to advance this idea. But the leaders of Scottish Militant Labour (SML) proposed and carried out, at the same time as forming the SSP, the effective winding up of SML into this party. This, in turn, led to their separation from the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in Scotland and internationally. They were not expelled but voluntarily departed from our ranks.

We warned at the time that not only would this mean the tragic weakening of a distinct revolutionary organisation and tradition in Scotland but, at a certain stage, the complete disintegration of the SSP as well. Unfortunately, this was borne out. A similar process happened in Italy, where different Marxist organisations joined Rifondazione Comunista (RC) when it was formed in 1991, but were incapable over time of winning the ranks of this party to a clear Marxist position. The RC has now effectively disintegrated.

Compare this to the achievements of Militant, both when it was in the Labour Party – in 1964, we had no more than 40 supporters – and during our expulsion in the late 1980s. The conclusion to draw from this is that in the case of both Scotland and Italy there was not a sufficiently organised and politically trained Marxist core capable of either winning a majority in the party or at least gaining more significant numbers, which could then form the basis of a new organisation or party.

The class, party and leadership

These mistakes flow from an incorrect understanding on the part of some Marxist forces of the relationship between the class, a party and its leadership. ‘Democratic centralism’ – the term itself – was not an invention of Lenin, but was first used in the Russian workers’ movement by the Mensheviks within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). However, the conception of a party, its methods of organisation, and how discussion and internal debates should be conducted, have a long pedigree, beginning with Marx and Engels themselves.

This is shown, for instance, in the rules of the Communist League of 1847, of which Marx and Engels were members. Even before the term ‘democratic centralism’ was used, the concept was adopted within this, the first distinct international party of the working class.

In its statutes the Communist League states the conditions of membership: “Subordination to the decisions of the League… The circle [comprising a number of ‘branches’ as we would understand it today] authority is the executive organ for all the communities of the circle… The various circles of a country or province are subordinated to a leading circle… The Central Authority is the executive organ of the whole of the League and as such is responsible to the Congress… The Congress is the legislative authority of the whole League. All proposals for changes in the rules are sent to the Central Authority through the leading circles and submitted by them to the Congress… Whoever violates the conditions of membership… is according to the circumstances removed from the League and expelled”.

Lenin took these and other examples from the historical experience of the workers’ movement, including the German social democracy, and attempted to apply them to the specific conditions of Russia. Lenin’s famous book, What is to be Done?, written in 1901, was devoted to the need for a centralised party in Russia. Lars deals, not very adequately, with some parts of the history. He touches on the disagreements over the formulas of Lenin in answer to the ‘Economist school’, who believed in concentrating on the purely day-to-day struggles. Lenin “bent the stick” too far, in his own words, in his description of how socialist consciousness arises in the working-class movement.

Lenin’s assertion that socialist consciousness could only be brought to the working class from the outside by the revolutionary intelligentsia was wrong. He borrowed this also from the German social democratic leader and Marxist at the time, Karl Kautsky. Although Lenin corrected this later, it has been used to justify the haughty approach of self-appointed ‘leaders’, usually by tiny organisations, proclaiming to be ‘the’ leadership of the working class.

Trotsky paid tribute to Lenin’s stubborn and painstaking work in laying the basis through the struggle of the Bolsheviks for the mass party approach. Nevertheless, he emphasised that it was the ‘steam’, the working class, which is the driving force in the revolution. The party, if it acts correctly, plays the same role as a ‘piston box’ in harnessing this to a revolution.

Lenin emphasised the same point in opposition to the ‘committeemen’ who took shape in the underground. They were suspicious of the initiatives of workers. Trotsky had warned of the dangers of the emergence of such figures in his 1904 pamphlet, Political Problems. He pointed out that these types of committeemen have “forgone the need to rely upon the workers as they had found support in the principles of ‘centralism’.” Lenin recognised the dangers of a one-sided interpretation of what he was trying to build when he wrote: “I could not contain myself when I heard it said that there were no working men fit for the committee membership”. Trotsky remarks: “Lenin understood better than anyone else the need for a centralised organisation; but he saw in it, above all, a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced working man. The idea of making a fetish of the political machine was not only alien but repugnant to his nature”. (Stalin, p103, Panther edition)

Democratic centralism

Lars T makes sweeping, incorrect comments about democratic centralism. He writes that there was no “exposition of the meaning of the term – Lenin used it in passing to make particular points”. He also states: “Lenin’s points would have been: ‘Democratic centralism is not possible in underground conditions. Genuine interparty democracy is mandatory when possible and dispensable when not’.”

But he is completely wrong in asserting, with no basis in the actual practice of Bolshevism, that democratic centralism was practised at one stage and then withdrawn in a completely arbitrary fashion at another. The Bolsheviks, as with all genuinely revolutionary organisations, based themselves at all times on the general principles of democratic centralism: maximum discussion until a decision is arrived at and then a united effort by the whole party, group or organisation to implement the decision. Even then, it is totally false to imply that all discussion and debate ended after the decision was taken. The history of the genuine workers’ movement showed that vital discussion on unresolved issues continued in the form of internal bulletins, debates, etc, outside of the framework of the national congress of the party.

