For Stalinists and liberals, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, has been useful as a myth and as a scapegoat.
For the former, Lenin has been selectively cited and distorted to justify the terror of bureaucratic rule and the theory of socialism in one country that undermined the international Communist movement. For the latter, he has been made a scapegoat for the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union and, therefore, Marxist practice.
However, the lessons and legacy of one of the most prominent and influential figures in the history of the labour movement and revolutionary praxis, despite deliberate discredit, remain valid 150 years after his birth on April 22, 1870.
Tribune of the people
Lenin set out the tasks for building a socialist party capable of fighting for an end to capitalism in his 1902 pamphlet What is to be done? It was aimed at uniting the radical underground in Tsarist Russia at the time and outlined an underlying strategy all socialists can learn from.
“The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be a trade union secretary but a tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; he must be able to group all these manifestations into a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; he must be able to take advantage of every petty event in order to explain his socialistic convictions and his Social-Democratic demands to all, in order to explain to all the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
Today, the need for this “popular tribune” is more obvious than ever: millions of people are out of work, many without any income, especially young people and women; an endless speculative property bubble in which thousands of people are homeless or pay exorbitant rents and bank profits soar along with household debt and hundreds of thousands of houses owned by the banks remain empty; women are fed up with sexist violence, gender inequalities and unpaid work that keeps the system going; many low paid workers live pay cheque to pay cheque while unemployment benefits and pensions are below the poverty line; migrants and refugees are deprived of the most basic rights; many workers are increasingly casualised and impoverished, afraid of losing their jobs while most unions remain silent; and on top of all this there is the pandemic and unfolding ecological crises.
Where is the tribune of the people, of all the oppressed?
The central task to which Lenin dedicated his life was the construction of an organisation to defend the interests of workers and the oppressed.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Europe was rocked by revolutionary outbursts and popular revolts, from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune.
Before the Commune in Paris in 1871, the popular classes had always been the muscle of every revolutionary wave, but leadership was firmly in the hands of liberal professionals and the bourgeoisie. The urban poor and the working class built the barricades and fought and died on the streets, but did not exercise power.
When demands from below began to attack their privileges, the bourgeois leadership sided with the old regime or directly repressed its former allies — until the 1871 insurrection.
After the defeat of the French army and the abandonment of Paris by the regime, the people took control of the city, ruling directly through elected councils. The spontaneous construction of their own instruments of popular power became an inspiration for socialist revolutionaries.
The Commune did not extend beyond Paris, however, and was brutally crushed within a few months. Yet the lesson of almost a century of revolutionary experience had been learned: without our own independent organisations, the working class could never take power on its own.
The workers’ movement grew exponentially from the end of the 19th century until World War I. Trade unions and social democratic parties grew at an astonishing rate in Europe and around the world. The situation varied from country to country, some political trends were stronger in some countries than in others; unions varied in their implementation and tactics, but they all felt they belonged to one workers’ movement. As a result, the period was filled with discussions and debates that sought the best way for the working class to gain power. This meant building socialism.
The socialist horizon
Socialism is based on the recognition that, under capitalism, it is capital that has power. The only way to end war, poverty, inequality and ecological destruction is to wrest power from capital to be administered by the working classes.
Socialism means that power is in the hands of those who work instead of those who own. This means much more than the nationalisation and state ownership of a few key sectors, or even entire industries. Socialism means much more than the redistribution of a few crumbs of relief, however desperately needed.
Socialism means collective property, democratic control and planning of the economy, all articulated by a radically transformed state administered by the people: state institutions made up of delegates elected from all workplaces and neighbourhoods, paid no more than the salary of an average worker and instantly recallable, instead of the career politicians of capitalism, loyal only to themselves and the highest bidder; collective leadership and working commissions instead of presidents, ministers and other self-appointed saviours of the people; the abolition of the army, the security services and the police, all replaced by popular self-defence militia and civil committees that are elected and recallable.
The union members and social democrats who built the first workers’ organisations understood this, but they did not agree on how it could be achieved and therefore on what type of organisation was needed.
Under the Tsar, all political organisations were illegal so the social democrats organised in small circles and connected through an underground network. They lacked a united party structure across the whole of Russia. Lenin was one of the founders and builders of the new Social Democratic Labour Party of Russia, which united the radical underground. His contributions to building a socialist organisation must be understood in this context.
Lenin advocated a working-class party, as it was the only class with the organisational ability and strength to confront the regime.
However, the working class at the time — urban and industrial in a country that was overwhelmingly agricultural — could not win alone. They had to unite all the popular classes and oppressed groups in the fight against the common enemy.
Lenin also argued that this organisation should be completely democratic; when decisions are made there must be unity in the implementation of the majority position.
Democratic centralism was not an idea invented by Lenin, but was common practice among the underground activists fighting the Tsar and his police: democratic discussion to reach a decision that is then tested in practice by the entire organisation.
An organisation that was capable of overthrowing the regime needed to be organised by “professional revolutionaries”, rather than based on the unreliability of amateurism: party activists had to take their tasks seriously, and the party had to operate professionally. In no sense did Lenin advocate for a party comprised of salaried intellectuals, as some have claimed.
The organisation needed to be implanted throughout the territory of the Russian Empire and among all oppressed groups, not just the working class. This meant respecting the right to self-determination of all nations within the Russian Empire, fighting for women’s rights, defending soldiers from abusive officers and peasants from the landlord — uniting everyone against the common enemy. This requires an organisation that brings together leading activists in all these struggles that, left on their own, can, at best, win reforms or provide protection but cannot bring down the root of their problems — the regime — and build popular power.
Therefore, for anyone who recognises the need for radical transformation, the answer to the question “Where do we start?” has a clear answer — with Lenin.
Where is the mass working-class party that is needed to build bases in neighbourhoods and workplaces today? Where are the radical union activists fighting in every workplace? Where is the organisation that trains activists through democratic discussion and ongoing education to take the fight to every corner of the country; that fights to unite all the campaigns and demands of the popular classes (feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, LGBTI rights, the right to self-determination) against the regime; that fights for a constitutional process to build republics based on popular power, for the ecosocialist revolution, for an economy that benefits everyone and not just the 1%; an organisation that unites tens — hundreds — of thousands of militants in the struggle for a new world, for socialism?
It does not exist. We must build it and time is short.
One hundred and fifty years after the birth of Lenin, the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing strength of the extreme right mean we need to do much more than merely read Lenin, we have to find a way to do what needs to be done.
[Julian Coppens is a Socialist Alliance member based in Extremadura, Spain. This article was first published at Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]