An Appraisal at 150

May 6, 2020

This piece is a revised version of an article first published by RS21. The original is available here.

April 22 marked the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the birth of V.I. Ulyanov—better known to history as, “Lenin.” As the founder of the Bolshevik (majoritarian) faction of the Russian socialist movement, which led the first successful working class revolution in human history, Lenin’s work was the bedrock of revolutionary theory and practice in the 20th century. Today—with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the near disappearance of the mass Communist Parties in the advanced capitalist world—many question whether or not “Leninism” is of any relevance to rebuilding revolutionary socialism in the 21st century.

Assessing his contribution is made difficult because there is little consensus on what exactly is meant by, “Leninism.” Generally, the term has two distinct but interrelated meanings. The first, is a theory of revolutionary socialist organization. Lenin, either in What is to Be Done? (1903) or by the time of the split in Russian social-democracy in 1912, had formulated a theory of a “party of the new type.” This new type of socialist organization was based on a rejection of two key aspects of European social-democratic theory and practice. First, social-democratic parties were “all-inclusive,” uniting revolutionaries with “opportunists” (Lenin’s term for reformists) in an attempt to represent the working class “as a whole.” Lenin understood the need to build a “homogeneous” party united around a revolutionary program—a party of the revolutionary vanguard of the working class, organized separately from “backward” workers and their reformist leaders. Second, social democracy was too organizationally decentralized, allowing reformists the right to publicly criticize, and act against, the decisions of the party. The Bolsheviks pioneered “democratic centralism,” in which an authoritative central leadership determined the outlook and activity of all party organizations.

The second meaning of “Leninism”—often codified as “Marxism-Leninism”—is the notion that Lenin and the Bolsheviks produced a distinctive body of Marxist theory. Whether used by Stalinists or anti-Stalinist revolutionaries, “Leninism” is a distinctive and accurate explanation of the path of the Russian Revolution of 1917, of opportunism and reformism in the workers’ movement, and of a new “stage” of capitalism—imperialism/monopoly capitalism. Together, these theoretical innovations are presented as the bedrock of revolutionary practice since 1917.

Unfortunately, much of the recent debate on Leninism is marked by a confusion of Marxist theory and socialist practice. Marxist theory, like all scientific theories, attempts to provide a relatively abstract, conceptual explanation of the world. For example, Marx’s theory of capitalism moves “from the abstract to the concrete”—from the difference between use and exchange-value, through the buying and selling of labor-power, to the production of surplus-value in the capitalist labor-process, to the concentration and centralization of capital and reproduction of a reserve army of labor, to capitalist competition, and finally to the necessity of capitalist crisis. Put simply, Marxist theory provides a relatively abstract explanation of a social phenomenon, rooted in the most basic categories of historical materialism. Thus, a theory of revolutionary organization would be based in an explanation of how capitalist social relations of production shape the dynamics of working class consciousness. All Marxist theories must be conceptually coherent and, most importantly, must explain actual history. As the late Ernest Mandel put it in Late Capitalism:

From the standpoint of historical materialism, “tendencies” which do not manifest themselves materially and empirically are not tendencies at all. They are the products of […] scientific errors [….] As soon as “laws of development” come to be regarded as so abstract that they can no longer explain the actual process of concrete history, then the discovery of such tendencies of development ceases to be an instrument for the revolutionary transformation of this process.

By contrast, socialist practice refers to the actual activity of socialist militants in the workers’ and social movements. Despite the Marxist left’s striving for a unity of theory and practice, there have often been discrepancies between them. Put another way, there is no one-to-one correspondence between a theory and a political practice. For revolutionaries, the best known rupture between theory and practice is social democracy before the Second World War. While major social-democratic parties, including the German party, ostensibly maintained theoretical loyalty to Marxism until the early 1950s, their practice had diverged from their theory in the decade before the First World War. Similar discrepancies exist among different theories of capitalist crisis and political strategies. For example, most proponents of “under-consumptionist” theories of capitalist crisis, which emphasize purported insufficiencies in demand, tend to support social-democratic or Keynesian “demand-management” policies. They are, quite simply, reformists. However, one of the most sophisticated defenders of “under-consumptionism” was Rosa Luxemburg, a leading figure in the revolutionary wing of pre-1914 social-democracy.

Put simply, rank and file Bolsheviks enjoyed more democratic rights to dissent (including publicly) with the “party line,” and greater democratic control over their leaders in conditions of Tsarist autocracy in the early 20th century, than most members of ostensibly “Leninist” organizations do under conditions of capitalist legality, a century later.

