NORAMN GERAS AND LENIN

Karl Carlile joseph at indigo.ie
Wed Jun 19 04:57:35 MDT 1996


Karl Carlile: The following text is of value concering some of the
shortcomings of Lenin's conception of the principles of party building.


Lenin, Trotsky and the Party
by Norman Geras


The following article is the text of an introduction given at the Marxist
Symposium organized by the British International Marxist Group in
September 1977.


To begin at the beginning. Seventy-five years ago, Lenin wrote What is to
be Done? -- that is, one year before the 1903 Congress of the Russian
Social Democratic Labour Party, in which the historic split between the
Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks took place. In connection with that split
he wrote another work, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, and these two
pamphlets embody the initial formulation of the Leninist theory of the
Party and of organization.

Now as everyone knows, two other outstanding revolutionaries of that
epoch, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, opposed Lenin and criticized his
works in vigorous polemics: Rosa Luxemburg in a pamphlet called
<I>Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy</I>, Trotsky in a
book called <I>Our Political Tasks</I>. All the signs on the eve of
Luxemburg's murder in 1918 were that the differences between her and
Lenin, which have in any case been exaggerated, were getting smaller. In
Trotsky's case, he opposed Lenin on the question of the Party for nearly a
decade and a half. Then in 1917 he was won over and joined the Bolshevik
Party, and until his death he defended and fought for the revolutionary
substance of the Leninist theory of organization. But in doing that, and
in order to do it, he had now to oppose the "cult" or Lenin that
was part and parcel of the emergence and triumph of Stalinism.

Now in his <I>History of the Russian Revolution</I>, Trotsky the
historian, speaking of Trotsky the political actor in the third person,
wrote that Trotsky came to Lenin "as to a teacher whose power and
significance he understood later than many others, but perhaps more fully
than they". Now that's not, as no doubt many would immediately want
to say, immodesty or arrogance on Trotsky's part. It's a sober appraisal
of his own relationship to the political legacy of Lenin.

Consider. On the one hand there is the whole army of bourgeois
ideologues, social democrats, libertarians and others for whom Lenin's
work is equivalent to a kind of ruthless drive for power on the part of a
totalitarian elite. On the other side you have Stalinists,
Stalino-Maoists, and a variety of other would-be Leninists for whom Lenin
is a kind of omniscient leader, almost a god, or maybe actually a god.

Trotsky's relationship was different. After 1917 he always acknowledge
the lasting importance of Lenin's theory and practice of the Party for the
Russian proletariat and for the international proletariat, and that was to
remain centra. But there are two points. First, Trotsky's own past, his
own previous opposition to Lenin, meant that he had a certain perspective
on some of the earlier mistakes and weaknesses of Bolshevism which no
other Bolshevik leader had. And secondly there was the vigorous struggle
waged by Trotsky against the cult of Lenin, realizing that the usual
function of gods is to reinforce some authority, and that the main
function of the myth of the great leader is to put a halo of infallibility
around existing so-called great leaders. Trotsky fought against that cult,
and that again, as well as his own previous opposition to Lenin, gave him
a certain critical distance within the overall continuity with Lenin.

Now, in order not to be misunderstood, I don't want in turn to suggest
that Trotsky is now the great hero, leader, etc., who understood
everything properly and never went wrong -- that's obviously not on. In
relation to the cult of Lenin, in particular, Trotsky made his own
mistakes. But taken all in all, Trotsky's relationship to Lenin and the
work of Lenin was neither one of blind hostility nor of deification. It
was a relationship of critical continuity, critical respect, and therefore
that imposes a special opportunity, and at the same time a special
obligation, on all those belonging to the international movement which
Trotsky founded, as well as others who are influenced by his work. It's an
opportunity -- and I stress <I>opportunity</I>, not guarantee, for
nothing's guaranteed, it has to be fought for -- an opportunity and an
obligation to seize the real substance, the revolutionary essence of the
Leninist theory of organization, and at the same time to make a critical
separation from this real substance of incidental errors, blemishes,
excesses in the history of Bolshevism, and perhaps more important, the
numerous one-sided caricatures and distortions which masquerade under the
name of Leninism -- whether these are of a bureaucratic, authoritarian,
sectarian, elitist, or propagandist opportunist kind. That's the central
theme which I want to pursue.

