Lenin’s revolutionary strategy in our times

June 17, 2014

Paul Le Blanc, author of numerous books, including most recently Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine, spoke at a panel discussion at the Left Forum in New York City on "Lenin's Revolutionary Strategy for Our Times: Reforms, Elections, Parliaments and the Broader Democratic Struggle." Other panelists included author August Nimtz Jr. and Ty Moore of Socialist Alternative. Below are his remarks, edited for publication.

ONE OF the most interesting intellectual developments in the first two decades of the new century has been a renewed and growing interest in the ideas and practical experience of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov--the revolutionary theorist and organizer known to most people as Lenin.

Some of us refer to perspectives derived from this theory and practice as Leninism, which finds reflection in an accumulating amount of scholarly work, and also in often--not always, but often--creative applications of such ideas to practical political efforts.

In my new book of essays entitled Unfinished Leninism, I point out that there is more than one way in which Leninism can be understood as being unfinished. At the very least, there is the continuing stream of scholarship, adding more information and insights on Lenin, his historical context and various aspects of his thought. This precludes the possibility of any book at this moment having "the last word" on Lenin and his ideas.

One example can be found in the still unfinished efforts of John Riddell and his co-workers in regard to the early Communist International. There are the rich contributions of Lars Lih and others, who have been able to make even more Russian-language sources available to us.

V.I. Lenin (center) and Leon Trotsky (right) in discussions after the Russian Revolution
V.I. Lenin (center) and Leon Trotsky (right) in discussions after the Russian Revolution

Lars and Ben Lewis have recently made available an important work and partial reassessment of Lenin's comrade Gregory Zinoviev (much criticized--in some cases justifiably so--by many) that may, nonetheless, force some rethinking among those inclined to accept him as simply a whipping-boy for Leninism gone wrong.

The writings and initial scholarly exploration of an important follower of Rosa Luxemburg and pioneer leader of German Communism appear in the volume edited by David Fernbach titled In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi. The work of Levi, who embraced and then rejected Lenin, have just begun to be engaged with by serious activist-scholars.

There are no signs that this will close off any time soon. I have had an opportunity to read through manuscripts of others--the translation from Hungarian of an interesting new work by Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin, which makes available Eastern European perspectives and debates on Lenin, and is about to be published by Monthly Review Press.

There is a significant interpretation by Alan Shandro on the notion of hegemony as a distinctive element in Lenin's thought, in a volume which I hope will be published soon. There is also Roland Boer's remarkable work, recently published, which will take time to be adequately absorbed into Lenin studies--Lenin, Religion and Theology.

In addition, August Nimtz Jr., who has made important contributions on the political thought of Marx and Engels, has now published a major study on Lenin, providing the first scholarly exploration of Lenin's quite serious approach to electoral politics in a two-volume work The "Ballot" or "the Streets"--or Both.

WE CAN expect much more scholarly work to help us better comprehend Lenin and Leninism. No less significant, however, will be new applications, misapplications and practical political experiences related to Leninism that can be expected to emerge--since there are many around the world who will seek not simply to interpret reality in various ways, but to change it. Leninism is unfinished because a number of us will be continuing to use it, refine it, enrich it in our ongoing struggles for human liberation.

In this vein are the new contributions from comrades of Socialist Alternative in the electoral arena, which absolutely deserve to be a central feature in our discussion of Leninism's democratic renewal. This practical experience obviously connects with August's scholarship, but it also ties in with a point emphasized in much of the work done by Lars Lih, which was a point made even earlier by such scholars as Moshe Lewin, in his magisterial synthesis The Soviet Century: that the Bolsheviks' "political tradition and organization [were] rooted in the history of Russian and European Social-Democracy."

The all-too-common version of "received wisdom" about Leninism, in years past but also in many circles today, insists on the exact opposite of this--the influential interpretations of scholars stretching from Bertram D. Wolfe through Leonard Schapiro to Richard Pipes and Robert Service, but also informing the views of many liberal and left-wing scholars and commentators. That view sees Lenin as an authoritarian elitist, bearing primary responsibility for the totalitarian order established under his presumed disciple and heir, Joseph Stalin.

