The real Lenin is much more interesting

Lenin avatars

Mike Macnair looks at the treatment of the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth in some of the left press

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov - much better known by his commonly used pseudonym, Lenin - was born on April 22 1870. There has been a small crop of left press (or website) coverage of the anniversary. ‘Lenin’ here, however, serves the role of an ‘online avatar’1 for the groups in question: the image the various authors wish to present of themselves. This is not new. The original Lenin cult of personality, developed after his death, was an instrument of the Kamenev-Stalin-Zinoviev troika in the factional struggles in the Russian Communist Party of the time. Hence the fact that the man’s corpse remained (and remains) embalmed on display. More recently, Tony Cliff’s 1970s biography of Lenin, according to John Sullivan, “reads like a biography of John the Baptist, written by Jesus Christ”1: Lenin was to be read as foreshadowing Cliff.

I am not going to offer an alternative reading of Lenin’s life, but will merely interrogate to a limited extent those offered by the Morning Star, The Socialist, Socialist Worker2 and the Socialist Workers Party offshoot, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21).

The Morning Star carries 1,200 words from Jonathan White under the title ‘Lenin at 150: what can the great revolutionary’s thinking tell us today?’ The content is pretty predictable. Lenin in effect stands in for allegiance to the Russian Revolution and to ‘actually existing socialism’. The central issues are monopoly capitalism and the uneven development of the world market: “Lenin himself was among relatively few who saw that the development of the capitalist mode of production had reached a point where revolutionary outbreaks were an imminent possibility across the capitalist world.”

In fact, this claim was a commonplace of the pre-1914 socialist movement. The problem with that movement was not lack of belief in revolutions, but the belief - argued in Karl Kautsky’s The class struggle exposition of the German ‘Erfurt programme’ and elsewhere - that they had to take place within a national framework: so that when European civil war was posed in 1918, the Germans, the Austrians, the Italians and so on each looked only to their own countries and decided that the relationship of forces meant they were too weak to contemplate taking power. By doing so they did not avoid civil war, but merely postponed one they could have won in 1918-21 until conditions arose where they could not (varying between 1922 in Italy and 1934 in Austria).

And White’s conclusion is:

For all the flaws and failures of actually existing socialism, no alternative road to socialism has been discovered that can replace the need for some form of democratising dictatorship of the proletariat: some reckoning with the control and form of state power as a whole.

This is merely to identify Lenin with the whole subsequent history of the USSR and its dependencies and imitators.


Nick Chaffey in The Socialist - the weekly of the Socialist Party in England and Wales - writes at more length (2,500 words, plus some ‘further reading’). Lenin is again pretty much wholly identified with the Russian Revolution, and the article is mainly a narrative history of that revolution from a Trotskyist point of view, telling us, in that sense, nothing new. There are two striking features.

The first is the argument that the party is the “cadre”:

Enormous sacrifices were made by hundreds of party workers, its ‘cadre’, in establishing the network of links between the embryonic groups and party cells, the circulation of papers, and the vital collection of funds. Lenin fought for a professional, combative party rooted in the working class.

The party ‘cadre’ - a French word for ‘frame’ - was the structure around which the party would grow: a party not only built through struggle, but out of intense democratic debate and discussion, through which decisions could be reached in party congresses, and then collective action agreed upon.

These methods of ‘democratic centralism’ were the key to building a strong force that would not weaken nor compromise under the pressure of revolutionary events that were to follow.

This is derived from James P Cannon, rather than Lenin or Trotsky. Indeed, Trotsky explicitly counterposed to this idea the point that the party is ‘programme, organisation and tactic’. Chaffey understands that programme is fundamentally important. From that point of view, he is massively more advanced than the Socialist Workers Party and ex-SWP authors, to be discussed below. But the confusion about cadre reflects the immediate situation of SPEW, which has split its own ‘international’ to protect the interests of its “cadre” - meaning its full-time staff.