I will begin by recalling briefly the general context and the main themes
of Lenin's initial formulation of the theory of the Party. Recall, then,
that when Lenin wrote these words there was no revolutionary workers party
in Russia, though a founding conference had taken place in March 1898 at
Minsk at which there were some nine or ten delegates. (It had no effect
since most of the participants were arrested immediately afterwards.)
Recall that the socialist movement, such as it was, consisted of scattered
groups, mainly of intellectuals beginning to make contact with the Russian
working class; that there as a complete local fragmentation of these
groups -- no overall co-ordination between them -- and that they had to
operate in conditions of police repression, clandestinity, leaders
constantly being arrested and sent to Siberia, and so forth. And recall,
perhaps crucially, the important fact that <I>What is to be Done?</I> had
a particular ideological target: that trend known as economism, which
stressed the economic trade union struggle as against the need for
political revolutionary perspectives; which stressed the day-to-day
practical tasks -- get on with the job, so speak -- as against the need
for broad revolutionary socialist propaganda and agitation; and which in
order to reinforce these emphases made a kind of principle of the
spontaneity of the working class -- arguing, in other words, that this is
what the workers in any case are doing, this is what we should support,
and not get carried away with grand perspectives of revolutionary
socialism, etc.

Against this trend, Lenin formulated the following well-known arguments:
the importance of theory in the most famous formulation -- without
revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement, or the role
of vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the
most advanced theory -- by which Lenin meant Marxism. Lenin referred to
Engels' earlier formulations about the three sides of the class struggle
--  not only the political and economic sides of the class struggle, but
also the theoretical. In a language that everyone can understand, Lenin in
other words made the point which is now dignified with other names -- the
specificity of levels, relative autonomy of superstructures, and os on --
that the workers movement <I>needs</I> science, to guide its political
struggles, and this knowledge and science don't flow automatically from
anything as if they were a gift of God, they have their own pre-conditions
-- theoretical production, study, ideological struggle, and the many-sided
battle of ideas.

So any anti-intellectualism or philistinism in relation to ideas, theory,
and getting-on with the job-ism and so forth, risks diverting the
socialist movement by bringing it under the sway of false, bourgeois
ideas. Bringing it under the sway is not actually the right way of putting
it; obviously the whole argument starts from the assumption, which goes
back to Marx, that the dominant ideas of an epoch are the ideas of the
ruling class. The workers movement <I>will</I> be under the sway more or
less of those ideas, and thus the need for this theoretical struggle.

Second crucial theme -- the distinction between trade union and socialist
politics. Now this is formulated by Lenin in terms of a distinction
between trade union versus socialist politics  because of the economist
emphasis on trade unionism, but of course, what Lenin says goes for any
struggle for immediate day-to-day, partial demands, any struggle for
reforms within capitalist society. Obviously trade unionism, struggle for
reforms and so forth are a vital necessity, but the exclusive
concentration on these doesn't represent an adequate socialist politics.
It's equivalent to a self-limitation by the socialist movement within
capitalism -- it's equivalent to abandoning the field of battle to
bourgeois ideas, because in practice it means that you accept that within
the structure of capitalism an adequate amelioration of the conditions of
the working class can be achieved. So Lenin's essential thought here is:
there is no automatic dynamic which leads from trade unionism, from
immediate, everyday struggles, to revolutionary consciousness and hence
to socialism. That, if you like, is the spontaneist illusion -- the idea
that by struggling very vigorously for higher wages, or better working
conditions, this will somehow produce socialist consciousness. That's an
illusion.

