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Lenin: Catastrophe and revolution

A discussion from Socialism 2023

Paul Le Blanc in conversation with Promise Li and Cliff Connolly about the legacy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks explored through Leblanc’s recent book Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution.

The following is a transcript of a session from the 2023 Socialism Conference, which put Paul Le Blanc, author of Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution, in conversation with Promise Li and Cliff Connolly about the legacy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Paul Le Blanc: Lenin’s actual name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. What sort of person was he? The free-spirited revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, once said of Lenin, I enjoy talking with him. He’s clever and well educated and has such an ugly mug, the kind I like to look at. Angelica Balabanof, who worked closely with Lenin, was able to specify that from his youth, Lenin was convinced that most of human suffering and most of moral, legal, and social deficiencies were caused by class distinctions. She explained that Lenin was also convinced that class struggle alone could put an end to exploiters and exploited and create a society of the free and equal.

Lenin gave himself entirely to this end, and he used every means in his power to achieve it. Speaking from the right end of the political spectrum, Winston Churchill saw Lenin as his mortal enemy. Churchill hated what Lenin represented and even hailed Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Italy for its triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism. Yet he wrote of Lenin, “His mind was a remarkable instrument. When its light shone, it revealed the whole world: its history, its sorrows, its stupidities, its shams, and above all its wrongs. It was capable of universal comprehension in a degree rarely reached among men.”

It is worth adding an insight from Max Eastman, who suggested that one of Lenin’s contributions in the theory and practice of Marxism was a rejection of people who talk revolution and like to think about it, but do not mean business–the people who talked revolution but did not intend to produce it. Animated by such convictions, Lenin helped build a powerful revolutionary movement in his native Russia, culminating in the Russian Revolution of 1917, which he and his comrades believed was the beginning of a global wave of socialist revolution.

Lenin was a key architect of modern communism, designed to bring about such an outcome. But does Lenin’s project offer anything useful for us in our own time, years after he died? This book, Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution suggests an affirmative answer to that question and dispenses with six historiographical myths:

  • One, Lenin favored dictatorship over democracy.
  • Two, his so-called Marxism was a cover for his own totalitarian views.
  • Three, he favored a super-centralized political party of a new type with power concentrated at the top himself as party dictator.
  • Four, he favored rigid political controls over culture, art, and literature.
  • Five, he believed that through such authoritarian methods a socialist utopia could be imposed on backward Russia.
  • And six, flowing naturally from all of this, he became one of history’s foremost mass murderers.

This book rejects all such false characterizations while at the same time seeking to identify actual negatives, which inevitably can be found in Lenin and the tradition to which he was sent from. Faced with the complex swirl of Lenin’s life, times, and ideas, one can focus on matters and select ideas, adding up to a so-called Leninism, from which decent people must turn away. This book’s approach is different.

In her critique of the Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg emphasized her determination to distinguish the essential from the non-essential and critique the non-essential in a way designed to help advance the triumph of what was essential in Lenin’s revolutionary Bolshevism.

In this brief study, the focus is on what seems to me to be those essential qualities. Without the accumulation of experience, cadres, relationships, and authority within the working class, a would-be revolutionary organization cannot actually become a revolutionary organization. This can only be achieved through practical activism.

In some would-be revolutionary organizations,  members seem to feel that it is sufficient to develop and express revolutionary thoughts and revolutionary positions. These can be developed through discussions and study groups. But defining and expressing politically correct positions becomes primary for some would-be revolutionary groups. This may take the form of arguing against the capitalist ruling class or against non-revolutionary groups, or against other would-be revolutionary groups.

It is certainly the case that Lenin was fully prepared to engage in polemics and arguments, but what was primary for him was helping to mobilize practical struggles capable of materially defending and advancing the urgent needs of workers and the oppressed; struggles that not only make sense to people in the here and now, but also tilt toward mass revolutionary consciousness. If fought for effectively, Lenin argued, insurgency and power shift can ultimately bring about revolution. For Lenin, theory, education, and the articulation of principled positions were inseparable from such practical work.

Lenin speaks to workers in Moscow, 1920. Source: Picryl.

The Bolsheviks engaged in practical campaigns that helped to define them and created a practical framework of struggle in which they might form united fronts–and in some cases converge with other groups prepared to fight the good fight–and push toward victory. Only in that way could an organization of would-be revolutionaries become a revolutionary organization.

