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Issue 574, 5 October 2007 - All unions should back the Greens

Why the Leninist party still matters

Ninety years ago this year the workers and peasants of Russia rose up to overthrow their rulers. In the first of a series of articles in Socialist Worker looking at the relevance of the Russian revolution today, Tom Barnes looks at Lenin’s Marxism and "What is to be Done?".

HISTORIANS USUALLY treat Lenin as a megalomaniac intent on grabbing power at any cost. But this conclusion is only possible if the facts are ignored.

Take, for example, the claim that structures established by Lenin within the Bolshevik Party cleared the way for Stalin's brutal regime.

Why then did Stalin need to murder almost every leading Bolshevik figure that took part in the October revolution to cement his control?

Unfortunately, our understanding of Lenin was not helped by the old Communist Parties around the world either.

Following the official Moscow line, they deified the Bolshevik leader. Ironically what Lenin wrote about past revolutionary leaders in State and Revolution (1917) also applied to himself:

"During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander.

"After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say … while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it."

So those of us who want to study Lenin's real ideas are forced to uncover the truth from beneath masses of accumulated misinformation.

One place to start is with Lenin's character. Although he was a peculiarly single-minded individual, he was not one-dimensional.

He cared about a lot more than tactical, organisational or internal party issues.

It is often forgotten that Lenin wrote major works about capitalist development (The Development of Capitalism in Russia, 1899), philosophy (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1909) and imperialism and finance capital (Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916).

It is true that Lenin's greatest contribution to the Marxist tradition concerns the kind of organisation needed to most effectively fight capitalism.

But even here, his major work What is to be Done (1902) is usually mistakenly presented as an attempt to draw up a universal template for party organisation.

As a result, most people on the left misunderstand what Lenin was trying to say.

I remember listening to a speech by Znet's Michael Albert a few years ago in which he joked that he couldn't see the point of building an organisation "modelled on the Ford motor car company".

Unfortunately the autonomist model advocated by Albert has failed to live up the expectations vested in it.

The idea that all we need to do is bring divergent radical strands together and "swarm" against the system has not taken things forwards.

In some cases, it has made things worse-take, for example, the decline of the World Social Forum process, due in a large part to the role of leading figures preventing it from making binding decisions.

Burning questions

The significance of What is to be Done is usually obscured by misquotes about "scaffolding" and "professional revolutionaries". But it is ridiculous to treat this famous book as a cure-all for anti-capitalist struggles. After all, its sub-title reads, "Burning questions for our movement".

Many of the tactics proposed in the pamphlet (for example, clandestine activity) are not only irrelevant for us now-they were irrelevant three years after it was written when Russia first exploded in revolution.

But behind most of these tactical questions are more general political points that do apply to us.

First of all, the principles developed by Lenin were drawn from the needs of the struggle. By 1901 the revolutionary movement in Russia was comprised of hundreds of activists organised in local groups ("circles") across the country.

The tendency was to focus on economic struggles in local areas. Out of this practice developed a theory known as "Economism"-the idea that workers could become spontaneously revolutionary as a result of these struggles. Most of Lenin's writing in 1901-02 was directed against this view.

Lenin was not attacking the Economists for participating in economic struggles or providing practical assistance-he thought this was necessary.

But he took issue with their rejection of the need for a national organisation that could link these struggles together.

In doing so, Lenin built upon Marx's understanding of the relationship between politics and economics. Marx argued that, "The attempt in a particular factory or even in a particular trade to force a shorter working day out of individual capitalists by strikes, etc. is a purely economic movement.

"On the other hand, the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc., law, is a political movement."

In other words, an economic struggle is sectional. For example, trade unions do not struggle against capitalism itself; they struggle over the proceeds of capitalist production. But as soon as workers unite in a class-wide fight against their rulers, the struggle becomes political.

Lenin argued that, in doing so, there is a need for workers to develop a more general understanding of the nature of the whole system:

"Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected-unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a [revolutionary] point of view and no other.

"The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population."

In arguing against the Economists, Lenin went too far, suggesting that, "Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers."

But Lenin in fact believed that workers would radicalise in the course of political struggles. So three years later he wrote that:

"The real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political, and especially revolutionary, struggle.

"Only struggle educates the exploited class. Only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will."

There is a need for a minority of revolutionaries to work collectively to further this process of "education". This process can only occur in the context of struggle.

But in order to work out how to best intervene in struggle, the organised minority has to learn from the struggle too.

Therefore the ideas of the party are not articles of faith-they need to be developed in the course of struggle. The precondition for this is a culture of open democratic discussion and debate:

"At such a time, the duty of every socialist is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the [revolutionary] proletariat.

"The party of the revolutionary proletariat is strong enough to openly criticise itself, and unequivocally call mistakes and weaknesses by their proper names.

"The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake, refusal to admit and correct a mistake out of a false sense of shame."

One of What is to be Done's more interesting proposals is that a revolutionary party "must of necessity be not too extensive and as secret as possible". The part of the sentence referring to the need for secret organisation is context-specific; the part about the extent of membership is not.

A revolutionary organisation of whatever size needs to be comprised primarily of people who do not just agree with its principles; they must be prepared to commit themselves to an ideological, political and industrial struggle against the system and to work under the collective discipline of the party in order to do this.



Lenin's main argument in What is to be done is that the local circles of anti-Tsarist activists needed to unite into a national organisation capable of uniting the ideological, political and economic fights into a general struggle against the Tsarist state.

Students fighting for democratic rights, religious minorities fighting against oppression, peasants fighting for land reform and, most importantly, the most politically conscious militants in the workplaces needed to be brought together in a national organisation.

Therefore he argued for a national newspaper to take precedence over the range of local publications. The paper needed to express the main principles of the organisation and to engage in the theoretical/ideological struggle.

It also needed to reflect the experience of local struggles and, most importantly, to argue the way forward for the whole anti-Tsarist movement.

This underlying principle applies much more generally. If we think about the tasks facing the left in Australia today, there are important ideological struggles raised by the crisis of US imperialism in the Middle East, political struggles such as the attempt by the Greens to construct an alternative to Labor's betrayals, and also industrial struggles, such as the fight against the Building Industry Commission and the anti-union laws.

The situation is crying out for a mass party that can link these struggles together and direct them against the system. The existing handfuls of revolutionaries need to work together week-in, week-out to connect this vision to the practical needs of today's struggles and to point out "what is to be done" in each specific context.

Only an organisation that is open-minded, thoroughly democratic and prepared to learn from its interventions in real struggle will be capable of playing this role.

But such an organisation also needs sharp theoretical clarity based upon the history of struggles against capitalism. And there are no more important historical lessons bequeathed to us than Lenin's.

Further reading: A Rebel's Guide to Lenin, by Ian Birchall