Those who challenge the commonly held view certainly have some explaining to do. If the Marxism of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin represents a powerful force for political freedom and genuine democracy, there is certainly no denying that it gave way to the murderous bureaucratic tyranny associated with Joseph Stalin. While in these brief remarks there is no time to lay out that explanation, there is a rich body of work (developed by Leon Trotsky and many others) that takes up this challenge.

On the other hand, adherents of Stalinism, perhaps wishing to see promising beginnings of socialism in that tyrannical regime, naturally embraced the notion that Lenin led to Stalin. The negative features of "actually existing socialism," and then its collapse, greatly undermined the credibility of "Leninism" for many. Opponents of socialism and revolution (and weary, disillusioned one-time partisans) have also emphasized a deep bond between Lenin and Stalin--in order to close off the revolutionary socialist path as anything that a thoughtful, humane person would want to consider.

One problem with this is that if not enough thoughtful, humane people are prepared to forge a revolutionary socialist path to the future, then political freedom, genuine democracy, a decent life for all people--not to mention the survival of human culture and planet Earth--might not be part of the future. A full-scale rejection of Lenin's perspectives can cripple those engaged in this effort. I want to take a few moments to survey the body of thought and experience of this particular Marxist revolutionary that seem to me are essential to Marcel Liebman once called "the Leninism of Lenin."

EXAMINING THE body of Lenin's work, one sees the breadth and coherence of his thinking in his emphasis on the need for socialist and working-class support to struggles of all who suffer oppression, and in his way of integrating reform struggles with revolutionary strategy.

Lenin's insistence on the necessity of working-class political independence, and on the need for working-class supremacy (or hegemony) if democratic and reform struggles are to triumph is matched by his approach to social alliances (such as the worker-peasant alliance) as a key aspect of the revolutionary struggle.

We also find his development of the united front tactic, in which diverse political forces can work together for common goals, without revolutionary organizations undermining their ability to pose effective alternatives to the capitalist status quo. His profound analyses of capitalist development, and of imperialism and of nationalism utilize, expand upon, and to some extent deepen Marx's own analyses.

Lenin's vibrantly revolutionary internationalist orientation embraces the laborers and oppressed peoples of the entire world in these writings. Especially dramatic is his remarkable understanding of the manner in which democratic struggles flow into socialist revolution.

Challenging commonplace perspectives in the socialist movement of his time, Lenin analyzes the nature of the state in history, with a conceptualization--rooted in Marx and Engels, yet at the same time remarkably innovative--of triumphant working-class struggles generating a deepening and expanding democracy that would ultimately cause the state to wither away.

I think it is worth considering the well-informed summary once offered by C.L.R. James:

The theory and practice of the vanguard party, of the one-party state, is not (repeat not) the central doctrine of Leninism. It is not the central doctrine, it is not even a special doctrine...Bolshevism, Leninism, did have central doctrines. One was theoretical, the inevitable collapse of capitalism into barbarism. Another was social, that on account of its place in society, its training and its numbers, only the working class could prevent this degradation and reconstruct society. Political action consisted in organizing a party to carry out these aims. These were the central principles of Bolshevism.

A GROWING number of scholars insist that at the heart of the Leninism of Lenin is a commitment to revolutionary democracy--a feature that became more profound as he sought to mobilize mass opposition to the authoritarian and imperialist slaughter of the First World War, on the eve of Russia's 1917 revolution.

His companion and close comrade, Nadezhda Krupskaya, in her Reminiscences of Lenin, emphasized this when she noted that his 1916 essay "A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism" contained "thoughts which tinctured all his subsequent utterances," particularly "his articles dealing with the questions of the role of democracy in the struggle for socialism."

In the face of the consolidation of Stalin's bureaucratic dictatorship in the early 1930s, in her vital book of remembrance, Krupskaya drew readers' attention to these words from Lenin: "Socialism is impossible without democracy in two respects: 1. The proletariat cannot carry out a socialist revolution unless it has prepared for it by a struggle for democracy; 2. victorious socialism cannot maintain its victory and bring humanity to the time when the state will wither away unless democracy is fully achieved."

