Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Union

V.I. Lenin – Led Fight for Proletarian Revolution

First Published: Revolution, Vol. 2, No. 3, April 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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One of Vladimir Lenin’s favorite stories was about seeing a man who was squatting in the street and waving his hands wildly. At a distance he seemed to be a maniac, but when Lenin came closer, he could see that it was a workman sharpening his knife on the curb.

The same, Lenin said, was true of ideological struggle. From afar the ideological struggles within the revolutionary movement might seem incomprehensible, but their importance becomes clear when you see what’s at stake.

On April 22, hundreds of millions of revolutionary-minded people all over the world will celebrate the 104th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, honoring his unceasing struggle against imperialism and opportunism.

It was out of the fight to apply Marxism to Russian conditions, and to lead the Russian workers and peasants in the struggle for their own liberation, that Lenin’s battle against opportunism arose. It was a war against all sorts of tendencies which were Marxist in name, but in fact deadly enemies of the working class which tried to tie it to the bourgeoisie under the cover of “socialism.”

Lenin’s Contributions

In these battles Lenin sharpened the proletariat’s weapons to a finer edge than ever before. Now, when the very successes of the world-wide proletariat have forced opportunists to try disguising themselves with the name of Marxism-Leninism, it’s more important than ever to be totally clear about the essence of what we inherit from Lenin. The point is not to become the best quoters of his books, but to understand that only by mastering the science he helped develop, and deepening our ties and work among the masses, can communists of today really lead the revolutionary struggles of the people.

Lenin stressed that ”There can be no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory.” But he also ’ emphasized that there could be no revolutionary theory without “the real moving force of history–the revolutionary struggle of classes.” Lenin’s main contributions -his analyses of the nature of imperialism, of the national question, and his theoretical and practical contributions to the question of the vanguard Communist Party and the dictatorship of the proletariat–came from thoroughly understanding the works of Marx and Engels, from carefully examining the concrete conditions of his day, and from a great ability to learn from the people.

This becomes clear when we look at Lenin’s own development.

The son of a school official, Lenin was born in 1870 in the city of Simbirsk on the Volga river. His real name was Vladimir llyich Ulyanov. Lenin was just the best known of the many aliases he used in a lifetime spent largely in exile.

In 1871, the workers of Paris rebelled and formed the short-lived Paris Commune, the young proletariat’s first attempt to overthrow the bourgeoisie and substitute its own rule. In Russia at that time, the bourgeoisie as itself very young and relatively weak, the relations of production were primarily feudal, and the state was headed up by the Czarist autocracy. When Lenin was 11, his brother Alexander, a member of a student terrorist group, was executed for his part in a plot to assassinate the czar.

Lenin was deeply affected by his brother’s execution. He himself became a student, studying law and practicing it briefly, then moving at the age of 23 to the major industrial city of Saint Petersburg (later called Petrograd and then Leningrad). After a decade of ebb in the revolutionary movement following the breakup of the Narodnik terrorist movement, the working class was entering a period of intense struggle, and small study groups of intellectuals, who looked to the working class, flourished.

Lenin joined one of these groups, helping to unite several of them to form the Saint Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, and led in their transformation from groups of young intellectuals who mainly argued against other ideologies hostile to Marxism, into groups that began to really go to the working class, establishing contacts and members in the major factories, combining their propaganda for socialism with “agitation based on the workers’ everyday needs.”

Under Lenin’s direction, the League issued the first mass leaflets circulated among Russian workers, and with the aid of advanced workers, spread its agitation all over the city, especially after the great strike wave of 1895. Lenin was arrested that year, just hours after preparing the first issue of Rabocheye Dyelo (Workers’ Cause), the first mass revolutionary workers’ newspaper, temporarily nipped in the bud by the czar’s police.

Lenin was in jail for a year and in exile in Siberia for three more before moving abroad to be able to continue his work, but he still played a central role in the development of the Russian workers’ movement. In 1898, Leagues of Struggle from four major cities merged, along with some other groups, to form the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, (RSDLP).

The RSDLP was merging with the workers’ movement, establishing real roots in the class. But many within the Party wanted to concentrate solely on the workers’ struggle for a better living, their struggle against the bosses and government for their day-to-day demands, and to set aside for later the struggle against czarism and for socialism.

