Origins of 'Leninism'

Mike Macnair reviews Lars T Lih's Lenin rediscovered: What is to be done? in context Brill, 2006, pp867, €129

At nearly 900 pages Lars T Lih's book on Lenin's 1902 pamphlet What is to be done? (WITBD) is seriously long; at €129 it is also seriously expensive (even the more aggressive discounters among the book dealers on Amazon Marketplace do not offer it for less than £85). This is a shame, because Lih's arguments are important to the modern left.

The modern left tends to obsess about the 'Bolshevism' and the 'Leninist party' - whether for it as a necessary instrument of revolutionary struggle or against it as the original sin which led to Stalinism and today supports the sectarian character of the organised far left. WITBD and the 1903 split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party have played a central role in these arguments. If Lih is right, the originality of 'Lenin's party concept' and the importance of the arguments of 1902-03 have been massively overplayed in the thought of the left since the 1920s (a point made much more briefly in these pages by Hillel Ticktin in September 2004 (Weekly Worker September 30 2004).

Standard story

The 'standard story' is that in WITBD and the 1903 split in the RSDLP Lenin and the 'Bolsheviks' (the 1903 majority) created a 'party of a new type' - a centralised party of professional revolutionaries. (anti-Leninist critics add that these 'professional revolutionaries' were to be 'intellectuals': ie, ex-students, rather than workers.) This was counterposed to the Second International idea of a broad, mass party of the whole working class.

For 'Leninist' users of the standard story, the victory of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and, conversely, the defeat of the German revolution in 1919 and of the Italian revolutionary movement in 1920, showed that the 'party of a new type' was essential to the socialist revolution. Anti-Leninists, on the other hand, point up the criticisms of Lenin offered in 1904 by Luxemburg and Trotsky: that Lenin's line was sectarian, underplayed the role of the spontaneous action of the working class masses, and tended towards hyper-centralism and dictatorship. They go on to add that the truth of these criticisms was revealed in the rise of Stalinism (and continues to be revealed in the bureaucratic-centralism of the far left).

There is another modern leftwing use of WITBD: the use the International Marxist Group made of it in the 1970s, and which the Revolutionary Democratic Group and we in the CPGB have made of it more recently. This is that the larger part of WITBD is a critique of economism - and the bulk of the British far left can, without a lot of difficulty, be accused of economism in the sense of prioritising economic demands and struggles and trying to make political opposition to the state 'grow out of' these demands and struggles. For the IMG in the 1970s the point of this criticism was to emphasise anti-imperialist struggles and what have come to be called the 'social movements' (ethnic minority, women's, lesbian and gay). For the RDG and CPGB it has been to emphasise struggles and demands for political democracy.

As I have already indicated, the standard story is not just the property of the far left. The 'Leninist' variant was orthodox 'official' communism until the Eurocommunists went over to the anti-Leninist version. The anti-Leninist variant was the common coin of liberal and social democratic critics of 'Soviet communism' and of the far left. Religious, far-right and free-marketeer critics of communism, on the other hand, denied that Lenin had done anything new: for them the Stalinist tyranny flowed from the ideas of Marx and Engels, or from socialism as such.

As a result, until the financialising/neoliberal turn of the 1980s and the fall of the USSR, the standard story had massive state backing. Soviet subsidies flowed to the communist parties which promoted the 'Leninist' variant, and both Moscow and Beijing printed cheap translations of WITBD with introductions and annotations emphasising its role as the beginning of Bolshevism. CIA dollars flowed - through indirect channels - to right social democrat politicians who promoted the anti-Leninist variant, and to subsidise the academic activities of western scholars who did so.

From the later 1970s US covert funding was removed from right social democracy and academics with similar views, towards the neoliberal right - who see socialism as inherently tyrannical, and are therefore not interested in the history of Bolshevism. First Eurocommunism from the 1970s, then Gorbachevism and the fall of the USSR have removed the material support for the 'Leninist' interpretation.

With this state backing for the standard story taken away, scholars, initially of the left and later broader layers, have been freed to look at Russian socialist history without the blinkers of the standard story. An early instance was Marcel Liebman's Leninism under Lenin (1975). As a result, it has now been clear for some time that (a) the Bolshevik-Menshevik split of 1903 did not create two separate parties, but rather two public factions of a single party, and that even the split of 1912 did not do so, two separate parties only emerging in the course of 1917; and (b) the 'highly centralised party of professional revolutionaries' had no existence outside the pages of WITBD.

