Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review



Chris Bambery looks at the ideas of the Russian revolutionary, Lenin, and argues that they are essential to the new generation of activists and socialists
Is this photo for real or surreal?
Red guards meet to defend their revolution

Karl Marx may have undergone a revival in popularity, with an affectionate biography high in the bestseller charts, but there is little likelihood of the same fate awaiting Lenin. In contrast, there is a seemingly endless output of books portraying Lenin as a psychopath who oversaw a putsch in October 1917 with the sole intention of creating an authoritarian one-party state over which he would preside. According to this portrayal, Lenin led seamlessly to the dictatorship of Stalin. This is not a parody of what passes for academic orthodoxy--it is virtually verbatim what is taught in our schools and universities.

Reinforcing this view is a whole generation of leftists, who in the course of the working class upsurge in the early 1970s had attempted to build political organisations along Leninist lines (though usually with a heavy Stalinist coloration). As the struggle fragmented and went down they consigned Lenin to the dust heap of history. Those who would still locate themselves on the left would argue that to model oneself on Lenin and the Bolsheviks was to strangle the liberating core of socialism. Further, they argued that the idea of insurrection and revolution was outmoded in late capitalism, along with the notion that the working class could be the agency of social change.

The Lenin who is being attacked here bears as much resemblance to the real, historic figure of Lenin as the waxwork dummy that is still on display in Moscow's Red Square. Here is not the place to recount the story of the Russian Revolution. But ask yourself the question--why would the most militant working class in the world, within which there was a powerful cocktail of revolutionary ideas, and which had already made two revolutions (in 1905 and in February 1917), allow a handful of people to seize power behind its back in October 1917?

Absolutely central to Lenin's whole adult life was Marx's anchor concept that the emancipation of the working class was the act of the working class. Lenin was shaped by the rich revolutionary tradition of Russia. His brother was executed for trying to assassinate the Tsar. But whereas his brother and the Narodnik tradition he belonged to looked to individual terrorism or creating peasant communes to achieve change, Lenin was won as a young man to Marxist ideas which found a powerful echo in Russian society at the close of the 19th century.

Lenin applied his extremely well developed knowledge of Marx's writings to identify the social forces capable of overthrowing the Tsarist regime. This led him to differentiate Marx from the founder of Russian Marxism, Plekhanov. Plekhanov studied Russia from the point of view of the development of the productive forces. He drew the mechanical conclusion that Russia was too backward to achieve socialism. A capitalist or bourgeois revolution, which would hoist the capitalist class to power, would have to take place first in order to then create the preconditions for socialism.

In contrast, Lenin argued that the Russian capitalists were too weak, and too dependent on the Tsarist state and foreign capital to ever lead a revolution. Instead Lenin looked to the Russian working class. Although only a small minority compared to the peasant population, the working class was the only class with the interests, the cohesion and the power to assume the task of revolutionary leadership. Lenin therefore devoted himself to establishing the political and organisational independence of the working class. In this he clashed with the rest of the left in Russia, who looked towards forging alliances with the bourgeoisie.

Who teaches the teacher?

This was no one-sided relationship. Of course Marxists have to win the working class to an awareness of its power and ability to run society, but Marxists have to learn from the working class whenever it asserts itself. So in 1905, when the working class spontaneously created soviets (committees of elected factory and neighbourhood delegates), Lenin and the Bolsheviks initially opposed them. Their model of revolution was still shaped by that of the greatest previous revolution in France in 1789. But the experience of struggle meant Lenin understood rapidly that he had to change his position and advocate the creation of soviets everywhere.

It was the centrality of the working class as the agency of social change that underlay Lenin's words and deeds in the course of the revolutionary year 1917. Until then the Bolsheviks had accepted one part of Plekhanov's argument-that a Russian revolution could not break the bounds of capitalism. That would have meant that like their Menshevik and Social Revolutionary rivals they would have subordinated the interests and organisation of the working class to the newly established bourgeois provisional government. The alternative was that the Bolsheviks could mobilise the proletariat and the peasantry against that government. From his first return to Russia Lenin argued-to the horror of the rest of the Bolshevik leadership--for the latter course. For Lenin the dynamic of working class struggle in the factories of Petrograd was more important than some abstract dogma. He went to the factory workers of Petrograd, the most militant section of the Russian working class and of the Bolshevik Party, to overturn the majority of the leadership.

