What was done

Issue: 111

Paul Blackledge

A review of Lars T Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context (Brill, Historical Materialism series, 2006), euro 1291

While the problem of ‘what to do’2 is one that resurfaces for socialists and radicals on an almost daily basis, because it does so in a myriad of different ways it would be absurd to suggest that it could be answered in a once and for all manner. Nevertheless, because history is characterised by continuity as well as by change, it would be equally nonsensical to pretend that we have nothing to learn from past social movements. More specifically, as the fallout of the Russian Revolution of 1917 dominated 20th century politics,3 and because the relevance of this model of revolution to other societies has been debated ever since,4 it is incumbent upon socialists to acquire an honest assessment of what the Russian revolutionaries did, how they did it, and what caused the revolution’s eventual degeneration. Indeed, to learn from past social movements we must first be sure of what actually happened within them. Unfortunately, few events, and fewer individuals, have been so obscured by a fog of myth as have the October Revolution and Lenin’s role within it. If one text lies at the centre of the contemporary myth of ‘Leninism’ it is perhaps What is to be Done?, a book written by Lenin a decade and a half before 1917 to address some historically specific ‘burning questions of our movement’.5 Unfortunately, the version of ‘Leninism’ usually reconstructed from this book bears very little resemblance to the actual historical Lenin. For when ‘Leninism’ is normally discussed, and rejected, it is a mythological version, constructed by Zinoviev and Stalin after Lenin’s death and subsequently accepted as authentic by liberal critics of socialism in the West, to which reference usually is made. If we are honestly to assess the lessons of the Russian Revolution, then it is essential that we unpick the real Lenin from this shared Stalinist and liberal myth of ‘Leninism’.

It would be difficult to praise too highly Lars Lih’s contribution to such an honest reassessment of Lenin’s thought. At its heart, Lih’s book aims to overthrow, and succeeds in overthrowing, what he calls the ‘textbook interpretation’ of Lenin’s What is to be Done? Lih thus adds to and deepens the arguments of those who have sought to recover the real Lenin from the Cold War mythology.6 Unfortunately, despite the power of Lih’s argument, and despite the awesome scholarship which underpins it, it is perhaps all too easy to predict the silence with which this reconstruction of Lenin’s thought will be met at the hands of those who already ‘know’ what was wrong with Lenin’s Marxism.

According to the textbook interpretation, Lenin’s contempt for the intellectual capacities of workers was reflected in his insistence on building a party of professional revolutionaries who would bring socialist ideas to the working class from without and subsequently lead this class in a top-down manner. Bad enough before the revolution, the textbooks insist that this perspective led to Stalinism after 1917. Among contemporary leftists some version of this model has become something of an unshakable common sense. Thus Simon Tormey compares Lenin with Mussolini, suggesting that both of these led in a top-down and undemocratic manner.7 Likewise John Holloway argues that Lenin took Engels’ ‘scientific’ distortion of Marxism to its logical, undemocratic, conclusion when he posited the existence of a party of ‘knowers’ who would impart their scientific knowledge from on high to the workers.8 Similarly, Michael Hardt and Tony Negri have argued that the hierarchical form of the Bolshevik Party helped negate the hopes of 1917.9 Commenting on the supposed undemocratic nature of the Bolshevik model, Bonefeld and Tischler have insisted that the ‘Leninist’ ‘form of the party contradicts the content of revolution’.10 Unfortunately, their essay is typical of those collected in an earlier book on Lenin’s Marxism, What is to be Done?: Leninism, Anti-Leninist Marxism and the Question of Revolution Today, which almost universally dismiss Lenin’s entire legacy. That these writers do so without reference to the serious studies of Lenin, noted in endnote six, is perhaps evidence enough to suggest that nothing that Lih might write could change their minds.11

Behind these dismissive attitudes towards Lenin lies the argument that the existence of a revolutionary socialist party negates the Marxist claim that socialism can only come through working class self-emancipation. However, the force of this argument depends upon a superficial conception of a self-emancipatory movement. As Lih points out, because Marxists insist that socialism can only come from below we realise that it will necessarily emerge out of sectional and fragmented struggles. It is the sectional and fragmentary nature of the struggle which creates differences between more and less advanced workers, and consequently leads to the emergence of socialist leaders: anyone who organises a strike, challenges a racist argument, rips down a sexist calendar at work, etc is acting as a leader. What is more, anyone who challenges such actions is also acting as a leader. At its heart, Lenin’s contribution to Marxism is perhaps best understand as the most systematic attempt to deal with this practical problem. He argued, quite simply, that in a multi-party context the effectiveness of socialist leaders will be increased if they are themselves organised into a party.12 To suggest, by contrast with Lenin’s approach to this issue, that leadership per se will result in the negation of socialism effectively accepts that the ordinary leaders who emerge in the class struggle will, if successful, necessarily degenerate into new elites.13 This is a version of elite theory, and if it is true then socialism is a utopia. As Lih argues, ‘Sometimes the dictum [socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class] is viewed as the opposite of the vanguard outlook, but, in actuality, it makes vanguardism almost inevitable. If the proletariat is the only agent capable of introducing socialism, then it must go through some process that will prepare it to carry out that great deed’.14

