Lenin’s Marxism

Review of Vol. I

WHEN THIS book (originally published as two volumes) appeared in the late 1970s, it was one of a small number of academic books that challenged Cold War historiography in the United States on the Russian revolutionary movement and its leaders. The standard presentation described Vladimir Lenin as someone who not only departed from Marxist orthodoxy, but bent theory to justify his own drive to power.

Harding stands this upside-down thesis on its feet, presenting us a Lenin as a revolutionary committed to the emancipation of the working class. “I have never met in Russia,” Harding quotes Maxim Gorky, “nor do I know of, any man who hated, loathed, and despised so desperately and strongly as Lenin all unhappiness, grief, and suffering.”

More importantly, Harding makes clear, Lenin’s strategic and tactical conceptions were at every crucial point in his life guided by a strong grounding in Marxist theory—indeed, in the orthodoxy of his day—and a willingness to compare experience with his own carefully derived perspectives in order to reassess and make appropriate adjustments.

At the same time, Harding notes, at key junctures in his political career, Lenin threw himself into study—around the nature of Russian capitalism and the class nature of Russia; the question of armed insurrection and revolutionary tactics; philosophy and dialectics; imperialism and national self-determination; and Marxism and the state—in order to establish the theoretical basis for his own proposals for the Bolshevik Party’s perspectives at key turning points. What emerges most clearly in Harding’s account is that Lenin wasn’t merely tactically astute—he was a master at applying the Marxist method to the immediate tasks of the day, and sensitive and open enough to learn from the class struggle itself in order to enrich his own theory and practice.

In the first volume, Harding demonstrates that Lenin’s political outlook up until the First World War was solidly in line with the Russian and European Marxist orthodoxy of his day. After breaking from populism, Lenin became an ardent defender of the line of argument established first by George Plekhanov and Paul Axelrod, the founders of Russian Marxism, that the development of capitalism in Russia had rendered obsolete the populist conception that the old peasant commune would allow Russia to leap over the stage of capitalism straight into socialism. The capitalist market had already too deeply penetrated the countryside, and the old peasant communal relations were disintegrating under its influence.

At the same time, the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak as a class, and too tied in its interests to the Russian state and landowning classes, to achieve a democratic revolution in Russia. Hence it fell to the young but highly centralized and combative working class, with support of the rebellious poor peasantry, to lead the democratic revolution. As Harding notes, it was actually Paul Axelrod, who later became a Menshevik, who coined the idea of the “hegemony” of the Russian working class in the democratic revolution, arguing, “If there is no possibility of supplying the Russian proletariat with an ‘independent’ leading role in the struggle against the tsarist police autocracy…then Russian Social Democracy forfeits its historical right to existence.”

Lenin helped deepen this analysis through a detailed study of Russian capitalism that ended in a book, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, written while he was in Siberian exile in the late 1800s. Harding argues that this was “the first serious attempt by a Marxist scholar to chronicle and fill out Marx’s account of the development of capitalism out of feudalism.” This in-depth analysis was the underpinning of the programmatic, strategic, and tactical line Lenin promoted until the outbreak of the First World War—a democratic revolution, led by the working class, in alliance with the poor peasantry.

Harding debunks the now standard argument that Lenin’s battle against the trend of “economism” among Russian socialists at the turn of the last century, his efforts to create a centralized party, and especially his famous work What is to be Done?, represent Lenin’s turn toward an elitist conception of the party as one consisting of bourgeois intellectuals exercising tutelage over a working class incapable of achieving socialist consciousness.

During the Iskra period of 1900 to 1903, Lenin hammered away at the same theme over and over again: The working class is becoming more active, more united, and more class-conscious, and it is the economists who want to merely tail behind and applaud this development, supporting only “gradual piecemeal improvements in the workers’ material conditions,” rather than preparing the class for political leadership in the revolutionary movement.

If anything, it is the economists who underestimated the capacity of the working class to lead the democratic revolution. As Harding notes, Lenin’s emphasis on the need for professional revolutionaries reflected not an organizational principle, but his desire to create a strong, more centralized national party that could withstand tsarist repression. Indeed, with the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution, Lenin became a firm advocate of the fullest democracy in the party, and proposed, against a great deal of resistance, that the party open its gates fully to newly radicalizing workers and quickly bring the best militants into leadership positions.