As a result, WITBD itself has looked increasingly anomalous. It does not help that (as Lih points out) from 1904 onwards, Lenin's attitude to WITBD was that this was an ephemeral polemic which contained errors he did not wish to defend.

Lih's argument

The core of Lih's argument is simple. It is that Lenin in WITBD was arguing for an organisation along the lines of the German Social Democratic Party and with the same strategic orientation. Lih calls such a party an "Erfurtian" party, after the Erfurt programme adopted by the SPD in 1891.

The conditions of real illegality and police persecution in Russia meant that creating such a party involved a substantial core of activists becoming professial'nyi revoliutsioneri. This phrase is usually translated as 'professional revolutionaries', but Lih translates it as "revolutionaries by trade". He argues that in late 19th and early 20th century professii or professial'nyi were words applied in Russian to skilled workers, not to 'professionals' in the western sense of self-governing elite groups. Such "revolutionaries by trade" needed to take seriously, as specialist workers take their job skills seriously, the skills of konspiratsiia. Konspiratsiia, Lih argues, means merely "the techniques of illegal political work", not 'conspiracy' in the sense of terrorism.

If this was all there was to the book, it would be a lot shorter. The problem is that both opponents of Lenin and far-left supporters of what they take to be Lenin's position, have argued that WITBD argues for something sharply different from the strategic approach and organisational conceptions of the SPD.

Lih explains these other readings of WITBD partly by failure of critics and 'supporters' alike to read the pamphlet in its context; and partly by arguing that the immediate polemical context of WITBD led Lenin to obscure his underlying arguments by using his immediate opponents' vocabulary.

Lih's book contains two general parts. The first, much longer, part (pp3-667) is a commentary on WITBD. The second (pp673-840) is a new translation of the pamphlet.

Translation issues

As I do not speak Russian, I cannot comment on the competence of the translation. But several of Lih's points on translation issues are important to his argument, and are flagged at the beginning of the book in a glossary and reflected in translation choices and words left untranslated. Among the more important ones: kustarnichestvo, usually translated as 'amateurism', Lih argues should more accurately be translated as 'artisanal limitations'. He elects to use "awareness" rather than 'consciousness' for soznanie, but "purposive" for soznatel'nyi. The point here is to avoid various inappropriate implications which have been drawn from the use of 'consciousness'. He reminds us that "bourgeois democracy" in pre-1917 Marxist writing means not parliamentary constitutionalism, but activist left liberalism or radicalism as a political grouping or party.

Tred-iunionizm he leaves untranslated: he argues that it means not 'trade unionism' in the broad sense of supporting or building trade unions, but the specific politics of the right wing of the British trade union movement, who at the period when WITBD was written opposed the creation of a labour party. Since this political trend is extant in British and US trade union politics, I guess it would have been possible to have translated it, by one of the modern usages, as 'business unionism' (US) or 'moderatism' (UK). However, leaving it in transliterated Russian serves to flag the fact that the tred-iunionizm Lenin characterises as bourgeois politics is not trade union activity as such, but the political right wing of the trade union movement.

Also left untranslated is stikhiinost, usually translated as 'spontaneity'. Lih argues that stikhiinost refers to elemental or pre-social forces: "stikhiinost connotes the self's lack of control over the world, while spontaneity connotes the world's lack of control over the self" (p620). He points out that when Lenin translated the English word 'spontaneous' into Russian, he did not use stikhiinyi (pp620-21). Russian Marxist uses of stikhiinyi and stikhiinost before WITBD varied between negative expressions, which referred to elemental outbreaks of mass anger leading nowhere, as opposed to working class self-organisation, and positive expressions, which referred to the objective rise of the mass movement as such (pp621-22).

The overall effect of these changes in translation is that the text as re-translated makes much narrower claims than can appear to be made in the existing translations. A particular example is a celebrated/ infamous quotation about 'trade unionism'. In the existing standard translation this appears as:

"There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology "¦ for the spontaneous working class movement is trade unionism, is Nur-Gewerkschaftlerei, and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie."