Associated with this issue are two points. First, we are told that “The break between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the RSDLP occurred first in outline in 1903, then became formalised in 1912.” It is a standard story but, as Lars T Lih and others have shown, substantially false: the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks reunified in 1906; in 1912 there was an attempt to unify Bolsheviks and ‘pro-party’ Mensheviks against ‘liquidators’, who wanted to abolish the Russian Social Democratic (ie, Marxist) Labour Party in favour of a British-style Labour Party; in fact, in Siberia (and probably elsewhere in the provinces) Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were still working in common local organisations in 1917.3

Second, 1905 is supposed to tell us that “in a few short months … a small party was able to become a mass force, through its party cadre, to draw in the most combative leaders from the working class and organise them into a cohesive political movement that would be decisive in the revolution of 1917”. Russia is by no means the only such case; the Chinese Communist Party similarly grew very rapidly to mass proportions in the early 1920s, as did the German SPD in the 1870s-80s. But what is common to these organisations is that they were the first workers’ parties in newly developing urban proletariats. The RSDLP in 1905 was also backed by the prestige of the SPD and the Second International, and the CPC in the 1920s by the prestige (and material support) of the Russian Communist Party. The idea of small minority left groups, by virtue of their ‘cadre’ and the purity of their thought, transitioning to mass parties and marginalising the rest of the existing workers’ organisations and the left is just a fantasy.

This fantasy prevents the militants of the groups affected by it from doing what they could do: which is to say, unifying their forces to a level which might have some real ‘snowball effect’ impact, as we saw - briefly and in the end unsuccessfully - with Rifondazione Comunista in Italy and the Scottish Socialist Party.

Talking down

Socialist Worker prints what is for it a longish article (1,450 words) by Tomáš Tengely-Evans, under the title, ‘Lenin and his ideas today’. Though the article is longish, Tengely-Evans definitely talks down to the reader, who is taken to have a substantially lower reading age than those of the Mirror or Sun. Thus, for example, “Lenin explored ideas about war, imperialism, the state and support for oppressed people.” The actual content on offer is very much the SWP’s standard story. First,

Conflict between working class people and bosses is built into capitalism. Bigger revolts and revolutions start as spontaneous struggles often over specific issues.

The February revolution in Russia in 1917 began as a protest over bread shortages …

Struggles can develop into a broader challenge to the system. What’s not inevitable is that they win.

In every struggle there’s a battle between reformist forces that limit changes within the system and those who want revolutionary change.

A revolutionary organisation on the model Lenin argued for is vital to have a better chance of success.

But what is this ‘model’? Tengely-Evans jumps to What is to be done? and opposition to the economists; and from there to (without acknowledgement) the theses of the Second Congress of Comintern on the role of the party in the revolution:

It flows from how working class people’s ideas are uneven. Some want to tear the head off capitalism, while others are reactionaries who buy into the system. The majority sit somewhere in between with progressive and backward ideas.

A reformist party - such as the Labour Party - reflects all of those contradictions and panders to backward ideas. A revolutionary party organises together the most militant fighters.

This still has not told us what Lenin’s “model” of party organisation is. The nearest approach is the statement a little earlier that “The precise way a revolutionary party organises depends on the political circumstances and Lenin was flexible about the specific features …”

We move at once into soviets and the 1917 slogan, “All power to the Soviets”. The reason is that Lenin “consistently argued for revolution … because he understood the role of the state in capitalist society.” And so to State and revolution. Hence, “The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a genuine socialist revolution, where workers seized power and briefly ran society by themselves. Lenin had always been clear that it had to spread to other advanced countries or ‘we perish’ …”

Since it did not spread, “By 1930 the bureaucracy led by Stalin had developed its own class interests. Russia became a state capitalist country, which exploited workers and competed with rivals in the west.”