After the1903 split between the two main factions, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, Harding makes clear that it was Lenin’s Bolsheviks who upheld the idea of working-class hegemony in the democratic revolution, and his Menshevik opponents who departed from it. 
Though both parties converged again during the 1905 Revolution, they drew different conclusions from the experience. Whereas the Russian bourgeoisie’s recoil from the revolution strengthened Lenin’s support for workers’ hegemony in the democratic revolution, the Mensheviks drew the conclusion that the liberals must not be “frightened” away from leading the revolution by excessive working-class militancy.

Lenin’s behavior during the period of tsarist reaction between 1905 and 1917 is almost universally portrayed as the period that most displays Lenin’s penchant for nitpicking debate and sectarian maneuvering. Harding reveals a somewhat different picture. It certainly wasn’t a pretty time. The party almost completely ceased to exit inside Russia, and factionalism consumed the émigré revolutionaries. The class struggle had ground to a halt.

Yet when the working-class movement began to revive in 1912, the Bolsheviks quickly became the strongest force on the left of the movement. The explanation is three-fold. First, Lenin conducted a fight against those Mensheviks who wanted to “liquidate” the illegal party and replace it with a legal, broad-based workers’ party. “Insistence on the overthrow of the autocracy,” writes Harding, “was obviously incompatible with being granted a legal status by it.” Wishing for some kind of Western style, open party, Lenin argued, meant abandoning the party’s revolutionary goals.

Lenin was also forced to conduct a struggle against the ultra-lefts in his own faction who failed to understand that the slogans and tactics appropriate to the revolutionary situation in 1905 were no longer appropriate in the period of reaction. The “recallists” favored the withdrawal of Bolsheviks from the toothless tsarist parliament, the Duma, on the grounds that it lent legitimacy to the reactionary body. Lenin argued that the tactic of boycotting the Duma was appropriate in 1906 in the midst of a revolutionary upswing that might have swept away the autocracy. Now that reaction had set in, he argued, socialists must be willing to utilize any legal means offered to the party to organize, agitate, and conduct propaganda. By 1908, Lenin decided to expel the left Bolsheviks from his faction.

The party, Lenin insisted, could not be confused with the whole class—but was only its most active and conscious part. “There must be an organization of the advanced elements of the class, immediately and at all costs, even though if at first these elements constitute only a tiny fraction of the class.” Only this, Lenin argued, would put the party in a position to rapidly grow in size and influence when the struggle picked up again.

The party was able to hold a politically coherent illegal apparatus together better than the other factions, and it utilized this foundation to take advantage of every legal opportunity, from the Duma elections to workers’ insurance organizations, to build a base inside the working class when the class struggle began to revive slowly in 1911. By 1912, the evidence was clear that in the industrial centers the Bolshevik paper, Pravda, had the support of the majority of workers’ groups in the factories, Bolshevik candidates fared better than their Menshevik counterparts in the workers’ assemblies, and Bolsheviks dominated the leadership of most trade unions and other workers’ organizations.

Especially after the experience of 1905, Lenin was firmly convinced of the importance of mass strikes, particularly in the large metal factories in Petrograd, and the interweaving of economic and political strikes. Yet, unlike Rosa Luxemburg, he argued that mass strikes were insufficient to deliver the final blow. For that, an insurrection was necessary, and a well-planned, coordinated, and well-timed insurrection could only be led by a revolutionary party with deep roots in the class. But Lenin was no Blanquist; he warned against “premature attempts at uprising,” launched without the support of the “democratic peasantry and the active participation of the armed forces.”

The debate between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg and others on the national question in the few years preceding the outbreak of the Second World War prepared Lenin well for what was to come. His approach was dialectical, recognizing capitalism’s tendency to break down national barriers, create a world market, and its tendency to awaken national consciousness and national movements.

So long as nation-states exist, and with it the domination of some nations and national groups by other nations, then the working-class movement could not ignore the national question. For Lenin, national chauvinism could only be broken down—that is, the conditions for genuine working-class internationalism could not be created—without revolutionaries in the oppressor nations championing the right of oppressed nations to national independence. Coercive unity breeds resentment, not proletarian internationalism. The centrality of the national question to Lenin’s thought makes it disappointing that Harding devotes so little space to this question.

Lenin’s focus up to 1914 was primarily Russia. It was only after the outbreak of war that he systematically applied himself to the study of imperialism and global capitalism, and began to link the Russian Revolution, though his focus was primarily on combating Great Russian chauvinism, with the prospects for international revolution. That is the subject of Harding’s second volume.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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