Lenin's return

THE FOLLOWING three presentations were delivered at a panel discussion entitled Lenin’s Return?, held at the Left Forum in New York City on March 15, 2008. The panel was sponsored by WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society. The flier posted for the event posed the following questions: What is the relationship of Lenin to the larger Marxist tradition? What is the relationship of Lenin’s ideas to the struggle for socialism, democracy, and freedom? What is the relationship of Lenin to the realities of our own time?

Does Lenin still matter?


ABOUT FORTY years ago, an aging relative of mine gave me an old handbill printed in red ink, issued by District 2 of the Workers’ Party, which proclaimed LENIN LIVES! It urged us to “Come En Masse” to Madison Square Garden to a Sunday afternoon event chaired by Ben Gitlow (a central leader of U.S. communism who later devolved into a professional anti-communist). The event included the 400-voice Freiheit Chorus, a 100-piece symphony orchestra, and speeches from William Z. Foster, C. E. Ruthenberg, Moissaye Olgin, and Jack Stachel—for an admission fee of fifty cents (a significant sum for a worker in 1925). The bottom of the handbill proclaimed: LONG LIVE LENINISM!1

Of course, Lenin lived and died long ago, so one could ask why we should bother with him in our very different world. Partial answers include the fact that poverty, oppression, and exploitation; the unequal structure of wealth and power in our society and in our world; imperialism and military violence—that are all part of the capitalism which he analyzed and struggled against so forcefully—continue to afflict us.

This does not mean that Lenin is right about everything, of course—but it does suggest that his ideas may have relevance for those developing an understanding of our history and our time. Consider three recent films.

The poignant German comedy Goodbye Lenin! (2003) reflects on the beautiful, tarnished, murderously corrupted, deadeningly bureaucratized dreams of the communism that proved so utterly unsustainable throughout Eastern Europe. We see a monstrous statue of Lenin being carried away, through the air, by a helicopter, as a stunned female communist-idealist (herself close to premature death) watches with uncomprehending wonder.

The edgy thriller Syriana (2005) shows us ruthless machinations of communism’s triumphant and relentlessly profiteering adversary. The capitalist-driven empire “takes out” a progressive radical-nationalist of an oil-rich country, perpetuating the global exploitation and misery of millions which—in turn, thanks to the absence of revolutionary alternatives—generates suicidal fundamentalist violence.

Fast forward to the year 2027 portrayed in Children of Men (2007): in the absence of a socialist alternative (protest movements for global justice were not enough), the world has begun its downward slide into barbarism, a vast cemetery, with the final enclave of “civilization” standing as increasingly authoritarian and exclusionary. Its inhumanity infects many who struggle against it—but images of Lenin appear, in the midst of religious icons, in an obscure, nurturing haven of those who hope and reach for humanity’s future.

But many would argue that, surely, the images of Lenin as nurturing hope are misplaced. Even many on the left agree with liberals who quote conservatives who assure us that Lenin and his revolutionary communist perspectives were inhumane and authoritarian. There is, however, a growing accumulation of scholarly and creative-intellectual work that is challenging this anti-Lenin conception.

One example is a recent book of essays, Lenin Reloaded, in which an impressive set of twenty-first century intellectuals argue that, “Lenin Lives!” I want to read a brief excerpt from one contribution to that volume, by Frederic Jameson. Beginning with an account from Leon Trotsky’s 1932 diary of a dream conversation with Lenin, Jameson goes on to describe Lenin’s formidable writings as coming from a man who is unaware that he is dead. Here’s the quote:

He does not know that the immense social experiment he single-handedly brought into being (and which we call Soviet Communism) has come to an end. He remains full of energy, although dead, and the vituperation expended on him by the living—that he was the originator of Stalinist terror, that he was an aggressive personality full of hatred, an authoritarian in love with power and totalitarianism, even (worst of all) the rediscoverer of the market in his [New Economic Policy]…—none of those insults manage to confer a death, or even a second death, on him. How is it, how can it be, that he still thinks he is alive?2

It seems to me that such scholarship and intellectual broodings reflect something that is happening in the larger social and political reality. In the post-9/11 world, dominant ideologies are being undermined by political and social crises, crises that are generating insurgent forces that may be ready to see a new relevance in Lenin. Varieties of conservatism, reformism, anarchism, and fundamentalism (secular as well as religious) have been tried, continue to be tried, and yet the times in which we live seem to grow more terrible. That seems unlikely to change, regardless of which Democrat or Republican becomes president of the United States later this year.

What masses of people are experiencing, feeling, and thinking today gives recent Lenin-influenced works a growing resonance, and so they may find a greater “market” than previously has been the case. With the appearance of such scholarship, reflected in today’s panel, we may be on the eve of a Lenin revival. I want to conclude first by giving a sense of the scope of Lenin’s political thought, then highlighting a couple of its aspects that have special resonance in our time, and finally by adding a word of caution.3

Lenin’s starting point is a belief in the necessary interconnection of socialist theory and practice with the working class and the labor movement. The working class—those whose living depends on selling their ability to work for a paycheck, those whose labor provides the basis for human society—is increasingly becoming the majority of the world’s people. Workers are certainly the great majority of those in advanced capitalist countries such as the United States. This class cannot adequately defend its actual interests and overcome its oppression, in Lenin’s view, without embracing the goal of socialism—an economic system in which the economy is socially owned and democratically controlled in order to meet the needs of all people. Inseparable from this is a basic understanding of the working class as it is, which involves a grasp of the great diversity and unevenness of working-class experience and consciousness.

