Today, 22 April 2020, marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (10th April according to the Old Julian calendar used in the Russian Empire, at the time; or 22 April 1870, according to the new style calendar (modern Gregorian) adopted in Soviet Russia, in 1918). He is better known to the world by his alias, ‘Lenin’.
Lenin was a Russian revolutionary socialist, a Marxist theorist and the key leader of the Bolsheviks. Lenin was the key figure to lead the October 1917 socialist revolution, overthrowing Czarism, capitalism, and landlordism, and ushering in the world’s first workers’ state. Lenin served as head of the Soviet government from 1917, until his death in 1924. Lenin’s last great struggle was against the rise of the counter-revolutionary, Stalinist bureaucracy, which was heroically carried on by Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
To mark the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, we publish below two articles. The first, by Nick Chaffey, is from this week’s issue of The Socialist (newspaper of the Socialist Party – CWI England & Wales) examines Lenin’s life and the relevance of his ideas, today. The second article is a book review by Peter Taaffe (which was first published in the February 2014 issue of Socialism Today) of ‘Lenin’, by Lars T Lih.
The relevance of Lenin’s ideas to today’s working-class struggles
In January 1917 the world was in flames amid the barbarism of the first capitalist world war. Yet, within months, the Russian revolutionary socialist Vladimir Lenin was the elected head of the first democratic workers’ government in history.
Today, as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, with its many deaths and a looming depression in the world economy, the capitalists speak in fear of the coming ‘pitchforks’ – the multi-millioned global working class seeking an end to the crisis by struggling to change the profit system.
For those looking for ideas and a way forward, the revolutionary life of Lenin, born 150 years ago, is rich with inspiring lessons for the socialist struggle today.
First workers’ state
The victory of the working class and poor peasants in the 1917 October Revolution, with the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin and Leon Trotsky, remains the greatest event in human history. It liberated millions from the reactionary, feudal yoke of Tsarist Russia, and brought an end to the slaughter of 3.6 million Russians, out of a total of 20 million dead in World War One.
It was the first workers’ government and, in its first years, the most democratic form of government in history, formed by the soviets or workers’ councils.
The soviets were based on the election of workers’ delegates from the factories to local and regional councils, and to an all-Russian council. Delegates were subject to recall and only paid the average wage of the workers they represented. Its executive powers oversaw the abolition of capitalism and the first steps towards the development of a socialist planned economy.
As Lenin foresaw, it was the opening chapter of the world revolution that swept across Europe and the globe in the following months and years. Lenin died in 1924, aged just 53, but by that time the new revolutionary Communist International, formed in 1919, was to have the support of millions of workers across all continents.
The October victory was based on Lenin’s two key foundations: confidence in the working class as the decisive force to overthrow capitalism, and the need to form mass revolutionary parties, rooted in the working class, with a clear programme to achieve workers’ power.
The victory was not an accident nor was it inevitable. Lenin was politically developed by the conditions that surrounded him – a reactionary feudal Tsarist dictatorship and an emerging working class, forged in the rapid development of industry in Russia at the turn of the 20th century.
Lenin’s historic leading role included forming the first all-Russian workers’ party, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), through the strikes and workers’ struggles of that period.
Lenin’s ideas were firmly based on Marxist ideas, the ideas of scientific socialism. His writings explained the class nature of capitalist society from the point of view of the working class; producing workers’ newspapers to report on the living struggle of the working class, and also providing a clear programme for workers to fight for the socialist transformation of society, and building a party based on these ideas.
While these ideas ultimately triumphed in October 1917, during the period from 1903 to 1917, Lenin and his co-thinkers were in constant debate over how the revolution would unfold, and which forces would lead the overthrow of Tsarism.
Would it be the liberal capitalists, placing themselves at the head of the workers’ struggles, in alliance with the poor peasants; limiting the revolution to carrying through the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ tasks ie ending feudalism, an elected national parliament, land reform, etc?
Or, would the workers push aside the capitalist class and lead the peasants in a revolutionary government that would begin the socialist transformation of society?
Lenin, in the numerous debates during the pre-revolution period, attempted to navigate a narrow path between the opportunists, who looked for an easier route to reforming capitalism, and ultra-lefts who turned their back on the patient tasks to win the masses, such as standing socialist candidates in the limited electoral bodies, Dumas, that Tsarism was to concede in the course of the struggle.
The battle for clear ideas led to splits and mergers in the workers’ movement. The break between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the RSDLP occurred first in outline in 1903, then became formalised in 1912. This split between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ party members was the result of the differences that emerged in the heat of struggle and revolution – first in the 1905 revolution (the ‘dress rehearsal’ for 1917, as Lenin described it), and again through the two revolutions of 1917.
