Lenin’s revolutionary Marxism

This book presents an outstanding historical analysis of the development of Lenin’s thought. It is destined to generate angst among some Marxist activists who believe they’ve finally “got Lenin right.” As such, it performs a service to the integrity of Marxism—maintaining the critical edge essential to what Marx and Engels optimistically termed scientific socialism. 

“Doubt everything,” was the critical-minded injunction of Karl Marx—but then, contrary to his intentions, Marx became an icon whose ideas more often than not were converted into dogmas. Vladimir Ilych Lenin, perhaps more than any Marxist in the twentieth century, posed a sharp challenge to such Marxism (which should not be a dogma, he insisted, but a guide to action). Yet, contrary to his intentions, he too became a source of unquestioned authority among millions. 

Recently, a brilliant iconoclast named Lars Lih has made an outstanding scholarly contribution, challenging long-held dogmas that have passed for “Len–inism”—not simply those associated with Cold War anticommunist interpretations, but also (more controversially within the Left) challenging long-held interpretations among pro-Lenin activists. Contrary to Lih’s

own intentions, some are inclined to see his interpretations as “the last word” on what to think and what not to think regarding Lenin’s thought.1

Reality is too complex and alive for such stuff—nothing is constant but change. There is and can be no “last word” in regard to Lenin’s thought. That is true in more than one way, but in the burgeoning field of “Lenin Studies”—predictably—thoughtful and well-researched analyses continue to appear, which challenge and/or elaborate on and/or reinterpret established (even recently-established) ways of understanding Lenin. This is as it should be. Not only was a critical-minded approach built into the orientations of both Marx and Lenin, but such a dynamic, dialectical approach is necessary if one hopes to keep up with the immense changes of our time.

Shandro’s scrutiny of Lenin’s writings from the 1890s to 1920s in Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony provides one of several “post-Lih” works (along with those of August Nimtz, Tamás Krausz, and Eric Blanc) which serious scholars and revolutionary activists must wrestle with.2 Shandro’s work is hardly a refutation of Lih’s demolition of the “textbook” portrait of Lenin-as-authoritarian. But it challenges aspects of Lih’s arguments, and corroborates elements of the “activist interpretation” of Leninist thought. 

Marxism of the Second International
The Socialist International was established in 1889 by an impressive array of mostly European working-class activists and socialist theorists. This was half a decade after Marx’s death, and roughly a decade and a half after the collapse of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) that he had helped to establish and lead. Because the founders of the new entity were associated with a growing number of parties and movements influenced by Marx’s ideas, they naturally referred to it as the Second International. This federation had an impact on the history not only of the European working class, but also of the world, and it became a beacon for those who hungered for a new social order of the free and the equal. Yet in 1914 it collapsed when confronted with the cataclysm of World War I. Worse, a majority of its affiliates supported the war efforts of their respective capitalist and monarchist regimes, abandoning the Marxist principles of international working-class solidarity and uncompromising struggle against all oppressors and exploiters.

This threw into question the credibility of what came to be called “the Marxism of the Second International.” Among would-be revolutionary activists as well as historians, there has been a powerful inclination to reject, in one way or another, a tradition that seemingly came to such a sorry end. Among many left-wing scholars and activists, the denunciation of the Marxism of the Second International became commonplace. It was, presumably, afflicted with deterministic, dogmatic, fatalistic, vulgar-materialist qualities—projecting the inevitability of capitalist collapse and socialist triumph, often mouthing revolutionary promises while promoting reformist practices. Such stuff—propagated particularly by Karl Kautsky, the Second International’s “Pope of Marxism”—was deemed unfit for serious-minded revolutionaries and for anyone inclined to take Marxism seriously.3 

One of Lars Lih’s contributions has been to push back hard against this dismissal, insisting that the leftist critique amounts to caricature. Lih and others (such as Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido) have shown that the best of Second International Marxism was far better than commonly assumed. Before 1910, Kautsky was central to articulating certain perspectives that continued to guide Lenin himself down to his dying day. Indeed some Lih admirers have argued that there is little in Lenin’s thought that is distinctive, that the Russian revolutionary was mostly “a loyal follower” of the pre-war Kautsky.4 It is precisely here that Shandro poses a sharp and clarifying challenge.

