Paul D'Amato's “The Myth of Lenin's Elitism” is a clear contribution to combating the distortions of workers' revolutionary history. D'Amato is absolutely right to emphasize how the enemies of workers' power have scrambled for purchase on any weed they could find growing out of the mountain of Lenin's life work as a leader of the class. However, while properly placing the “scandalous” sentence from Lenin's 1902 pamphletWhat is to be Done? (WITBD) in context, D'Amato shrinks from examining whether it is indeed a misformulated weed or not. The sentence in question reads: The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively by its own effort is able to develop only trade-union consciousness. On its face, this statement is false. The Paris Commune is the obvious counter-example, of which Lenin undoubtedly knew. Overall, I think Lenin was making the right argument for the right reason, but (as often happens to me while arguing), on this point went awry. The explicit Kautsky passage he summons next for supporting authority is elitist, and deterministic, and wrong. Lenin articulates a useful conception of class consciousness in his 1896 Explanation of a Program for the Social Democratic Party:
The workers' class-consciousness means the workers' understanding that the only way to improve their conditions and to achieve their emancipation is to conduct a struggle against the capitalist and factory-owner class created by the big factories. Further, the workers' class-consciousness means their understanding that the interests of all the workers of any particular country are identical, that they all constitute one class, separate from all other classes in society. Finally, the class-consciousness of the workers means the workers' understanding that to achieve their aims they have to work to influence affairs of the state, just as the landlords and capitalists did, and are continuing to do now.
By this criteria, the Communards were indeed class-conscious, as I'm sure Lenin would have agreed.
Having gained from D'Amato a clearer understanding of the scandal, I look forward to reading Lih's Lenin Rediscovered to figure out how to apply today WITBD's disregarded gem: the role of the revolutionary newspaper. We need to re-win that aspect of Leninism in today's workers' movement. Keep up the great work.
National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 36, AFL-CIO