Now, to put the same thing perhaps a slightly different way from that
which Lenin puts it, you cannot achieve what Lenin here refers to as a
socialist consciousness, revolutionary consciousness, from some partial,
sectional perspective on society -- whether this be the perspective of a
group of employees in relation to a group of employers, or some other.
Why? Because what the revolutionary consciousness is is a <I>global</I>
understanding of <I>all</I> the class relationships, at every level of
society -- economic, political, cultural, but particularly at the level of
the state -- and that is why the indispensable preconditions of
revolutionary socialist consciousness is an all-round propaganda and
agitation which relates to <I>every</I> manifestation of exploitation and
oppression, whether it's economic, political, cultural or other. Thus
Lenin's emphasis on the model of a revolutionary as not a trade union
secretary but a tribune of the people -- only in this way can socialist
politics be carried out, and socialist politics can be carried out, and
socialist consciousness be achieved.

Now that leads in a way to the very heart of Lenin's argument in <I>What
is to be Done?</I> -- to the whole question of spontaneity and
consciousness -- and here I want to say that Lenin's arguments concerning
spontaneity and consciousness contain both the central proposition of
Lenin's theory of the Party, on the one hand, and on the other, the two
unilateral arguments which, though they are explicable in terms of whom he
was polemicizing against, are nevertheless in need of correction.

To begin with the unilateral arguments, these are first, in my opinion,
that the working class exclusively by its own effort is able to develop
only trade union consciousness; or, as Lenin puts it even more strongly,
the spontaneous working class movement is by itself able to create, and
does create, only trade unionism. Now I say that's explicable in relation
to the polemic that Lenin was waging, and it even has a validity, so to
speak, for large periods of time in the history of capitalist societies;
but it's in need of correction because, in what we call pre-revolutionary
and revolutionary situations, the spontaneous working class movement goes
beyond trade unionism.

The second unilateral argument in my opinion is one of the meanings which
Lenin gives to the well-known formulate that socialist consciousness is
brought to the working class from without. Now everyone's got their own
idea of what this means, and there are very sophisticated ways of
explaining it and somehow showing that it's all fine. I'm only interested
in what Lenin actually says about that. The fact is that he uses this
formula in two ways. One of them, and this I think is unilateral, is
following Kautsky: Lenin says that socialist consciousness is introduced
into the proletarian class struggle from without by the bourgeois
intelligentsia. Outside and inside are formulated in these terms: the
inside is the proletarian class struggle; the outside is the bourgeois
intelligentsia, which introduces socialist consciousness.

Not to make too much of a meal of it, I just think n that's wrong. It's
obviously trying to state the importance of theory and so forth, but what
it actually does is to fail to state what bourgeois intelligentsia this
is that formulates this socialist consciousness -- under what conditions,
and as part of what movement. The whole idea of "from without"
in that sense is wrong, and needs correction. But there is another meaning
-- and this is the important meaning -- of this idea of introducing
proletarian socialist consciousness from without which contains what I
would call the central proposition of the theory of the Party. I think
the following quotation sums it up. "The basic error, Lenin says,
"tat all the economists commit is their conviction that it is
possible to develop a class political consciousness of the workers from
within, so to speak, from their economic struggle. Class political
consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is,
only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of
relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is
possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all
classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the
inter-relations between all classes.""Outside" and
"inside" in that passage now refer not to sociological groups,
so to speak, or vehicles of consciousness. They refer to the partial
versus the global, of you like. Socialist consciousness comes not from any
particular struggle -- no particular struggle has this dynamic of allowing
you automatically to understand it -- it comes from the global
understanding of the relations of all classes. And I say that contains
Lenin's central proposition regarding the theory of the Party, because
what that theory says, in a nutshell, is that the Party is necessary as an
instrument of political centralization. Without some such instrument, all
the fragmentary struggles, sectional experiences and partial perspectives
of different layers of the masses cannot be combined into a successful
revolutionary assault on capitalist society, which has its <I>own</I>
organ of centralization, its own organ of combat in the bourgeois state.
The Party is required as a political centralizer to combine these partial
struggles, link them up, in confrontation ultimately with that
institution. So such a Party is needed with a <I>global</I> theory and
programme capable of centralizing  and unifying all these different
struggles.

