‘Unfinished Leninism’

By JOE AUCIELLO

Review: Paul LeBlanc, “Unfinished Leninism,” (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 237 pp., $18.

Icons, even revolutionary ones, have a sensible purpose, though the intent is not always realized. The iconic image summons the observer in the present to heed the achievements of the past and thus shape the future. An icon, then, is also an imperative to obey, an imperative often at odds with the rebellious spirit of the figure meant to be celebrated.

In Hanoi, in a park across from the War Museum, stands a large and imposing statue of Vladimir Lenin, main leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and architect of the Soviet state. This statue attracts relatively few people today, though a kind of inscription remains from a past visit. Someone has scrambled up the pedestal to draw, on Lenin’s left calf, the universal symbol of adolescent romance—a heart pierced with an arrow and the names of the, presumably, young lovers.

Thus the present pays its own tribute to the past; thus the fate of revolutionary icons. No surprise to Lenin, whose widow “recalled that Lenin had often used the word ikon in a derogatory sense, saying of a revolutionary who was honoured but no longer had any influence: ‘Well, he is already an ikon’” (E.H. Carr, “Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926,” Volume Two, page 11).

Lenin’s writings have also been made into a kind of icon, a process that began in the months after his death. Joseph Stalin’s “The Foundations of Leninism” and “Problems of Leninism” (1924) sculpted the iconic image of a Lenin suitable for the ascendant bureaucracy that oversaw the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Thus, the theory of “socialism in one country” was proclaimed, as bureaucratic rule in the Soviet Union abandoned revolutionary perspectives worldwide to seek accommodation and stability with its hostile capitalist neighbors.

A false “Leninism” was created that disowned the revolutionary past even while claiming continuity with the achievements of the October Revolution. It was a transformation that drained the life out of revolutionary ideas as they hardened into a set of commandments in the service of those who had the power to impose their interpretation. “Leninism” bestowed a false legitimacy to the rulers who were destroying the revolutionary tradition of Lenin.

A body of work and a set of ideas intended to analyze and transform reality in the service of the oppressed became a set of laws intended to legitimize the rule of a new social layer of oppressors.

For anyone active in the struggle for socialism, this standard view of Lenin constitutes “the heritage we renounce,” to borrow a title from one of Lenin’s early works. A different and truer understanding of Lenin is needed, one that does not serve the interests of established authority.

This is the challenge that LeBlanc, among other writers, has taken up—to look past the figure of Lenin-as-icon and instead see him as “a key figure who must be engaged with.” Taken as a whole, LeBlanc’s essays are a sympathetic “[w]restling with and learning from the actual experience associated with Lenin…” (p. 95).

Of course, LeBlanc is not forced to begin from scratch. In rejecting the “Stalin school of falsification,” LeBlanc draws on the revolutionary traditions associated with Leon Trotsky, founder of the Left Opposition within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who in 1923 began a struggle for “The New Course” and continued this fight until his expulsion in 1927. Trotsky defended and extended Lenin’s ideas theoretically and practically in the formation of the Fourth International in the 1930s, drawing together cadres on several continents to form the world party of socialist revolution. The International continues its work today, and its sections are involved in social protest and struggles throughout the world.

Within the international left, controversy and debate over Lenin and the Bolshevik legacy are not confined to the distant past. Quite the contrary! Even organizations whose origins lay in the anti-Stalinist left and Trotskyism have undergone political crises in which the theories of Lenin have played a significant part.

Thirty years ago in the United States, the formerly Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) began to abandon its revolutionary program and the traditions on which it had been built, carried out in part in a series of “Lenin classes.” The demise of the SWP—with its expulsions and forced resignations—led many if not most of the expellees to a renewed questioning of the party’s heritage. How could so much have gone so wrong?

More recently, in Britain, a widely publicized case concerning allegations of sexual misconduct involving a leader of the Socialist Workers Party there (no relation to the SWP of the United States) led to a set of decisions so controversial that scores of members resigned in protest. The combined effect of these two events, though decades apart, has sparked anew disagreements about the nature and legitimacy of the Leninist vanguard party and have led, in each country, to the creation of new socialist organizations.

Several of the key participants in the current debates were formerly members of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, as was LeBlanc himself. In Britain, leaders of the SWP there have defended their positions in print and at public conferences they have held.

Paul LeBlanc has emerged as a central figure in these debates, and much of his commentary is gathered in his most recent book. “Unfinished Leninism” is a collection of (mostly) previously published essays, articles, polemics, and reviews. Also included are the texts of presentations, academic and political, given at conferences worldwide. The accidental nature of this volume is no real drawback, given its objective.