This calls for the development of a practical revolutionary approach seeking to connect, in serious ways, with the various sectors and layers of the working class. It involves the understanding that different approaches and goals are required to reach and engage one or another worker, or group or sector or layer of workers. This means thoughtfully utilizing various forms of educational and agitational literature, and developing different kinds of speeches and discussions, in order to connect the varieties of working-class experience, and, most important, to help initiate or support various kinds of practical struggles. The more “advanced” or vanguard layers of the working class must be rallied not to narrow and limited goals (in the spirit of “pure and simple trade unionism”), but to an expansive sense of solidarity and common cause that has the potential for drawing the class as a whole into the struggle for its collective interests.

This fundamental orientation is the basis for most of what Lenin has to say. It is the basis of other key perspectives that one can find in his voluminous writings:

  • An understanding of the necessity of working-class political independence in political and social struggles, and the need for its supremacy (or hegemony) if such struggles are to triumph;
  • A coherent conception of organization that is practical, democratic, and revolutionary;
  • The development of the united front tactic, in which diverse political forces can work together for common goals, but in a manner allowing socialist organizations to advance effective revolutionary perspectives;
  • An intellectual and practical seriousness (and lack of dogmatism or sectarianism) in utilizing Marxist theory;
  • A profound analysis of imperialism and nationalism;
  • A vibrantly revolutionary internationalist approach.

Lenin stressed the necessity for active socialist and working-class support for struggles of all who suffer oppression. “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,” Lenin emphasized. This includes issues of freedom of speech and expression, cultural freedom, the rights of religious minorities, the rights of racial and ethnic groups, the rights of women, of soldiers, of students, of peasants. Their oppression must be seen by the worker as coming from (according to Lenin) “those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life.” A revolutionary must be a “tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of people it affects.”4

The “Leninism” of Lenin also involves an approach of integrating reform struggles with revolutionary strategy and, combined with this, a remarkable understanding of the manner in which democratic struggles flow into socialist revolution. At the heart of Lenin’s orientation was a “democratic imperative” interweaving (as he put it) “the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and revolutionary tactics relative to all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, officials elected by the people, equal rights for women, self-determination of nations, etc.… Basing ourselves on democracy as it already exists, exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we advocate the overthrow of capitalism, expropriation of the bourgeoisie as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for a complete and manifold realization of all democratic forms.”5

Of course, the bourgeoisie—the capitalists, those who own the big businesses, the multinational corporations exploiting our planet—have immense power and want to prevent the possibility that there might be rule by the people over the economy. Their power can only be challenged and overcome through systematic and sustained education, agitation, and organization on the part of the working-class majority. But this cannot and will not be accomplished unless revolutionaries are organized to work together. Developing an organization of revolutionaries is essential to Leninism.

But here I want to end with a word of caution. We need to be clear on the profound difference between “the Leninism of Lenin” and the immediate possibilities that we face in a context that is, in some ways, qualitatively different from his.

Lenin’s Bolshevik organization was part of a broad global working-class formation, part of a developing labor movement, and part of an evolving labor-radical subculture that embraced masses of people. Much experience of the U.S. Left demonstrates that an effort to create such an organization outside of such a context all too often degenerates into the construction of a political sect, with well-meaning activists penned up in a world of their own, separate and apart from the working class.

The development of a broad, numerically significant layer and subculture of socially conscious people who are part of the working class is essential for creating the kind revolutionary party that Lenin helped build. The accumulation of a significant percentage of activists who are part of that layer is the precondition for such a party. This can’t simply be proclaimed by a handful of would-be Leninists.6

It seems to me, for reasons suggested at the beginning of this presentation, that these and related issues will be the focus of much thought and discussion among activists in the coming period. And I see this panel as part of that process.


1 Portions of this presentation are drawn from my article “Lenin’s Return,” WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, Volume 10, Number 3, September 2007, 273–85, and also from my introduction to the forthcoming Lenin: Selected Writings on Revolution, Democracy, and Socialism (London: Pluto Press, 2008). For a vivid sense of early U.S. communism, see Bryan Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007), as well as Cannon’s own The First Ten Years of American Communism, Report of a Participant (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1961).
2 Frederic Jameson, “Lenin and Revisionism,” in Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Zizek, eds., Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 60.
3 The following paragraphs are grounded in material presented in three of my books: Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1993), From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1996), and Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience: Studies of Communism and Radicalism in the Age of Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2006).
4 Lenin, What Is to Be Done?, V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 154, 156. Also see Lars Lih’s outstanding work Lenin Rediscovered: “What Is to Be Done?” in Context (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006 and Haymarket Books, 2008).
5 Lenin, “The revolutionary proletariat and the right of nations to self-determination,” excerpted in From Marx to Gramsci, 205–8.
6 This is discussed in the conclusion of my introduction to Lenin: Writings on Revolution, Democracy, and Socialism, and in Chapter 7 of Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience. Much of Lenin’s own work, from What Is To Be Done? to Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, also addresses this question. Similar points can be found in N. K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1970) and Gregory Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party from the Beginnings to February 1917, A Popular Outline (London: New Park, 1973).

