Is Lenin to blame?

Vladimir Lenin,

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dave Lister re-examines the legacy of Lenin

Arguably no other person has had more influence on the events of the last hundred or so years than Lenin. Arguably without him there would have been no Russian Revolution, no Stalinism, no Cold War, no monolithic state apparatus in China and elsewhere. It is also the case that fear of communism was one factor, although admittedly not the main one, leading to the triumph of fascism and Nazism in the inter-war period.

Yet Marxists would argue that the modern world has been shaped by the emergence of capitalism from feudalism, the class struggle, base determining superstructure etc., not by the role of an individual. Yet, another yet, Marx himself wrote that men make their own history but under already existing circumstances.

Lenin came from a wealthy land-owning background and always had the resources to fund his own activities. The fact that his older brother Alexander Ulyanov was hanged for his involvement in the Narodnaya Volya attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander III must surely have reinforced his revolutionary beliefs. He was clearly influenced by the writings not only of Marx and Engels but also the founder of Russian Marxism Georgi Plekhanov, as can be seen in his early work on the development of capitalism in Russia. His seminal work ‘What Is To Be Done’ outlined his conception of a tightly-knit party of professional revolutionaries that would lead the proletariat to socialism. The working-class was incapable of developing socialist consciousness spontaneously and therefore needed a vanguard party to show them the way. This was a momentous development, the substitution of party for class as it subsequently unfolded. It led to the split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, with Lenin’s Menshevik opponents advocating a more open mass party. Trotsky rightly foresaw at the time the danger that this conception presaged dictatorship over the people as its logical conclusion, but unfortunately perhaps Trotsky changed his mind in 1917.

Maybe if events had worked out differently the Bolsheviks would have remained a marginal force in Russian politics. However, the outbreak of the First World War proved fatal for the Tsarist regime as defeats led to disillusion and scarcity and the spontaneous February Revolution was the result. The Provisional Government that then emerged, based largely on the more moderate socialist parties, did not ultimately have an answer to the Bolshevik demands for “bread, peace and land”. However, until the arrival of Lenin in Petrograd in a sealed German train, the Bolshevik leadership had assumed that Russia would undergo a period of bourgeois liberalism.  Then Lenin turns up at the Finland Station and urges them to prepare for the seizure of state power. Without Lenin therefore it is unlikely that the October Revolution would have occurred, since it was not a spontaneous uprising as in February but a planned coup with support from workers and soldiers in Petrograd. It could also be argued though that without the Bolsheviks General Kornilov’s reactionary coup attempt would have succeeded in summer 1917 and Russia might then have been plunged into a bloody counter-revolutionary scenario.

My late friend Tony Polan published a book in 1984 entitled ‘Lenin and the End of Politics’, which focused on Lenin’s work ‘The State and Revolution’, which he wrote in the period before the Bolshevik Revolution. One of Polan’s main themes in this book is that there is no place for civil society in Lenin’s vision of the future. He blames this on Marx’s writings on ‘The Civil War in France’ on the Paris Commune of 1871, in which he described how the Commune combined both executive and legislative functions. However, one of the reviewers of Polan’s book, Wayne Gabardi, suggested that it was Engels rather than Marx who saw the Commune as the blueprint for a future socialist society.

The point about civil society is crucial though. We are talking about democratically elected parliaments, some sort of party system, freedom of speech and the press and the rule of law. Polan argued that all of these were seen by Lenin merely as the outward show of bourgeois rule and not appropriate for life under the dictatorship of the proletariat. “The state, formed under the capitalist mode of production, is appropriate only for that social system”. It was necessary therefore to smash the bourgeois state machine.

Polan concluded that the abolition of civil society represented the end of politics, to be replaced by the arbitrary rule of bureaucrats and inevitably in the end came the Gulag. In the words of Rosa Luxemburg, this system “was worse than the disease it was meant to cure”. The absence of the rule of law meant that there were no legal constraints on the operations of the Cheka, the secret police force established under Lenin and Trotsky, which could arrest people or shoot them arbitrarily. It meant that a march of women protesting about food prices could be fired on. It meant that 2500 Kronstadt sailors could be shot down without mercy. 