Shandro devotes two full chapters to an examination of the “orthodox Marxism” articulated by Kautsky and by Lenin’s one-time mentor George Plekhanov. He focuses our attention particularly on the debate between Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein (whom he characterizes as “the first post-Marxist”), in which Kautsky defended revolutionary perspectives from Bernstein’s reformist challenge. A genuine strength of Shandro’s account is the fair-minded way in which he presents the positions of these two intelligent activist-theorists. He does the same in laying out the development of Plekhanov’s thinking as he evolved from revolutionary-populism to Marxist perspectives in the late nineteenth century. We see, as Lih has also insisted, that Lenin’s thought was firmly rooted in classical Marxism represented by Kautsky and Plekhanov, permeated by a confidence in the revolutionary potential of the working class and profoundly democratic commitments. 

Yet in contrast to Lih, Shandro advances a critique of what he calls “the unilinear historical logic of Marxist orthodoxy,”5 which articulated “conceptual harmonies that functioned as an illusory guarantee of the unfailing insight of Marxism in theory and the irresistible forward march of the socialist working class in practice and that thereby served as a prophylactic against critical investigation of sensitive issues.”6 In particular, unilinear orthodoxy held that “the logic of capitalist development brings about the harmonious maturation of the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ conditions of socialism, the development of the productive forces and the rise of the workers’ consciousness of class, and underwrites the harmony of the Marxist party and the working-class movement.”7 Based on this understanding, Shandro tells us, Kautsky believed:

The function of theory is to maintain the unity of the working-class movement; only Marxist science, grasping the universality of the proletarian class struggle amidst the jumble of personality and accident encountered in the empirical world of day-to-day practice, provides a coherent account of the basis of this unity. Thus, Marxism is the theoretical expression of the unity of the working class.8 

“Kautsky’s great unexamined assumption,” Shandro emphasizes, was that “the relation of Marxism and the working-class movement had to be harmonious.”9 Yet some workers were skilled and others were not, some lived in cities and others did not, some belonged to one or another religious denomination (or to none), some were men and others were women, some belonged to one ethnic group while others belonged to a different ethnic group, and so on. “Kautsky’s Marxist orthodoxy pulls up short before the challenge of theorizing these concrete features,” Shandro notes, and therefore makes unwarranted assumptions about the development of working-class consciousness.10 Predominant in the German Social Democratic Party were skilled male urban workers of German ethnicity and Protestant background—and these unexamined identities marked this “advanced section” of the labor movement. Following Lenin, who followed leads by Marx and Engels, Shandro perceives here an “aristocracy of labor” within the labor movement, tending to pull powerfully away from revolutionary perspectives. Of course, Lenin never argued that such relative privilege would inevitably pull such workers away from revolutionary socialism (indeed, a major part of his Bolshevik base was precisely among such skilled workers in, for example, Russia’s metal works), but it was possible for them to be drawn to the wrong political perspectives.11 The possibility of such corruption within working-class vanguard layers—unimagined by Kautsky’s Marxism—would become an essential element in Lenin’s. 

Kautsky’s “conception of working-class unity [was] fashioned after the image of the most advanced section of the workers, cosmetically marginalizing the anarchic combativeness of the politically unorganized, undisciplined proletarian milieus.”12 Shandro concludes that “the real weakness of Kautskyan orthodoxy consists . . . in a certain conjunction of theory and practice whereby the relation of Marxism and the Marxist party to the working class is constituted as a given rather than as something to be established through particular, politically conditioned conjunctures of class struggle.”13 This undercuts an ability, which became essential to Lenin’s approach, of dealing adequately with contradictory problems and challenging opportunities.

Lenin’s Marxism
Shandro sees Lenin’s distinctive contributions to Marxism flowing from the way he approached issues of spontaneity and hegemony. We need to unpack this in order to grasp the thrust of his analysis. The “matter-of-fact didacticism” that was common to the “orthodox Marxist” perspective can be found, Shandro shows us, in writings of the young Lenin, the young Leon Trotsky, the young Rosa Luxemburg, and others taught and mentored by such eminent theorists as Kautsky and Plekhanov. But beginning in the early 1900s, he argues, Lenin felt increasingly compelled to develop a more complex and dynamic view that moved beyond conceptions embraced by other Marxists. This was generated by three crises: (1) challenges posed by the rise of strong reformist and economist currents within the socialist movement, (2) challenges of the 1905 revolutionary upsurge, and (3) challenges posed by World War I. 

