Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered – What Is To Be Done? in Context, Leiden, Brill 2006
Lenin matters. I don’t mean he mattered in Russian history or in the history of the twentieth century – that’s obvious. I mean he still matters, matters to the bourgeoisie and matters for socialist practice today.
The single most serious challenge to the world capitalist order in its whole history was that posed by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the international revolutionary wave that followed in its wake. For a few short years the survival of the system literally hung by a thread and if we were to identify a single moment on which the fate of humanity hinged and when history turned, it would be the failure of the German Revolution in 1923. Obviously there can be no certainty in such matters, but if the German Revolution had succeeded there is an excellent chance that there would have been no Stalin, no Hitler and a fair chance that today we would be living in a socialist society.
Lenin symbolizes the Russian Revolution and that historical moment. More than that , it was Lenin’s politics and organization that led the Russian Revolution to victory – to this day the only genuine and sustained seizure of state power by the working class ( apart from the seventy two days of the Paris Commune). At the time everyone who was politically conscious ( on their side and on ours) recognized this, which is why millions of socialists, anarchists, intellectuals and working people world wide rallied to Lenin’s banner and made, in the shape of the Communist International, the most formidable international revolutionary force that has yet existed. A strong argument can be made, and has been made (1) , that it was the failure of western communists to assimilate, with sufficient speed and thoroughness, Leninist politics and Bolshevik practice that led to the defeat of the European revolution – I will not press this point here. Enough has been said to indicate why the bourgeoisie has always regarded Lenin as a prime ideological enemy.
Bourgeois ideology functions partly to give coherence to the ruling class itself, partly to give leadership to the middle classes and partly to secure the acquiescence of the exploited and oppressed in their exploitation and oppression. To this latter end it seeks to impose on working people its values and its view of the world and, as we all know, it has a good deal of success in this. However people’s lived experience under capitalism is such that this success can never be more than partial. People being bombed are highly unlikely to think this is a good thing because it is all in aid of ‘democracy’; the poor and hungry are hard to convince that massive inequality is justified because it provides incentives for the rich; threatened with mass unemployment working people are not persuaded that this is ‘a price worth paying’ on the say so of Adam Smith or Milton Friedman. Bourgeois ideology, therefore, has another equally important function which is to block the road to any coherent ideological alternative. It does this by a combination of exclusion and denigration.
Take for example the bourgeois press. In Britain the left-leaning papers, like The Guardian, The Independent, and the Daily Mirror, are quite happy to print criticisms of most aspects of government policy, so as to reflect the sentiments of their readers – they even make use of avowed socialists and Marxists for this purpose. At the same time they maintain almost complete silence about the numerous large demonstrations organized by the Stop the War Coalition. I remember Paul Foot, when he worked for The Mirror, explaining how his contract allowed him to attack and expose who or what he liked ( except Robert Maxwell, of course) but not to make propaganda for socialism. One remembers also the savage press campaigns waged against Benn, Scargill and even Livingstone in the days when they looked like they provided a serious challenge.
Academia, of course, works differently – it is more subtle, more polite – but not that differently, and the exclusion can be just as deadly and complete. Compare the academic reception and reputations of Louis Althusser and Tony Cliff or Walter Benjamin and Leon Trotsky. Lenin, however, because of the Russian Revolution (2), was too big to exclude or ignore and he was worse even than Marx precisely because he pointed so relentlessly to ‘what is to be done’. Therefore there was no alternative but wholesale denigration.
A line of argument was evolved. With minor variations, it went like this. Stalinism was not just the chronological successor to Leninism but its logical and necessary consequence. All the principal horrific features of the Stalinist regime – the mass murder, the gulag, the police terror, the totalitarian state and party, the intellectual and cultural tyranny - were either initiated by Lenin or, at least, present in embryo in Bolshevik practice and in Leninist ideology from the beginning. If the pre- revolutionary Lenin did not openly espouse or advocate a totalitarian vision of the future, this was either deception or self deception, for incipient totalitarianism was deeply lodged in his ideas, personality and psychology. The fundamental characteristics of Lenin and Leninism were always an utterly unscrupulous ruthlessness as to methods and a fanatical pursuit of absolute power for his party and himself.