Bukharin and some other Bolshevik leaders wanted to see a coalition government made up of all the socialist parties. Instead, the road to tyranny was being paved. Elections were held to a Constituent Assembly in 1918 but when the Bolsheviks found that they had received only 25% of the vote they moved to dissolve it. Not only the pro-capitalist Kadet Party but also the socialist parties – the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries – found their newspapers shut down, their members arrested and, in some cases, shot, their parties totally banned. Lenin advised his Menshevik friend Martov to flee the country as he could offer him no protection. Undeniably the scale of repression increased massively under Stalin’s paranoid regime but the repression began well before his rise to power.

So this is how the party came to hold sway over society as it still does in China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. Polan made the point that Lenin’s concept of the vanguard party addressed the problem for Marxists of “the apparent inability or reluctance of the proletariat to act as the self-conscious agency of revolution”. This may not have been apparent in 1902 but was more obvious in the period after the First World War. Marx however wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “the communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties”, so it appears that Lenin’s notion of the vanguard party is an epistemological break with Marxism and this makes a nonsense of the term Marxism-Leninism.

Polan also addresses Lenin’s understanding of bureaucracy, which he contrasts unfavourably with that of the German theorist Max Weber. Lenin seemed to believe that once the working-class had seized power only a minimal state would be required á la Liz Truss because the administrative tasks of the state had been immensely simplified by the forces of production. In contrast Weber understood that the modern state requires a sizeable bureaucracy which will include technical experts. It had developed a new complexity. The tasks previously carried out by the family and the community had now been assigned to the new welfare systems in Britain and Germany for example.

Polan made the point that if you abolish the market economy, you have to take on directly some immensely complex tasks and the further point that the political revolution that Trotsky advocated in order to overthrow the rule of the bureaucracy “would not remove the complex tasks which demanded the operation of those necessary functions which the bureaucracy had performed”. He later contrasts Lenin and Trotsky’s narrow view of bureaucrats as motivated solely by economic gain with Weber and Habermas’s more sophisticated view that “the bureaucrat derives a motivation from the functions he performs and a power from the necessity of that function and the skills that he possesses to fulfil it”. (Polan op.cit.)

So the reality of life in post-revolutionary Russia precluded Lenin’s original minimalist view of the post-revolutionary state. It is also noteworthy that in this period Lenin became obsessed with the current practices of American capitalism and advocated one-man management of industry and Taylorism. Workers’ control of industry had never been in the Bolsheviks’ playbook and this is certainly not what happened. Consequently it is difficult to see what the workers of Petrograd ultimately gained from the second revolution which many of them had supported.

What then should we conclude from all this? Any plans to develop a vanguard party that believes it is the sole guardian of truth should be discarded. However, the world is suffering not only from the existence of totalitarian dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that claim to be democracies. It is also suffering from largely unregulated capitalism that, since the Thatcher-Reagan era, has produced a growing gulf between a tiny minority of the super-rich and the growing multitude of the poor. The sustained development of the forces of production is causing immense damage to our world threatening both the future of its human beings and of its other species.

My conclusion is that a rejection of Leninism and an appreciation of where the limitations of Marxism lie should not lead us to rule out the notion that some form of democratic socialism is the way forward. If we embrace Polan’s argument on the need to retain the liberal freedoms of ‘bourgeois’ civil society – freedom of speech, the press, the right to form political parties, the rule of law etc – then we could be envisaging a pluralist socialistic society. Precisely how to square this with the continued existence or abolition or containment of capitalism is problematic and beyond the scope of this article or its author’s capacity to provide a comprehensive solution. Perhaps the most we can hope for currently is something like the programme outlined in the 2017 Labour Party manifesto leading to a more progressive outcome, from which we could hope to make further advancement. Venceremos, but be wary of what this means.


  1. Which is a long-winded way of saying “never give a bunch of bourgeois psychos the keys to the armoury”.

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