Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Lenin Rediscovered and Politics Today.

with 9 comments


In the just issued Historical Materialism journal there is an important  ‘symposium’ on Lars Lib’s Lenin Rediscovered ( another useful Review by Mike Macnair here). I have not read the original book – maybe when I have the odd sixty quid to spare I will (revised: $210.00!).

The debate centres on Lenin’s What is to do Done? (1901 and February 1902), and its significance in the development of ‘Leninism’. Lib’s aim was to demolish the ‘myth’ of this text. For many, apparently, Lenin broke from democracy. His pamphlet against the Mensheviks on the need for a centralised structure of the Russian Social Democratic Party showed the germs of a future hyper-centralised and bureaucratic state-party machine. Lenin’s support for centralisation of policy-making and day-to-day decision-taking, along with control over the party paper and tight conditions for membership, was the basis of what later became known as ‘democratic centralism’.

Lib establishes (fairly convincingly) that WITB was did not mark a radical break from  2nd International social democracy. It did not turn towards absolute centralism, and a party monopolised by full-time revolutionaries-by-trade. A degree of centralism and dedication to party-work were part of the building-blocks of any mass movement with a reasonable chance of winning power. Lib argues Lenin’s famous formulation, that socialism has to be brought from ‘the outside’ to the working class is part of ‘Erfurtian’ orthodoxy. That is the form of socialism set out by Karl Kautsky most famously in his commentary on the German SPD’s Erfurt Programme, The Road to Power.

This type of Marxist politics is  grounded on the development of history (class struggle), analysis of social structure, and the role of a workers’ party in changing people’s minds, and encouraging their participation in the  unfolding of socialist strategy.  Lenin, Lars considers (as do most of the other contributors) based himself, in this text and his practice of the period, was democratic. He recognised the complex interaction between mass movements and the need for a professional revolutionary party. But the nature of that relationship, as other participants in the symposium indicate, remains an open question.

There is much in this discussion that will interest only those thoroughly grounded in the history of the Bolshevik Party, and, above all, those wishing to defend this or that aspect of its politics. A few short sentences cannot properly summarise this rich, and largely rewarding, debate. Much turns on Lenin’s efforts to deal with political and working class  ‘spontaneity‘ through the famous ‘outside’ party intervention. This again comes down to translation (here), as Wikipedia notes,

Lih argues that even if we examine the controversial passages in WITBD we misunderstand them if we are not alive to the meanings of the words used. Some of these have been translated in such a way as to confuse or even to draw readers to the opposite of what Lenin’s real views were. Pages and pages of Lih’s book therefore are devoted to explaining why and how the word stikhiinyi, when translated as spontaneity, distorts his views; how konspiratsiia does not mean ‘conspiracy’; tred-iunionizm does not mean ‘trade unionism’ and revoliutsioner po professii should not be translated as ‘professional revolutionary.’”[4][5]

Some points which have more contemporary relevance should be borne in mind.

