Leninism is still indispensable

November 4, 2014

IAN BIRCHALL, Paul Le Blanc and Phil Gasper have recently made important contributions to an ongoing debate over the contemporary relevance or irrelevance of the term "Leninism."

Addressing the question of whether it would be politically expedient to junk the term altogether, Birchall, in his article, "Lenin: Yes! Leninism: No?" contends that the term may be a "positive obstacle to developing the kind of political strategy and organization we need for the coming decades." Birchall is not, of course, dismissing Leninism out of hand. He goes on to describe some of the fundamentals of Leninism that are simply indispensable.

I do not agree however, that this obstacle he refers to is impenetrable. It was placed in the road for a few reasons, some of them incidental, some ideological. I believe it is our task on the left to clear the obstacle away. The stakes are simply far too high in a world where theory informs our practice and the capitalist system is putting humanity in imminent danger.

Le Blanc, in his article, "Leninism, No?" aptly points out that Marxism has often been treated to a similar adulteration; that as Marxists, we believe in the "non-pejorative use of the term"; and that the same approach should be applied to Leninism. I entirely agree with this assertion.

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BIRCHALL ALSO writes that "it is currently commonplace on the left and not-so-left to announce that Leninism is dead. Indeed, one might wonder why it is necessary to keep repeating the point."

These pronouncements Birchall alludes to are typically based on a collection of oft-repeated clichés and mischaracterizations. For all intents and purposes, Leninism appears to mean different things to different people. These differences, however substantive, are typically predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of history or Lenin's work or both. Due to his monumental place in history, Lenin has been practically mythologized by historians, pundits and politicians alike. It is hard to separate one's opinion of Lenin from the ideological baggage created through such disparate and conflicting narratives.

One such criticism posits Leninism as a dead set of ideas to be consigned to the historical dustbin. Another proclaims Leninism as a dogmatic orthodoxy with tactics and methods that are to be mechanically applied, much like the way a steamfitter would lay pipe from a set of blueprints.

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Leninism as I conceive of it is the precise antithesis of this. Lenin himself criticized those in his own party for this way of thinking. Writing in "Letters on Tactics" in April 1917, between the February and October revolutions, Lenin wrote:

The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have worked out differently; they are more original, more peculiar, more variated than anyone could have expected. To ignore or overlook this fact would mean taking after those "old Bolsheviks" who more than once already have played so regrettable a role in the history of our Party by reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality.

Lenin routinely warned against the twin dangers of theoretical stasis and organizational sclerosis, dogmatic phraseology and vacuous sloganeering. Lenin's practical work was the constant assessment and reassessment of the concrete situation; the continual appraisal of objective reality to inform a fluid set of strategy and tactics. Lenin would have been the first to warn against the dangers and inflexibility of applying Bolshevik methods to the contemporary epoch.


IT IS of equal importance to analyze Lenin's writings in accordance with the context they were formulated from. Like so many revolutionary thinkers throughout history, there is a tendency for quotations to be furtively plucked out of context, and subsequently offered up as holy writ. Whether still seen as applicable or historically contingent, his works were certainly not meant to be iron laws.

Phil Gasper, in his article, "What do we mean by Leninism?" writes:

Nevertheless, while there is no cookie-cutter Leninist model of revolutionary organization, 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, centralized, revolutionary party based on the most militant, class conscious and politically advanced section of the working class.

It is this definition of Leninism that animates me.

While there is not yet a balance of class forces conducive to a mass-based working class political formation, it should not preclude the necessity for laying the groundwork for its future existence. Organization in the here and now, no matter the material conditions, is a prerequisite for staging any manner of fightback, never mind the necessity for coordination, if and when an upsurge reveals itself. The difference between a protracted movement and an episodic struggle is typically decided on this pivotal question. It is a major mistake to think that the project of winning over an advanced layer of people to socialist ideas, which is our mission now, is not part and parcel to the Leninist strategy. Our task should be, as William Morris claims, to "make socialists."

Relevant here is the crucial contribution Lenin made to the debates around spontaneity, citing the fact that a revolution cannot simply be improvised. Spontaneity, as an end in itself, hinges on the idea that mass mobilizations will occur for no apparent reason other than the extemporaneous action of the indignant masses, devoid of planning, devoid of preparation. Pure spontaneity posits revolution as being historically pre-determined, and inevitably falls into a sort of vulgar law of absolutes.

Critiques of the need for centralized organization are many times put forward by those either seeking or idealizing a pure revolution. It is not true, as Lenin wrote, that in a social revolution, one army lines up on one side and the opposing army on the other. Social revolutions are riddled with contradictions and dynamism. People carry with them the baggage of the old society into the new. Consciousness is raised in fantastic ways in the grip of such momentous upheavals and struggles. But of course, it is Lenin's perspective, that organization far in advance of the decisive moment is necessary, with its concomitant heightening of consciousness.

The Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel, in his pamphlet "Leninist Theory of Organization," writes: "The Leninist theory of organization therefore attempts to come to grips with the inner dialectic of this formation of political class consciousness, which can develop fully only during the revolution itself, yet only on the condition, that it has already begun to develop before the revolution."


ANOTHER QUESTION that arises out of this discussion is: If we are to drop Leninism, what do we replace it with? With the remarkably low level of class struggle and the decimation of a once robust labor movement, it is not the utilization of Leninist precepts or Marxist ones in general, but their abandonment that is the source of myopia. The question Lenin posed is apropos here; what is the next link in the chain?

The last 30-plus years have seen a massive attack on the left and the labor movement in general--a crippling employers' offensive punctuated by ever-debilitating economic crises that have left workers and their unions in retreat. This has not been aided by the theoretical weakness of non-revolutionary bodies of thought, such as post-modernism and identity politics. Sectarianism, privilege-checking and other methods of looking inward has its antecedents in the decades prior. This is due in large part to the political and economic policies thrust upon the working class under neoliberalism.

The revolutionary left is in need of a body of thought that allows more than the ability to adapt to existing deficiencies. What is needed is a theory and practice that addresses the systemic nature of capitalist exploitation and oppression, so that we may work together to collectively change it. In this vein, Leninism still provides the way forward.

Two prominent elements that define Leninism are: 1) The struggle of the working class, and 2) the political program of revolutionary Marxism. These elements comprise a dialectical unity. For Lenin, the social agency of the working class and the construction of a revolutionary party composed of its most militant, class-conscious members (the vanguard) acting as a tribune of the oppressed was the foundation of his political thought. This is a proud tradition to stand in the footsteps of, and a goal worthy of our continued study and practice.

Paul Le Blanc, in his book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, details two deep-seated realities that Leninism was rooted in for the 20th century: "The actuality of the workers' struggle for the conquest of power, and the necessity of creating a leadership capable of carrying it through to the end.

As it stands today, this is still our ultimate project. However, the importance of these lessons does not mean that we should succumb to rigid dogmatism or attempt to mechanistically apply a ready-made set of theoretical formulas to a specific political struggle. It also does not mean there are not outright miscalculations or obsolete antiquities in Lenin's work. Being revolutionary means breaking through outdated walls that stifle us or hold us back. There is more than likely a bit of both in the Leninist tradition.

It is the productive and enlightening element of the tradition that should illuminate us. We should avail ourselves the best part of its historical lessons, attempt to generalize those lessons to others who realize the necessity of socialist organization. It is only by doing so, that we will ever revitalize, then reconstitute, a militant workers movement or build the embryo of a revolutionary party.

Leninism's most fundamental constituent elements still serve as an indispensable blueprint for that requisite project.
Tim Goulet, from the Internet

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