Thomas Hummel celebrates the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s 150th birthday by exploring some of his enduring contributions to socialist theory and practice today.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known to the world as Lenin, was born on this day one hundred and fifty years ago. His birthday comes at a moment when the logic of capitalism, the system he devoted his entire life to overthrowing, has driven humanity to the brink of disaster. Coronavirus, which has its roots in capitalism’s disastrous relation to nature, is sweeping the planet and has triggered an economic contraction that will likely be the worst since the Great Depression, and perhaps worse. Yesterday Jonathan Neale reported on garment workers in Haiti who were forced to go back to work in the middle of the pandemic, put into a position where “the question was whether to die of hunger or coronavirus.” Their situation is not unique—millions are already suffering from hunger as a result of this crisis.
The crisis today is a clear example of how capitalist society puts constraints upon what is possible. It is not because we do not have enough food that these people are hungry, but because we are ruled by an economic system governed by anarchic economic laws which does not have human well-being as its goal. For those of us who want to build a better world, Lenin’s life and thought, firmly committed to core principles and with a hard realism in relation to strategy and tactics, is crucial if we hope to get there.
Lenin’s life and work
From his beginnings in a small town on the Volga River in Russia, Lenin would grow to become the greatest revolutionary thinker since Marx and the leader of the world’s first successful socialist revolution.
Lenin, like Marx before him, learned from the working class. During the unsuccessful revolution of 1905, and again in February 1917, Lenin recognized the importance of the new forms of workers power, the soviets, as the foundation of the new society. It is no coincidence that Lenin and the Bolsheviks led the only successful socialist revolution in world history. Where Marx answered questions regarding the destructive logic of capitalism and identified the working class as the agent of change, Lenin contributed to the question of revolutionary organization by building the mass revolutionary party to take on the power of capital and win.
Before Lenin, most Marxists believed that socialism would emerge inevitably with the growth of socialist parties. In the decades before World War I, these parties in Europe had grown enormously, but an abandonment of classical Marxist principles of working class self-emancipation gave way to the practice of social democratic reformism within the bourgeois state. When these parties supported their own governments in the carnage of WWI, Lenin was among the minority of socialists who insisted on revolutionary internationalism, and added to the Marxist understanding of imperialism. And in the heat of the revolutionary struggle he further contributed to Marxist theory with his great State and Revolution. His theoretical additions were always tied to revolutionary practice, especially in developing the idea of the revolutionary party: where the most radical sections of the working class must be organized around clear political principles, with issues of strategy and tactics being democratically debated, but implemented in unity.
Leninist organization made the Russian Revolution possible. This revolution revealed what would be possible in a world without capitalism. The working class took control of society and laid the foundations for running it democratically. Workers’ councils controlled production. Abortion, homosexuality, and divorce were all legalized.
But the revolution needed to spread if it was to survive. The capitalist nations, frightened of what a successful revolution might mean to their working classes at home, did everything in their power to strangle the revolution in its infancy. Russia was isolated and counted on the support of the working class in the economically advanced countries, in particular Germany. Germany had its own revolution in November of 1918, which could have become the second successful socialist revolution after Russia. But the socialist party, the SPD, not organized along Leninist principles, betrayed the revolution and saved capitalism. The Russian Revolution, under the pressures of isolation and its accompanying harsh material circumstances, degenerated into the horrors of Stalinism.
Those horrors, and the methods of Stalinist parties around the world who still called themselves Marxist-Leninist, have led many to reject not only the term Leninism, but also the practice of democratic centralism and the idea of a party of the vanguard of the working class. But Stalin only triumphed through the slaughter of thousands of old Bolsheviks who stood in Lenin’s tradition (as well as millions of others), and represented the bureaucratic crushing of the Russian Revolution which Lenin and the Bolsheviks led. Following Marx, in State and Revolution Lenin saw both the vanguard party, and then the workers state, withering away as they became obsolete with the end of class society.
Lenin’s life and thought offer some core lessons for those of us struggling for a better world today.
The centrality of the working class – The working class is in a unique position to change the world. We have our hands on the levers of production and perform the work which keeps society moving. We can, through collective struggle, take over those processes and run them democratically. The working class, united, wields enormous material power. This was true in Lenin’s time, and it is still true today.
Socialism from below – The responsibility of building socialism lies with the working class itself. This means socialism is not imposed on people by an elected government, enlightened minority, or revolutionary party. Socialists need to be engaged in and build working class struggles and social movements in order to reinforce the consciousness and confidence which would make this project possible.
Against all forms of oppression – Lenin argued that revolutionary organizations must be the “tribune of the people,” uniting against every form of gender, sexual, racial, and religious persecution. The working class itself is multi-racial, multi-gendered, sharing multiple sexual orientations and religions. It is the responsibility of socialists today to carry on this Leninist tradition of fighting for full human liberation.
Self-emancipation of the working class – Socialism cannot be given to us by politicians. As the German example above illustrates, the capitalist system will not collapse inevitably or be reformed into socialism from the inside. Socialists who have tried this approach have ended up constrained by the logic of the system, often abandoning their principles once in office. As Marx said, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” When the entire socialist movement was betraying this principle, Lenin stuck to it firmly. We need to remember today that we cannot place our hope in achieving socialism through elections alone.
Non-sectarianism – While distinguishing the principled fight for socialism from reformism, Lenin also had an important critique of ultra-leftism. Lenin did not believe in standing on the sidelines with condemnations of existing social movements without getting involved. He believed in meeting the working class where it is at, establishing relationships with those involved, and winning them over to a revolutionary socialist perspective.
Revolutionary organization – Turning the everyday resistance to capitalism into a successful fight for socialism entails building an organization of the most radical elements inside those struggles. Such an organization should be flexible and open about tactics, but firmly committed to its core revolutionary principles. During all but the largest revolutionary crises, this will necessarily be a minority. A socialist movement that is embedded in the working class and organically connected with the movements that spontaneously arise and express discontent with capitalism lays the foundations for such an organization and, ultimately, for winning socialism and getting rid of the state altogether.