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Lenin, democracy and the way forward for the Left

A new book shatters the myth of an anti-democratic Lenin. It is by Lars T. Lih and called Lenin Rediscovered. What Is to Be Done? in Context, Haymarket 2008.

107 years ago Lenin published a hasty polemic against some minor opponents in the socialist movement.

Yet out of Lenin’s prodigious output of writings – his collected works amount to 45 thick volumes – the obscure pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (WITBD) is seized on as the epitome of Leninism.

How do we explain this fascination with WITBD?

It is worth starting with a 2006 speech by, of all people, George Bush:

Underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake. In the early 1900s an exiled lawyer in Europe published a pamphlet called What Is to Be Done? in which he laid out his plan to launch a communist revolution … The world did not heed Lenin’s word and paid a terrible price.”

Bush is repeating the marching orders given by the international bourgeoisie to what Karl Marx called their hired prize fighters – the historians, editorial writers and commentators – that Lenin was a profound threat to capitalist rule and had to be demonised.

Bourgeois ideology strives to establish the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism – that if you attempt to overthrow capitalism it will end in disaster.

Much of the time the ruling class achieves this end by writing revolutions out of history.

The Russian revolution, however, could not simply be ignored. It had to be denigrated and its most famous leader turned into the personification of evil.

A narrative was constructed that goes as follows. Stalin’s gulags, rather than symbolising the restoration of capitalism, are portrayed as the logical outcome of any attempt to change society.

Lenin is portrayed as an unscrupulous opportunist who rose to power on the back of the naïve masses and prepared the ground for Stalin. A few quotes are ripped out of context from WITBD to “prove” that Lenin was authoritarian.

Lars T. Lih has produced a tremendous work of scholarship that tears apart, in meticulous detail, the myths peddled about Lenin.

No short review can do justice to Lih’s work – anyone serious about studying Lenin needs to read the book. I can only touch on some key themes.

Lih demonstrates that Lenin, far from being authoritarian, was an extreme democrat.

The centrepiece of Lenin’s project was a political revolution to overthrow the Tsarist dictatorship; to introduce freedom of speech and assembly, the right to vote and the right of workers to organise.

Lih documents the fact that the real Lenin, unlike the stereotype, was in no sense a supporter of conspiratorial organisations that substitute for the masses. He stood for an open, mass workers’ party – a thoroughly democratic party that would galvanise workers to struggle for their liberation. It was precisely on this ground that he was attacked by his opponents. Lenin’s opponents argued that he placed too much emphasis on democracy, that he was too critical of terrorist groups, that a mass party was impossible.

The next myth that Lih demolishes is Lenin’s supposed mistrust of workers. The textbook argument goes that Lenin thought workers would never be capable of overthrowing Tsarism. Instead Lenin supposedly looked to intellectuals to lead the revolution. One historian typical of the academic establishment, Abraham Ascher, writes:

The Marxists faced a problem: the political inertia of the masses. If the people refused to be budged towards activism, how could the revolution ever be made? Lenin turned to the issue of the masses’ political inertia and analysed it most comprehensively in WITBD.”

But as Lih demonstrates, in every debate between so-called optimists and pessimists about the revolutionary potential of workers, Lenin was always an extreme optimist. By the early years of the 20th century Lenin was arguing that working class struggle was advancing in leaps and bounds. The problem was not workers’ consciousness but the primitive organisation of the socialist movement.

Lenin argued that socialists had to establish a party, otherwise the revolutionary opportunity would be squandered. This was the context for his famous statement “give us an organisation of revolutionaries and we will overturn Russia.” Far from being the epitome of Lenin’s elitism, here was Lenin arguing that workers were straining at the leash.

As Lih puts it, the whole case that Lenin was an elitist is based on the idea that Lenin “feared the spontaneous development of the workers’ movement” so much that “he demanded that the workers’ movement be diverted from its natural course and be directed from without by non-workers.”

“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the textual basis for this portrait of Lenin is…three words: spontaneity, divert and from without (one word in Russian).”

Part of the confusion arises from the translation of these three words. In the standard translation of WITBD the most contentious paragraph reads:

The spontaneous development of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology. Hence the task of social democracy is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie.”