In their enthusiasm to break with authoritarian models of leadership, those socialists who dismiss revolutionary parties as necessarily elitist miss a delineation suggested by Gramsci. He argued that leaders could be divided into democratic and anti-democratic types: ‘In the formation of leaders, one premise is fundamental: is it the intention that there should always be rulers and ruled, or is the objective to create the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary?’15 To dismiss Lenin’s model of leadership as undemocratic, as do Holloway, Hardt and Negri, and the writers collected by Bonefeld and Tischler, is to accept the textbook myth of ‘Leninism’ as a fact. The great strength of Lih’s book is that it destroys this myth by proving the fundamentally democratic nature of Lenin’s project.

Indeed, Lih has produced a study that should make us all rethink our understanding of Lenin: he goes as far as arguing that Cliff, Le Blanc and Molyneux, all activists who aimed to rescue Lenin from the myth of ‘Leninism’, have carried too much of the textbook interpretation of What is to de Done? into their studies. In making this claim, Lih takes seriously Lenin’s suggestion, made five years after the publication of What is to be Done?, that his earlier arguments could only be understood in the context of the debates within the Russian Marxist movement at the beginning of the last century.16 To reconstruct this context, Lih has not only read everything that Lenin wrote, but he has also read all of the surviving Russian Marxist literature from the period, and most of the important German Marxist literature—which, to all intents and purposes, amounted to the international context of the debates. What is more, he has retranslated What is to be Done? with a view to exposing some of the cruder readings of its arguments. His conclusions overturn just about every accepted myth about that book specifically, and the associated image of ‘Leninism’ more generally.

Lih’s basic argument is that Lenin sought to apply in Russia the model of socialist organisation that had proved so successful in Germany.17 Moreover, Lih insists that Lenin underpinned his perspective with an optimistic assumption about the possibility of the growth of socialist consciousness within the Russian working class. In fact, by contrast with his praise of Russia’s workers, Lenin was scathing about the weaknesses of Russia’s radical intelligentsia generally and the Russian socialist movement specifically. These, he claimed, were in grave danger of failing the workers’ movement in the coming revolution. As a socialist intellectual, Lenin focused his attention on how to overcome these weaknesses. Specifically, he aimed his polemic against those socialists whose arguments would, if taken to their logical conclusion, undermine the very possibility of building a mass socialist party along German lines in Russia.18 Of course, Lenin did not believe that the German model could be mechanically replicated in Russian conditions. However, he did think that the foundations for such a party could be built, and that as the class struggle forced political liberalisation on the Russian regime, this party could transform itself along German lines. Despite what was, for Russian socialists in 1902, a relatively uncontentious
argument, the polemical nature of What is to be Done?,19 when combined with a poor knowledge of the context within which it was written, has lent itself to a thoroughly distorted image of ‘Leninism’ as an elitist anti-democratic ideology.

One of the most telling points that Lih makes is that the textbook interpretation of What is to be Done? is a product of the Cold War. By contrast with the myth of ‘Leninism’, as late as 1947 the British academic John Plamenatz penned the following description of Lenin: he was ‘a democrat in the true Marxist sense. He believed in democracy inside the party’.20 The interesting thing about this description of Bolshevism is that it was not seen to be particularly contentious when it was written. Within a few years, however, it would be hard to imagine any academic writing in these terms. The change in Lenin’s reputation within academia in this period had little to do with the discovery of new sources, and everything to do with the growing demonisation of all things Communist in the Cold War. The new image of ‘Leninism’ proved useful to Western liberals whose criticisms were almost universally made against a straw-man parody of Lenin’s thought and practice. The mirror of this process was the growing iconisation of Lenin in the East. Whereas the textbook interpretation of Lenin acted as a valuable stick with which Western liberals could beat the left, in the East this representation helped legitimise the top-down methods of the Stalinists. While liberals and Stalinists could thus agree that Leninism led to Stalinism, Lih’s book helps show that reality was far more complicated than it is presented in what he calls the ‘Soviet history made easy’ approach, according to which Lenin’s dictatorial model of party organisation outlined in What is to be Done? morphed into Stalin’s dictatorship after the Revolution.21 Indeed, he shows that a crucial weakness with this interpretation of history is that it depends upon an utterly distorted interpretation of What is to be Done?