This is in substance hopeless - in part because the constraints of Socialist Worker’s attempt to talk down to its readership prevent actual developed argument. But the more fundamental problem is the ‘Lenin as John the Baptist to Cliff as Jesus’ problem. Cliff saw Lenin as a man with a ‘nose’ for ‘turns’ which would keep the party in contact with the most advanced militants: to this, Cliff was happy to sacrifice the idea of a strategic programme. With no strategic programme, the ground of existence of the party is nothing but its members’ self-trust as “the most militant fighters”, or the ‘advanced part of the class’ - leading in turn to the requirement of personal trust in the ‘most advanced part of the party’: the central committee. The result is that Tengely-Evans cannot engage with Lenin’s actual ideas, because to do so would violently call into question the SWP’s left economism and bureaucratic centralism.


Charlie Jackson of RS21 provides a bit more meat (2,514 words, plus some “further reading”) under the title ‘What’s left of Lenin?’4 But Jackson is, in fact, still writing within the general framework of Cliffism. Quite early on, we are told that “The 1917 revolution struck like a bolt from the blue, and it is this event which means that Lenin is remembered in the way that he is.”

The second half of this sentence is plainly true. If the Bolsheviks had not seized power in October 1917, Lenin would be as obscure as the Bulgarian Narrow Socialist leader, Dimitar Blagoev Nikolov (1856-1924). If they had not won the civil war in 1917-21, Lenin would be remembered as much as, and in the same way as, Béla Kun (1886-1938) and his associates from the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic.

The first half, however, is flatly false. That a Russian revolution was likely in the relatively near future was an absolute commonplace from the later 19th century on. Marx and Engels had already considered the possibility in the 1882 preface to the Russian translation of the Communist manifesto. 1917, moreover, took place 12 years after the revolutionary crisis of 1905, which displayed in full flower the importance of the working class in the Russian revolutionary process. The renegade Parvus was able to obtain millions of Reichsmarks from the German government (and later organise the transit of Lenin and others to Russia through Germany on the famous ‘sealed train’), because the German government was readily persuaded that Russia could be brought down by revolution. In fact, fear of revolution was not unique to Russia: fear of revolution in their own countries formed part of the motivations of several of the Great Powers for going to war in 1914 (including the UK).

What is Jackson doing with this fantasy? In the first place, we have the standard Trot-stuff that 1917 showed for the first time that modern states are not invincible and “that this should have been demonstrated, not in the advanced capitalist countries of western Europe with their mass parliamentary workers’ parties, but in ‘backward’ Russia, scandalised the orthodoxy of early 20th century Marxism”. In fact, SPD leader August Bebel had been arguing since the 1870s that the German state was bound to collapse, and Bebel’s intellectual hit man, Karl Kautsky, had been arguing (following Marx and Engels in 1882) that a revolution in Russia could trigger revolution in western Europe. What was ‘scandalous’ was not the idea of a Russian revolution, but the idea that it was possible to build socialism in a peasant-majority country.

More generally, the argument is a standard far-left one: that beneath the surface appearance of a stable political regime (1950s-60s) or a massively defeated workers’ movement (1990s-2010s) are revolutionary aspirations just waiting to be brought out by the right tactics of the revolutionaries: György Lukács’s “actuality of the revolution” or Leon Trotsky’s “death agony of capitalism” as a dogma not capable of empirical refutation; the Russian Revolution serving as the exemplar of the unpredictable outbreak, which reflects the working out of contradictions so far below the surface that the coming storm is invisible except to the true experts of the revolutionary party (in reality groupuscule, even if it is a groupuscule of some thousands).

It is from this background that Jackson moves to rejection of Leninism as “a certain model of ‘democratic centralist’ party building” and of turning Lenin’s words into dogmas. But, as with Tengely-Evans, this entails not engaging with Lenin’s actual ideas and arguments. Nor can Jackson explain positively what sort of organisation the workers’ movement should use.

Instead, what is to be celebrated is the claim that “the soul of Marxism is a concrete analysis of a concrete situation”. This quotation is, of course, here being fetishised as a Lenin dogma. Where it comes from is Lenin’s June 1920 review of the journal Kommunismus, published in Vienna as a Comintern journal for south-eastern Europe, and in particular the anti-parliamentarist articles of György Lukács and Béla Kun in that journal. Here is the quotation in more context:

No14 (April 17 1920), carries an article by comrade BK, entitled ‘The events in Germany’, in which he criticises a statement made by the central committee of the Communist Party of Germany on March 21 1920, which statement I too criticised in the pamphlet mentioned above. However, our criticisms differ radically in character.

