Rediscovering Lenin

Lars T Lih is an acclaimed scholar living in Canada. Ben Lewis spoke to him about his book, Lenin rediscovered: 'What is to be done?' in context (2006) and some of the questions it raises for the left in understanding its own history and tradition

One of the themes of Lenin rediscovered was Lenin’s closeness to Karl Kautsky. I argued that What is to be done? (WITBD) did not represent any sort of break with the Kautsky outlook. Naturally, this point has been challenged, in particular by the Socialist Workers Party’s John Molyneux and Chris Harman. They respond something as follows: ‘yes, it’s true, Lenin himself was not at this time (1902) aware that he differed in fundamental ways from Kautsky. Only in 1914 did the scales fall from Lenin’s eyes. At this point, he realised how fundamentally his outlook differed from Kautskyism and from Second International Marxism in general.’

No doubt my critics are justified in challenging me on this point, since my book did not take the story past 1904. Nevertheless, it has always been my view that Lenin saw Kautsky after 1914 as a renegade, that is, someone who renounces their earlier correct outlook. In order to settle this question with data in my hand, I undertook to collect all the references by Lenin after the outbreak of war in 1914 to “Kautsky when he was a Marxist” (a phrase often used by Lenin). There are a great many of these references, and they settle the question once and for all. Lenin did not renounce Kautsky’s pre-war writings - in fact, he made clear his continuing high admiration for them. His denunciation of kautskianstvo was aimed at Kautsky’s conduct after the outbreak of war, when (according to Lenin) he used revolutionary-sounding phrases to cover up a de facto alliance with opportunism.

Once we get this stumbling block out of the way - that is, the notion that somehow Lenin disowned his earlier approval of Kautsky’s writing - we can start investigating the full extent of Lenin’s relations with Kautsky. And this proves to be such a fascinating story that I am thinking of devoting an entire book to the subject. The nature of the relationship changed over the years, so I will look briefly at each decade in Lenin’s career.

In the first decade (1894-1904), Kautsky is most important for Lenin as the spokesman for the basic outlook of international social democracy. This is the aspect that is examined in Lenin rediscovered. Perhaps most basic here is the merger formula: “Social democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement.” This formula served both as a definition of the mission of social democracy and as a template for a history of the origins of Marx-based social democracy. And here arises a misunderstanding that is reflected in your questions, one that I wish I had dealt with more effectively.

At times, Kautsky is paraphrased as asserting that “socialism is a science”. But if you look closer at the actual text, you will see that Kautsky is referring to “modern socialism”, a common label in this period for ‘scientific socialism’: that is, Marxism. This is the socialism that is a science and, as such, was born in the heads of members of the bourgeois intelligentsia: to wit, Marx and Engels. Kautsky does not argue that socialism in general is a science - in fact, the merit of Marx and Engels is that they made it one.

Socialism in general has many points of origin, including with many workers. Kautsky wrote about the origins of social democracy often enough, so that there is no doubt about his views. Unfortunately, most people deduce his views solely from the passage cited by Lenin in WITBD - a passage in which Kautsky is mainly interested in making a separate, if related, point (to wit, there is no direct or automatic correlation between the level of capitalist development and the level of socialist awareness among the workers). From this arises the common criticism: Kautsky (and by extension Lenin) overlooks the interaction between theory and practice, Kautsky sees the origin of socialism in entire isolation from the class struggle, etc.

In reality, no criticism of Kautsky’s actual historical views is less accurate than this one. When Kautsky himself unpacks his formula in his historical accounts of the European socialist movement - and there are more than a few of such accounts - he stresses the interaction between the various social components that coalesced in Marxist social democracy. In fact, Marx is almost presented as someone who merely synthesised the many theories and approaches swirling around in his day. Also, Kautsky himself strongly emphasises that even if a worker movement rejects Marx, they sooner or later will accept the need for socialism and will take power to put it into effect. I cannot delve deeper into this topic now, so I’ll just refer to pages 82-87 in Lenin rediscovered, where I summarise one such discussion by Kautsky.

Another misunderstanding arises from Lenin’s polemics against Martov after the 2nd Congress off the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Lenin said that Martov’s definition of a party member showed that he didn’t understand the distinction between party and class. From this there has arisen the idea that Kautsky did not understand this distinction. In reality, neither Martov nor even less Kautsky had any trouble distinguishing party and class. This is a non-issue.