Lenin and Luxemburg


IN A 1961 introduction to two of her essays, Bertram Wolfe argues that Rosa Luxemburg opposed Lenin “till the end” of her life: A democratic worshiper of “spontaneity,” she rejected Lenin’s “authoritarian centralism,” blamed him for splitting the international, and predicted that his “penchant for personal dictatorship” would pave the way for Stalinism and fascism.1

Although Wolfe’s propaganda piece is a particularly crude version, the basic components of his polemic have become received common sense. Sexist condescension is customary: Wolfe tells us that Luxemburg was driven by emotion more than politics (she had a “longing to conquer in storm and passion”), that her body was “slight and weak,” and that she had “large, expressive...beautiful eyes.”2 This motif of the “kinder, gentler revolutionary” persists: it can be seen, for example, in Jonathan Rabb’s recent novel Rosa. In the course of the narrative, which turns the circumstances surrounding Luxemburg’s death into a murder mystery, the detective “finds” the real woman behind the communist, through reading her poetry collections and journal, and talking with her lover, Leo Jogiches.3

But sexism is only one aspect of the “good socialist/bad socialist” opposition that is projected on to Luxemburg and Lenin. For example, a recent Retort book, Afflicted Powers, calls Rosa Luxemburg an inspiration and her Juniusbrochure an exemplary indictment of “war in relation to the capitalist state.”4 Lenin, however, serves only as a negative example: The Leninist vanguard party is “a militant, secretive, unicellular band of brothers...the deepest and most destructive illusion of the Left;”5 and far from offering an alternative, it is, like al-Qaeda, in its “narrowness and secretiveness and merciless instrumentalism” an understandable but disastrous response to the challenges of history.6

Such accusations rest on a wildly false version of Lenin, and obscure what the two had in common: they were the figureheads of social democracy’s international Left, sharing an enduring faith in working-class self-emancipation, a commitment to revolution, an understanding of socialists as the tribune of the oppressed, and were principled opponents to imperialism and war. They were frequently allied in the struggle against reformism; they collaborated in Finland after the defeat of the 1905 revolution; they co-authored the antiwar amendment at the Stuttgart congress of 1907; and they famously denounced the Second International’s betrayal in 1914, when the vast majority of parties abandoned international working-class solidarity to support the war efforts of their respective nations.

There were significant disagreements between them, perhaps most stubbornly over the question of how socialists should relate to struggles for national liberation. (And without taking up this question, it is worth pointing out that Lenin was the one championing democratic rights here.) But the organizational question is at the heart of most attempts to pit them against one another. The received wisdom is that Luxemburg opposed Lenin’s project of building a centralized vanguard organization, and that she saw this project as antithetical to the spontaneous revolutionary activity of the working class.

The first thing to note is that Lenin and Luxemburg both spent their lives building socialist organizations. This obvious point bares reiteration because “worship of spontaneity” implies that she was against organization per se. Whereas, in the words of her main biographer, Paul Frölich: “Luxemburg was in agreement with Lenin that the revolutionary party had to be the vanguard of the working class, that it had to be centralistically organized, and that the will of its majority could be carried out by means of strict discipline in its activities.”7 Lenin and Luxemburg, along with the entire Second International, looked to Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD)—based on the 1891 Erfurt Program’s dual commitment to the minimum program (the project of winning reforms under capitalism) and the maximum program (socialist revolution)—as the model through which to achieve socialism.

Since the repeal of the anti-socialist laws, German social democracy had functioned in public using all the institutions of bourgeois democracy. In Russia, where no such political freedoms existed, socialists faced the challenge of maintaining an organization rooted in the working class under the constant threat of arrest and deportation. Debates within the Russian party about how best to do this provide the backdrop for Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, written before and after the 1903 dispute between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks over the definition of membership. Luxemburg’s polemic against him in 1904, “Organizational questions of Russian social democracy,” is the ubiquitous source for anti-Leninists: it was even renamed, long after the author’s death, “Leninism or Marxism?” In this essay she asserts that Lenin’s “ultra-centralism” is based, “1) on the blind subordination of all party organs in the smallest detail of their activity to a central power which, alone, thinks, plans, and decides for all; and 2) the sharp separation of the organized kernel of the party from the surrounding revolutionary milieu.”8

Luxemburg’s straw-man version of Lenin’s party bears no resemblance to anything he actually advocated. Lars Lih and Paul LeBlanc have separately taken up both what is false in this essay’s portrayal of Lenin and in the standard accounts of it. There is no evidence that Luxemburg had in fact even read What Is to Be Done?, and she doesn’t engage with the actual content of One Step Forward. Lih suggests that she relied on secondary accounts supplied by his critics; Certainly Lenin responded to her essay by showing point by point how she misrepresents him.9

These otherwise uncharacteristic omissions make sense when we consider that Luxemburg’s argument against centralization was shaped more by the German than the Russian context. The SPD was a broad church organization, within which coexisted the revolutionary Left, the reformist right wing, and the center which formally sanctioned but actually tolerated the latter. As Carl Shorske elaborates in his detailed history of its foundation and development, the SPD over two decades developed a massive bureaucracy of paid functionaries oriented on parliament and increasingly hostile to radical change.10 Luxemburg’s role was that of revolutionary critic of reformism and bureaucratization. When she writes “social democratic organizational form cannot be based on blind obedience and on the mechanical subordination of the party militants to some centralized power,” she is protesting a tendency in her own organization rather than anything in Lenin’s account.

