For Comrade Lenin on his 150th Birth Anniversary

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870–1924) was known by his pseudonym—Lenin. He was, like his siblings, a revolutionary, which in the context of tsarist Russia meant that he spent long years in prison and in exile. Lenin helped build the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party both by his intellectual and his organizational work. Lenin’s writings are not only his own words, but the summation of the activity and thoughts of the thousands of militants whose paths crossed his own. It was Lenin’s remarkable ability to develop the experiences of the militants into the theoretical realm. It is no wonder that the Hungarian Marxist György Lukács called Lenin ‘the only theoretician equal to Marx yet produced by the struggle for the liberation of the proletariat’.[1]

Building a Revolution

In 1896, when spontaneous strikes broke out in the St. Petersburg factories, socialists were caught unawares. They did not know what to do. They were disoriented. Five years later, V.I. Lenin wrote, the ‘revolutionaries lagged behind this upsurge, both in their ‘theories’ and in their activity; they failed to establish a constant and continuous organization capable of leading the whole movement’.[2] Lenin felt that this lag had to be rectified.

Most of Lenin’s major writings followed this insight. He worked out the contradictions of capitalism in Russia (The Development of Capitalism in Russia, 1896), which allowed him to understand how the peasantry in the sprawling tsarist Empire had a proletarian character. It was based on this that Lenin argued for the worker-peasant alliance against tsarism and the capitalists. When the Russian Revolution of 1905 collapsed, Lenin took to Novaya Zhizn (12 November 1905) to argue that the ‘survivals of serfdom’ formed a ‘cruel burden on the whole mass of the peasantry’; the ‘proletarians under their red banner’, he wrote, ‘have declared war on this burden’. It was not enough, Lenin argued, for the workers to fight for the peasants’ demands, and it was not enough for the independent demands of the peasantry—for land—to be met; what was necessary was to deepen the unity between the workers and the peasants in the fight ‘against the rule of capital’ and for socialism. There was no sense in being naïve about the fact that there were class relations within the ‘peasantry’, and that the small farmers had their own vested class interests in their small private holdings. Lenin’s study emphasized the differentiation of the peasantry, in order to understand that the small farmers had a closer class allegiance to the landlords in terms of the defence of private property and in terms of the right to exploit landless agricultural workers. Lenin saw with steely-eyed clarity that the development of worker-peasant unity had to fully grasp the complexities of the countryside, otherwise the movement for socialism would be derailed in a petty bourgeois direction.

Opponents of tsarism other than the Bolsheviks (such as the social democrats, the agrarian radicals, the Socialist-Revolutionaries [SR], and the Mensheviks) stopped far short of the socialist project. Lenin understood from his engagement with mass struggle and with his theoretical reading that the social democrats—as the most liberal section of the bourgeoisie and the aristocrats—were not capable of driving a bourgeois revolution let alone the movement that would lead to the emancipation of the peasantry and the workers. His theoretical assessment was elaborated in Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905). Two Tactics is perhaps the first major Marxist treatise that demonstrates the necessity for a socialist revolution, even in a ‘backward’ country, where the workers and the peasants would need to ally to break the institutions of bondage and advance society into socialism.

These two texts from 1896 and 1905 show Lenin avoiding the view that the Russian Revolution could leapfrog capitalist development (as the populists—narodniki—suggested) or that it had to go through capitalism (as the liberal democrats—the Kadets, for example—argued). Neither path was possible or necessary. Capitalism had already entered Russia, a fact that the populists did not acknowledge; and it could be overcome by a worker and peasant revolution, a fact that the liberal democrats disputed. The 1917 Revolution and the Soviet experiment proved Lenin’s point.