The different sides of this question might be difficult for isolated intellectuals to grasp but it is an idea that the working class readily understands, particularly its more advanced, guiding layers. It flows from the very position of the working class under capitalism.

Never in history has capitalism been more centralised than today. Never have the means of coercion – witness the revelations of Wikileaks, the massive surveillance by capitalist governments of their own populations, as well as other governments – been so concentrated in the hands of the capitalist state. It is inconceivable therefore that a loose network would be capable of mobilising to defeat this colossal power. Without a centralised mass party capable of unifying working people and then acting in a decisive fashion when the time requires it, it is impossible to carry through the socialist transformation of society, the greatest change in human history.

The working class instinctively understands the need for a centralised party and the discipline that goes with it. This is shown in every serious struggle, particularly strikes, involving the working class. When shop stewards, for instance, are called to discuss and debate an issue, and sometimes heatedly, they will usually strive to adopt one voice when putting the issue to a mass meeting. There will, of course, be occasions when a minority of stewards and workers will disagree with a recommendation, and in that situation Marxists would argue for a full debate to take place.

These methods, which involve elements of democratic centralism, are instinctively understood by working people. This is demonstrated by the recent statement of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). When they announced a break from the ANC and supported the idea of a new mass workers’ party, they declared: “Numsa is a revolutionary union and as such plays a leading role in the defeat of capitalism and the exploitation that is associated with it. We are democratic centralist – we believe in robust, vigorous and democratic debate leading to a united decision and action”.

Discussion and decision

What is then posed is the balance between democracy, full debates and discussions and upholding the rights of all members to participate in the formulation of policy, and centralism, the need to act in a unified fashion, at each stage. This cannot be decided a priori – through general principles applicable at all times irrespective of the concrete circumstances. Organisation, even in the mass revolutionary party, is not an independent factor for a Marxist. It is an inference from policy. It is politics, perspectives and programme, as well as the concrete circumstances, which determine what forms of organisation should be applied at each stage. But it is not true, as Lars T suggests, that democratic centralism is applied only in some circumstances, and not in others. For Marxists, democratic centralism means a ‘mobile balance’ between democracy and centralism, with emphasis being given to democracy or centralism depending upon the concrete circumstances.

In underground conditions, centralist methods tend to dominate over the full expression of democratic discussion, rights and principles. But this does not in any way mean complete centralism with little democracy. On the contrary, while struggling against the brutal tsarist regime and its police, the Russian revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks, debated and fought with each other over programme and policy. This was a necessary means of sharpening the political and theoretical weapons in preparation for the revolution. There were even regular congresses, both in the underground and during the civil war.

There was full freedom of discussion and debate. But this did not mean for the Bolsheviks, particularly Lenin and Trotsky, that the revolutionary party should become a debating club. To those who characterise this method as inherently ‘unhealthy’, Trotsky had a word of advice. Faced with the disarray in the ranks of his followers in France in the 1930s, he commented: “An organisation smaller but unanimous can have enormous success with a clear policy, while an organisation which is torn by internal strife is condemned to rot”. There are some organisations in Britain and internationally today to whom Trotsky’s words are very apt.

Lars T tries to present a softer Lenin, more ‘open’ and ‘democratic’ than the ‘centralist’, if not authoritarian, figure that is usually invoked by bourgeois and most ‘Marxist’ historians alike. This ‘new’ Lenin is almost a ‘liberal’ in his alleged acceptance of open, public, unrestricted discussion in a revolutionary party.

This new approach towards Lenin distorts his real views. There were times when Lenin and Trotsky advocated the most open kind of discussion, even in public forums and at difficult times, which to some extent took place outside of the party. Nikolai Bukharin and the so-called ‘Left Communists’, who supported him in his advocacy of a ‘revolutionary war’ at the time of the Brest-Litovsk controversy of 1918, had a daily newspaper which argued against the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky.

The mass communist parties in France and Italy argued in their daily papers against the idea of the united front. But after two years they were compelled to implement the decision of the Communist International.

There are many other such examples, including Trotsky’s initial support for the minority within the American SWP in the 1930s for a public discussion on the class character of the Soviet Union. However, he withdrew his proposal when his American co-thinkers pointed out that this minority was appealing in the main to the petty bourgeois milieu outside the party who had moved from support of the Soviet Union under the pressure of ‘democratic’ public opinion. This did not prevent a vigorous discussion within the ranks of the SWP on this issue.

Anti-party mood

Part of the capitalists’ campaign in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism was to feed the popular mood, particularly among the new generation, against ‘parties’ and the model of Lenin’s supposedly closed, authoritarian type of party. We argued against this but also recognised that anything that appeared to be tainted with the mark of Stalinism would repel the new generation looking for a political alternative.