In treading this ground, Shandro takes issue with certain influential interpretations of Lenin’s thought. According to Marcel Liebman and Tony Cliff, the 1905 upsurge caused Lenin to reject an elitist element inherent in his earlier thinking, and Shandro joins with Lars Lih in demolishing this view.14 Another influential interpretation, given special stress by Raya Dunayevskaya, has to do with Lenin’s study of the dialectical philosophy of Hegel during World War I, which is said to have generated a veritable revolution in his own thought, reflected in all subsequent writings.15 While he does not dismiss the importance of Lenin’s philosophical clarifications, Shandro sees the so-called “Hegelian epiphany” as seriously overstated. The three historical moments of challenge forced Lenin to deepen and develop his Marxism, not to fundamentally revise it.

Instead Shandro insists that there is a fundamental continuity in the development of Lenin’s thought, stretching from What Is To Be Done? (1902) and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904); to Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905) to Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) and The State and Revolution (1917); to The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918). He does not provide a full discussion of these crucial texts, however—his purpose being to trace within them a distinctive approach to questions of spontaneity and proletarian hegemony.16 It was this approach, Shandro argues, that enabled Lenin to develop a far more nuanced and effective revolutionary politics. It also generated early unease and then bitter opposition among those influenced by the traditional orientation (the “unilinear historical logic”) he was moving beyond. 

Such “moving beyond” caused political ruptures. One biographer, Christopher Read, identifies Lenin’s approach as “Marxism in a hurry,” and many (including such genuine revolutionaries of 1904–1912 as Luxemburg and Trotsky) saw his approach as generating a destructive and unnecessary disunity within the ranks of the revolutionary workers’ movement.17 But Shandro’s discussion of the distinctive twist in Lenin’s Marxism suggests that such internal conflicts were necessary for the development of a Marxist politics capable of culminating in socialist revolution. 

Spontaneity and organization
Shandro traces Lenin’s break from the old orthodoxy to his well-known (one might say notorious) assertion that socialist consciousness is brought into the working class from “outside.” Of course, many have noted that it was Karl Kautsky who was the original culprit here. Noting the crucial importance of “scientific socialist” theory developed by nonworkers Marx and Engels, Kautsky stressed that “socialist consciousness is thus something introduced into the class struggle from without and not something that emerged originally within it.”18 Scholars such as Lars Lih have emphasized this in insisting on the theoretical harmony between Kautsky and Lenin. 

But Shandro argues that this “consciousness-from-without” insight took on a different meaning for Kautsky, who was applying the notion within a very different context. Socialist consciousness was naturally equated with Marxism, and in his own Social Democratic Party of Germany, working-class intellectuals (such as August Bebel and others) made use of Marxist theory in a very particular political way—building powerful electoral activity which, in turn, functioned (while linked to a mass trade union movement) “as a tent-pole around which was arrayed a richly textured fabric of political and cultural institutions—women’s organizations, youth organizations, the Social Democratic press, workers’ libraries, lectures and lecture courses,” a subculture for creating self-confidence and self-respect among the masses of the workers, which promised a seemingly inexorable electoral advance, underwriting “the prospect of an indefinite linear progression to power.”19 For Kautsky, Marxist orthodoxy helped fuse all of this together—and with this “conjunction of theory and practice . . . the relation of Marxism and the Marxist party to the working class is constituted as a given rather than as something to be established through particular, politically conditioned conjunctures of class struggle.”20

Lenin, Shandro contends, was developing a quite different conceptualization:

The unity of the working class as an effective political force and a parameter of revolutionary strategy must be conceived not simply as the realization of a uniformity of position and interest on the part of the workers, but as marked by the unevenness and heterogeneity of the process. . . . A practical orientation toward working-class unity requires not mere willpower, but a dialectic capable of seizing the complex and uneven interplay of heterogeneous forces and concrete conjunctures defined thereby.21

The vanguard layer of the working class that was committed to revolutionary socialist perspectives could not assume that there would be a coming-together of Marxist perspectives, the proletarian party, and the working class as a whole. Raw spontaneity could not bring into being a socialist revolution. Those who believe in the need for such a revolution must work hard and long to help create the possibility for this—the consciousness and experience among the mass of working people—to make such a transformation possible. But the process must also be interactive, which brings us to another dimension of the interplay between spontaneity and organization.