The image of Leninism as a crude centralising distortion of Marxism can be traced, in large part, to the criticisms of his arguments raised by Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. In 1904 Trotsky famously criticised Lenin’s conception of socialist organisation thus: ‘The organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the “dictator” substitutes himself for the Central Committee.’ Meanwhile, Luxemburg criticised Lenin’s supposed image of an ‘all-knowing and ubiquitous Central Committee’ which reduces the ‘workers to a docile instrument of a committee’. Lih points out that on both counts these criticisms are not only mistaken, but also help act as a barrier to our understanding of what Lenin was arguing in 1902.

For instance, in her criticism of Lenin, Luxemburg famously compares his ultra-centralist model of leadership—for which she supplies, and could have supplied, no textual evidence—with the creativity of the workers involved in a mass strike in Rostov-on-Don. A reasonable point, one might suppose, until Lih shows that Luxemburg received her information about these workers from articles in the Russian socialist newspaper Iskra written by Lenin. One would have though that the fact that she, unwittingly, quoted something that Lenin had said to disprove something that he hadn’t, might have been seized upon by historians over the last century to question her critique of Bolshevism. Alas, no, for this early criticism fits too neatly into the textbook interpretation to be refuted by mere facts.22

With respect to Trotsky’s criticisms of Lenin, the problems with the standard interpretation are less obvious, but no less damning. Trotsky did not mean by substitutionism the tendency towards oligarchy within the Bolshevik Party. This is a standard elite theory criticism of Marxism, which Trotsky would undoubtedly have rejected. Trotsky was instead referring to the contrast between the Menshevik and Bolshevik models of socialist campaigning. According to Trotsky, the Bolsheviks substituted words for deeds, whereas the task of the day was to bring action to the fore.23

The weakness with both Trotsky’s and Luxemburg’s criticisms of Lenin should readily be apparent to anyone familiar with the history of Russia. For both predicted that the consequences of Lenin’s actions would be to divorce the Bolshevik Party from the Russian working class: according to Trotsky, it would fail to campaign, while, according to Luxemburg, its ultra-centralism would lead it to miss the coming revolution. As Lih points out, these predictions were ‘hardly borne out by the events of 1917’.24

How, then, did Lenin manage to confound his critics? Some have argued that, while Luxemburg and Trotsky got it more or less right in 1904, there was a profound change in Lenin’s attitude towards the problem of socialist organisation in subsequent years.25 Lih disagrees, and in so doing, he challenges not only the textbook interpretation of What is to be Done? but also the assessments of that work made by activists such as Cliff, Le Blanc and Molyneux.26

At the centre of the overlap between the criticisms of What is to be Done? made by the activists and those made in the textbook interpretation is Lenin’s famous contrast between socialist consciousness originating in the intelligentsia on the one hand, and the limitations of the spontaneous trade union consciousness of the workers on the other. Lih has a lot to say about this contrast. Indeed, he devotes a 60-page appendix to discussing the relevant passages. While it would be impossible to do justice to the richness of his argument in the confines of a short review, its crux is easily restated. The Russian workers were, according to Lenin, the real heroes of the story who were in danger of being let down by the socialist movement. In fact, so heroic were the workers that Russia was on the cusp of a revolution. It was therefore imperative that the socialist movement improve its game to match the real movement from below. If they did not do this two things would follow: first, socialists would lose the battle for hegemony within the working class, and, consequently, the coming revolutionary opportunity would be squandered. Lenin’s focus on the role played by socialists is thus not a symptom of a general distrust of the workers. Quite the contrary, it reflects his feeling that the Russian socialists needed to pull up their socks if they wanted to avoid failing the workers.27