Indeed many of her formulations are very close to Lenin’s:

Social Democratic centralism...can be nothing but the imperative summation of the will of the enlightened and fighting vanguard of the working class as opposed to its individual groups and members. This is, so to speak, a “self-centralism” of the leading stratum of the proletariat; it is the rule of the majority within its own party organization.11

Compare this definition provided by Luxemburg with Paul LeBlanc’s crystallization of the model presented by Lenin in What Is to Be Done?: “a serious ‘organization of real revolutionaries,’ a ‘body of comrades in which complete, mutual confidence prevails’ and in which all ‘have a lively sense of their responsibility.’”12

The revolution of 1905 brought Lenin and Luxemburg together personally and politically. Luxemburg crossed the border at great risk in order to participate, and largely supported Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks. In the course of the uprising their views “came so close that there hardly seemed to be any difference between them,” in the words of Frölich. After the defeat of the revolution, Luxemburg joined Lenin in Finland and they established a close and enduring alliance based on great mutual respect.

Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike draws out the lessons of the 1905 revolution for the German working class movement, and contains moving and inspiring descriptions of the wave of strikes and protests that shook tsarism. She says of the St. Petersburg uprising that it,

awoke class feeling and class consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock...the proletarian mass, counted by millions, quite suddenly and sharply came to realize how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism. Thereupon, there began a spontaneous general shaking of and tugging at these chains.13

She witnessed revolutionary action accomplish more in a flash than could be achieved in a lifetime of trade union and parliamentary activity. In the same way, Lenin said of bloody Sunday that, “‘the revolutionary education of the proletariat made more progress in one day than it could have made in months and years of drab, humdrum, wretched existence.’”14

Far from fetishizing spontaneity, Luxemburg’s focus, like Lenin’s, is constantly on the interaction between the spontaneous and the conscious: “If...the direction of the mass strike...is a matter of the revolutionary period itself, the directing of the mass strike becomes...the duty of Social Democracy and its leading organs...the Social Democrats are called upon to assume political leadership in the midst of the revolutionary period.”15 When she depicts leadership as a block on mass self-activity, her target again is not the revolutionary vanguard but the bureaucratic centralism of the trade unions and parliamentarians. In 1913 she wrote:

Leaders who hang back will certainly be pushed aside by the storming masses. However, just to sit back and wait calmly for this gratifying result as a sure indication that ‘the time is ripe’ may be all right for a lonely philosopher, but for the political leadership of a revolutionary party it would be a sign of poverty, of moral bankruptcy. The task of Social Democracy and its leaders is not to be dragged along by events, but to be consciously ahead of them, to have an overall view of the trend of events, to shorten the period of development by conscious action, and to accelerate its progress.16

This is strikingly close to Lenin in What Is to Be Done?: (using Lars Lih’s translation that replaces “spontaneous” with the Russian word, “stikhiinyi”)

But isn’t this the role of Social Democracy—to be a “spirit” that does not merely brood above the stikhiinyi movement but lifts up this movement to “its program”? Its role is certainly not to drag along in the tail of the movement: this is useless for the movement in the best case and extremely harmful in the worst case.17

Both figures warned against opportunism and sectarianism, the dual perils of any socialist formation: either abandoning principles to adapt to prevailing consciousness, or developing shibboleths that prevent contact with radicalizing workers. They agreed that revolutionaries had to be where the masses are but to lead rather than follow, and they also for a long time agreed that the open democracy of the SPD constituted the ideal means to achieve this.

But that model had to be adapted in Russia, where socialist activity was illegal and so necessitated constant vigilance against police infiltration and repression. Luxemburg faced the same conditions in the country of her birth, Poland: she was one of a small nucleus of revolutionaries who, despite their geographic dispersal, led the underground Social Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania. According to Max Shachtman, even the Menshevik Theodore Dan held that “the Polish social-democracy of the time shared in its essentials the organizational principles of Lenin.”18 However, her biographer J.P. Nettl notes that Luxemburg “[did] not concern herself with organizational matters at all,” especially after 1901, even while she continued to provide political guidance to the Polish party.19

Lenin, on the other hand, decisively “concerned himself” with the practical as well as the political details of a socialist organization able to assure effective democracy while mitigating against infiltration and arrest: methodically building a cadre of experienced members based on a shared commitment to a revolutionary program, and who were able to win leadership within specific workplaces. Georg Lukács captures the essence of the model in a short book written soon after Lenin’s death:

[T]he strictest selection of party members according to clarity of class-consciousness and unconditional devotion to the cause of the revolution must be combined with their equal ability to merge themselves totally in the lives of the struggling and suffering masses. All efforts to fulfill the first of these demands without its corollary are bound, even where groups of good revolutionaries are concerned, to be paralyzed by sectarianism.20

Having effectively operated as a faction for a decade, after the decisive split in 1912 the Bolsheviks proved able to weather these twin perils of opportunism and sectarianism; they forged a serious working-class organization that in turn endured the shock of the First World War and the collapse of the Second International, and went on to lead the revolution in 1917.

