Living Leninism

Issue: 145

Chris Newlove

Paul Le Blanc, Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine (Haymarket, 2014), £12.99

Unfinished Leninism does two things: firstly, it argues the case for the relevance of Leninism to anyone who wants to seriously challenge capitalism and secondly, it intervenes in the renewed debates around the nature of Lenin’s theory and political practice. The book is a collection of essays and reviews by Paul Le Blanc, a member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in the United States, author of the book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and editor of a recent collection of Lenin’s writings called Revolution, Democracy, Socialism. Le Blanc argues that there is a distinctive practice that we can call Leninism against those who see the term as just a distorted version of Lenin’s politics created by Grigori Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and Joseph Stalin after his death.

Initially Le Blanc points out that Lenin’s organisational conclusions derive from the necessity of a fusion of theory and practice whereby the working class understand that their interests lie in overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism—the democratic control of the economy where production will be based on human need. Secondly, that there is unevenness in working class experience and consciousness. This requires revolutionary organisation to rally the advanced section of the class into an “expansive sense of solidarity and common cause” that in turn can draw the whole class into struggle for their collective interests. He lists Lenin’s distinctive contributions to revolutionary politics including: Working class independence and leadership in political struggles, opposition to oppression, the united front, an analysis of imperialism and nationalism, seriousness around Marxist theory and an internationalist approach.

In a period in which Leninism is far from the “common sense” for anti-capitalists, the book is a valuable resource in winning people to the relevance of a revolutionary party. Le Blanc’s interventions into recent debates on Leninism are more mixed. The resurgence of interest in Lenin’s politics and particularly the debates stimulated by Lenin Reloaded, edited by Slavoj Zizek, and Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? In Context have brought a more serious engagement with Lenin’s politics than is usual in academia.

Lih’s demolition of the idea that Lenin was an elitist or undemocratic has provided a great service to revolutionaries. However, Lih’s corresponding idea that there is nothing unique about Lenin’s politics and that he was essentially an orthodox follower of Karl Kautsky up until 1914 has been rightfully challenged by Kevin Corr and Gareth Jenkins in the previous issue of this journal. Le Blanc points out that although Lenin was unaware that he was substantially moving away from Kautsky before 1914 in practice that is exactly what was happening. In 1912 Lenin broke with not only the liquidators (those who wanted to dissolve the underground party of the Russian Social Democrats) but also those Mensheviks who refused to break from the liquidators. Kautsky, by contrast, remained in the German Social Democratic Party with the explicit reformists (known as the revisionists) around Eduard Bernstein.

Le Blanc’s contribution to what he calls the “Lenin wars” of 2012, specifically the debates around Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party, is very useful. However, when Le Blanc talks about contemporary revolutionary parties and groups he generalises too much from the American experience and puts forward an absolute notion of what the advanced section of the working class constitutes. He rightly points out that a revolutionary party worthy of the name only exists if it has a relationship with, and roots within, the advanced part of the working class. For Le Blanc such an advanced section, with a degree of class consciousness and radical subculture, existed in the US from the Civil War until just after the Second World War. What this implies is that currently the American working class does not have an advanced section that a revolutionary group could relate to. However, as Terry Eagleton points out in his essay “Lenin in the Postmodern Age”, a vanguard or advanced section of the class is a relative concept; it may vary in terms of its size, “advanced-ness” and influence within the wider class but we cannot say that it simply does not exist.

The idea of an absolute advanced section of the class and the current lack of roots in the working class that much of the American revolutionary left suffers from is generalised to the revolutionary left in Europe. This ignores the fact that revolutionary parties and groups do have roots and influence among organised workers in Britain, Greece, France and elsewhere. For example, in Britain and Greece the revolutionary left has played a key role in building anti-fascist movements and in initiating strike action.

Le Blanc believes that pretensions to be “the” revolutionary party lead to sectarian practices, and even proclaiming oneself a nucleus of a revolutionary party is to have delusions of grandeur. Instead he focuses on the future fusion of existing groups. The problem with this approach is it can lead to the opposite practice of failing to fight for leadership within movements. When writing on democratic centralism Le Blanc criticises the current model used by the British Socialist Workers Party, falsely suggesting that it entails the closing down of debate. He also seems hostile to the idea of an interventionist leadership although he fails to link this to any concrete alternative. The discussion on democratic centralism lacks an analysis of the differing size, composition and political terrain in which revolutionary parties and groups operate. Debates on democratic centralism have to link differing models to whether they improve a party’s ability to intervene in class struggle rather than a timeless or abstracted version based on Lenin’s practice in one period or another.

Unfinished Leninism reinforces the importance of building a revolutionary party today and intervenes in important debates around Lenin’s politics. I have focused on some differences I have with Le Blanc’s interpretation of Leninism; however, this should be seen as fraternal debate within the revolutionary tradition. The creative application of Leninism in changing circumstances is more important than ever. This is the central argument of the book, which deserves be read and discussed by all who want to challenge capitalism.