Lenin in Context
Louis N Proyect
lnp3 at columbia.edu
Tue Jun 4 12:17:40 MDT 1996
The next time you run into one of our latter-day "Marxist-Leninists"
who trace their lineage to the historic split between the Bolsheviks and
the Mensheviks in the Russian Social Democracy, give them a little
quiz. Ask them to identify the authors of the following 2 opposing
motions around which the historical split took place. One is Lenin,
leader of the Bolsheviks, the other is Martov, the Menshevik leader.
1. A party member is one "who recognizes the Party's programme and
supports it by material means and by personal participation in one of
the Party's organizations."
2. A party member is one "who recognizes the Party's programme and
supports it by material means and by regular personal assistance under
the direction of one of the party's organizations."
Lenin is the author of the first motion and Martov the second. As
should be clear from this, the split between Bolshevik and Menshevik
did not involve the kind of deeply principled questions that caused the
Zimmerwald Movement to emerge as a counter to the socialist
parliamentarians who voted for W.W.I.
It is essential to understand is that the whole purpose of the convention
at which this historic split took place was to form a party where none
existed. It was Lenin and Plekhanov's intention to form a new social-
democratic party on the model of the Western European parties. It was
not, as our contemporary "Marxist-Leninists" believe, an initiative to
innovate some new "democratic-centralist" type of party. Plekhanov
was the father of Russian Marxism and Lenin considered himself a
disciple of Plekhanov. In the articles leading up to the convention,
Lenin continuously pointed to the example of Kautsky's party in
Germany as something Russian socialists should emulate.
As often occurs in the socialist movement, Lenin was confronted by
roadblocks. The most important of these was "Economism".
Economism was a current within Russian social democracy which
tended to limit struggles to bread-and-butter issues at the individual
factory level. It was suspicious of any efforts to make the struggle
nation-wide and general, such as was the goal of more orthodox
Marxists like Plekhanov and Lenin.
Lenin was a master of getting to the heart of underlying socio-
economic dynamics. He explained that "Economism" was a reflection
of the more primitive, handicrafts phase of Russian capitalism when
shops were smaller and more isolated. He noticed the great
concentration of large factories in major cosmopolitan centers and
concluded that a more professional and more generalized approach
was needed in line with the changed circumstances.
Economism belonged to Russia's past; orthodox Marxism was the way
forward. He saw modern social democracy as corresponding to the
highly complex and specialized nature of modern mass production. He
saw socialist parties as the working-class equivalent of large-scale
industrial plants. A centrally-managed, large-scale division of labor
was needed to move the struggle forward, just as it was necessary to
construct steam locomotives. Lenin was no enemy of capitalist
technology and mechanization. Rather he sought to appropriate its
positive features whenever necessary.
The split between Bolshevik and Menshevik took place at only the
second convention of the Russian socialist movement not the 22nd or
the 32nd. The basis goal of the convention was to establish the
structure and purpose of a new Russian socialist party.
One of the key ingredients of a socialist party, according to Lenin, was
a newspaper. He saw a national newspaper as a way of uniting and
orienting social democrats. A newspaper would allow the party to have
a national focus. It would allow all of the particular economic
struggles to be politically linked together in a meaningful fashion.
Lenin did not envision the newspaper as a means of propagating a
"party line".It had just the opposite role. The newspaper would be the
vehicle for allowing opposing views to be compared and weighed
against each other in order to allow the party to arrive at a political
Lenin argued that unity must be "worked for". He said:
"Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of
all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise our unity
will be purely fictitious...We do not intend to make our publication a
mere store-house of various views. On the contrary, we shall conduct it
in the spirit of a strictly defined tendency. This tendency can be
expressed by the word Marxism. ... Only in this way will it be possible
to establish a genuinely all-Russian, Social-Democratic organ. Only
such a publication will be capable of leading the movement on the
high road of political struggle."
Another common source of confusion is Lenin's use of the term
"professional revolutionary". In his view, "professional
revolutionaries" are the key to the success of Russian social
In modern "Marxist-Leninist" groups, "professional revolutionaries"
are those who are on movement payroll. People who are not full-timers
but who contributed lavishly of their time and funds are lower on the
hierarchy. They are like the drone bees who keep the hive functioning.
