Leninism for the 21st century

February 5, 2010

Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In ContextBy Lars T. Lih, Haymarket Books, Chicago 2008840 pp., $89:95 pb.

Epic intellectual conflicts have been waged over the meaning of Lenin's ideas. Trotskyists in particular, to their ever-lasting credit, argued for a revolutionary, liberationist reading of Lenin in defiance of Stalin's bureaucratic machine — often at the cost of their lives in the Soviet Union

On the right, a whole industry of conservative, Cold War warrior intellectuals made an easy living proving that Lenin really opposed the independence of the working class and that his ideas led to Stalinism.

Their logic is that no matter how unhappy workers feel under capitalism, they dare not tamper with the world as it is; anything is better than Leninism/Stalinism.

Just four words plucked from two famous paragraphs in What Is to Be Done? are the source of all Leninism's supposed faults: "spontaneity", "divert" and "from without".

With this rickety scaffolding arguments are constructed that Lenin feared workers' spontaneous development, wanted to divert it from its natural course by the arrogant intervention of non-workers and hoped to create a new, undemocratic, centralised "vanguard" party operating conspiratorially.

What Is to Be Done? was a contribution to a debate within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) that ended in the famous split at its 1903 congress — and the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks first entered history.

Lenin argued for a new type of party organisation for the RSDLP, which came to be known as the "Leninist vanguard" party.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has coined the phrase "socialism of the 21st century". In Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context, Lars Lih has made an important contribution towards a "Leninism of the 21st century".

Lih has brought penetrating linguistic expertise to dig deep in the archives to bring Lenin's original ideas to light.

Lih's project is to trawl through all the Russian-language original texts that Lenin mentions (even in passing), extract their meaning (often through methodical examination of Russian grammar and tracing problems of translation), compare them to the overall thinking of the international socialist movement of the time, dominated as it was by the German Social Democrats, and explain how the debates played out within the RSDLP.

All that, plus argue a case against what he calls the "textbook" interpretation of What Is to Be Done?

The "textbook interpretation" is that long held by both academics (usually anti-Leninists) and those Lih calls "activists", such as revolutionary socialist writers Paul Le Blanc, Tony Cliff and others.

This is topped off with his own translation of What Is to Be Done?

It is to Lih's credit that he successfully steers the reader through this hall of mirrors.

Lih quotes Lenin, writing in the preface to a 1907 collection of his writings called Twelve Years, warning: "The basic mistake made by people who polemicise with What Is to Be Done? at the present time is that they tear this production completely out of a specific historical context, out of a specific and by now long-past period in the development of our party."

Twelve Years was written in a short period of democratic freedom forced upon Tsarism by the 1905 Revolution. Lenin had to argue hard and long to convince the Bolsheviks, experts at the underground struggle, of the need to surface and organise themselves utilising the full attributes of internal democracy.

This contrasts with the period in which What Is to Be Done? was written, one in which the embattled Russian Marxist movement was beginning to move out of its "small circle" existence.

Constantly harried by the Tsarist secret police, in 1903 the Russian revolutionaries (of all stripes) were forced to operate underground in self-selected, secretive groups.

The exile grouping that Lenin was part of published Iskra (the Spark). In Twelve years, Lenin wrote: "What Is To Be Done? is a summary of Iskra tactics and Iskra organisational policy in 1901 and 1902. Precisely a 'summary', no more and no less."

In 1902, what was crucial was that the Russian workers were on the move, ultimately towards the 1905 Revolution, itself the prelude to 1917. The workers were moving beyond the "spontaneous" struggle.

Thus, Lenin explained in one of the passages used to accuse him of elitism, "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, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy."

Lih carefully explains the English word "spontaneity" came from a 1929 translation of Lenin's Russian term stikhiinost, which, Lih says, contains the meaning of the English "spontaneity" combined with a sense of an elemental force.

For a recent political example: the Palm Island riot that followed the whitewash of Mulrunji Doomadgee's death was stikhiinost; unplanned, impassioned, justified, but ultimately self-defeating.

Before 1903, it was not unknown for Russian workers to strike and drive the police out of whole areas of a city or town, then break into the vodka stores and drunkenly let the police regain the upper hand.

It was because the workers had started to go beyond this stikhiinost that Lenin was demanding the RDSLP seriously organise itself to lead the rebellions.

Lenin was arguing both against the danger of the RDSLP activists lowering the level of their politics to reflect the stikhiinost level of the workers and for activists to catch up with the workers whose "spontaneous" struggle was advancing rapidly and might leave the RSDLP behind.

Moreover, Lih argues, the Russian expression trediunionizm, which Lenin criticised, cannot be understood properly if simply transcribed into the English "trade unionism". Lenin's target was the ideology that trade unions are all that is needed as distinct from an independent class-based workers' socialist party.

Lenin explained that every trade union secretary "always helps the workers to carry on the economic struggle, he helps them to expose factory abuses, explains the injustice of the laws and of measures that hamper the freedom to strike and to picket".

But Lenin was staunch in distinguishing revolutionary trade union activity from tredunionizm, in one of the most famous passages in What Is to Be Done?: "It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy, that the Social-Democrat's ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is 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."

To tie all these ideological and practical tasks together, Lenin argued, the party would need to take its underground existence seriously and organise conspiratorially to avoid being broken up.

This period of working class upsurge, argued Lenin, required revoliutstionery po professii, skilled in the arts of underground operations. Such people were not intellectual "professional revolutionaries", as that term has been translated and interpreted, Lih says.

In Russian, the noun professiya is applied to just about any kind of work requiring skills and training. The phrase for "plumber by trade", for example, is santekhnik po professii.

The sense of Lenin's revoliutsioner po professii is thus something like, "skilled, experienced revolutionary". It doesn't have the slightest tang of elitism; such a person is completely at one with the workers he or she strives to influence.

Lenin's revoliutsioner po professii would intervene to redirect (or divert) the workers to go beyond stikhiinost and their economic struggles towards the political struggle for democratic rights and from there to socialism.

Lenin's main target in 1902 was the newspaper Rabochee Delo, which representative of the political trend of "economism" in the Russian Social Democratic movement.

Supporters of the economism trend downplayed the importance of struggling for political freedom in Russia as part of building the workers' movement.

In opposing economism, Lenin supported the arguments of German Marxist Karl Kautsky, as expressed in his book Class Struggle, which commented on the SDP's Erfurt Programme: "[Democratic] privileges are to the proletariat the prerequisites of life; they are the light and air of the labour movement.

"Whoever attempts to deny them, no matter what his pretensions, is to be reckoned among the worst enemies of the working-class."

The struggle for the "light and air" of democracy, in Tsarist Russia, is the motivating thrust of What Is to Be Done?. Without understanding its fundamental importance, you cannot understand Lenin.

Lenin fiercely argued that the workers can and will embrace the teachings of Marxism — in fact, he is possessed by his confidence in the working class.

Hence the zeal of his case against those who try to say the workers aren't ready, that they need to go through lower stages of political development and not embrace political tasks that are beyond them.

And hence the tremendous value of Lih's magnum opus. As the wreckage of 20th century Stalinist failures is pushed aside by new movements seeking to develop a socialism of the 21st century, Lenin Rediscovered allows us to see Lenin afresh, relearn the lessons of his epic struggles and creatively apply them.

Those who meet this challenge will be the exemplary Leninists of the 21st century.

[Abridged from

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