Down through the years, innumerable critics of Lenin have contrasted his presumably elitist and authoritarian stress on a revolutionary vanguard party with the freedom and life-affirming creativity associated with the notion of spontaneity, which he is said to have feared and rejected. But this, as Shandro documents (in harmony with Lars Lih), is a false reading of the way things were. Far from opposing organization to spontaneity, Lenin saw a dynamic interaction. “The working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism,” Shandro quotes Lenin, “but the most widespread (and continuously and diversely revived) bourgeois ideology nonetheless spontaneously imposes itself on the workers to a still greater degree.”22 Only sustained educational and practical political work by effectively organized revolutionaries could help nurture and bring to the fore socialist perspectives that were essential for widespread working-class consciousness. At the same time, Lenin asserted, “New forms of struggle, unknown to the participants of the given period, inevitably arise as the given social situation changes. In this respect Marxism learns, if we may so express it, from mass practice.”23 Shandro draws the different threads together in an interesting way: 

The thesis that consciousness must be imported into the spontaneous working-class movement from without is a necessary precondition for the importation of proletarian spontaneity into consciousness, into Marxist theory, and consequently for a concrete, and not merely rhetorical, appreciation of the Marxist thesis of proletarian self-emancipation. This struggle of consciousness with spontaneity that was at the same time an opening to spontaneity was not in itself the realization of proletarian hegemony but it was a necessary condition for its future realization.24 

He points out that “spontaneity is an elusive concept” (131), and for some of its more rigid partisans it seems to require “that Marxist workers and intellectuals abstract themselves from the unfolding logic of the class struggle” (137). Workers who embrace revolutionary socialist or Marxist ideas must drop out of activity if this particular Spontaneity Principle is to be honored. Or to put it differently, the working class in its totality does not “naturally” or “spontaneously” or “inevitably” develop a revolutionary socialist consciousness. There are influential countertendencies, especially those propagated by the wealthy and powerful few who dominate society’s political, intellectual, and cultural institutions and resources. Nor is it at all likely, given the complex nature of reality (including human individuality), that every single working-class person will become a revolutionary socialist. 

On the other hand, it is possible under some circumstances that a majority of those in the working class could be won to revolutionary socialist perspectives. This will only happen, however, if revolutionary socialists, particularly working-class Marxists, can present such perspectives to more and more people in a way that will win them over. This perception sharpened within Lenin’s thinking in a manner that was unusual among most Marxists of his time. This relates to the way he developed the conception of working-class hegemony in the democratic revolution. Lenin’s approach required a more active and aggressive approach than was common among Russian Marxists in promoting the notion of working class hegemony.

Working-class hegemony
The notion of working-class hegemony (predominance, supremacy, leadership) in the democratic revolution had, of course, been advanced by George Plekhanov in the 1880s and was written into the 1898 program of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). It was based on the understanding that the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class) was too weak and too compromised in Tsarist Russia to play the role that many believed had been played by the French bourgeoisie in 1789. Only the working class would have the need and temperament required to push forward with the democratic revolution, and the democratic revolution would clear the way for the eventual socialist revolution.25 Exactly how this notion of working-class hegemony was understood and utilized, however, could vary. Shandro explains Lenin’s conception: 

The indispensible condition of proletarian hegemony is the political ability to act independently as a class and hence, if Lenin was right, an organized vanguard informed by Marxist theory and capable of diagnosing and acting upon significant movements in the logic of struggle. Since these movements could not fail to call into question the relation between Marxist theory, the Social-Democratic Party and the spontaneous working-class movement, the Marxist vanguard party could no longer be conceived as representing the resolution of the essential contradictions of the historical process. It would have to be seen, instead, as a guide to action, organizing the independent political intervention of the working class within a complex and shifting web of interrelated contradictions.26

A grouping in the RSDLP, tagged “Economists,” believed that Social Democrats should concentrate on organizing workers around economic struggles, and not get immersed in the political struggle against Tsarism (the procapitalist liberals should be encouraged to do that); also there should not be a focus on talking socialism to workers, because (given the “orthodox” conception) the workers would, through their own class-struggle experience, be naturally and spontaneously evolving in a socialist direction. A majority of the RSDLP, united with Plekhanov and Lenin around the newspaper Iskra, attacked the Economist schema as essentially passing the mantle of hegemony in the democratic revolution to the bourgeoisie.  

The most powerful polemic against the Economists was Lenin’s classic What Is To Be Done?, which was enthusiastically embraced by all Iskra supporters when it appeared in 1902. Yet the same words assumed different meanings among the Iskraists. At first, “the difference could easily be read as one of emphasis, without obvious practical implications”—although within two years the RSDLP was wracked by a widening factional dispute over precisely those practical implications.27

Some Iskraists—who would soon split from Lenin—emphasized, Shandro tells us, “the expressive aspect of proletarian political agency; the self-emancipation of the proletariat consisted essentially of forms of political activity in which workers asserted their class character in practical confrontation with bourgeois political actors.”28 Given Marx’s injunction that the emancipation of the working class must be brought about by the working class itself, it seems quite reasonable that they promote the “self-activity” of the working class, which they believed would not only give a militant edge to the democratic revolution, but would also generate, naturally and necessarily, the revolutionary class consciousness within a growing working class. Once the working class grew into a majority, this would culminate in a socialist revolution. This was hardly inconsistent with Lenin’s thinking, if interwoven with his interpretation of hegemony.

