Lenin's strategy: illusory or realistic?

Mike Macnair reviews Lars T Lih's 'Lenin' Reaktion Books, Critical lives series, London 2011, pp234,

“Titles in the series Critical lives present the work of leading cultural figures of the modern period. Each book explores the life of the artist, writer, philosopher or architect in question and relates it to their major works.” So runs the series blurb; and the company Lenin is keeping here consists mainly of artists and literary figures, with Georges Bataille, Simone de Beauvoir, Walter Benjamin, Noam Chomsky, Guy Debord, Sergei Eisenstein and Jean-Paul Sartre coming closest to being political activists and writers.

Nonetheless, the series format has allowed Lars T Lih to produce a remarkable book. It is an outline sketch of Lenin’s life and ideas, which also proposes what is in some respects a new interpretation of both and of their relationship. The book is both highly readable - one could almost say a ‘gripping story’ - and highly thought-provoking.

Regular readers of this paper will be familiar with aspects of Lih’s work, since we have published transcripts of a number of his talks to Communist University and some other articles in recent years, as well as reviewing his much more narrowly focused study of What is to be done?, entitled Lenin rediscovered.[1]
Lenin gives us something more like comrade Lih’s overall view of the subject.

The book starts with the proposition that “VI Lenin” is a posthumous creation and the Collected works “the building blocks of an intellectual mausoleum comparable to the corporeal mausoleum that still stands in Moscow” (p7). In his life, he was born “Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov” and continued to use that name; signed articles (among other pseudonyms) “N Lenin” and letters “Lenin”. Lih argues that it is necessary to follow the man in holding “Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov” distinct from the public mouthpiece for ideas, “Lenin”. Among other reasons, this allows us to distinguish, and therefore relate, Lenin’s ideas and Ulyanov’s emotional commitments to them: though for convenience he mostly uses simply “Lenin”.

A sketch of the family background sees the Ulyanov family as in a sense typifying the dilemmas of the later 19th century Russian intelligentsia and the state towards them. After defeat in the Crimean war, the tsarist state was forced to endeavour to “modernise”; and this involved the creation of industry and a highly concentrated industrial working class (which Lih does not mention in this context), and an intelligentsia which was naturally infected with western liberal ideas and therefore tended to be subversive of the state.

Vladimir Ilich’s brother, Alexander (Sasha), was radicalised at university and was hanged in 1887 for participation in a plot to assassinate the tsar. Like many of Lenin’s biographers, Lih sees this event as fundamental to Lenin’s own political commitments. Lenin was, he says, looking for “another way, Sasha”. The result was that in the late 1880s to early 1890s Lenin “fell in love” with the writings of Marx and Engels. In particular he constructed an alternative to the strategy of terrorism on the basis of Karl Kautsky’s 1892 exposition of the German Social Democratic Party’s 1891 Erfurt programme (published in English as The class struggle).[2] This idea was plausible because the SPD had just come out of illegality, following the eventual failure of the 1878 Anti-Socialist Law. If the SPD could win out against repression in this way, why not a Russian equivalent?

Lih argues that this strategy was first expressed in the clandestinely circulated text What the ‘friends of the people’ are and how they fight the social democrats (1894),[3] and that Lenin remained faithful to it down to his very last years and in a certain sense even then. He quotes the book’s conclusion, and disaggregates it into three ‘acts’:

“When the advanced representatives of this class [the working class] assimilate the ideas of scientific socialism and the idea of the historical role of the Russian worker - when these ideas receive a broad dissemination - when durable organisations are created among the workers that transform the present uncoordinated economic war of the workers into a purposive class struggle:

“then the Russian worker, elevated to the head of all democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism”; “and lead the Russian proletariat (side by side with the proletariat of all countries) by the direct road of open political struggle to the victorious communist revolution.”[4]

Lih argues that this “sketches out a world-historical drama” in three acts: first organise a socialist workers’ party. Then this party can lead all the democratic forces to the creation of a democratic republic. Finally, the democratic republic allows capitalist development in the best possible form for the working class, and for the underlying class contradictions to be expressed and the question of communism to be (internationally) posed. “Lenin lived to see this entire drama played out, albeit accompanied with the shortfalls, ironies and frustrations that life usually hands out. Each decade of his 30-year revolutionary career corresponds to one act of the drama - and one chapter of this book” (p47).