In Germany, Luxemburg and other revolutionaries remained dispersed within the broad membership of the SPD not only through 1914, but even after the right wing of the party forced a split in 1917, when they stayed in the expelled opposition. When the SPD leadership succumbed to opportunism, historian of the German Revolution Pierre Broué writes, “German revolutionaries found themselves completely atomized. They were, moreover, to learn to their cost that, in a party which they still regarded as being theirs, they would be subjected to repression which reinforced that of the state and the police.”21 Lacking a clear political program, seasoned cadre, and centralized organizational apparatus, the German leftists were effectively isolated from the broader working class, despite a substantial following. In January 1919, in the face of the brutal crushing of the Berlin uprising, Luxemburg wrote in the paper Die Rote Fahne: “If the cause of the Revolution is to advance, if the victory of the proletariat, of socialism, is to be anything but a dream, the revolutionary workers must set up leading organizations able to guide and to utilize the combative energy of the masses.”22 In other words, Germany needed a party akin to the Bolsheviks in Russia.

When they launched the German Communist Party at the end of 1918, Lenin hailed Luxemburg and her comrades as “world-known and world-famous leaders...[and] staunch working-class champions.”23 Luxemburg was murdered before she could complete her life’s task, but in one of her final major works, the Russian Revolution, she wrote:

Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.24

It is a travesty that these revolutionary allies have been cast as opponents, and it is indicative of how those opposed to far-reaching social change appropriate history for their own uses. A reassessment of that history is a crucial part of the continuing struggle against the wars, inequities, and crises of global capitalism in our own time.


1 Bertram D. Wolfe, Introduction to The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? By Rosa Luxemburg (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 23 and 1.
2 Ibid, 2.
3 Jonathan Rabb, Rosa: A Novel (New York: Three Rivers, 2005).
4 Iain Boal, T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London: Verso, 2005), xii.
5 Ibid, 7.
6 Ibid, 172–73.
7 Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Ideas in Action, trans. Joanna Hoornweg (London: Pluto, 1972), 98.
8 Rosa Luxemburg, “Organizational questions of Russian social democracy,” (1904) trans. Dick Howard, in Dick Howard, ed., Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 283–306, 290.
9 Paul LeBlanc, “Luxemburg and Lenin on organization,” in Rosa Luxemburg: Reflections and Writings (Amherst NY: Humanity Books, 1999); Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context (Leiden: Brill, 2006); Lenin, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Reply to Rosa Luxemburg,” Collected Works Vol. 7 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 472–83. “She raises bogeys,” wrote Lenin of Luxemburg, “without informing herself of the actual issues in the controversy. She puts in my mouth commonplaces, general principles and conceptions, absolute truths, and tries to pass over the relative truths, pertaining to perfectly definite facts, with which alone I operate,” (475).
10 Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955).
11 Luxemburg, “Organizational questions,” 290.
12 Paul LeBlanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New Jersey: Humanity Press, 1990), 54.
13 Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions (1906, trans. Patrick Lavin 1925) in Helen Scott, ed., The Essential Rosa Luxemburg (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 111–81, 129.
14 Quoted in LeBlanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 113.
15 Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, 149.
16 Quoted in Frölich, 154.
17 Lenin, What Is to Be Done? (1902) in Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 721.
18 Max Shachtman, “Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/shactma/1938/03/len-lux.htm
19 J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg Volume I (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 264–65.
20 Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought (1924), trans. Nicholas Jacobs (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974), 34.
21 Pierre Broué, The German Revolution: 191–1923 (1971), trans. John Archer (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 49.
22 Quoted in Broué, 253.
23 Ibid, 225.
24 Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (1922), in Mary-Alice Waters, ed., Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), 365–99, 375.

Lenin and Kautsky: The final chapter


TODAY I would like to bring to your attention the results of some recent research I have carried out on the topic of Lenin’s relation to Karl Kautsky in the last decade of Lenin’s life, that is, from 1914 to 1924. I will first explain the question I wanted to answer, then describe the way I set out to answer it, and finally summarize the answer I came up with.

Who was Karl Kautsky? From Engels’ death in 1895 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he was the most influential Marxist theorist in the world. He was not the official theoretician of the Second International or even the German Social Democratic Party, and he often took a critical or even oppositional attitude to official decisions. He was rather the spokesman of the German party’s Marxist wing and the most influential voice of the party “radicals” until around 1910, when a split developed among the radicals.

What was Lenin’s attitude toward Kautsky? Up to 1909, it was extremely admiring and intense.1 From 1910 to 1914, Lenin’s attitude became much more wary. After 1914, when Kautsky took a centrist position on the war and refused to split with the majority leadership, Lenin’s attitude became extremely negative, and remained so until the end.

The question arises, how did Lenin after 1914 regard his own earlier admiration for Kautsky? When you change your mind radically about some person or thing, you enter into a period of cognitive dissonance between your present beliefs and your earlier beliefs. There are two different ways to reduce the tension that arises from having two very divergent opinions about the same object. In the case before us, Lenin could decide:

a. Kautsky has changed, that is: Kautsky is now acting a way totally different from the way he acted before. In other words, Kautsky is a renegade.

b. I have changed, that is: I, Lenin, now realize that I was wrong, that my earlier admiration was a mistake. In other words, the scale has fallen from Lenin’s eyes.