Just as an earlier tendency had opposed Lenin’s line that revolutionary intellectuals must pass over from merely putting forward socialist ideas to actually taking up the struggles of the people, so now another tendency called for making the workers’ spontaneous demands everything, and forgetting the job of building the workers’ revolutionary consciousness and struggle.

Lenin began a full-scale ideological battle against this trend, called Economism, labeling it opportunist for reducing revolutionaries to merely being “the most militant fighters” for whatever limited goals arose spontaneously in the factories, which in practice meant just being good trade union leaders and leaving the political struggles against czarism to the liberal petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. He declared that the “flesh and blood” of Marxism was that the political struggle and the economic struggle had to be welded “into one integral whole,” and that the final aim was the overthrow of the czarist autocracy and all forms of exploitation and oppression.

This ideological struggle reached a high point with the publication of What Is To Be Done? where Lenin analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the revolutionary movement and laid out what he believed to be its political and organizational tasks-the road out of the “swamp” he believed it was headed into.

Lenin blasted those Party members who acted simply like “trade union secretaries” instead of “tribunes of the people,” saying that the task of communists was to take up every struggle against oppression, no matter where it arose, and show how the toppling of the czarist autocracy, led by the working class, was the revolutionary order of the day. In this way, the working class would become conscious of itself as a class and of its historic role, seeing it had the interests of the great majority as its own, and winning the majority to its leadership in the fight to replace feudal czarism not with the rule of the bourgeoisie, but of the proletariat, who would smash the exploiting classes and begin the transition to socialism.

Those who didn’t want the Party to do this, who wanted it, as Lenin said, “to determine its conduct from case to case, to adapt itself to the events of the day...and forget the basic interests of the proletariat, the main features of the capitalist system,” this policy, Lenin argued, was revisionism, “revising” Marxism by removing its revolutionary content and serving the bourgeoisie by robbing the working class of its own ideology.

Working Class Discipline

Just as the Party was falling behind the masses and not leading them by bringing this consciousness to the working class, the Party’s reliance on spontaneity was reflected in shapeless and slack internal structured To link up with the workers and lead them in struggle for socialism, Lenin said, the Party had to learn the discipline of the working class.

Every successful strike carried out democratic centralism, “unity of action, freedom of criticism and discussion,” he explained. When an Economist complained that Lenin saw the Party like “one huge factory,” he replied that the factory “united and disciplined the proletariat, taught it to organize and placed it at the head of all other sections of the toiling and exploiting masses...In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but that of organization.”

At that time, the RSDLP had neither a leading center nor a programme for revolution. Lenin proposed to turn this weak, divided, primitive organization, more a loose federation than anything else, into something new in history–the advanced, organized detachment of the working class. By advanced, Lenin meant that the Party had to be based on and master Marxism, the ideology of the working class, and be able to use this science to bring consciousness to the class and lead it and its allies in struggle. It had to be an organized detachment of the class, based primarily on the workers in large-scale production and drawing in the most class-conscious and selfless workers and others, those who had really demonstrated leadership and discipline.

Unity of Will and Action

Such a Party, Lenin said, had to combine unity of will (ideology) with unity of action (a programme). And such a Party could purge itself of opportunism only by constantly “going deeper into the masses,” realizing that the root of all revisionism, no matter what form it takes, is “lack of faith in the masses, fear of their independence, trepidation before their revolutionary energy instead of thorough and unstinted support for it.”

Looking back, Lenin later wrote, “Nowhere in the world has the proletarian movement come into being, nor could it come into being, ’all at once,’ in pure class form, ready-made...Only through long struggle and hard work on the part of the most advanced workers, of all class-conscious workers, was it possible to build up and strengthen the class movement of the proletariat, ridding it of all petty bourgeois admixtures, restrictions and distortions.”

Lenin’s battle for the Party was against those who denied that the real aim of the masses’ struggles all through history has been for their own emancipation, and that Marxism is the ideology of the proletariat, born in struggle. He fought those who simply “declared” the Party in name, and showed how a real advanced, organized detachment of the working class had to be created through struggle.

This Party was not just a great idea born from Lenin’s head. It developed in close connection with the mass movement and the fight against opportunism to develop Marxism to serve that mass movement. Through this, Lenin’s Party was able to lead the Russian working class and the masses to the October Revolution, which in turn inspired the great Chinese and other socialist revolutions, and stands as the model for revolution in our own country today.