The strange case of the closeted Lenin
According to comrades in the Socialist Workers Party, Lenin was a hypocrite who did not say what he thought. In this article, based on a speech to a London Communist Forum, Lars T Lih puts the record straight
Bolshevism strove to tell the truth
First of all let me say that it is very complimentary to have two critiques - one substantial, one not - of my views on Lenin recently published. The first is by Kevin Corr and Gareth Jenkins of the Socialist Workers Party1 and the second is written by Peter Taaffe of the Socialist Party in England and Wales.2
In my opinion the Taaffe critique does not engage with my views and is not really interested in what I am saying. Peter Taaffe simply asserts that I write in windy, romantic phrases and then states his own views. It is not a serious polemic worthy of a reply. For their part, however, Corr and Jenkins in their article, ‘The case of the disappearing Lenin’, aim to refute my actual views and for the most part their critique does a good job of stating what these views are.
There used to exist on the left a straightforward narrative, unchallenged in various circles, that goes something like this:
Before World War I Lenin saw himself as a pupil of Kautsky, but that was not really the case. Lenin simply did not realise that fundamentally he disagreed with Kautsky. Then along comes 1914, Kautsky betrays the working class and the scales fall from Lenin’s eyes. That is to say, Lenin now realised that Kautsky was a representative of the ‘mechanistic, fatalistic’ ‘Marxism of the Second International’. Lenin then had to do some rethinking, and he came up with something fundamentally opposed to the ‘Marxism of the Second International’. Furthermore, Lenin advocated a unique form of party organisation called “democratic centralism”, and thus created what he called a ‘party of a new type’.
What Corr’s and Jenkins’ critique shows is that this story is now dead. Whilst they try to give the impression of defending that narrative, in fact they do not do so. They do not even try to refute the two basic points brought out by my research and that of others. First, Kautsky did express revolutionary views prior to 1914 (or at least prior to 1909, if you want a more conservative cut-off point). Secondly, Lenin did not say what this narrative claims he said, in relation to both Kautsky and the party of a new type. In fact he very often said the opposite.
First I will quote Corr and Jenkins to show where in some sense they agree with me. Here is how they characterise my position: “It wasn’t Lenin then who broke with Kautskyanism; it was Kautsky.” I can accept this formula: certainly it states Lenin’s own view. He held that Kautsky was a renegade whose position had changed, while he himself had remained true to the ideas they had both previously shared. Here are some quotations from the critique in International Socialism that more or less confirm the view of Kautsky as a renegade.
The authors write that for Kautsky “the goal of revolution was forever postponed till the time was right (which it never was). Kautsky was bold in calling for irreconcilable opposition to the existing order in the new era of revolutions, but timid when reality demanded it” - in other words, his principles were revolutionary, but he did not live up to them. “In theory Kautsky understood that revolution was more necessary than ever if society was not to descend into war and barbarism, but he was incapable of breaking with the parliamentarism that he had so long championed”.
I am not endorsing these statements - I am merely pointing out what the argument of Corr and Jenkins actually is: they affirm that in theory Kautsky understood revolution was necessary, but when the time came he did not live up to it.
They quote Kautsky’s statement that the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was a “revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party”. They comment: “The general truth of this statement (that revolutions cannot be produced at will, but are determined by historical conditions) was in practice, as Pannekoek put it, a ‘theory of actionless waiting … of passive radicalism’.” They continue: “A theoretical commitment to revolution in general, and resistance to revisionism in particular, did not entail a corresponding organisational form.” Finally they quote Paul Le Blanc and assert that he is essentially correct: around 1910 Kautsky “subtly but increasingly diluted his seemingly unequivocal and eloquent commitment to revolutionary Marxism”.3 All these assertions are admitting my basic point - which is Lenin’s basic point - about what happened to Kautsky.
I would now like to address the relation between Lenin and Kautsky. Firstly, the term ‘Kautskyan’ in the way it is often used in the International Socialism article is unhelpful. Essentially what the authors say is that if Lenin had similar ideas to Kautsky, then he was a ‘Kautskyan’.
I recall reading some Bolsheviks in 1904 who were irritated at being called ‘Leninists’, which at that time meant simply a follower of Lenin. They said: ‘We are not Leninists. We are revolutionary social democrats, who believe that Lenin is the person in the émigré leadership who best projects our views.’ This was more or less Lenin’s attitude towards Kautsky. Lenin was a revolutionary social democrat, who saw Kautsky as one of the principal exponents of Marxist ideas, one who successfully applied them to contemporary conditions.