The terrain of this book—its conflicts and controversies—is often staked out by other writers whose opinions compelled LeBlanc to respond. So, “Unfinished Leninism” is not another biography of Lenin, nor an all-encompassing commentary on Lenin’s work. The focus of the book, and its unifying thread, is the meaning of Lenin’s organizational ideas and the contemporary relevance of what does not (yet) exist: a revolutionary vanguard party of the working class.

This is a book that LeBlanc is uniquely qualified to write. A professor of history at LaRoche College, he is also a revolutionary socialist of some 50 years’ experience. With Dianne Feeley, he co-authored the first pamphlet published by Socialist Action, “In Defense of Revolutionary Continuity.” He is the author of several books including “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” and has recently edited anthologies of Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky. He is currently a member of the International Socialist Organization.

“Unfinished Leninism” may be obtained from Haymarket Books at http://www.haymarketbooks.org.

An interview with author Paul LeBlanc

Question by Joe Auciello: Is there a “Lenin revival” that is more than the admittedly useful work of academic scholars? Socialist organizations that consciously strive to follow a Leninist model are quite small and have little influence within protest movements today. Several years ago, you suggested that “Bolshevik and Leninist traditions will continue to attract, and be developed by, revolutionary activists of today and tomorrow.” Where would you locate such stirrings?

Paul LeBlanc: We can see a marked increase in significant Lenin studies, and related studies, from Lars Lih, Bryan Palmer, August Nimtz, John Riddell, Alan Shandro, Tamás Krausz, Eric Blanc, and a growing number of others. Why is this happening? Such things would not be written or published if they did not speak to the deepening concerns of an expanding layer of potential readers. They would not be appearing if they were not—to borrow a capitalist term—marketable.

Such works are appearing in a period of ongoing economic, social, and political crisis, with a decline in the quality of life generating the rise of protest and insurgency. I have personally seen such stirrings, manifesting themselves in different ways, in different parts of the United States, of course, and in such diverse places as England, Australia, Turkey, China, and India. While it is hardly the case that a majority among the rising tide of rebels and activists embrace (or even have much knowledge of) Lenin, there are two essential connections.

The most elemental connection is this: at the very heart of the Bolshevik and Leninist tradition is the struggle against oppression. The proliferation of such struggles generates an atmosphere in which there is likely to be a growing interest in the revolutionary ideas and traditions associated with Lenin. That relates to the other connection: Lenin and his comrades spoke to the most urgent concerns of those who hope to overcome oppression. Following Marx, they developed a profound understanding of the interconnection between the nature of oppression and the dynamics of capitalism, the dimensions of class struggle and the way it can develop into effective struggles for reform and revolution, and how socialists can organize themselves in a way to make this so.

The fact remains that, as you say, “socialist organizations that consciously strive to follow a Leninist model are quite small and have little influence.” But striving to follow this model and actually doing so are not the same thing. I believe would-be Leninist organizations are unable to “follow this model” in part because of the very different objective reality in which we are enmeshed and in part because there are fundamental misunderstandings of what Leninism means—if we are referring to the “Leninism” of Lenin, his basic orientation and political practice. Perhaps I can explain what I mean as I respond to other questions you pose.

Quest.: Recent social uprisings like the Occupy movement did not evolve in a Leninist direction and have sputtered out. You referred to “the chaos of organizational confusion” that existed within the Occupy movement. That situation reflected a theoretical confusion, as well. In fact, Lenin’s famous dictum, “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” certainly seemed reconfirmed by negative example in the collapse of the Occupy project. But that is little consolation. In terms of building a healthy revolutionary organization, what does Marxist and Leninist theory have to offer at the present time in a more positive way?

P.L.: One aspect of the present capitalist reality that we must understand—as Marxists, as Leninists, as Trotskyists—is that our world is quite different from what it was in the time of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. Some things that they emphasized had to do with a very different situation than the one we face. That affects the way I saw the Occupy movement, in which I was quite active.

Lenin and Trotsky lived in a time when there was a massive international workers’ movement animated by a very high degree of class consciousness, with a highly organized and very large socialist (later Communist) component, nourished by a very rich and substantial labor-radical subculture. That disintegrated under the impact of fascism, a second world war, and post-World War II developments.

Proclaiming the truths of revolutionary Marxist theory in the latter years of the 20th century—as many of us were inclined to do—in the absence of a class-conscious labor movement will have a different impact than what was true in the time of Lenin and Trotsky. (In a way, the reality of our labor movement seems to correspond more to that of Marx’s time in the early 1860s—very undeveloped and fragmented.)

