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International Socialism, March 1996


Adrian Budd

A New Life for Lenin


From International Socialism 2:70, March 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


P. Le Blanc
Lenin and the Revolutionary Party
New Jersey 1993

Erich Fromm once wrote that ‘the successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful one a criminal’. [1] Lenin’s political genius only ensured that he survived criminalisation to become a ‘statesman’ because his energy and genius were directed towards fashioning and building a tool, the Bolshevik Party. So Lenin was able, in 1917, to lead the world’s first successful socialist revolution. Lenin the ‘statesman’ was a product of Lenin the party builder.

Le Blanc’s book focuses on Lenin the party builder, on Lenin’s organisational thought. He reclaims and restates what he calls ‘authentic Leninism – qualitatively different from the grotesque distortions of Leninism that are so widely circulated’. [2] He is no ivory tower historian but a Trotskyist and supporter of the Fourth International, and as such sympathetic towards, but not uncritical of, Lenin’s ideas. This contemporary engagement in socialist politics elevates Le Blanc’s book to a position alongside a small number of classic studies of Lenin, notably Tony Cliff’s three volume Lenin, Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin, and Neil Harding’s two volume Lenin’s Political Thought. [3] While these explore Lenin’s politics as a whole, Le Blanc’s narrower focus on Lenin’s most important contribution to Marxism underlines both the centrality of the revolutionary party to the socialist revolution of 1917 and the abiding necessity of building similar parties today in preparation for the revolutionary possibilities of tomorrow.

From the late 1890s Lenin’s whole activity was directed towards understanding European and, more specifically Russian, society. But the world was not just to be understood: it was to be changed, and in a very specific way – namely, by linking the elementary struggles of the newly awakened Russian workers to wider political questions and, most importantly, the task of taking state power. It was a commonplace amongst both Russian and other socialists that some form of organisation was required to wage the class struggle. But, Lenin argued, to turn the workers’ ‘spontaneous struggle against their oppressors into the struggle for definite political and socialist ideals’ required a break with localised organisation and the federal framework of the Russian social democracy and with organisation around purely economic goals (economism). The parts of the class struggle, immensely important as spontaneous opposition to capitalism was, had to be fused together, via a Russia wide party, into something that would be greater than the sum of the parts.

Hence the attacks on localism and economism were not designed to centre control over the working class in the hands of the party, as Lenin’s critics at the time and since have claimed, but to further the activity of that class and raise the general level of working class consciousness. To achieve this the party could not simply exist alongside workers’ struggles, preaching the need to generalise and posing the question of state power, but had to be part of the lived experience of the working class.

Using the account of a Bolshevik committee member in Baku, Cecilia Bobrovskaya, Le Blanc highlights the dangers of counterposing the general to the particular. In a strike in the Baku oilfields a Menshevik agitator ‘was never tired at mass meetings of discussing minor questions like the provision of aprons, mitts, etc, by the employers without touching upon the real significance of the strike’. The Bolsheviks’ academic and rather abstract approach to the strike meant, however, that they ‘were often interrupted by uncomplimentary shouts about the Bolsheviks who instead of demanding mitts and aprons demanded the overthrow of the autocracy’. Simply expounding upon wider political questions does not automatically connect immediate struggles to these questions. Running them in parallel rather than together meant that when, in 1905, the overthrow of autocracy assumed real importance, ‘the Bolsheviks were, to a large extent, not in a position to provide real leadership’. [4]

If that lived experience was to inform the nationwide party’s practice then inner party democracy, including at times intense polemical battles, was crucial. Local initiative and critical thinking were not to be abandoned in the new centralised party, as Lenin’s critics suggested. They were indispensable, both for the class struggle, which never conforms to any national plan, and for the party’s intervention within it. But they lose their significance if they are not integrated into a party wide understanding of the possibilities and processes of development that they reveal. There was thus a reciprocal relationship between the party’s base and centre in which both engaged in a process of collective learning and development. This development meant that Lenin’s conception of the party was not timeless and fixed. Once the party’s revolutionary principles had been established, and the members had self selected themselves on the basis of adherence to them, flexibility was essential and Lenin frequently criticised members for continually referring practical questions to higher bodies.

None of this flowed directly from Lenin’s pen into the activity of members. It had to be fought and argued for and the experience of the party and the class constantly reassessed in the light of changing circumstances. This is only possible, Le Blanc argues, where the party has ‘a deeply ingrained democratic sensibility that manifests itself even when unusual conditions preclude the formal observance of democratic procedures’, for example under state repression. [5] If, as Trotsky later argued, the revolutionary party must always look reality in the face, there must be democratic means to assess that reality, and the tasks and perspectives most appropriate to it, using all the material available.