It is our contention that there was a disjuncture between the theory and practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, particularly before 1914. While Lenin and his comrades were practical innovators in revolutionary organization and revolutionary strategy, their theory remained within the mainstream of the “orthodox Marxist” current of social-democracy best represented by Karl Kautsky. The task of revolutionaries in the 21st century is to recognize this disjuncture, critically evaluate Lenin’s theory in light of historical developments, and develop a theoretical foundation for their breakthroughs in revolutionary practice.


The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of the Party” 

Despite claims to the contrary, there is little evidence that Lenin or other leaders of the Bolshevik party developed a distinctive theoretical perspective on socialist organization, prior to 1914. As we will see, the organizational practice of the Bolsheviks was radically different from the rest of pre-war social democracy. However, these practical innovations remained untheorized for most of the history of Bolshevism.

Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered presents a powerful critique of the notion—common to both the “Leninist” left and the anti-Leninist right—that Lenin broke with the dominant theory of socialist organization as early as 1903. He clearly demonstrates that Lenin was, as he himself stated, an enthusiastic supporter of the dominant model of pre-war socialist organization—the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD). Quite simply, Lenin was a quite orthodox follower of Karl Kautsky, the premier theorist of pre-war social-democracy, in matters of both socialist politics and organization. Through an exhaustive reconstruction of Kautsky’s writings, in particular the SPD’s Erfurt Program of 1891, Lih argues that Lenin was a “Russian Erfurtian.”

Both Kautsky and Lenin understood the specificity of the Marxist socialist movement—its insistence that socialism must be the product of class struggle, not of a blueprint model—in much the same way as Hal Draper in Two Souls of Socialism. Earlier, pre-Marxist socialist theorists (and many post-Marxist theorists in the social-democratic and Stalinist traditions) viewed workers’ struggles in the workplace as “narrow” and “selfish”–inimical to the development of a collectivist and planned social order. An enlightened elite of intellectuals would impose socialism on the backward masses. In the Erfurt Program, Kautsky was clear that Marxism rooted socialism in the day-to-day self-organization and self-activity of the workers themselves. Thus, it was through fusion of the socialist intelligentsia with the most active and “purposeful” worker activists that a mass socialist party would be built.

Lih’s thesis that Lenin remained an “Erfurtian Marxist” has been the subject of a renewed debate on the meaning of the 1912 dispute in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). For many on the revolutionary left, the 1912 decision of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP to exercise its majority was actually a split—the creation of a new, exclusively revolutionary party. Clearly, the RSDLP was “for all practical purposes” under the leadership of the Bolsheviks after 1912—and most of the Menshevik minority refused to recognize the majority’s leadership. However, Lenin and his supporters insisted that they were merely defending “Congress democracy”—implementing the democratic decisions of the Prague conference of the RSDLP—and that the minority was free to continue their membership and participation in the party, including publicly disagreeing with the majority when they differed. Put simply, while Lenin and the Bolsheviks may have split the RSDLP in practice, they neither viewed their exercise of majority rights as a split nor did they develop a new theory of the party to justify their actions. Even in practice, the split did not impact much of the base of the RSDLP, with Bolsheviks and Mensheviks continuing to meet, and attempt to act together, in February and March 1917.

There is also considerable historical evidence that the organizational practice of the Bolsheviks before 1921 bore little resemblance to those imposed on the Communist Parties under the banner of “Leninism” after 1923. Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin documents a Bolshevik faction and RSDLP that was anything but “politically homogeneous” in way post-1923 “Leninists” used the term. Not only were there vibrant debates on theory and strategy, in particular on the role of capitalists, workers and peasants in the coming Russian revolution; but political and ideological currents and factions were free both to form at any time (not merely during limited periods of “pre-congress” discussion) and to express their differences publicly. Lenin was quite clear about the need for public discussion in his “Appeal to the Party by Delegates to the Unity Congress Who Belonged to the Former ‘Bolshevik’ Group,” written in April 1906, as the first Russian Revolution was in retreat. While praising the renewed unity of the RSDLP and the dissolution of the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, Lenin points to continued differences on the party’s attitudes toward peasant struggles, participation in the Tsarist Duma (parliament), and the need for continued underground organization to prepare for an armed insurrection against Tsarism:

We were all agreed on the principle of democratic centralism, on guarantees for the rights of all minorities and for all loyal opposition, on the autonomy of every Party organization, on recognizing that all Party functionaries must be elected, accountable to the Party, and subject to recall. We see the observance in practice of these principles of organization, their sincere and consistent application, as a guarantee against splits, a guarantee that the ideological struggle in the Party can and must prove fully consistent with strict organizational unity, with the submission of all to the decisions of the Unity Congress.