Thus chapter 2, ‘The merger of socialism and the worker movement’, covers developments and Lenin’s ideas down to the 1903 congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and the split. Chapter 3, ‘A people’s revolution’, focuses on the revolution of 1905, and the distinctive Bolshevik idea of democratic revolution ‘carried to the end’ by an alliance of the workers and peasants, but takes the story through the dog days of 1908-11 to the rising phase of the mass movement and Bolshevik influence in 1912-14. Chapter 4, ‘Three train rides’, discusses the world war (Lenin’s journey from Krakow to Bern in August 1914), the 1917 revolution (the ‘sealed train’ from Zurich to Petrograd in April 1917) and the first year of the Soviet regime (the move of the Soviet government from Petrograd to Moscow in March 1918). Chapter 5, ‘Beyond the ‘textbook à la Kautsky’ addresses the disappointments of the civil war period, Lenin’s illness and his attempts in his last writings to revise his strategic ideas to address the new circumstances.

Along the way we encounter a series of points against ‘standard views’ of Lenin and the history of the Russian Revolution, which Lih has argued elsewhere in more depth. Thus What is to be done? did not represent the inauguration of a new concept of the workers’ party, or display Lenin as suspicious of the working class.[5] 1914 did not make Lenin turn to dialectics (a common Trotskyist and New Left theme), and Imperialism, the highest stage was not radically innovative (contrary to Neil Harding’s division of his Lenin’s political thought (1979), which sees a radical transition between pre-1914 and post-Imperialism Lenin); rather, in 1914-16 Lenin appealed to Kautsky past against Kautsky present.[6]

The April theses did not represent a radical break with Lenin’s existing strategy, but at most introduced a subordinate term of ‘steps towards socialism’, which may have been influenced by Kautsky’s first comments on the Russian Revolution.[7] Lenin continued to recommend Kautsky’s pre-1914 works even after writing The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky in 1918.[8] And the Bolsheviks did not have illusions in 1919-20 in ‘war communism’ as a form of transition to communism, as opposed to a (very defective) system of war mobilisation.[9]

Far from realistic?

The running theme of the book remains Lenin’s political and emotional attachment to the original strategy, which Lih generally calls the “heroic scenario”. This language, and the emphasis on Lenin’s emotional commitment to the “heroic scenario”, is a form of distancing which some reviewers have not picked up.[10] In fact, Lih says explicitly that “All in all, Lenin’s heroic scenario was far from realistic. Yet perhaps his utter confidence in it was the necessary illusion that enabled him [in 1917-18] to confront a situation of stormy political and economic collapse” (p203).

Lih never directly tells us why “Lenin’s heroic scenario was far from realistic”. In fact, the first part of the book points to at least the first part of the scenario - the “merger of socialism and the worker movement” - having turned out to be perfectly realistic. So what was wrong with the scenario as a whole?

Some indirect indications can be found in chapter 5, where Lih looks at Lenin’s attempts at reconsideration of strategy in his last writings in their context. Here three problems are identified. First, revolution in the west had not materialised: hence Lenin argued that soviet power had to ‘hold on’ until it did (pp167-71). Second, the idea that ‘steps towards socialism’ by working class alliance with the rural poor against the kulaks would enable the modernisation of Russian agriculture had failed miserably and been abandoned well before the adoption of NEP. Here Lenin argued for gradualism (pp172-81). Third, the working class had proved unable to take over the administration of the state due to a ‘cultural deficit,’ and if anything the culture of the tsarist state bureaucracy was tending to infect the Communist Party. Here Lenin argued for ‘proletarianisation’: ie, bringing in more people directly from the factory floor; but also for mass education (pp181-88).

In his concluding chapter Lih adds an additional element. This is the point that (strange as it may seem) Kautsky’s and the SPD’s commitment to political democracy had an instrumental character. The ‘merger of socialism and the worker movement’ was a matter of spreading the Good Word of socialism - capitalised here because of the similarity to religious revivalism, to which Lih refers.[11] The means of spreading the word was agitational campaigns. “How much more effective would these campaigns be if the party could use the state to eliminate all rivals and to monopolise channels of communication? The Bolsheviks consciously adopted this strategy of state-monopoly campaignism” (p202).

