From the February 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
Lenin as revolutionary leader
Last month’s article outlined Lenin’s failure as a political thinker. In particular, it took two aspects of Lenin’s work (the need for a transition, and the question of whether socialism must be preceded by capitalism) to show that Lenin failed to understand the nature of the problem facing the working class. This month, we deal with Lenin as a leader of a party claiming to be revolutionary. And it should be remembered that Lenin was not just a revolutionary theorist. He seized a unique opportunity that history presented, and by doing so captured the imagination of many workers both at the time and since. It is therefore important to correct the illusion that Lenin’s method is capable of introducing a socialist revolution. (All page references unless otherwise stated are to the one Volume Selected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975 printing.)
The first thing about Lenin’s theory of a revolutionary party is that it is based on leadership of the “masses”. This is the reverse of the socialist principle which holds (with Marx) that socialism will be a society of voluntary co-operation. This means that in order to run socialism, the workers have to be aware of what is necessary to make the new society function. And it follows from this, that it will not be possible to establish a voluntary society unless those seeking to do so are in fact the majority of people in society, and those people know what is involved and can work conscientiously for socialism.
Lenin’s theory of leadership was based on several grounds. The most important is probably his opinion that the working class did not have the necessary ability to get to grips with socialist ideas; he developed this idea in his early work, What Is To Be Done? (1902) Where he draws the distinction between revolutionary activity (for the hard core of professional revolutionaries engaged in full time political activity), and trade union activity, (a task to be engaged in by the working class as a whole.)
The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness . . . The theory of socialism, however, grew out of philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied class, by intellectuals. (Selected Works, 3 volume edition. Progress Publishers, 1970 Vol 1 p. 119).
Now it is true that Lenin is here dealing with the specific conditions of aristocratic Russia at the start of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, this passage does demonstrate one of his most essential concepts as revolutionary. that of a “vanguard”. Because of the inability of the workers to think for themselves, according to Lenin, it is necessary for socialism to be introduced for them. Although this is quite impossible, the idea stayed with Lenin in theory, and above all in his political practice (the seizure of power by a small minority). He never abandoned it.
The Worker's Role
It is worth pursuing What Is To Be Done? a little further. Lenin lays down three principles for the workers' organisation:
The workers organisation must in the first place be by a trade union organisation: secondly it must be as broad as possible: and thirdly it must be as public as conditions will allow, (ibid p.207)
This delegation to the workers of the “menial” tasks of wages struggle is of course the reverse of the attitude taken by Marx, who pointed out that the struggle over wages and working conditions (trade union activity proper) was essentially defensive. It concerned the working class in that it was a constant battle to try to prevent the capitalist class lowering wages. But Marx made it absolutely clear that this was not sufficient; workers also had to take steps to abolish the wages system, to end capitalism altogether. There is no hint in Marx that workers should seek leaders to end capitalism for them. Notwithstanding this sound policy, Lenin wrote a little later in What Is To Be Done? that his anti-majority action propositions, “I shall defend no matter how much you instigate the crowd against me for my ‘anti democratic’ views etc.” In a speech in 1920 Lenin repeated this view. He said: "We do not hold the utopian view that the masses are ready for a socialist society.” (p. 618)
Given this arrogant and contemptuous view of the ability of the working class, certain fairly obvious conclusions must follow. Take for example the vital work of education of the working class. Now this task is essential for the reason, that until the working class abandon their support for capitalism as the only form of society possible. the socialist revolution cannot take place. This is why so much work of the socialist is concerned with showing the way capitalism causes problems for the majority. and how it is incapable of solving those problems. At the same time the socialist puts forward, in as concrete and definite a way as possible, the solutions to the problems of capitalism. Lenin too talked about the necessity of educating the working class. Indeed it was Lenin who stressed the vital importance of his party running a mass circulation newspaper, and put down much of the Bolsheviks’ ultimate success to this vital propaganda vehicle. In 1905, twelve years before the revolution, Lenin was writing that: “our main attention will be fixed on propaganda and agitation, extemporaneous and mass meetings, the distribution of leaflets and pamphlets, assisting in the economic struggle and championing the slogans of that struggle.” (Two Tactics of Social Democracy etc. p. 119). In the same year, Lenin urged his comrades to get to work: “to organise a broad, multiform and varied literature inseparably linked with the Social-Democratic working-class movement.” (Party Organisation and Party Literature, p. 152)