Today’s working-class movement (like the modern-day working class) has been in a process of recomposition. The Occupy movement involved large, very broad sectors of what were, for all practical purposes, working-class youth. Their protests against the tyranny of the 1% over the 99% resonated powerfully among a majority of the people of the United States—who are, in fact, working class but largely self-identify as “middle class.”

The inability of Occupy to cohere around a socialist program was inevitable. Those distressed by this had unrealistic expectations. Within this mass upsurge, however, socialists could be supportive, could participate, could help with practical and logistical matters, and could share socialist ideas that some participants would consider further, particularly in the wake of Occupy’s inevitable collapse.

Such mass phenomena as the Occupy movement and the Black Lives Matter movement are part of a recomposition process of working-class protest, struggle, and consciousness building. These are among the preconditions for the rebuilding of a working-class movement that can challenge the power of capital and, eventually, bring a socialist future. Instead of being impatient with these developments, we should embrace them as part of the process which will allow for greater numbers to consider and draw strength from the insights of Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, and other revolutionary comrades.

Quest.: Democratic centralism is an organizational principle for a revolutionary party, or for a group that aspires to become a party. A shorthand definition of democratic centralism is “freedom of discussion, unity in action.” Is this guiding idea really a useful guide? In actual political activity, don’t we more typically see a pattern where there is a drop of democracy and a case of centralism, followed by expulsion or splits? Is that problematic pattern a reason why democratic centralism is a crucial part of the current debate about Leninism?

P.L.: We need an additional category. We do not have a revolutionary party in the United States, although we badly need one, and some of us want to do what we can to bring that into being. There are, as you say, groups aspiring to become a revolutionary party—and that often generates, within and between groups, problematical dynamics that create serious obstacles to being able to help bring a revolutionary party into being. In contrast to this, there are other groups seeking to contribute to the creation of a revolutionary party but understanding that they, by themselves, cannot become such a party.

Groups in this third category realize that (1) a revolutionary party can actually come into being only when a class-consciousness layer of the working class is prepared to move in that direction; (2) there must be ongoing preliminary processes that will contribute to the crystallization of such a working-class layer; and (3) the group must join with revolutionaries in other groups, with radicalizing activists who are not and will not be in the existing groups, and with people who at the moment are neither radicals nor activists, and that together—in the future—we will all be helping to forge the revolutionary party we need.

I agree with how you define democratic centralism—freedom of discussion, unity in action. But those words can be understood and implemented in very different ways. For a group viewing itself as the repository of Revolutionary Truth and aspiring to become the revolutionary party, democratic centralism tends to be defined in a restrictive manner, which (in order to preserve the group’s ability to become the unadulterated revolutionary party) create a certain orthodoxy to which all must adhere, that limits discussion and generates a climate in which disciplinary actions and splits become all too common.

A healthy conception of democratic centralism involves a critical-mindedness, an openness, a political courage that characterized the way in which Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and other such comrades functioned. Shades of difference and outright disagreements are normal and necessary—especially given the complexity of the realities we face. That understood, it remains a fact that revolutionary socialists need to work together, as a democratic collective, to be effective in advancing the interests of the workers and the oppressed, creating the possibility of revolutionary party, and building a mass socialist movement that can bring revolutionary change.

Understood in this way, I think democratic centralism is a necessity, but it will be very different from what passes for “democratic centralism” in groups having a stilted understanding of themselves.

Quest.: In “Lessons of October” (1924), Trotsky wrote: “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the last decade” [since the Russian Revolution of October 1917]. Trotsky was contrasting the failures of socialist uprisings in Germany, Finland, and Hungary to the success of the revolution in Russia. He was, in other words, grounding his analysis on living history. But, in the 90 years since these words were written, has the sheer quantity of time changed the quality of this argument? Does a century of revolutionary history discount the tradition of Bolshevism?

P.L.: The answer to this is yes and no. As you say, “the sheer quantity of time must necessarily change the quality of the argument”—things clearly cannot be just the same as they were 90 years ago. But there are certain aspects of the Bolshevik tradition that, nonetheless, transcend the amazing changes that have taken place over nine decades. Jean-Paul Sartre once said the continued existence of capitalism means that Marxism “remains the philosophy of our time,” since we have not gone beyond the circumstances that brought Marx’s analyses into being. I think similar points can be made about the Bolshevik tradition.