In this indictment the key piece of evidence for the prosecution, the ‘smoking gun’ was held to be a pamphlet that Lenin wrote in 1901, when the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party barely existed and before the Bolshevik faction or party had even been dreamt of, called Chto delat? or What is to be Done? The avowed purpose of the pamphlet was to rally the then scattered forces of Russian Social Democracy into a single national party organized around a national newspaper and focused on the struggle against the Tsarist autocracy and for democracy and political freedom. To win the argument for this plan Lenin also declared that it was necessary to combat the conception of the struggle known as ‘economism’- the idea that the working class, and socialist agitation in the working class, should concentrate on economic demands, leaving the political struggle against Tsarism to the middle class liberals and intelligentsia.
The case against What is to be Done? was that in it Lenin had maintained that the working class would not develop socialist consciousness if left to its own devices; that the spontaneous tendency of the working class was only towards trade unionism (which , because it concentrated on bargaining over the price of labour power within the system, was a variation on bourgeois consciousness) and that socialism would , therefore, have to be introduced into the working class ‘from the outside’. This showed, so the argument ran, that really Lenin, behind the rhetoric, despised the working class and thought that socialism would have to be imposed on it from above. The real plan, from the beginning, was not working class power or self emancipation, but a party dictatorship over the working class. Once this was established the rest of the history of Bolshevism and the Revolution was read in this light; every quarrel, dispute, faction fight and split in the history of The Russian Social and Democratic Labour Party (especially the split at the 2nd Congress in 1903, which produced the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions) was presented as emanating from Lenin’s obsessive drive for power.
Veritable legions of academics – historians, political scientists, Sovietologists, Kremlinologists, etc – were put into the field to argue or assert this view. As in other matters, the Americans led the way and the British followed in their wake. Émigrés from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe played a prominent role. Before too long an almost unchallengeable orthodoxy, the ‘textbook interpretation’ as Lih calls it, was firmly in place.
Let me be clear, there is no conspiracy theory involved here (3) , nor allegation of deliberate bad faith on the part of the academics. It’s simply how the system works. Those with money, power and patronage at their disposal naturally encourage, fund and promote those with ideas they like the sound of. Aspiring academics see which way the wind is blowing and adopt, doubtless sincerely, views and projects that will further there careers. A range of additional political factors favoured the anti- Lenin consensus. It was put in place mainly during the early Cold War when it fitted the needs of cold warriors like a glove and when very few in US public or academic life were going to go to the stake in defense of Lenin. Besides anti- Leninism appeals not just to the hard right but meets ideological needs all the way across the political spectrum to left social democracy and even anarchism. Orthodox communists were also very badly placed to challenge the textbook account as they accepted the underlying premise of continuity between Leninism and Stalinism. Of course, there were a number of outstanding communist historians (Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson etc)well able to take on the argument, but they stayed away from the twentieth century so as to preserve their integrity and not clash with the party line. Nor was it an issue likely to be taken up by wave of Althusserians, cultural theorists and postmodernists who swept through academic life from the seventies to the nineties and who tended to share the view of the working class attributed to Lenin. This left virtually only the Trotskyists as dissenters and they were easily dismissed because they were very few in number, and because, well, they were Trotskyists. Consequently the consensus has remained more or less intact to the present day. Hence it was made use of just recently by George Bush when he compared Osama bin Laden to Lenin and Hitler, and referred specifically to What is to be Done? (4).
It is against this background that we must view Lars Lih’s extraordinary and extraordinarily welcome book. Lih tells us that it was written ‘without institutional support’. That the institutions were unwilling to support it is unsurprising, but it makes his achievement in writing it all the more remarkable. For Lih simply demolishes the orthodox view and does so by an accumulation of overwhelming evidence.
Lih takes as his starting point Lenin’s own 1907 statement that:
The basic mistake made by people who polemicise with What Is to Be Done? at the present time is that they tear this production completely out of a specific historical context, out of a specific and by now long past period in the development of our party.
From this cue Lih sets about investigating and recreating this ‘specific historical context‘
with an intensity and scholarship that is truly staggering. Amongst other things he appears to have read the entire literature of the Russian socialist movement of the period, supporters and opponents of Lenin alike, plus most or much of the German socialist literature of the time. I may be wrong but I very much doubt that any of the previous commentators on Lenin read more than a small fraction of this vast output.(5)
On this basis Lih argues: 1) that What Is To Be Done? was a relatively ephemeral document written in haste and not a considered programmatic or theoretical text from which major generalizations and conclusions about the essence of Leninism can legitimately be drawn; 2) that what Lenin advocated was not any new, distinct or special model of party organization, but merely the translation onto Russian soil of the practice of contemporary German Social Democracy ( which Lih calls Erfurtianism, after the
Erfurt Congress at which the SPD adopted a Marxist programme – the Erfurt Programme); 3) that far from being an incipient totalitarian Lenin’s overriding political commitment at the time was to the struggle for political freedom and democracy, which Lenin, following Marx, Engels and German Social Democracy, regarded as the essential prerequisite for the development of the socialist workers’ movement; 4) that, of all the activists and theorists around at the time, Lenin was not the most skeptical, but the most enthusiastic, about the spontaneous struggles of Russian working class and their future potential and that his fear was that they would be let down by the intellectuals.