The shattering of Iskraists’ unity in 1903 generated Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) factions, but the immediate cause was over who would and who would not serve on the editorial board of Iskra. When Lenin won the vote to reduce the size from six to three, those who lost the vote refused to accept the majority decision. Lenin himself was at first baffled as to why this seemingly minor dispute should culminate in a political-organizational split. Beneath it all, Shandro sees the unconscious workings of underlying tensions related to divergent understandings of hegemony. This was not clear to participants in 1903, but by late 1904 a fundamental and clarifying difference surfaced when the Mensheviks initiated a campaign to “exert proletarian pressure on the liberal opposition” to advance the struggle against Tsarism.29

The Mensheviks’ gravitation toward a worker-capitalist alliance would prove to be a game-changer. If sharing with Lenin a commitment to working-class hegemony in the democratic revolution, they were nonetheless more insistent than Lenin that the capitalists’ involvement was a crucial ingredient in Tsarism’s overthrow. Of course, within the conceptual framework of this bourgeois-proletarian partnership, the “self-activity” of the working class was given such stress that many Mensheviks were swayed, temporarily, by Trotsky’s unpromisingly anticapitalist conception of permanent revolution. But problematical dynamics became especially evident after the 1905 upsurge subsided: “Menshevik activists, absorbed in the arduous daily struggle to organize trade unions, cooperative societies and other legal expressions of working-class self-activity, relegated the political struggle for hegemony, along with the illegal party organization itself, to the background.”30 

This political imbalance pulled them, Shandro argues, along the pathway traveled by the Economists. The educational goal of working-class self-activity lacked “a strategic logic of the political struggle for hegemony,” which meant that the self-activated workers “were consequently obliged to subordinate themselves to circumstances created by others.” Shandro concludes: “The Mensheviks had therefore in substance to concede the political struggle for proletarian hegemony,” although this is not how they interpreted what they were doing.31 The problem was related to their embrace of “the unilinear historical logic of Marxist orthodoxy,” which projected a natural harmony between Marxist ideology and the working class as a whole. If this unilinear logic is flawed, as Shandro argues (and Lenin sensed), then the abstract virtue of working-class self-activity is left hanging in mid-air. Shandro explains:

Self-activity cannot become an end-in-itself except in and through the pursuit of more concrete, proximate aims; it is, then, as Jon Elster has argued, essentially a by-product. To press such an abstraction into service as a barometer of political action was unwarranted in theory and ingenuous in practice. To urge it against the organization of the Marxist vanguard was to decry the very possibility of strategic initiative in the political struggle; it was to abdicate the struggle for hegemony. In political reality, proletarian self-emancipation could only be grasped concretely in terms of the logic of struggle for hegemony, hence as an essentially collective process articulated in relation to determinate organizational forms.32

Lenin’s break from the “unilinear logic of orthodox Marxism” caused him to develop a very different conceptualization of proletarian hegemony in the democratic revolution, with the Bolsheviks’ consequent insistence upon a worker-peasant alliance. Lenin’s understanding of working-class hegemony was animated by what Shandro calls the “politico-strategic logic of the struggle for hegemony,” focused on enhancing the political power of the working class in each and every specific situation. It meant establishing working-class leadership in the struggle to overthrow Tsarism—especially because the capitalists, afraid of mass struggles and popular revolution, would seek compromises with the existing authorities, compromising democracy in order to secure social order. Uncompromising struggle for democracy depended on working-class hegemony, and the only way the working class could establish its leadership in the democratic revolution—he concluded—was to forge a broad alliance with the Russian’s peasant majority. 

While the Mensheviks never abandoned formal adherence to working-class hegemony in the democratic revolution, the realities of the situation, Shandro argues, resulted in their inadvertent but inexorable dilution of that principle. Their focus on creating opportunities for working-class “self-activity” (serving the primarily educational function of developing working-class consciousness) created a vacuum in regard to the struggle for power against Tsarism, and this contributed to the growth of bourgeois hegemony in the democratic revolution. And masses of class-conscious workers, in some cases activated by Menshevik efforts, gravitated to the Bolshevik banner. 

