Leninism, No?

August 6, 2014

Paul Le Blanc is a veteran socialist and author, most recently, of Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine. In response to an article by British socialist Ian Birchall published at the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website, Le Blanc wrote this commentary to contribute to the discussion of "Leninism."

IAN BIRCHALL has made an important contribution to the ongoing discussion on the international left about the meaning and value of Leninism, which is one of the focal-points of my recent collection Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine. Here I would like to make a few comments about what this esteemed comrade has to say.

Birchall, over many years, has demonstrated that he is one of the most interesting and thoughtful British Marxist writers. Such qualities come through in all of his work, including his writings on Jean-Paul Sartre, his reflections on George Orwell and Victor Serge, and his massive and critical-minded biography of Tony Cliff, who led the Socialist Workers Party-Britain (SWP) and its predecessor organizations, of which Birchall himself was a prominent member.

The positive qualities are also much in evidence in Birchall's contribution just published on the rs21 website, entitled "Lenin: Yes! Leninism: No?" (note well the question mark). The opening paragraph has a delicious quality worth quoting in full: "It is currently a 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. Nobody is writing articles to explain that alchemy or social credit are dead. The enthusiasm to bury Leninism tells us that this is something that people want to be dead."

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

But true to form, Birchall is not satisfied with easily made observations--he goes on to explore the rich, creative, critical-minded, revolutionary and incredibly useful aspects of Lenin's thought and practice, and then to raise some challenging questions.

Birchall clearly feels that Lenin--as one of the foremost Marxist theorists of the 20th century who played a central role in organizing a successful working-class revolution in 1917--has much to teach serious-minded activists of today. Especially interesting is what he shares about the common ground between Lenin's Marxism and anarchism around issues of "freedom and the state"--the goal of a stateless socialism was the same, despite differences on how to achieve the goal. This is highlighted by the interplay between Lenin and figures of the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements (such as Victor Serge and Alfred Rosmer) who were won over to Lenin's perspectives.

There is also stress on the fact that:

Lenin's political self-confidence was such that he welcomed into the party leadership people who were prepared to stand up to him, notably his old adversary Trotsky. Lenin thought that the party itself should call the insurrection. Trotsky, who had greater experience than Lenin of the soviets [democratic workers councils], had to persuade him that the party's support alone was not broad enough, and that the call should come from the soviets.

Related highlights in the article emphasize Lenin's openness to learning from others and, despite his willingness to split over basic differences on principle, a determination to secure organizational unity through a flexible approach toward comrades. "Splitting is a lot easier than pulling together," Birchall laments, "which is why his self-styled followers have usually found it easier to imitate him by splitting."

Readers should treat themselves to this very accessible and informative "discussion article" (which is how it is tagged on the rs21 website). I would like to restrict myself here to discussing a couple of the challenges he throws out to us.


In the course of his reflections, almost as a throwaway line, Birchall raises a critical question about the fact that Trotsky and his co-thinkers, in their resistance to the Stalinists' corrupt and authoritarian use of a bogus "Leninist" orthodoxy, insisted that their opposition represented true Leninism, labeling themselves "Bolshevik-Leninists." (Actually, Birchall more modestly says that the tag was used by British Trotskyists, but one finds ample use of the term by Trotsky himself, while still in Russia in the late 1920s and then in his exile of the 1930s.) Birchall's comment is that the self-identification of Bolshevik-Leninist is "a bit like calling oneself an 'agricultural farmer.'"

The joke holds up if we see the words "Bolshevik" and "Leninist" as more or less synonymous. As we know, the Bolsheviks were a particular revolutionary faction within the Russian socialist movement, and Lenin was the foremost leader of that faction. But while Lenin's ideas and influence were of central importance among the Bolsheviks, he did not simply "call the shots." There are multiple examples of prominent comrades--from 1905 to 1917--sharply disagreeing with Lenin within the Bolshevik group: Alexander Bogdanov, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lev Kamenev, Alexei Rykov, Nikolai Bukharin, among others.

