What Lenin really said

First published in Europe by Brill in 2006, this is the first time Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered has been published in the United States and in a relatively inexpensive edition. It caused a stir (at least on the Left) when it was first published, and for good reason: It is the first serious study of Lenin in a good long time that counters most of the cherished myths peddled by Western historians about Lenin, and in particular, his much-maligned and misunderstood book, What is To Be Done? The major drawback of the book is that at more than 800 meticulously researched pages (including Lih’s own new translation of What is To Be Done?), many may be too intimidated to read it. Hopefully this review will convince a few more people that they should.

Lih’s main thrust hits against the traditional accounts of Lenin, which locate in What is To Be Done  (WITBD) Lenin’s break from Marxist orthodoxy and his turn to elitist condescension toward the working class. Historians have wrenched Lenin’s ideas out of context and turned them on their head. He writes:

The experts regarded WITBD as the founding document of Bolshevism, the book where Lenin first revealed the essence of his outlook. But even the experts worked without a proper knowledge of context—particularly the large context of international Social Democracy and the small context of the polemical infighting among Russian Social Democrats in late 1901. To speak plainly, they misread WITBD and therefore misunderstood Lenin, and then successfully raised up this image of Lenin to textbook status.

According to this textbook interpretation, Lenin

feared the “spontaneous” development of the workers’ movement, he demanded that the workers’ movement be “diverted” from its natural course and be directed “from without” by non-workers, in fact, by bourgeois revolutionary intellectuals. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the textual basis for this portrait of Lenin is not just one book, not just one chapter in this book, not just two famous paragraphs from this chapter that are inevitably quoted, but three words found in these paragraphs: “spontaneity”, “divert”, and “from without” (one word in Russian).

What Lih proves unequivocally is that Lenin’s book—and his entire body of writing during the period between 1900 and 1901 (referred to as the Iskra period because it covers the period of the publication of the newspaper Iskra, used by Lenin and his cohorts to drum up support for building a united national organization of revolutionaries in Russia)—is directed at the idea that the socialists were lagging behind the advance of the working class toward militant economic and political struggle. Lih quotes Lenin saying in 1901, “The stikhiinyi [elemental] upsurge of both the worker mass and (thanks to its influence) other social strata has occurred in recent years with striking swiftness…. The leader/guides have fallen behind this stikhiinyi upsurge of the masses and they have turned out to be unprepared to carry out their responsibilities as leader/guides.”

Lih places Lenin’s ideas squarely in the camp of the orthodox Marxism of his time. Lenin is a convinced “Erfurtian” (in reference to the name of the German social democratic program) and an enthusiastic follower of Karl Kautsky, the leading Marxist at the time; that is, he sees the German social democrats as the most important model for socialist politics and organization, and he sees any deviation from that model in Russia as necessitated by the fact that Russia was a police state.  Every proposal Lenin makes in WITBD—to create a core of professional revolutionaries capable of escaping police detection; for a centralized newspaper to act as a collective agitator, propagandist, and organizer; and for conspiratorial methods rather than open, more democratic forms of organizing—he argues for not as a universal theory of organizing, but as specific forms suited to Russian conditions. Lenin, for example, speaks of the national newspaper at one point as a “substitute” for the parliamentary activity, union organization, and popular meetings that were possible in Germany but not in Russia. Only when the Russian people, headed by the working class, had achieved political liberty by overthrowing tsarism, could Russian socialists and the workers’ movement organize along the same lines as in the West.

At the same time, all of Lenin’s polemics are against those whom he considers to be Russian “Bernsteins,” that is, followers of the revisionist (reformist) Social Democrats in Germany, led by Edouard Bernstein, who argued for a peaceful, gradual road to socialism. One of Lenin’s main purposes in writing WITBD was to bury once and for all the trend in the Russian socialist movement known as “economism,” which argued that the Russian socialists’ main job was to assist the working class in its economic struggle and to leave the political struggle to the liberals, and thereby turn the workers’ movement into an appendage of the liberal opposition movement. Even more important for Lenin, since, by then, economism had more or less faded from the scene, was to challenge the vacillating trends in the movement that failed to understand the urgency of building a united national party that could stand at the head of the working-class movement and provide it with a political lead. The irony of the textbook interpretation is that it is the exact opposite of what Lenin was arguing. While Lenin was straining to argue against those who underestimated the advance of working-class consciousness and belittled the role of the working class in the political struggle, the textbook interpretation would have us believe that “deep down inside, Lenin agreed with the revisionists that the workers were becoming more and more reformist, less and less socialist.”