Now we move on to the question of Kautskyanism as the “Marxism of the Second International”. This is a phrase I hate and one that Lenin rejected in 1915, when it was put forward by right Social Democrat Alexander Potresov. What Potresov was arguing was that the International as a whole had gone soft and succumbed to gradualism, and his description remains the standard interpretation of the Second International even today. But Lenin claimed this view was absolutely wrong: according to him, every party in the international had witnessed a struggle between the revolutionary social democrats (whose most prominent spokesman was Kautsky) and the “opportunists”. For Lenin, then, there was not a single, overarching “Marxism of the Second International”, but two wings engaged in conflict. Lenin never repudiated his political identity as a revolutionary social democrat; he again and again claimed to be preserving the legacy of this wing of the Second International.
It is true that Lenin had a uniquely intense relationship with Kautsky. Kautsky’s writings were deployed by Lenin to help express his own views in three key areas.
- Firstly, on the fundamental nature of the party. I address this topic in Lenin rediscovered4 in my discussion of the ‘merger formula’ (social democracy as the merger of socialism and the workers’ movement) and the role of the party in leading the working class.
- The second area where Lenin deployed Kautsky as an authority relates to the Bolshevik scenario for Russia, as it developed after 1905. What defines Bolshevism for me most essentially is the approach to Russian conditions reflected in this scenario: in order to carry the democratic revolution to the end, the proletariat has to exert “hegemony” (political leadership) over the peasantry and use state power in a provisional revolutionary government.
- Thirdly, Lenin’s post-1914 world view in relation to imperialism and national revolutions, and how these different kinds of revolutions interacted on a global scale, was shaped by Kautsky.
On these issues Lenin is aligned with pre-renegade Kautsky, as Lenin himself energetically insisted.
In relation to the definition of the party, Corr and Jenkins argue that Kautsky stood for a party of the whole class. This is fundamentally wrong and is in fact the opposite of what Kautsky said many times. They also use the term ‘parliamentarism’ as synonymous with ‘Kautskyanism’. However, it is unclear what they mean by this. Does it mean he was in favour of majority rule? He certainly was. Does it mean he was in favour of representative democracy, where delegates are elected to institutions whose decisions are binding? He not only believed that, but wrote a book defending it. Of course, Lenin also agreed with this position. Does ‘parliamentarism’ mean he was in favour of limiting the social democrats to parliamentary methods of struggle? Kautsky disagreed with this and said so many times. Does it mean that he believed the parliaments that existed in France and Germany were truly democratic institutions? Kautsky did not believe this. Total democratisation of parliamentary institutions, together with the abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy, was part of the minimum programme of social democracy, to which Kautsky subscribed. He explicitly pointed to the Paris Commune as a model.5 So we see that ‘parliamentarism’ can mean numerous things and that any definition that can be applied to Kautsky can also be applied to Lenin.
Corr and Jenkins claim that Kautsky talked about revolution, but had nothing to say about revolutionary strategy - ie, what to do between now and the revolution. This is a mind-blowing statement, since Kautsky had more to say on this matter than almost anybody other than Marx and Engels themselves. Precisely this is what Lenin appreciated about Kautsky as a Marxist thinker: his examination of real issues and his concrete recommendations to social democrats.
Corr’s and Jenkins’ intention is to argue against the ‘Kautskyanisation’ of Lenin. They challenge my reading of Lenin’s writings in two ways, essentially saying either, ‘Lenin thought he thought x, but he was wrong’, or, ‘Lenin was lying, but that’s OK because he was fulfilling his role as a revolutionary leader’. They concede that “Lenin may well have thought he was implementing the Marxism he took from Kautsky”, but nonetheless defend their conception of a “distinctive Leninism”, which they describe in the following words: “what Lenin did, over and above what his language sometimes seems to indicate he thought he was doing” (if you have to write a phrase as convoluted as this, you are in trouble). This characterisation of Lenin seems to Corr and Jenkins “perfectly correct - even though we recognise that Lih would not agree”.
Actually I believe that it is perfectly possible for a political leader to sometimes not believe their own statements, or to exaggerate or conceal their views; but you have to come up with a decent argument for why this is the case and why they would do this. Another quote of this nature from the International Socialism critique comes in relation to the 1912 Prague conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and the alleged creation of a new kind of party:
The formal position of Lenin and his comrades may well have been that this was not a different type of party and that its nearly all-Bolshevik character was a reflection of the Mensheviks’ self-exclusion. Yet something had fundamentally changed.
What do they mean when they talk about the formal position of Lenin and his co-thinkers? What was the informal position? Is there any evidence that they really held other views? In the end, Corr and Jenkins are simply saying that we cannot trust Lenin’s statements in trying to ascertain his political views, and in this way they are effectively conceding that Lenin’s words do not actually say what - up until recently - most people assumed they did. To add to the confusion, they end up giving two different accounts of the supposed shift in Lenin’s position on the party, claiming first that this shift occurred in 1912 with the Prague conference, and then later going on to talk about Lenin realising that opportunism had to be removed from the party only after 1914 and the outbreak of war.
I would like to briefly look at three more issues raised by the essay in International Socialism.
