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Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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What is to be done...about Lenin?



Solidarity Co-Convenor Jock Penman and Fife activist John Lowrie argue that the movement needs to reappraise the role of Lenin


After 100 years the question of whether Lenin was the genius who led the workers and peasants into a socialist revolution or whether his strategy for revolution was a mistake and a failure, is still being debated. It has to be conceded that the revolution crumbled into dust with the demise of the Communist Parties worldwide and, by implication, a failure of political leadership within the former Soviet Union.


Those who don’t wish to investigate for themselves or are just content to follow their own party leadership (or even bourgeois) explanations, blame Stalin. Stalin has become the scapegoat for the failures. Surely Lenin and Leninist ideology have to take as much of the blame for the failures of the revolution as much as they are praised for its successes?


What then went wrong, and what to do about it? It is all very well for those on the left with a sentimental attachment to 1917 to wax lyrical on those glorious days. Russia is now a capitalist state, and this has to be Lenin's problem. But to what extent can the persistent failures be laid at the door of Leninist ideas and practices?

In what is his most celebrated and indeed radical work,”The State and Revolution” Lenin argued that the communist revolution had to smash the bourgeois state and introduce a socialist state. This would be a democratic state that would recognise the right of all to administer that state. ” Any cook can run the state etc.!” This recalls “The Manifesto”, where Marx and Engels asserted that the proletariat had to win the battle for democracy; but in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” Marx also proclaimed that between capitalism and communism lay the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other, to which there corresponded a political transition period ”that could be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Is there a contradiction between the concepts of democracy and dictatorship of the proletariat?

Here is part of Lenin’s argument, which is a fine piece of analysis, though it may, on the surface, appear quite dramatic.

‘Democracy is a form of the state; it represents, on the one hand, the organized, systematic use of force against persons; but, on the other hand, it signifies the formal recognition of equality of citizens, the equal right of all to determine the structure of, and to administer, the state. This, in turn, results in the fact that, at a certain stage in the development of democracy, it first welds together the class that wages a revolutionary struggle against capitalism – the proletariat, and enables it to crush, smash to atoms, wipe off the face of the earth the bourgeois, even the republican-bourgeois, state machine, the standing army, the police and the bureaucracy and to substitute them for a more democratic state machine, but a state machine nevertheless, in the shape of armed workers who proceed to form a militia involving the entire population.’

‘The more complete the democracy, the nearer the moment when it becomes unnecessary. The more democratic the “state” which consists of the armed workers, and which is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word”, the more rapidly every form of state begins to wither away.’

Sadly, this is not what came to pass. Various reasons are advanced for this: the damage and losses of the ‘Civil War’, the backward state of economic development, the low level of culture, the isolation of the Revolution. One common argument is that Russia was not ripe for revolution, which had to await the development of capitalism. This was not Lenin's own view. He argued, "But what if the situation. …. gave rise to circumstances that put Russia and her development in a position that enabled us to achieve precisely that combination of a 'peasant war' with the working class movement, suggested in 1856 by no less a marxist than Marx himself, as a possibility for Prussia. Our European philistines never even dreamt that the subsequent revolutions in Oriental countries, which possess much vaster populations in a much vaster diversity of social conditions, will undoubtedly display even greater distinctions than the Russian Revolution'' (“Our Revolution"  Pravda 30/5/23).  

In fact, Marx himself had already warned in a letter of 1870 against ''…an all-purpose formula of a general historic-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical, to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism into a historic-philosophical theory of general development, imposed by all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they are placed."

Basically the Leninists abandoned democracy for the dictatorship of the party, which they wrongly designated the dictatorship of the proletariat, arguing that the party embodied the class interests and historical destiny of the proletariat. So, however cogent the other reasons for the Revolution’s failure, the Leninist party must be held responsible for such persistent failures in leadership and tactics.  

With remarkable prescience Trotsky, before he embraced Leninism with all the fervour of a latter-day convert, warned of, “… the party organisation substituting itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee” (Our Political Tasks.” 1904).

But by 1920 in “Terrorism and Communism” he was writing that the Party, ” …. has the final word in all fundamental questions…. the last word belongs to the Central Committee…. the unquestioned authority of the party, and the faultlessness of its discipline.''  

A good example is given by Bernard Reichenback of the KAPP at the World Congress of the Comintern in 1921. Alexandra Kollontai of The Workers' Opposition gave Reichenback an article she intended to read to the Congress the following day. The party leaders listened in stony silence. Eventually Trotsky threatened her with party discipline, and she begged Reichenback for the return of the article. What was she advocating? ...that the working class should run industry itself, not the party and its one-man managers?!

The arguments at the time for democracy and against Lenin's concepts can be read in Kautsky's "The Dictatorship of the Proletariat" (1919) though Kautsky was considered a ‘phoney Marxist’. In criticising Lenin, he identifies democracy with voting, as if the exercise of the right to vote were the exercise of genuine power. In fact, the Constituent Assembly did not represent the people of Russia, only the various party leaderships. Nevertheless, it is widely appreciated among Marxists that the failure of previous revolutions owes not a little to the lack of democracy, because with ‘the last word’ belonging to the party leadership in the political arena and the first word to the one-man managers in the economic sphere, the proletariat and the other popular classes were disenfranchised and depoliticised. They do what they are told!

As for the party organisation, as Rakovsky observed (and look what happened to him!). ”When a class takes power, one of its parts becomes the agent of that power. Thus arises bureaucracy…. this differentiation begins as a functional one; it later becomes a social one. I am thinking of the social position of a communist who has at his disposal a car, a nice apartment, regular holidays, and receiving the maximum salary…. workers and employees are divided into 18 different categories.” (1928). Almost 40 years later Mao made almost the same observations, asserting that the bourgeoisie in China “…sits on the Central Committee of the Party”!

Here we can see the missing concept in Lenin's ''State and Revolution”.

So is there an alternative to Lenin's party dictatorship, which in the long run leads back to capitalism, and Kautsky's phoney 'democracy', which never leads away from it in the first place?

The Lenin Museum in Moscow is now gone. Still, those visitors to Moscow, in need of a museum have plenty of choice: there is the new museum opened by the oligarch, Putin, dedicated to the Tsar, now declared by the Russian Orthodox Church to have been a saint! Quite an achievement for a despot whose dynastic claims caused the deaths of 13 million of his holy subjects!!

We can see that the failures of Leninism and its offspring ‘Stalinism’ have allowed capitalism to take power in Russia and its former satellite states, as was the concern of Trotsky, Rakovsky and Mao.

As Marx and Engels affirmed in 'The Manifesto' the proletariat has to win the battle of democracy. This is a battle that has still to be waged!

It is incumbent on socialists to define genuine democracy so we do not make the same mistakes in future.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

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George Monbiot

Green Left


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Scottish Left Review

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