  • Lib makes much of his strategy of “making strange” What is to Be Done? through a new translation. This includes an effort to make clear that the key word ‘spontaneous’ has been used (and accept as standard) to stand for the Russian Stikhinost and stikhiinyi. The Russian words have connotations, he says, of “primitiveness, uncontrolled impulses, lack of organisation” and even “violence”.
  • These are a lot of connotations.  Spontaneity in English (and in other European languages which employ it) is  understood with a different range of meanings politically, to say, in ordinary life (if we use it). The spectrum of these everyday  references includes, “coming or resulting from a natural impulse or tendency; without effort or premeditation; natural and unconstrained; unplanned: a spontaneous burst of applause, “given to acting upon sudden impulses”. Then we have scientific layer (of natural phenomena) “arising from internal forces or causes; independent of external agencies; self-acting. “growing naturally or without cultivation, as plants and fruits; indigenous.” In left politics by contrast spontaneity refers largely to self-acted, self-driven and, by inference, unpredictable, since a spontaneous action can crop up any time, any place, within the context that shapes any act.
  • Lenin both supported and opposed self-activity. Political activity located in  individual decision-making t4nded to be conflated with an appeal to unpredictable reasons. The Party-form was defended as a kind of shiled against its contamination by bourgeois ideology.  Lenin always, rightly, underlined the collective and taking-sides nature of politics.  However, this was not just because of the negative shades of meaning attached to  stikhiinyi. In  Lenin’s equally important  text, One Step Fowards, Two Steps Back (February-May 1904), that he opposed another side of self-decided acts (that is beyond the Marxist party’s organisation) . This is the principle that however collectively elaborated politics needs a bedrock area of individual freedom to dissent and cause upsets. His writing, In One Step…as in many other places,  is littered with criticisms of this as ‘autonomism’  ‘anarchism’ and – later – liberalism. It is what became known as the contrary of ‘party-mindedness’. In time this would sanction the elimination of ‘factionalism’ when the strains of the early Soviet State (and its political militarisation) meant that the already weak sanctio for the space of a final autonomous area was swept away.
  • Lenin may have been as flexible as possible, within the framework of Erfurt socialism, towards the spontaneous actions of the masses (notably the 1905 Russian mass strikes, and thereafter). But he was marked by this continual side-taking against the self-activation of anyone who opposed his particular view of what socialism was.
  • This was shored up by a belief in the scientific basis, or objective truth, of his version of Marxism in a wide variety of fields. Critics of this aspect of Lenin’s organisational principles may have agreed, or agree, with his writings on say the Development of Capitalism in Russia (the class structure, and the conditions it laid out for socialist change, uniting democratic, working class and peasant demands). But a party-mechanism that is more than just wary of (bad) stikhiinyi  but hostile to the ‘self-organisation’ of forces outside and inside Russian social democracy puts ‘scientific’ truth (an important goal – though objective assessments would be a better description) first and neglects the inherently turbulent stasis (conflict) of politics. Lenin, and the Bolsheviks in power, came to define stasis, internal party conflict, through a shift already apparent in Aristotle, as subversion, as a sign of the enemy’s acts.

The problem than about Lenin, shown in What is to be Done? is then greater than this symposium suggests. It is that it showed Lenin attempting to deal with political conflict, opposition to his views on party organisation, throughly hostile to stikhiinyi   in a broad sense: the turmoil created by uncontrolled autonomy, of self-acting, of political stasis. Part of his  reaction was to support centralisation, backed up by an appeal to Marxist science as a source of authority (first and foremost). Another part was to promote the ideas of Erfurt in a broader way, to encourage people to think in socialist terms and to build a party which was more than a loose federation of the like-minded. This required a seriousness that party-mindedness helped.

The symposium establishes this positive side well. Lenin’s success owes a lot to the second line of march. But other factors, as we have indicated,  would later accelerate the importance of the former.

As is suggested by some of the contributors to this discussion Lib’s writings are no a true ‘Cambridge school’ attempt to unearth the contextual and historical meanings of the texts. The debate is dominated by the SWP’s efforts to find early breaks between Lenin and Kautsky – a topic Lars has no difficulty in showing is a dead-end. Lib points out, in the process, the shaky ground of SWP theory. Tony Cliff for example, smuggled in other people’s references to original Russian language sources and presented them as his own in his biography of Lenin.

If this shows how we cannot easily read the political past without our own concerns coming to the fore – perhaps it is impossible. In this potential mind-field there are not just mythologies but real power struggles at work.  The author of Lenin Rediscovered  does not grapple with the fact that, say, nobody has ever attempted to defend Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity as a guide to present day debates on religion and socialism, while Lenin’s Materialism and Empirico-Criticism loomed large for a long time in discussions about Marxism and philosophy. One obvious reason is that Lenin gave his entire practical and written corpus the status of party-mindedness, and expected to draw up battle lines on anything he touched on. In this he laid down grounds that made it hard to advocate individual autonomous judgement on the whole gamut of political and theoretical problems that the Bolshevik, and later, the Communist movement confronted. This legacy is not a historical one.

Some consider that the Third International and Bolshevism, the resulting effects on all groups claiming a Leninist legacy, is marked by this tendency to be suspicious of a key aspect of democracy, individual judgement.

Which explains why, when people look at the actions of British left groups trying to create their own fronts for anti-cuts campaigns they refer to the Party deciding the Line, and to Democratic Centralism (all following Party decisions) – a myth maybe, but one made real. Party-mindedness is essential to politics, as are distinctions between friends and enemies, and the reciprocal relations (close to friendship) that a workers’ movement should foster. But Lenin beqeuthed  an unattractive feature: a distrust of spontaneity, whether he considered it in terms of stikhiinyi or (since he was discussing in terms of Kautsky’s  German SPD) as  Spontaneität  or  Ungezwungenheit  (that is the style of un-forced expression).  