But what is the point of all this party literature if there is no need for the working classes to understand anyway? If all the workers need is some limited trade union understanding, then that can be achieved without education from a vanguard. After all. the workers throughout the capitalist world have learnt a trade union consciousness without the intervention of the Bolsheviks. One answer that Lenin might give to this is that it is necessary for the revolutionary party to "join” with the masses. "A vanguard performs its tasks as vanguard" Lenin wrote in 1922, "only when it is able to avoid being isolated from the mass of the people that it leads and is able really to lead the whole mass forward.” (p. 653)
And for those of the masses who want to graduate to the honour of being the vanguard. Lenin warns in his Left Wing Communism—An Infantile Disorder that he is not going to have too many of the masses getting in the way. He writes that “We are apprehensive of an excessive growth of the party . . .”. (p. 532) This apprehension is caused, says Lenin, because of the fear of invasion from “careerists and charlatans.” It is all part of a principle of leadership designed to keep the “masses" where they are—as wage-slaves, divorced from the spoils of office which the ruling bureaucrats of the communist party keep for themselves.
Dictatorship Over The Proletariat
Lenin’s double standards should be made clear. For Lenin’s claim, that his revolution would, and did, establish the dictatorship of the proletariat sounds as though he intended to have a dictatorship of the majority (whatever that might mean). In fact Lenin at other times makes it quite clear that the dictatorship is intended to be by a minority, with firm control by the party over the working class who are to remain workers. In The State and Revolution (1917) Lenin issues grim warnings to the workers that if he captures power he will rule with an iron hand (in the interests of the workers of course!). He wrote that they will establish “strict, iron discipline backed up by the state power of the armed workers.” (p.296) A little later in the work Lenin writes: “And the Dictatorship of the Proletariat i.e. the organisation of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy.” (p. 324. emphasis ours). Note the subtle change here. Now the workers are being told that it is not the workers who will do the ruling, and therefore be the "dictators”, but the vanguard.
But if the warning was not heeded prior to the revolution, Lenin certainly made it clear afterwards. In his appendix to Left-Wing Communism, etc. he talked about revolutions being impossible without "the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, without a rigorously centralised party with iron discipline, without the ability to become masters of every sphere, every branch and every variety of political and cultural work.” (p. 577/8)
Before the revolution. Lenin was never in much doubt that his party would both take part in government and, if it could, run its own government. And if there was any doubt about this prior to 1917, there was no doubt after. The Communist Party has ruled Russia since 1917 and justifies itself by appealing to Lenin’s authority. (It also appeals to the authority of Marx—only the Russian revolution is as much related to Marx, as the lamb is to the wolf.) Lenin knew what he was doing—he was seizing power.
The art of politics (and the Communists’ correct understanding of his tasks) consists in correctly gauging the conditions and the moment when the vanguard of the proletariat can successfully assume power . . . and when it is able thereafter to maintain, consolidate and extend its rule by educating. training and attracting open broader masses of the working people, (p. 535)
Lenin seems to have come a long way from Marx, whose ideas he says he is applying. In Capital, Marx makes it clear that the changes from primitive society to the first forms of class society were bloody and violent struggles; whereas the transformation from capitalism to socialism will not be that sort of struggle. "In the former case, we have the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter case we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.” (Capital Volume 1, Lawrence and Wishart printing 1970, p.764) Lenin’s revolutionary party merely replaced one set of usurpers with another.