Lih translates as:

"People talk about stikhiinost. But the stikhiinyi development of the worker movement goes precisely to its subordination to bourgeois ideology, "¦ because the stikhiinyi worker movement is tred-iunionizm, is Nur-Gewerkschaftlerei - and tred-iunionizm is precisely the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie."

So far, Lih's translation merely draws our attention to the negative: that stikhiinost does not mean 'spontaneity' and tred-iunionizm does not mean 'trade unionism'. But if we were to paraphrase further into British politics of the period when there was still a significant Tory ('moderate') wing of the trade union leadership, thereby drawing out the more specific political meanings of the words, which Lih has argued for in his commentary, it would come out something like this:

'People talk about [the importance of] apolitical militancy. But the apolitical-militant development of the worker movement goes precisely to its subordination to bourgeois ideology, "¦ because the apolitical-militant worker-movement is [substantively] moderate, is "employment issues only" Tory trade unionism - and the politics of Tory trade unionism is precisely the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.'

The statement quoted in the standard translation appears to show Lenin opposing the development of trade unionism, and has been used both to condemn Leninism and to justify an ultra-left sectarian approach to the trade unions. As reinterpreted, it has turned into a statement of the obvious about the politics of the overtly pro-capitalist right wing of the trade union leadership.

But it is not quite such a statement of the obvious. The reason is that - as Lih explains - the immediate context of the polemic about stikhiinost is not a polemic with the overt economists of Rabochaya Mysl, but with the ostensible 'Erfurtians' of Rabochoye Delo. And Rabochoye Delo's positions, as Lih explains them, are the common ground of much of the modern far left. To see why we need to go back to the commentary.

The commentary

The commentary is divided into four parts. The first, 'Erfurtianism', explicates what Lih sees as the strategy of the SPD/Erfurt programme (chapter 1), and identifies the commitments of Lenin in particular (chapter 2) and the Iskra group in general (chapter 3) to applying this strategy in Russia. The second, 'Lenin's significant others', explores the ideas of the targets of the polemics in WITBD: the economists proper (chapter 4) Rabochoye Delo (chapter 5) and various others (chapter 6). The third, 'The world of What is to be done?', contains three slightly more distinct chapters. Chapter 7, 'Lenin's Erfurtian drama', is about the core views of the relationship of party and class in WITBD. Chapter 8, 'The organisational question: Lenin and the underground', is about WITBD's concrete proposals for illegal organisation. Chapter 9, 'After the Second Congress', is about the 1903 split and responses to it. The fourth part consists of a section-by-section analysis of WITBD (pp561-611), largely repeating points already made, and a depth analysis of the "scandalous passages" which form the basis of the orthodox story (pp613-667).

Lih begins with a not particularly sympathetic account, based largely on Kautsky's writings, of the 'Erfurtian' strategy as "the merger of socialism and the worker movement". In this account socialism as an idea begins outside the workers' movement, but the fundamental idea of the Communist manifesto is that the two must merge. In this way the working class as a class will realise its historical mission of taking political power and overthrowing capitalism. Lih is "not particularly sympathetic" because he plays up, as liberal academics tend to, the appearance of a quasi-religious aspect to the 'socialist mission'.

It should be said at this point that the 'from outside' account, though perfectly orthodox Kautsky, followed by Lenin in WITBD, is seriously misleading. Engels was certainly a capitalist for most of his life; and Marx was a 'declassed intellectual' of petty bourgeois origins. But, though Marx and Engels drafted the Communist manifesto, the Communist League was in the main an artisan/worker organisation, and the basic strategic ideas of the Manifesto did not spring fully-formed from Marx's forehead, but grew out of the processes of class differentiation of the broader artisan, petty bourgeois and worker democratic movement of the earlier 19th century. It is clear enough that the influence of Marx's and Engels's ideas was and is not necessary to the worker movement getting the idea of going beyond trade union organisation to a class-political party. Marxist ideas tend to become influential because they are a more systematic account of why such a party is useful to the class and what it should do.

The model of the SPD is of a political party which is at the centre of a broader worker movement which in turn seeks to spread socialist awareness in the class as a whole. It can expect to succeed because there is an objective basis for the tendency of the class to organise itself to fight against capital; but the socialist party is still necessary, because the idea of the socialist party-worker movement comes 'from outside' the worker movement: ie, from Marx and Engels, identified as 'bourgeois intellectuals'. The party is to educate the class in awareness of its own historic mission. In doing so, it does not limit itself to economic questions, but acts as a 'tribune of the people' on all sorts of democratic, etc issues. It does so because the task of the working class is not simply to improve its immediate economic position, but to take political power.

