How to learn from Lenin

Barnaby Raine examines the relevance of one of Lenin’s key works The State and Revolution. Originally published in the Autumn 2014 issue of the rs21 magazine. 

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Just months before stunning the world with its first socialist revolution on a national scale, a rebel leader returned from exile in Switzerland to the upheavals of Russia in 1917. It was at this key juncture that Lenin left Kamenev a note imploring him to publish the notebooks that formed The State and Revolution if Lenin was “bumped off”. This, Lenin recognised, was the key statement of his theoretical break with the mainstream of European socialism.

A sizeable body of critical literature has been dedicated to exploring the content of that break. Of equally fundamental importance, however, is the matter of how Lenin came to his dissenting position. That is a question of method, an area in which Lenin provides a valuable model at a time when the neoliberal remoulding of the state and class relations demands a considerable rethinking of left-wing politics.

Orthodox non-orthodoxy

Attacking the leading Second International Marxist Karl Kautsky, Lenin calls him both “doctrinaire” and a “philistine”. That hints at Lenin’s own relation to orthodoxy. As Lukacs argued, orthodoxy lies in fidelity to Marx’s method rather than to his historically contingent conclusions. Kautsky represents the antithesis of this position; while deviating from the focus on revolution vital to Marx’s method, he sticks firmly to Marx’s conclusions about state power though they are half a century out of date.

By contrast, Lenin was always an innovator while insisting on his orthodoxy. His first work of Marxist theory was concerned with applying western European Marxism to Russia’s peasant society, and he is perhaps best remembered for his pioneering theory of revolutionary organisation and strategy.

These adaptations of Marx are both evident in The State and Revolution when Lenin attacks doctrinaire Marxists for talking of “proletarian revolution” where a “people’s revolution” including other oppressed classes might be more politically relevant. His willingness to question a shibboleth is striking.

Most notable, however, is Lenin’s application of his theoretical work on imperialism. He sees it as empowering the state and so producing an increasingly important obstacle to socialist revolution, such that Engels’ optimism about the possibility of peaceful revolution, happily adopted by Kautsky, is no longer relevant.

This orthodox non-orthodoxy – refashioning the key tools of Marxism to face changed circumstances – is the most profound sense in which we should learn from Lenin. His lesson is that merely repeating old conclusions is insufficient; we should ask not: “what did Marx/Lenin/etc say?” but rather: “what might they say today?”
That is a harder question to answer, and the difficulty of answering it is all the more reason for valuing the openness of discussion Lenin celebrated whenever it was possible.

Lenin in 2014

The State and Revolution is rich with instructions for radicals. It offers a thoroughgoing critique of parliamentary democracy by suggesting representative organs are incurably weak in the face of the power of the wealthy. As such, it advocates what might be termed an orientation to revolution, whereby we never fall into the opportunism of placing revolutionary struggle on hold in return for reformist gains, since only revolution can beat the grim status quo.

The text is sharply critical of those who evade the question of power either by buying into state institutions or simply by ignoring them – an argument that applies to the Occupy movement and the Labour Party in equal measure. It demands the wielding of state power by the oppressed and its central message is that revolutions are not utopian dreams but the only practical way of establishing genuine freedom.

Most importantly of all, for Lenin socialism means self-transformation as ordinary people remake themselves as social beings by taking control of society. In contrast to the grey bureaucratic imaginary of the moderate left, that is as irreverent and inspiring as ever.

In an age of “free” markets in which the left is painted as championing equality as opposed to freedom, encountering Lenin entails becoming aware of an alternative language of emancipation. In his account, freedom requires equality and means first the popular exercise of sovereignty and eventually abolishing all institutional force as people manage their affairs without the state. Freedom belongs to the left, not the right.

The State and Revolution has weaknesses, not least its excessive optimism about the ease of extinguishing state power, and its author was far from perfect. Nonetheless, turning to Lenin is useful not least because he writes from an age when revolution seemed feasible, and today it does not. In an era where, as Frederic Jameson has put it, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, we could scarcely be more in need of rediscovering that vision.

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