Written by Andrew Coates

December 22, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Communism, Left, Marxism, SWP, Trotskyism

Tagged with ,

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I thought you weren’t a Leninist. 🙂


    December 22, 2010 at 2:21 pm

  2. The issue in my humble opinion Andrew is not Lenin but self styled Leninists.

    The political culture that derives from the dark shadow and mass graves of Democratic Centralism a la Russ find a similarly dark, but not so bloody, reflection in the inner Party culture of the Trotskyist sects.

    Rather than breaking from what has been a failed form of Party organisation it seems that the likes of the SWP and PS are retreating further into it as they shrink, whereas the ‘successful’ re-organisations such as the NPA and Die Linke have had limited advances precisely because they have broken that particular straight jacket.

    Mind you the LRC pre- NPA days always seemed to have a strong and flourishing inner Party debating culture.

    And of course the grouplette that calls itself the CPGB use to be a faction or fraction (I purposely forget the difference) behind a newspaper called The Leninist I seem to remember.

    Pete Shield

    December 22, 2010 at 2:58 pm

  3. The LCR had this after a FI discussion, and a FI declaration in the 1970s which basically supported socialist pluralism.

    One of the problems with the SWP and the SP is that they’ve never had that debate.

    I do think there are seeds in Lenin’s original party-mindedness, which is basically very intolerant, and can’t accept contradiction. It usually turns in on itself.

    Btw I have revised the post (price of book via Amazon USA is $210.00!) and added some comments Lib makes about Tony Cliff’s use of sources, lifted from elsewhere, which gave the impression he had read the relevant Russian literature on Lenin in the original! The SWP school of passing-off others’ work as your own….?

    I think this point has been made before by someone else.

    Andrew Coates

    December 22, 2010 at 6:10 pm

  4. Sadly, or fortunately, I was 4 in 1970 and not party to that debate- which didn’t cross the channel very well, apart from the IMG I seem to remember which was seem to spend a huge amount of time in internal debate before they all decided that it would be much better fun getting well paid jobs in local government.

    I caught the end of that in Big Flame, guess they were the IMG members who’s local government careers didn’t work out so well.

    I think both the IS/SWP and Militant/SPEW had that debate of a sorts, then decided to throw out the minority position, repeatedly.

    Pete Shield

    December 22, 2010 at 6:30 pm

  5. errant was in the second line there- serves me right for conserving the depleted solar system by typing in the dark.

    Pete Shield

    December 22, 2010 at 6:38 pm

  6. The debate in the USFI (which the IMG was part of) was really led by Ernest Mandel and reflected European debates in the wake of Eurcommunism more than anything else.

    Mandel published this later which gives a good summary:


    Andrew Coates

    December 23, 2010 at 11:43 am

  7. You can buy this book, paperback, for 35 nicker in Housman’s in London.

    I think that Lih has done a lot to counter the views of Lenin promoted by what he calls (after the anti-communist Bertram Wolfe) the Wolfe Pack, who see WITBD as the evil seed of Stalinist totalitarianism, and Leninists, some of whom see it as a centralist aberration on Lenin’s part (whilst, I may add, running their own parties in a far tighter manner than Lenin ever did), whilst others see it as party-building manual.

    What Lenin tried to do was to address the question of how basic, spontaneous actions by workers could be drawn into the struggle for socialism, and why a party is necessary for doing this. This is as important — and as fraught — today as it was a century ago. I’m honest enough — or rash enough — to admit that I have no answers to it.

    This book is a rather large sledge-hammer to attack what is in actuality a rather small nut, as WITBD was pretty much forgotten about once it was published (Lenin didn’t want to have it republished later on), but as it has subsequently gained a significance that it didn’t deserve, such a lengthy exposition is necessary.

    Dr Paul

    December 23, 2010 at 7:48 pm

  8. My own take on “What is to be Done”:



    December 24, 2010 at 4:36 am

  9. More useful material Louis.

    On the price of Historical Materialism books – a sore point – can I point out that for readers of French one of them, Pierre Broué on 1920s Germany,(Révolution en Allemagne) is available in the original on the Marxist Internet Archive.

    Pierre Broué’s complete biography of Trotksy and the Revolution in Germany can be got through this site in one rapid ‘zip’ download:

    Andrew Coates

    December 24, 2010 at 11:33 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: