News | German / European History Learning from Lenin — And Doing Things Differently

Lessons for the European Left on his 150th birthday



Michael Brie,

Lenin and Voroshilov among delegates of the X Congress (March 1921, Moscow) Unknown author

At the end of the 1980s, after a century of hot and cold wars, the people of Europe, especially in the East and Southeast of the continent, had a dream: to come together under one roof as peoples and nations, living collectively in societies with a dynamic economy, a robust welfare state, a democracy in which power rests with the citizens, in peace and with permeable borders. In the three decades since, however, Europe appears to have moved in precisely the opposite direction: wars in the southern and southeastern neighbouring states of North Africa, the Near and Middle East; unresolved conflicts in Ukraine, and the Caucasus. The United Kingdom has left the European Union. The continent is divided along economic lines, while societies are increasingly fragmented. Walls are being put up. From the right, liberal democracy is being called into question. Terror is omnipresent. The ecological catastrophe has become undeniable. Natural systems are being destroyed at great speed.

Michael Brie is a Senior Fellow at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis. This article is adapted from Brie’s contribution to Lenin 150, an upcoming volume edited by Johann Salazar and Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn.

Translation by Patrick Anderson.

The Left is jointly responsible for this. Social-democratic, green, and even Communist parties have implemented neoliberal policies as partners in coalition governments or have failed to offer an effective alternative in opposition. Many citizens feel disappointed, betrayed even, by this failure of the Left—a failure to uphold its role as the protector of social well-being, democracy, the environment, and peace. At best, it wages defensive battles.

But the tide is beginning to turn. The global balance of power is rapidly shifting. The “Fridays for Future” movement has propelled ecological transformation to the top of the political agenda. This could prove to be a concrete opportunity to question the system from the Left in a new way. With the rise of the People’s Republic of China, a new model of development has emerged that can challenge the West on an even playing field. Meanwhile, the New Right continues to work towards rupturing the bond between capitalism and liberal democracy while bolstering proto-fascist trends; Trump and Bolsonaro are two of its most repugnant proponents. Migration has brought global social issues from the periphery back to the centre. The threat of war is once again real in the West. The ruling classes can no longer simply carry on with business as usual, as citizens increasingly demand a new approach. Nevertheless, persuasive and politically feasible solutions remain elusive—programmatically, strategically and organizationally. The question is: what is to be done when almost nothing can be done, but there is still so much to do?

22 April of this year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir I. Lenin. As controversial as he remains as a politician, there is no doubt that he was one of a handful of people who determined the fate of the twentieth century. Without him, world history would have taken a different course. Equally undisputed is that he was truly a guiding light of the Left, a declared Communist and Marxist. Through Bolshevism, he breathed new meaning into both of these terms. In times of paralysis and a potential new offensive by the Left, there are very good reasons to seek inspiration from Lenin, the most influential leftist politician of the twentieth century. This inspiration is two-fold: on the one hand, one can learn from Lenin which tasks the Left needs to embrace if it is to be strategically effective in any meaningful sense. On the other hand, one can and must learn what absolutely must be done differently, given that Lenin’s legacy has also contributed to the weakness of today’s Left. The Soviet state he created in 1917/18 failed thirty years ago, due in part to the inherent failings, never overcome, of this state and the ideas on which it was founded. Below are eight concrete proposals as to what should be done differently—eight direct challenges to the European Left. [1]

First: Lenin began with an explicit “no” to World War I. Not only was he one of the most resolute opponents of the war, but unequivocally qualified it as an imperialist war—irrespective of the nuances. For a short time, he supported the call for a united Europe, but soon came to see this as a distraction from the tasks at hand and declared the Civil War of the Slaves against the War of the Slaveowners, as he put it. Or, as Karl Liebknecht declared: Not Burgfriede but [2] But what is the explicit “no” of the European Left? What is its convincing “no” today? Greta Thunberg’s “How dare you!” is such a “no”, as are the boats rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean after the EU abandoned its mission there.

Second: Lenin spent the first long months of World War I in the libraries of Berne, Switzerland, where he read Hegel! He began a phase of intense philosophical reflection. His political statements of that time comprise thirty pages; more was not possible given his state of almost complete isolation. His article on Marx for the Russian Encyclopaedia Granat is fifty pages long. In contrast, his annotations on Science of Logic, Hegel’s most abstract work, run to 150 pages. Lenin related his experiences to Hegel’s dialectics of development and practice; he trained his thinking in contradictions, under the conditions of the ruptures and leaps of abruptly unfolding events. He was convinced that truth is always concrete. This was how he prepared for the unpredictable. Nothing in Hegel’s work is more materialistic than his idealistic dialectics, he wrote. On what philosophical basis is the European Left preparing for a completely new global situation? The very idea that such an approach is indispensable seems totally foreign to it.

