No mausoleum can contain Lenin's lessons

Friday, February 19, 2016

Unfinished Leninism
By Paul Le Blanc
Haymarket Books, 2014
237 pp., $23.00

This collection of 12 essays rests comfortably alongside Lars Lih's Lenin Rediscovered and Canadian socialist John Riddell's huge work in translating the proceedings of the first four congresses of the Comintern, the international organisation set up by the Bolsheviks in 1919.

These works are part of the renewed interest in the “real” Lenin — separate from the mausoleum that Stalinism built and pro-capitalist commentators' slander.

Not that US socialist historian Paul Le Blanc agrees with Lih on everything, but both form part of a critical evaluation. Le Blanc debates Lih and also takes issue with the doyens of what he calls “Lenin studies” — those intellectuals who declared “Leninism” dead in the 1990s.

Le Blanc emphasises Lenin's continuity with Marx — of which he was a passionate reader. But Lenin lived in a different era — one of mass trade unionism, huge socialist parties and creative revolutionary struggles.

As Lih has shown, Lenin was imbued with Second International Marxism – until its betrayal in 1914. Based on that, and his committed interaction with working class people, Lenin made his own theoretical contributions — and followed them up with revolutionary practice.

Le Blanc applies himself to sketching Lenin's main ideas and the contexts in which they were debated. This method can be illuminating, such as his concise treatment of the disagreements between Lenin and Polish-born revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.

Luxemburg is often raised as an alternative to Lenin by some in the socialist movement. Le Blanc shows that their differences were minor compared to their mutual respect and shared commitments.

He also defends Lenin's commitment to democracy and defends the Leninist tradition against those who use it to stifle dissent.

In fact, the book's title responds to an essay entitled Is Leninism Finished?, by British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader, Alex Callinicos. That essay justified expelling a large dissident group from that party.

For Callinicos, the SWP is the revolutionary party in Britain. Le Blanc argues that Leninism is not a finalised artefact and neither is any Leninist party.

Where the ideas on the socialist movement and its organisation drawn from Lenin, which go by the name of Leninism, are relevant is in the everyday struggles to improve the world and to organise a socialist force committed to achieving fundamental change. A Leninist party's structures and political approach can never be fixed and closed, they must always respond to changing realities.

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