These are the two possibilities. Which description of Lenin’s post-1914 attitude is supported by the evidence? Before telling you, I would like to respond to two questions that might have occurred to you. Why is this issue of any interest? Why isn’t the answer obvious?

Why is this issue of any interest?

The main reason for seeking to resolve this issue is that Lenin’s post-1914 attitude toward Kautsky throws some needed light on the larger question of Lenin’s relation to earlier Marxism and to the Second International. Was Lenin an original Marxist theorist who broke with the earlier orthodoxy represented by “Kautskyism”? Or (a somewhat different question) did he ever present himself as such? More specifically, is there a profound gulf between the “mechanistic,” “passive,” and “fatalist” Marxism of Kautsky and the dialectical, activist, revolutionary Marxism of Lenin? The existence of such a gulf is a central assertion of a very influential school of thought that goes back at least to Georg Lukács in 1924.2

Adherents of this line of thought have criticized my recent study of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?, and I confess this criticism was one motive for undertaking the necessary research. My book shows the very strong connections between Lenin’s outlook in 1894–1904 and Kautsky’s authoritative statements (connections which go way beyond the Kautsky citation in What Is to Be Done? so often discussed). Critics who see a gulf between Kautsky and Lenin claim that Lenin’s outlook had already started to diverge fundamentally from “Kautskyism” by 1902. Faced with the abundant evidence that, before the war, Lenin himself insisted on the complete compatibility of his outlook and that of Kautsky, they argue that the break between them was an “unconscious” or “semi-conscious” one. In other words, the break existed, but Lenin himself was not yet aware of it. I responded by posing a dilemma: if this divergence actually existed, either Lenin (one of Kautsky’s most diligent readers) did not understand what he was reading, or Lenin did not understand his own thought.3

Several critics responded somewhat as follows: “Look, we all know that Lenin broke decisively with Kautsky in 1914 and we all know that this break led to a root-and-branch rejection of Kautskyism in general. So why is Lih making such heavy weather about the alleged logical difficulties of the earlier situation, when the paths of the two men began to diverge even though Lenin was not yet fully aware of the fact? Lih’s exclusive focus on this earlier period has caused him to ‘bend the stick’ too far in his emphasis on the similarity of the two men’s outlook. By overlooking the later break, he fundamentally distorts the Lenin-Kautsky relationship.”4

These critics are justified in challenging me on this point, since I said nothing in my book about Lenin’s later relation to Kautsky. It remains to be seen whether I can meet this challenge.

Why isn’t the answer obvious?

But why is special research needed to dig out the evidence on this question? Lenin’s post-1914 corpus is easily available. Besides, a quick look at the material seems to decide the question, for three reasons:

a. Lenin wrote a lot about Kautsky after 1914. One whole book, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, is specifically devoted to Kautsky-bashing, with the effect, I am told, that some on the hereditary Left grew up thinking Kautsky’s first name was Renegade. Almost all of what Lenin has to say on the subject is an obsessively negative attack on “the most outstanding authority in the Second International, [who] has revealed himself as a first-class hypocrite and a virtuoso in the art of prostituting Marxism.”5

b. Lenin denounces not only Kautsky, but something he calls “Kautskyism.” For example, in 1920 he writes, “It is therefore no accident that, throughout the world, Kautskyists [kautskiantsy] are in practical political terms now united with extreme opportunists (through the Second or the yellow International) and with bourgeois governments (through coalition bourgeois governments with participation by socialists).”6

c. In State and Revolution (1917), Lenin specifically criticizes some prewar writings by Kautsky that he, Lenin, had previously admired greatly (Social Revolution of 1902 and Road to Power of 1909).

For most readers, these observations settle the question. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, all three observations, while true, are misleading:

a. If we sift out, from the general mass of Lenin’s post-1914 references to Kautsky, the ones that specifically mention Kautsky’s prewar writings, a very different picture emerges.

b. Lenin’s post-1914 coinage “Kautskyism” has a very specific meaning. It does not mean “the system of thought or outlook associated with Kautsky”—that is, it does not refer to an “ism” (the Russian term is kautskianstvo). It means something like: “the waffling and compromising typified by Kautsky’s conduct after the outbreak of war.” The label could therefore be applied to many people who did not share Kautsky’s views (for example, Trotsky!).7 Thus Lenin’s condemnation of “Kautskyism” does not tell us anything about his attitude toward Kautsky’s prewar thought. For example, immediately before the sentence condemning “Kautskyism” that I have just quoted, Lenin says: “In the case of Kautsky and those like him, views like this are a complete renunciation precisely of those revolutionary foundations of Marxism that this writer defended for decades, and, among other subjects, especially in the struggle with socialist opportunism.”8

c. The discussion of Kautsky in State and Revolution also contains many strong statements that show Lenin’s continued appreciation of the very writings he criticizes.9 In any event, the writing of State and Revolution in 1917 causes no appreciable blip in the flow of positive references to Kautsky’s prewar writings.

How well Kautsky wrote, when he was still a Marxist!