There is thus an intimate connection between the tasks of the party, which exists in the present state of the class struggle, is informed by and remembers the past, and prepares itself and the class for the future, and its internal organisation. Lenin’s great achievement was to combine the twin necessities of democracy and centralism. But democratic centralism is no fixed set of rules. If the party is immersed in a changing social context then the Central Committee, elected at Congress to ensure party cohesion and coordination, cannot simply read off a list of prescribed organisational formulae. The precise balance between democracy and centralism is subordinate to the political tasks confronting the party at the time. Thus, in his battles with Menshevism, Lenin emphasised different elements at different times. In 1906 he wrote that ‘the principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the party’. He adds that ‘criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free ... not only at party meetings, but also at public meetings’. [6] So in 1906 there is an exaggerated emphasis on democracy. By 1912, however, the coexistence of the two factions in the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party had become a hindrance to the Bolsheviks, as the Mensheviks increasingly sought to liquidate the revolutionary workers’ party into reformist organisations. The Bolsheviks called a party conference, organised it in their own favour (such that the Mensheviks refused to recognise it) and declared the bulk of their opponents to be outside the party.

Formalists have a field day criticising such activities. But formalism fails to see that the party must be located within definite historical circumstances and that it is not an organisation that perfectly prefigures the future socialist society, with its flourishing of creativity and democracy on a mass basis, but is simply a tool for ushering in that new society. Attachment to procedures that fit one period but which hinder the party’s effectiveness in another limits flexibility and, ultimately, postpones the arrival of that new society.

Whether they be openly bourgeois, or social democrats who prefer to work within bourgeois democratic procedures and have given up on the socialist transformation of society (arguing, like Bernstein, that the movement is everything and the goal nothing), opponents of Lenin tie themselves in knots over this tactical flexibility. They argue that for Leninists the end justifies the means, as if any connection between the two were unacceptable and any and every means were available to Leninists. The real problem is that Lenin’s opponents camouflage their opposition to the end, socialism, under attacks on Lenin’s means. But if the end is socialism, whereby the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, then certain actions, for example the plotting of coups or political assassinations, are not means towards it at all and must be rejected.

With socialism as the goal, then, as we have seen, the party must maintain a deep democratic sensibility to ensure the most intimate possible connection with advanced workers and thereby enable appropriate tactical shifts to be made. And Lenin himself, far from having an iron grip over his party, was also subject to that democracy. Thus he sometimes had articles rejected by editors of party publications. Before 1917 Lenin’s party experienced a series of often bitter arguments, for example in April 1917 over the nature of the coming revolution, and in the autumn of 1917 over the insurrection, in which Lenin had to fight to turn his minority into a majority. These continued after the revolution, for example over the peace of Brest-Litovsk, and, as we shall see, right through to the end of Lenin’s life, albeit in increasingly difficult circumstances. Usually Lenin eventually won his line, but not because of any personal dictatorship, but because the party was conditioned to internal debate and, equally importantly, because its connections to the advanced layers of the working class enabled Lenin to appeal to them over the heads of the leadership. This relationship between party and class, built over two decades, was the cornerstone of the Bolsheviks’ success. Its absence on any significant scale in all subsequent radicalisations and pre-revolutionary situations has ensured the defeat of the working class.

This account of Lenin and the revolutionary party is inevitably sketchy. Le Blanc’s book, however, is an excellent single volume analysis of how Lenin the revolutionary became Lenin the statesman which provides a wealth of historical background and situates the Bolshevik Party within its historical context. It also explores alternative thinking of the time on the questions addressed by Lenin and, very usefully, assesses Lenin’s thought and practice against the criticisms of latter day detractors. But Le Blanc’s book has one significant weakness: it condenses his work after the seizure of power into a single chapter. Yet this period, especially 1922-1924, is crucial to Lenin’s work as a whole and provides some of Lenin’s most brilliant applications of Marxist theory to concrete circumstances. [7]

The Russian Revolution was the high point of a massive radicalisation that shook world capitalism at the end of the First World War. This period promised the realisation of Marxism’s vision of liberation after four years of carnage and showed that the hopes Bolsheviks had placed on revolutions in at least some of the advanced capitalist countries were not misplaced. But the period also shows that Lenin’s theory of the party had a relevance beyond Russia. Elsewhere there were no parties of the Bolshevik type, schooled over two decades in preparation for the revolution. Gradually, as capitalism hesitantly stabilised itself, revolutionary Russia was left to fight the invading imperialist armies and White counter-revolutionaries in isolation. War raged for a further three years and the party and state that emerged from the ultimate victory in 1921 were very different from those of 1917. The whole context of Lenin’s work had changed. The heyday of Bolshevism in 1917 had become the crisis of Bolshevism by 1921. As Rosa Luxemburg put it, ‘even the greatest energy and the greatest sacrifices of the proletariat in a single country must inevitably become tangled in a maze of contradictions and blunders’. [8]