As Lih has argued, Russian social-democrats, both Menshevik and Bolshevik, always emphasized the democratic aspect of “democratic centralism” prior to 1921. Put simply, rank-and-file Bolsheviks enjoyed more democratic rights to dissent (including publicly) with the “party line,” and greater democratic control over their leaders in conditions of Tsarist autocracy in the early 20th century, than most members of ostensibly “Leninist” organizations do under conditions of capitalist legality a century later.

An explanation of reformism and the dynamics of working class consciousness are essential elements of any theory of revolutionary organization.

The organizational form that today claims the mantle of “Leninist,” was invented after Lenin’s death in 1924. In the wake of the defeat of the German Revolution in October 1923, the leadership of the Communist International short-circuited any political discussion of the roots of this historic setback. Instead, the Comintern under the leadership of Zinoviev argued that a lack of organizational discipline and ideological homogeneity in the German Communist Party (KPD) was the cause of the defeat, and launched a campaign to “Bolshevize” the newly founded Communist Parties.

The origins of what most of the revolutionary left considers “Leninism” and “democratic centralism” today—the bans on organized minority currents (either factions contending for leadership or ideological tendencies) except for extremely limited periods of time; the notion that disagreements within the revolutionary movement reflect the influence of “alien class forces”; the subordination of the ranks of the organization to the unquestionable authority of “higher bodies,” including their ability to dictate tactics; and the ultimate authority of International bodies to determine the political orientation of the national organizations, including the selection of their leadership—can be found in the “bolshevization” campaigns launched after 1923.



The claim that Lenin developed a body of original and useful theory is also highly questionable. Most accounts of “Marxism-Leninism” claim that Lenin made enduring theoretical breakthroughs on three key issues—the roots of reformism (“opportunism”), the strategy for the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the theory of imperialism-monopoly capitalism. First, none of these theories were actually original. As Lih has argued, Lenin remained a consistent Kautskyian theoretically throughout his life. Nor was Lih alone in this assessment. Leon Trotsky, in his 1938 obituary for Kautsky argued:

The attempts of the present historiography of the Comintern to present things as if Lenin, almost in his youth, had seen in Kautsky an opportunist and had declared war against him, are radically false. Almost up to the time of the world war, Lenin considered Kautsky as the genuine continuator of the cause of Marx and Engels.

An explanation of reformism and the dynamics of working class consciousness are essential elements of any theory of revolutionary organization. Lenin’s account of the roots of reformism—the notion that monopolies and imperialism allow the capitalist class to “bribe” a “labor aristocracy” with higher wages and more secure employment—owes much to Kautsky’s early writings. In his classic, The Social Revolution, first published in 1902, Kautsky claimed that English capital’s dominance of the world market and colonial empire explained the dominance of non-Marxian, reformist socialism there:

England was the classic ground of capitalism, the one upon which industrial capital first gained the mastery. English capitalism came into power the economic master not only of the upper class of its own land but also of foreign lands.… It gave up violent suppression of the laboring class and depended much more upon peaceful diplomacy, for a while granted political privileges to the powerfully organized, and sought to purchase and corrupt its leaders by friendly advances in which it was too often successful.

As I have argued elsewhere, the theory of the labor aristocracy in all of its variants is theoretically inconsistent and empirically unfounded. A much superior explanation of reformism in the workers’ movement is found in Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike written in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1905-1906. For Luxemburg, the necessarily episodic character of working class struggle and the emergence of a full-time officialdom in the unions and social-democratic parties are the social foundation of reformism—not a layer of well-paid workers purportedly “bribed” by imperialist and monopoly “super-profits.”

Nor was Lenin’s theory of the Russian Revolution particularly original or accurate. For Lenin and the Bolsheviks prior to 1917, the goal of the Russian Revolution was a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” In feudal-absolutist Russia, the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution was on the agenda. Rejecting the Menshevik argument that the feeble Russian capitalist class would lead this revolution, Lenin argued that only a radical democratic revolution of workers and peasants, relying on their own organizations, could establish a temporary revolutionary government that would carry out non-socialist tasks—abolishing Tsarism and organizing a Constituent Assembly to found a democratic republic, distribute land to the peasants, and establish the eight-hour day. Having accomplished these tasks, the revolutionary government would hand over power to a democratic capitalist regime.