Workers' power

While in hiding in the late summer and autumn of 1917, Lenin sketched out his vision of a workers' republic in State and Revolution. Far from this being a blueprint for a one-party state, this little book was denounced by many on the left as being anarchistic and too libertarian. It remains the best and clearest single statement of the classical Marxist theory of the state. All states, Lenin argued, following Marx and Engels, are coercive institutions--'special bodies of armed men'. The state monopolises the means of violence in society. Workers' power would create a situation for the first time in human history where the ruling class would be the majority of the population--the until now exploited working class. The new workers' state would be the creation of the self activity of the working class. It would be subordinated to the direct control of the working class, and would be an instrument for destroying every form of exploitation and oppression. The soviets would, Lenin rapidly grasped, be the perfect form through which the working class could exert power. But even this highly democratic state would exist only as a preliminary to the abolition of any specialised apparatus of coercion, the disappearance of the state and, indeed, of classes in the highest stage of communism.

The soviets were the instrument through which the Russian working class took power in October 1917. The Bolsheviks had to win the battle of ideas within the soviets, ensuring revolutionary politics triumphed over reformist politics. Lenin's focus on the centrality of the working class meant that the Russian working class dominated the rest of his life. Unfortunately, the following civil war, economic blockade, famine and the virtual disintegration of the Russian proletariat led to the absence of working class self activity. Bolshevism without the working class was like Hamlet without the prince. The agent of revolutionary change had vanished. The Bolsheviks were left holding power largely in the name of the working class. Lenin was the first Bolshevik leader to grasp the significance of this fact. Already by the winter of 1920-21 he was arguing that theirs was a workers' state with 'bureaucratic deformations'. He insisted that trade unions independent of the state were vital to train workers to hold power and to protect them from 'their' state.

In the final months of early 1923, before a stroke completely incapacitated him, he fought a battle against the growing bureaucratic machine led by Stalin, calling in his testament for Stalin's removal as general secretary of the party. For Lenin the only way to escape this situation was through revolution abroad. Revolution, in particular in the great industrial centres of the west, would have removed the isolation of the revolution that allowed bureaucracy and Stalinism to breed. But the rise of Stalinism meant that the Communist parties internationally were transformed from instruments of revolution to instruments of counter-revolution that acted in accordance with the dictats of Russian foreign policy.

Trotsky, who continued Lenin's fight, was hounded into exile, then assassinated. Lenin's thought, distorted and bowdlerised, became the official ideology of a state that denied its revolutionary essence. Despite the protests of his widow and his own express wishes, Lenin's body was mummified and placed on display, a sacred relic to sanctify the heirs of Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible.


Stalinism was the negation of Marx and Lenin's socialism, and now state capitalism triumphed over the defeat of the October Revolution. The revolutionary core of Lenin's thought is of crucial importance to socialists today. What is this core? To begin with, Marxism is in the final analysis a theory of revolutionary politics. Lenin wrote that 'politics is concentrated economics'. All the contradictions and antagonisms of capitalist society are fused and condensed in the apparatus of state power. The transformation of the capitalist mode of production to socialism centres on the destruction of the apparatus of state power. There can be no peaceful, gradual transition to a classless society. Socialism requires the political struggle against the capitalist state. Lenin's insistence on the decisive importance of state power is not just an interesting historical thesis. It has been fully confirmed in the most recent chapters of working class struggle--Portugal in 1974-75, Iran in 1978-79, Poland in 1980-81, the tumbling of the Berlin Wall and the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe ten years ago, Indonesia following the fall of Suharto, and today in Serbia. It is something we will have to fight for in the emerging anti-capitalist movement. At Seattle there was a live debate over whether the WTO can be reformed or if it has to be smashed, and that has continued since.

