Joseph Hansen

What American Labor Can
Learn from Lenin

(24 January 1949)

Source: The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 4, 24 January 1949, p. 2.
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V.I. Lenin dedicated his life to the struggle of the working class to free itself from the poverty, hunger, bloodshed and oppression of the capitalist system. One aim guided him in all his activities – to establish the socialist system of enduring peace, abundance and boundless progress. This singleness of purpose, combined with mastery of the siibttiifie method of Marxism, vast learning, keen intuition, creative imagination, extraordinary energy and an iron will, made Lenin one of the greatest revolutionary figures mankind has yet produced.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels worked out the basic scientific analysis of world capitalism, demonstrated in theory the inevitability of socialism and helped organize the first international associations of the working class devoted to fighting for this goal. The fundamental views of Marx and Engels are still valid.

Lenin considered himself a disciple of Marx and Engels. Throughout his political life he waged war without quarter on the adulterators, detractors and avowed opponents of orthodox Marxism, That does not signify that Lenin kowtowed to dead dogmas, as his slanderers maintain Marxism is a living, growing body of thought like any other genuine science. Lenin made precious contributions to Marxism in assessing new important developments in the evolution of capitalism and the revolutionary struggle for socialism.

Above all, he gave a practical demonstration to the working class of the entire world on how to apply Marxist theory in building a revolutionary party, leading insurgent masses to victory over the capitalist class and constructing a Workers and Farmers Government.

Lenin’s Method

Lenin’s essay, The Teachings of Karl Marx, written for the Russian Encyclopedia published by Granat, provides us with an instructive example of his method. He takes up first of all the most fundamental issue, Philosophic Materialism, the realistic view of the universe that sees mind as a derivative of matter. He then discusses Dialectics, the most profound formulation of the principle of change and evolution yet worked out. Next he considers the application of dialectical materialism to history; then the class struggle, Marx’s economic doctrine and the inevitability of socialism. Only after laying down these basic premises does he turn to the final crucial problem, Tactics of the Class Struggle of the Proletariat.

This approach is the essence of Leninism. It was precisely in the field of the tactics of the class struggle, that is, the problems associated with the building of a revolutionary party of the workers, that he made some, of his greatest contributions. Yet he understood better than anyohe else in his time that a party of action can be constructed only on the foundation of absolute clarity of theory and agreement on fundamental program.

If the membership of the party are agreed on basic questions then they can achieve full striking rower on the field of action. If differences are unresolved, however, then at the crucial moment they can arise as major obstacles to effective action. Even worse, lack of theoretical clarity can disorient the party and lead it into fatal errors.

Program Comes First

It works precisely because he understood so thoroughly the importance of a homogeneous party in the class struggle that Lenin was so insistent on putting theory and the broad general questions facing the working class first. That is why Lenin was regarded by those who did not grasp his underlying purpose as a “hairsplitter”; and why, since his conception was a new one and radically opposed to the prevailing view, the history of the Bolshevik party is. so full of factional struggles. To gloss over basic differences and reach rotten compromises at the expense of program, in Lenin’s view – and he proved correct – could only lodge fatal flaws in the party as the revolutionary, instrument of the working class.

Lenin’s life work thus consisted of building a highly disciplined party of self-sacrificing, skilled working class politicians around a program that could lead to the victory of the socialist revolution in Czarist Russia. Lenin, of course, regarded this victory as but one link in the general chain of revolutions required to establish world-wide socialism.

All of Lenin’s theoretical contributions thus had a highly utilitarian aim – to forge and temper a revolutionary socialist party.

The most obvious example of this is Lenin’s concept of democratic centralism. Under democratic centralism the advantages of full democracy in the elaboration of program and selection of leadership and the education of the membership is combined with centralized command in action. This principle of organization gave the Bolshevik party its unique strength and assured its victory when the opportunity came.

Answers The Doubters

The same utilitarian aim motivated Lenin’s contributions in fields that on the surface appear quite remote from the strictly organizational. A striking example is his book on philosophy, Materialism and Empirio Criticism. This was written in the difficult period following the defeat of' the 1905 revolution when demoralization and passivity swept the ranks of the Bolshevik party.

The pressure of triumphant Czarist reaction became visible in the revolutionary ranks as a questioning and doubting of the long-established basic tenets of Marxism. Many turned toward reactionary idealist philosophy and even religion. Such unhealthy moods, generated in the middle class when the labor movement suffers a setback, are echoed in the revolutionary movement predominantly by the intellectuals artd those susceptible to the influence of the trade union bureaucracy.

Lenin’s book was designed to counter this pessimism and skepticism and to demonstrate afresh the validity of dialectical materialism, in that way repairing the breach in the party’s ideological front arid rearming the membership for struggle in this vital field. It remains to this day a model polemic in the continual struggle of the proletarian vanguard against the insidious encroachment of petty bourgeois thought.


The organic connection between means and end, theory and practice, is similarly visible in the development of the Bolshevik political program. Lenin, for example, foresaw national revolutions for decades to come. In accordance with this view, the Bolsheviks insisted on the. democratic right of national minorities to self-determination – the right to secede even from a workers state if they so desire and set up whatever form of government they wish.

At the same time, to build a party to make this end possible, the Bolsheviks opposed any national distinctions whatsoever among the party members. The party, they pointed out, represented the international interests of the working class which transcend all national differences.

The right to self-determination appealed powerfully to the numerous oppressed nationalities in Czarist Russia and became one of the keys to the Bolshevik success.