The meaning put on this is that Lenin had a low opinion of workers. That the direction of the workers’ movement is towards narrow trade unionism, which subordinates itself to the bourgeoisie, and the task of social democrats is to divert the movement from its natural course of development.

But does Lenin mean anything like this? In numerous places in WITBD Lenin goes on about how working class consciousness is advancing in leaps and bounds.

Furthermore the idea that the weak social democratic movement could divert the workers’ movement from its natural course of development is fantasy. No practical revolutionary like Lenin could believe such nonsense. So what is going on?

Part of the problem is the translation. “Divert” is not the exact meaning of the Russian word. Similarly the Russian word stikhiinyi, usually translated as “spontaneous”, has a variety of meanings, including “elemental”, “rudimentary”, “amateurish”, “backward” and even “without social democratic influence”.

The bottom line is that when Lenin talked about “spontaneity”, he was not referring to struggles without socialist leadership, but struggles with a rudimentary level of organisation and consciousness. Similarly when Lenin refers to trade unionism he means narrow trade union politics, i.e. the political view that unions on their own are sufficient to advance workers’ interests.

An alternative translation of the paragraph would be:

Therefore our task – the task of social democracy – consists of a struggle with the rudimentary elements of the movement, consists in attempting to win the working class movement away from the backward and anti-political striving of narrow trade unionist politics which leads to submission to bourgeois leadership and in winning the working class movement to accept the leadership of revolutionary social democracy.” ABC for any socialist.

Another long-standing myth is that WITBD argues for an all-powerful central committee to rule the party. Lenin supposedly was for a hyper-centralised party confined to a few middle-class professional revolutionaries.

But Lenin in no sense believed the party should just be made up of full-time revolutionaries. He was for a mass party. He recognised though, that under the conditions of Tsarist repression you needed a core of revolutionaries, trained to avoid arrest, to help maintain a mass movement.

Nor did Lenin believe that the professional revolutionaries should be intellectuals. He wanted workers to become professional revolutionaries. As for the legend that Lenin demanded an all-powerful central committee, WITBD says nothing about the power of the central committee.

To add to the confusion there is the enormous red herring about the origin of socialist ideas. To buttress his case against Iskra‘s critics, Lenin inserted in WITBD a quote from Karl Kautsky:

The carrier of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: modern socialism emerges in the heads of individual members of this stratum and then is communicated by them to proletarians…socialist awareness is something brought into the class struggle of the proletariat from without.”

This is a one-sided understanding of the development of socialist thought. Marxism was not simply developed by Marx building on the ideas of previous bourgeois theorists. There was an intimate relationship between workers’ struggles and the development of Marx and Engels’ ideas.

It is drawing a long bow to conclude from the fact that Lenin quoted Kautsky that he had abandoned faith in workers. The much more likely story is that Lenin never doubted the revolutionary potential of workers. He simply quoted Kautsky to add the authority of “the pope of Marxism” to his polemic.

To sum up, WITBD is not the epitome of Leninism, let alone the source of Stalinism. It is a minor polemic Lenin wrote in the Iskra period, making the case that the rising level of workers’ struggle meant that revolution was on the agenda and that socialists who were lagging behind these developments had to cohere a party.

The whole project of Iskra was to lay the basis for such a party. Lenin emphasised the vital role of a revolutionary paper in cohering an underground party.

As Lars T. Lih documents in his monumental work of research, far from lacking faith in workers and looking to intellectuals, Lenin was tremendously optimistic about the development of working class struggle. Workers were rapidly moving towards socialist ideas. The task of socialists, as far as Lenin was concerned, was not to substitute for workers but to merge with the workers’ movement.

To achieve that end, it was an urgent task to establish a mass workers’ party that could ensure that the revolution was carried to victory. Lenin’s position was the exact opposite of the academic caricature. He was one of history’s greatest champions of human freedom.

This review, by Mick Armstrong, first appeared in this month’s socialist magazine, Socialist Alternative.

 Lenin Rediscovered is available from Socialist Alternative. $75 incl. P+H.