There is a view that the split in 1903 “led Lenin to a clean break with Kautsky and the ‘German model’”. I disagree with this, but, more to the point, Lenin disagreed with it. Let me make a larger contrast. Commentators on Lenin seemed compelled to find ruptures, turning points, clean breaks and so on, although, of course, there is no agreement about what these were. On the other hand, when Lenin discussed his own views, he almost always stressed their continuity and the apostasy of those opposed to him. They were the ones making clean or messy breaks, not he.

Lenin’s second decade, 1904-14, was the one in which Bolshevism as such was developed. Although Kautsky sided with the Mensheviks at the very beginning of the party split (not for ideological reasons, but because he thought Lenin was personally responsible for the split), it soon became clear that, when it came to the issues that really divided the two factions - the different readings of the class forces in Russia - Kautsky sided entirely with the Bolsheviks. So much so that Kautsky became a sort of honorary Bolshevik. If you want to get an idea of Kautsky’s role during this period, read Lenin’s generous and (more to the point) accurate description at the beginning of the section on Kautsky in State and revolution.

Kautsky continued to be important for Lenin in his third decade (1914-24). By the way, Kautsky was regarded as part of the radical wing of the party at least until 1910, when he and Rosa Luxemburg fell out. At that time, Lenin sided with Kautsky (and I don’t think he ever changed his mind about who was right in 1910). As against Luxemburg, Kautsky said that the socialist party should not act as if a revolutionary situation existed when it didn’t, but that a revolutionary situation was sure to come very soon. From Lenin’s point of view, the very revolutionary situation that Kautsky had predicted did in fact come to pass in 1914. He was therefore infuriated with Kautsky when the latter did not act as he had promised. But again, this anger was a sign of Lenin’s loyalty to what had once been the shared outlook of the two men. As I put it once, Lenin hated Kautsky because he loved Kautsky’s books.

After 1914, Lenin identified Kautsky with “the centre”, but this was a description of Kautsky’s wartime position between the “social chauvinists” and revolutionary leftists such as himself. In general, the word ‘centre’ when applied to socialist politics at this time obscures more than it illuminates.

But Kautsky’s positive influence on Lenin does not end even in 1914. Indeed, there were still many twists and turns to come in this story, and I have not worked them all out yet. So I will conclude with a brief observation about 1917. In one sense, it is true that Lenin and the Bolsheviks shifted their tactics and focus all the time from 1903 to 1917, but this should not let us overlook the underlying unity. The Bolshevik analysis of the situation in Russia was a fairly stable and coherent one: in the upcoming revolution for political freedom, the proletariat should become the leading force by wresting influence over the peasantry away from the liberal bourgeoisie. (As earlier mentioned, Kautsky fully agreed and gave a classic exposition of this tactic in his article, ‘Prospects and driving forces of the revolution’, which is available in English.) The Bolsheviks certainly did not abandon this perspective in 1917, even though they added other goals. In fact, the outcome of the revolution and the civil war can be taken as a massive vindication of this tactic.

In 1914, Lenin did not change his outlook, but he did shift his main focus from Russia to Europe as a whole, and therefore from democratic revolution to socialist revolution. At this time, he thought of these two revolutions as linked, but separate: “The task of the proletariat in Russia is to carry out the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia to the end [do kontsa], in order to ignite the socialist revolution in Europe” (October 1915 - VI Lenin CW Vol 21, Moscow 1977, pp401-4).

Finally, in 1917 Lenin added another goal: “steps toward socialism” in Russia itself, without waiting for the international revolution. (I believe that Kautsky played a role even here, but I know this will be controversial, so I’ll wait until I can put across the evidence more completely.) Thus by 1917 Lenin’s outlook had three major strata: “old Bolshevism”, left Zimmerwald and “steps toward socialism”.

These strata are reflected in the principal points of his 1917 platform: land to the peasants (from pre-war Bolshevism), democratic peace and/or revolutionary war (from wartime left Zimmerwald) and state regulation of the collapsing economy (from the new note of “steps toward socialism”). So, at this point in my thinking, I tend to see Lenin as adding on new perspectives rather than fundamentally changing his older ones. That is to say, he didn’t junk the minimum-maximum distinction, but he simply argued that, under the circumstances prevailing in Russia, they could be accomplished in tandem. Lenin’s work of late 1918, Renegade Kautsky and the proletarian revolution, argues in this way. Note particularly the passage in which he says that, even if it turns out Russia was not ready for socialist transformation, the proletariat was justified in taking power to complete the democratic revolution (VI Lenin CW Vol 28, p304).

