What is the Leninist approach?

June 17, 2015

What is Leninism? What isn't it? Is it relevant to the world and struggles of today, or something to be examined from a purely historical point of view? These and other questions remain topics of lively discussions for the left today.

Earlier this month, Paul Le Blanc wrote an article for Socialist Worker titled "An Introduction to Lenin and Leninism." In this follow-up, he comments on some of the contemporary debates about Leninism and further investigates the themes he touched on previously. Paul is the author of numerous books, including the soon-to-be-republished Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine.

MARXISM IS animated by a number of interrelated dimensions.

One involves an exploration of how we got here--this is Marx's historical materialism. A second involves the investigation of the "here"--an analysis of capitalism in all its amazing and horrifying dynamism. A third involves a conceptualization of the "there"--a possible socialist future grounded in the first dimension (an understanding of history and how it works), and flowing out of, but superior to, the second (the actualities and possibilities generated under capitalism).

A fourth dimension involves how to get from the "here" to the "there"--which brings up questions of revolutionary organization, strategy, tactics, struggle and transition. Among the greatest contributions made by the Russian revolutionary Lenin are in this fourth dimension.

Studying Lenin Amid the Swirl of History

There has begun an amazing resurgence of what can be called "Lenin Studies"--outstanding new books being produced by serious scholars and interesting thinkers. Politically, it is a very diverse range of people, including Lars Lih, Alan Shandro, August Nimtz, Tamás Krausz, Antonio Negri and Daniel Bensaïd. There is also the invaluable exploration of the Communist International under Lenin, spearheaded by John Riddell. And the list is growing.

Lenin speaks to a mass demonstration in 1917
Lenin speaks to a mass demonstration in 1917 (Albert Rhys Williams)

These studies have not simply fallen from the skies, but have been generated by the disasters of capitalism, the popular struggles and insurgencies, and the activist dilemmas (a crisis of strategy and organization) that have become global realities in our time.

For those wishing to block revolutionary developments, and for those who once wished to see such developments, but later became discouraged and disillusioned, Lenin has always been a central target. Much ink and many computer keystrokes have been devoted to the task of causing us to reject all that Lenin was and stood for. Such efforts have been given great credibility by the historical experience, ideas, policies and practices that are sometimes dubbed "Stalinism."

The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought into being a radical form of democracy, based on councils (soviets) of workers and peasants, that sought to create a socialism of the free and the equal. Battered mercilessly by well-funded and murderous forces inside and outside Russia, the Soviet Republic adopted authoritarian emergency measures to survive until the anticipated workers' revolutions and consequent socialist democracies of other countries, especially industrially advanced countries, could end the isolation of revolutionary Russia. Those revolutions were violently thwarted, and backward Russia remained isolated.

Lenin was the most prominent and respected leader of the revolution, but he died before he and his comrades could find revolutionary solutions. In this situation, a growing bureaucracy, headed by Joseph Stalin, took control of the ruling Communist Party and the state machine, and--in the name of building "socialism in one country," in stark contrast to the internationalism of the Marxist tradition--carried out a brutal modernization. This included policies of extreme and often lethal repression, but carried out under the banner of "Leninism." A "new order" built with such rotten timber proved unable to endure.

Yet the problems that had generated the Russian Revolution--the poverty and inequality, the exploitation and oppression, the economic injustices and irrationalities, the imperialism and war that are inseparable from the global capitalist system--did not evaporate. And so the radicalization and insurgency flourish in our own time--and now, "Lenin Studies" are flourishing as well.

Is It Permissible to Speak of "Leninism"?

A terminological quibble has recently assumed significant proportions among a number of scholars and activists identifying--or wrestling with whether or not they should identify--with Lenin's political thought and practice.

One of the most reasonable formulations was advanced by the late revolutionary theorist Daniel Bensaïd, who commented that "the invention of 'Leninism' as a religiously mummified orthodoxy, was part of the process of bureaucratization of the Comintern and the Soviet Union." Bensaïd concluded: "That's why, as far as possible, I personally avoid utilizing this 'ism'."

Yet when we look at how such prominent Bolsheviks as Gregory Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin actually characterized the nature and quality of Lenin's political thought and practice, we find formulations that differ from what was "catechistic in style and authoritarian in tone" in Stalin's formulations, as Robert C. Tucker, one of Stalin's biographers, put it.