A last word on the themes of Lenin's work in this period -- what he as to
say about organization in the narrowest sense, organizational matters in
the narrowest sense. Here again I think there's a central point amidst
some more circumstantial matters. The central point is contained in the
differences Lenin had with Martov over the definition of the Party member,
which foreshadowed the Bolshevik/Menshevik split. That is to say, in
Lenin's conception the Party is not a loose, amorphous body of occasional
sympathizers and so forth. It's a Party of activists, of cadres, which
aims in other words to assemble a class conscious proletarian vanguard,
and not simply dissolve itself in the level of consciousness of the class
as it is. I won't say more about that.

There are other organizational arguments in these works concerning, for
example, professional revolutionaries, strict secrecy, concerning
limitations on democratic procedures which Lenin justified by the
circumstances of having to operate in conditions of political repression,
and I'm not going say anything more about that except that there are some
polemical exaggerations of Lenin's which I will return to.

Leaving aside incidentals, what was the basis of Luxemburg's and
Trotsky's opposition to Lenin? It was the charge of Blanquism, as Rosa
Luxemburg put it (substitutionism was Trotsky's term). In other words,
like the Mensheviks, with whom they were aligned in this matter, and like
many other people since, Rosa Luxemburg Trotsky accused Lenin of wanting
to replace the struggle of the proletarian masses, to replace the
<I>self-</I>emancipation of the working class, by the actions of a
self-appointed elite.

Was there any validity in that charge? No. In thinking to reject elitism,
what Luxemburg and Trotsky were actually doing was rejecting the
necessity for an organization of the proletarian vanguard in favour of a
model of organization which we know today as social democratic -- social
democratic in the contemporary sense of that word, not the sense in which
it was used in those debates. They were rejecting, in other words, the
necessity of that type of organization, and the October revolution proved
positively, and a string of failed revolutions have proved negatively,
that without that type of Party, the revolutionary situations which will
recur periodically cannot be consummated in successful revolutions.

So, because I'm now going to make some more critical remarks and don't
want to be misunderstood, I stress that <I>that</I> was Lenin's
incomparable historical merit -- that he conceived and fought for that
type of organization tooth and nail. Does this mean that Lenin's works in
this period are a kind of compendium of pure truths and Trotsky's
opposition and criticism, and Luxemburg's opposition and criticism, should
be thrown in the dustbin? It is unfortunate, for example, that the
Trotskyist movement has never republished Trotsky's book, <I>Our Political
Tasks</I>, though it's a very interesting book. So is that the conclusion
one draws -- Lenin represents the truth and these other works are not
worth reading? No -- because the dialectic of truth and error, if I can
put it that way, is a bit more complicated.

First of all, there's one obvious reason why that should be so. It's
possible to be right about some things, even about the main things, and
wrong about other things. For example, take the whole problem of the
bureaucratization of workers organizations. No one in this epoch had an
adequate grasp of that problem, and the merit for formulating a theory
which provides us with an understanding of it belongs to Trotsky in coming
to grips with Stalinism in the Twenties and Thirties. But in Lenin's work
before 1914, in his constant emphasis and drive towards the need for a
centralized organization, there's no understanding, no inkling of a grasp
of this problem, of the danger of the autonomy of an organizational
apparatus -- the danger of it developing its own interests, inertia,
conservatism. However, there <I>is</I> the beginning of an understanding
of that problem in Trotsky's and Luxemburg's writings before the First
World War, and as that's proved to be no small problem in the history of
the workers movement, Trotsky and Luxemburg should be given their due as
contributors towards what today we would count as an adequate, rounded
out, Leninist theory of organization.