Put simply, only through their own self-organization and self-activity would the working class be won to revolutionary politics. If revolutionaries abstained from such struggles as insufficiently “radical” or “revolutionary,” they effectively surrendered the leadership of the working class to forces of official reformism.

Kautsky’s The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution and Its Prospects (1906) outlined an analysis and strategy that the Bolsheviks claimed as their own. However, this perspective proved to be wrong. In 1917, the workers and peasants’ revolution did not limit itself to the destruction of Tsarism, the implementation of land reform and the eight hour day or the establishment of a capitalist democratic republic. Instead, the workers and peasants overthrew the capitalist provisional government, established a workers’ state based on the councils (“soviets”) and began to undermine capitalist private property. Put simply, the outcome of the Russian revolution did not confirm the theory and strategy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but of the dissident Menshevik, Trotsky. Trotsky had argued since 1906 that not only would the working class overthrow Tsarism with the support of the peasantry, but that they would not limit themselves to “bourgeois-democratic” tasks. Again, while the Bolshevik’s practice in 1917 broke with Lenin and Kautsky’s strategic vision, neither Lenin nor any other Bolshevik leader ever explicitly jettisoned the “democratic dictatorship.”

Finally, even Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism was not wholly original. Lenin rejected Kautsky’s post-1912 notion of “ultra-imperialism,” where a single, dominant imperialist power could make inter-imperialist military conflict a thing of the past. However, Lenin does rehearse Kautsky’s arguments from 1902 on the relationship of monopolies, finance capital and global capitalism. Nor was Lenin’s Imperialism an accurate analysis of capitalism in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. In his 1970 essay, “Imperialism—Highest Stage But One,” Michael Kidron, one of the founders of the International Socialist tradition, challenged Lenin’s claims that capitalist imperialism was characterized by the universal fusion of banking and industrial capital into finance capital, the division of the world into colonies and spheres of influence, and the export of capital from the global North to the global South. Kidron sought to preserve the notion of monopoly capital, a concept that has also come under considerable theoretical and empirical criticism since the late 1970s.

Clearly, there is much that contemporary Marxists can gain from a careful and critical reading of Lenin. His conjunctural analyses of the Russian workers’ and peasants’ struggles, his consistent rejection of reformist politics, and his internationalism, are all inspirations for revolutionaries today. Two theoretical works, however, stand out as both original and of enduring value. The first is State and Revolution and its “companion,” The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Lenin points to ambiguity in Kautsky’s 1909 The Road to Power, on how the working class will take political power. Kautsky’s formulations leave open the possibility of a socialist party taking power through parliamentary elections and beginning the transition to socialism. Lenin clearly rejected this scenario, affirming Marx’s dictum that the “emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself.” Only through the self-organization of an alternative working class political power—workers’ councils—and the destruction of the existing capitalist state could the working class take power, abolish capitalism, and construct socialism.

Of even greater importance for revolutionaries in the West, where reformism in the workers’ movement has proved to be much more durable than the classical Marxist tradition ever imagined, is Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In an attempt to grapple with the failure of the revolutionary wave of 1918-1920 in Western Europe, Lenin takes some initial, hesitant steps beyond the notion that a privileged labor aristocracy is the main source of “opportunism” in the labor movement. He moves towards recognizing that the uneven character of working-class struggles under conditions of capitalist rule produced a layer of union and parliamentary officials who were unconditionally committed to reformist politics. Lenin was clear that only through participation in any and all working class struggles—in the workplace, in neighborhoods, and even in the electoral arena—would growing sectors of the working class experience the limits of reformist politics in practice. Put simply, only through their own self-organization and self-activity would the working class be won to revolutionary politics. If revolutionaries abstained from such struggles as insufficiently “radical” or “revolutionary,” they effectively surrendered the leadership of the working class to forces of official reformism.

After the experiences of Stalinism and fascism, we need to develop a Marxism that clearly rejects teleology, and places working class self-organization and self-activity at the center of the socialist project. However, we need to recognize that Lenin, like most of the revolutionary wing of pre-1914 social democracy, may have broken with Second International Marxism in practice, but not in theory.

Clearly, revolutionary Marxists in the early 21st century need to break theoretically with the Marxism of the Second International. Kautsky’s notions of the automatic growth of the power and consciousness of the working class, a mechanistic “breakdown” of capitalism, and the reduction of the role of socialists to “easing” the inevitable transition to socialism through educational and electoral activity are, clearly, without foundation. After the experiences of Stalinism and fascism, we need to develop a Marxism that clearly rejects teleology and places working class self-organization and self-activity at the center of the socialist project. However, we need to recognize that Lenin, like most of the revolutionary wing of pre-1914 social democracy, may have broken with Second International Marxism in practice, but not in theory.


