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History & Theory

How Lenin developed his theory of the revolutionary party

by Mick Armstrong


In the early hours of the morning of 26 October 1917 the forces of the Military Revolutionary Committee stormed the Winter Palace – the old home of the Tsars – in Petrograd and arrested the members of the Provisional government. The following evening Lenin rose to a long, rolling ovation and announced to the second all Russian Congress of Soviets that “we shall now proceed to construct the socialist order”. He then read a proclamation offering an immediate peace to end the butchery of World War I.

The delegates were gripped with immense enthusiasm at the birth of the first workers’ republic in the history of humanity. In the words of American journalist John Reed: “by common impulse we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth unison of the Internationale.” Arise ye workers from your slumbers! Arise ye prisoners of want!

This moment was the dramatic fulfilment of almost 30 years of unrelenting revolutionary activity on Lenin’s part. As Leon Trotsky argued it is difficult to imagine that the Russian revolution would have been successful without Lenin.

If it is accurate to view Lenin as the mastermind of the revolution, it remains the case that the tremendous revolutionary upheaval was not made by a few individuals but by the combined efforts of millions of workers. But to be successful that mass of workers had to be organised into a coherent fighting force. Lenin’s greatest achievement was to mould just such a fighting force – the Bolshevik party.

Lenin is presented by the academic establishment as simply a pragmatist out for power, concerned above all with tactics not theory. As Edmund Wilson put it:

“The theoretical side of Lenin is, in a sense, not serious; it is the instinct for dealing with the reality of the definite political situation which attains in him the point of genius. He sees and he adopts his tactic with no regard for the theoretical positions of others or for his own theoretical position in the past; then he supports it with Marxist texts.”

This conventional bourgeois wisdom is totally at odds with the approach of the real Lenin. Lenin was a serious theoretician who had deeply studied the Marxist classics and put tremendous effort into his own detailed theoretical researches. His political approach flowed directly from his theoretical analysis.

Lenin’s whole project for building revolutionary organisation was based up until 1914 on his book, The development of capitalism in Russia, completed in 1899. Then after the capitulation of the Second Socialist International to imperialism with the outbreak of World War I, Lenin carried out concentrated studies of imperialism, philosophy and of the Marxist attitude to the state which laid the basis for his brochures, Socialism and War, The socialist revolution and the right of nations to self-determination, Imperialism the latest stage of capitalism, The state and revolution and his Notebooks on Hegel.

It was only on the basis of these theoretical studies that Lenin was able to re-orient the Bolshevik party to carry through the revolution. This theoretical work also laid the basis for the founding of the Communist International to challenge the betrayals of the reformist parties.

But how did Lenin develop his ideas on revolutionary organisation?

Lenin was typical of a generation of Russian revolutionaries. The son of a respectable Tsarist official he was won to Marxism in his early 20s after a period of intensive theoretical study while living in the rural backwater of Samara. Previous to this Lenin had been influenced by the predominant Narodnik populist tradition. The break from Narodnism did not come easy for Lenin as his older brother Alexander was a Narodnik, who was hanged in 1887 for plotting to assassinate the Tsar.

To clarify his ideas Lenin read everything he could get hold of by Marx and Engels. In 1888 at the age of 18 he read Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital. He then went on to translate The Communist Manifesto into Russian. Lenin was deeply versed in the works of Marx and Engels. Indeed Trotsky argued that Lenin was their most conscientious student.

As August Nimtz argued in a recent article this is a partial corrective to Lars Lih’s book, Lenin rediscovered: What Is To Be Done in context. Lars Lih’s book was a tremendous work of scholarship that has added greatly to our understanding of Lenin’s political approach. In meticulous detail Lars Lih tears apart the myths about Lenin being an authoritarian, Jacobin elitist grounded in the Russian Narodnik tradition. He demonstrates that Lenin was rooted in the Western European Marxist tradition and sought in the years before World War I to build a party very much along the lines of Western social democracy.

However as Nimtz points out, in highlighting the influence of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and above all its intellectual leader Karl Kautsky, on Lenin, Lars Lih inadvertently plays down the extent to which Lenin took his world view – in particular his emphasis on the need to struggle for political democracy – direct from the writings of Marx and Engels, rather than mediated through the writings of Kautsky.

For example in the years leading up to his writing of his famous pamphlet What Is To Be Done? (WITBD) in 1902 Lenin quoted Marx and Engels much more frequently than Kautsky. As a footnote both Marx and Engels had quite a low opinion of Kautsky. Marx described him as “a mediocrity, narrow in outlook…by nature a member of the philistine tribe.” Not that Lenin was to know this.

There is no disputing the fact, as Lars Lih rightly emphasises, that Lenin did look to the German SPD for inspiration for building a party in Russia. However Nimtz argues that Lenin was not as uncritical of the SPD before 1914 as is commonly made out. Lenin was well aware of the influence of Bernstein’s reformist wing of the SPD and was highly critical of the reactionary stance of the SPD on the colonial question at the 1907 Second International Congress. This in Nimtz’s opinion made it somewhat easier for Lenin to sharply break from the SPD in 1914.

