Ernest Mandel

Lenin’s Heritage

(April 1970)

From Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, No.95, April 1992, pp.28-29.
Originally appeared in Intercontinental Press, April 20, 1970.
Transcribed by Joseph Auciello.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The following article was written for the centenary of Lenin’s birth.

Lenin’s life work is a totality in which theory and practice cannot be separated from each other. Lenin himself stated: without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary practice. No serious person today could deny the historic significance of the socialist October revolution or the creation of the Soviet state: these events have indelibly marked the history of our century – and of the century to come.

But the theoretical insight which made these great events possible is as important, if not more important, from the long-term point of view than these events themselves. For that insight will in the long run make possible a worldwide extension of the October revolution, an endeavor which temporarily failed during the lifetime of Lenin and Trotsky themselves. Seven main pillars constitute the body of Leninism, an extension of Marxism in the imperialist epoch. These seven main parts of Leninism hold true today as they did forty-six years ago when Lenin died – nay, their full significance is only coming to be understood today, to larger and larger masses of workers and poor peasants, revolutionary intellectuals and students, in several important parts of the world.

1. Imperialism: Last Stage of Capitalism

The theory of imperialism as the supreme phase of capitalism in which free competition leads to the creation of great monopolies (trusts, holdings, cartels, combines; we would add today: multinational corporations), that is to say, the domination of a tiny handful of finance groups over the economy and society of the imperialist countries and their colonial and semi-colonial satellites.

Imperialism doesn’t mean necessarily the end of economic growth, a final stop to the growth of productive forces. But it means that capitalism has fulfilled its historically progressive task of the creation of the world market and of the introduction of an international division of labor, and that an epoch of structural crisis of the capitalist world economy is opened.

This structural crisis, while coinciding sometimes with deep conjunctural crises of overproduction (as it did in 1929-33 and during the subsequent so-called “recessions”), is marked by two decisively reactionary traits: in the underdeveloped parts of the world it impedes those very processes of national liberation and unification, of agrarian emancipation and industrialization, which the great bourgeois revolutions of the past realized in the West.

In the imperialist countries themselves, it is marked by a growing and frightful parasitism (large-scale waste of material and human resources, not only through wars, unemployment, over-capacity, etc., but also through massive increase of the selling and distribution costs, systematic degrading of the quality of products, threats against the ecologic equilibrium, and threats against the very physical survival of mankind).

2. Revolutionary Character of Our Epoch

The theory of the revolutionary character of our epoch, of the “up-to-dateness” of socialist revolution, which flows directly from the structural crisis of world capitalism. While that crisis is permanent (although knowing ups and downs, periods of temporary stabilization and periods of great instability of capitalism in key countries and continents), there are from Lenin’s point of view no “permanent revolutionary situations”: if the working class does not profit from a favorable combination of circumstances to conquer power, a defeat of the revolution creates preconditions for a temporary comeback of the capitalist class.

The socialist world revolution, which has been on the agenda since World War I, takes the form of a process. The chain of countries subjugated by imperialist capitalism breaks first in its weakest links (these can be underdeveloped countries like Russia and China, but there is no law in Lenin’s thought which says that they have to be such).

For Lenin, while the workers of each country where a favorable revolutionary situation occurs should by all means seize power, they should consider this as a means to strengthen the revolutionary forces in neighboring countries and on a world scale, and should consider themselves always a detachment of the world revolutionary communist movement.

3. The Party

The theory of the revolutionary vanguard party, which is based upon a correct, dialectic understanding of the interrelationship between objective mass struggles and subjective class consciousness under capitalism.

Defending and expanding Marx’s and Engels’s concepts of historical and dialectical materialism, Lenin rejected the mechanistic and naïve belief that class struggle in itself gives to the exploited class – cut off from all the main sources of science – the power to spontaneously reconstruct Marxist theory, the highest product of centuries of intellectual and scientific developments of mankind.

Marxist theory, socialist consciousness, must be introduced from the outside in the class struggle, by conscious efforts of a revolutionary vanguard. Without such a constant effort, the overwhelming majority of the working class remains subjected to the prevailing influence of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideology. But without a successful fusion with a large working class vanguard, the revolutionary minority is not yet a party; it is only an attempt to build such a party.

Lenin rejected all ideas of self-proclaimed vanguards. For him the proof of the pudding was in the eating, i.e., in the capacity of the vanguard to actually lead large working class struggles. And the supreme test of the party – the leadership in the struggle for power – presupposes the conquest of the conscious support by the majority of the working class and the toiling masses.

4. Workers’ Councils

The theory of workers’ councils (soviets) as power instruments of the dictatorship of the proletariat and as higher forms of democracy than parliamentarian bourgeois democracy. Lenin believed, as Marx did, that between capitalism and socialism there is a transition period called the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. No more than Marx did Lenin believe that you could overthrow capitalism along the road of gradual reforms, parliamentary elections, or legislation in the framework of bourgeois institutions. The victory of socialist revolution presupposes not only collective ownership of the means of production but also destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus – i.e., of the apparatus of repression directed against the great mass of people.

The essence of a workers’ state, i.e., of a dictatorship of the proletariat, is for Lenin not any “totalitarian” nightmare of the 1984 type, but, as described in State and Revolution, a democratically centralized system of freely elected workers’ councils, which exercise simultaneously all legislative and executive functions as the Paris Commune had done.