This of course has nothing to do with Lenin's understanding of the
term. For Lenin, the need for "professional revolutionaries" arose
within the context of the difficult and semi-clandestine nature of
socialist activity under Czarism. Professional revolutionaries were
needed at the core of the party to keep the apparatus functioning in
case of police crack-downs.
As an extension of his ideas about divisions of labor in large-scale
capitalist enterprises being adapted to socialist organizations, Lenin
saw the need for gradations of skill, expertise and conspiratorial
training appropriate to the levels of risk in each phase of
organizational activity. At each level the degree of risk could be
minimized by introducing specialization of function, so that, at no
matter what level, activists would have the chance to become
proficient in dealing with their own area of work.
As in every aspect of his recommendations for Russian Social
Democracy, Lenin was operating within the concrete conditions of
Russian objective conditions at a given time in history. In 1907 Lenin
was very specific about the particular framework of "What is to be
Done" which addressed problems in the 1899-1903 time-frame.
"Concerning the essential content of this pamphlet it is necessary to
draw the attention of the modern reader to the following.
The basic mistake made by those who now criticize "What is to be
Done" is to treat the pamphlet apart from its connection with the
concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in
the development of our Party."
So much for our contemporary Bolsheviks who use Lenin's writings
the way amateur cooks use the recipes of French masters such as
Jacques Pepin. If they don't follow the recipe to the letter, what comes
out could be inedible. But we now have to create our own recipe, just
the way Lenin did.
Let us conclude with an examination of the question of democratic
centralism, probably the most vexing legacy of the period coincident
with "What is to be Done" and one that has been most widely
misinterpreted. In 1906 Lenin said that "the Russian Social
Democracy was in agreement on the principles of democratic
centralism, guarantees for the rights of all minorities and for all loyal
opposition, on the autonomy of every Party organization, on
recognizing that all Party functionaries must be elected, accountable to
the Party and subject to Recall."
Later Lenin clarified how tolerant of political disagreements his
concept of democratic centralism was. He wrote "The principle of
democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organizations
implies universal and full freedom to criticize so long as this does not
disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticisms which
disrupts or makes difficult the unity of a definite action; it rules out all
criticisms which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action
decided on by the Party." Nowhere does Lenin suggest that democratic
centralism applies to doctrine. Every member would of course have his
or her interpretation of political questions, but once a decision had
been made to build a strike or a demonstration, etc., it was incumbent
upon each member to concentrate on building the action.
When one of today's "Marxist-Leninist" groups votes to change the
party line at a convention, then every member has to defend this new
line in public. It would mean, for example, that CPUSA members
would have been under discipline to defend Soviet intervention in
Afghanistan publicly. Party rank-and-file members who oppose the
line have to wait patiently for the next convention in order to persuade
the majority of his or her position.
The problem, of course, is that in "Marxist-Leninist" formations, it is
difficult to maintain such contrary positions and resist peer pressure to
conform to the rest of the group in between conventions. When
individuals or groupings decide to maintain dissident points of views
like these, it is often the prelude to a split. This has nothing in
common with Lenin's concept of democratic centralism. The
Bolsheviks were free to criticize party positions publicly as long as
they acted in a disciplined fashion with respect to demonstrations,
strikes and other *actions*.
Comrades, brothers and sisters, we face the same types of problems
that Lenin faced. We need a socialist party, but none exists. The self-
designated "vanguard" parties will not do. The amount of consensus
that exists in the general left-wing, socialist population which probably
numbers in the 10's of thousands is sufficient to launch such an
organization. We also need a newspaper that will allow us to discuss
and debate with various points of view in order to arrive at a strategy
for an American revolution. No such strategy exists today.
We have to start from scratch.
1) Neil Harding "Lenin's Political Thought"
2) Paul LeBlanc "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party"
3) Lenin: articles and speeches from the collected edition which cover the
4 year period leading up to the "What is to be Done" conference.
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