Now I think it is fair to say that each of these points could be, and actually was, adduced from Lenin’s writings without Lih’s massive scholarly apparatus (with the possible exception of the comparative degree of Lenin’s enthusiasm about the workers’ struggles) Nevertheless what Lih achieves is not just a reasoned argument for each point but as close to meticulous proof as is possible in such matters. If there was justice in the world, or in academia, which of course there is not, the textbooks would have to be rewritten and numerous ‘experts’ would have to revise their whole view of Lenin. If Lih had been available at the time I wrote Marxism and the Party (thirty years ago) it would not have changed the basic line of argument but it would certainly altered and strengthened the presentation of Lenin’s 1901-04 positions and I think the same goes for Tony Cliff.(6)
Despite all this, however, I am obliged to dissent from some of the criticisms Lih makes of what he calls ‘the activist interpretation advanced by Cliff, Molyneux, Le Blanc and others’ ( Lih, p.18). This is not all to defend every line of my book Marxism and the Party – it was my first substantial work, written a long time ago, and doubtless contains many errors and weaknesses ( including, as acknowledged in the second edition, an overestimation of the contribution of Gramsci) – or indeed every line of Cliff, but because I think there is here an issue of political and theoretical substance.
According to Lih, ‘Tony Cliff is a great admirer of Lenin and yet his picture of Lenin from 1895 to 1905 is not an attractive one.’(p.25) This is because it shows Lenin changing his mind, or at least his formulations, on the relationship between political consciousness and economic struggle and thus makes Lenin ‘look like a rather incompetent and incoherent leader’.(p.25) I disagree. What Cliff shows is a developing leader, whose fundamental commitment to Marxism, socialism and revolution remains unshakeable, but who responds to events and learns in and from the struggle. This not a weakness either in Lenin, or in Cliff’s presentation of Lenin. On the contrary for a revolutionary leader it is an essential attribute.
What is unique about Cliff’s portrait of Lenin, especially Volume 1:Building the Party, is not the quantity of research (though that was considerable) and certainly not Cliff’s linguistic facility, but the fact that Cliff was engaged, albeit in very different circumstances, in the same activity as Lenin, namely trying to build a revolutionary party rooted in the working class.(7) Of course this element of identification carries the danger of subjective factors distorting the historical perspective, but it also generates numerous insights unavailable to the academic historian or theorist.
The concept of ‘bending - the - stick’, of which Cliff made much and to which Lih takes exception, is a case in point. Lih devotes a large number of words to unpicking the possible meanings of this phrase, but misses the main point. Cliff had learned from experience that shifting an organization of several thousand members ( as opposed to winning an academic or historical debate) from one strategic orientation and one way of working to another to meet the challenge of changed circumstances, required an almighty great tug on the relevant levers and, sometimes, a certain exaggeration. For Cliff achieving the desired end was more important than terminological exactitude or consistency and he rather thought, as do I, that Lenin felt the same way.
The question of learning in and from the struggle – learning from the working class – lies at the root of my second disagreement with Lih which relates to the issue of bringing socialism to the working class ‘from without’, one of the so-called ‘scandalous passages’ discussed at length in Annotations Part Two. Lih is absolutely correct in saying that this passage does not mean that Lenin thought the working class could not achieve socialist consciousness. If it did it would have made nonsense of his entire political project. He is also right in insisting that Lenin, here, is doing no more than asserting Social Democratic (Kautskyan) orthodoxy. Nevertheless I believe there are two statements in the passage which need to be challenged.
