A patchwork Lenin

Issue: 170

Kevin Corr

A review of Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn and Patrick Anderson (eds), Lenin150 (Samizdat), Daraja Press (2021), £27.

This book is a nicely designed patchwork of essays—a “birthday celebration” marking the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth. Although it has a bit of a spontaneous, jigsaw-puzzle feel to it, it constitutes a genuine attempt to get beneath the praise and slurs, the deification and vilification of Lenin, and to see what emerges. Needless to say, with over 20 contributors, a number of different styles and approaches can be found: some are funny and whimsical, others compelling and sobering, and yet others present thoughtful scholarly analysis. The articles reflect Lenin’s own internationalism, with mainly younger writers from China, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico, India, Krygyzstan (in fact, three from Krygyzstan), as well as the United States and Europe. My review will not attempt to describe every article but merely to present a selection of the perspectives on offer.

The opening contribution is the only one from an author who actually knew Lenin: Leon Trotsky. Writing in 1920, on Lenin’s 50th birthday, he reflects on how, though Marx was the philosopher genius who interpreted the world, he—like many other pioneers—did not live long enough to bring about the change he advocated. Yet, Trotsky writes, “The transformation of the old world is now in full swing and Lenin is the foremost worker on this job” (p11). Trotsky further elaborates on his theme, writing that the entire Marx is “contained in the Communist Manifesto, in the foreword to his Critique, in Capital” and “even if he had not been the founder of the First International he would always have remained what he is today.” Lenin, on the other hand, is contained entirely in revolutionary action: “If he never published a single book, he would forever enter history just as he enters it now, the leader of the proletarian revolution, the founder of the Third International” (p13).

This view of Lenin is largely affirmed by his lifelong partner, Nadia Krupskaya, in her book Reminiscences of Lenin, which provides the central focus for Jodi Dean’s contribution to this collection. Dean reflects how, from a personal and, one might say, bourgeois perspective, Reminiscences “is a strange duck”. There is no description of how the couple fell in love, no endearing marriage proposal; indeed, it is not even clear why they got married. Dean writes: “Where we want sex, we find organisation.” What Dean refers to as the “communist perspective of desire” lies in the romantic intimacy of the couple being replaced by the collective intimacy of comrades: “The two are two of many” (p125).

Ronald Grigor Suny’s chapter considers Trotsky’s famous declaration that “a whole river of blood” separated Bolshevism from Stalinism, offering a somewhat equivocal position on this issue. His opening sentence states, “Both Lenin and Stalin were sincere revolutionaries.” He continues, “Both were committed to fundamental political and social transformations of the imperial society in which they lived; as Marxists they understood that the struggle for emancipation could not occur without the use of violence” (p255). Suny believes that “the left” is reluctant to recognise the continuities and connections between Leninism and Stalinism. However, he also argues that Stalinism was, in essence, “a malignant perversion of the aspirations of the original founders and the revolutionary masses who came onto the streets in 1917” (p258). As such he is critical of conservative historians such as Richard Pipes who try to see violence embedded in the regime from beginning to end, and who therefore do not distinguish one period from another. Suny asserts that revolutionary violence such as the use of terror during the Civil War period, whatever the difficulties of reconciling it with the ideals of creating a democratic society, cannot justifiably be compared to the massive arbitrary killing of the 1930s.

Another piece that may jar with readers in the tradition of this journal is Roland Boer’s chapter on “Lenin and Non-antagonistic Contradictions”. This essay considers Lenin’s extensive study of philosopher Georg Hegel and what Boer sees as Lenin’s extraordinary rediscovery of the ruptural dialectic of revolutionary action. Lenin writes, “Antagonism and contradiction are not the same thing. Under socialism, the first will disappear, but the second will remain…and persist for decades” (p105). And again, “As long as survivals of capitalism and small production remain, contradictions between them and the young shoots of socialism are inevitable throughout the social system” (p106). Boer assesses this theory of non-antagonistic contradictions through a historical survey, first of the years immediately after 1917, but then extending deep into the 20th century. In doing so, he rejects the idea that the socialist project in Russia was effectively dead by the late 1920s. The assumption therefore is that Stalinist Russia still embodied socialism. So too, for Boer, did Mao Zedong’s China. He does not consider Marx’s famous dictum that “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class”, by which yardstick the Chinese Revolution of 1949 cannot be seen as a communist revolution at all. This is somewhat at odds with other parts of his contribution, where he extols Lenin’s emphasis on the importance of the subjective dimension, nurtured by the active development of workers’ socialist consciousness in the struggle to change the world. Put simply, we are not merely determined by objective conditions, but as a class we also act to change these, thus changing ourselves. This remains as much a reality today as it did throughout the 20th century, whether workers are toiling under “Western” capitalism or under so-called “actually existing socialism”, which has been more accurately characterised in this journal using Tony Cliff’s label: bureaucratic state capitalism.

Like Boer, Kevin Anderson highlights Lenin’s extensive engagement with Hegel’s works, notably his Science of Logic. According to Anderson, it is here that Lenin distinguished himself from other revolutionary Marxists such as Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. He contends that Lenin’s Notebooks of 1914-15 show him pulling away from the crude materialism that the parties of the Second International had fallen into after Marx’s death in 1883. According to Anderson, this meant Lenin moving away from his own earlier formulations in his 1908 Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Anderson is one of a number of contributors to this anthology who are critical of aspects of Lenin’s practice after 1917, although he does not provide sufficient context to assess the validity of his claims. Anderson also regards Lenin’s concept of the vanguard party as problematic, suggesting that such a party will inevitably morph into a post-revolutionary authoritarian one-party state.