Much had been achieved, against enormous odds but at great cost, particularly to the working class, the base of the revolution in the towns. By the end of the civil war the economy of the new Soviet state was devastated. Since, for Lenin, the ‘elementary truth of Marxism, that the victory of socialism requires the joint efforts of workers in a number of advanced countries’, [9] was just as true now as it had been in 1917, the regime needed a breathing space, needed to hold on until reinforcements arrived.

There was now no question of building socialism but of honestly assessing the grave danger of the revolution being crushed by the gigantic forces of imperialism. With the threat of counter-revolution defeated in the short term the link between the two revolutionary processes – workers’ power in the cities and peasant revolts in the countryside – was broken. The Kronstadt rising of March 1921, and peasant uprisings, which had begun to infect the industrial centres, revealed a deep bitterness towards War Communism, and particularly the forced requisitioning of food surpluses. If the peasants were to be reconciled to the regime, coercion had to give way to the reintroduction of private commodity production in the countryside, under the New Economic Policy (NEP). But there could be no simple coexistence between peasant capitalism and the state economy. The state industries ‘must win the competition against the ordinary shop assistant, the ordinary capitalist, the merchant, who will go to the peasant without arguing about communism’. [10]

To fail this test would see the workers’ state crushed both economically and politically. To pass it and win peasant acceptance of, if not identification with, the regime, the state sector’s own functioning had to be exemplary, even if that meant in the short term that it had to practise capitalist management techniques. But these techniques were not purely a matter of administration but also of politics and the balance of class forces. Lenin insisted on the need for independent and democratic trade unions to defend workers against the workers’ state. However, this was an increasingly bureaucratised workers’ state in which officials outnumbered industrial workers five to one by the end of 1920. The problem was not simply numerical but also political. The bulk of the bureaucratic machine had been recruited from Tsarism, to the extent that Lenin asked whether the Communists were directing or being directed, especially given the low cultural level of the workers and Communists. As the party and regime that he had helped create were being swamped in red tape and, worse still, adapting to the swamp, Lenin went on to the attack.

It was in Lenin’s battle to save his life work against bureaucratic strangulation that the tragic consequences of the civil war and Russia’s isolation became fully apparent. In past crises Lenin had frequently appealed over the heads of the leadership to the advanced workers, but by 1922 the bulk of these had either perished at the front defending the revolution, returned to the countryside to find food, or joined the ranks of the state apparatus, albeit for the best of motives. Furthermore, in the moment of danger when the partial retreat of the NEP was launched, the Bolsheviks had taken the temporary emergency measure of banning factions, in order that retreat should not degenerate into chaos. But this ban, although not an attempt to silence all dissent within the party, unwittingly played into the hands of the bureaucracy whose administrative methods increasingly prevailed over debate.

This situation was difficult enough but from mid-1922 Lenin’s health deteriorated dramatically. He suffered a stroke in May, recovered briefly in the summer, but suffered relapses in December and early in 1923. A severe stroke in March 1923 effectively brought his political life to a close and he died in January 1924. Worse still, Stalin, who feared a campaign against his growing power, was chosen by the CC ostensibly to ensure that the doctors’ orders were carried out, but in practice he sought to protect and enhance his own position. Not surprisingly, Fotieva, one of Lenin’s secretaries, wrote that ‘Lenin got the impression that it was not the doctors who gave the orders to the CC, but the CC to the doctors’. [11] Lenin was fighting an increasingly powerful bureaucracy from his sickbed, without an army to call on and under the surveillance of that very bureaucracy.