The 20th century saw repeated revolutionary situations where the working class began to create democratic institutions of self organisation along the lines of the Russian soviets. But there was also a battle of ideas, in which reformist ideas of one sort or another overcame the revolutionary instincts of the working class. The idea that you could compromise with the capitalist system overcame the idea that capitalism and its state must be destroyed. Failure to smash the capitalist state meant it was able to play for time, and then turn on the working class and exact its vengeance--in Germany in 1919 and again in 1933, Spain in 1936, Chile in 1973.

Lenin stressed the primacy of politics, by which he did not mean the activities of grey men in grey suits in parliamentary halls. Rather he stressed that socialism will not happen automatically, but has to be won in living struggle. This has crucial implications for our daily practice. For instance, it lies behind Lenin's famous insistence that a revolutionary is a 'tribune of the people'. This wasn't some vague formulation dissolving the working class into 'the people'. Lenin was attacking those Russian socialists who argued that workers should concern themselves with specific trade union, economic issues, leaving politics to the bourgeois liberals. These people Lenin dubbed 'the economists'.

Then, as today, a central feature of reformist theory and practice is that there should be a formal division between politics--social democratic parties contesting elections--and economics--issues of wages and conditions which are the concern of trade union bureaucrats. Lenin firmly rejected any such division. Because Marxism is concentrated economics, then economic struggles of the working class are important not so much in themselves, but as a means of developing the consciousness and organisation necessary to destroy the capitalist states. Because capitalism brings together workers but then seeks to divide them on racist and sexist lines then socialists, to create working class unity, have to fight such divisions.

The focus on the state by Lenin is important for another reason. Again and again the working class has been defeated not because it lacked strength, but because it lacked the centralised leadership and clarity of the ruling class. In the last instance capitalist power rests ultimately with the general staff of the armed forces and the elite troops they control. To take power we need our own general staff, its own centralised organisation and leadership.

The experience of working class struggle is that the working class spontaneously does wonders, but that spontaneity alone does not create revolutionary consciousness. Workers have a strong sense of conflict between themselves and their employer, and are ready to use the methods of economic class struggle, but this attitude does not involve a confident vision of an alternative society as the goal of their struggle. On that, revolutionary consciousness centres. Capitalism survives less through constant coercion than through the grudging consent it extracts from the working class. Workers' acceptance of existing society holds things together. Only when that collapses does the use of force on a large scale become necessary. Various mechanisms exist to get this consent: capitalist control of the media and the education system; crude economic pressure to keep your head down in order to make a living; improvements in working conditions which capitalism might be able to concede; the fragmentation of work which divides workers into different industries, firms and skills; the creation and manipulation of racism and sexism; and the incorporation of the working class movement itself into capitalist society through the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour Party.

A clash of old and new

The contradictions and crises of capitalism mean that it repeatedly creates explosions of class struggle. These provide the very basis for socialism. But even mass strikes like those in Russia in 1905, and in France in 1968 and again in 1995 do not automatically solve the problems workers must deal with in order to take power. Workers do not go through some evangelical transformation. They enter struggle with all the traditions, illusions, hopes and fears acquired during their existence under capitalism. Revolution is a clash between the old and the new. One must overcome the other. Unless revolutionary forces take the initiative, workers can relapse into apathy and despair. The ruling class can re-establish the initiative and take its revenge.

Only a revolutionary party can provide the centralised organisation and leadership without which the struggle will end in defeat. But what Lenin advocated was not the seizure of power by some revolutionary elite acting behind the backs of the workers. Lenin's model of the relationship between party and class is one of constant interaction. The revolutionary party is that section of the working class that possesses a Marxist understanding of society and is committed to working for the overthrow of capitalism. Its task is to act as a stimulus to workers' struggles, and to give them a coherence and direction which they would otherwise lack, to aim them at the apparatus of capitalist state power. However, only the working class can take power.