This ‘anti-politics’ and ‘anti-party’ mood represented, in reality, a deep hostility towards all ‘official’, ‘traditional’ parties; in other words, the capitalist parties, including the social democrats and even the Communist Party who were identified with the old order.

Moreover, this mood lasted for a considerable period of time and is still an important factor in the political situation in many countries today. We have had the phenomenon of the ‘indignados’ in Spain, with similar trends in other countries. In Spain, it reflected the entirely justified hatred of the so-called ‘Socialist Party’, PSOE. This was a factor in the formation of the indignatos in the first place. But this hostility was also often directed against Marxist groups, although the most active promoters of this within the indignato movement were themselves members of small political organisations. They were, in effect, ‘anti-group groups’.

But what was the net result of this abstention from politics? In Spain, the disastrous election of the present right-wing PP government, which has presided over a devastating crisis, with youth unemployment levels well over 50%. Therefore, there has been a reassessment by this new generation who are once more returning to the idea of building a political alternative.

A similar mood was present in the Occupy movement, which developed on a world scale following initiatives in the US. Subsequent experience demonstrated that an amorphous movement, albeit fuelled by youthful energy and idealism but which lacked clear direction and organisation, represented little danger to the highly centralised and organised forces of capitalism. A new road was sought and a significant layer of workers and youth found this road in the spectacular election campaigns in Seattle and Minneapolis.

The election of a socialist to the Seattle council for the first time in 100 years represents a real leap forward in the possibility for political struggles not just in the US, but worldwide. Socialist Alternative took the initiative in this case, but similar radical political movements were expressed elsewhere: in New York with the election of Bill de Blasio, and his invocation of a ‘tale of two cities’, with 73% of the vote, and the election of 24 independent Labor candidates in Lorain County, Ohio.

A similar process has unfolded in Argentina, where a Trotskyist electoral front received 1.2 million votes in the recent elections. This arose from the completely changed situation compared, for instance, to 2001. Then, despite a catastrophic economic situation, parties were discredited; Marxist parties, in particular, made little headway.

These elections indicate that the situation has completely changed with the more conscious workers now aware of the need for organisation and parties. A layer has consequently transferred their hopes to this ‘left front’, which is in a particularly favourable situation to grow if it employs the correct tactics and openness to the new layers of the working class who will be looking for a mass party of their own in the battles to come. This is likely to involve the maintenance of a revolutionary core – in a distinct and separate organisation – seeking a wider base in a larger mass formation. There have been other opportunities in the past which have been lost because this open approach has not been adopted.

Look at Lenin in the round

Millions of workers are looking for a new way forward. This can be provided for them by the building of new mass parties of the working class. Because of the period that we have passed through, these are unlikely in most countries to immediately adopt a clear revolutionary, Marxist programme. But a Marxist organisation, working in an honest and open fashion, will be welcomed into the ranks by the best workers looking for a way forward.

Unfortunately, books like this of Lars T – and particularly those who uncritically praise his ideas – will not be able to prepare working people for the stormy but exciting period ahead. It does not present the ideas of Lenin clearly. It scandalously ignores the contribution made by Trotsky, in particular.

Our criticisms are not restricted just to the organisational plane. The author does not adequately explain Lenin’s ideas in relation to the perspectives for the Russian revolution. The central idea of Lenin of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ was different to the ideas of the Mensheviks, who saw Russia developing in a capitalist direction with socialism relegated to the mists of the future. Lenin completely rejected the idea that the weak Russian capitalists could carry through the tasks of the democratic capitalist revolution: of land reform, solution of the national question, the introduction of democracy, etc. Only an alliance of the workers and peasants, the overwhelming majority of the population of Russia, was capable of carrying through these tasks.

The weak point in Lenin’s scenario, that Lars T in no way fully explores, is who would be the dominant force in the alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry. The whole of history attests to the fact that the peasantry has never played an independent political role because of its heterogeneity. Its upper layers tend to merge with the capitalists, its lower layers tend to sink into the ranks of the working class.

This is where Trotsky’s famous theory of the permanent revolution comes in, which correctly anticipated how the Russian revolution would develop. Although a minority, the working class, because of its social position in society and its special features, dynamic and organised in big industry, would be able to lead the mass of the peasantry in revolution to overthrow the autocracy. Having come to power, it would then pass over to the tasks of the socialist revolution in Russia and the world. In Lenin’s Letters From Afar, as well as his April Theses, he completely concurs with these ideas of Trotsky. This is not even mentioned in this book.

Lars T Lih’s book undoubtedly presents an advance over the malicious distortions of Lenin and Trotsky’s ideas. But at the same time, unless filled out and corrected, it will introduce further confusion as to what Lenin and Trotsky really stood for.


By Lars T Lih

Published by Reaktion Books, 2011, £10.95