There's a more tricky issue, however, in what I'm calling the dialectic
of historical truth and error, which I will try to get at by coming back
to the whole business of spontaneity of the masses. I repeat Trotsky and
Luxemburg were wrong in their opposition to Lenin's central political
project, but in being wrong and in this opposition, they also criticized
-- Trotsky explicitly, Luxemburg implicitly -- some of those formulations
regarding spontaneity and consciousness which I identified earlier as
being one-sided, i.e. spontaneity leads to pure trade unionism,
consciousness is brought by the bourgeois intelligentsia. Now, in their
incorrect opposition to Lenin's overall project Trotsky and Luxemburg
criticized some of these unilateral arguments. So where they wrong in
<I>these</I> particular criticisms, and if they were wrong, was Lenin
wrong when he, too, later acknowledged the polemical one-sidedness of
<I>What is to be Done?</I> Was he wrong in 1905 when <I>he</I> spoke of
the working class as <I>instinctively</I>, spontaneously social
democratic, meaning socialist in that era? Or was he wrong in 1905 to
speak like this: "Any movement of the proletariat, however small,
however modest it may be at the start, however slight its occasion,
inevitably threatens to outgrow its immediate aims and to develop into a
force irreconcilable to the entire old order and destructive of it. The
movement of the proletariat, by reason of the essential peculiarities of
the position of this class under capitalism, has a marked tendency to
develop into a desperate, all-out struggle, a struggle for complete
victory over all the dark forces of exploitation and oppression."
Which sounds like some crazed spontaneist.

Was he wrong in these things? No, he wasn't wrong, because what 1905 as
it were crystallized in Lenin's thinking -- though I don't say he had no
idea of it before, but it brought it out in a very sharp way -- is that
beyond the necessity (which is a crucial necessity) of assembling,
training and preparing the proletarian vanguard, a successful revolution
requires something else, of course: the winning of the masses, and that is
impossible without mass explosions of <I>spontaneous</I> struggle,
spontaneous from the point of view of the revolutionary organization. Of
course, from some point of view nothing is ever spontaneous. From the
point of view of what the revolutionary organization is capable of
initiating, and what control it's capable of exercising, the mass
struggles, during the course of which the masses can be won over to
socialism -- and of course institutions of dual power emerge and a
revolution is completed, etc. -- this is something which cannot be in any
neat way planned and held in control. It requires massive spontaneous
struggles -- that's complementary to what Lenin says about spontaneity in
other types of situations.

Now Luxemburg and Trotsky grasped some of this in their erroneous
opposition to Lenin, so against they must be given their due, and they
grasped it in some ways earlier than Lenin. Now this leads me to the
essential point I want to make here -- it relates to what you could call
the art of stick-bending. Some people will say, and indeed some have said
-- if you want a good example of what I'm talking about you can find it in
Tony Cliff's book on Lenin (which in many ways is a useful book, I don't
want to suggest I'm totally critical of it or anything like that) -- that
Lenin was never actually wrong about anything here, he was just bending
the stick. You can find the origin of that in connection with the whole
split in the party and fierce debates that took place, when Lenin said,
"the economists had bent the stick one way -- in order to straighten
it out I had to bend it back." In other words, he was admitting his
own polemical exaggerations and so on. Lenin was stick-bending: when it's
necessary to emphasize organization, theory, etc., you bend the stick
against spontaneity; when it's necessary to emphasize the importance of
the spontaneous struggles of the masses, you bend the stick another way.
And os they say that that's all he was doing really --there weren't any
actual mistakes.

Now first of all let's concede a certain truth in this, and that's the
following: there's a kind of dialect in political struggle which is the
same dialectic as this one of historical truth and error, which means that
inevitably a political argument, pamphlet, discourse, is different from --
fortunately, I suppose -- an academic discourse. It won't contain all the
necessary qualifications, etc. Precisely because the task at one moment is
this, and the opposition is that, there will come in exaggerations and so
forth, one-sidedness of a certain kind. To stress that Lenin's work is
going to be marked by all this is obviously right. But there are a number
of points to be made here. FIrst, even granting that without making any
qualification, still my central point would remain valid. Precisely
because of that, you need to read, say, the works of Lenin -- who in the
global sense got the thing right -- in order to liberate what is right
>from certain exaggerations and plain mistakes which surround it. And
conversely, you need to take a serious attitude to the work of those who
got it wrong to see if it might not contain in its wrongness some
incidental insights. So that already supports one of the main points I
want to make.