Lenin’s argument about the centrality of the Russian working class in the popular movement against autocracy was also pure Russian Marxist orthodoxy (though Lih spends little time on this aspect of the truth); it was at the heart of the Russian Marxist movement since its inception, first formulated by Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism.

What is most ingenious about Lih’s book is the way he refutes the historians by extensive quoting of Lenin himself, proving not only that the standard Lenin-as-elitist story is wrong, but that these historians could not have possibly read Lenin! Here is just one quote that indicates Lenin’s optimism about working-class consciousness:

[I]t’s not true that the masses will not understand the idea of political struggle. The most backward [samyi seryi] worker will understand this idea, on the following ­condition: if an agitator or propagandist knows how to approach him in a way that will communicate this idea—knows how to translate it into understandable ­language while relying on facts well-known to him from everyday life.… The same thing happens in the area of politics: of course, only the intelligentnyi worker assimilates the general idea of political struggle and the mass will follow him, because they have an excellent feeling for their lack of political rights…and the most immediate everyday interests lead them into conflict with all sorts of manifestations of political oppression.

Here it is clear that Lenin’s idea of a “vanguard” does not refer to the intelligentsia but to the most class-conscious workers.

A minor drawback of Lih’s book is that it did not need to be this long—the level of microscopic inspection is in several places in danger of losing the reader in a maze of detail. There are also problems with Lih’s translation choices. Some choices he ­motivates convincingly. For example, he makes a strong case that the Russian word ­Stikhiinost, translated famously as ­“spontaneity” or spontaneist, is closer to “elemental,” and that in most cases the word does not mean “unorganized.” Unable to find the right English word to use in every context, Lih decides not to translate the word at all. This may be justified, even though it makes the text harder to read.

Other translation decisions seem to me to be less justifiable. It is simply jarring to read over and over again references to the “worker movement,” and the “worker class,” which are literal translations of the terms from Russian and German, but which are never used in English. Likewise, I failed to see the necessity of replacing the more commonly used term “consciousness” with “awareness,” or the word “leader” with the more cumbersome but not more enlightening “leader/guide.”

In presenting Lenin as an unwavering “Erfurtian” and staunch follower of Kautsky, Lih presents a somewhat static picture of Lenin that makes no room for an explanation as to how he came later to oppose the orthodox Social-Democratic conception of party organization. Lih has focused his microscope too tight, not pulling back to allow us to see how Lenin’s practical adaptation of the German model to Russian conditions created, through a series of experiences and experimentation, a new practice of party organization that was the basis of a new theory of the party—one, however, that only became fully worked out between 1914 and the 1917 revolution, and only generalized after the formation of the Comintern.

It is a fact that the German model allowed for a politically broad party where reformism was criticized but allowed to flourish in practice. The Bolsheviks’ practice was clearly different, even if Lenin considered these differences to be purely practical. Even when Bolshevism was a faction of a united party, it was a faction that had its own newspapers and promoted its own revolutionary line, mercilessly criticizing both reformist and ultra-left tendencies in the Russian movement. This practice was entirely different from that of the leftists inside the German party.

One final small note of criticism. While Lih gives credit to other books that make a similar case about Lenin, such Moira Donald’s Marxism & Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russia Marxists, 1900–1924, he argues that Neil Harding, in Lenin’s Political Thought, “ultimately does not break away from the ‘worry about workers’ interpretation” of Lenin. I believe this is incorrect, as this passage should make clear:

It is argued that Lenin, during this period, “lost faith” in the spontaneous mass movement, despaired of it ever attaining socialist consciousness and concluded that the revolution would have to be engineered by a professional elite. This interpretation has the attraction of being simple and consistent with the Lenin-as-Jacobin interpretation; it raises, however, considerable, indeed insuperable, problems for any one who actually reads and attempts to make sense of Lenin’s writings.

None of this, however, detracts from the importance or usefulness of Lars Lih’s book.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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