The sense of political urgency characteristic of Lenin’s writing generally, and What is to be Done? specifically, reflects his belief that the growing working class resistance to Tsarism offered a political opportunity that should not be lost. With respect to the specific arguments of What is to be Done? Lih points out that Lenin was not polemicising, as generations of scholars have argued, against economism: the Russian variant of the reformism that emerged as an international phenomenon in the late 1890s. Rather he was attempting to paint his opponents within the Marxist movement as economistic because all were agreed that economism offered a mistaken programme for the left. According to the economists, workers were interested only in basic bread and butter issues, not socialist politics. The bulk of the Russian Marxist movement disagreed, and economism was marginalised before What is to be Done? was written. Lenin’s aim in What is to be Done? was to defeat his more recent opponents within the socialist movement by pinning the label economism on them. As with the criticism of economism, Lenin argued that his opponents in 1901-02 tended to dismiss the abilities of workers to reach great heights. The focus of Lenin’s polemic was therefore against those who had little faith in the independent creative potential of the working class. While this position is an inversion of our image of the ‘Leninist’ disparaging workers who were irredeemably trapped within the narrow confines of trade union consciousness, it only captures half of the political implications of his critique of economism. For the economists insisted that workers were not interested in issues of political freedom. Lenin’s critique of economism therefore involved a double inversion of the myth that has come to surround him. Not only did it involve him stressing the independent revolutionary initiative of workers, it also included the argument that workers would be interested in, and should fight for, the political freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies.

Lenin’s concept of political leadership thus assumed that workers were showing great initiatives in the class struggle. The Luxemburgian flavour of this claim should not surprise us if we remember that Luxemburg learnt of the initiatives of the Russian workers, in part, from Lenin. As to Lenin’s supposed centralism, the reality here is no less shocking for adherents of the textbook interpretation. For Lenin mentioned the role of the Central Committee only once in What is to be Done?, and then it was to reject claims for its omnipotence.28 Ironically, Lenin’s crime at the 1903 conference was to insist on the democratic accountability of the Central Committee and the editors of the party newspaper to party congress. Concretely, Lenin’s break with the ‘Mensheviks’ after the party congress reflected their anti-democratic practice.

What is to be Done? was written by Lenin as a representative of the newspaper Iskra, and its key argument was that a national organisation could be built around a socialist newspaper.29 The 1903 party congress subsequently decided that Iskra should be the paper of the party, and that its editors should be Martov, Plekhanov and Lenin. Previously a committee of six, including these three, had edited Iskra, but the other three were voted out of their positions in the wake of congress disagreements.30 Martov too had been on the losing side at the congress, but congress decided, as a compromise, that he should remain on the editorial board of the paper. In the wake of the congress, and in an act of disregard for democratic procedure, Martov, a future leader of Menshevism, demanded that the old editors be co-opted onto the board, and resigned when they were not. Plekhanov, who had previously stood against conciliation with the old editors, changed his position and threatened to resign if the old board were not co-opted. Lenin, who believed that enough of a compromise had been made by keeping Martov on the board, was left with little alternative than himself to resign. Therefore, while he had won a majority in congress, there subsequently occurred something of what Lih calls a ‘palace coup’ in Iskra, after which this paper became a mouthpiece for critics of congress decisions: it was quickly transformed from a party newspaper to an anti-party one. Lenin subsequently became the bogeyman for the old leadership, not because he was acting in an undemocratic manner, but because he defended the democratic decisions of congress.31

Because Lenin’s base was within the membership of the party, the new editors of Iskra could not easily dismiss his criticisms of their line.32 Instead they felt compelled to fight for their influence over the party. Lih suggests that by calling themselves the ‘minority’, in Russian the Mensheviks, the Iskra grouping illuminated their way of organising. For instance, in an article published in 1901 and called ‘Always in the Minority’, Martov made something of a virtue out of the necessity of being politically isolated. This general perspective, Lih argues, informed Martov’s later failure to break out of the small group politics that had been necessary before 1903, but which had become an impediment to socialist advance in the period thereafter.33 Lenin, by contrast, was optimistic enough to believe that it was possible for the Russian left to break out of the political ghetto and build something like the mass German socialist party. The labels Menshevik (minority) and Bolshevik (majority) thus illuminated both Martov’s pessimism and Lenin’s optimism about the possibility of building a mass socialist current within the Russian working class.

