… even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
The Left has tossed Lenin’s corpse to the victors of history — both the Stalinists and their liberal opponents. One group mummified him into an idol for the worship of their own power, while the other demonized him as an enemy of democracy and human rights. The New Left viewed itself primarily as an anti-Leninist Left, and celebrated its break with his legacy. With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, seemingly consigning it to the dustbin of history, it seemed that the final word had been spoken on that state’s founder. The leaders of the very party he founded and shaped buried his work.
Michael Brie is a philosopher and social scientist. His research focuses on the theory and history of socialism and communism, socio-ecological transformation, and revolutionary realpolitik.
The demand not to leave Lenin to his enemies has but a single purpose: namely, to ensure that his legacy can be of use to the Left in preparation for that hour of redemption when, as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940, the “firm, seemingly brutal grasp” becomes the order of the day.
We must learn from Lenin and from the consequences of his actions. Part of this is a recognition of the inversion of ends and means, of the significance of the threshold that separates us from ahumanity, a threshold leftists must not transgress, for our own sakes and for the sake of our objectives. For revolutionary energy alone, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1918, in part in reference to the Russian Revolution, does not constitute the “true breath of socialism”, but must go hand in hand with the “most generous humanity”.
This connection was far too often broken by Lenin and by those who acted in his name. In May 1953, speaking to a group of workers in Paris about the October Revolution and the Soviet Union, Albert Camus summarized the situation thus:
The revolution brought about by workers succeeded in 1917 and marked the dawn of real freedom and the greatest hope the world has known. But that revolution, surrounded from the outside, threatened within and without, provided itself with a police force. Inheriting a definition and a doctrine that pictured freedom as suspect, the revolution little by little became stronger, and the world’s greatest hope hardened into the world’s most efficient dictatorship.
In a situation where humanity is facing the greatest crisis since World War II, in an age of unfettered war and disaster capitalism, the Left — at least in Europe — is today a mere shadow of itself. The elimination of Lenin from the Left’s collective memory has been part of this historic demise. But how can we speak of Marx without Lenin? Of Luxemburg, Gramsci, Che Guevara or Allende, but not also of Lenin? How can a renewal of the Left be possible if it disavows an important part of its revolutionary heritage? What remains of socialism at all if Lenin has no place in its history? I would like to put forward seven reasons why Lenin should not be abandoned to his enemies.
One: Lenin’s Rejection of War
Lenin’s rise to become a figure who would change the course of history began with his unwavering rejection of World War I (along with a few others, such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg) and the call to turn their weapons on the chief enemy, the ruling class. This rejection was unflinching. Lenin came to the conclusion that this war could only be brought to an end through a revolutionary civil war. He did not want to curb the policies of the ruling class but to combat them head on.
This rejection was aimed at the essence of war, not at its specific cause or trigger. Lenin always viewed the differences and contradictions of World War I from the perspective of their significance for this refusal of war. He persistently sought to sharpen these contradictions so long as he believed that by doing so he could pave the way for revolution. In the process, he also sought to create space for compromises based on an independent, leftist anti-war position.
For Lenin, having firm principles was not at odds with being flexible, rather they were two sides of the same coin. This led to the peace accord with Imperial Germany and to a policy of peaceful coexistence after 1921. His rejection of war was measured in terms of its usefulness for revolutionary politics and could swiftly turn into a support for reform and concessions, so long as they seemed to serve the power of socialism.
Two: Lenin’s Dialectics
The Second International had treated dialectics like a dead dog. It succumbed to the ideology of evolutionary progress, becoming incapable of conceptualizing ruptures. Placing their trust in the “universal principles” to which they reduced Marxism, they closed their minds to the realization that what is required is to recognize the potential offered by the individual event for breaking out of the universal prison of complicity with capitalism and imperialism.
It was Lenin who recognized in the correspondence between Marx and Engels, published prior to World War I, the source of their revolutionary communist approach. That is why Lenin used the first months of his exile in Switzerland, when he was condemned to an almost complete lack of agency, to study this very dialectics at its source — in Hegel’s most abstract work, his Science of Logic. In the place of evolution, Lenin came to see “leaps” as central, which suddenly placed everything on its head. He rediscovered Hegel as a revolutionary thinker for the Left.
It is one of the Left’s maladies that it fails to engage with the real contradictions of the real working class in the real relations of the imperialist world order and capitalist competition.
Of the many insights that Lenin gained through this, here is just one: “the transformation of the individual into the universal, of the contingent into the necessary, transitions, modulations, and the reciprocal connection of opposites”. To forge a convincing left-wing politics, it is not enough to be right at the level of the “universal” — rather, the task is to act decisively for that individual issue that specifically moves the masses in a specific moment, with the goal of facilitating interventionist, left-wing politics. Anybody who fails in this individual instance has also failed at the “universal” level, and becomes meaningless.
Lenin summarized the most important lesson that he took from his studies on dialectics in his analysis of the epochal significance of the Easter Uprising in Ireland in 1916:
To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. — to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. … Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.
