Lenin’s Legacy (part 1)

The purpose of the following article and that in next month’s issue is to examine aspects of Lenin’s political theory and discuss his role as revolutionary leader. In disagreeing fundamentally with Lenin the Socialist Party of Great Britain is marked off from almost every avowedly revolutionary party since 1917, including most of the left in Britain today. Within the obvious space constraints, we will seek to expose some of Lenin’s errors by reference to his better known writings. (All page references, unless otherwise stated, are to the One Volume Selected Works, Moscow 1975.)

Lenin as Political Thinker
In What Is To Be Done (1902) Lenin—correctly— wrote: “Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”; it is our contention that his incorrect political theory led to his incorrect practice. Lenin’s work illustrates well the impossibility of introducing a society based on free co-operation without an understanding by the working class of the tasks involved. It is true that he often talked in terms of mass participation (witness for example his slogan “to the masses”) and even believed that he had the support of the majority of workers and peasants. Almost four years after the Bolshevik coup he said:

We were victorious in Russia not only because the undisputed majority of the working class . . . was on our side, but also because half the army, immediately after our seizure of power, and nine-tenth of the peasants, in the course of some weeks, came over to our side.


For victory and for retaining power, what is essential is not only the majority of the working class—I used the term working class in its West European sense, i.e. in the sense of the industrial proletariat—but also the majority of the working and exploited population.

(Collected Works, Vol. 32 pp 471 & 475)

But in fact the majority of Lenin’s writings deny the need for socialism to be a mass movement and support the belief that it can be established by a minority of determined revolutionaries.

The need for capitalism
Marx held that without the presence of capitalism, socialism was not on the agenda. He maintained that capitalism is necessary to develop the means of production to the extent that would allow a society based on human needs to be established. Lenin too appreciated this. In Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905) he refuted the view, held by his Menshevik opponents, that the bourgeois revolution can only benefit capitalists:

It is quite absurd to think that a bourgeois revolution does not at all express proletarian interests . . . this idea disregards the elementary propositions of Marxism concerning the inevitability of capitalist development . . . it follows that the idea of seeking salvation for the working class in anything save the further development of capitalism is reactionary. (p76)

Lenin is here arguing for the capitalist revolution, the Russian equivalent if the French revolution of 1789-93. He is arguing for it out of necessity, acknowledging the requirement of capitalism at the particular time he was writing.

Nor did Lenin always confuse socialism with state control or nationalisation. He was fully aware that any form of large scale ownership, be it state or private, is still capitalism. Just before October 1917, in The State and Revolution, Lenin thought it necessary to emphasise this point because of “the erroneous bourgeois reformist assertion that monopoly capitalism or state monopoly capitalism is no longer capitalism, but can be called ‘state socialism’ and so on . . . (p309) Furthermore, he was quite clear that the revolution he was advocating could only hasten the process of capitalist development and not of itself introduce socialism. The revolution would be unable to affect the foundations of capitalism: “a victory will not by any means transform our bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution.” (p 82)

And that is roughly the position. Lenin is there talking like any “progressive” politician. In the work from which the last quote comes (Two Tactics . . .) he offered the workers and peasants improvements in their standard of living and greater freedoms (the irony here is of course enormous). This being capitalist progress, as Lenin himself frequently acknowledged, what is all the fuss about? Capitalism throughout the world is a system of comfort and privilege for the rich and toil and misery for the poor.

“But wait a minute” Lenin answers. “Of course I introduced socialism. Our Marxist revolution established a form of society fundamentally different from capitalism!” “What!” we might reply in disbelief. “You mean that having talked about the establishment of capitalism you are going to call it socialism?” In Left-Wing Childishness and Petty-Bourgeois Mentality (1918) he wrote that what they had done was to “establish ‘state capitalism’ which under Soviet power represents the threshold of socialism, the condition of its firm advance ” (p449). His claim was that the revolution had created a new form of social organisation fundamentally different from that which existed in the West. The details of this can be more clearly understood if we turn now to a second aspect.