With the coming of the World War I, Shandro observes, Lenin concluded that the exigencies of proletarian hegemony in Russia now required not simply a democratic revolution but a socialist revolution; that modern imperialism implied that capitalism was in transition. On a global scale, he contended, “imperialism is the eve of socialist revolution.”33 The world revolutionary transition could be sparked by an insurgent worker-peasant alliance gaining victory in Russia. By contrast, Kautsky’s version of Marxism, along with that predominant among the Mensheviks, had become (in Shandro’s words) “a certain way of thinking—or failing to think—about socialist revolution,” marginalizing them from explosive possibilities.34 Such an approach proved alien to the revolutionary perspectives of Bolshevism. Lenin and his comrades won increasing numbers of Marxist and working-class activists to these perspectives as they made their way to the revolutionary autumn of 1917.35

Shandro’s Marxism—and ours
After the Bolshevik triumph of 1917, Lenin was able—certainly in his 1918 polemic with Kautsky—to continue restating and developing his distinctive understanding of working-class hegemony. However, by the early 1920s, as his own death approached, revolutionary Russia found itself isolated (due to the defeat of hoped-for socialist revolutions elsewhere), almost overwhelmed by horrific adversities. Shandro shows us that Lenin continued to employ his earlier theorizations within the incredibly grim realities. But the tone and much of the substance had changed. The vibrantly revolutionary working class of 1917 had largely disintegrated amid the chaos of civil war and economic collapse—how could one plausibly speak in terms of its hegemony?36 

Some of Shandro’s efforts at explication have the sound of authoritarian rationalization. “The distribution of political rights would have to be worked out in the course of the revolution” he comments, without specifying how and by whom.37 “Force,” he tells us ambiguously, “may not only be repressive but also enabling,” adding that “it need not be counterposed to but may serve as an integral element in the struggle for hegemony.”38 In a footnote, as if he were clarifying something, he offers uncritical reference to works by Mao Zedong—“On Contradiction” (1937) and “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” (1957)—although the perspectives and contexts of Lenin and Mao were surely qualitatively different in more than one way.39 

Finally, Shandro himself begins to highlight the contradictions in Lenin’s formulations during his last five years of life: “If an account of the cohesion of the working-class community is thus presumed by Lenin’s argument, it is present only obliquely, allusively, through a series of references to ‘class consciousness,’ a term whose significance here [with a largely disintegrated working class] is itself much in need of clarification.”40 Of course, as Shandro emphasizes, Lenin and his comrades—in the midst of very terrible assaults and of very terrible mistakes—were struggling to survive, still hoping to inspire and assist revolutionary advances in other countries, still laboring to keep alive and growing the promise of the revolution inside Russia. He nonetheless concludes in regard to this final period: 

By attending to the internal complexity of the concept of “class consciousness” and its complex and contradictory function in Lenin’s approach to the transition to socialism, it becomes possible to construe his political theory and practice in terms either of the urgent certainties of a dogmatic and incipiently authoritarian “consciousness” or of the “conscious” play of its more open-ended, dialectical, and potentially democratic threads. While the latter provides the more accurate and encompassing reading, it would be too simple to equate it with an “authentic” Leninism and counterpose it to the former portrayed as a product of later Stalinist reification. For the fact that both aspects of Lenin’s approach, both the theoretically-informed concrete analysis of the concrete conditions and the political dialectic of struggle and debate whereby analysis is adjusted from one conjuncture to the next, are subsumed under the umbrella-term “consciousness” can serve to mask and thus to facilitate a kind of conceptual slippage from one to the other.41

Based on what Shandro himself expresses in this passage and demonstrates throughout most of his book, however, a far more “authentic” Lenin is certainly to be found in what is open, dialectical, and democratic than in the dogmatic, antidemocratic, and murderous realities that Stalin came to represent. Lenin, as a revolutionary Marxist, would seem to stand closer to Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg.42 Taken together, surely, they offer more to revolutionary activists of our own time than Stalin or Mao. 

A striking weakness in Shandro’s account is his tendency to give in to a “nobody-but-Lenin” temptation. This is unfortunate, given the great strengths that permeate this volume. But all too often he seems to stretch and bend the notion of Lenin’s “logic of hegemony” to exclude all others (except Marx and Engels, of course, and Antonio Gramsci). One is reminded of Max Elbaum’s criticism, in Revolution in the Air, of the US New Communist movement to which he belonged, of “a single and true Marxist-Leninist doctrine with an unbroken revolutionary pedigree from 1848 to the present,” constituting “one pure doctrine that has defeated a series of deviations since Lenin’s time.”43 In the pages of this book, most of Lenin’s Bolshevik comrades go unmentioned, and the exceptions are generally criticized when their names come up. 