History and politics

Lars Lih is a political scientist by formal training, who moved at an early stage of his research work into the history of the Russian Revolution[12]: in effect now, as an independent scholar, a professional historian who publishes both in academic journals and in left publications. In discussions where the issue is raised, he is careful to tell us that his historical work does not have direct present political implications: insofar as he seeks to inform the left about the history, he says, he does so with a view to us making our decisions on the basis of the historical facts rather than the standard myths.[13]

From this point of view it is perhaps neither necessary nor desirable to be more precise than the characterisation that “Lenin’s heroic scenario was far from realistic” and the hints at an explanation of this in the last part of the book. But for political activists of the left, the problem is more urgent.

It is true there are now very few countries in the world characterised by the dominance of peasant-subsistence economy coupled with pre-modern state forms. But the “heroic scenario” as Lih describes it is derived from Kautsky’s The class struggle. This was a work addressed to a country - Wilhelmine Germany - which was certainly not characterised by the dominance of peasant-subsistence economy coupled with pre-modern state forms. Much of the “heroic scenario” is the common coin of the anti-capitalist left in general, and certainly included is the ‘third act’ idea that the working class could take over the running of the state. If this is “far from realistic”, then we should all follow Irving Kristol, Mario Vargas Llosa, and similar ideologues over to the right: because for all the faults of capitalist parliamentarism, Stalinism with a Putinite outcome is not a particularly attractive alternative - or even from a long historical perspective a real one.

The answer, I think, is that Lih’s distancing from Lenin’s strategy and in particular the statement that “Lenin’s heroic scenario was far from realistic” is over-general. He says himself that the first part of the strategy - the ‘merger of socialism and the worker movement’ - broadly speaking worked: and, of course, the same is true in Germany and quite widely in Europe. Even in Britain, the Labour Party represented a deformed version of this development. The Second International had not attempted much beyond Europe, and the commitments to imperialism of the reconstructed post-1918 SI were an obstacle, but mass communist parties were created in the cities of the colonial world.

Worker-peasant alliance

The second element of the strategy - the worker-peasant alliance against absolutism - was certainly more problematic. In a sense, 1917 showed in this respect an illusion of success. The illusion came from the fact that the Bolshevik leaders took the soldiers as ‘representing’ the peasantry from which, in their majority, they were drawn. But the soldiers of a modern army are proletarians (of an unproductive sort) engaged in a complex collective task under management (officers), for which they are paid a wage; so that the situation of the soldiers was closer to that of the urban proletarians than to that of the real peasants.

Once the Bolsheviks had taken power in October, even though they ‘legalised’ the peasants’ land seizures, they still immediately came into conflict with the peasantry because they had to extort food from them: otherwise the cities would starve. Of course, if the cities starved, the Red Army would be defeated and the whites would reconquer the peasants, just as the removal of the Roman exploiters in Britain after 410 led merely to their fairly rapid replacement by Saxon exploiters: but the constraints of the peasant way of life prevent them from recognising this necessity without coercion. Even a workers’ state which had a cornucopia of tools and consumer goods to offer the farmers in exchange for food - which the Soviet regime certainly did not - would have to coercively extract tax in order to maintain the production of sufficient food surpluses to feed non-farmers.

This was an error already present in The class struggle, and in a certain sense in Marx’s and Engels’ writing on agrarian questions (with the partial exception of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). Kautsky (chapter 5) argues that the middle strata, including the peasantry, cannot “defend their interests as against the interests of the other classes ... In order to fight their battles, they are forced to unite with one or more of the other classes.” This was at best a half-truth in Wilhelmine Germany, but certainly false in Russia. The peasants can defend their independent interests as a class. The problem is that, if they achieve full victory in doing so, the result is social collapse - and eventually the re-subordination of the peasants.

Relations with the peasantry would have been easier, though the idea of a class struggle of the rural poor against the kulaks would still probably have been misconceived under Russian conditions, if Russia had not been cut off from international trade, as it was by war and then by the response of both Germany and the Entente powers to the revolution.

Lenin believed before 1914 that proletarian revolution, at least in Europe, was on the relatively short-term agenda. This was not a matter of Lenin’s unique optimism, but quite widely believed. Indeed, it entered to some extent into the calculations of the European states in deciding to go to war in August 1914. October 1917 was a gamble on the rapid extension of the revolution, at least to Germany. It did not happen - or, more exactly, the capitalist class succeeded in defeating revolutionary movements elsewhere.