It is one of the Left’s maladies that it fails to engage with the real contradictions of the real working class in the real relations of the imperialist world order and capitalist competition. This engagement demands that we address national, ethnic, and patriarchal “prejudices”, which develop among the working class under such relations, in order to extract energy for left-wing politics even out of this “impurity”. It is only if we manage to do this that we will be able to sail against the storm in these imperialist times.
Three: Lenin’s Epochal Analysis
Deficient or incorrect diagnoses of the historical moment is a common criticism of the Left that is made to explain its weakness. However, there is certainly no lack of such diagnoses. What we do lack are historical diagnoses based on strategic lines of questioning that lead to clear conclusions for left-wing strategy. All too often, the purity of critiques of capitalism is accompanied by an attempt to avoid the “impure” consequences that these relations leave with the working classes. It is for this reason that these analyses remain sterile.
In the brief period between late 1914 and 1916, Lenin not only produced the book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, but also read up once more on the agrarian question, as he saw the behaviour of the peasantry as the decisive issue in a coming revolution. He juxtaposed the US path of capitalist agrarian development to that employed in Prussia in order to understand the possible decisions with which the peasantry would be faced in a revolution.
During this same period, he studied the complexity of the national question in an era of imperialism because he assumed that a revolution could only be successful if it absorbed the energy of the national question and was able to account for it without succumbing to it. As such, he directed his attention not so much at the organized proletariat (whose revolutionary potentially seemed evident to him) but at the peasants, the petit-bourgeois nationalist forces and the anticolonial movements. His interest was directed not so much at the class limitations of these forces, but — beyond any kind of sectarianism — at their potential to transform society.
In other words, what are the dominant tendencies of the present moment, which scenarios are realistic, where are the ruptures in the ruling system most likely to appear, what are the possibilities for forging strong alliances even from a position of weakness in order to intervene in undecided situations, and what is then to be done — Lenin asked himself these questions in the wake of 1914, making him more prepared than anybody else on the Left for the revolutionary circumstances that emerged between 1917–19. Indeed, these are the questions that today’s Left once again must ask itself.
Four: Lenin’s Vision and Immediate Programme of Action
Lenin wrote State and Revolution from his illegal exile in Finland, in the middle of the horror of World War I and the rapid political shifts taking place in Russia after the February Revolution, all while facing persecution as an alleged paid agent of Germany and being directly involved in the preparations for the seizure of political power by the Bolsheviks.
He had already carefully gathered together everything he could find in terms of statements made by Marx and Engels about a future communist society, and he guarded these notebooks with his life. His objective was nothing less than the rediscovery of Marxian communism as the guiding orientation for policy after the success of the revolution.
In State and Revolution, the notion of the direct self-management of society from below by armed workers and the direct seizure of control of the economy by the workers in the factories butts up against a vision of the utmost centralization of power in the hands of the working class. It is as if Bakunin and Marx had both guided Lenin’s pen at the same time. This was possible in part because in his analysis of the Paris Commune, Marx himself had taken up many anarchist ideas, and both he and Engels assumed that in the course of a successful revolution, the state would wither away, since social and individual interests would increasingly coincide with one another. It is no coincidence that with Lenin (as with Marx before him), the vision of free association and of the organization of the entire society as a massive bureaucratic undertaking went hand in hand.
Everything depended purely on the prevailing power relations and the political decisions that were made. For an enduring left-wing politics, that was far too arbitrary.
At the same time as Lenin was working on State and Revolution, he drew on the debates around the war economy and his understanding of planning and guiding the economy acquired from studying the alliance between monopolies and the state to develop a programme for stabilizing Russia through a form of state capitalism under the leadership of a revolutionary government. It was this programme that he then deployed in 1918, and to which he turned again with the transition to the New Economic Policy in the late 1920s.
Lenin’s visions were deeply and internally contradictory, and his immediate programme was not organically connected with these visions. This made it possible to shift, in an almost entirely arbitrary fashion, between the harshest dictatorship and the most radical democracy, the immediate abolition of markets and law as well as measures to consolidate them. War communism and state capitalism could thus be justified as socialist policies. Everything depended purely on the prevailing power relations and the political decisions that were made. For an enduring left-wing politics, that was far too arbitrary.
Five: Lenin’s Party
Certainly since the founding of the paper Iskra (The Spark) in 1900, Lenin’s central concern was creating a party of professional revolutionaries that would be capable of combining the struggle for the economic interests of the workers with the political struggle of bringing down Tsarism.
In his programmatic text What Is to Be Done?, he states in all clarity: “Give us an organization of revolutionaries, and we will overturn Russia!” This line grew directly out of his own, shame-laden experience of powerlessness when attempting to train and educate the workers without being able to resolve the fragmentation and separation of the economic and political struggle. Lenin wanted to get away from this “primitiveness”, as he disparagingly called it, and developed the concept of a “party of a new type”:
Without such organisation the proletariat will never rise to the class-conscious struggle; without such organisation the working-class movement is doomed to impotency. With the aid of nothing but funds and study circles and mutual benefit societies the working class will never be able to fulfil its great historical mission—to emancipate itself and the whole of the Russian people from political and economic slavery. Not a single class in history has achieved power without producing its political leaders, its prominent representatives able to organise a movement and lead it.