It could also be argued there were different possibilities, divergent Marxisms (“orthodox” and revolutionary) inherent in Kautsky’s orientation of the 1890s through 1909. The “orthodox Marxism” (with all the deficiencies identified by Shandro) finally came to the fore and crystallized as Kautsky made fateful choices in 1910, 1914, 1917, and the genuinely revolutionary Marxism—consistent with Lenin’s approach—fell away forever. Others qualitatively better are also written off. It is startling to see the brilliant Hungarian Communist of the 1920s, Georg Lukács, dismissed as having Menshevik tendencies. Even more serious is the similar shrugging off of Luxemburg and Trotsky, even after their break from the Mensheviks. Luxemburg is dismissed as “an apostle of spontaneity” and Trotsky as someone who doesn’t “get” the peasant question—and neither is recognized as representing, no less than Lenin, a revolutionary break from the stunted qualities of “orthodox Marxism.”44 

Despite so much that he seems to get right, Shandro’s account sometimes is too neat, superimposing upon reality a greater clarity and coherence than existed. The actualities of the world were and remain fraught with divergent and yet-to-be crystallized possibilities, an inherent messiness to which Lenin too often seems immune in this account. He stands alone and perfect—an authority against which to measure what is true and correct.45 

Such aspects of Shandro’s book, as well as its great strengths, will of course be engaged with by increasing numbers of thoughtful scholars and activists. This will be consistent with the nature of the collective process of radicalization taking place today. One of the virtues in his book’s concluding chapter is that this is precisely the type of process he draws our attention to. At least in such countries as his native Canada and the United States, the situation of the working class, the organized labor movement, and class consciousness as such, are relatively weak. Revolutionary and socialist forces are fragmented and small. And yet the workings of capitalism contribute to declining conditions for a majority of the people that may contribute to a radicalization process generating the recomposition of a class-conscious left. “Differently situated amidst the spontaneous unfolding of the class struggle, Marxist political actors, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of classes,” he writes, “may thus have to orient themselves, to act, and to organize independently, indeed, along contradictory lines, concerting their varied approaches only in the course of practice rather than according to a prearranged design, in order to knit together the threads of proletarian-popular community.”46

Shandro recalls Lenin’s comments in regard to a context similar to ours: “Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various sources of rebellion can immediately merge of their own accord.” Lenin went on to suggest the “variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented” character of mass struggles can be understood positively: “The very fact that revolts do break out at different times, in different places, and are of different kinds, guarantees wide scope and depth to the general movement.” The author is heartened by this, concluding: “There is every reason to suppose that amidst the unevenness, complexities and contradictions of the logic of the struggle for hegemony, orientations analogous to those set to work by Lenin to forge the international solidarity of the workers, can be adopted by contemporary Marxists to situate themselves in the class struggle and to fortify other dimensions of proletarian and popular community.”47

Such developments are likely to be advanced by Shandro’s thoughtful and well-documented contribution. 

