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.