Editorial from the April 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard
Why we criticise Lenin
Those who read Marx and Lenin cannot fail to notice some difference in the views of these two revolutionary thinkers. Few, however, realise the full nature and extent to which Lenin's views differ from those of Marx. In this issue of the Socialist Standard on the occasion of the centenary of Lenin's birth we analyse Lenin's theories, particularly those concerning imperialism, the state and social evolution, and show how they are radically different from Marx's.
Now that Russia is obviously just another capitalist and imperialist state, it has lost the attraction it once had for many confused critics of society. The tendency, however, is to blame Stalin for distorting Marxism into the ideology of a state capitalist ruling class. Lenin is still widely regarded as a genuine Marxist. That this is so the Socialist Party of Great Britain emphatically rejects.
It is undeniably true that Lenin, and the Bolshevik party he led, spoke the language of Marxism and sought to justify their policies in Marxist terms. This requires some explanation in terms of the materialist conception of history.
Capitalism in Russia, which began to develop in the last quarter of the 19th century, had its own special features. The capitalists there were weak and dependent on both the Tsarist government and on foreign investors. As a result they were politically isolated and incapable of leading the revolution against Tsarism which was necessary for the full development of capitalism in Russia. The task of overthrowing the Tsar — Russia's bourgeois or capitalist revolution — thus fell into other hands, those of the intelligentsia, a social group peculiar to the Russia of that time made up of university-trained people employed in various professional capacities by the government.
The anti-Tsarist struggle, and its theory, was started by sections of this intelligentsia. In view of the weakness and cowardice of Russia's capitalists (and, in the early stages, of the virtual absence of capitalism) it was not really surprising that these revolutionaries should be attracted by anti-capitalist ideas. The great bulk of them, even though they never claimed to be Marxists, always regarded themselves (wrongly in our view) as socialists. Later some, including Lenin, did pick up a few of Marx's ideas but this still did not mean that their theories served she interest of the working class.
Lenin's theory of the vanguard party — his most notorious departure from Marx which says that the revolution can only be achieved by a party of professional revolutionaries leading the discontented masses — was taken straight from the Russian revolutionary tradition. Its pedigree can be traced back through Tkachev and Ogarev to West European thinkers like Babeuf and Buonarroti whose idea of revolution was coloured by the Great French Bourgeois Revolution.
It is true that Marx began has political activity as this kind of old-fashioned revolutionary democrat, but he soon realised that the socialist revolution would have to be radically different from what had happened in France because it would be the first revolution carried out by a majority conscious of its own interest. Marx went beyond, and specifically repudiated, the idea of self-appointed liberators leading the mass of ignorant people to freedom. Lenin never really advanced much beyond this. He remained, in his theory as well as his practice, essentially a bourgeois or capitalist revolutionary. In fact it was because Russia in the opening decades of this century was ripe for such a revolution that his ideas had any social or political significance.
Stalin did indeed twist Marxism into the conservative ideology of a state capitalist ruling class, but he was merely building on Lenin's previous distortion of Marxism into the ideology of that same class while it was struggling for power.
Lenin was just a Russian revolutionary, while Marx was a revolutionary Socialist. This is the great difference between them.