The Relevance of Lenin Today



The left has been experiencing a situation somewhat similar to the World War I years. At that time, the abject failure of social democracy to oppose the imperialist war produced a major crisis on the left. This crisis was eventually "resolved" by the October Revolution and the development of a new revolutionary politics in the form of the young Soviet state and the Communist International. Meanwhile, social democracy reconstituted itself as more openly and frankly reformist, and reduced the revolutionary phraseology particularly common in the May Day strikes at the turn of the century.

We now live in a period of a collapsed Communism that, with the partial exception of Poland, was not overthrown by a mass movement from below. Instead, Communism fell as a result of the disintegration produced by the systemic contradictions of this new form of class society different from both capitalism and genuine socialism (i.e., the democratic rule of the polity and the economy by the working class and its allies). Social democracy continues to live on as the increasingly ineffective regulator and rationalizer of capitalism without even the pretense of a serious class-based reformism. It is hardly surprising that the left is disoriented and in disarray since there are no signs of the emergence of a new socialist paradigm to take the place of these two bankrupt political schools. Such a new paradigm cannot be hothoused as an understandably desperate Leon Trotsky attempted to do in 1938 with the creation of a Fourth International lacking mass support. The experiences of the current struggles for racial and gender equality and national self-determination will undoutedly become part of the new paradigm. So will the lessons learned from working-class struggles, now beginning to emerge from the long slump that began, in the United States, with concessionary unionism at the end of the 1970s and Reagan's suppression of PATCO in 1980.

The dramatic new realities of the coming century will require a revolutionary synthesis that will have to start from scratch. It no longer suffices, if it ever did, to counterpose any of a number of narrow perspectives, be they Anarchism, Trotskyism or Luxemburgism, to the heretofore hegemonic social democracy and Communism. Nevertheless, starting from scratch does not mean that the new will not carry within it elements of the old, aside from the fact that it is often desirable to borrow explicitly from some of the previously established perspectives.

What are likely to be the useful elements of Lenin's politics for a democratic revolutionary socialism of the 21st century? I believe that Lenin's most important contribution to Marxism and revolutionary politics was his ability to take the pulse of the historical moment and define the political situation in conjunctural terms. What I have in mind here was Lenin's ability to "go for the jugular," that is, to disentangle an often complex situation and seize the main element or trend within that situation. Closely related to this was his ability to understand the changes in working-class and popular consciousness and the direction in which it was headed at a particular moment. Lenin was a consummate politician (in the non-corrupt sense of the term) within a Marxist tradition that has often attracted people who care about many things other than politics. Marxism offers a philosophy of history, a body of economic theory and a class-based sociology. But while necessary to Marxism, these are not sufficient as a guide to action. For this one also requires the development of politics as an art or skill. Otherwise Marxism becomes an abstract and schematic body of knowledge quite unsuited to political action. Thus, for example, the decision to participate in elections to the Tsarist-controlled Duma could not and should not have been made, according to Lenin, on a once for all basis without regard for the particular set of circumstances prevailing in each election.

Along the same lines, the decision to actually move to overthrow the Provisional Government in the Fall of 1917 was necessarily affected by almost daily conjunctural changes. Lenin was correct in insisting that once the political decision was made to organize an insurrection, tactical considerations of a military type moved to the foreground and could not be downgraded as secondary matters. While Lenin's emphasis on the working class as the principal agent of social transformation more than matched that of any other majorfigure in the classical Marxist tradition, he did not interpret this commitment in a narrow "workerist" fashion. It was Lenin who emphasized that a true social democrat had to be a "Tribune of the People" to whom no social conflict fell outside the sphere of socialist politics. That the working class may not have been directly involved in a struggle did not mean that there was not a working-class interest in or perspective on that struggle. In this, as Arthur Rosenberg insisted in Democracy and Socialism, Lenin sharply differed from the prevailing "workerist" traditions of the Second International. In the German case, this narrow focus helped to neglect other sectors of the population, and even to abandon them into the hands of the right, with truly disastrous consequences. Even Rosa Luxemburg, an authentically revolutionary leader of the social democracy, was not exempt from this "workerist" tendency, as shown by her utter inability to comprehend the agrarian reform carried out by the October Revolution or the critical importance of the national question.