In a contrasting analysis, Alan Badiou uses Lenin’s April Theses of 1917 to emphasise how Lenin describes the political action required “to find a way out of the endlessly repeating paradigm that has dominated human society since the Neolithic revolution, namely the triumph of the trinity of family, private property and the state” (p18). Badiou distinguishes two essential meanings to the word politics. The traditional meaning focuses on the range of processes concerning the control and management of the state apparatus. Badiou places the revolution in February 1917 under this definition in the sense that it aimed only to change the form of the state; it limited its scope to replacing the monarchical mode of domination with the parliamentary mode of domination. By contrast, the April Theses expresses another meaning of the word politics—as expressing a division between populations with irreconcilable objectives. This second meaning provided greater scope for the development of political consciousness, which eventually culminated in the fulfillment of the demand for “all power to the Soviets” in the October Revolution.

Another author highlighting the contemporary relevance of Lenin’s approach is Vashna Jagarnath in his contribution: “‘Peace! Land! Bread!’ We Are Not Going to Die of Coronavirus, We are Going to Die of Hunger!” This takes Lenin’s transitional demands, raised first in April 1917, and relocates them to South Africa in 2020, noting how the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated already heightened social tensions. The call for peace is not, as in Lenin’s day, a call to end a world war but rather to end state repression against the poor and marginal. The call for bread is becoming ever more urgent as an increasing number of South Africans go hungry while “the rich stock up and hibernate in their high-walled mansions” (p55). Finally, the need for land is evident in the ongoing occupations in urban areas demanding housing and the provision of essential services such as water and electricity; all inevitably met with extraordinary state violence. Jagarnath also mounts a powerful attack on the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as the “soft cop” of neoliberalism. Whereas Lenin’s slogan in 1917 expressed the ideology of socialism in concrete terms, understood by ordinary people, the NGO sector deflects discontent into “the realm of workshops, petitions and technical sets of demands on the state” (p56).

Vijay Prashad’s essay is a short account of Lenin’s theoretical and practical contribution to the process that culminated in the October Revolution and the Soviet experiment that followed in the years immediately after 1917. He focuses on Lenin’s advocacy of unity between the workers and the peasants in the fight “against the rule of capital”. He also highlights Lenin’s text Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in the context of the First World War. The kernel of a Marxist anti-colonialism, later developed by the Communist International in the early 1920s, can be found here. Prashad draws some useful comparisons between Karl Kautsky’s rival theory of “ultra-imperialism”, which envisaged the eventual emergence of a peaceful “cartel” of imperialist nations, and the more recent writings of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt about what they call “empire”, a new global form of sovereignty. As Prashad recognises, circumstances change; the world requires careful study, and theory requires careful reworking. Yet he also insists that much of the essence of Lenin’s Imperialism remains well-founded.

Finally, some of the contributions in the book offer insights into how preconceptions of Lenin shape his reception by would-be radicals. This includes the piece by Georgy Mamedov, an LGBT+ activist in Kyrgyztan who addresses how Lenin is perceived in one of the old eastern states within the Soviet Union. Mamedov expresses a critical solidarity with Lenin, setting this in the circumstances of someone who was faced with a pervasive negative image of Lenin in a post-Soviet context and thus found himself resistant to engaging with Lenin as a thinker. A key part of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s post-1956 de-Stalinisation meant a replacement of Stalin’s monuments, portraits and quotes with those of Lenin. However, this late Soviet attempt to make Lenin a sacred figure turned into a “profane caricature”. Mamedov writes, “This Lenin-centred ideological canon also demanded that no political, scientific or educational text from—astrophysics to cooking—was published without referencing Lenin’s work or involving Lenin’s image in some way” (p113). No wonder that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, this “caricatured Lenin” was rejected even by much of the progressive left. Mamedov also attempts an analogy between Lenin’s writing on “The Question of Nationalities and the Right of Nations to Self Determination” with that of oppressions based on gender, sexuality, race, disability and ethnicity. This is not successful, and untangling the problems with this comparison would take another article in itself; a strong infusion of privilege theory seems to be at work here, along with a lack of clarity concerning the crucial and specific role of working-class struggle.

As someone whose own children were brought up in a Leninist household in Margaret Thatcher’s England, I felt pangs of recognition when reading Owen Hatherley’s contribution. Hatherley describes himself as a child who grew up in a house “full of dead Russians”. He lovingly, and amusingly, recalls moments in his childhood and early adolescence when it began to dawn on him that his family was not quite the same as others. Refreshingly, though he no longer shares his family’s politics, he nevertheless retains a warm and respectful admiration for their generally isolated commitment to changing the world. As he puts it, “My parents, and the organisations they were part of, were a force for good” (p80).

Overall, in tune with this book’s general tone of “critical solidarity” with Lenin, I, in turn, express critical solidarity with the engaging enthusiasm and intentions of those who have produced it. Spending time reading its eclectic contributions would be no bad thing for anyone who feels part of, or at least identifies with, the radical ferment pulsating across the world. The enormous crisis facing us is now being brought into sharp focus by the Covid-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter and the developing ecological disaster. For us today, as in Lenin’s time, the questions remain how do we, the left, cut through the isolated condition we find ourselves in, and how can we learn from the past if we are to avoid barbarism and catastrophe?