Having established that the liberal elites would not be able to lead a worker and peasant revolution, or even a bourgeois revolution, Lenin turned his attention to the international situation. Sitting in exile in Switzerland, Lenin watched as the social democrats capitulated to the warmongering in 1914 and delivered the working-class to the world war. Rosa Luxemburg, equally dismayed, wrote, ‘workers of the world unite in times of peacetime; in times of war they slit each other’s throats’.[3] Frustrated by the betrayal of the social democrats, Lenin wrote an important text—Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism—which developed a clear-headed understanding of the growth of finance capital and monopoly firms as well as inter-capitalist and inter-imperialist conflict. It was in this text that Lenin explored the limitations of the socialist movements in the West, with the labour aristocracy providing a barrier to socialist militancy; and the potential for revolution in the East, where the ‘weakest link’ in the imperialist chain might be found. Lenin’s notebooks show that he read 148 books and 213 articles in English, French, German and Russian to clarify his thinking on contemporary imperialism. Clear-headed assessment of imperialism of this type ensured that Lenin developed a strong position on the rights of nations to self-determination, whether these nations were within the tsarist Empire or indeed any other European empire. The kernel of the anti-colonialism of the USSR—developed in the Communist International (Comintern)—is found here.[4]

The term ‘imperialism’, so central to Lenin’s expansion of the Marxist tradition, refers to the uneven development of capitalism on a global scale and the use of force to maintain that unevenness. Certain parts of the planet—mostly those that had a previous history of colonization—remain in a position of subordination, with their ability to craft an independent national development agenda constrained by the tentacles of foreign political, economic, social and cultural power. In our time, new theories have emerged that suggest that the new conditions no longer can be sustained by the Leninist theory of imperialism. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, for instance, argue that there is no geo-political rivalry left, that there is only the extension of the sovereignty of the constitution of the United States on a world-scale. This is what they call Empire. What the people—the multitude—must do, they suggest, is to contest the terms of this constitution but not the fact of its global aspiration. Others argue that the world has flattened, so that there is no longer a Global North that oppresses a Global South, that the elites of both regions are part of a global capitalist order. This is the kind of theory that Karl Kautsky advanced in the name of ‘ultra-imperialism’. Lenin responded sharply to Kautsky and this theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’, saying that Kautsky noted that ‘the rule of finance capital lessens the unevenness and contradictions inherent in the world economy, whereas in reality it increases them’.[5] Elements of Lenin’s text are, of course, dated—it was written a hundred years ago—and would require careful reworking. But the essence of the theory is valid—the insistence on the tendency of capitalist firms to become monopolies, the ruthlessness with which finance capital drains the wealth of the Global South and the use of force to contain the ambitions of countries of the South to chart their own development agenda.

Finally, Lenin spent the period from 1893 to 1917 studying carefully the limitations of the party of the old type—the social democratic party. If you spend any time in Lenin’s Collected Works during the decades before the 1917 Russian Revolution, you will find thousands of articles and reports on how to strengthen mass work and party building. In Lenin’s 1899 text—Our Programme—he makes the point that the party must be involved in continuous activity and not rely upon spontaneous or initial (stikhiinyi) outbreaks. This continuous activity would bring the party into intimate and organic touch with the working-class and the peasantry as well as help to germinate the protests that then might take on a mass character. It was this consideration that led Lenin to work out his understanding of the revolutionary party in What Is To Be Done? (1902). Lenin developed bold ideas for the construction of a worker-peasant party, including the role of the class-conscious workers as the vanguard of the party and the importance of political agitation amongst workers to develop a genuinely powerful political consciousness against all tyranny and all oppression. The workers need to feel the intensity of the brutality of the system and the importance of solidarity.

These texts—from 1896 to 1916—prepared the terrain for the Bolsheviks and Lenin to understand how to operate during the struggles in 1917. It is a measure of Lenin’s confidence in the masses and in his own theory that Lenin wrote his audacious pamphlet—Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? This was written a few weeks before the seizure of power. And as events unfolded in 1917, Lenin constantly tried to theorize the dynamic of change. The revolution of February 1917 had overthrown the tsar; it had brought to power the liberals. Lenin tracked two developments of equal importance: first, that the liberals—under Kerensky—were preparing to betray the revolutionary aims and return Russia to the war, and therefore to retain the entire tsarist system; second, that the revolutionary proletariat—and its main parties—remained alert and active, and had strengthened their political form through the Soviets. The worker-peasant-controlled Soviets became a centre of ‘dual power’ against the liberal-dominated Duma (Parliament). What this meant to Lenin, as he wrote in several of his essays in this period, was that the Soviets had to defend the revolutionary aims and to take power. In September 1917, Lenin wrote that for a Marxist, ‘insurrection is an art’; Lenin and the Bolsheviks marshalled their forces, and in October 1917 they struck, and completed the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Building a State