This approach was simply expressed in the explanation, quoted by Paul, of V. R. Dunne, leader of the militant and victorious Minneapolis Teamster Strikes of 1934: “Our policy was to organize and build strong unions, so workers could have something to say about their own lives, and assist in changing the present order into a socialist society.”

One key revolutionary principle of Lenin and the Bolsheviks involves the political independence of the working class and the refusal to subordinate the struggles of the working class to the leadership of pro-capitalist parties. “No democracy in the world puts aside the class struggle and the ubiquitous power of money,” Lenin noted, adding that while countries such as the United States held that capitalists and workers had equal political rights, in fact, they are not equal in class status. One class, capitalists, owns the means of production and lives on the unearned product of the labor of the workers. The other, the class of wage workers, owns no means of production and lives by selling their labor power in the market. Lenin warned that the so-called bipartisan system of the pro-capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans, had been one of the most powerful means of preventing the rise of an independent working-class, genuinely socialist party.

Another of Lenin’s principles involves opposition to all forms of racism, ethnic bigotry, and oppression based on gender or sexuality. A third involves opposition to imperialism and war. A fourth, becoming increasingly urgent in our time, is uncompromising opposition to the destruction of a livable environment. A fifth principle is a commitment to genuine democracy, ruled by the people, as essential both to our future world and within the movement to create that better future. A sixth principle involves an internationalist orientation: solidarity across borders and a commitment to global collaboration among the workers and oppressed of all countries.

The process of testing different perspectives and learning from actual struggles, accompanied by debates and sometimes even splits (and sometimes fusions), will be necessary on the way to creating a revolutionary party worthy of the name. Lenin insisted that we must at all costs set out first to learn, secondly to learn, and thirdly to learn, and then see to it that learning shall really become part of our very being, that it shall actually and fully become a constituent element of our social life. But he insisted that we must learn through doing.

Lenin stressed that this learning takes place through actual struggles against oppression and exploitation, collectively evaluating that experience, and thinking through what to do next.

Promise Li:Thanks, Paul for the invitation to be in conversation about this work. I encourage everyone to purchase the book too, and I am excited to be in conversation with Linda, Paul, and Cliff too.

“We were mistaken,” Lenin said to a room of hundreds of party cadres in October 1921. The mistake he referred to was the massive effort to requisition surplus grain from peasants with little in return to aid the Bolsheviks’ civil war efforts. This error ultimately contributed to later food shortages. Lenin said that the Bolsheviks understood “the necessity for a prolonged, complex transition through socialist accounting and control from capitalist society to the masses.”

This jump to certain policies of war communism, as he reflected, violated this order. But as Lenin also said in 1917, “The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake, refusal to admit and correct a mistake out of a false sense of shame.” I begin with this example not to relitigate war communism today, but to highlight an under-discussed aspect of Lenin’s political life, relevant for organizers today who are navigating a new age of crisis and catastrophe.

Indeed, as Paul reminds us, a cohesive understanding of Lenin’s work does not reveal a conspiratorial authoritarian. It also does not reveal a prophet capable of discerning correct solutions to every emergency. A quote from Lenin’s comrade, Lev Kamenev, illustrates this clearly. He said, “Every attempt to create any kind of handbook of Leninism, a collection of formulas applicable to all questions at any time, will certainly fail as we can only approach the real science of Lenin through a consideration of his complete works in the light of contemporary events.” To go further, I argue that there is much to learn not only from Lenin’s errors but also from the method of how he approached them and from the mistakes that he was unable to reckon with.

This approach underscores a central tenet of Marxist practice: a will to remain ruthlessly critical of our own political work and the traditions we inherit to rebuild the socialist movement at a time when it is sorely needed. Reflecting on the defeat of the 1905 revolution, a key prelude to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Lenin commented that to the proletariat, the study and critical assimilation of the experience of the revolution means learning to apply the methods of struggle of that time more effectually next time.

Errors undoubtedly have consequences, and in the work of revolution, these slips can mean fatalities and world historical setbacks. At the same time, they can allow movements to intervene more effectively in the next iteration of struggle. For Lenin, the reflection on errors is a necessary component of socialist organization, which gathers the masses around common political principles, analyses, and strategic orientations that advance the socialist program.