Comrade BK criticises on the basis of quotations from Marx, which refer to a situation unlike the present one; he wholly rejects the tactics of the German Communist Party’s central committee and absolutely evades what is most important, that which constitutes the very gist, the living soul, of Marxism - a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. Since most of the urban workers have abandoned the Scheidemannites for the Kautskyites, and since, within the Kautskian party (a party ‘independent’ of correct revolutionary tactics), they are continuing to abandon its right wing in favour of the left - ie, in fact, of communism - since that is the case, is it permissible to take no account of the transitional and compromise measures to be adopted with regard to such workers?

Is it permissible to disregard and to gloss over the experience of the Bolsheviks, who, in April and May 1917, pursued what was in fact a policy of compromise, when they declared that the Provisional Government (Lvov, Milyukov, Kerensky and the rest) could not be overthrown at once, since in the soviets, they still had the backing of the workers and it was first of all necessary to bring about a change in views in the majority, or a considerable part, of those workers?5

The “soul of Marxism” is here a bit of an overstatement (to put it mildly), since, as Marx puts it early on in the Grundrisse,

The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations: hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. Along the first path, the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.

In this way Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind.6

In Jackson, however, the concrete loses its character as worked-up from abstractions. Rather, “Developing a ‘concrete analysis of a concrete situation’ means meeting people where they are, and taking them where they need to go.”

This is more of Cliff’s ‘nose’ and the SWP’s actual practice of tailing whatever moves and avoiding saying anything which might be imagined to separate you from ‘what moves’. Thus in Globalise Resistance in the early years of this century the SWP pretended to be anarchists. In Respect the SWP (perhaps surprisingly) preferred to pretend when canvassing to be left Labourites, rather than - as would probably have worked better - simply saying ‘Respect is the anti-war party’. And so on.

Lenin’s argument in the passage with the ‘soul’ quote was that it was right for the Spartacists/communists to try to fight to win over the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, rather than simply denouncing it as Kautskyite on the basis of the character of its leaders (the line Béla Kun and Lukács were arguing). Ben Lewis and Lars Lih have helpfully translated the speeches of Zinoviev and Martov at the USPD’s Halle conference,7 and from these we can see that the tactic of intervening in the USPD’s debates did not involve the sort of political protective coloration which the SWP and its offshoots adopt when they try to ‘meet people where they are’.

In all these cases, then, what Lenin actually argued is consistently subordinated to the current political conceptions of the groups which have published the articles: for the Morning Star, loyalty to ‘actually existing socialism’; for SPEW, standard Trotskyism with fetishism of ‘cadre’ and delusions of grandeur; for the SWP and RS21, Cliff’s nose and ‘If it moves, salute it’.

It is the present-day political choices which drive the historical silences and falsifications.


  1. . ‘As soon as this pub closes’ (1988): whatnextjournal.org.uk/Pages/Sectariana/Pub.html (searching for ‘Baptist’ will get to the quote quickly in this long document).↩︎

  2. . The monthly Socialist Review, though claiming that it “outlines his [Lenin’s] core beliefs, and defends his legacy”, in fact merely prints Alfred Rosmer’s account of his meeting with Lenin from his Lenin’s Moscow (1953), using Ian Birchall’s 1971 translation.↩︎

  3. . LT Lih, ‘A faction is not a party’ Weekly Worker May 2 2012; RE Snow The Bolsheviks in Siberia New Jersey 1977.↩︎

  4. . rs21.org.uk/2020/04/22/whats-left-of-lenin.↩︎

  5. . marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/jun/12.htm.↩︎

  6. . marxists.org/subject/dialectics/marx-engels/grundisse.htm.↩︎

  7. . B Lewis and LT Lih Head to head in Halle London 2011.↩︎