What do we mean by Leninism?

October 20, 2014

WHAT, IF anything, do revolutionary socialists today have to learn from the experience and legacy of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks a century ago? In a recent thought-provoking article on this topic, Ian Birchall argues: "[T]he term 'Leninism' may be a positive obstacle to developing the kind of political strategy and organization we need for the coming decades."

As Ian notes, the key question is not whether we should use the label "Leninism," but whether there is a coherent body of ideas in Lenin's writings, and in the theory and practice of the Bolsheviks, that socialists can usefully draw on in the 21st century. But he seems to take the fact that "Lenin's party varied enormously in form according to circumstances" as a reason to conclude that, with respect to questions of organization, the answer should be in the negative.

It is undeniable that the Bolsheviks changed their organization in response to specific historical circumstances. The way they operated before 1905, under conditions of extreme Tsarist repression, was very different from the revolutionary period of 1905-07. The years of reaction after 1907 were very different from the early years of the Russian Revolution, which were different again from the period after the Civil War.

Lenin speaks to a mass demonstration in 1917
Lenin speaks to a mass demonstration in 1917 (Albert Rhys Williams)

In 1921, Lenin helped prepare theses on "The Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work" for the Third Congress of the Communist International, which explicitly state: "There is no absolute form of organization which is correct for the Communist Parties at all times...[E]ach Party must develop its own special forms of organization to meet the historically determined conditions within the country."

Nevertheless, while there is no cookie-cutter Leninist model of revolutionary organization, good for all times and all places, there is what we might call a more general Leninist project that involves a commitment to build a disciplined, centralized revolutionary party based on the most militant, class conscious and politically advanced section of the working class.

That project stands in opposition to the "common sense" of many--probably most--on the activist left, who reject the need for a centralized party or the role of the working class or both.

THESE ARE two main reasons why we need a revolutionary party if we want to see a socialist revolution. The first is quite practical: without a coordinated, disciplined revolutionary organization, it's impossible to take on and defeat the power of the capitalist state.

Although there is no discussion of revolutionary organization in State and Revolution, which Ian praises as Lenin's most important theoretical contribution, this is surely one of the implications of Lenin's analysis of the class character of the state and its role in maintaining the capitalist system and the rule of the capitalist class.

Like clockwork, capitalism provokes acts of resistance, large and small. But without coordination and leadership, the resistance can't defeat the whole system. In Trotsky's memorable metaphor: "Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box."

The second reason why a revolutionary party is necessary is because of the highly uneven development of class consciousness in the working class. Revolutionary organization is needed to combat ruling class ideology and to overcome divisions between workers.

As we're all too well aware, for most of the time, revolutionary socialists are a small minority in capitalist society. But if the most class conscious, militant and politically advanced elements of the working class can be united in a revolutionary organization, they can play a leadership role that in times of political and social crisis can attract much greater numbers.

That means revolutionary organizations have to play two related roles. One is participating in and, whenever possible, initiating struggles, both large and small. The second is the role of educating and training more socialists, while developing socialist theory to understand and explain a rapidly changing world.

Socialists have to spend years patiently engaging in smaller struggles, both to learn how to lead as individuals in their own workplaces and communities, and to build a party with the capacity to lead a successful revolution in the future.

That's the Leninist project.

IT'S IMPORTANT to emphasize that this is a project. We don't have a revolutionary party consisting of the most advanced elements of the working class in Britain or the United States, and we're unlikely to have one in the near future.

The main reason for this is that our side has suffered over 30 years of defeats. Moreover, the structure of capitalism and the composition of the working class have been transformed during that time. Whole industries have been wiped out or totally restructured. Unionized jobs have been replaced by low-wage service sector employment and contingent labor. And for 30 years, there has been a right-wing ideological offensive that has disoriented and weakened most of the left.

The Leninist project involves bringing together the ideas of revolutionary socialism with the most advanced sections of the working class. When the socialist movement and the larger working class movement are both weak, that's hard to do.

One of the biggest mistakes that relatively small groups of revolutionaries can make is to believe that they already constitute a revolutionary party, or that they will inevitably grow to become such a party. In his 1971 essay "Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party," Duncan Hallas, with his customary insight, put it this way:

The relevance of a party is, firstly, that it can give...the more advanced and conscious minority of workers, and not the sects or self-proclaimed leaders, the confidence and the cohesion necessary to carry the mass with them. It follows that there can be no talk of a party that does not include this minority as one of its major components.

If you imagine that you have already created such a party, or that your political clarity and understanding means that you are preordained to become the leadership of the international working class in the future, it can rapidly lead to delusions of grandeur that may undermine the democratic culture that is an essential part of living revolutionary organization. Hallas again:

[U]nless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.

Here, Hallas is echoing ideas that Lenin articulated at the beginning of the 20th century: "[T]here must be wide and free discussion of Party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life." To that end, the Bolsheviks explicitly defended the right of a minority "to advocate its views and to carry on an ideological struggle, so long as the disputes and differences do not lead to disorganization."

But while it is a serious error for any group of revolutionaries simply to declare themselves the leadership of the working class, the opposite mistake is to put off the task of building a revolutionary party into the indefinite future. Education is vital, but revolutionary socialists need to create more than just study groups. Activism is equally vital, but movements by themselves are not enough.

So how does a group of a few hundred people attempt to build a revolutionary party that will eventually need hundreds of thousands of members? It's unlikely that we are going to grow ourselves there by recruiting a few members at a time. Most likely, the path will involve merging with other forces that are part of the working-class movement and the left, broadly conceived, but the specifics will vary greatly depending on the concrete situation that exists in different places and countries.

Ian Birchall is right that socialists today still have much to learn from Lenin's writings. But to change the world, we also need to remain committed to the Leninist project of building a revolutionary party. In that sense, we should say yes both to Lenin and to Leninism.

First published at the rs21 website.

Further Reading

From the archives