But secondly, very often in this whole stick-bending, there's just the
phenomenon of hindsight operating. So you have to read Lenin's <I>What is
to be Done?</I> in conjunction with what he wrote in 1905. But of course
in 1903 Lenin's opponents couldn't read what he wrote in 1905. They had to
read what he was writing in 1902 and '03, and they reacted to some of
those things which they saw as being wrong or exaggerated. You must take
that into account. Thirdly, to admit that there's an inevitable phenomenon
of stick-bending is not the same thing as to take an "anything
goes" kind of attitude towards it -- that in order to win this
political fight anything goes in what you say.

What lurks behind this rather uncritical attitude is again the myth of
the omniscient leader; all right, Lenin exaggerated in 1902, but he was
there in 1905 to correct any mistakes his followers had made -- basically,
don't worry, Lenin saw it all right in the end. But of course this doesn't
always work. For instance, Lenin, in <I>What is to be Done?</I>, tries to
meet the criticism that his views on organization are not in conformity
with full democratic procedures. What does Lenin reply? He replies that
full democratic procedures involve two things at least -- full publicity,
elections to all offices. He then has two arguments, a main argument and a
subordinate one. In the main argument he asks: can we, in Tsarist
conditions, operate full publicity and elections to all offices? His reply
is no -- it will simply facilitate the work of the police. In other words,
Lenin's main argument is, so to speak, a circumstantial one -- in Tsarist
conditions, it's not possible. This doesn't cast any doubt on the
principle of internal democracy. But there's a subordinate argument, and
that is: anyway, there will be something else operating -- strict
selection of members, strict confidence amongst comrades, the greatest of
dedication -- and Lenin then says, we will have something then even
<I>more</I> than democracy. Not that's obviously bending the stick. Is
that bending of the stick justified? No, because in a very small way it
suggests that maybe the principle of internal democracy as such might,
under certain circumstances, be substituted. I say that's polemical
exaggeration, it's not Lenin's main argument, etc., but it's an example of
stick-bending which is not justified.

What might be the danger? Well, in 1905, when Lenin wanted to open up the
party in the sense that there were now masses of workers in struggle who
were candidates in his view for a much more open, bigger party, he met
opposition amongst Bolshevik cadres, committee men, trained in the
arguments of <I>What is to be Done?</I>, who accused Lenin of wanting to
play at democracy.  Another example: you can take the sectarian response
of many Bolshevik cadres to those spontaneous, non-party institutions, the
soviets, and ask whether that sectarian response might not have had
something to do with some of the one-sided formulations in the earlier
period. And more tragically, and more importantly than that, take the
Stalinist use of some of these formulas to justify the crimes and horrors
which everybody knows about. I'm <I>not</I> saying, in any form or shape,
that there is a germ of Stalinism contained in Lenin's work -- what I am
saying is that, in 1977, a kind of glorification of stick-bending requires
a certain qualification: yes, there will be polemical exaggeration
inevitably in any party/faction/tendency struggle, etc., but it has to be
kept very carefully within bounds.

Now Trotsky senior -- the mature Trotsky -- central to his whole
political life, his political work, was to build on, to continue to fight
for the Leninist theory and practice of organization, recognizing what
I've called Lenin's <I>incomparable</I> historical merit in founding this
theory and practice. But despite Trotsky's recognition of his own central
misjudgment in the years before the revolution, he still referred on the
eve of his death to the erroneousness of some of Lenin's arguments in
<I>What is to be Done?</I> That's not something you very often find
reference to -- that Trotsky, in admitting his ow


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