Other candidates have been put forward for the role of the catalyst in Lenin’s thinking in the years 1914-17 - Trotsky, Hegel, Bukharin among others. I put my money on the candidate with whom Lenin was explicitly engaged, the candidate whose views he repeatedly endorsed: namely, Karl Kautsky.

One final point. The SPD model certainly did not become irrelevant even during the revolution or after the Bolsheviks took power. One central feature of the Soviet state is taken directly from SPD practice: namely, the permanent campaign of agitation and propaganda. Now that the party controlled the state, it could carry out even vaster campaigns and could eliminate the competition, creating what I call “state monopoly campaignism”. A classic study of the SPD is The alternative culture by Vernon Lidtke. The book describes how the SPD used everything from an extensive party press to choral singing societies in order to inculcate the proper socialist outlook. In many ways, the Soviet Union is the SPD writ large, and Lidtke’s title could be used for a study of the Soviet era.


I came to the writing of Lenin rediscovered by a somewhat circuitous route. My first book, based on my PhD thesis, was Bread and authority in Russia, 1914-1921 (1990). This study examined the enormous impact of bread shortages on the policies and politics of all governments during this ‘time of troubles’: the tsarist government, the provisional government and the Bolsheviks.

I came to the conclusion that Bolshevik food-supply policies resulted much more from honest attempts to cope with the crisis than from ideological delusion. This got me interested in the whole subject of so-called war communism, when (according to many writers of all ideological persuasions) the Bolsheviks were supposed to have gone right off the rails and conned themselves into thinking that the ruined Russia of 1920 was a socialist paradise. I devoted a number of articles to refuting this myth and showing that the Bolsheviks were not clinically insane, but fully understood that the devastation of the civil war had set back socialist transformation.

These scattered articles have not had the impact I would have liked (although I’m glad to see that you mention ‘The mystery of the ABC’, my article about The ABC of communism, a fundamental Bolshevik textbook published in 1919), and I hope to make the case in book form some time soon.

In any event, this research got me interested in the Bolshevik outlook in general. At this point, I was not interested in Lenin per se, but Bolshevism in general. What I call the textbook interpretation of What is to be done? was therefore merely an obstacle on my way to giving an accurate portrayal of the Bolshevik outlook after the revolution. My first thought was: I’ll have to put a paragraph into my account warning the reader against misconceptions arising from WITBD. Then I thought, well, the issues are complicated, I’d better devote a chapter to the topic.

Probably I would have stayed at that level without the prodding of Sebastian Budgen from the journal Historical Materialism. He originally asked for a new translation, but I felt a translation would not be useful without a full commentary. In order to write the commentary, I felt obliged to read everything mentioned by Lenin in his book. I began to discover that, despite WITBD’s notoriety, there is actually very little out there that could be called genuine historical analysis of the book. And so the whole thing ballooned, since the story I was getting from my material was so fundamentally different from the story about Lenin found in the textbooks.

At this point, I would like to express my great appreciation of the people at Historical Materialism, especially Sebastian Budgen, of Brill (publishers of the hardback), and of Haymarket Press (publishers of the paperback). In today’s economic and academic climate, it took courage to support a semi-mad scholar who was intent on writing a fundamental work, length no object. The new paperback edition makes the book somewhat more affordable for individual purchase, and furthermore, it has a snazzy, colourful cover. For readers wondering about purchasing the book, let me say that its length is partly due to the fact that it locates Lenin within a much wider panorama of what one reviewer (Anna Krylova) called “Eurorussian social democracy”.

Let me briefly mention four basic themes of the book. First, I describe Lenin as a “Russian Erfurtian”. “Erfurtianism” is my own coinage, but I think that any informed observer before World War I would have found it instantly intelligible. It is a complex concept that combines the aims of the Erfurt programme adopted by the German party in 1892, the authoritative commentary on those aims by Kautsky and a rather idealised ‘SPD model’. Just as important is the fact that Lenin was a Russian Erfurtian, who, along with many members of his generation, took on the arduous task of applying Erfurtian precepts to Russian realities.