Third: After his initial shock at the politics of the German Social Democrats and other parties of the Second International, Lenin developed his own alternative narrative. It was intended to explain how this betrayal of the decisions of the International of 1912 could have come to pass. Lenin’s aim was to clarify why a new “we”—a new, Communist International was needed, why it must put socialist revolution in Europe on the agenda and how that could be achieved. By contrast, the idea of a common narrative is alien to both the German and European Left, bordering on fairy tale. But how can we unite, today, that which is disparate and separated if not through narrative (and thereby in an organising and practical way)? The “we” must be created. An abstract commonality of interests is not enough, because many obstacles stand in the way of that which we have in common. The pride and desire in belonging to a new “subjectivity”, a new “we”, must be actively created. Without a narrative, the battle is lost before it begins. Could it be possible to form a new narrative from the idea of radical socio-ecological transformation—with global, as well as local and regional dimensions?

Fourth: In his years of exile in Switzerland during World War I, Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In the work, Lenin cites over a thousand sources, with excerpts comprising 900 pages. He was aided by a number of colleagues. What interested Lenin was not a comprehensive analytical explanation of the nature of imperialism, but its significance for strategic intervention by the Left. He saw Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism as only an abstract possibility; in concrete terms, things would be completely different. Lenin, looking for points of weakness in this incredibly robust international system, turned his attention to the inequality of development, inner-imperialist contradictions, the conflict between the leading imperialist nations and their colonies and semi-colonies. He investigated the national and agrarian questions, as well as those elements that had given rise to imperialism and war and which thus pointed to the possibility of a new economic order. Above all, he understood that there can be no “purely socialist” revolution. In order to bring about substantial change, inimically heterogeneous processes must be effectively combined: national and social struggles, struggles for radical democracy with an attendant transformation of property rights. According to Lenin, identifying which concrete question was the most central could not be achieved abstractly, only concretely and practically. Taken together, these thoughts reflect an incisive analysis of society. To what extent is today’s European Left equipped with such practically relevant analyses—which, instead of focusing on what is not possible, address what is possible, here and now? Where is the modern Left’s concrete utopia, as envisaged by Ernst Bloch, or its real utopias, in the words of Erik O. Wright?

Fifth: Following the February Revolution of 1917, Lenin, in just a few weeks, sacrificed the holiest cow of Russian Social Democracy, namely the doctrine of the two phases of revolution: bourgeois revolution as precursor to socialist revolution. Trotsky had already done this in 1905/6. Imperialism and the war, Lenin said, had created the objective and now also the subjective conditions for a socialist revolution, first in Russia, then in Germany and Europe. In his April Theses he placed this revolution firmly on the agenda. What concept of revolution, reform, transformation does the European Left have? Surely it is not enough simply to repeat the mantra that, if humankind is to survive, capitalism cannot be the last word in our history—while not having any concrete vision of how such a radical shift should actually occur! Could the concept of a double transformation from within and beyond capitalism contribute anything meaningful?

Sixth: At the same time, Lenin developed an understanding of “epoch” as a time to take action. “What to do?” and “Who will do it?” had always been central questions of the Left in its objective to transform society. Now, Lenin brought such considerations into the foreground once again: a focus not on general evolutionary tendencies, but on their intersection with concrete opportunities for action. His analyses were aimed at specific scenarios. With regard to the agricultural question, either the Prussian or the US-American approach could be adopted; national questions also provided scope for alternatives. In this way, he could “experiment” with various possibilities and remain flexible in the face of unexpected eventualities. The European Left, however, is often driven by an either/or, right-or-wrong mentality. Individual possibilities are set up in opposition to each other and thereby made absolute. This divides and paralyses us. We need scenarios that do justice to the openness of the situation and at the same time realistically reflect the concrete possibilities.

Seventh: The Bible, Proverb 29.18, states: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” What is needed is a liberating, emancipatory, utopian visualization of “another world”. In the summer months of 1917, Lenin composed The State and Revolution. What is most astonishing about this work is that here Lenin confronts the contradictions of a new socialist order. The new socialist state must have elements of the bourgeois state, so that the workers as “members of society” could enforce the principle of merit against themselves in their capacity as private individuals. In other words, repression not only against the ruling classes of the old society! What Lenin lacked was the understanding that politics concerns not only the exercise of power, but is also a space for dialogue, for self-understanding, which must guarantee the freedom of those who think differently—epitomized in his now infamous assertion that “there is no freedom and no democracy where there is […] violence.” But what is the vision of the European Left? How is it preparing for the contradictions created by its own politics? In particular, the need to deal with the consequences of participation in government always seems to catch the Left completely off guard. There are discussions of neo-socialism, a socialism relevant to the twenty-first century, that can address modern ecological, social, and democratic issues, and the question of peace from a new perspective. There is discussion of infrastructure socialism, which focuses on the communist foundations of a good society—education, health, ecology, transport, housing, etc. The common goods of a free society have been privatized or destroyed by neoliberalism. And in some cases, they must be created for the very first time in the face of globalization and digitalization. In order that everyone can have access to the goods of a free life, a radical transformation is needed that would make these common goods available for this purpose.

