Jonas Liston reviews an essential collection of essays on Lenin and Leninism today
(photo of Paul Le Blanc by Alex Bainbridge)
The difficult experiences of the revolutionary left recently have led many to question core aspects of Marxist politics – in particular the legacy of the Russian revolutionary Lenin and the organisation he played a key role in, the Bolsheviks.
Paul Le Blanc’s new book Unfinished Leninism is a great contribution to this debate. It offers strategic guidelines for revolutionary Marxists today, discussing topics such as Lenin’s personality, his relationship to Rosa Luxemburg and democracy in the Bolshevik party. Le Blanc also engages with issues raised by a range of radical thinkers and scholars, including Lars Lih, Luke Cooper and Charles Post.
I first took an interest in Lenin as a college student studying A-level history. Upon receiving my £30-a-week Educational Maintenance Allowance (since abolished by Cameron’s government), I typed his name into Amazon and bought the first book that came up: Robert Service’s biography.
This was a dreadful, one-sided and right-wing account of Lenin’s life – but I must admit I quite enjoyed it. I warmed to Service’s portrayal of Lenin as a hard-edged, takes-no-crap professional revolutionist who did what needed to be done without any remorse.
Four years later I joined the British SWP, where a lot of my misconceptions about Lenin and Leninism were picked apart through reading and debate, though certainly not all of them. One notion that persisted until recently was that of Lenin as a single-minded genius who allowed himself no human attachment or enjoyment for fear of becoming soft on his opponents.
The story of Lenin proclaiming that he could not listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata because it made him want to “stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears” is often cited as evidence for this picture of a heartless and uncultured revolutionary. But as Le Blanc brilliantly documents, despite the accuracy of this one anecdote, the picture it paints of Lenin could not be further from the truth.
Le Blanc’s commentary on Lenin and Luxemburg provides one of the best summaries of their comradely but polemical encounters. He documents their personal relationship and the issues they argued over from the national question and imperialism through to socialism, democracy and revolutionary organisation.
August Thalheimer spoke of the need to approach this question as “not Luxemburg or Lenin – but Luxemburg and Lenin”, and that is the approach Le Blanc takes here. Many of their arguments stemmed from accuracy when describing their own situation, but inaccuracy when talking about the other’s. To quote Thalheimer again: “What unites them is that they used the very same principle on different levels, situations and spheres of the great totality of the world revolution.”
Three conditions for a revolutionary party
Le Blanc devotes much of his book to a discussion on three conditions for the development of a revolutionary workers’ party:
First is the revolutionary class consciousness of a vanguard layer of the working class today. Second is a correct political strategy and tactics on the part of organised revolutionaries. Third is an intimate and sustained contact “with the broadest masses of working people”.
The first aspect involves the development of what you could call militant worker-intellectuals. Specifically, Le Blanc is talking about militant proletarians rooted in struggle, whether they be workplace battles, community campaigns, struggles against oppression or wider social movements. These militants generate an understanding of the world in order to advance and win the struggles they are a part of.
The second aspect concerns how those militants are organised. Le Blanc argues that this requires a severely revolutionary democratic culture that can address key political tasks while also allowing all shades of opinion to express themselves. The revolutionary organisation needs to develop a critically minded orientation, one that can challenge reformist and outright reactionary forces that channel working class resistance down less fruitful paths, while also being able to correct their own organisation’s mistaken directions.
But the biggest weakness facing the revolutionary left today involves the third aspect Le Blanc describes. He talks about the radical-labour subcultures of the past: traditions that produced masses of organisation, infrastructure, art, music, literature and other cultural forms, that reflected the experiences and struggles of working class people.
These subcultures have been gradually eroded over the last 30 years by the rise of neoliberalism as a form of capitalist organisation. These cultures, and their associated infrastructures and organisations, have to be rebuilt if the first two pillars that Le Blanc lays out are going to be developed.
Le Blanc repeatedly references these three themes throughout Unfinished Leninism. They form a straight-to-the-point assessment of where we are at, as Marxists and as a wider working-class movement, and where we need to be.
A broken time, full of knots
The title of Le Blanc’s book, however, raises issues I am more ambivalent about. I absolutely agree that the legacy and lessons of Lenin and the Bolsheviks are “unfinished”, and that they should serve as a guide to activists and militants today. But can those theoretical developments, strategic analyses and overall political qualities be characterised simply as “Leninism”?
This tension can also be witnessed in Le Blanc’s writing. At one point he’ll lay out a definition of Leninism as a “combined theoretical, analytical, strategic, tactical and organisational approach consistent with the life and thought and political practice” of Lenin. Yet elsewhere he suggests the term Leninism is little more than shorthand used simply “for the sake of brevity”. I haven’t made my mind up on the usefulness of this term, and I don’t think it the most important element of these debates. But there are two reasons why I’m sceptical about “Leninism” that I’d like to put out there.