Quest: Can we truly and meaningfully speak of Leninism as “unfinished”? Certainly “Capital” is unfinished; Marx did not live long enough to complete his masterwork. Lenin, though, lived long enough to build and direct a revolutionary workers party that overturned capitalism in Russia. After 1917, he essentially codified his ideas in (largely polemical) essays and books written against other socialist writers and tendencies. He established the Communist International and wrote the Twenty-One Conditions, adopted at its Second World Congress, which defined the standards that socialist parties had to meet in order to join the Comintern. In short, don’t we really know what Leninism is?

P.L.: Who is this “we” to whom you refer? Most people are not familiar with the term Leninism. Of those who have heard of it, many cannot give a definition. Of those who could give a definition, there are some who would indicate that it is consistent with the practices and mindset of the bureaucratic-authoritarian and murderous tyranny that arose in Russia particularly with the rule of Joseph Stalin. There are others who would associate it with the practices and perspectives of various left-wing sects proclaiming themselves to be “Leninist.”

A very small number, compared to the others just mentioned, see the “Leninism” of Lenin and his co-thinkers—in contrast to Stalinism and small-group sectarianism parading under the Leninist banner—as representing something important and necessary for the workers and the oppressed.

In this sense, then, when some sincere people on the Left announce that “Leninism is Finished,” the “we” who constitute this small number feel compelled to say: “No, Lenin is not finished.” Since it is our conviction that most people do not comprehend what Leninism actually is, we have a responsibility to explain—including why its history and meaning have been partly obliterated and partly distorted.

As with anything like this, there may be information and insights about this that some of some of us do not have, and differences among us on how best to understand what actually happened in history. There is a collective retrieval process of this historical Leninism that is far from complete, so in this sense, too, Leninism is “unfinished.”

There is yet another way in which it is unfinished, and this relates to Lenin’s methodology. Reality is dynamic and ceaselessly changing. There are always new things to understand, new analyses to be elaborated, revolutionary strategies that must be adapted to new situations, new tactics to be thought through and new ways to apply tried-and-true tactics.

Our situation is not a duplicate of that faced by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and our efforts to do what they did can only be successful if we are critical-minded and creative in our application of their approach. This is a point Lenin often made in discussions with comrades in the various parties that belonged to the Communist International. It is truer now than ever before. In this sense, too, Leninism is—and must be—unfinished.

Quest.: Finally, a personal and political question. Your writing style in debate is relentlessly reasonable, which is often not the case when writers on the left disagree with each other. I find you are scrupulously honest with assertions, that you do not push a point further than it can realistically go; you give a fair and even-handed assessment of different or opposing ideas, all of which are presented accurately. If style and tone represent politics, what do your style and tone indicate about your political outlook?

P.L.: The personal here is best understood politically—just as you suggest. Over time I had to recognize that it made no sense for me to copy the styles of Marx or Lenin or Trotsky, because I am certainly not these people, and each of us needs to find our own voice. But especially at this historical moment there is a need not to indulge in more-revolutionary-than-thou pretensions or left-polemical posturing.

We need to do four things. One is to think things through as clearly as we can to figure out, in the real world contexts in which we live. Another is to realize that the effort to do this is not individual but collective. Related to this, we cannot afford to dismiss others who differ with us; while not being afraid to disagree with something we think is wrong, we must reach for the elements of truth in the perspectives of others in order to strengthen our own understanding.

And if we are serious about winning more and more people to socialist and revolutionary perspectives, we must present those perspectives in ways that enable them to understand and embrace those perspectives.

 *****

What did Lenin stand for? 

Lenin’s quite unoriginal starting-point (shared with Marx and others) is a belief in the necessary interconnection of socialist theory and practice with the working class and labor movement. This fundamental orientation is the basis for most of what Lenin has to say. It is the basis of other key perspectives that one can find in his writings:

  • An understanding of the necessity of working-class political independence in political and social struggles, and the need for its supremacy (or hegemony) if such struggles are to triumph;
  • An understanding of the necessity for socialist and working-class support for struggles of all who suffer oppression;
  • A coherent conception of organization that is practical, democratic, and revolutionary;
  • The development of the united-front tactic, in which diverse political forces can work together for common goals, without revolutionary organizations undermining their ability to pose effective revolutionary perspectives to the capitalist status quo;
  • An intellectual and practical seriousness (and lack of dogmatism or sectarianism) in utilizing Marxist theory;
  • An approach of integrating reform struggles with revolutionary strategy;
  • A remarkable understanding of the manner in which democratic struggles flow into socialist revolution;
  • A commitment to a worker-peasant alliance;
  • A profound analysis of imperialism and nationalism;
  • A vibrantly revolutionary internationalist approach.

These points are excerpted from Paul LeBlanc’s book, “Unfinished Leninism.”