The point is to articulate different economic and social struggles in the sphere of politics itself. As the Marxist Daniel Bensaïd once said, “The ideal of a revolutionary militant is not the trade unionist with a narrow horizon, but the tribune of the people who fans the embers of subversion in all spheres of society.”

Vanguard parties, far from being instruments of bureaucracy, are meant to provide the most democratic means. They are tempered through struggle and experimentation for militants to congeal the lessons of different struggles into a revolutionary program. Programs and strategies are not static and must be calibrated to effectively respond to shifting political conditions.

Moreover, socialist organization, Bensaïd says, “makes it possible to test the validity of opposing positions” under consideration in practice. To test political strategies is to accept the possibility of error. We need organizational mechanisms that can maximize space for critical reflection and maintain the will to try things out in practice.

In a speech in 1922, Lenin noted that the Bolsheviks would certainly make a number of mistakes. He urged members to dispassionately examine where such mistakes have been made and show that we are not bound by prejudice. As Ernest Mandel emphasizes, this is the heart of Leninist organizational practice, not centralism for the sake of bureaucratism, but to maximize space for internal democracy.

Meeting of workers at the Putilov Plant in Petrograd, 1920. Source: Picryl.

Maximizing internal democracy requires respecting the rights of internal factions, ensuring complete freedom of speech for minority positions, and building rigorous processes to sort through collective mistakes and disagreements that are not afforded by the institutions of bourgeois civil society. The possibility of bureaucratization of the party, as Mandel and Bensaïd argue, underscores the role of independent social movements outside of the party as counterweights to check the authority of the party and expose its mistakes when this isn’t possible within it.

More importantly, reflecting on errors within an organization is key because no one person can solve everything. Lenin himself made a number of errors, some of which he never accounted for, and some of which he sought to combat and failed to do so. One can understand the atrocities of Kronstadt or other excesses of the Red Terror in the context of immense pressures, but should unyieldingly condemn them nonetheless.

Lenin was attuned to other growing errors, like of the party’s growing bureaucratism and erosion of inner-party democracy that quickened mass depoliticization. As Mandel notes, Lenin was unable to articulate a clear counter position to this. As Paul notes in a section of his book, Lenin was unable to solve some of the problems he confronted. The Bolsheviks and many other communist parties’ bureaucratism, and later totalitarianism, proved to be a catastrophe on a world historical scale for social movements.

The strangulation by Western imperialists’ encirclement, at different scales, certainly accelerated this regression, but it is undeniable that these regimes’ endogenous errors played a significant role. In The Revolution Betrayed, Leon Trotsky argued that the “struggle of living social forces” needed to correct bureaucracy were meticulously crushed by different communist parties around the world in the 20th century.

The effect is a mass discrediting of communism among movements today in many regions–a disaster that bourgeois forces gleefully weaponize and fuel. Bensaïd puts the problem aptly:

We have to think about what happened to communism in the 20th century. The word and the object cannot be grasped outside of the times and the historical ordeals they were forced to endure. For most people, the massive use of the communist label to characterize, for one, free market authoritarian state in China will weigh much more heavily and for a far longer time than the fragile theoretical and experimental sprouts of the communist hypothesis there.

Bensaïd’s invocation of China is particularly relevant for me, growing up in Hong Kong and witnessing the absolute state of confusion about even basic political concepts like the left-right spectrum, thanks to the Chinese state, which has, in the minds of many people, identified socialism with the ideals of bureaucratic capitalism and the practice of it.

Such confusion informs the misguided popularity behind many non ideological and leaderless movements in recent global uprisings. The problems that Lenin began to note but failed to address in his last days have helped contribute to this unprecedented discrediting of the banner of socialism among certain masses that he, along with the First and Second International, did not fully anticipate or address in their programs and strategies.

The best method for accounting for these errors lies not in seeing Leninism as scripture but in considering, critically considering, his approach toward mistakes. Winning back the confidence of the working class towards a socialist horizon must build from an honest assessment of both errors and successes of the past that still structure a political terrain.

We cannot rigidly recover the socialist programs of the past without adjustments, without considering innovations from new social movements since then. We must attend to new objective conditions, evidenced by the rise of new capitalist states outside of the traditional Western imperialist bloc. We need to think carefully about how to articulate effective alternatives to reformism and spontaneity, for whom the legacy of socialist organization represents nothing more than totalitarianism or bureaucratism.