One is to do with clarifying what I mean by my phrase, “aggressive unoriginality”, which I use in reference to Lenin’s view of his own position: he was aggressively asserting that his position was unoriginal. Lenin insisted with great fervour that he was simply saying in 1914 what all prominent revolutionary social democrats had been saying five years before (or two years before in the case of the 1912 Basel resolution). This is how Lenin presented his case. I do not see any attempt to come to grips with this fact in the essay.
Secondly, I think Corr and Jenkins really do not do justice to my factual case regarding the question, ‘Did Lenin ever repudiate the fact that Kautsky was a revolutionary up to 1909?’ In fact Lenin continues to affirm Kautsky’s revolutionary past even beyond 1917, even after Kautsky had become something of a devil figure for revolutionaries. To the end, Lenin continued to claim that Kautsky was the outstanding Marxist theoretician of his time.6
The most striking case of this is on Lenin’s 50th birthday in 1920. Everyone had gathered to celebrate and when Lenin ambles out onto the stage he starts quoting at great length Kautsky’s article of 1902, ‘The Slavs and revolution’, remarking how well Kautsky wrote “when he was a Marxist”. Lenin never changed his mind on this. Corr and Jenkins again avoid confronting the facts here.
Thirdly, there is the issue of Lenin’s alleged ‘stick-bending’. This passage shocked me:
Those who insist on centralism as the dialectical condition of effective party democracy tend to be confronted with this from Lenin: that the central committee “has absolutely no right to call upon the party organisations to accept its resolution” and that “discipline does not demand that a party member should blindly subscribe to all the resolutions drafted by the central committee”.
If we put this statement in context, Lenin’s preoccupation was not some general democratic right to disobey the central committee, but the specific need to preserve revolutionary politics in conditions where the Mensheviks had become the majority following the 1906 Stockholm (unity) conference and were using their control of the central committee to push support for the rightwing constitutional democratic ministry appointed by the tsar.
Anatoly Lunacharsky reported Lenin as saying to him before the conference: “If we have a majority in the central committee we will demand the strictest discipline. We will insist that the Mensheviks submit to party unity.” In the event of the Mensheviks winning a majority Lenin replied: “We won’t permit the idea of unity to tie a noose around our necks and we shall in no circumstances permit the Mensheviks to lead us by the rope.”7
The article then goes on to praise this kind of thing. Essentially the authors are asserting that Lenin was a hypocrite, that he said one thing when it was convenient and another when it was not; and, furthermore, this is a good thing to do, and that we ourselves are going to do the same thing today. In other words: when we say something, if you believe us you are naive. In fact, it seems to me they are saying, ‘When we, the leadership, think that you, the membership, need to be moved from an outmoded position, we can say whatever we want.’
To conclude, I think we need to ask ourselves why people are so concerned about separating Lenin and Kautsky. I think this is an example of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Lenin himself was affected by cognitive dissonance in 1914: a person he greatly admired was doing something he greatly abominated. Lenin did a good job of dealing with this problem, arguing that the principles Kautsky had previously espoused were still revolutionary, but the man himself had since changed.
Those who seek to maintain the distance between Kautsky and Lenin are themselves affected by cognitive dissonance: ‘Here is Lenin: we really like him; here is Kautsky: we can’t stand him.’ When someone comes along and points out that Lenin himself was insistent on the ideas that he and Kautsky shared, well, for some on the left this simply cannot be the case, and so they claim that you are painting Lenin as a Kautskyan. Kautskyanism is by definition a bad thing to such thinkers and Lenin is a good thing, and therefore, they argue, you cannot be right to see a connection between the two. Perhaps they should start reading Kautsky and see what Lenin saw in him. Maybe Lenin was right about Kautsky’s revolutionary politics.
Those like myself who are making this case are not ‘pro-Kautsky’. We are (to adapt a phrase used by Ian Angus recently) ‘Kautsky reinstators’. We are trying to put Kautsky back into the history of the movement. Here is a writer whom every single serious revolutionary Marxist of the time, including all the Bolsheviks, learned from, looked up to and revered, yet who today is written off as a spineless idiot. You are putting down your own tradition. Why do you do this? Why this insistence that Lenin’s good ideas have to be original to him? Is this some kind of cult of personality?
Finally in response to the article title, which claims I present a “disappearing Lenin”, I suggest that Corr and Jenkins present us with ‘the strange case of the closeted Lenin’ - the Lenin who for some reason did not speak his mind, who did not publicly advocate his real views.
I do not recognise this Lenin.
3. P Le Blanc, ‘Lenin and us: into the past, back to the future’ Links June 14 2011: links.org.au/node/2364.
6. See my collection of Lenin’s comments, ‘Kautsky when he was a Marxist’: www.historicalmaterialism.org/journal/online-articles/kautsky-as-marxist-data-base.
7. Quoting VI Lenin, ‘Let the workers decide’ (1906): www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/jun/01.htm.