Chapter 2 works through Lenin's writings of the 1890s and down to 1901 to make clear Lenin's commitment to this Kautskyan/'Erfurtian' party model. Chapter 3 makes clear that the Iskra project was a project of implementing this sort of party model. In order to set itself free to build a fully developed SPD-type party, the working class needed first to break the chains of the tsarist autocracy. But it could break the chains of the tsarist autocracy precisely by beginning to build an SPD-type party - not by terrorism or purely economic struggles. The success of Iskra reflected the fact that the Russian working class was, in the 1890s, beginning to move into action on a large scale, and 'advanced' or 'purposive' workers were looking for political alternatives. This fact is reflected in Lenin's argument, repeatedly present in WITBD, that the job of the socialists is not to tail the workers' immediate economic struggles but to address politics.

Lenin's targets

Chapter 4 discusses the economists proper: the Credo group and the Petersburg paper Rabochaya Mysl. Lih argues that these groups' central difference with Iskra was that they considered that the Russian workers were too politically backward for the 'advanced' politics represented by Iskra. The Credo group were explicit Bernsteinian revisionists who thought all the Marxist guff should be discarded in favour of struggles for winnable economic reforms. Rabochaya Mysl started out as a simple 'workers' paper' carrying news from the factories, but after the group which produced it was broken up by arrests, it was taken over by an 'intellectual' exile group. The editorials produced by the exiles glorified the 'news from the factories' form at the expense of the impractical dreams of the 'intellectual' politico types. Hence the Rabochaya Mysl of the late 1890s became identified with economism.

Chapter 5 addresses Rabochoye Delo. Lih argues that Rabochoye Delo was not economist in its politics. It originated in a 'youth' breakaway in 1898 from the tutelage of the older Russian Marxists round Plekhanov, Axelrod and Zasulich. Then in 1900, with Iskra, the older Marxists linked up with their own youth team, Lenin, Martov and Potresov. In Lih's view Rabochoye Delo was simply produced by a weaker team: it was less consistent in its main line than Iskra, and was politically erratic - for example, initially supporting French socialist Millerand when he joined a capitalist government.

Rabochoye Delo accused Iskra of sectarianism and undue concern with polemics against other tendencies. In particular, they argued that Iskra overemphasised the dangers posed by economism: this was merely an early stage of development of the class movement, and the development of the class struggle itself would sort it out. Where the movement was at a low stage of development, agitation should begin with economic issues, before making politics grow out of the economic issues. But, when in February-March 1901 Russian workers came out on the streets in support of student protests, Rabochoye Delo suddenly turned sharply to the left, issuing calls for 'audacity' and 'red terror': ie, for an immediate insurrection. There was no response, and Iskra was sharply critical of this zigzag.

In this context, in June 1901 Iskra and Rabochoye Delo met to attempt to fuse their forces; and the Iskraites obtained agreement to a resolution which was designed to insist on stable principles and rejection of both the coalitionism of Millerand and economism. But the Rabochoye Delo side changed their mind about unity, and at the second unity conference in October demanded revision of the June resolution to take out these elements. This led - as was intended - to the breakdown of negotiations.

Two of the Rabochoye Delo editorial board, Boris Krichevsky and Aleksandr Martynov, now published polemic articles attacking Iskra: Krichevsky on the ground that it was doctrinally rigid and paid insufficient attention to the stikhiiinyi movement; Martynov on the ground that Iskra was 'propagandist', because agitation required 'calls to action' in relation to the current day-to-day class struggle. Hence, Martynov argued, Iskra's line was not really revolutionary: real action would "make the workers push up against" their lack of political rights; what was needed was "an economic struggle against both the employers and the government". Lih comments that this strategy "is controlling and manipulative. The party makes demands it knows will fail, in order to involve the workers and drive home the appropriate lesson."

Chapter 6 deals with another group of Lenin's targets, the September 1901 Joint letter, which criticised Iskra on broadly economist grounds; Boris Savinkov, who Lih regards as a 'political' rather than an economist; and L Nadezhdin, who, like Rabochoye Delo, criticised Iskra for lack of 'calls to action', but on a path leading to terrorism.