In this context, we should also consider Nadezhda Krupskaya. In contrast to the rigid definition proposed by Stalin--that "Leninism is Marxism in the epoch of imperialism and of the proletarian revolution"--Krupskaya, in her Reminiscences of Lenin, presents us with the approach and ideas and practices actually developed by Lenin in the course of his life as a revolutionary activist, engaged in the struggle to end all oppression and exploitation through the revolutionary struggle of the working class for democracy and socialism.

This understanding of "Leninism" was of little use to a rising bureaucratic dictatorship that--out of the isolation and erosion of the Russian Revolution--sought a dogmatic ideology to help reinforce its own increasingly abusive power, as it ruthlessly sought to modernize backward Russia. The Stalinist evaluation of Krupskaya has been helpfully clarified by one of Stalin's closest associates, V.M. Molotov:

Krupskaya followed Lenin all her life, before and after the Revolution. But she understood nothing about politics. Nothing...In 1925 she became confused and followed Zinoviev. And Zinoviev took an anti-Leninist position. Bear in mind that it was not so simple to be a Leninist!...Stalin regarded her unfavorably. She turned out to be a bad communist...What Lenin wrote about Stalin's rudeness [when, in his "Testament," written at the end of his life, he proposed Stalin's removal as the Communist Party's General Secretary] was not without Krupskaya's influence...Stalin was irritated: "Why should I get up on my hind legs for her? To sleep with Lenin does not necessarily mean to understand Leninism!"...In the last analysis, no one understood Leninism better than Stalin.

Krupskaya was, in fact, Lenin's closest co-worker since the mid-1890s. She was determined to tell as much of the truth as she was able about the development of Lenin's revolutionary perspectives, with extensive attention to his writings and activities, and to the contexts in which these evolved.

What she presented as Leninism was consistent with what other seasoned comrades had to say. Noting that "the Russian Leninists, the Leninists of the Communist International and of the whole world are confronted by grand and important tasks" in the wake of Lenin's death, Zinoviev urged comrades to "strengthen and solidify the union between the most advanced Communists and the whole of the non-party working masses," and to "succeed with the plough of Leninism in raising new and deeper layers...assisting even those who have only a spark of talent" and "helping the multi-million working mass in educating itself and in raising its cultural level, in order to fit itself for the work of socialist reconstruction."

Comparing the perspectives of Marx with those of Lenin, Bukharin argued, "[I]it is clear that Leninist Marxism represents quite a particular form of ideological education, for the simple reason that it is itself a child of a somewhat different epoch." At the same time, Bukharin added, "[I]f we regard Marxism not as the entirety of ideas such as existed in the time of Marx," but as a distinctive tool and methodology, then "Leninism is not something that modifies or revises the method of Marxist teaching," but is "a complete return to the Marxism formulated by Marx and Engels themselves."

While such formulations do not bear the marks of bureaucratic authoritarianism or mummified orthodoxy that one might be led to expect, there is truth in the way Bensaïd characterizes certain early articulations of the term "Leninism." Serious historians such as E.H. Carr documented long ago that the term was utilized as a device to advance factional and bureaucratic agendas, in a campaign against a fabricated "Trotskyism."

Some now go out of their way to avoid positive reference to Leninism. Antonio Negri's solution is different. Arguing that "the first and greatest danger is that of entering into a debate on 'Leninism,'" he quite simply proclaims: "Leninism does not exist." He immediately modifies the proclamation, saying instead that "the theoretical statements contained in this term must be brought back to bear on the set of comportments and attitudes to which they refer: their correctness must be measured in the relationship between the emergence of a historical subject (the revolutionary proletariat) and the set of subversive problems that this subject is confronted with." And then, again quite simply, he makes free use of the terms "Leninism" and "Leninist" when discussing Lenin's thought and practice.

What Is Essential to Leninism?

If we understand "Leninism" to mean the basic approach, ideas and practical political work of Lenin, we can find that it is characterized by a richness that serious activists cannot afford to ignore.

Central to his approach, of course, is the core Marxist notion that neither socialism nor the actual struggles of the working class can be triumphant unless they merge together. 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 both 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.

Some recent works on Lenin emphasize something that is crucial if we hope to be true to Lenin's basic methodology. "A historically adequate interpretation of Lenin's Marxism – in Marxist terms – must begin," Tamás Krausz points out, "with the recognition that Lenin's legacy is essentially a specific, practical application of Marx's theory of social formation" in a specific moment in history. And our moment is not quite the same as Lenin's moment.