This leads to my second big theme: the role of what I now call the konspiratsiia underground. As explained in the book, konspiratsiia is the set of empirical rules for avoiding arrest while maintaining contact with wider worker groups. As opposed to the traditional conspiratorial underground - one that wants to stay as secretive and closed-off as possible - a konspiratsiia underground attempts to spin as many threads as possible that will connect it to wider groups. WITBD celebrates and advocates the konspiratsiia underground, but Lenin certainly did not invent it. It arose as a result of a decade-long empirical search for possible ways of importing the Erfurtian model of a mass agitational party to the repressive realities of tsarist Russia.

Coming now to Lenin himself, my main aim is to change the question. The proper way to grasp Lenin’s individual outlook is not to obsess about abstract generalities concerning ‘spontaneity’ and ‘consciousness’, but rather to examine his concrete views about the actions of the Russian working class during the years 1895-1905. When this is done, the traditional textbook interpretation that talks about Lenin’s ‘worry about workers’ falls away of itself and Lenin’s romantic optimism about the working class becomes glaringly obvious. Why did Lenin strive for an organised, centralised, efficiently structured party that was staffed with people who knew their business? Because he had given up on the masses and was looking for a substitute? Just the opposite: Lenin wanted all these things because he thought he saw the masses on the move.

Finally, I argue that Lenin understood his own basic outlook and remained loyal to it. This turns out to be surprisingly controversial, as brought out in my earlier discussion of Kautsky.

I am very pleased with the reactions to the book. Most readers seem to be in sympathy with my basic aims, although I realise now that I could have put some things better and made some necessary points more forcefully. Historical Materialism asked a number of readers of my book for their thoughts, and in my response to these readers I took the opportunity to clear up some of these misunderstandings - and, as often when responding to criticism, I became more clear in my own mind about what I was trying to say. So my rather extensive response to these readers serves as a sort of appendix to Lenin rediscovered. I hope this discussion will be published soon (although right now I’m the one holding things up).

John Molyneux’s review of my book brings up many of the points I will be addressing in Historical Materialism. One such point, of course, is Kautsky’s relation to Lenin, since Molyneux still believes in the existence of a fundamental divide between Lenin and “Kautsky when he was a Marxist”. I am confident that the new evidence I am bringing forth will narrow our differences on this issue.

Another set of issues concerns Lenin’s later attitude toward his own book. One common scenario goes like this: Lenin ‘bent the stick’ too far when he wrote WITBD, exaggerating what was otherwise a valid point. He himself realised this in 1905 when faced with the revolutionary militancy of the workers. Unfortunately, many of his fellow Bolsheviks still followed the precepts of WITBD and opposed the presence of workers on local party committees. Lenin himself grew highly circumspect about WITBD and explicitly admitted he had bent the stick too far. He wasn’t exactly apologetic about it, though, since he felt that bending the stick was a necessary part of leadership.

I disagree with this scenario in every respect. For full details, see my forthcoming discussion in Historical Materialism. But here is the scenario that I think fits the facts. Lenin did not mean to say anything new or astounding in WITBD, but rather meant to state universally accepted axioms in order to show that his opponents failed to live up to them. At the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP in 1903, he used the ‘bend the stick’ image in order to make the following point: he was responding in WITBD to one particular set of opponents and was not making a general or programmatic discussion. (Unfortunately, the English translation in the Collected works paraphrases Lenin’s image so that his actual use of ‘bend the stick’ is completely obscured.)

He did not then or later admit that he had bent the stick too far - this was a polemical distortion of his remarks by Menshevik opponents (including Trotsky). Polemics by Mensheviks and, I think, the cool reaction of his own Bolshevik allies convinced Lenin that he had indeed made his point clumsily and in a way that was open to misinterpretation. But he did not change his mind about the actual point he wanted to make. He saw the events of 1905 as a confirmation of his prognoses in WITBD and said so on a number of occasions. At no time were Bolsheviks hostile to putting workers on local committees.

After 1905, of course, the practical arguments of WITBD were completely dated. What would now be the point of making the case that a party newspaper would be a good way to set up as yet non-existent central party organs? In Lenin’s eyes, WITBD did not say anything theoretically new, and its formulation of old truths was admittedly clumsy. WITBD was a good book for its time, but its time had past. It applied some basic social democratic truths to a specific situation, but now the task was to apply these and other truths to more current problems. Such was the Bolshevik view of WITBD: neither embarrassment nor founding document.

