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History & Theory

Rediscovering Lenin

Lenin led a successful workers’ revolution, but are his ideas about organization still relevant today?

by Phil Gasper


Does it make any sense to identify oneself as a Leninist in the twenty-first century? One of the side effects of the continuing serious crisis of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain has been a renewed debate around this question. I don’t intend to go into the details of the turmoil in the SWP here—suffice it to say that after the serious mishandling of a rape accusation against a leading member and the Party leadership’s attempts to end discussion of the matter, some of its outside critics on the left have taken the opportunity to declare the Leninist model of party organization dead.

In turn, the SWP’s leading theoretician, Alex Callinicos, has mounted a defense of Leninism (implying along the way that the Party’s handling of the original case should not be questioned). The arguments are important because this journal and the SWP both emerged from the same political tradition. But it is possible to reject both the critics of Leninism and the interpretation of Leninism that Callinicos offers.

The left critics offer two main lines of argument. The first argument is that Leninism has always been undemocratic and elitist. The second argument is that it is implausible to think that the experience of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party that he led to power in the Russian Revolution of 1917 has any relevance for anti-capitalists today operating in completely different circumstances. I’ll turn to the first argument in a moment. The British Marxist Duncan Hallas (himself a leading member of the SWP until his death) responded to the second argument back in the 1970s:

If what is being said is that the Russia of 1917 and the Britain of today are so radically different that it is out of the question for the course of events in Britain to closely follow the pattern of the Russian events of sixty years ago then there is no dispute. We have no massive peasantry, no mass conscript army bled white by years of wholesale slaughter. The relative weight of the working class in British society is enormously greater and the bourgeoisie in this, the oldest of capitalist countries, vastly more substantial and experienced than its feeble Russian counterpart and so on and so forth. If, however, what is being suggested is that there is, after all, some non-revolutionary road to socialism then we have to part company.
Hallas puts his finger on the crucial issue. For those who accept that capitalism cannot be replaced without a revolution and that the working class must be central to any such change (two big assumptions, to be sure, but ones that I will make here), then the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks—who successfully led such a revolution—cannot be ignored. However, neither can it simply be used as a blueprint, not just because conditions have changed, but also because Bolshevik practice itself changed over time. So it is necessary to look in some detail at the historical record.

For most of the past century many mainstream historians and political theorists promoted a familiar caricature of Lenin and Leninism that was also unfortunately accepted by many on the left. According to the caricature, Lenin was an elitist who believed that Russian workers would not become socialists by themselves and needed to be led by a party of professional revolutionaries in which decisions would be made by a small group of leaders and intellectuals at the top. On this view, Lenin’s political ideas and practice led, after his death, to the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship, including prison camps, slave labor, and the mass extermination of political opponents.

The caricature was useful propaganda for the West during the Cold War, but bears little relationship to reality. In recent years, no one has done more to challenge it than the historian Lars Lih, who systematically dismantled the myths in his mammoth 2006 study, Lenin Rediscovered. Lih’s book focuses on misinterpretations of Lenin’s What is to be Done?, written in 1902. It marshals an immense amount of historical and textual evidence to show that no one was more enthusiastic about the capacities and revolutionary potential of the Russian working class than Lenin. He wanted a disciplined, professional, centralized revolutionary organization because this was the only way to combat infiltration by Tsarist police spies.

However, Lih is so eager to refute the caricature that he ends up portraying Lenin as little more than an orthodox follower of Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the German Social Democrats (SPD) and the socialist Second International. The reality is more complex. For many years, Lenin was a great admirer of Kautsky, whose theoretical works offered a defense of classical Marxism and the necessity of working-class revolution. But in practice, Kautsky came to accommodate himself to the increasingly reformist practice of the SPD, dominated by trade union bureaucrats and an almost exclusive focus on electoral politics. Lenin identified with Kautsky because he took him to be much more of a revolutionary than he really was.