To answer the question of interest to us—what was Lenin’s postwar attitude to Kautsky’s prewar writings?—I created the “Kautsky-as-Marxist database,” which seeks to include every citation that reveals Lenin’s attitude toward anything Kautsky wrote, said or did, up to and including 1909. The reason 1909 was chosen as a cutoff date is that Lenin himself made it very explicit that Kautsky’s book Road to Power, published in that year, was his last solid production as a Marxist.10 The database also includes material on various topics that provide relevant context for the questions that concern us. With these topics, the aim is to be accurately representative rather than comprehensive.11 The central conclusions that arise out of this material are:

a. There is a lot of material that fits our requirements. Lenin spoke on the matter many times across the whole period. Most items are just passing remarks, but there are more extensive and revealing discussions in 1914, 1917, and 1920.12 Furthermore, Lenin’s discussions are most often based on a recent re-reading of the Kautsky material in question. The topic was obviously quite important to Lenin.

b. Almost all the references are positive. The central trope used by Lenin is: how well Kautsky wrote back in the old days, when he was still a Marxist. Merely the fact that he labels the Kautsky-of-yore as a Marxist is a strong compliment when compared to what Lenin was calling the contemporary Kautsky. It is abundantly clear that Lenin thinks Kautsky back then was not just a Marxist, but an excellent one.

To give the flavor of Lenin’s remarks, I have chosen representative citations, one from each year from 1914 to 1920:

1914: Lenin gives a detailed exposition of the main arguments of Kautsky’s Road to Power (1909) and comments: “This book, written by the most authoritative writer of the Second International, contains the most complete exposition of the tasks of our times.… This is what German Social Democracy was—or rather, promised to be. This is the Social Democracy that one could and had to respect.”13

1915: In an article written in 1915, Kautsky had referred to his own earlier article from 1904. In this article from 1904, Kautsky asserted (in Lenin’s paraphrase): “‘democratic Russia’ will set afire the aspirations of the nations in the east of Europe for freedom.” Lenin says that this original premise is “indisputable,” although the conclusions that Kautsky draws in 1915 from this true premise are indefensible.14

1916: Lenin’s group within European socialism during the war was called “Left Zimmerwald” (after a conference held in that town). Lenin brought out the continuity between the ideas of this group and Kautsky: “All of us Left Zimmerwaldians are convinced of what Kautsky also, for example, was convinced of prior to his turnaround in 1914 from Marxism to the defense of chauvinism, namely, that socialist revolution is entirely possible in the very nearest future, ‘any day now,’ as the same Kautsky once expressed it.”15

1917: In 1917, only days before the outbreak of the revolution in Russia, Lenin gave a lecture to a Swiss audience about the Russian revolution of 1905, in which he made the following statement: “The higher rose the waves of the movement [in 1905], all the more did the reaction arm itself against the revolution with ever greater energy and decisiveness. The case of the Russian revolution of 1905 confirmed what K. Kautsky wrote in 1902 in his book Social Revolution (by the way, he was then still a revolutionary Marxist, and not a defender of social-patriots and opportunists, as at present). He wrote the following: ‘The coming revolution…is less similar to a sudden rising against the government than to a drawn-out civil war.’ And that’s how it happened! Undoubtedly, that’s the way it will be in the coming European revolution!”16

1918: “All that Kautsky the Marxist wrote in Agrarian Question in 1899 on the issue of the means at the disposal of the proletarian state for the gradual transition of small-scale peasants to socialism—all this is forgotten by the renegade Kautsky in 1918.”17

1919: When trying to convince an audience of revolutionary Bolsheviks at the Eighth Party Congress of the necessity of a shift in peasant policy, Lenin found it helpful to invoke Kautsky as an authority. He prefaced his remarks by referring to “Kautsky’s book about the agrarian question, written back in the time when Kautsky correctly set forth the teachings of Marx and was acknowledged to be the undisputed authority in this area.”18

1920: In Left-Wing Communism, Lenin introduces an extensive passage from Kautsky with these words: “In the days long past, so long ago, when Kautsky was still a Marxist and not a renegade, he approached this question as a historian and foresaw the possibility of the coming of a situation in which the revolutionary nature of the Russian proletariat would become a model for Western Europe. This was in 1902, when Kautsky wrote an article for the revolutionary Iskra entitled ‘Slavs and Revolution.’” After giving the passage, Lenin exclaims: “How well Karl Kautsky wrote eighteen years ago!”19

Let me end with a description of Kautsky-as-Marxist based entirely on Lenin’s pronouncements after 1914. All I have removed is the angry irony of “and look at him now!”:

Karl Kautsky was an outstanding Marxist who was the most authoritative theoretician of the Second International and a teacher to a generation of Marxists. His popularization of Das Kapital has canonic status. He was one of the first to refute opportunism in detail (although he hesitated somewhat before launching his attack) and continued to fight energetically against it, asserting that a split would be necessary if opportunism ever became the official tendency of the German party. Marxists of Lenin’s generation learned a dialectical approach to tactics from him. Only vis-à-vis the state do we observe a tendency to restrict himself to general truths and to evade a concrete discussion.

Kautsky was also a reliable guide to the revolutionary developments of the early twentieth century. His magisterial work on the agrarian question is still valid. He correctly diagnosed the national problem (as opposed to Rosa Luxemburg). He insisted that Western Europe was ripe for socialist revolution, and foretold the connection between war and revolution.

Kautsky had a special relation to Russia and to Bolshevism. On the one hand, he himself took great interest in Russian developments, and endorsed the basic Bolshevik view of the 1905 revolution. On the other hand, the Russian revolutionary workers read him eagerly and his writings had greater influence in Russia than anywhere else. This enthusiastic interest in the “latest word” of European Marxism is one of the main reasons for Bolshevism’s later revolutionary prowess.