Eighth: All of these questions lead to what could be called entry projects (Einstiegsprojekte). Lenin did not dream these up on his own, as one often reads, but based them on the demands of the soldiers, the workers, the peasants, the representatives of oppressed peoples of Russia. “All power to the Soviets” and “overthrow of the provisional government”, “immediate peace without preconditions”, “workers’ self-government”, and “the right to self-determination” are prominent examples. As the Menshevik Internationalist and gifted chronicler Nikolai Sukhanov wrote, Lenin’s speech struck like lightning upon his arrival in Petrograd in April 1917: “Suddenly, before the eyes of all of us, completely swallowed up by the routine drudgery of the revolution, there was presented a bright, blinding, exotic beacon, obliterating everything we ‘lived by’. Lenin’s voice, heard straight from the train, was a ‘voice from outside’. There had broken in upon us in the revolution a note that was not, to be sure, a contradiction, but that was novel, harsh, and somewhat deafening.” The alternative to war and oppression became very concrete and seemed feasible. But what entry projects does the European Left have? Which of its projects are rooted in the mass consciousness? How can it be ensured that the vision for a new European order, a new era of peace, a new welfare state, a new kind of mobility, for fundamental constitutional reform and a new energy system will simultaneously drive the necessary socio-ecological transformation?

What the eight elements of Lenin’s strategic platform described above have in common is an orientation towards antagonism, towards irreconcilable opposition, either/or, the exclusion of a middle way, the state of emergency, which, in the long term, has proven to be a fatal restriction and weakness. The “no” was absolute, the philosophical conception was directed at the amplification and intensification of contradictions and focused exclusively on the leap. The narrative was centred on the absolute rupture with Social Democracy. The analysis excluded any capacity for reform on the part of capitalism and imperialism; the scenarios practically admitted only the barbarity of war on the one hand, and socialist civil war against the capitalist slaveowners on the other. The emancipatory vision promised the deprivation of all and any democratic rights, including the right to freedom, to those who resist; and the central project was the “proletarian power” exercised by the Bolshevik Party, a power that mercilessly oppressed its opponents. Each of the elements of Lenin’s strategy was designed from the extremes. The strategy of the extremes and of civil war had proved its strength, under the conditions of the situation in Russia and World War I, on the road to power in 1917. After 25 October 1917, everything would depend on how that power was used. But that is a different story.

Today’s European Left cannot and should not copy Lenin. It must find a fundamentally new way. But it can derive inspiration from Lenin, in the form of the eight propositions outlined above. Without a concrete “no”, without a dialectical philosophy of praxis, without a narrative of its own, without a strategic analysis of society, without an understanding of “epoch” and a focus on possible scenarios, without an emancipatory vision taking into account inherent contradictions, and without entry projects arrived at through consensus, the paralysis of the Left in Europe today will persist. The Left will not be able to oppose the rise of the Right and the dogged survival instincts of the ruling bloc. It will find itself unprepared for a new crisis. It will not be able to seize the opportunities of an open situation. Therefore, let us learn from Lenin in order to initiate—in a different way from him—radical, transformational and emancipatory social change.

Further Reading

Sukhanov, Nikolai (1984): The Russian Revolution 1917. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brie, Michael (ed.) (2014): Futuring: Perspektiven der Transformation im Kapitalismus über ihn hinaus. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot.

Brie, Michael (2018): Rediscovering Lenin. Dialectics of Revolution and Metaphysics of Domination. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Candeias, Mario (2019): Linkspartei, was nun? Drei Vorschläge für eine Strategiediskussion. Berlin: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

Institut für Gesellschaftsanalyse (2011): Organische Krise des Finanzmarkt-Kapitalismus: Szenarien, Konflikte, konkurrierende Projekte. Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

Klein, Dieter (2013): Das Morgen tanzt im Heute. Transformation im Kapitalismus und über ihn hinaus. Hamburg: VSA.

Wright, Erik Olin (2017): Envisioning Real Utopias. London: Verso.

[1] There are several works from my immediate environment that positively support the text that follows in terms of strategic solutions for the contemporary Left in Europe. These include analyses by the Institute for Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (Institute for Social Analysis 2011), Dieter Klein (2013) and Mario Candeias (2019). See also Brie (2014) and, more specifically on Lenin, Brie (2017).

[2] The term Burgfriede, derived from a medieval German practice of imposing a state of truce within the jurisdiction of a castle, was applied to the policy adopted by the Social Democratic Party of Germany not to oppose government policy during World War I. Liebknecht refused to adhere to this policy, and was the only member of the Reichstag to vote against extending war loans, under the slogan Burgkrieg, nicht Burgfriede! The former term, Burgkrieg, is a play on the German word Bürgerkrieg, meaning ‘civil war’. [Translator’s note]