The first is history of the term. “Leninism” was promoted by Gregory Zinoviev as part of the Bolshevization campaign started after Lenin’s death and aimed to “ensure that no foreign party would oppose the policies of the Troika” of Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, as Joel Geier recently put it.
But even before then it was used as a factional slander against Lenin in several internal struggles within the Russian and international socialist movements, as both Leon Trotsky and Nadezhda Krupskaya make clear in their memoirs. None of this suggest the term “Leninism” is a good way to categorise a democratic and liberatory Marxist theory and practice.
The second reason concerns the question brought up by Ian Birchall in his recent article for rs21 magazine: “Is there a coherent body of thought that can be defined as Leninist?” Between 1914 and 1917, Lenin went through a prolonged process of breaking with the Second International Marxism that had shaped him. As Michael Löwy wrote in 1976:
The critical reading, the materialist reading of Hegel had freed Lenin from the straightjacket of the pseudo-orthodox Marxism of the Second International, from the theoretical limitation it imposed on his thinking…
Freed from the obstacle represented by pre-dialectical Marxism, Lenin could, under the pressure of events… [apply] himself to studying the problem from a practical, concrete and realistic angle: what are the measures constituting in fact the transition towards socialism, that could be made acceptable to the majority of the people, that is, the masses of workers and peasants?
This process of revisiting the philosophical basis of Marxist politics resulted in Lenin’s April Theses of 1917, which argues for bringing “social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies”.
Daniel Bensaïd puts it beautifully when he describes Lenin’s break away from economic determinism and towards a Marxism that acknowledged politics, not as a “homogeneous and empty time of classical mechanics”, but as “a broken time, full of knots and wombs pregnant with events”.
This transformation didn’t take place solely in the mind of Lenin. It was part and parcel of changes across the Bolshevik party and the international revolutionary left. This can be seen in Lenin’s greater engagement with the ideas of revolutionaries such as Nikolai Bukharin and Anton Pannekoek on questions such as the state and imperialism.
As Marian Sawer wrote in 1977, Lenin became convinced by Bukharin’s expositions about the state and repudiated “all his previous views” on that question, while also developing Bukharin’s perspective to identify the soviets as “the new form of state which the proletariat would produce”.
I find it difficult to fit this rapidly evolving nature into a category called “Leninism”. But while from one angle I might question the use of the term, from another I completely agree with Le Blanc when he takes issue with Charlie Post’s claim that “there is little of Lenin’s theory with the exception of State and Revolution and Left-Wing Communism that is either original or of enduring value”.
It is clear to me that there is a need to translate the experiences of Lenin and the Bolsheviks into our struggles and debates today. Not in a manner that sets up an obstacle to new analyses and theoretical developments, but in a way that enriches and widens the remit of how we think about different political questions. At the heart of this is a method of “concrete analysis of the situation” – drawing the necessary practical and strategic conclusions from what is going on in order to advance working class and socialist interests.
Towards an unruly revolutionary democratic culture
In his memoir An Impatient Life, completed shortly before his death, Bensaïd writes:
Revolts against globalised injustice are multiplying. But the spiral of retreats and defeats has not been broken. Number and mass are not enough, without will and consciousness…
A resistance without victories and perspectives of counter-attack ends up being worn out. There is no victory without strategy, and no strategy without a balance of forces… Today’s political landscape is devastated by battles lost without even being fought.
The British working class has suffered serious setbacks and hasn’t recovered from them in the last 40 years. Reformist socialism has moved rapidly rightwards, while the revolutionary left has fragmented in the face of deep political problems.
If we are to rebuild a socialist movement in this country, we have to take seriously the factors Le Blanc discusses in his book. We have to build the struggles we are already immersed in, while also building socialist politics within them. Debates among revolutionaries today about the challenges our struggles throw up will shape the lines that define our movement – and shape any future rebirth of the revolutionary left.
Crucially, the revolutionary left in this country has to develop what Joel Geier calls “the deeply unruly revolutionary communist culture of an activist, anti-elitist democracy from below”. Duncan Hallas made a similar point almost half a century ago:
Only a collective can develop a systematic alternative worldview, can overcome to some degree the alienation of manual and mental work that imposes on everyone, on workers and intellectuals alike, a partial and fragmented view of reality. What Rosa Luxemburg called “the fusion of science and the workers” is unthinkable outside a revolutionary party.
Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.
Most importantly revolutionaries need to be rooted in movements as a significant militant minority that can advance resistance – from strikes and campaigns in the here-and-now to the ultimate aim of a mass revolutionary transformation of society.
Paul Le Blanc’s contribution to these debates is blunt, refreshing and strategically very useful. He takes the experience of Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the Russian revolution seriously, in all its various aspects: theory, creativity, militancy, success and failure. And if we see our current situation as a depressing one, we should remember what Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote: “It is from Lenin’s stance of hope in a situation which to the ordinary eye would be one of hopelessness that we have to learn.”
• Jonas Liston is a revolutionary socialist based in north London. A longer version of this review first appeared on his website headfixing.wordpress.com