But to back track. In order to decisively break with his populist heritage Lenin in the 1890s conducted a detailed analysis of the development of capitalism in Russia which was spelt out in his book of that name. This theoretical research provided the basis for the program of the Russian Marxist movement.

Lenin concluded that:
  1. Russia was well down the path of capitalist development and consequently the populist idea of building socialism on the basis of the village commune was utterly utopian.
  2. The Russian bourgeoisie and middle class liberals had come onto the stage of history too late and would not play the same revolutionary role in the struggle against feudal absolutism as the French bourgeoisie. They feared the emerging working class too much.
  3. Consequently the working class had to lead the struggle against Tsarism. The working class needed to maintain its independence from the liberals and instead form an alliance with the rural poor.
  4. However because of the backwardness of Russian capitalism compared to Western Europe, socialism was not on the immediate agenda. Workers had to lead a revolution that established political democracy which would lay the basis for further advances for the labour movement and open up the possibility of a future struggle for socialism.
  5. Marxists needed to build a party that would cohere and lead the working class in the struggle for these objectives.
Lenin commenced his revolutionary activities proper when he arrived in St Petersburg in August 1893 and joined a Marxist study circle of Technological Institute students. There was no socialist party at this stage. The Marxist movement consisted of loosely organised study circles, made up predominantly of students and intellectuals, which at best had tenuous links with other circles in the same city and with the exiled Marxists of the Emancipation of Labour Group in Switzerland.

There was no point impatiently berating these weaknesses. This was all that was possible given the existing state of the Marxist forces and the labour movement. But that was to begin to change with an upsurge of working class struggle in the course of the 1890s.

In this initial period Lenin established himself as a leading theoretician in the study circles and along with other student activists sought to establish circles that educated workers. But in response to a rising level of struggle and inspired by Kremer and Martov’s pamphlet, On Agitation, Lenin and other Marxists in the mid-1890s made a sharp turn towards agitation amongst workers.

Lenin now pointed to the importance of class struggle in changing the ideas of the mass of workers – they were not going to be won to socialism by the high level propaganda of the discussion circles. He also outlined the stages in the development of working class consciousness. The mass of workers would not be converted in one foul swoop.

This sharp turn away from basic propaganda work was a necessary and positive step but nevertheless it was to have its overheads. Following the arrest of many of the leading Marxists, including Lenin, a younger generation of intellectual activists came to the fore that had cut their teeth in agitational activity. This in turn laid the basis for the Economist trend. The Economists argued that the working class movement should concentrate on basic economic issues – trade union struggles against the bosses around fairly minimal demands; while leaving politics – the struggle against the tsarist regime – to the left wing intellectuals and their allies the bourgeois liberals.

The Economists moved in a reformist direction and forged links with the right wing Revisionist tendency headed by Bernstein in the German SPD. Lenin launched some of his sharpest polemics, including WITBD, against this Economist trend. The debate was essentially about the leading role of the working class in the coming revolution. But it was not the supposedly elitist and authoritarian Lenin who wanted to downplay the leading role of the working class and leave politics to the middle class intelligentsia but his opponents, the Economists.

The problem for Lenin in dealing with the Economists was that they, like all sorts of opportunists today, were not prepared to argue openly and clearly for their real political positions. They covered them up with an emphasis on narrow practical activity. The Economists were eclectic and scornful of theory. Anybody who wanted to argue with them on theoretical questions was condemned as dogmatic, sectarian and so on. Little changes in politics!

To the extent that they did resort to theoretical argument it was to cloud the issues and give themselves a left cover. This is a classic pattern for opportunists and reformists of all shades.

Part of Lenin’s central argument in WITBD against the Economists had to be on the importance of theory and theoretical struggle. Thus his attacks on the Economists for their worshipping of the existing state of the working class movement and their bowing down before backwardness. If the socialist movement was to build itself on a sound foundation, it first had to be clear on its ideas. Thus Lenin’s famous statement: “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”

Furthermore, if the socialist movement was to confine itself merely to narrow practical activity – the day to day struggle for reforms – it would inevitably go astray. Its vision would be too narrow. It would tend to accommodate to opportunism.

From this central emphasis on ideas and politics Lenin began to establish the conception of the revolutionary party as the advanced minority of the class that fights to win the majority to its ideas. It was to be the tribune of the people. Working class communists Lenin stressed were not just to fight the good fight in their workplaces around economic issues but to take up political questions – to fight every form of oppression. The Marxist ideal he wrote:

“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; who is able to generalise all these manifestations…and clarify for all and everyone the world historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

While Lenin in no sense derided the importance of the mass movement, he insisted that the role of Marxists was not to worship the existing struggle. Instead in one of the key insights of WITBD he argued:

“That the mass movement is a most important phenomenon is a fact not to be disputed. But the crux of the matter is how is one to understand the statement that the mass working class movement will determine the tasks? Either it means reducing the role of Social Democracy to mere subservience to the working class movement as such [the Economists’ position] or it means that the mass movement places before us new theoretical, political and organisational tasks, far more complicated than those that might have satisfied us in the period before the rise of the mass movement.”