Antonio Negri insists that we can fruitfully look "into the Leninist relation between tactical strategy and organization to verify in a particular class composition (as correctly interpreted by Lenin) the general laws it identifies," and understanding the methodology Lenin utilized in his time can help us figure out what we must do in our own.

Tamás Krausz adds something more in discussing the often distorted notion of the "revolutionary vanguard party":

The party as vanguard meant simply that the organization must find roots as part of the social class and incorporate all progressive and revolutionary elements (that is, "those who are first to mount the barricades") as mentioned in the Communist Manifesto. This description of vanguard, of course, has no real kinship with the structure that came about in a later period, the bureaucratic embodiment of the "Stalinist state party," in spite of the fact that the latter kept referring to Lenin and its so-called origins in 1903.

Regarding what is often seen as a hallmark of Leninism, Krausz offers additional insights:

The concept of democratic centralism as the "law" of party bureaucracy was a product of a later historical period – the combination of power, pragmatism, and a messianic "future expectation." It is easy enough to define the basic concept of democratic centralism: democracy in reaching decisions and unity in implementing them. The difficulty resides only in how to apply this basic principle to small propaganda groups that do not have an organic relationship with the working class.

A Method for Revolutionary Transformation

Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades developed an organization whose constituency was "created from among the most class-conscious members of this class through a hard-fought process of selection." The Bolsheviks' ideology and an organizational structure, Krausz notes, "were recognized by politically conscious members of the working class in 1905 and 1917 as valid expressions of their politics."

The mass left-wing working-class movements, guided by Marxist theory and essential components of the political scene in the time of Lenin, have faded. Related to this, the global working class, although larger and more varied, has been transformed in multiple ways. This must shape today's tactics and strategy. There is much that we need to learn.

But key aspects of Lenin's approach remain reference points in the struggle for socialism in our own century.

For one, all revolutionary groups worth their salt, according to Lenin, must stand as "the tribune of the people...able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects." They must be "able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation...in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat."

Democracy is at the heart of the Leninist strategic orientation. "We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands," Lenin emphasized, including opposition to racial and national and gender oppression. The push for genuine democracy means a push for genuine socialism, he explained:

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...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."

A working-class majority can bring about socialism, Lenin concluded, only if permeated with "the spirit of the most consistent and resolutely revolutionary democracy."

With the approach of deepening crises and struggles, the recovery and development of Lenin's organizational and strategic insights provide serious activists with tools that can help with the creation of a better future.

Sources Cited in This Article

Recent Works Related to Lenin
Daniel Bensaïd, "Leninism in the 21st Century" (November 2001), and "Leaps, Leaps, Leaps," in Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek, eds. Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin, An Intellectual Biography (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015).

Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: "What Is To be Done?" in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), and Lenin (London, UK: Reaktion, 2011).

Antonio Negri, Factory of Strategy: 33 Lessons on Lenin (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

August H. Nimtz, Lenin's Electoral Strategy, From Marx and Engels Through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot or the Streets--or Both (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Communist International, 1921, (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2015) and Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2012).

Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015).

Other Works Cited
Nikolai Bukharin, "Lenin as a Marxist" (1925), in Al Richardson, ed., In Defence of the Russian Revolution: A Selection of Bolshevik Writings, 1917-1923 (London: Porcupine Press, 1995).

E. H. Carr, A History of Soviet Russia, 4: The Interregnum, 1923-1924 (London: Macmillan, 1954), 320-323, and A History of Soviet Russia, 5, Socialism in One Country 1924-1926, Volume One (London: Macmillan, 1958).

Nadezhda Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1979).

V.I. Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, Selected Writings, ed. by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008).

Paul Mason, Live Working or Die Fighting, How the Working Class Went Global (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), and Why It's Still Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (London: Verso, 2013).

Robert H. McNeal, Bride of the Revolution: Krupskaya and Lenin (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973).

V. M. Molotov, Felix Chuev, Molotov Remembers, Inside Kremlin Politics, edited by Albert Resis (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993).

Joseph Stalin, Problems of Leninism (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976).

Leon Trotsky, Diary in Exile 1935 (New York: Macmillan, 1963).

Robert C. Tucker, Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879-1929 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974).

Gregory Zinoviev, "The Death of Lenin and the Problems of Leninism," Communist International, No. 30, 1924.

Further Reading

From the archives