What’s Left of Leninism?

The most enduring legacy of “Leninism” is to be found in the study and theorization of the unique practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The Russian social-democratic movement, like international social-democracy as a whole, was the product of three major strike waves (1890s, 1905-1907, 1912-1914) that swept the advanced capitalist world. These strike waves framed the great theoretical-political debates of this period (“revisionism,” 1899-1901, “mass strike,” 1906-1910, and “war and revolution,” 1912-1914), and created the social base of the distinct wings of social democracy.

The discontinuity of these, like all working struggles under capitalism, produced two distinct social layers whose unity would mark pre-1914 social democracy. On the one hand, the mass struggles before 1914 generated hundreds of thousands of radical and revolutionary workplace leaders. These mostly well-paid, skilled metal workers led countless battles over speed-ups, deskilling, low wages, and political struggles for democratic and social rights—often against the wishes of the social-democratic leaders of their unions and parties. This “militant minority,” the actual workers’ vanguard, was the mass audience for the revolutionary left-wing of social-democracy—Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, and, before 1914, Kautsky. On the other hand, the stabilization of parliamentary institutions, the spread of suffrage among working-class men, and “trade union legalization” allowed the consolidation of a layer of full-time party, parliamentary and union officials. With the support of the less active segments of the working class (the mass of social-democratic voters and party and union members), these officials sought a “place at the table” of capitalist society. Committed to normalizing class relations through parliamentary reforms and institutionalized collective bargaining, these officials were the social base of reformist politics in the pre-war socialist movement.

The Russian social-democratic movement took a different path from the rest of Europe. Put simply, it was impossible to build a “party like the SPD under Russian conditions.” Tsarist absolutism short-circuited the stabilization of parliamentary institutions and trade union legality, thus limiting the development of the layer of full-time party and union officials that was the social foundation of reformism in the West. As a result, the Bolsheviks built a party of revolutionary worker leaders, independent of, and capable of politically contesting, the forces of capitalist liberalism and working class reformism. Those Russian social-democrats who were more sympathetic to reformism, in particular many Mensheviks, enjoyed the support of skilled workers in small-scale industries (printing, etc.). However, they were unable to establish their dominance in workers’ movement because of the absence of parliamentary institutions and legal trade unions in Russia.

The First World War ended the uneasy alliance between reformist union and party officials and militant rank-and-file workers. While the party-union officials, with the support of the passive majority of workers, rallied to the “defense” of their national capitalist states, radical and revolutionary workers attempted to continue the class struggle during war-time and to prepare for revolutionary upsurges in the near future. While the anti-war wing of the socialist movement was initially small and isolated, war-time struggles over inflation, deskilling, speed-up, and food shortages strengthened them and deepened the crisis of the European socialist parties. Only in Russia, where the “militant minority” was organized independently and the forces of reform were socially weak, did the war lead to a successful revolution. The victory of the Bolshevik-led revolution of 1917 produced an attempt to create new, revolutionary parties—Communist parties—that organized the revolutionary minority of the working class independently of the forces of official reformism.

Put simply, Leninism cannot be reduced to the post-1923 caricature of “democratic centralism.” Instead, the enduring legacy of Leninism remains the goal of constructing an independent organization of anti-capitalist organizers and activists who attempt to project a political alternative to the forces of official reformism not only in elections, but in mass, extra-parliamentary social struggles. Building such an organization today will not be a simple task. The “human material” for a mass revolutionary workers party—a sizeable layer of workplace and community activists who are willing and able to take action independently of the forces of official reformism—does not exist today. Four decades of nearly continuous defeats across the capitalist world, which has undermined the workers’ combativeness, is only partially responsible. Of even greater importance is the impact of Stalinism, in particular the legacy of the popular front, on socially and politically disorganizing the “militant minority”—the workers’ vanguardin the working class. As a result, the tasks of revolutionary socialists in the early 21st century are two-fold. On the one hand, we need to organize and educate a cadre of militants in broadly revolutionary Marxist politics and theory, and develop a common practice in the labor and social movements. On the other, we need to participate in the reorganization of the workers’ vanguard through the construction of independent “transitional organizations” of militants, who are not yet revolutionaries.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
Skip to content