In other words the key task of revolutionary leadership is to generalise the lessons of the mass struggle and offer a concrete road forward for the working class. The job of Marxists is not to offer ready made solutions and schemes in advance but to apply their theory to the challenges of the world around them.

One of the strengths of WITBD is that it breaks with the economic fatalist trend in the socialist movement that saw socialist consciousness developing inevitably out of the economic antagonism between capitalists and workers. Far from being the elitist document it is commonly presented as, WITBD is a profoundly liberating one as it puts a central emphasis on the conscious self-activity of the mass of workers.

It also important to stress that WITBD is very much a political document – a polemical argument against Economism – not some organisational blueprint. Indeed Lenin’s organisational proposals – above all a national revolutionary paper – very much flow from his theoretical analysis. This is the essence of Lenin’s whole approach to building a revolutionary party.

Lenin’s attack on the Economists for their organisational looseness – they opposed a centralised party in favour of loose, decentralised, local groups operating on an autonomous basis – was linked directly to their politics. If you stand for loose, fuzzy, inconsistent ideas then logically you want a loose, fuzzy, undisciplined organisation. Alternatively clear, consistent politics demands a coherent, democratic, disciplined organisation to implement them.

Lenin’s ideas of the party did not arrive fully formed. They arose out of the specific challenges facing the Marxist movement in Russia. Thus he concedes in WITBD that in the initial stages of the movement a certain primitiveness in organisation was inevitable and even legitimate. But with the rising level of struggle from the mid-1890s and the increasing repression by the Tsarist state, this primitive organisation became a serious obstacle.

It is precisely because Lenin saw the revolution rapidly approaching that he so insistently demanded a coherent organisation. Otherwise the opportunity will be missed. Thus in no sense does he downplay the importance of the mass movement. It is precisely because he recognises the strength of the movement from below that he declares: “Give us an organisation of revolutionaries and we will overturn Russia.” With the outbreak of the 1905 revolution Lenin took this analysis further arguing for the opening up of the party to recruit tens of thousands of workers.

But the 1905 revolution was defeated and there followed a period of black reaction. From a mass party with an overwhelmingly working class membership the Bolsheviks were reduced to a mere sect. These years of reaction were an important test for the Bolsheviks. To survive as a healthy revolutionary current Lenin had to wage a series of polemical battles. On his left he had to break with those formerly leading Bolsheviks who had moved in an ultraleft sectarian direction that would have destroyed the organisation.

On his right Lenin had to battle against the increasingly reformist Mensheviks who want to liquidate the illegal underground organisation and against conciliators in the ranks of the Bolsheviks. One of the key lessons Lenin learned from this period was the need to carry the struggle against opportunism through to its organisational conclusion. It was not sufficient to simply argue against the ideas of reformist and opportunist currents but remain in the same party with them. There had to be a clear and decisive break both politically and organisationally.

In 1912 the Bolsheviks formed their own party separate from the Mensheviks. By 1913 the Bolsheviks were the first mass working class party in the world which was purely revolutionary. Without the clear break with the Mensheviks and the ultralefts the Bolsheviks would not have been able to build a party that could lead the Russian working class to victory in October 1917.

However, prior to the outbreak of World War One, Lenin had not generalised his break with reformism outside of Russia itself. He remained committed to the increasingly reformist Second International. It is only with the betrayal of the Second International on the outbreak of war that Lenin generalised his approach.

After August 1914 Lenin carried out a thorough re-appraisal of Marxism. He made a serious study of Hegel, imperialism and the Marxist attitude to the state. On the basis of his re-thinking he came to clearly see that the reformists were in fact the agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement.

And with his new understanding of Russia as but one battle ground in a world imperialist system, Lenin recast his whole program for the Russian revolution. Lenin recognised that capitalism had matured as a world system, indeed over matured. It was rotten ripe for socialism. The brutal savagery unleashed by imperialism on the battlefields of Europe revealed that the choice was increasingly between socialism or barbarism.

So while backward Russia left to its own resources was not yet ready for socialism, in alliance with victorious revolutions in Western Europe it would be possible to establish socialism in Russia. Moreover the working class in Russia – one of the weak links in the capitalist chain – could lead the way by overthrowing the Tsar and taking power themselves and inspiring workers in the advanced capitalist countries to make their own revolution.

On his return to Russia in April 1917 Lenin fought his most important political struggle to re-arm the Bolshevik party around this new program. His success in that battle laid the basis for the triumph in October.

Reprinted with permission by Socialist Alternative (Australia).