The first is that, ‘The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively by its own effort is able to develop only trade-union consciousness’.(Cited in Lih p.702). This is not, and was not, true – witness the Paris Commune - and Lenin saw with his own eyes that it was not true in 1905, hence his statement then that ‘The working class is spontaneously social democratic’. The second is Lenin’s claim that:
The doctrine of socialism grew out of those philosophic, historical and economic theories that were worked out by the educated representatives of the propertied
classes, the intelligentsia. The founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and
Engels, belonged themselves, according to their social origin, to the bourgeois
Intelligentsia. (Lih p.702)
The problematic nature of this passage is compounded by the quotation from Kautsky used by Lenin to support it:
…Naturally, socialism as a doctrine is as deeply rooted in modern economic relations as is the class struggle of the proletariat, just as both of them flow from the struggle against the poverty and desperation of the masses generated by capitalism. Nevertheless, socialism and the class struggle emerge side by side and not one from the other – they arise with different preconditions. Modern socialist awareness can emerge only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. In fact, modern economic science is as much a condition of socialist production as modern, say, technology. The modern proletariat, even if it wanted to, cannot create either the one or the other: both emerge from the modern social process.
The carrier of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia (Kautsky’s emphasis): modern socialism emerges in the in the heads of individual members of this stratum and then is communicated by them to proletarians who stand out due to their mental development, who in turn bring it into the class struggle of the proletariat where conditions allow. In this way, socialist awareness is something brought into the class struggle of the proletariat from without … and not something that emerges from the class struggle in stikhiinyi fashion.
(cited Lih pp.709-10)
The theoretical issue here is that raised by Marx in his critique of mechanical materialism in the Theses on Feuerbach: who educates the educators, or where does Marxist theory come from? According to Kautsky and Lenin (in 1901) the educators educate themselves through the study of political economy and observation of social conditions independently of the class struggle. This is false both historically and analytically. Marxist theory was developed by Marx and Engels, and continued to be developed by others, including Lenin, through involvement in, and interaction with, the struggle of the working class, i.e. through revolutionary practice (8). Marxism is, first and foremost, the world historical generalization of the experience of the working class in struggle. The Kautsky formulation is symptomatic of the underlying positivist, mechanical materialist philosophical position dominant in the Second International, in which Lenin was trained, but from which he broke, at first instinctively and politically(9) and then philosophically, through his re-study of Hegel after the betrayal of 1914.
Interestingly, there is also an issue of context here. Lih has immersed himself in the context of 1901 but I doubt that he has considered the context of the left in Britain in the 1970s in which Cliff and I were writing. At that time the revolutionary left had grown substantially (from the microscopic to the marginally significant) out of the student revolt of the late sixties/early seventies. A key question was how to relate this newly radicalized layer of students to the then powerfully developing industrial struggles of the working class. This issue was much debated and the principal rivals on the far left of Tony Cliff’s International Socialists - Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League and Ernest Mandel’s International Marxist Group – both used the authority of What Is To Be Done? (and in particular Lih’s ‘scandalous passages’) to justify what we believed to be an arrogant, top-down attitude to the working class. At the same time in the academic world we were beginning to see the rise of Althusserianism which also inflated theory and severed its roots in, and dependence on, working class struggle and revolutionary practice. All this made the correction of Lenin’s Kautskyan formulations a matter of practical political importance.
On the fact that there was something in need of correction I will quote a final witness who had the advantage of knowing the context as well as Lih and who also firmly recognized the importance and fundamental correctness of Lenin’s theory of the party, namely Trotsky, writing in 1939 in his unfinished biography of Stalin:
In August 1905 Stalin restated that chapter of Lenin’s book, “What To Do?”, which attempted to explain the correlation of the elemental labour movement and socialist class- consciousness… This is not the place for a criticism of that concept, which in its entirety belongs in a biography of Lenin rather than of Stalin. The author of “What To Do?” himself subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneousness, of his theory, which he had parenthetically interjected as a battery in the battle against “Economism”. (10)
One further point. Lih comments:
The activist writers also talk as if they knew Lenin’s beliefs better than he did himself. John Molyneux writes, for example, that ‘Lenin at this stage  was not aware that he diverged in any fundamental way from social democratic orthodoxy’ and therefore incorrectly identified himself with SPD luminaries such as Karl Kautsky and August Bebel. We are left with the following picture. There was probably no one in Russia who had read in Kautsky’s voluminous writings so attentively, extensively and admiringly as Lenin, yet he remained completely unaware that he diverged in fundamental ways from Kautsky. I am not sure whether we are supposed to explain this by Kautsky’s deceitfulness, Lenin’s inability to understand what he read, or Lenin’s unawareness of his own beliefs. (Lih p.25)
The answer is, of course, none of the above and certainly not that I think I’m cleverer than Lenin (chance would be a fine thing!). But I do not think that Lih, because of his exclusive focus on 1901-04, understands the problem. The problem is that the early Lenin, as Lih demonstrates, was a sincere and enthusiastic ‘Erfurtian’ but that the later Lenin broke completely with the Second International and became the implacable opponent of Kautsky. How did this happen ? Clearly Kautsky changed but so did Lenin and equally clearly the turning point was the SPD’s support for imperialist war in August 1914. But how was it that the vast majority of the SPD and of the parties of the Second International collapsed into social chauvinism (and thence into outright opposition to revolution) whereas the Bolshevik Party, almost unanimously and almost alone of the parties of the International, opposed the war?