Yet such was Lenin’s determination that this period of illness coincided with some of the most important political work of his life. And, united in a bloc with Trotsky, small victories were possible, especially while Stalin’s position was not yet secure. One such was over the defence of the state monopoly of foreign trade. Without it ‘there is the political risk of letting through not foreign merchants by name, which we check, but the entire petty bourgeoisie in general’. [12] Stalin, himself in favour of relaxation of the monopoly, conceded but Lenin, increasingly aware of bureaucratic degeneration, wrote to Trotsky that they ‘should not stop but continue the attack’. [13]

The next attack concerned one of the fundamentals of Marxism and Bolshevism, internationalism. In September 1922 Stalin published his ‘autonomisation’ plan for the reorganisation of relations between the Russian Soviet state (RSFSR) and the five smaller independent Soviet states on its borders. These were to be incorporated into the RSFSR as ‘autonomous’ republics and the government of Russia would form the government of the whole. Lenin’s response was to insist that there should be no incorporation and that all the Soviet republics should form a union of Soviet republics of Europe and Asia with the federal all union executive institutions separate from those of the RSFSR. Lenin’s sensitivity to the national feelings of republics long under the Tsarist yoke was passed off as ‘national liberalism’ by Stalin who, nevertheless, conceded at this point. Lenin had declared ‘war to the death on dominant nation chauvinism’, but it was a war that he was soon forced to wage earlier than expected.

Stalin and his emissary in Georgia, Ordzhonikidze, continued to use Great Russian chauvinist tactics in their dealings with the Georgian Communist Party and Central Committee. Ordzhonikidze appointed a docile and incompetent CC when the old CC, resistant to Stalin’s plans for a Transcaucasian Federation, resigned, and also struck a Georgian supporter of the old CC.

For Lenin the question of the national minorities had to be solved politically, not suppressed administratively. He argued that internationalism on the part of oppressor nations ‘must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality, through which the oppressor nation, the great nation, would compensate for the inequality which obtains in real life’ and for the wrongs to which the oppressed nation had been subjected in the past. This was nothing to do with any national liberalism but because ‘nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice’. [14] This overriding concern for international class unity meant that Lenin was prepared to accept that the USSR might only operate in military and diplomatic affairs, with full independence in all other matters restored to the individual republics. The harm of administrative disunity was tiny relative to the political necessity of taking the Georgians, and millions of others in Asia, along with the new Soviet power, rather than leaving them prey to the nationalism of counter-revolutionaries.

Stalin, who, along with Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka, Lenin held responsible for the Russian chauvinism against Georgia, rejected all this. He formally accepted Lenin’s position at the Twelfth Party Congress in April 1923 but implicitly rejected its substance when he spoke against ‘bowing and scraping before the representatives’ of minority nationalities. [15]

With Lenin’s continuing ill health, Trotsky had agreed to fight for Lenin’s line over Georgia within the leadership, but at the congress he absented himself from the crucial debates and Stalin won the day. Certainly the USSR was created according to Lenin’s plan, but institutions do not float above society. They are instruments that reflect the interests of the dominant force in society and the USSR fell into Stalin’s hands just as the RSFSR did. The consequences of this episode and the whole of the subsequent nationalities policy of Stalinism reverberate to this day.

Lenin’s notes on the national question were part of a wider fight conducted from his sickbed against the bureaucracy and to shape the future of the regime. The dictations he made between 23 December 1922 and 4 January 1923 became known as his Letter to the Congress. [16] It was here that Lenin proposed concrete steps to thwart bureaucratisation and restore the party’s relationship to the working class.

He proposed the expansion of the CC, with the new members drawn from the working class, ‘people closer to being rank and file workers and peasants’. [17] He also proposed the expansion of the Central Control Commission, again with workers and peasants, to oversee the rooting out of bureaucracy. The Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate (WPI) which had been established as a super-commissariat to fight encroaching bureaucratism was also enlarged. The hope was that the transfusion of new working class blood would reinvigorate the body of the state and party institutions. But, although Lenin was the first to realise the danger of bureaucratisation and to take up the fight against it, he was already too late. Stalin had been head of WPI from March 1919 to April 1922 and it had already been transformed into Stalin’s private office and private police force within the state. In May 1922 he was appointed party general secretary.

More importantly, Lenin was arguing in a social void. The working class was demoralised and atomised, while within the party workers made up an increasingly small proportion of the membership compared with officials and managers. Recognising this, Lenin was forced to rely on personal changes in the leadership of the party and state where in the past he would have turned to the rank and file. Thus, it is in the ‘Letter’ that he famously draws his character descriptions. At first he does not come out in favour of Trotsky against Stalin but simply highlights the danger of Stalin having concentrated excessive power in his own hands. Only after the full details of the Georgia affair became known to him at the very end of 1923 did Lenin suggest that the party consider ways to remove Stalin from the post of general secretary.