In practice, Lenin was developing a very different conception of the party to Kautsky. Lenin did not break with Kautsky until 1914, when the SPD supported Germany’s entry into the First World War, but the differences between their approaches had started to become evident earlier. For example, in 1909, in a book entitled The Road to Power, Kautsky offered this conception of the party:

“The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it.”
Kautsky viewed revolution as a force of nature, something that was beyond the power of individuals or political parties to influence. If that was the case, there was no need for the SPD to do anything other than increase its representation in parliament and wait for the moment when inevitable historical processes would hand it political power.

For Lenin, by contrast, the whole point of a revolutionary party was to prepare the way for revolution. Historical forces might present the opportunity for revolutionary change, but without active organization and intervention, the ability to influence a mass movement during a period of intense crisis, and an understanding of when to advance and when to retreat, the moment would be lost. More than that, socialists would have to spend years patiently engaging in smaller struggles, both to learn how to lead as individuals and to build a party with the capacity to lead a successful revolution in the future.

Lenin’s goal was a party that brought together the most class conscious and militant sections of the working class well in advance of an actual revolutionary situation. During a period of social crisis, such an organization would be able to win the support of much larger numbers. As he put it in 1904:
… the stronger our Party organizations, consisting of real Social-Democrats, the less wavering and instability there is within the Party, the broader, more varied, richer, and more fruitful will be the Party’s influence on the elements of the working-class masses surrounding it and guided by it. The Party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused, after all, with the entire class.
This was the basis of the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks—two wings of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party—in 1903, and in practice it led to a very different model of socialist organization to the one defended by Kautsky. But when Lenin talked about “less wavering and instability … within the Party,” he did not mean that there should be monolithic agreement on all issues. On the contrary, as he argued in 1907, “There can be no mass party … without an open struggle between tendencies.”

To begin with, there was not much formal democracy within the Bolshevik faction. As the historian Marcel Liebman points out in his excellent survey Leninism Under Lenin, however, this was a consequence of the severe repression that existed in Russia before the 1905 revolution, so that the absence of internal elections “was characteristic of all Russia’s socialist organizations.” Liebman notes that “in their day-to-day actual political practice there was little to choose in this respect between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks: down to the Revolution of 1905 they both employed the same methods, in which co-option of leaders was the rule and election the exception.” But the revolutionary upsurge and the influx of workers into the Bolsheviks led to the “democratization of the party.” Lenin wrote in a short article in June 1906:

“The St. Petersburg worker Social-Democrats know that the whole Party organization is now built on a democratic basis. This means that all the Party members take part in the election of officials, committee members, and so forth, that all the Party members discuss and decide questions concerning the political campaigns of the proletariat, and that all the Party members determine the line of tactics of the Party organizations.”
It was at this time that Lenin first articulated the principle of democratic centralism, which he summed up as “freedom of discussion, unity of action.” Lenin argued for the need to “work tirelessly … to see to it that all the higher-standing bodies are elected, accountable and subject to recall.” He continued:

“If we have really and seriously decided to introduce democratic centralism in our Party, and if we have resolved to draw the masses of the workers into intelligent decision of Party questions, we must have these questions discussed in the press, at meetings, in circles and at group meetings.”
Speaking in the context of what would prove to be only a temporary reunification with the Mensheviks, Lenin added: “this ideological struggle must not split the organizations, must not hinder the unity of action of the proletariat.” However, “before the call for action is issued, there should be the broadest and freest discussion and appraisal of the resolution, of its arguments and its various propositions.”

The Party Congress was to be the highest decision making body, and Lenin emphasized that “under no circumstances shall we submit to decisions of the Central Committee (CC) which violate the decisions of the Congress.” But he also reserved the right to "fight ideologically against those decisions of the Congress which we regard as erroneous.” The previous year the Bolsheviks had explicitly guaranteed the right of a minority “to advocate its views and to carry on an ideological struggle, so long as the disputes and differences do not lead to disorganization.”