Lenin’s view on this question was in opposition to the prevailing opinion and practice among the Social Democrats particularly in Austria-Hungary, which was a prison-house of nations like Czarist Russia. In sharp polemics, Lenin demonstrated how the oppression of national and racial minorities and colonial peoples becomes unbearably acute in the imperialist stage of capitalism. And he showed why a revolutionary socialist party in advancing the cause of socialism must give full support to the struggles of the oppressed minorities and colonial peoples for freedom and independence.

Attitude Toward Peasantry

As with the problem of nationalities, so with the peasantry, Lenin’s attitude was determined by his aim of building a revolutionary party capable of liberating Russia from the yoke of the capitalists arid landlords. In a land where a backward peasantry constituted the overwhelming bulk of the population, the revolutionary party could break its neck or achieve a stupendous victory depending on how successfully it tied together the industrial workers and the poor farmers.

Lenin made a profound analysis of the economic and class relations in Czarist Russia and reached the conclusion that even though the coming revolution would be a capitalist one, still it could only be led by the working class in alliance with the peasantry. This meant fighting for the right of the poor farmers to divide up the big estates.

The older generation of Marxists opposed this view, holding that the liberal capitalists could play a progressive role. But Lenin’s view won out in the Bolshevik party and when the hour struck the mighty power of Russia’s landless masses lifted the small working class with the Bolsheviks at their head into state power.

Opposed Imperialist War

The First World War provided an acid test for the world socialist movement. The old loosely knit parties in Western Europe, where the Social Democratic leadership had lost. sight, of the importance of adhering to basic program, succumbed to the war fever and came out in support of the capitalist governments in the various warring countries.

Lenin, however, remained in opposition. He understood that an imperialist war tends to develop into a civil war and that to stand on the side of the imperialists and their government means supporting the class enemy at a most critical moment.

Throughout the war years he worked persistently to prepare the ground for a new international party of the working class to take up the cause betrayed by the Social Democratic leadership of the Second International. The Bolshevik party’s record of unyielding opposition to imperialist war was another proof to the Russian workers that this party would not betray at a crucial moment but would remain true to its program ih the face of the fiercest persecution.

Thus Lenin’s opposition to the imperialist slaughter was not simply a moral revulsion to mass murder; his opposition also had the practical aim of constructing a party capable of rooting out the basic cause of imperialist war. That is why Lenin’s type of opposition to the wars of the capitalist system is so important as an example to the working class to this day. He demonstrated in theory and showed in practice the only effective way of ending imperialist slaughter and assuring enduring peace.

During the war Lenin wrote two important pamphlets which every worker should study: Imperialism and State and Revolution. The one is an analysis of the development of the capitalist system since the days of Marx and Engels. The other is a presentation and commentary on the Marxist view of the real role of the government. They were designed to help prepare the Bolshevik party for the great tasks ahead; but State and Revolution remained unfinished, for the October 1917 revolution intervened.

Leads Revolution

The facts about Lenin’s colossal role in this revolution can be read in Leon Trotsky’s authoritative work, The History of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky raises the question whether even the Bolshevik party could have successfully led the working class to power without Lenin. Of course, we can say that without Lenin there would still have been Trotsky, but he lacked authority in the Bolshevik party for it was not until the days of the revolution itself that he came fully to understand’ the importance of a revolutionary party inured to iron discipline in action.

Lenin was able to correct big mistakes made by the party, to correct even mistakes of his own which Trosky had pointed out long before (such as the view that the revolution while beginning as capitalist in character could not remain capitalist but only terminate in the Socialist Revolution) and to make these corrections in time. We must add that the very possibility of making thesd corrections was due to Lenin; first, because without him there would have been no Bolshevik party to correct and, secondly, because to the highest possible degree Lenin had designed the party as a self-correcting organism.

An Embattled Fortress

As the head of the Soviet government, Lenin became known to the entire world. It was now that his full stature as a genuine statesman of the working class became apparent. He viewed the Soviet Union as an embattled fortress. His aim now was to utilize this great conquest to the maximum in advancing the interests of the international working class as a whole. This required effective defense of the first workers state against its internal enemies and the surrounding capitalist foe and it required using the Soviet Union to directly help the workers in other lands achieve their socialist revolution as another step toward uniting the entire world under the planned economy of socialism.

The military defense of the USSR was placed in the able hands of Leon Trotsky while Lenin concentrated on building and cementing the structure of the Soviet Government. At the sariie time he founded the Third International as a new world organization of the working class embodying his basic revolutionary programmatic and organizational concepts.

The hopes of the Bolsheviks that the workers in industrially advanced countries would soon be able to lift the siege on their beleaguered fortress were not realized. As a result bureaucratic degeneration began to set in.

Lenin was keenly alive to this danger. It could destroy not only the Bolshevik party but undermine the workers state and the Third International and endanger the socialist cause in other lands.

In 1922 and 1925 as the danger mounted under the insidious leadership of Stalin, Lenin prepared to wage an all-out fight together with Leon Trotsky in defense of the democratic control of the Soviet Government by the working class. However, with his sudden death on January 21, 1924, the hand of this great revolutionary leader fell from the helm. The full burden of the struggle against Stalinism fell on Trotsky’s shoulders.

As Trotsky observed, geniuses like Marx and Lenin appear only once in a century. Their contributions make it possible for the working class to shorten the long difficult road towards the socialist society of the future. Our task is not to wait for the appearance of new leaders cast in the full mold of their genius, but to study their writings and their actions; to try to assimilate their thought and their methods and above all to go forward to the best of our ability with the tools they prepared for our use.


Last updated on: 29 February 2024