What Is To Be Done With Lenin?
From New Interventions, Vol.4 No.4, 1994
QUITE A few years ago, when she was still interested in politics, Doris Lessing wrote a short story, "The Importance of Loving Stalin". If memory serves me right, the story’s theme was the need in many communists for a father figure, an immaculate father who displayed none of the fallibility of the genuine parental article. Maybe it was more than just fatherly omniscience that was needed; perhaps it was a yearning for god, in the Greek rather than the Christian sense. In that age of innocence, before 1956, Stalin did no wrong. His actions might appear, superficially, to be misguided, unhelpful, capricious or plain bloody dangerous, but on closer examination the devotee could easily convince him- or herself that Stalin’s actions were dictated by the need to defend soviet power against the malign plots of Trotskyists, rootless cosmopolitans, wreckers and western imperialists. A rich amalgam, from which any of these bankers could be permutated into a nicely rounded conspiracy.
Nowadays, of course, nobody takes Stalin seriously – his stature is measured in terms of whether he was a greater scourge of mankind than Adolf Hitler. His embalmed corpse did not rest long beside Lenin before it was moved to a secluded spot in the Kremlin wall.
For those of us who rejected Stalin in 1956, and for those who never fancied him, there was still Lenin and, entering left, Trotsky. Setting aside the lies and obfuscation of Stalinist texts, and much aided by the Foreign Language Publishing House’s decision to produce the Collected Works in English, one’s researches tended to further convince one of Lenin’s greatness. In the years since that initial research, I have seen little that would cause me to modify that judgment. Lenin was a great man; the question is, was he a good thing?
There is a long-standing school of thought, composed of old-style social democrats, right-wing academics and disgruntled revolutionaries, who answer my question with an emphatic "NO". For them there is a thread of malignancy that stretches from Lenin – his methods, his politics, his theoretical work, his organisation – that metastasises to every connected organ.
For this school, Stalin did not come out on top because of failed revolution, isolation and Russian backwardness, but because he was the true inheritor of Lenin and Leninism. It was the continuation of the same policy by the same means. Those who adhere to this point of view have to display a mental agility in the Olympic gold medal class. They must hurdle, without so much as a footnote to help, the content of Lenin’s last few months of conscious political life: the "Testament", "On the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection", and "Better Less But Better". It was an attempt, in typical Lenin style, to wrench the party and government from the course it was pursuing. That it was probably doomed, whether Lenin lived or not, is beside the point; it was certainly not the action of a man who felt his life work was being ably continued by the faithful J.V. Stalin. Perhaps, then, he moved against Stalin in the manner of an oriental despot, jealous of the success of one of his ministers. If so, it was entirely out of keeping with the recorded instances in his life, where he was fulsome in his praise of those he thought were doing well. Psychologically, politically and on the record, the accusation does not hang together – it is a paper house built on the sand of insubstantial evidence.
Nevertheless, the question remains, was Lenin infallible? Now here we must be on common ground with lots and lots of people. The answer is "No". He was wrong to say, in What Is To Be Done?, that the workers could, unaided, only achieve trade union consciousness. Even so, he made a fundamental correction to that formula in 1905, where he opined that the workers were "instinctively social democratic". He was wrong about the democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants, just as he was wrong about imperialism and the banning of factions. That is a varied list and one could find additions, but really not to much purpose. The mistakes are those of time, place and experience, and without 1917 would be of no consequence. Because the October revolution did take place and because Lenin led it, and because Stalin was able to filch it in the name of "Leninism", every error, at whatever time it was made and despite Lenin’s subsequent correction, became holy writ. The Lenin of What Is To Be Done? and the Lenin of State and Revolution are the same man, but the politics are very different. Both are revealed truth, however, according to the hagiographers. How often, in our movement, has an argument been conducted, about some current policy, by reference to selected quotes from Lenin that are 90 years old, are about something quite different and were commonplace when Lenin wrote. Never mind the article, feel the quotations.
Let us take another example: the Bolshevik form of party organisation. On balance, I think that this was the most appropriate for revolutionary organisation in Russia. Whether Russian democratic centralism operated with the same draconian force as in Healy’s WRP is extremely unlikely, if only because the distances were great, the leadership usually in a different country and the consciousness of the members extremely varied. To operate at all effectively, in conditions of Tsarist autocracy and repression, a tight disciplined organisation was needed. It is a pity, however, that Lenin did not say more than he did about the inapplicability of Russian forms when, in the early 1920s, the foreign parties went hog-wild in Bolshevisation campaigns. The fruits of this omission could be seen as late as 1974, when Cliff made much of the CPGB’s 1922 Commission on Party Organisation (authors, Palme Dutt, Harry Pollitt and Albert Inkpin), little knowing that in 1923 they had to issue a new report before everything got totally out of hand. Those who would learn from history should steer clear of the abbreviated version.
Lenin’s ultimate justification is the revolution. Almost alone, he saw the demise of Tsarism and the chronic incapacity of the bourgeois parties, together with the tremendous capacities of Russia’s workers. The "Letters From Afar" and the "April Theses" are masterworks which formed the basis for the seizure of power. It is probably true that Lenin, through all those tedious years polemicising in the wilderness, was the only one with the authority and prestige to set the party and the class on a revolutionary course. Trotsky certainly did not have the following. Of course, the revolution failed, was betrayed and turned into its opposite.
Of course, those with 20/20 hindsight can sneer a bit and point to another sad lesson of history. Unfortunately Lenin did not have 20/20 foresight – he made the revolution and confidently expected to hold on until the working class of Western Europe caught up. As the wars of intervention and the civil war laid waste to an already enfeebled country, Lenin struggled to hold the state and the party together until the German workers came to the rescue. In the process, all manner of mistakes were made, which were subsequently used by Stalin to stifle dissent and install his monolithic regime. It goes without saying that without Lenin no revolution, without the revolution no Stalin. All of which might lead us to suggest that perhaps the revolution should not have been made. Sad to tell, the alternative was not Kerensky, with his windy rhetoric and truncated bourgeois democracy, but General Kornilov with the distinct prospect that fascism would be a Russian rather than a Latin word.
The simple question has to be asked, because it is the acid test: whose side would you have been on in 1917? I cannot believe that any revolutionary socialist, whatever his or her reservations, could answer anything but Lenin and the Bolsheviks. It is for this that we mark the 70th anniversary of Lenin’s death; it is for this that it is worth trying to understand the reasons for, and the justification of, the triumphs and the failures. Not because we are preparing a whitewash job of our favourite whited sepulchre, but because Lenin provides an object lesson in how a revolution was made in Russia, given all the exceptional and particular circumstances of that time. Having done that, it is time to move on, to build parties of an even newer kind, with new strategies and perspectives for the 21st century. It is past time for Lenin to vacate the mausoleum and be finally laid to rest, alongside his mother, where he always wanted to be. Let him rest in peace.