For Lenin, dictatorship of the proletariat means more actual democratic freedoms for the workers and toiling masses than they enjoy under any bourgeois-democratic regime. It means full and unfettered enjoyment of freedom of the press, freedom of association and of demonstration for all and every group of toilers (and not only for a single party), as well as the material means to enjoy these freedoms.

Even for the bourgeois classes Lenin did not in principle rule out the right to enjoy democratic liberties under the dictatorship of the proletariat, but neither was he ready to guarantee this to them. In his opinion this was a matter of relationship of forces, i.e., of the strength and violence of counterrevolutionary opposition to the victorious working class.

As for the leading role of the party inside the Soviet institutions, this was for Lenin strictly a matter of political persuasion, of capacity to win the allegiance of the majority, and not at all a matter of systematic repression of all contending tendencies (Lenin admitted the necessity of such repression only under exceptional circumstances of civil war, when most of those tendencies were involved in open military violence against the revolutionary government).

5. The International

The theory of internationalism, the International being the only organizational form for the proletarian vanguard and for the workers’ states congruent with the needs of world economy and toiling mankind, produced by imperialism. That’s why Lenin proclaims the need for the Third International the very day he recognizes the Second International is dead. That’s why he remained till his end a passionate defender of the right of self-determination of all nations. That is why he proclaimed the necessity of the independence of the Communist International from the Soviet state: no maneuver of that state (e.g., concluding a truce with German imperialism; making an alliance with the Kemalist state in Turkey, etc.) should imply any change of orientation by the Communist International from its line of preparing, favoring, and assuring the best possible conditions for victory of proletarian revolutionary struggles everywhere.

For the same reason he opposed any attempt at Russification of the non-Russian Soviet republics and considered the attitude of communists in imperialist countries towards national liberation movements in the countries oppressed by their own bourgeoisie as a keystone of internationalism.

6. Role of the Party

The theory of the political centralization, through the revolutionary vanguard party, of all progressive democratic mass demands and mass movements into a single flow towards a socialist revolution. While Lenin developed that concept at a time when he did not yet accept the idea of the Russian revolution growing uninterruptedly over into a socialist revolution, he maintained it and extended it during the founding years of the Communist International when he based all his thinking upon the strategy towards socialist revolution.

This concept flows from a dialectical understanding of the stratification of the working class and the toiling masses into layers with different levels of consciousness and with different immediate interests, which have all to be united (inasmuch as they don’t stand for counterrevolutionary causes) in order to make a mass revolution possible.

It also flows from a deep understanding of the antidemocratic and reactionary nature of imperialism, which not only does deny the majority of mankind such elementary rights as those of national independence and dignity but which tends also to erode in the imperialist countries themselves the very conquests of the bourgeois democratic revolutions of the past.

But contrary to opportunists of all kinds, Lenin’s concept of uniting the struggle for democratic and the struggle for transitional demands did not mean in any way a dismissal or a subordination of the socialist goal to the wishes or prejudices of temporary “allies”; on the contrary, it was based on the firm belief that only the victorious socialist revolution could bring about a final and definite triumph of these democratic goals.

7. Democratic Centralism

The theory of the inner-party regime based upon democratic centralism, which does not only mean majority rule, the need of minorities to apply in practice majority decisions but also full democratic rights of discussion inside the party, the right to form tendencies, to submit collective platforms to party congresses, to have them discussed on equal footing with the leadership proposals before congresses, to full and impartial information of the membership about political differences which crop up in the organization, etc., etc.

This was the way the Bolshevik party and the Communist International functioned in Lenin’s lifetime. It is indicative of the gulf which separates Leninism from the bureaucratic centralism applied today in the USSR and Eastern Europe that the hesitant attempt of the Czechoslovak CP leadership to return in 1968 to some of these Leninist norms in a new draft statute for the Fourteenth Congress of the party was seized upon furiously as a sign of “rightist antisocialist tendencies” inside that party by Brezhnev and company.

Already before Lenin’s death, many if not all of these basic tenets of Leninism were beginning to be challenged by the new Stalinist leadership inside the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and the Communist International. Lenin’s last struggle was a desperate attempt to stop this perversion of his doctrine. This revisionism was, obviously, not a purely ideological phenomenon. It reflected a deep-going social shift inside Russian post-revolutionary society and inside the CPSU.

On the basis of the growing passivity of the Russian working class – resulting from the backwardness of the country and from the temporary retreat of world revolution – a privileged bureaucratic layer monopolized the exercise of power and the administration of the state and the economy. It ruthlessly subordinated the party into an apparatus defending its own particular interests, if necessary against the historic and immediate interests of the world revolution and of the Russian working class itself.

Stalinism was only the ideological expression of the rise of that parasitic caste. It is the very antithesis of Leninism, the proletarian doctrine of socialist revolution.

8. Lenin’s Heritage

The Left Opposition around Trotsky, and later the Fourth International, maintained and enriched the heritage of Leninism in the years of reaction and of receding world revolution. These are now superseded again by a new epoch of rising world revolution.

A growing number of workers, revolutionary students and intellectuals, and poor peasants understand the validity of Leninism and participate in the building of new revolutionary parties on a worldwide basis. The future belongs to Leninism. That’s why it belongs to the Fourth International.


Last updated on 25.6.2008