Sometimes Lenin lost the vote. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, there were a number of oppositional currents among the Bolsheviks taking up the cudgels against comrade Lenin--often around one or another specific issue (Trotsky was in this position more than once), and sometimes around more far-reaching platforms: witness the Left Communists, the Democratic Centralists, the Workers Opposition and more, Bolsheviks all.

To say one was a "Bolshevik-Leninist" (in the 1920s and 1930s, when there were comrades who had lived through this history, and memories of it were vibrant) therefore meant more than saying one was a "Leninist-Leninist." It suggests an adherence to a certain conceptualization--the basic orientation of Lenin as existing, finding life and meaning, within a democratic collectivity of critical-minded comrades. This is, of course, consistent with the basic thrust of Birchall's article.

Was Lenin a Leninist?

Birchall poses this question and correctly responds: "That Lenin was an important revolutionary leader, and that his life and work repay study, are scarcely in doubt. But what of 'Leninism'? Marx famously protested that he was not a Marxist; would Lenin have proclaimed himself a Leninist? There is good reason to think he would not."

This is well put, and on this basis, it could be argued that perhaps we, too, should not call ourselves Leninists...or Marxists. We are immediately faced with a bit of a puzzle: while Lenin did not refer to himself as a Leninist, he absolutely insisted that he was a Marxist (despite Marx's explicit disclaimer). The word "Marxist" had assumed a meaning that it did not have while Marx was alive.

Actually, it has assumed multiple meanings--including as representing collection of rather sterile "orthodoxies" that failed to comprehend the richness of Marx's own thought, not to mention a stilted and conservative ideological construct associated with a system of bureaucratic dictatorships. One could argue that the term Marxism "may be a positive obstacle to developing the kind of political strategy and organization we need for the coming decades."

Birchall himself does not suggest junking the term Marxism--but he does, word for word, suggest this (with the previously noted question-mark) in regard to Leninism.

Let us linger, for a moment, over the question of Marxism. There is an inclination, among followers of "Marxist-Humanist" philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya, to differentiate Marx from all those who followed, including Frederick Engels, as adherents of an inferior "post-Marx Marxism." (Sometimes, with sectarian panache, the "Marxist-Humanists" use this to indicate that only they--along with Marx and Hegel--really comprehend the profound Truth of Marx.) Marx Yes, Marxism No.

But many of us believe the non-pejorative use of the term Marxist is useful. For us, it represents the basic conceptual and methodological approach of Marx (and, yes, his close collaborator Engels), as well as an incredibly rich body of related analysis and insight, including political strategy and tactics and experience in the struggles of the working-class movement.

We recognize that this was not a closed system--it drew from multiple sources and continued to evolve in the face of new information and new experiences. We see it as developing in complex and sometimes contradictory ways in the hands of thoughtful and honest people who sought to embrace and utilize the basic approach of Marx after Marx's death. In that spirit, we self-identify as Marxists, feeling that there is too much that is valuable in the tradition associated with the word over many decades simply to junk it.

This was certainly Lenin's approach to Marxism. He would angrily reject some things done in the name of Marxism--whether the post-1910 trajectory of Karl Kautsky or the post-1921 trajectory of Joseph Stalin. But Lenin self-identified as a Marxist and was fully prepared to specify what he meant by this term and how it was inconsistent with what was done in its name by those diverging from revolutionary principles. It could be argued that a similar approach makes sense for Leninism.

Our Leninism

The term "Leninism" gained currency in the Communist movement at the time of Lenin's death (he certainly would have opposed this terminological development), and it was misused--by Stalin, above all--to establish an authoritative and authoritarian ideology, in order to establish greater control within the Communist movement.

The actual thought and political practice of Lenin, as Birchall indicates, is complex, laden with insights inseparable from a critical and creative process. One finds a very rich accumulation of political thought and perspectives that are lost in the intellectual superficiality of the "Leninism" developed by Stalin and others. Developed by Lenin during his lifetime, most of these ideas are gathered in 45 substantial volumes of his Collected Works, although it is certainly not the case that Lenin was uninfluenced by other thinkers, inside and outside of the Socialist International and Communist International.