While Lenin and the Bolsheviks set a clear course towards the working class, the Mensheviks were to take a reformist road, seeking support from the weak, liberal, capitalist elite.
From the outset, Lenin understood the correct ideas were not enough. Enormous determination, courage, and sacrifices were necessary.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks faced a brutal, repressive Tsarist state machine that persecuted the workers’ movement, and those seeking to establish independent political organisations.
Enormous sacrifices were made by hundreds of party workers, its ‘cadre’, in establishing the network of links between the embryonic groups and party cells, the circulation of papers, and the vital collection of funds. Lenin fought for a professional, combative party rooted in the working class.
The party ‘cadre’, a French word for frame, was the structure around which the party would grow: a party not only built through struggle, but out of intense democratic debate and discussion, through which decisions could be reached in party congresses, and then collective action agreed upon.
These methods of ‘democratic centralism’ were the key to building a strong force that would not weaken nor compromise under the pressure of revolutionary events that were to follow.
The infant RSDLP organisation was quickly tested by the revolution of 1905. The deep-rooted anger of the workers rose in a mass demonstration of over 400,000 in Tsarist Russia’s capital, St Petersburg. This was suppressed brutally by the Tsar, on Bloody Sunday, 22 January.
Protesting at the slave conditions in the factories of long hours and poverty wages, workers demanded an eight-hour day, trade union rights, democratic elections to a constituent assembly, and an end to the economic crisis brought about by the war with Japan.
Thousands of demonstrators were killed and injured. This opened up a revolutionary crisis in society that put to the test all political ideas and methods, and confirmed, in general, the correctness of Lenin’s ideas and strategy.
The working class, despite being a small minority of the population, came together as the only cohesive class in society, capable of uniting those opposed to the autocracy, and able to mobilise behind it the radicalised middle classes and the mass of the poor peasants.
The huge sweep of the revolution saw a spontaneous strike movement develop that led to a general strike in St Petersburg by November.
This tested revolutionaries with an opportunity of how to find the road to the masses and win their support. Lenin had to press his small forces to turn out and open the door of the party to the working class, especially young workers.
The Bolsheviks, with small resources, saw their newspaper, Vyperod (Forward), rise to a circulation of 50,000 by December 1905. Other revolutionaries came to the fore in this period, notably Leon Trotsky, whose newspaper was to reach a circulation of 500,000. With Trotsky elected as president of the powerful St Petersburg Soviet, Lenin commented: “Trotsky has earned it by his brilliant and unflagging work.”
The soviets were forged by the working class themselves in the course of their uprising, bringing together elected strikers from the factories to democratically organise the struggle. Lenin, still in exile, was quick to recognise the soviets’ potential describing them as a “provisional revolutionary government.”
But despite the heroic efforts of the working class, and the courageous struggle of the Bolsheviks to point the way forward in their programme, by December 1905 the revolutionary energy of the urban industrial masses had peaked before support for an all-Russian insurrection had matured.
Despite this, the events of 1905 had demonstrated in a few short months how a small party was able to become a mass force, through its party cadre, to draw in the most combative leaders from the working class and organise them into a cohesive political movement that would be decisive in the revolution of 1917.
Everything that Lenin had prepared, the programme, the party apparatus, and its paper, now proved to be decisive in assembling the forces and leadership that offered the working class and poor peasants a route to victory.
While Lenin’s forces were tiny, given the scale of the task, the clarity of ideas and the programme attracted the support of the most class-conscious workers, first in their hundreds, then more rapidly in their thousands.
Following the mass strikes and demonstrations of February 1917, the overthrow of the Tsarist monarchy, and the establishment of a provisional government headed by the capitalists, Lenin recognised that the only basis for ending the crisis of war, the starvation of the masses, and the resolution of the land question for the mass of toiling peasants, was to establish a workers’ government.
This had to be based on the soviets – workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils thrown up by a renewed revolutionary wave engulfing the whole of society. A soviet government would begin the socialist tasks of transforming society.
Lenin recognised that without this victory the revolution in Russia would be smashed under the iron heel of Tsarist counterrevolution, assisted by the capitalists who feared the revolutionary working class more than Tsarism.
