Grappling with the real Lenin

Leninism Under Lenin

Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin, first published in 1973, is a scrupulous study of the political life of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party he helped build. Liebman impressively documents almost three decades of Lenin’s political activities, from his efforts to build a vanguard party to his struggle to preserve a workers’ state. In doing so, he uncovers a Lenin that is neither the flawless ready-made hero depicted by Stalinists, nor the evil self-serving dictator depicted by liberals.

The strength of the book is in portraying the real Lenin. Its weakness however, is its understanding of “Leninism.” Liebman contends that throughout his life Lenin zigzagged between authoritarian and “libertarian” phases in response to new events. As a result, Liebman overlooks the continuity in Lenin’s political thought. This mistake undermines his effort later in the book to separate Leninism and Stalinism.

Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? (WITBD) was published in 1902, with its famous argument that the working class, because of the pulls of capitalism, cannot not become a revolutionary socialist class spontaneously without the intervention of organized socialists. Liebman shows that

the pamphlet was neither an attack on spontaneity nor a call for intellectuals exclusively to lead the socialist movement, as is so often argued. Lenin did not oppose spontaneity; instead he “was above all concerned to make fully effective the spontaneous activity undertaken by the masses.” Liebman concludes, however, that the party described in Lenin’s pamphlet was, albeit justifiably, elitist.

According to Liebman, the early Bolshevik Party was necessarily authoritarian. For Lenin, centralization and membership restrictions were first and foremost measures to protect the party against tsarist infiltration and sabotage.

Liebman claims that in 1905 Lenin moved away from his elitist views expressed in WITBD and developed an alternative theory of working-class consciousness—that workers were “instinctively, spontaneously social-democratic”—which led him to propose a new kind of party. But Liebman, in quoting Lenin, leaves out Lenin’s next thought, “. . . and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness.”

Lenin was simply restating the point he made in WITBD; that while the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialist ideas, the intervention of a vanguard party is required to commit it to revolutionary socialism. In the same document cited above, Lenin reiterated this point further, expressing regret that if the party were “dissolved among the masses, it would cease to be the conscious vanguard of its class, its role would be reduced to that of a tail. That would mean a very deplorable period indeed.”

Liebman confuses Lenin’s motivation to welcome a new layer of radicalizing workers into the party with a rejection of the arguments laid out in WITBD. From this confusion, Liebman distinguishes different kinds of “Leninism” that appear cyclically throughout the life of the Bolshevik Party. He makes this mistake because he does not distinguish between the political function of party organization from the different forms it must necessarily take as events unfold if the party is to remain meaningfully rooted in the working class. As a result, Liebman places centralism and democracy in an inverse relationship. When Lenin calls for the party not to fear admitting revolutionary workers en masse during times of social upheaval, such as in 1905 and 1917 (but makes a different argument when the working class is in retreat), Liebman sees a switch to a new kind of “libertarian” party.

Thus, according to Liebman, “authoritarian Leninism” reappeared after the defeat of the 1905 revolution in the period of tsarist reaction. He describes Lenin’s time between 1908 and 1912 as his “sectarian” years. Lenin was no longer the libertarian from 1905 who called for opening up the party; he now engaged in faction fights to expel his opponents. Rather than reunite with the Mensheviks, he created his own party in 1912. For Liebman, the debates in these years around party building were for Lenin a means to create a monolithic party. Yet Liebman believes that this sectarianism was an understandable adaptation to a new period of tsarist repression. Lenin showed “‘Party patriotism’ which tends to look upon the Party as an end in itself,” but only because the party itself was at risk of collapsing. Nonetheless, this kind of Leninism would have consequences later: Stalinism would “take over from Lenin’s heritage the sectarianism that had for a few years existed as a caricatural form of Leninism.”

Yet Lenin showed no party patriotism. The party for him was always the means to one end: the self-emancipation of the working class. The party could persuade workers of this task only by being among, and not above, them. This meant that the party should participate in all institutions where it could resolutely advance its politics. The commitment to intervene in the class struggle, Lenin thought, was being broken by his main opponents: the “Otzovists” who argued for withdrawing from parliamentary elections; the Mensheviks who thought the workers movement should withdraw demands that would alienate bourgeois liberals; and the “conciliators” who called for reunification with the Mensheviks. It was his commitment to revolution, not monolithism, which caused Lenin to oppose these tendencies.

Although couched in terms of “Libertarian Leninism,” Liebman describes accurately the role of the Bolsheviks in the revolutions of 1917. The Bolshevik Party was not a club of manipulative intellectuals, but a working-class party: “The proletariat largely identified itself with an organization that had become, for the first time, its own organization.” The leaders of the October insurrection, far from orchestrators of a coup, “were carrying out a mandate the existence of which was proved by numberless demonstrations and resolutions, frequent elections, and the thousand-and-one ways that the masses found to express itself.” The Bolsheviks earned this mandate because they—in the factories, soviets, and streets—had consistently proven, in words and deeds, the party’s commitment to the self-emancipation of the Russian masses.

It may seem puzzling how Stalinism could have appropriated the party of 1917 described in Liebman’s book. Through Liebman we see a Lenin who was relentless in opposing the growing bureaucracy. “Nobody showed a greater concern to prevent these [bureaucratic] elements from acquiring political power: nobody was so anxious as Lenin to check and block the process of bureaucratization.” He thought, as Marx before him, that a revolution in any country would fail if it stayed isolated. This is why the Bolsheviks were hell bent in promoting revolution abroad.

Liebman accurately links the party’s degeneration to the effects of foreign invasion, terrorism, and economic collapse. These were the conditions in which a bureaucracy, but not a workers’ state, could advance. It is in this context that Liebman evaluates the actions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Yet while making clear the differences between Lenin and Stalin, he insists that there was continuity between them. Because of his framework of “many” Leninisms, Liebman searches for “germs of growth” in Lenin’s thought and practice that he believes led to Stalin’s rule. These germs include: the decision to exclude the Mensheviks from the soviets; the talk of a “vanguard” in Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism, for this indicates his lost faith in the broader masses; and the drive towards monolithism always present in Lenin since his early sectarian days. Liebman concludes: “If Stalinism is Leninism plus administrative tyranny and bureaucratic terror, it is also Leninism minus dialectics.” For Liebman, Leninism ripened then rotted into Stalinism.

Yet Stalinism inherited nothing from Leninism; rather it marked its defeat. Liebman makes this mistake because he conflates centralism with tyranny. His argument boils down to this: Lenin’s centralism produced monolithism in the party; when this party merged with the state, it produced a monolithism in society which Stalin merely finished and perfected. In this way Liebman can see a bridge between the two men.

But there is a fundamental difference between the centralism of Lenin and Stalin. For Lenin, democratic centralism was a means for the party to connect to the working class. For Stalin, centralism was a means for a new bureaucratic class to control the working class. Russia’s isolation had severed the link between party and class: it was this fact, not any one thought or decision, which gave rise to Stalinism.

Despite these shortcomings, Leninism Under Lenin is an illuminating read, and one can fully agree with his conclusion that Leninism is “one of the richest sources of inspiration in the fight for socialism.”

Issue #80

November 2011


The birth of a movement
Issue contents

Top story




Critical Thinking