Of course, like any other leader, any of Lenin’s remarks must be put in the context of the particular issues on the agenda at that time. But this does not mean he had a philosophy of bending the stick: that is, deliberate exaggeration in order to get his point across. Those who believe that Lenin had such a philosophy - for example, Tony Cliff - tend to picture Lenin as swinging from one extreme to the other, which is simply not the case.

My views

When I come before the public, I like to think I have something new, interesting and important to say. My political views are none of the above. I will say something about what I am trying to accomplish with my work.

As is evident from my publication list, my principal interest is in Russian history. I see Lenin first and foremost, not as a figure in Marxist theory, but as the founder of the Soviet state. I feel solidarity with a somewhat earlier generation that was fascinated with the origins, course and outcome of the Russian Revolution.

My special interest over the last decade or so has been the world view of Bolshevism as a whole. Accordingly, I have written what I like to think of as major articles about Stalin, Trotsky, Bukharin and just recently Zinoviev (in the new journal The NEP Era: Soviet Russia, 1921-1928). Unfortunately, these are scattered around in various journals and books. The nature of my subject has reinforced a long-time interest in the European left, and I have a long article-in-waiting about Marx’s trio of works on the class struggle in France that will be published when I get the time to polish it up. I am also very interested in the issue of whether Marx’s late writings represent any profound change in his outlook (I tend not to think so). This topic would take me full circle back to Russia.

Is my interest “purely academic”? If by this you mean, ‘Do I write to further my academic career?’, then the answer is no, since I haven’t got one. Academic historians are certainly a major audience for me, but so is any reader interested in the Russian Revolution. This includes not only those interested in continuing Lenin’s revolutionary politics, but also Russian readers who are trying to understand their own past (so far merely a target audience) and anyone else who would like an accurate insight into one of the great upheavals of history.

I think I serve all these constituencies better by committing fully to none and keeping my status as an independent researcher. I also enjoy my precarious role as one of the few links between the academic historians and activists on the left. I should add that I am in love with my subject and I am truly fascinated by the people that I study.

I like to think that my research does embody a political stance of sorts. First, objective truth through careful, unbiased and adventurous research is possible, and striving towards objective truth is an admirable thing. Second, we are better off if we see history as the result of the strivings of real persons, not demons or angels. That is my simple credo.

After all that, you might not think that I see any lessons to be drawn from my book for the contemporary left. But actually there are two points I would like to make. First, in surveying the past, left writers of today too often reduce the problem to one of simple doctrinal errors. Lenin is great, they say, because he rejected Kautsky’s confusion of party and class. This vastly over-simplifies the dilemmas facing the left (even overlooking the inaccuracies involved). Ah, if life were so easy that rejecting some rather feeble-minded doctrinal errors would set us on the right path! The fact is that pre-World War I generation of socialists agreed on basic things, but disagreed on how to apply them to reality - and they disagreed because of the huge pressures and inescapable dilemmas inherent in their situation. I wish I could say that the Third International simply solved the problems that brought down the Second International, but I cannot. Thus, more respect for all the socialists of that generation can eventually lead to more nuanced insight into our own dilemmas.

Second, I think that the socialist attitude toward political freedom needs serious attention. In my book, I stress the primordial importance of political freedom as a goal for Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But this is only half the story. The main reason the Russian social democrats wanted political freedom was to be able to spread their own version of the truth. When they got into a position of ‘state monopoly campaignism’, their drive toward political freedom turned (dialectically?) into its opposite: lack of political freedom for their opponents now helped them spread their own version of the truth.

And this is not just some Asiatic deviation of the Russian Bolsheviks. On the contrary, European socialism as a whole was sceptical about the benefits of political freedom in bourgeois society and did not really see much need for political freedom in socialist society. And their scepticism was, of course, highly justified, then as it still is today. So the solution is not just to say, ‘Let’s recognise the importance of political freedom.’ The proper attitude to adopt is a complex and difficult issue. But from where I sit I cannot see any real grappling with the problem.

Thanks again for asking me these probing questions. I may have learned more in writing the answers than you in reading them.

For Mike Macnair’s 2006 review of the book, see Weekly Worker August 31 2006.