Others in the leadership of the Bolshevik Party inside Russia, notably Stalin and Kamenev, mistakenly backed the soviets’ conditional support for the new provisional government headed by Kerensky (as did the Mensheviks). From his exile in Switzerland, a furious Lenin demanded of the Bolsheviks: “Our tactics: absolute distrust, no support for the new government, suspect Kerensky above all, arming of the proletariat the only guarantee…”
Lenin, returning from exile in April, stood in a minority within the Bolshevik Party, but went to the ranks of the party, to the worker-Bolsheviks, and won them to his position, with his short ten-point programme, The April Theses.
Lenin’s goal was clear and explicit: “No support for the provisional government, for a republic of soviet workers, labourers’ and peasants’ deputies, nationalisation of all lands, land to be disposed to the peasants, nationalise the banks, bring social production and distribution of products at once under the control of the soviets, for a new international.”
This programme, and his organised forces in the Bolshevik Party, were the decisive, ‘subjective factor’ in ensuring victory to the revolutionary power of the workers. Lenin drew others towards him, all those genuine revolutionaries seeking a route to workers’ power.
The clarifying of ideas, of a clear programme in the white heat of revolutionary events, brought Trotsky, with his supporters organised in the Mezhraiontsy, together with Lenin in the same party. They were agreed on the central role of the working class and the socialist tasks of the revolution.
Still, the door to revolution was obstructed by brutal repression. Here the great strength of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party became clear. Steeled in the struggle, their militant leaders in the factories and soldiers’ garrisons played a decisive part in mobilising mass support to the side of the revolution. A majority in the factories, workers’ districts, and army and naval garrisons were won to the side of the revolution, reflected in their overwhelming majorities in soviets across Russia.
By October 1917, Tsarism and the capitalist forces around the provisional government had evaporated. They were quickly dispersed by the revolutionary Red Guards, with barely a shot fired in St Petersburg.
News of the world’s first workers’ government travelled swiftly around the world, with revolutions unfolding in Germany 1918-23, Hungary 1919, Italy 1920, and later the 1926 general strike in Britain, and revolutinary movements in China from 1927-29.
Lenin’s death came at a critical period. Soviet Russia, isolated after the defeat of the aborted 1923 German revolution, impacted by the loss of many workers’ leaders in the civil war and struggling under a war-devastated backward economy with limited resources, created the conditions of retreat. A bureaucracy emerged that was ultimately to triumph under the leadership of Joseph Stalin.
Stalin, once in control of party and state, justified an end to world revolution with his counter-revolutionary ideas of ‘socialism in one country’, and the brutal suppression of workers’ democracy and political opposition.
The monstrous development of Stalinism was used in the capitalist West to undermine the genuine ideas of Lenin and Bolshevism. But nothing could stop the ‘mole of revolution’ burrowing at the weakening foundations of the crisis-ridden capitalist system in the 1920s and 1930s.
Leon Trotsky took up the heroic defence of the Russian revolution, fighting for the ideas of a workers’ democratic state planning and internationalism, that would lay the basis for the development of the world revolution under more favourable circumstances.
Since then, there have been the revolutionary events of Spain in the 1930s; France 1936; the global revolutionary wave that followed the end of the second world war; the colonial revolutions, and the 1959 Cuban revolution; France 1968; Chile 1973; Portugal 1974. More recently we have seen the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, along with the significant intense working-class struggles of 2019 in France, Chile, Ecuador, India, and the Middle East.
Apart from Cuba and, for a time, some other countries in the colonial world, most of these revolutionary movements did not succeed in overthrowing capitalism. This highlights the importance of Lenin’s ideas: the power of the working class, its leading role in the struggle for socialism, and the need for a mass party rooted in the working class and based on Marxist ideas.
In the current coronavirus pandemic, the capitalist system is again failing to deliver healthcare and decent living standards for the mass of the population. It shows, once again, the obstacle capitalism is to the development of society and reiterates the need for socialism.
We stand on the shoulders of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. We have a huge advantage in drawing on the lessons of the past in preparing for the huge battles to come. The Socialist Party has important roots in the working class and in the trade unions, has scored important past victories, and has international links to co-thinkers across the world.
We are confident that the radicalised working class and youth of the world will seek a way forward, and look for ideas and organisation to solve their problems.
These are the ripening conditions through which Marxist ideas and organisation will flourish in completing the urgent task of creating a socialist world that Lenin dedicated his life to achieve.
Lenin – An inspiring revolutionary legacy
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 [2003-2004] – 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, has a long pedigree, beginning with Marx and Engels.
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)
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.
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 ‘indignatos’ 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 [in 2014, SA was in political solidarity with the CWI but subsequently broke away in 2019] 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 that were lost because this open approach has not been adopted.
Looking 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.
Lenin, by Lars T Lih, published by Reaktion Books (2011)