In a key passage from an essay of 1915, "The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination," Lenin's presentation of this perspective had dimensions that were particularly striking.

There is a conceptualization of the struggle for democracy and the dynamics of working-class revolution--a notion of democratic struggle spilling over into socialist struggle--that has much in common with Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. In addition to this, there is a deepening of the notion that defending and extending democratic rights and freedom must be a central task of the labor and socialist movements. Also striking is the extensive enumeration of the broad range of issues that Lenin takes seriously as being essential to the development of the working-class movement.

Here is the passage--which is quite lengthy, but very much worth sharing:

The proletariat cannot be victorious except through democracy, i.e., by giving full effect to democracy and by linking with each step of its struggle democratic demands formulated in the most resolute terms. It is absurd to contrapose the socialist revolution and the revolutionary struggle against capitalism to a single problem of democracy, in this case, the national question. We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc.

While capitalism exists, these demands--all of them--can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms. Some of these reforms will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of that overthrow, and still others after it.

The social revolution is not a single battle, but a period covering a series of battles over all sorts of problems of economic and democratic reform, which are consummated only by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It is for the sake of this final aim that we must formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary way. It is quite conceivable that the workers of some particular country will overthrow the bourgeoisie before even a single fundamental democratic reform has been fully achieved. It is, however, quite inconceivable that the proletariat, as a historical class, will be able to defeat the bourgeoisie, unless it is prepared for that by being educated in the spirit of the most consistent and resolutely revolutionary democracy.

THE QUESTION can be asked about pathways through which such revolutionary-democratic struggles of the working class can be advanced. I think it can be shown that Lenin basically embraced the perspectives outlined by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, which involved three fundamental activist arenas.

One involved trade union organizations to be built in the workplace, to struggle for better wages and improved working conditions. A second involved the creation of broad social movements to struggle for positive social changes within the present society--reforms moving in the direction of greater democracy, human rights and economic justice. A third activist arena involved the creation of a political party of the working class, a labor party that would win the battle of democracy, placing political power into the hands of the working-class majority, which would use that power to bring about--more and more--the economic democracy of socialism.

This is the general conceptual framework, I think, within which August Nimtz's study of Lenin's electoral strategy and Socialist Alternative's electoral efforts can be understood. Naturally, one must also make reference to the general economic, social, and political framework of Lenin's time and--in some ways different, in some ways not--of our own time. I would argue that Lenin's approach made a considerable amount of sense, from a revolutionary standpoint, to the context within which he and his comrades found themselves. In a very different way, it seems to me, it continues to make sense for us--and I want to conclude by indicating what I see as a major aspect of that difference.

In Lenin's time, there was a broad layer of the working class, a militant minority of substantial size, which had a significant degree of revolutionary class-consciousness. Related to that, there was also a substantial working-class movement – including a socialist-minded labor party – in Russia as well as other European countries, within which Lenin and his revolutionary co-thinkers functioned as an organized current.

In our own time, such a revolutionary vanguard layer of the working class, and its various militant organizational expressions--which dramatically eroded and more or less disappeared in the last decades of the 20th century--are now in the process of recomposition, but have yet to crystallize as a sufficiently substantial force. Until that happens, there is not and cannot be the equivalent of a revolutionary party such as that which Lenin helped to lead.

Some would-be Leninists pretend that only they represent the revolutionary vanguard. This results in what Tariq Ali once called "toy Bolshevik parties," destined to live out a sectarian existence. But the spirit of Lenin involves a non-sectarian approach embracing diverse groups and individuals--today and tomorrow--that are committed to the actual liberation struggles of the exploited and oppressed.

We must develop an understanding of Leninist theory and practical experience that can help us all advance our collective understanding and collective struggle, as we labor to build a movement advancing the recomposition and renewal of a vanguard layer of the working class that can lead the way to the economic democracy of socialism.

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