  1. See Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: “What Is To Be Done?”in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), and Lars T. Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011). My discussion of both works, and much else touched on here, can be found in Paul Le Blanc, Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).
  2. See August H. Nimtz, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy From Marx and Engels Through the Revolution of 1905 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy From 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin, An Intellectual Biography (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015), and Eric Blanc, “National Liberation and Bolshevism Reexamined, The View From the Borderlands,” https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2014/0....
  3. Among the most influential presentations of these themes are Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970) and Lucio Colletti, “Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International,” in From Rousseau to Lenin: Studies in Ideology and Society (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), 45–108.
  4. Some of the best of Second International Marxism can be found in two volumes edited by Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido—Witnesses to Permanent Revolution, The Documentary Record (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011) and Discovering Imperialism: Social Democracy to World War I (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012). For Lenin as “a loyal follower of Karl Kautsky,” see Charlie Post, “Lenin Reconsidered,” International Viewpoint, November 3, 2011, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2361.
  5. Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony, 101. (Hereafter Hegemony)
  6. Hegemony, 123.
  7. Ibid., 59.
  8. Ibid., 68.
  9. Ibid., 71.
  10. Ibid., 72.
  11. The foremost study of the German Social Democracy remains Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905–1917 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955), and a valuable survey on the German working class can be found in Mary Nolan, “The Economic Crisis, State Policy, and Working-Class Formation in Germany,” in Ira Katznelson and Aristide R. Zolberg, eds., Working-Class Formation: Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 352–93. The composition of the Bolsheviks from different working-class strata is discussed, with related issues, in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, New Edition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 33–35, 44–46, 196–204, 244–45, 292–93. The “labor aristocracy” concept is sharply challenged in Charles Post, “Exploring Working-Class Consciousness: A Critique of the Theory of ‘Labour-Aristocracy,’” Historical Materialism 18, no. 4 (2010): 3–38—a challenge that Shandro notes and dismisses in a footnote (265).
  12. Hegemony, 73.
  13. Ibid., 75.
  14. Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 29–49, and Tony Cliff, Lenin: Volume I: Building the Party (London: Pluto Press, 1975), 79–98, 168–83.
  15. Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, From 1776 until Today (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000), 167–76.
  16. Greater attention to these texts can be found in Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009).
  17. Christopher Read, Lenin, A Revolutionary Life (London/New York: Routledge, 2005), 67.
  18. Hegemony, 60.
  19. Hegemony, 70; See Vernon Lidtke, The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). 
  20. Hegemony, 75.
  21. Ibid., 77–78.
  22. Ibid., 134.
  23. Ibid., 249.
  24. Ibid., 147.
  25. Some of Plekhanov’s writings from this period are gathered in Neil Harding, ed., Marxism in Russia: Key Documents 1879–1906 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 44–67. Also see Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), especially 181–330.
  26. Hegemony, 196–97.
  27. Ibid., 172.
  28. Ibid., 166.
  29. Ibid., 184.
  30. Ibid., 195.
  31. Ibid., 195, 196.
  32. Ibid., 197.
  33. Ibid., 257.
  34. Ibid., 258.
  35. See, for example, Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, 1917 in Petrograd (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009).
  36. Lars Lih writes: “From 1919 his speeches lose their earlier sharpness and become progressively more unfocused, repetitive, digressive. He becomes defensive and halting as he searches for a way to match his ideological scenario with events. A new and unexpected quality appears: Lenin is unsure of himself” (Lenin, 188).
  37. Hegemony, 302.
  38. Ibid., 303.
  39. Mao’s two works are accessible through the Marxist Internet Archive—the 1937 work: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_17.htm; and the 1957 work: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archi.... Some contextualization is offered in Gregor Benton and Alan Hunter, eds., Wild Lily, Prairie Fire: China’s Road to Democracy, Yan’an to Tien’ anmin, 1942–1989 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) and Merle Goldman, Literary Dissent in Communist China (New York: Atheneum, 1971). A critique can be found in Martin Glaberman, Mao as Dialectician (Detroit: Bewick, 1971), emphasizing “Lenin’s awareness of dialectics as a process of constant change, of relationships being constantly transformed, of ever newer and deeper insights.” This contrasts with Mao’s approach, which abounds with “rigidity, fixed categories and concepts, the conception of truth as a finished product” (8), with Mao assigning “the role of the Communist Party as the maker of history instead of the masses of the people” (18).
  40. Hegemony, 308.
  41. Ibid., 313–14. Emphasis added.
  42. This case is made, with ample documentation, in Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Marxist Politics (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996).
  43. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London: Verso, 2002), 90, 323–24.
  44. See: Michael Löwy, “Rosa Luxemburg’s Conception of ‘Socialism or Barbarism,’” in On Changing the World: Essays in Political Philosophy from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 91–99; Helen C. Scott and Paul Le Blanc, “Introduction to Rosa Luxemburg,” in Rosa Luxemburg, Socialism or Barbarism? Selected Writings, eds. Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 3–38; Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010); Paul Le Blanc, “Spider and Fly: The Leninist Philosophy of Georg Lukács,” Historical Materialism 21, no. 2 (2013): 47–75. On “the Kautsky Question,” see Lars Lih, “Kautsky When He Was a Marxist,” http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/jou..., Paul Le Blanc, “The Absence of Socialism in the United States: Contextualizing Kautsky’s ‘American Worker,’” Historical Materialism 11, no. 4 (2003), especially 126–29, 142–49, and Paul Blackledge, “Karl Kautsky and Marxist Historiography,” Science & Society, 70, no. 3 (2006): 337–59.
  45. Gramsci scholar Valentino Gerratana long ago made the essential distinction between Lenin’s ideas and example having authority and Lenin’s transformation into a source of authority in “Stalin, Lenin, and ‘Leninism,’” New Left Review, no. 103, May-June 1977, newleftreview.org/I/103/valentine-gerratana-stalin-lenin-and-leninism.
  46. Hegemony, 327.
  47. Ibid.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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