What are the organizational forms that can facilitate successful struggles that connect ecological and social questions with a radical social transformation, that merge economic demands with long-term economic restructuring, that enforce proactive peace policies while still preserving our own security, and that make a convincing contribution to the implementation of the UN objectives for sustainable global development? One thing is certain: without such organizational forms, we will not be able to overturn disaster capitalism. Instead, we will be condemned to the descent into naked barbarism.
Six: Lenin’s Struggle for Power
Particularly in the current situation, the Left should be painfully aware of what powerlessness means. It leads to splintering and degradation, and to a profound feeling of impotence in the face of ever-growing threats and the possible descent into naked barbarism.
Power is a form of seduction, but without power, we are left with nothing but empty intentions. In 1920, Clara Zetkin conveyed a remark by Luxemburg about Lenin from the year 1907:
Take a good look at him. That is Lenin. Look at the self-willed, stubborn head. A real Russian peasant's head with a few faintly Asiatic lines. That man will try to overturn mountains. Perhaps he will be crushed by them. But he will never yield.
Lenin led the socialist Left to a power it had never known before. In the course of seizing and securing that power, he was often merciless, and subjugated everything to this objective. His attempts to prevent the abuse of this power by Stalin and to install forces that could counter this came too late. Already weakened by his terminal illness, his efforts were entirely in vain. His final dictated words, his testament, bear witness to his failure in the face of forces of uncontrolled domination, forces he himself had fuelled with his struggle to seize power through the Bolshevik Party.
Seven: Lenin’s Failure Is Our Collective Failure
The crisis of capitalist liberal civilization has become organic and universal. And for this very reason, to put an end to this situation of perpetual catastrophe, it is time to look back and, as Walter Benjamin put it, “prepare a banquet for the past”, so that we can turn to the future.
Lenin’s massive impact cannot be separated from his failure to establish a political system that respected the freedom of the individual and that facilitated learning, rather than sacrificing these things in the interests of the pure struggle for power. Lenin attempted to tackle this failure in the final years of his life. His writings from 1922 and early 1923, before his lost his ability to speak, were new and open-ended search processes.
Socialism needs to be refounded — intellectually, politically, and organizationally. This is impossible if the existing history of socialism and Lenin’s legacy are not incorporated into this new socialism.
Under Stalin, these processes were snuffed out during the Great Terror, before being revived under Khrushchev and later Gorbachev. In the People’s Republic of China, they never stopped, beginning in the civil war and then continuing in the 1950s and early 1960s, and they have continued unbroken since 1978. Showing that there was no reason why a party guided by the traditions of Lenin had to be incapable of renewal.
The only people who can learn from history are those who invite the figures who set out in search of an emancipated humanity before us to the table, viewing them as comrades, in order to speak to them about their great attempts and also about their failures. Lenin also belongs at this table. If we cannot do justice to him, we will have no future.
Finding a Way Out
In an era in which the ruling classes in Europe and the US are increasingly incapable of carrying out their current policies, when catastrophic events are becoming increasingly frequent, when the trust of the citizens in the agency of the ruling classes and the institutions of the bourgeois-capitalist economy and democracy is exhausted, when the spirit of the times ceases to echo the spirit of the ruling class, then we have reached the hour of the “firm, apparently brutal grip” that Benjamin demanded, and of which Lenin was capable like few other leftist politicians.
Just as in the lead-up to 1933, confronted with such a fundamental crisis of liberal civilization, we are faced with a choice between fascism or socialism. Karl Polanyi wrote on this in 1934:
Fascism is that form of revolutionary solution [to the crisis of liberal civilization] which keeps Capitalism untouched. … Obviously, there is another solution. It is to retain Democracy and abolish Capitalism. This is the Socialist solution.
But for this, socialism needs to be refounded — intellectually, politically, and organizationally. This is impossible if the existing history of socialism and Lenin’s legacy are not incorporated into this new socialism.
During the collapse of the Bulgarian state socialist system, the Bulgarian partisan, communist, and novelist Angel Wagenstein made the following observation to his party:
I believe that socialism is a human project, a human project, the most fundamental project in global civilization since the advent of Christianity. … We will see how things progress. Jesus Christ never knew — after all, he was not a Christian — how Christianity would progress in the 3rd century or in the dark depths of the Middle Ages. The Inquisition was the gulag of Christianity. Christianity had its gulag too, multiple gulags, actually. I am no prophet when it comes to socialism. I only know that there is no other path for humanity. There is no other way out.
But if and how this way out will be found will also depend on how leftists deal with Lenin and his legacy.
Translated by Joel Scott for Gegensatz Translation Collective.