It is far easier to demonize the Bolsheviks’ experience wholesale as the ventures of ill-intentioned authoritarianism than to grapple with an uncomfortable truth: that while Lenin and his comrades were just as genuine communists as we are today in this room, they can also be responsible for the most catastrophic kinds of political errors alongside world historical successes. No one, including Lenin, can model the right path forward at all times. The capacity for victory comes with the capacity for error. But as Lenin says, “by analyzing the errors of yesterday, we learn to avoid errors today and tomorrow.”

Cliff Connolly: Very happy to be here. Thank you to Paul, Promise, and Linda for having me.

In my reading, the central thesis that I saw in Comrade LeBlanc’s new book is the well-documented and ever-relevant fact that Lenin, at every point of his political career, was a thoroughgoing champion of democracy.

This could not be a more timely or relevant intervention in the contemporary North American socialist movement. This phenomenon has been distorted by decades of Cold War propaganda and sect dogma. In other words, those who hate Lenin and those who love him have both misrepresented history in order to paint him as an autocrat who saw communism as separate from and superior to democracy.

In contrast to many sympathetic historians, comrade LeBlanc concedes and contextualizes the actions of Lenin and his party that may seem strikingly undemocratic at face value: suppression of the bourgeois press, political police, summary executions and more. This flows from a clear definition of Lenin’s conception of democracy and its differences from the commonsense definition propagated by bourgeois idealism. I quote here from Lenin in State and Revolution, “The dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will, for the first time, create democracy for the people, the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, the minority.”

Bourgeois republics, the typical state form of capitalist oligarchy, must suppress the working class majority through institutions like police militarization, mass incarceration, voter roll purges, gerrymandering, the legalized political bribery that we call lobbying, constitutional checks on democracy like the electoral college, upper legislative houses, judicial review, and more, in order to prevent majority rule and maintain the tyranny of the capitalist minority.

In contrast, democratic republics, the only state form through which socialism can be established according to Marx and Engels, must suppress the capitalist minority through various means in order to make majority rule possible. Thus, suppression of counter-revolutionary elements must be pursued not in order to do away with democracy but in order to defend it.

Comrade LeBlanc’s book demonstrates the democratic nature of both Lenin’s political thought and the Bolshevik party structure. Two examples in particular I think are worth highlighting. The idea of the vanguard party and democratic centralism are as historically misunderstood as Lenin himself, and LeBlanc provides poignant clarification on both concepts.

The vanguard party is often explained by adherents and detractors as a party consisting of elite full-time socialists who plan out the revolution and direct their minions and the working class from the comfort of their party headquarters. This could not be any further from what Lenin described in his writings or what the Bolsheviks practiced in their daily routine.

This is obvious from the origin of the term “vanguard party.” It’s a military metaphor in which the vanguard is the unit at the front of the battle line, making first contact with the enemy forces and leading the rear guard into the fray. Confused historians and activists employ this term to describe the opposite behavior: officers studying maps and relaying orders from the command center.

This organizing model would be better termed the general staff party, in keeping with the wartime metaphor.

Democratic centralism is similarly misconstrued by friends and enemies of the socialist movement alike. According to contemporary conventional wisdom, it’s a method of decision making in which party leaders describe what each party member should believe and how they should behave, with members expected to obediently follow orders.

But LeBlanc describes the actual mechanisms of democratic centralism as they were practiced in the Bolshevik party. I quote from the book briefly:

The highest decision making body in the party was not a central committee or political committee, but rather the party congress or convention. The central committee was  elected by and answerable to the party Congress.The Congress was held every year or two consisting of elected delegates from every local branch of the party. These elections were to take place after a period of written and oral discussion and debate on the issues facing the party, and the decisions considered binding on the members and lower level organizations were made by the party congress.

Clearly the Bolsheviks were not the conspiratorial band of elite autocrats that they’re so often painted as. With Lenin leading the way, they forged a democratic mandate for power and conducted the world’s greatest experiment in proletarian democracy in the early Soviet Union. For those of us looking to build on their foundations for a just and livable future, there are several important lessons to be found in their successes and mistakes, as we’ve all noted so far.

Since we can only interact with Lenin as a historical figure, it’s important to look at how he was influenced by his own historical forebears. He saw the Narodniks, a group of Russian agrarian populists who predated his generation of socialists, as flawed but irreplaceable forebears of Russian social democracy.