Present politics

It should now be apparent why I have said that "Rabochoye Delo's positions, as Lih explains them, are the common ground of much of the modern far left". Beginning with economic issues and agitation as 'calls to action', and through these bringing the workers up against the state: this is precisely what much of the far left considers to be 'transitional method'. (Lih points out, indeed, that Trotsky in 1904 characterised Nadezhdin's critique of Iskra as a far-sighted advance view of 'Leninism').

The characterisation of the sharp expression of political differences as sectarian, and of insisting on presently raising political questions and the idea of the overthrow of the state as 'propagandist' - criticisms of this sort are constantly directed against the Weekly Worker, which is designed to be in some sense 'like Iskra'. We can wear them as a badge of pride in the light of Lih's characterisation of Martynov's strategy as "controlling and manipulative". (The French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire has made similar points against the British Socialist Workers Party in their debates on strategy.)

We can perhaps also see why the point about stikhiinost and tred-iunionizm or apolitical militancy and the pro-capitalist right wing of the trade union movement is not simply a statement of the obvious. The Trotskyist left in Britain has placed a great deal of hope over the years in apolitical trade union militants who are thought to be uninfected by social democratic, Stalinist or other undesirable ('sectarian') politics. A remarkable number of these good apolitical militants have wound up either becoming infected with undesirable politics "¦ or on the pro-capitalist right wing of the trade union movement. The cult of stikhiinost, in the form of apolitical militancy, does indeed lead to tred-iunionizm or 'moderate' politics.

The split

Chapters 7-8 elaborate on Lih's arguments by reviewing the specific content of WITBD. Chapter 9 adds new material: a discussion of the 1903 split in the RSDLP on the basis of the pamphlet and article war of 1904.

Lih's account of the events of the split is familiar from the more recent historiography. It was not over Martov's versus Lenin's formula for membership of the party: Martov won on this question (and the Mensheviks nonetheless subsequently adopted Lenin's formula, because Martov's was unworkable). The split occurred over the composition of the Iskra editorial board. Lenin and Plekhanov proposed Plekhanov, Lenin and Martov, and this won; the minority (Mensheviks) proposed the reappointment of the old editorial board and walked out when they lost, Martov refusing to serve; after the congress, Plekhanov stalemated business until Lenin agreed to resign, and then coopted the previous members of the editorial board. The question was therefore: is the congress entitled to choose the editorial board?

Lih argues that what really drove the sharpness of the debate was Lenin's pamphlet on the congress, One step forward, two steps back. In this he depicted the new editorial board created by Plekhanov's operation as really resting on an opportunistic and unprincipled bloc with Rabochoye Delo and the Jewish Bund, which had walked out of the congress at an earlier stage. This, Lih argues, "absolutely infuriated his former colleagues "¦ So, in response, they organised a vast literary anti-Lenin campaign" including articles in Iskra, pieces solicited from Luxemburg and Kautsky, and Trotsky's Our political tasks."

Lih argues that the arguments of this campaign were obfuscatory: Bolsheviks and Mensheviks alike were committed to centralism and the party of "revolutionaries by trade". The focus on Lenin's alleged super-centralism reflected the fact that the Mensheviks saw themselves as the majority of the RSDLP's leadership, and Lenin as one man alone standing out in a minority; while the Bolsheviks saw themselves as the congress majority and the majority of the Iskraite activists in Russia, and the Mensheviks as irresponsible leaders who were acting undemocratically.

In the event, it turned out that Lenin was right in One step forward. The Mensheviks were never able until 1917 to develop a solid party organisation, because the Bolsheviks did have a majority among the Iskraite activists and the Mensheviks did rest on an unprincipled bloc between Iskraites, Rabochoye Delo and the Bund. It just took until 1912 for this to become apparent.

There is a lot more than this in Lih's book. But its primary lesson should be clear from this last point. There is no angelic, or demonic, 'new party concept' emerging from WITBD or from the 1903 split in the RSDLP. The party concept WITBD defends is the Kautskyan party concept. In contrast, the actual political debates the book discusses - especially the argument between Iskra and Rabochoye Delo - is one which has important lessons for the modern far left.