Within a few years, however, Lenin retreated from many of these organizational principles. With the final defeat of the revolutionary movement that had begun in 1905, a period of extreme reaction began in Russia from late 1907. It was a time of “disorganization and disintegration” for the left, with internal conflicts and divisions as the various groups shrank dramatically. Within the ranks of the Bolsheviks it was a time of bitter faction fights and expulsions, with Lenin increasingly attempting to impose a single “party line” on the membership. No doubt in such difficult circumstances some tightening of organizational practices was necessary in order to prevent the Bolsheviks from falling apart completely, but Liebman argues convincingly that Lenin swung much too far in this direction, calling this the period of “Leninist sectarianism.”

As circumstances changed, however, so did the Bolsheviks’ organizational practice. The final break with the Mensheviks came in 1912 during a period of renewed working-class militancy in Russia. Then came the war years, difficult at first, but finally leading—as Lenin believed they would—to a new revolutionary upsurge in February 1917 and the overthrow of the Tsar. In the process, the Bolshevik Party was transformed. Here is Liebman’s description:

Having been obliged by force of circumstance to organize in a not very democratic way, or even in a basically anti-democratic one, the Party opened itself in 1917 to the life-giving breeze of democracy. The rules of underground work, though they did not wholly vanish, became less important than the methods of public discussion. The monolithic character that Lenin had tried to give the Party during the last pre-war years disappeared completely, yielding place to a variety of tendencies that were in many ways mutually contradictory. The right of these tendencies to exist … now became a reality.
This pluralism, as is well known, extended all the way up to the Central Committee, where key issues were debated out, often in public. In April, Lenin declared that “it would be advisable openly to discuss our differences,” and Trotsky later reported in his History of the revolution, “Almost all the local organizations formed into majorities and minorities.” Members of the minority served on the Party’s executive bodies, were allowed ample space in its publications, spoke at length at its conferences, and generally issued a minority report at the end. Even when, on the eve of the October revolution, Kamenev and Zinoviev publicly disagreed with the seizure of power on behalf of the Soviets (workers’ councils in which the Bolsheviks now held a majority), putting the whole operation at risk, they remained on the Central Committee, despite the fact that Lenin personally wanted to expel them from the Party.

Sharp disagreements and debates remained the order of the day after the Bolsheviks had come to power and during the Civil War that soon followed. In these extreme conditions, with the revolution fighting for its life first against blockade and invasion, then against a counter-revolutionary White Army backed by the capitalist powers, it is hardly surprising that the Bolshevik government frequently felt compelled to institute repressive measures against its political opponents. But in the early years of the revolution, such steps were seen as temporary expedients and were frequently lifted.

In 1921, with the economy in shambles and the future of the new Soviet state uncertain, factions were banned in the Bolshevik Party (now the Communist Part of the Soviet Union) itself. The measure was explicitly intended to be temporary, but as the revolution degenerated over the next several years and as an entrenched state bureaucracy led by Stalin took power, the ban became permanent. As the revolution died, so did democratic centralism.

As late as 1922, however, robust democratic procedures were still in evidence in the Communist International—the network of revolutionary parties from around the world launched in the wake of the Russian Revolution. One quote, from the Fourth Congress in November of that year, will suffice to illustrate the way in which minority voices were treated in Comintern debates:

“Chair: The next speaker is Comrade Duret, who represents the tendency in the Communist Party of France that opposes the united-front tactic. He has asked us to allow him a longer speaking time in order to explain this point of view. The Presidium has no objection. Any objections? So this is decided. The Presidium grants the speaker forty-five minutes.”
Alas, as the revolution in Russia degenerated, so did the Comintern. Within a few years, under the leadership of Zinoviev (then in alliance with Stalin) it had become a tool of the Soviet bureaucracy. At its Fifth Congress in July 1924 it called for the “Bolshevization” of its member organizations and adopted “rules of conduct for building” Communist Parties. The fourth rule stated: “It must be a centralized party, permitting no factions, tendencies or groups; it must be fused in one mold.” The ban on factions that Lenin had explicitly seen as a temporary measure justified by emergency conditions in Russia, thus became a permanent feature of Communist Parties around the world. Soon they had become pawns of Stalin’s foreign policy that accepted without question whatever political line Moscow decided on.