Lih’s criticism of the idea that Lenin was pessimistic about the socialist potential of the workers’ movement seems to fly in the face of Lenin’s demand for a party of ‘professional revolutionaries’. However, this is not so. For, as Lih points out, what Lenin meant by the phrase ‘professional revolutionaries’, and what this phrase has been taken to mean in the textbooks are two very different things. Lenin did use the phrases revoliutsioner po professii and professional’nyi revoliutsioner, which have naturally been translated as revolutionaries by profession or professional revolutionaries. Nevertheless, as Lih argues, the word professiia was not restricted to what we understand as the ‘professions’, but included factory workers: for instance, trade unions were professional’nye soiuzy. Given that Lenin says nothing about the middle class professions in What is to be Done? but quite a lot about trade unions, Lih has preferred to re-translate ‘professional revolutionary’ as ‘revolutionary by trade’. This translation is the more powerful of the two, according to Lih, because it better captures the way that Lenin was attempting to ‘portray the revolutionary as part of the worker’s world, as a fellow skilled labourer in the great factory of the revolution’.34 The great skill of a revolutionary by trade was to maintain konspiratiia. Traditionally translated simply as conspiracy, and used to justify the claims that Lenin was no friend of democracy, Lih points out that konspiratiia actually meant the ‘fine art of not getting arrested’: not a bad skill for a revolutionary in a police state!35

Lih makes a similar point when discussing Lenin’s famous comment on the inability of the spontaneous workers’ movement to generate socialist consciousness within the working class. He points out that, despite a cottage industry suggesting otherwise, the concepts of spontaneity and consciousness are not at the heart of What is to be Done? but appear in the text as part of a polemic against Lenin’s adversary Krischevski who had used them to mean just what Lenin is alleged to believe in the textbook interpretation of ‘Leninism’!36 Whereas Krichevski accused Iskra of ‘being over-optimistic about the possibility of proletarian awareness and organisation’, Lenin replied along the lines of Lih’s paraphrase: ‘Worker militancy is not the problem because it is increasing in leaps and bounds all on its own. The problem, the weak link, is effective party leadership of all this militancy. Iskra37 very properly focuses attention precisely on this problem—on Social Democratic deficiencies, not worker deficiencies’.38

With respect to leadership, Lih argues that for Lenin this was less a matter of intellectuals versus workers—Lenin’s discussion of socialism coming from without related to the simple fact that ‘scientific socialism’ (Marxism) had been formulated by two bourgeois intellectuals, Marx and Engels, and had since merged with the workers’ movement—than it was for ‘inspired and inspiring leadership’.39 Against those socialists who believed both that ‘the masses are like children’ and that arguing ‘politics’ with them was a waste of time, Lenin answered that socialists who spoke only of bread and butter issues to workers both patronised them while simultaneously failing to challenge bourgeois ideology within the working class.40

Among the bourgeois ideologies which Lenin argued socialists should challenge was tred-iunionizm. Often misunderstood as simple trade unionism, this is not what Lenin understood by the term. For him, while activity within trade unions was a basic part of socialist practice, tred-iunionizm was an ideology which insisted that the workers’ movement should concentrate on bread and butter issues to the exclusion of socialist ideas.41 That Lenin believed that tred-iunionizm could so be challenged was a reflection of his faith in the spontaneous movement of the masses. Indeed, in contrast to the textbook argument that Lenin broke with Marx’s idea of socialism as working class self-emancipation, Lih shows that the reality is something different. ‘Lenin thinks leadership choices’, concretely between tred-iunionizm and socialism, ‘can make a difference because he is optimistic about the popular upsurge’:42 in fact, it was Lenin’s optimism about the revolutionary movement from below that drew the most militant youth towards the
Bolshevik tendency after 1903.

One problem with the textbook interpretation of What is to be Done? is that it makes the appeal of Bolshevism to young socialists in Russia in the early years of the last century something of a mystery. For, in the textbook model, the Bolsheviks appear to be too hidebound and centralised to grasp the opportunity offered by the revolutionary upsurge. The reality was very different. As the ex-Bolshevik Valentinov wrote of the period, ‘“Daring and determination” were common to all of us. For this reason What is to be Done? struck just the right chord with us and we were only too eager to put its message into practice. In this sense, one may say, we were 100 percent Leninists at the time’.43 Not only does Lih’s inversion of the textbook interpretation of What is to be Done? make sense of the appeal of Bolshevism to young radicals like Valentinov, it is also better able to explain how the structure of the Bolshevik Party changed with political liberalisation. On Lih’s interpretation, victories in the class struggle would lead to a liberalisation of the organisation’s internal regime: and this is exactly what happened in 1905.44 It is also what happened in 1917, before civil war and economic collapse negated this potential.45