My argument, then and now, is that, in the period 1903–14, there developed a fundamental difference between the (reformist) practice and nature of the Social Democratic Parties and the (revolutionary) practice and nature of Bolshevik Party. This is explained, in the main, by three factors:1) differences in the objective social and political conditions between Russia and Western Europe, including the non-emergence in Russia of a trade union and party bureaucracy; 2) differences in the level and intensity of struggle, especially in 1905 and 1912-14; 3) Lenin’s concrete, sometimes ad hoc, empirical (‘instinctive’) political responses to these circumstances. Here, as elsewhere in the history of our movement (the Paris Commune, the role of Soviets in 1905 and 1917) practice ran ahead of theory. In 1914 the scales fell from Lenin’s eyes regarding Kautsky, Bebel and the rest and theory caught up with a vengeance (see Imperialism- the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, the Philosophical Notebooks, Marxism on the State, The State and Revolution and much else besides).
This argument rests not all on some capacity to second guess Lenin, but exclusively on the enormous advantage of hindsight. It does,however, highlight again the role of practice in the development of theory. Lih refers to Cliff, Le Blanc and myself as ‘the activists’ and I am pleased to accept the label. Indeed the wider justification for this detailed response to Lih’s relatively minor criticisms in his generally excellent book is to defend the standpoint of ‘activism’, of revolutionary practice, as the point of departure for Marxist theory.
This review has been a mixture of praise and dissent. The explanation of dissent inevitably takes more space than the bestowal of praise, but I want to close by saying that in the wider scheme of things the praise is more important than the dissent, and Lih’s vindication of Lenin, and especially of his commitment to political freedom and his enthusiasm for worker’s struggles, is more important than our points of difference.
1. By Trotsky in Lessons of October and in Tony Cliff Lenin Vol. 4: The Bolsheviks and World Communism, London 1979, Chapters 4,5 and 10.
2. Failed revolutions, like the german Revolution of 1923 and the Portuguese
Revolution of 1974-75, disappear almost without trace from all but the most
specialist academic histories.
3. Of course there could well have a been specific conspiracy on this question. The CIA engaged in all sorts of academic and cultural interventions at the time ranging from funding Encounter magazine and the British National Union of Students to promoting abstract expressionist painting. But it doesn’t matter – there didn’t need to be one.
4. ‘Underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake. In the early 1900s,an exiled lawyer in Europe published a pamphlet called What is to be done? in which he laid out his plan to launch a communist revolution in Russia. The world did not heed Lenin’s word’s and paid a terrible price.’ George Bush in a speech to the Military Officers Association of America, (05.09.06) transcribed from BBC News on the internet.
Presumably if Bush had been around at the time he would he would have kept a close eye on the internal literature of the Russian underground and had Lenin whisked off to Guantanamo Bay and the history of the twentieth century would have been alright. Alternatively, he could he have bombed St. Petersburg or perhaps London, where Lenin was at the time.
5. Personally I , who make no claims to be a scholar of the period, read only Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg in the original, otherwise relying on secondary sources.
6. Obviously I can’t speak for Cliff but we worked together quite closely at the time – he
edited Marxism and the Party and I, with others, contributed editorial advice on his
biography of Trotsky.
7. With Cliff it was the IS/SWP in Britain in the seventies, and it should be said that
although this project was not as successful as he, or the rest of us, hoped , he achieved
substantially more than anyone else around at the time.
8. This was the standpoint from which I criticized Lenin on this point in Marxism and the
Party and for which I argued more extensively in relation to the development of
Marxism as a whole in What is the Real Marxist Tradition? in International Socialism
9. In Marxism and the Party I suggest that the 1903 Bolshevik/Menshevik split and the
debates it generated (see Lenin’s One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back)
was a significant ‘ moment’ in this instinctive break.
10. Leon Trotsky, Stalin, London 1968 p.58.