The tragedy was that Lenin could not see his attack through to a successful conclusion. The fate of his testament, part of the Letter, highlights this. It was not distributed to the whole congress for debate, but read out to each delegation in turn. No notes were allowed and no discussion of its contents was permitted. Meanwhile, Stalin, growing in confidence but still overshadowed by Lenin’s authority, took up Lenin’s proposals for the expansion of the state and party institutions and over relations with the smaller republics. But, while acting in apparent conformity with Lenin’s wishes, he systematically subverted the substance of his proposals such that there is an ‘enormous gulf between the subsequent course of events and the direction Lenin wished them to take’. [18]

The apparatus that Lenin helped to build had turned against him, stifled him, controlled him and vetted his communications. Ultimately it destroyed Lenin’s revolutionary project which had originally motivated the Bolsheviks and the Russian masses, physically destroying those who made the revolution in the process. In its place it erected the Stalinist dictatorship.

None of this was inherent in Bolshevism. Lenin ‘… was not a dictator in his party, but its leader. His leadership was incontestable and uncontested but it demanded of him a constant effort of thought and organisation; he had to act as if he was reaffirming and reconquering it each day’. [19] But Lenin was not superhuman and neither he nor the party he created stood above history and society. The degeneration of the Bolshevik Party and Soviet state can, in the final analysis, only be explained by reference to this context. But explanation is not justification. Alternatives were possible, as Lenin’s, and later Trotsky’s, fight to redirect the regime onto a path closer to the original one of 1917 shows. Tragically, despite his political will, courage and honesty, the obstacles were too great.

Serious studies of Leninism, of which Le Blanc’s book is a splendid example, and of Lenin’s political struggles, which Fyson provides for the last two years of Lenin’s life, protect us from the distortions and caricatures of the historical record propagated by Stalinists and bourgeois scholars. They allow us to learn from what happened in history, in particular the history of our class. And the lessons are not just curios for scholars. Le Blanc’s commitment to socialism means that for him, as for other socialists, ‘the primary importance of all this, of course, is not simply to get the history right, but to orient ourselves in present and future struggles.’ [20]

Across the globe the contradictions and horrors of capitalism are just as acute as they were in 1917 and the need for socialism is just as urgent. The recent mass strikes in France offer a glimpse of the possibility of the leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom. For that leap to be successful, as 1917 revealed in a positive sense and the failed revolutions negatively, socialists have to recognise another necessity: that of building revolutionary parties of the type built by Lenin.


1. E. Fromm, The Fear of Freedom (London 1943), p. 224.

2. P. Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New Jersey 1993), p. 9.

3. Le Blanc’s engagement in socialist politics is a strength. But his commitment to the Trotskyism of the Fourth International is the source of occasional flaws. He insists, for example, on the revolutionary socialist credentials of the Cuban and Sandinista leaderships and intermittently forays into minor debates within the US section of the Fourth International. But these are minor irritants that detract little from his analysis of Bolshevism.

4. P Le Blanc, op. cit., p. 90.

5. Ibid., p. 54.

6. Ibid., pp. 130–1.

7. Fyson’s book collects this work together but without commentary. Those unfamiliar with Lenin’s fight against the bureaucracy should read it alongside T. Cliff, Lenin: Revolution Besieged (London 1987), and M. Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (New York 1968).

8. Quoted in T. Cliff, op. cit., p. 177.

9. Quoted in M. Lewin, op. cit., p. 4.

10. Quoted in G. Fyson, op. cit., p. 36.

11. Quoted in M. Lewin, op. cit., p. 93.

12. Quoted in G. Fyson, op. cit., p. 91.

13. Quoted in M. Lewin, op. cit., p. 40.

14. Quoted in G. Fyson, op. cit., p. 197.

15. Quoted in Fyson, op. cit., pp. 300–301, note 6.

16. Y. Buranov, Lenin’s Will. Falsified and Forbidden (New York 1994). Buranov’s access to Kremlin archives enables him to illustrate the lengths that Stalin went to in his struggle with Trotsky during Lenin’s illness. He altered Lenin’s dictations, for example, in an attempt to cast Trotsky in a less favourable light. But this detective work provides no political reason for Stalin’s actions and simply confirms the view that he was a scheming, unscrupulous machine politician. Indeed, Buranov states that his study is not concerned with the economic and social factors which influenced the character of the inner party struggle.

17. Quoted in G. Fyson, op. cit., p. 185.

18. M. Lewin, op. cit., p. 130.

19. Ibid., p. 42. In the same vein Hanna Arendt argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism that Lenin did not have ‘the instincts of a mass leader – he was no orator and had a passion for public admission and analysis of his own errors, which is against the rules of even ordinary demagogy’. Quoted in Le Blanc, op. cit., p. 377.

20. P. Le Blanc, op. cit., p. 379.

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