We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands -- all of them -- can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-around institution of all democratic reforms. Some of these reforms will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of that overthrow, and still others after it.... It is quite conceivable that the workers of some particular country will overthrow the bourgeoisie before even a single fundamental democratic reform has been fully achieved. It is, however, quite inconceivable that the proletariat, as a historical class, will be able to defeat the bourgeoisie, unless it is prepared for that by being educated in the most consistent and resolutely revolutionary democracy. (Lenin, 1964, 408-09.)

Compared to other socialist leaders of his time, Lenin was uniquely aware of the nature and importance of democratic struggles and demands for revolutionary strategy. This emphasis was closely connected to his conception of socialists as "Tribunes of the People" and to his special qualities as a revolutionary politician. While a great deal has been written criticizing Lenin's model of internal party organization, the fact remains that until the Civil War, any comparison between the Bolsheviks and other political parties would show the Bolsheviks in a favorable light on matters pertaining to internal democracy, such as the right of dissidents and factions to organize inside the party, let alone on such questions as the richness of internal political life, a clear ideology and program, and a firm class commitment.

Yet, here we find one of the more striking paradoxes in the Marxist tradition. While the struggle for democracy was central to Lenin's politics, his conception of the nature of democracy was flawed even while he was in opposition, let alone when he was the head of the Soviet state. As I have argued at length elsewhere (Farber, 1990), there was a quasi-Jacobinism in Lenin's politics that led him, for example, to give more importance to the politically more advanced elements organized in the party than to broader class institutions such as the soviets. Yet an elementary sense of proportion and perspective demands that we distinguish between Lenin's flawed conception of democracy, which he mostly upheld until at least the Spring of 1918, and the clearly anti-democratic perspective that, with his associates, he began to adopt shortly before and especially during the course of the Civil War. These anti-democratic views and practices fully crystallized after the Civil War, in the period 1921-1923, even as Lenin reacted in genuine horror against the practical outcomes of those very views and actions. It was particularly during and after the Civil War that many undemocratic practices that may have indeed been justified as necessary came to be seen and defended by Lenin and other mainstream party leaders as intrinsically virtuous. The existence of this attitude is also demonstrated by the virtual absence of statements by Lenin attesting to the temporary or conjunctural nature of his repressive and anti-democratic measures, except in a few isolated instances, such as when the 1921 ban on party factions was originally declared to be temporary.

The stressful years of Civil War and famine also negatively affected Lenin's tried and tested political flexibility and his uncanny ability to grasp the main thrust of the political moment. Thus, Lenin insisted, against the advice of Trotsky and of Dzerzhinsky and Radek -- both of whom had much greater experience than Lenin in Polish affairs and who could not have been accused of being "soft" on Polish nationalism -- on carrying out the disastrous 1920 Red Army attempted military takeover of Poland that succeeded in making a national hero of Jozef Pilsudski. Similarly, Lenin continued to defend the highly unpopular economic policies of War Communism, even after the end of the Civil War in late 1920. In the end, Lenin changed his mind only when confronted, in the early Spring of 1921, with the ever-mounting catastrophes of large workers' strikes in the major cities, the Kronstadt Rebellion, and continuing peasant revolts. When Lenin wrote about "professional revolutionaries" in the context of the underground struggle against Tsarist despotism he was not referring to "bourgeois intellectuals," as some ignorant critics have asserted. Rather, he was speaking about the development of cadres -- preferably workingclass -- who would make politics rather than other concerns such as work and family the center of their lives. These cadres would be available for political assignments whenever and wherever the party directed them. I don't think that this conception is likely to be particularly relevant to revolutionary socialist politics in the 21st century, at least in the Western capitalist democracies. However, there is another sense in which "professionalism" has become a necessary element of a new socialist politics. This "professionalism" means, among other things, finally getting away from the widespread attitude that political activity is primarily a matter of self expression and fun, and that it can be treated with less seriousness, responsibility and care for boring yet necessary details than even the humdrum jobs that most of us perform in order to earn a living. Similarly, the political process of getting things done has to be consistent with and should not contradict the stated goals of a political organization, as it often did in the anti-democratic organizations of the Old and New Lefts. This is necessary for a number of reasons, including the fact that the goals themselves would otherwise be subverted. Nevertheless, the process should not be made more important than the goal, as has often been the case in organizations influenced by New Left traditions.