Lenin was ruthless in attacking German Communists who tried to take power in a minority putsch in March 1921. His view of revolution was well summed up by the Italian revolutionary Gramsci. It was 'the result of a dialectical process, in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organising and directing will of the centre converging'. The soviets provided the basis for workers' power. Revolutionaries had to win the majority in the soviets so that they would take state power. Through propaganda and agitation the Bolsheviks won the majority of workers who had initially looked to the reformists, onto the road to workers' power.

Workers' ideas are changed through their experience of struggle. A revolutionary party has to be involved in every one of the daily battles waged by the working class. In Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder Lenin is scathing in attacking so called revolutionaries who step back from such battles. For socialists today the test is not just our firmness of principle. It is our ability to maintain the closest contact with the working class, and our ability to shape and direct struggle. Contrary to much received wisdom, the Bolshevik Party was no monolith. During the revolutionary year of 1917 Lenin, on his return to Petrograd in April, was in a minority of the leadership in advocating the working class seizure of power. In October two of Lenin's closest collaborators, Zinoviev and Kamenev, not only opposed the insurrection but also leaked the plans to the press. Neither was shot or tortured--rather they were suspended from party membership for a short period before returning to play a key role in the party.

A question of democracy

Workers at the Putilov factory, Petrograd, walk out in support of the revolution
Workers at the Putilov factory, Petrograd, walk out in support of the revolution

Without democracy a revolutionary party will die. It needs debate and discussion to constantly check if what it is doing is correct or whether change is needed. But in Lenin's concept of the party, democracy is balanced by centralism. This is for three reasons:

  1. The working class is fragmented. There are always those who wish to fight, those who will scab and those in between. Even in the soviets those divisions will be apparent. Revolutionary organisation does not aspire to represent the working class as a whole. It bases itself on those workers who want to challenge capitalism, and seeks to organise those to win the majority of workers to the need to take power. Centralism is the struggle always to generalise from the specific struggle to the need to smash capitalism--to learn from previous struggles, and to incorporate the lessons in a strategy for the here and now.
  2. If the revolutionary party is a party of action, then debate must terminate sooner or later in a decision. Everyone should unite to implement and test that decision following democracy in debate.
  3. A degree of centralisation is forced on us by the nature of our enemy. Socialist organisation is forced to mirror the centralised structures of the capitalist state it is out to overthrow.

It is common today to attack Leninism precisely for this centralism. Socialist or radical organisation, it is often argued, should prefigure the liberated society of the future. The argument goes that if we mirror the capitalists we shall end up like them. This argument is attractive, but it is a recipe for abandoning any struggle against capitalism. This struggle must sooner or later confront the centralised apparatus of state violence. Unless capitalism is overthrown socialism will remain a utopia. Only the collective strength of the working class can match the power of the capitalist class. The working class can only triumph if it assumes a centralised form. A society without classes is prefigured in the organisations which the working class build to combat capitalism. Mass struggles throw up new, radically more democratic forms in the shape of soviets. Leninist strategy does not seek to substitute the revolutionary party for workers' self activity--merely to centralise that activity on confronting the state. As Trotsky put it:

Much of this analysis is concerned with revolution. But unfortunately we have to concern ourselves with more run of the mill struggles within the framework of capitalism. Revolutionary strategy has as its objective the overthrow of capitalism. To achieve this goal, however, a variety of tactics may be used-trade union work, the united front, electoral intervention and ultimately insurrecti-on. A revolutionary has to combine enormous tactical flexibility with complete clarity and firmness about the final goal. This requires us to make what Lenin described as 'the soul of Marxism'--making 'concrete analysis of concrete situations'. As the situation changes, so then must socialist tactics.

Lenin's greatness lay above all in his capacity to grasp changes in circumstances-to adjust the party's course accordingly, never forgetting the ultimate objective. Toda-y capitalism threatens the very existence of our planet. A new anti-capitalist movement is emerging. Increasingly workers are breaking with New Labour. Far from Leninism being redundant in the 21st century, it is vital to ensure that workers rise up and cleanse our world of this capitalist filth.

Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page