As to the structure of the organisation itself, Lenin, as he himself pointed out in his reply to Luxemburg, said little about this in What is to be Done?46 Indeed, he had yet to use the phrase ‘democratic centralism’, which has since become synonymous with ‘Leninism’. Nevertheless, the image of Lenin, the ultra-centralist, breaking with the democratic methods of the European socialist movement through his imposition of something called democratic centralism on the Russian movement, has become ubiquitous. Moreover, the concept of democratic centralism has perhaps been subject to greater vilification and misunderstanding than any other phrase in the Marxist lexicon. Ironically, the Mensheviks were the first to use this concept in Russia. They borrowed it for their 1905 constitution from the German socialist movement, where it had been coined in 1865: Lenin copied it from the Mensheviks a month later.47

Nevertheless, Lenin did not simply inherit the concept of democratic centralism from the German socialist movement without making it his own. What is more, his understanding of democratic centralism can be illuminated through evidence supplied by Lih, and which points to a weakness with Lih’s understanding of Lenin’s politics.

At the time of the split between Bolshevism and Menshevism all Russian socialists were affiliated to the broader international socialist movement based in Germany (the Second International). This organisation was ostensibly Marxist, and nominally aimed at the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. However, while the Second International was revolutionary in theory, it was becoming increasingly reformist in practice: to the extent that in 1914 most of its key groups and leaders capitulated to nationalism by supporting, on any number of pseudo-radical premises, their own states in the First World War.48 The tendency towards reformism in the German socialist movement was underpinned by the growing influence within the party of the increasingly conservative trade union bureaucracy. The revisionists of the 1890s believed that they were merely reuniting theory and practice by dropping the revolutionary rhetoric and being honest about the party’s de facto political reformism.

In the 1890s, while the intellectual leadership of the German party, primarily Karl Kautsky, were satisfied with formal renunciations of revisionism at party conferences, in Russia, Lenin and Plekhanov demanded the expulsion of the reformists from the German party specifically, and the International more generally.49 Why? Put simply, they insisted that if an organisation is to be a fighting party rather than a talking shop, while it must be open to tactical debate, it cannot allow various factions to exist within it based on opposed strategic perspectives. Revolutionaries might make tactical agreements with reformists, but they could not exist within the same organisation without, as Marx and Engels argued in 1879, acting as a paralysing force.50 By contrast with Lenin’s approach to politics, the German leadership’s aim of maintaining party unity at all costs had the effect of paralysing the left of the party in the name of unity with the right.51 Lenin’s conception of democratic centralism differed from that practised within the Second International in as far as he was able to build a fighting organisation that was capable of winning a revolution. While the effectiveness of this party was dependent upon a combination of its internal democratic structure and its optimistic hopes for the masses, it was also facilitated by its strategic unity.52

The novelty of this form of organisation was less than obvious in the early part of the last century, and Lih is right to point out that Lenin was attempting to build something like the German SPD in Russia.53 Nonetheless, it is also true that Lenin did succeed in building something different, and better, than the SPD. It is in this respect, I think that Lih is wrong to reject Georg Lukács’s interpretation of Lenin, upon which many of the activists have based their analyses.54

Writing during the period of optimism in the revolutionary wave that followed the First World War, Lukács argued that ‘the development which Marxism thus underwent through Lenin consists merely—merely!— in its increasing grasp of the intimate, visible, and momentous connection between individual actions and general destiny—the revolutionary destiny of the whole working class’.55 Lukács recognised that, while there were undoubted levels of continuity between the Marxisms of the Second and Third Internationals, there was a fundamental break between the two. This break began with the debate on the expulsion of the revisionists in the 1890s, and culminated in the publication of Lenin’s State and Revolution in 1917.56 In breaking with the degeneration of the Second International,57 the left of that organisation, led by Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, was compelled to make a root and branch critique of Kautskyism. While Lenin’s State and Revolution exposed the key theoretical error of Kautskyism to be its strategic orientation towards the state, Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness magnificently articulated this break at a philosophical level.

Lih has perhaps ‘bent the stick’ too far in the direction of proving Lenin’s Marxist orthodoxy. While this is a powerful corrective to the myth of ‘Leninism’, it is also necessary to insist that Lenin made a positive contribution to Marxism. At its heart, this contribution involved stressing the unity of politics and organisation: on the one hand, workers are powerless unless they are organised; while, on the other hand, for parties to develop from theoretical tendencies to become organisations of struggle they need to develop both strategic unity and democratic accountability. As Lenin wrote, ‘In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation’.58 Few in the International would have disagreed with this argument when it was written in 1904, but whereas in subsequent years Kautsky’s attempt to maintain unity at all costs would end in disaster, Lenin’s focus on action led in an altogether more inspiring direction.59 It is a tragedy that his legacy has been hidden beneath a cloud of obfuscation, and it is to Lih’s great credit that he has added to the literature which would show to all who are not too blind to see that the real Lenin was a very different character than the textbooks of both left and right would admit.