No revolution is ‘completed’ just by seizing power. There was much work to be done in the immediate period after Lenin and his comrades took control of the collapsed tsarist state. A close reading of Lenin’s State and Revolution (1918) anticipates the problems faced by the Soviets in their new task—they could not only inherit the state structure, but had to ‘smash the state’, build a new set of institutions and a new institutional culture, create a new attitude by the cadre towards the state and society.

The most important text here is The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government (April 1918), which lays out the agenda for the USSR in its first few years. The other texts show Lenin’s general attitude towards state construction and to the challenges faced by the USSR—surrounded by hostile powers—in this period. Lenin’s Better Fewer, But Better (1923), written towards the end of his life, is one of the most honest and reasonable texts on the problems faced by the new government and society.

In his last public appearance—at the Moscow Soviet on 20 November 1922—one can see Lenin’s personality in full display. There is Lenin’s confidence and his humanness. There is Lenin’s honesty and his ambition:

We still have the old machinery, and our task now is to remould it along new lines. We cannot do so at once, but we must see to it that the Communists we have are properly placed. What we need is that they, the Communists, should control the machinery they are assigned to, and not, as so often happens with us, that the machinery should control them. We should make no secret of it and speak of it frankly. Such are the tasks and the difficulties that confront us—and that at a moment when we have set out on our practical path, when we must not approach socialism as if it were an icon painted in festive colours. We need to take the right direction, we need to see that everything is checked, that the masses, the entire population, check the path we follow and say, ‘Yes, this is better than the old system.’ That is the task we have set ourselves. Our Party, a little group of people in comparison with the country’s total population, has tackled this job. This tiny nucleus has set itself the task of remaking everything, and it will do so. We have proved that this is no utopia but a cause which people live by. We have all seen this. This has already been done. We must remake things in such a way that the great majority of the masses, the peasants and workers, will say, ‘It is not you who praise yourselves, but we. We say that you have achieved splendid results, after which no intelligent person will ever dream of returning to the old.’ We have not reached that point yet … Socialism is no longer a matter of the distant future, or an abstract picture, or an icon. Our opinion of icons is the same—a very bad one. We have brought socialism into everyday life and must here see how matters stand. That is the task of our day, the task of our epoch.[6]

By 1921, Lenin’s health had deteriorated dramatically. In May 1922, he suffered his first stroke. He died on 21 January 1924 at the age of 53. Over a million people came to pay homage to Lenin over three cold days in January before he was interned in a mausoleum in Red Square, where his body remains.

Everything that Lenin wrote a hundred years ago is not to be taken as gospel. It is a guide. Circumstances change, developments must be studied carefully. It was Lenin who taught us that ‘the very gist, the living soul of Marxism [is] a concrete analysis of a concrete situation’. What we learned from Lenin is his method and his discipline, his sharp awareness of class in terms of his understanding of politics and policy. Revolutions do not repeat themselves in all their particulars, nor do revolutionary processes. Different historical conjunctures, the concrete situations, require different historical revolutionary dynamics. We have Lenin over our shoulders; he is our inspiration and model.

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[1] Georg Lukacs, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, London: Verso, 2009, p. 13.

[2] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 5, p. 397.

[3] Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Rebuilding the International’, 1915.

[4] John Riddell et al., eds., Liberate the Colonies. Communism and Colonial Freedom, 1917–1924, New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2019.

[5] Quoted in Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 19, p. 165. Also see, Karl Kautsky, ‘Ultra-Imperialism’, New Left Review, vol. 1, no. 59 (January–February 1970).

[6] Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 33, p. 442.

This essay has been taken from Lenin 150 (LeftWord, 2020), ed. Vijay Prashad. Click here to download the free e-Book.

The book is also available in Spanish and Portuguese.

Featured image: Lenin leaves Moscow Higher Women’s Courses Building, 28 August 1918. Source: Marxists Internet Archive.