So where does all this history leave us? It is obvious that there is not just one historical Leninism. In periods of retreat and repression, Lenin adopted practices quite different from those he endorsed at the high points of struggle. Some of those shifts were justifiable, some perhaps not, but those of us operating today in conditions of relative freedom compared to the despotism of the Tsarist state or the chaos of revolutionary Russia at the end of the civil war, should not look to these periods as models for our political practice today.

In some circumstances a revolutionary organization may need to be tightly centralized and secretive, with democracy reduced to a minimum. But in most of the advanced capitalist world, we are not in such circumstances today, and the democratic aspect of democratic centralism should thus be as extensive as possible. This is not just because democratic decision-making is good in itself, but also because it is a vital way in which any organization or party comes to a realistic understanding of the world around it and of the way forward. As Duncan Hallas put it:

"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."
It is here that I part company with Callinicos’s model of a party with a Central Committee that is either monolithic or keeps its disagreements private, that campaigns in the organization for its own perspective, but which faces no organized disagreement because factions are banned except in the months preceding an annual conference. The situation is even worse if a culture develops in which challenges to the leadership are regarded with suspicion or treated as a form of disloyalty.

The model of party organization that Callinicos defends was criticized many years ago by none other than Chris Harman, a member of the SWP’s Central Committee and one of it leading theorists until his death in 2009. Harman assessed the SWP’s experience in the late 1970s, and concluded that party leaders had accepted “the false premise that you can avoid the political pressures that develop in a period of difficulty for revolutionaries by restricting the number of comrades involved in the effective decision making of the organization.” According to Harman:

“We reached the stage where we feared that any discussion outside a very small group of comrades at the Centre would lead to unnecessary rows, to a factional atmosphere in the organisation, to more splits and more losses. Fear of ‘rocking the boat’ when times were difficult led us to down grade the importance of discussion over national perspectives, strategy and tactics.”
Harman pointed out that formal democracy was maintained “by the responsibility of the CC to an annual conference, and by the existence of a party council … whose ‘advice’ the CC was not likely to ignore,” but formal democracy was not enough. Over a period of time

“…the only discussion about the political priorities and the direction of the organisation came to be carried on within a very narrow group of CC members and full-timers. The attitude towards the rest of the organisation was almost ‘Don’t let the children find out we don’t always get on’.”
Another consequence of this form of organization is that leadership bodies—including the Central Committee—come to be dominated by party full-timers, insulated from the day-to-day experience of members in their workplaces and on campuses.

Harman believed that the problems could be overcome by setting up a strong National Committee, drawn from the ranks of the organization, to oversee the CC. But a National Committee can quite easily become a rubber stamp, and it is not in a position to challenge the Central Committee if it has no regular access to the information it would need to do so.

There would be a much more serious check on a centralized leadership body if the organizations members can group together to challenge decisions that they disagree with. Callinicos’s argument against this is that to allow such factions outside of a relatively short period each year is to allow permanent factions to develop that would seriously damage the organization’s ability to intervene effectively in the outside world.

But this argument presents us with a false choice—there is plenty of space between no factions and permanent factions. A faction might form to contest a particular issue, then disappear when the question is resolved. Comrades who find themselves on the opposite side of one dispute may find themselves on the same side on another. In any case, as Leon Trotsky warned in the early 1920s, banning factions carries its own dangers:

“If factions are not wanted, there must not be any permanent groupings; if permanent groupings are not wanted, temporary groupings must be avoided; finally, in order that there be no temporary groupings, there must be no differences of opinion, for wherever there are two opinions, people inevitably group together.”
The bottom line is that revolutionary organizations today need to draw on the most democratic elements of Lenin’s legacy, and where necessary to create new structures and processes of their own. Democratic centralism requires not just formal democracy before unity in action, but a culture of debate and discussion, where those in the minority can express their views fully. That is the real meaning of Leninism today.
Reprinted with permission from International Socialist Review 88, March-April 2013.