We need a corrective to the hegemony that the remnants of New Left values and assumptions continue to have over a good part of the left. There is no doubt that the New Left achieved enormous victories. It played a major role in helping to bring a criminal war to an end. It made a considerable contribution to the democratization of American society in a large number of areas, ranging from racial and gender relations to the reduction of authoritarian behavior in schools and workplaces. In its day, the New Left constituted a welcome antithesis to the political decay and moral corruption of the Old Left. The Old Left -- dominated by the hegemonic traditions of Communism and social democracy -- had become bureaucratic, dogmatic, dishonest, manipulative, callous and often sectarian. In response, the New Left stressed subjectivity, spontaneity, structurelessness and expressiveness. Yet as the various social movements that inspired and supported the New Left declined, what had been a fresh and even naive reaction to the many sins of the Old Left hardened into an unexamined and frozen cultural and political posture glorifying irrationalism, knownothingism, non-responsive individualism ("do your own thing") and a hopelessly romantic populism that assumed that exploitation and oppression always ennobled its victims and never brutalized them. If the New Left's original stress on "the personal is political" was a healthy corrective to the Old Left's callousness, hypocrisy and machismo, many sections of the New Left later converted this into the politically suicidal notion that there is no such thing as political priorities and that anything is as important as everything else.

The remnants of New Left ideas have recently converged with some newer intellectual trends, including postmodernism, and continue to exercise significant influence over contemporary movements such as ecology and feminism. As a result, it has now become fashionable to indulge in extreme forms of cultural and other forms of relativism and consequently excoriate the traditions of "Western rationalism," including of course Marx and Engels. The supreme irony is that this is done, knowingly or unknowingly, from the standpoint of a variety of eminently Western traditions of irrationalism. As far as I know, nobody has yet argued that Friedrich Nietzsche was a Third World intellectual, or stated that a German philosopher who lived from 1844 to 1900 is a social or language construction rather than a historical fact.

If a new socialist political paradigm is necessary, such a paradigm should attempt to synthesize what was best of the Old and New Lefts. Thus, democratic structures would emerge as the alternative to bureaucracy and the cult of spontaneity, human rationality as the alternative to dogmatism and irrationality, honest and candid accountability of leaders to manipulation and the obsession with process.

But what does all of this have to do with the relevance of Lenin today? If we take Lenin's politics, especially before the Civil War, and dispense with its all too often polemically vitriolic form, then we find a content which has a great deal to contribute to this new socialist paradigm. This is particularly true of Lenin's approach to liberalism. One need not agree with all of Lenin's views and actions concerning internal organizational politics to extract very valuable lessons in regard to Lenin's clear distinction between internal democracy and liberalism. In the context of today's left, this means for example that we should create an internal political climate where the less articulate and vocal are not intimidated. This is most relevant to women, the young and the less formally educated working-class activists. But this goal should not be accomplished at the expense of political clarity, particularly on major questions of principle. Nor should this translate into the relativistic attitude that there is no such thing as a mistaken opinion or view. Being tactful and respectful of the views of others should not be confused with condescension, mushheadedness and political cowardice.

Lenin's approach to liberalism is perhaps even more relevant to the political arena as a whole than to internal organizational matters. Under the impact of a massive right-wing offensive and the need to defend the social gains of the 1960s and even of the 1930s, the left runs the risk of accommodating itself to liberalism. The ultra-left notion that revolutionaries do not bother themselves with the struggle for reforms has had the perverse effect of convincing some people that since reforms are worth preserving, there is therefore no point in being any longer a revolutionary. But revolutionaries do not differ from reformists in the need to defend past reforms and fight for new ones. Revolutionaries differ from reformists in why and how they struggle for reforms. In particular, revolutionaries refuse to accept the limits of what the power holders claim the system "can afford." No less important is the preservation of the reform movement's organizational and political independence from the state and from politicians, even the most liberal. The underlying idea here is to maintain the movement's ability to continue the process of waging further and more advanced struggles without being encumbered by those obligations and compromises that would restrict the movement's political freedom of action.


Farber, Samuel. 1990. Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy. London: Verso.

Lenin, V. 1. 1964. "The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self Determination." In Collected Works, Vol. 21. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

This article first appeared in Science & Society, Vol. 60. No. 1 (Spring 1996). Copyright Guilford Publications, Inc. Reprinted with permission.


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