According to Lenin, their sacrifices demanded not only high praise but also sharp criticism. Their mistakes would be in vain if future generations refused to learn from them. We should adopt a similar attitude to the forebears of American Socialism, the revolutionary abolitionists and militant trade unionists of the 19th century.

Both groups won historic victories in their respective struggles, and both groups were ultimately crushed before achieving their aims in the same year, 1877. The defeat of 1877 was twofold. Reconstruction ended with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the rise of Jim Crow, and those same federal troops were deployed the same year to crush the Great Railroad Strike that had galvanized workers in the North.

Marx had insisted years prior in Das Kapital that Black liberation and proletarian emancipation were inexorably intertwined in North America, and he was proven correct here in the most tragic manner possible. Had the revolutionary abolitionists and radical trade unionists united in a common organization with a common plan of action, each could have found success in support of the other.

The economic demands of the labor movement would only have been possible to realize under the thoroughly democratic political regime that the abolitionists fought for. The democratic state that the abolitionists intended to create could only be built with the support of the militant mass organizations of the working class. Yet both groups refused one another to their mutual destruction. Learning from our ideological ancestors’ mistakes and applying them to our organizing today is crucial.

We cannot hope to transform society without the advanced elements of the working class, the militant trade unionists, on our side. Neither can we hope to win material gains for the working class without a change in the political structure that we live under. Socialism and the labor movement must merge into one fighting organization, which cannot be achieved by either ignoring or tailing the organic demands of the proletariat. In practice, this means we have to win the working class over to the demand for a new constitution, one which operates on a genuinely democratic basis and enshrines socialism in law.

The idea that a revolutionary constitution is necessary for any meaningful transformation of American society is not new, and it is not my idea. It comes directly from the abolitionists responsible for the first great liberatory change in our country’s political economy. When John Brown forged his plan to march south and strike the slave power’s heart in Virginia, he worked hard to ensure that this plan had the backing of the whole abolitionist movement.

It caught on fast, and a convention was called in Chatham, Ontario to chart a thorough plan for revolution. The majority Black delegation not only adopted Brown’s battle plan but elected a government in waiting and ratified a draft of Brown’s  provisional constitution, which would radically reorganize society. Loyalty that abolitionists later went on to show to the federal government in the wake of the Civil War was eventually rewarded with the total abandonment of Reconstruction. The earlier revolutionary wing of the abolitionist movement was vindicated, and their assertion that their goals were only attainable when the slaver’s constitution was defeated was proved correct.

This is as true today as it was then, and we as socialists have a responsibility to carry the spirit of the Chatham Convention into the 21st century. A revolutionary movement for a new constitution is not only possible but also necessary for the construction of socialism in North America. Foremost among those calling for this course of action is Marxist Unity Group, a faction within the Democratic Socialists of America, of which I am a member.

So allow me to close with a quote from our Points of Unity:

No one can truly be free if they are forced to bow to a reactionary constitution written by the dead. We want socialist leaders to erode the popular legitimacy of the U. S. Constitution through combative political agitation, never bowing to the old order, and always acknowledging the need for a working class revolution in the United States. The revolution will not base its legitimacy on the laws of the slaveholder constitution. We will base it on a democratic majority mandate for socialism. To win, millions of working people must be mobilized in their workplaces, at the ballot box, and in the street. We fight the constitution to win a democratic socialist republic in North America. Forged in revolution, this continental republic will strive for the global liberation of all working and oppressed people.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

Featured image credit: Picryl; modified by Tempest.

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Paul Le Blanc, Promise Li, and Cliff Connolly View All

Paul Le Blanc is the author of Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution. He is also a longtime activist and professor of history at the Roche College in Pittsburgh and the author of more than 30 books. Including a number of widely read studies such as Lenin and the Revolution, From Marx to Gramsci, Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience, and many others.

Promise Li is a socialist activist from Hong Kong and Los Angeles. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and Solidarity here in the United States. He is active in international solidarity movements from Hong Kong and China, tenant and anti-gentrification organizing in Chinatown, Los Angeles, and rank and file graduate organizing

Cliff Connolly is a contributor to Cosmonaut Magazine and a member of the Marxist Unity Group, which is a faction within the Democratic Socialists of America. He is also the author of Fight the Constitution for a Democratic Socialist Republic, Selected Writings for Marxist Unity Group.