While the price of this book will put it out of the reach of most readers of this journal, they should do everything in their power to get it into their local libraries, for its arguments deserve as wide a readership as possible. We should also put pressure on the publisher to produce a cheaper paperback edition.


1: Thanks to Kristyn Gorton, Chris Harman, Gareth Jenkins and Paul Le Blanc for comments on a draft of this essay.

2: The Russian title of Lenin’s What is to be Done? is Chto delat? Lih points out that ‘a more literal and perhaps more vivid English translation is What to Do?’ L Lih, Lenin Rediscovered (Leiden, 2006), p561.

3: E Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes (London, 1994), ch 2. On Hobsbawm’s interpretation of the 20th century see C Harman, ‘The Twentieth Century: An Age of Extremes or An Age of Possibilities?’ in K Flett and D Renton (eds), The Twentieth Century(London, 2000), and P Anderson, Spectrum (London, 2005), ch 13.

4: See, for instance, the debates in International Socialism 52 (Autumn 1991) and 55 (Summer 1992), and in Historical Materialism3 (Winter 1998). For more recent debates within the anticapitalist movement see A Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Cambridge, 2003), pp86ff; P Kingsnorth, One No, Many Yeses (London, 2003), pp229ff; G Monbiot, The Age of Consent (London, 2003), p67; J Neale, You are G8, We are 6 Billion (London, 2003), p127.

5: This phrase is the subtitle to What is to be Done?

6: The list includes Kevin Anderson, Tony Cliff, Hal Draper, Neil Harding, Paul Le Blanc, Moshe Lewin, Marcel Liebman, John Molyneux, Alexander Rabinowitch and Alan Shandro.

7: S Tormey, Anti-Capitalism: A Beginner’s Guide(Oxford, 2004), p73.

8: J Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power(London, 2002), p128.

9: M Hardt and A Negri, Multitude (London, 2004), p354.

10: W Bonefeld and S Tischler, ‘ What is to be Done? Leninism, Anti-Leninist Marxism and the Question of Revolution Today’, in W Bonefeld and S Tischler (eds), What is to be Done? Leninism, Anti-Leninist Marxism and the Question of Revolution Today (Aldershot, 2002), p7.

11: I have criticised these arguments at greater length in my ‘“Anti-Leninist” Anti-Capitalism: A Critique’ Contemporary Politics, vol 11, no 2/3 (June-September 2005).

12: C Barker et al, ‘Leadership Matters’, in C Barker et al (eds), Leadership and Social Movements (Manchester, 2001).

13: The ex-socialist who later became a fascist Robert Michels made the classic statement of this position in 1911. See his Political Parties (New York, 1962), p371. For a powerful critique of Michels see C Barker, ‘Robert Michels and the “Cruel Game”’, in C Barker et al (eds), as above.

14: L Lih, as above, p556. Cliff made a similar point when he wrote that ‘the dialectical contradiction between the unifying and disruptive tendencies [within the working class] creates the need for a revolutionary party’ (T Cliff, Trotsky: Towards October(London, 1989), p58).

15: Gramsci quoted in A Shandro, ‘Lenin and Hegemony: the Soviets, the Working Class and the Party in the Revolution of 1905’, in C Barker et al (eds), as above.

16: Lih praises Hal Draper’s attempt, in his magnificent Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, to understand Marx in relationship not so much to Hegel and Ricardo, but to other 19th century ‘radical, socialist, revolutionary and worker leaders’ (L Lih, as above, p53). Given that Lih’s
approach to Lenin parallels Draper’s approach to Marx, it is a shame that he does not seem to have read Draper’s essay on What is to be Done?in which Draper articulated a similar interpretation of Lenin’s book to that which Lih develops (H Draper, ‘The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of the Party”’, Historical Materialism4 (Summer 1999)).

17: It is a great strength of Lih’s book that he breaks with the caricature of German social democracy to show how the Germans had built a powerful and inspiring organisation (L Lih, as above, pp62-110).

18: As above, pp27, 615.

19: Some years later Lenin wrote that ‘one cannot develop new views other than through polemics’. Quoted in T Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party(London, 1985), p31.

20: L Lih, as above, p469.

21: As above, p433.

22: As above, pp206-207.

23: As above, pp510-517.