Why this happened is a complex question which raises large issues about ‘ripeness for socialism’ - too large to be discussed within a book review. The issue is quite fundamental, and the point has been well taken by Trotskyist reviewers of Lih’s Lenin that Lih underdevelops this side of the issue (and hence Lenin’s interventions in the early Comintern).[14]

Culture and democracy

There is a sense in which Lih’s discussion of the problem of the ‘culture deficit’ is the one which, for a modern leftist reader, creates the most ‘strangeness’. We are not short of literate workers competent to do administrative jobs. In fact, Russia was already unusual in this respect in Europe in 1917-18. Both Germany and Britain had brought trade unionists ‘on board’ in the management of production in the course of the war - a fact which may have influenced the idea that ‘steps towards socialism’ could help solve the massive economic dislocation affecting Russia in 1917.

There is a paradox, however, in this fact, which is the other side of the coin. Lih quite correctly identifies Kautsky’s argument in The class struggle as involving an instrumental conception of democracy: the working class needs democracy now in order to carry on its struggle (chapter 5, section 9), but “Perpetual discontent is unknown in communistic societies” (chapter 5, section 12). The paradox consists in the fact that the very elevation of culture, which means many more people could play a role in political decision-making and state administration, precisely produces many more people who could play a role in the leadership of workers’ organisations: and many more opinions and shades of opinion in circulation. The result is that, in carrying on workers’ organisations without seeing democracy and discussion as part of the ends of the organisation, its hold on the loyalties of its members diminishes: and what we get is both the empty shells of mass organisations (trade unions, Labour Parties, etc) and the mass of far-left splinters.

The instrumental conception of democracy was a departure from Marx and Engels, for whom the struggle for democracy was their political starting point, and for whom it remained a necessary aspect of working class power. In fact, as a matter of logic, without democracy there can be no socialism or communism: since without democracy, political and administrative information and decision-making powers become the private property of the individual state bureaucrats and bureaucratic groups. This point was made by Marx in his 1843 Critique of Hegel’s doctrine of the state.

At a guess the origin of the instrumental conception of democracy lies in the polemics which are at the historical root of the SPD between the Eisenachers, whom the Lassalleans criticised as soft on liberalism, and Lassalle, who argued (in correspondence with Bismarck) that the workers would favour a ‘social monarchy’ over democracy. In this context, to defend democracy as an end of the workers’ movement might well have been identified as going back to the errors of the Eisenachers ...

All these are very large questions. It is the great merit of Lih’s Lenin that - even if he does not address them directly - he forces us to think seriously about them.


  1. Lih talks and articles: Weekly Worker December 18 2008, June 25, September 3, 10, 17 2009, January 14, September 16, October 7, 21, November 25 2010; Lenin rediscovered review: August 31 2006.
  2. www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1892/erfurt/index.htm; German text at www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/kautsky/1892/erfurter/index.htm
  3. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1894/friends/index.htm In the text I have followed the MIA translation of the title (from CW) for ease of reference rather than Lih’s slightly different one (p45), since the CW version is standard.
  4. Lih’s translation at p46, disaggregated at pp47-51. Slightly variant from the CW/MIA version; in particular the capitals are in both, but the italics in Lih, not CW/MIA.
  5. Lenin rediscovered (Leiden 2006).
  6. ‘Lenin’s aggressive unoriginality, 1914-1916’ (2009) 5 Socialist Studies pp90-112.
  7. Weekly Worker supplement January 14 2010.
  8. ‘Lenin and Kautsky: the final chapter’ (2008) International Socialist Review No59: www.isreview.org/issues/59/feat-lenin.shtml
  9. ‘Political testament of Lenin and Bukharin and the meaning of NEP’ (1991) 50 Slavic Review pp241-52.
  10. For example, S Bloodworth, Australian Socialist Alternative (www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=6866:demolishing-the-lies-about-lenin&Itemid=507&tmpl=component&print=1); P Hampton, ‘Lenin the dreamer’ (www.workersliberty.org/blogs/paulhampton/2011/05/22/lenin-dreamer-warts-and-all).
  11. Passim in Lenin; ‘Lenin and the great awakening’ in S Budgen, E Kouvelakis and S