I emphasize that the description I have just given of Kautsky is Lenin’s post-1914 view of him, as shown by references throughout the period.

c. Many writers argue that there is a major breakthrough or turning point in Lenin’s thought after 1914. The database shows that Lenin himself adopted a rhetorical stance of aggressive unoriginality. Again and again, he asks his readers to listen to what Kautsky—and not only him, but all respected Marxist writers and politicians—were saying before 1914, and to see how shamefully they failed to live up to their own words and actions.20 Lenin presents himself as remaining staunch for the old truths, as keeping his head when all about him were losing theirs. This means that the dilemma that I set out for those who see an “unconscious” divergence between Lenin and Kautsky in 1902 still stands. Those who stress the fundamental nature of Lenin’s break with the Second International—those who believe that after 1914 Lenin rejected earlier Marxist orthodoxy root and branch—will have to deal with the fact that Lenin himself strongly disagreed.21

d. Finally, the most surprising and exciting implication of the database is that ideas that Lenin explicitly associates with Kautsky continue to inform Lenin’s whole definition of the revolutionary situation in which he found himself. We find ourselves confronting the following paradoxical and hard-to-credit conclusion: not only did Lenin fail to repudiate the many ideas he shared with Kautsky, but in many ways these ideas actually became more important to him after 1914. In this talk, I can only point to this possibility, which for many will be literally unbelievable. Yet statements such as the following typical one are hard to interpret otherwise. In January 1915, Lenin wrote the following:

It was none other than Kautsky himself, in a whole series of articles and in his book Road to Power (which came out in 1909), who described with the fullest possible definiteness the basic traits of the approaching third epoch and who pointed out its radical distinctiveness from the second (yesterday’s) epoch. He acknowledged the change in immediate tasks, and, along with this, a change in the conditions and forms of the struggle of contemporary democracy—a change that flows out of the shift in objective historical circumstances.22

I began my talk with the question: did Lenin solve his inevitable cognitive dissonance by seeing the post-1914 Kautsky as a renegade (Kautsky changed) or by admitting that the scales fell from his own eyes (Lenin changed). The answer given to us by the database is unambiguous: Lenin felt that Kautsky had changed, not himself. He saw no reason to abandon the outlook he had shared with Kautsky just at the time when, in his eyes, events had justified it completely.

In this short talk, I can only scratch the surface of the database and its implications. The citations I have collected are no doubt more suggestive than conclusive. I look forward to discussion and debate on the implications of this material and on the larger questions of Lenin’s relation to his Marxist forebears.


1 Two books that go beyond the observation that Lenin admired Kautsky and examine the content of this relationship are Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered (Brill 2006), especially for the decade 1894–1904, and Moira Donald, Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists,1900–1924 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), especially for the decade 1904–14.
2 Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought (Cambridge, MS: MIT Press, 1971), written in 1924 immediately after Lenin’s death. An excellent recent statement of this line of thought is John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party (London: Pluto Press, 1978).
3 Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 25.
4 This criticism surfaces in a number of responses that will be published in an upcoming issue of Historical Materialism. John Molyneux’s response, which states this argument very well, can be found on http://johnmolyneux.blogspot.com, November 10, 2006.
5 Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (PSS) (Moscow, 1958–65), 26:263.
6 Lenin, PSS 27:306-7. Foreword to French and German editions of Imperialism.
7 Lenin, PSS 26:323-4.
8 Lenin, PSS 27:306-7.
9 See also Lenin’s 1917 statement about Kautsky’s Social Revolution quoted below.
10 For example, in 1916 Lenin writes: “We ask the reader not to forget that Kautsky up to 1909, up to his excellent book Road to Power, was a foe of opportunism, to whose defense he turned only in 1910–11, and completely decisively only in 1914–16,” (PSS 25:259).
11 The database will be sent to anyone who requests it; my contact address is [email protected].
12 For more extended discussions, see the 1914 article “Dead chauvinism and living socialism,” State and Revolution (1917) and Left-Wing Communism (1920).
13 Lenin, PSS 26:98:105
14 Lenin, PSS 26:239-40.
15 Lenin, PSS 30:51.
16 Lenin, PSS 30:323. Lenin had just re-read Kautsky’s Social Revolution as part of the research that later resulted in State and Revolution. Despite the critical remarks about this book in State and Revolution, Lenin obviously still greatly admired many of its arguments.
17 Lenin, PSS 37:325, 327.
18 Lenin, PSS 38:193-4.
19 Lenin, PSS 41:4-5. After the summer of 1920, there are very few references to Kautsky, either positive or negative.
20 For example, in 1915, after stating his concept of a revolutionary situation, Lenin comments: “Such are the Marxist views on revolution, views that have been developed many, many times [and] have been accepted as indisputable by all Marxists …” (Lenin, PSS, 26:219).
21 This statement is to be qualified only in the following way: starting in 1919, Lenin began to emphasize the surprises and unexpected turns that world history had in store. A principal reason for this shift was the delay in the international revolution. But the stance of aggressive unoriginality is still evident in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, written in late 1918.
22 Lenin, PSS, 26:143-44 (first published in 1917).

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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