24: As above, p551.

25: Some have explained the gap between these predictions of the textbook interpretation of pre-war Leninism, and the successes of the Bolsheviks in 1917 as a consequence of a radical break in Lenin’s understanding of Marxism following his reading of Hegel in 1914 (K Anderson, Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism (Chicago, 1995); R Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom (Columbia, 1988)). The problem with this approach, as John Rees has pointed out, is that while it correctly perceives a deepening in Lenin’s understanding of Marxism during the war, it tends to underestimate the ‘continuity in Lenin’s thought’ (J Rees, The Algebra of Revolution (London, 1998), p189). Lih can be read as extending this argument to defend What is to be Done? against the claim that it was a singularly crude aberration from Lenin’s normally sophisticated Marxism.

26: L Lih, as above, pp18-20. In fact, Lih’s model of the ‘activist interpretation’ of What is to be Done?is something of a straw man. Cliff, Molyneux and especially Le Blanc all mediate their criticisms of Lenin’s book by also pointing to its strengths. See T Cliff, as above, p93; J Molyneux, Marxism and the Party (London, 1986), p50; P Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New Jersey, 1990), pp58-68.

27: Neil Harding similarly pointed out that Lenin argued that it was the socialists ‘who had proved unequal to their tasks and not the mass movement’ (N Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought (London, 1983), vol 1, p156).

28: L Lih, as above, pp491,s 834-835.

29: As above, p836.

30: Much nonsense has been written about the apparently bizarre debate on party membership over which the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split. Hal Draper points out that this debate ‘was directly connected to the Mensheviks’ anxiety to make it easier for non-party intellectuals to be accounted members, while Lenin fought to make it harder’ (H Draper, as above, p192). This fact, of course, further militates against the textbook interpretation of Lenin’s supposed intellectual elitism.

31: L Lih, as above, pp496-497.

32: As above, pp506-507.

33: As above, p504. Lih’s political explanation of the Mensheviks’ embrace of the term minority is more compelling than Cliff’s suggestion that Martov’s tendency to label himself a Menshevik, even when he was in the majority, reflected a psychological flaw (T Cliff, as above, p125).

34: L Lih, as above, pp459-460. Hal Draper makes a similar point in his essay on Lenin, as above, p193.

35: As above, pp447, 461.

36: As above, p20.

37: That is, the old Iskra before the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

38: L Lih, as above, pp316-317.

39: As above, p227. On this issue, as Lih points out, Lenin followed the arguments of Plekhanov (in his pre-Menshevik phase).

40: As above, p226.

41: As above, p660.

42: As above, pp349, 393, 156.

43: As above, p13.

44: As above, p473.

45: T Cliff, Lenin: Revolution Besieged (London, 1987).

46: P Le Blanc, as above, pp81-82.

47: As above, p128.

48: On Second International Marxism, see C Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905-1917 (London, 1983). I have discussed this topic in two papers: ‘Karl Kautsky and Marxist Historiography’, Science and Society vol 70, no 3 (2006), and ‘Socialist Darwinism in Germany:
1875-1914’, Historical Materialism, vol 12, no 1 (2004).

49: L Lih, as above, pp474-475.

50: K Marx and F Engels, ‘Circular Letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke, et al, 17-18 September 1879’, in K Marx, The First International and After (London, 1974), p374.

51: Paradoxically, the party centre’s strategy of maintaining unity at all costs led them increasingly to capitulate to the right and thus towards a split with the left. On this see M Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution(London, 1979), pp63, 90.

52: A Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power(Chicago, 2004), p311.

53: L Lih, as above, pp111-158.

54: As above, p32.

55: G Lukács, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought(London, 1970), p13. For his part, Lih insists that post-war Trotskyism has ‘misunderstood’ its own heroes by insisting on a great gulf between Kautksy and Plekhanov on the one side, and Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky on the other (L Lih, as above, p32). Lih has a point: criticisms of Kautsky and the Second International have tended to degenerate into caricature, and I have challenged this interpretation elsewhere (Blackledge 2006, as above. See also my Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (Manchester, 2006), ch3).

56: P Blackledge (2004), as above.

57: See N Harding, ‘Introduction’, in N Harding (ed), Marxism in Russia (Cambridge, 1983), p37.

58: V I Lenin, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’, in V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 7 (Moscow, 1961), p415.

59: For a comparison of Kautsky’s and Lenin’s approaches to the question of socialist organisation see C Harman, ‘Party and Class’, in A Callinicos and others, Party and Class(London, 1996).