The So-Called Transition
Much of the theoretical confusion that abounds in Lenin’s work relates to one question: Is it possible to go directly from capitalism to a socialist (or communist) society as defined by Marx? Lenin’s answer was a very definite “No”. His view was that it was necessary to have an intermediate stage (“the dictatorship of the proletariat”) which he called socialism (notwithstanding that, as already shown, he admitted that this stage was in fact capitalism). He claimed it would operate on the principle: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” Only after this form of society was well established would it be possible to move to the higher stage, which he called communism. Here, said Lenin, the principle would be: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The Russians claim to have reached the first stage, although the former principle bears no more resemblance to the reality of Russia than it does to society in the West.


Lenin partly justified the claim that the revolution would need two stages by reference to various passages in the Communist Manifesto and the Critique of the Gotha Programme. In The State and Revolution he argues the case at length. On the question of Marx’s (rare) references to a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, we would contend that the phrase is synonymous with the conquest of political power by a socialist working class, and cannot be quoted as justification for repression. This is not to say, of course, that Marx’s holding of a particular view necessarily makes it correct. Socialism (or communism) is a classless, propertyless society, in which wealth will be used for the benefit of all. There is no possibility of achieving this in stages. Marx talked of stages because the means of production had not in his time reached the level required for the establishment of a society of free access. In Critique of the Gotha Programme he states that “defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development is conditioned thereby.” At the time of the Russian revolution (42 years later) there was no further justification for the two stages distinction, society being technically capable of creating the necessary abundance of wealth.


Lenin, however, needed the two stages idea. Somehow or other he had to convince the people in Russia (and elsewhere) that what had been achieved was more than a bourgeois revolution. He had to satisfy his own “subjects” that the suffering and deprivation, past and to come, were acceptable because they were building a better future. (How many other politicians have made similar claims!) So, Lenin was able to speed the process of capitalist accumulation in the name of communism. “Until the ‘higher’ phase of Communism arrives”, he wrote in The State and Revolution, “the socialists demand the strictest control by society and by the state over the measure of labour and the measure of consumption . . .” (p331). In other words, the workers would be forced to work and strictly rationed in what they could consume. All good capitalist principles. And the fact that he went on in the same sentence to say “but this control must start with the expropriation of the capitalists” is little more than window dressing. It is true that some capitalists did find their property expropriated; but from the workers’ viewpoint what happened was that one group of exploiters took the place of another.


After the revolution, Lenin had the functions of a ruler to carry out. In The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, written in April 1918, he claims that a socialist revolution has been achieved (p399) and goes on to say that the task now facing the Bolsheviks is that of organising the administration of Russia. (The same problem, incidentally, that faces any minority that wishes to impose itself on the population.) Listen to the capitalist slogans he offers:


Keep regular and honest accounts of money, manage economically, do not be lazy, do not steal observe the strictest labour discipline—it is these slogans, justly scorned by the revolutionary proletariat when the bourgeoisie used them to conceal its rule as an exploiting class, that are now. since the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, becoming the immediate and the principle slogans of the moment, (p 401/2)

Confronted with severe economic problems following the revolution (one of them inflation!), Lenin introduced the infamous “New Economic Policy”, claiming that this would be “a totally different method”. And what was this new method? Was it some way of advancing socialism? Did it promote an understanding of the requirements for the overthrow of capitalism? Not likely! It meant entrenching capitalism! The new method would be:

. . . a reformist type of method: not to break up the old social-economic system—trade, petty proprietorship, capitalism,—but to revive trade, petty proprietorship, capitalism, while cautiously and gradually getting the upper hand over them . . . (p647)


Presumably the idea of “getting control” over the workings of capitalism was a joke (and not a very funny one in the circumstances). Lenin knew full well that capitalism by definition was uncontrollable.


May people still think that Russia is, or was, something to do with socialism, and that Lenin was a socialist. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Ronnie Warrington