While the "Leninism" of closed, finished dogmas was incompatible with Lenin's entire approach to politics, it can be argued that there was a distinctive political approach and body of thought--for the sake of brevity, one could refer to a genuine Leninism--to which it is worth giving attention.

While it can be argued that there are serious problems with the "Leninist" summaries offered by Stalin and some of his contemporaries (not to mention his followers), this does not mean that all efforts to sum up Lenin's ideas--generally under the label of "Leninism"--are necessarily false. While it can be shown that even anti-Stalinists have garbled or misused the term, there is something of value in discussions of "Leninism" to be found in the writings of a variety of revolutionaries: Nadezhda Krupskaya, Leon Trotsky, Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Clara Zetkin, Ernst Fischer, Ernest Mandel, Duncan Hallas, Daniel Bensaïd and many others.

Just as Lenin (or Marx) did not get everything right, these comrades--who sometimes differed with each other (and with Lenin)--were certainly wrong about some things, and right about others. They are part of a rich tradition associated with the word Leninism. Certain labels, especially if widely used in our culture can be helpful--whether "socialist" or "Marxist" or "Leninist." Sometimes dropping a label can facilitate clarity, sometimes confusion.

Here, all too briefly, I want to give a sense of what I mean by Leninism, as utilized in my own writings.

In his commitment to a fusion of the struggles of the workers and all the oppressed with the struggle for socialism, Lenin showed an understanding of the diversity and unevenness of working-class experience and consciousness, and reached for an expansive sense of solidarity and common cause that has the potential for drawing the working class as a whole--with allies in other social strata--into the struggle for its collective interests.

Blending an understanding of the necessity of working-class political independence in political and social struggles, and the need for its supremacy (or hegemony) if struggles against oppression are to triumph, Lenin adhered to an approach of integrating reform struggles with revolutionary strategy, with a remarkable understanding of the manner in which democratic struggles flow into socialist revolution.

In Lenin's thought and practice, we see the 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 revolutionary perspectives to the capitalist status quo. We see Lenin developing a vibrantly revolutionary internationalist approach that includes a profound analysis of imperialism and nationalism.

He sees all of this as integrated into a coherent conception of organization that is practical, democratic and revolutionary--although he never referred to this as "a Leninist party," and there is no compelling reason for us to cling to this commonly distorted and misunderstood term.

Lenin, not bent on being "innovative," did not invent all of this. But he was a creative thinker who advanced certain lines of thought--it can be demonstrated--in ways that were different from many others in the Marxist intellectual camp. In any event, he put the elements summarized above together in a manner that had a powerful impact in his native Russia and throughout the world. This can, I think, legitimately be termed Leninism.

Leninism, No?

This brings me to a conclusion that matches the title of this article. While Birchall places a question-mark in the title of his article (a tentative consideration of rejecting the term "Leninism"), the addition of a comma sums up my belief that there is no good reason to drop the term if we define it in a manner consistent with the actual politics of Lenin (and, if I read him right, the actual politics of Birchall himself).

Of course, as formulated, this conclusion, and the title of the article, can inspire someone else to respond with a hearty "Leninism NO!" And then it would be incumbent upon that person to tell us why. Sometimes the rejection of a label adds up to a rejection of the presumably "positive" content associated with that label--and such a substantive disagreement would call for a substantial discussion and debate to help clarify what's what, not just in terminology but in reality.

A mere terminological quibble is another matter altogether. I could be in the same revolutionary organization as a comrade such as Ian Birchall because we have the same basic political orientation, regardless of how we choose to distribute our question marks, commas, and labels. What is essential is to strive to be accurate about what actually happened in history, and to strive to be clear on "what is to be done" today and tomorrow to advance the struggle for freedom, economic justice and socialism.

Further Reading

From the archives