Portrait of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Portrait of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Source: MirekT - Wikicommon / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 3.0

Counterfire is commemorating 100 years since Lenin. Today we look at an article by Tony Cliff published in February 1974

In February 1974, fifty years after the death of Lenin, Tony Cliff, the outstanding Marxist of the day, commemorated Lenin’s ideas and at the same time showed their relevance to the struggle today.

It is perhaps difficult for young people coming into the struggle over Palestine, poverty or climate catastrophe today to understand the lengths to which politicians went to distort the ideas of Lenin back in the day.

In 1974, the world was divided between two opposing political poles of the Soviet Union and the USA. Both were imperialist entities armed with nuclear weapons and dominating rival spheres of interest, and Lenin was distorted to fit their rival narratives.

In the Russian capital, Lenin’s mummified corpse was displayed to the public, and he was portrayed as a semi-divine figure whose name was used to justify all the atrocities committed under Stalin’s dictatorship. In the West, Stalin was also portrayed as the heir to Leninism. So on one side he was a God and on the other a devil.

In this short article, Tony Cliff shows how Lenin’s ideas are crucially relevant to the struggle today. He sets out why Lenin put his faith in the working masses; why Lenin wanted to build a tough revolutionary party that would not seek compromise; and why the revolutionary party has to be honest, self-critical and always accountable to the working class.


FIFTY YEARS ago the great revolutionary socialist leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died.

At the anniversary of his death, Moscow and its friends on the one hand and Western opponents of Communism on the other, did their best to distort the real historical role of this great man.

The legend was cultivated over a long period that Lenin was the father of Stalinism, a man that believed in totalitarian dictatorship. Nothing can be further from the truth.

What happened to Lenin was prophetically foretold by him in his brilliant work, State and Revolution, when he described the fate of revolutionary leaders in the past:

During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say … while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.

Above all, Lenin had supreme confidence in the creative abilities of the masses. Thus, for instance, he wrote in June–July 1905:

Revolutions are festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the mass of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order, as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by the limited, philistine yardsticks of gradualist progress.

Workers learn in the struggle. They learn from their own experience in battle. The role of a really consistent revolutionary socialist workers’ party is not to lecture to the workers but to learn from the workers in struggle and teach them in struggle.

When bourgeois gentry and their uncritical echoers, the social reformists, talk about the “education of the masses”, they usually mean something schoolmasterly, pedantic, something that demoralises the masses and instils in them bourgeois prejudices.

The real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political, and especially revolutionary, struggle. Only struggle educates the exploited class. Only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.

The aim of the revolutionary socialist party is to tap the natural potential resources of energy and ingenuity hidden in the masses. The party has to learn from the workers in struggle:

There is an enormous amount of organising talent among the “people”, i.e. among the workers and the peasants who do not exploit the labour of others. Capital crushed these talented people in thousands; it killed their talent and threw them on to the scrapheap.

We are not yet able to find them, encourage them, put them on their feet, promote them. But we shall learn to do so if we set about it with an all-out revolutionary enthusiasm, without which there can be no victorious revolutions.

To learn from the masses the party must also be able and ready to learn from its own mistakes, to be very self-critical. As Lenin put it:

A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfills in practice its obligations towards its class, and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification – that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses.

The open debate is ever more vital and essential at the period of direct revolutionary struggle. So Lenin wrote in a leaflet, 25–26 April 1906:

In a revolutionary epoch like the present, all theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the party are most ruthlessly criticised by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity.

At such a time, the duty of every socialist is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social-Democratic proletariat.

The party of the revolutionary proletariat is strong enough to openly criticise itself, and unequivocally call mistakes and weaknesses by their proper names. The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake, refusal to admit and correct a mistake out of a false sense of shame.

Of course, inner-party discussions must not lead to lack of discipline and unity of action. But on the contrary, inner-party democracy has to serve as a base for unity in action. As Lenin so well put it:

We have more than once already enunciated our theoretical views on the importance of discipline and on how this concept is to be understood in the party of the working class. We defined it as: unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism. Only such discipline is worthy of the democratic party of the advanced class.

… The proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise.., there can be no mass party, no party of a class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without an open struggle between various tendencies, without informing the masses as to which leaders and which organisations of the party are pursuing this or that line. Without this, a party worthy of the name cannot be built.

Contrary to Stalinist mythology – as well as that of liberal opponents of Bolshevism – the Bolshevik Party has never been a monolithic or totalitarian party. Far from it.

Internal democracy had always been of the utmost importance to party life. Thus for instance, when the most important question of all, the question of the October insurrection in 1917 was the order of the day, the leadership was sharply divided: a strong faction led by Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Piatakov, Miliutin and Nogin, opposed the uprising.

Nevertheless, when the political bureau was elected by the central committee, neither Zinoviev nor Kamenev were excluded.

After taking power, the differences in the party leadership continued to be as sharp as before. A few days after the revolution, a number of party leaders came out with a demand for a coalition with other socialist parties.

Those insisting on this included Rykov, the People’s Commissar of the Interior, Miliutin, the People’s Commissar of Industry and Trade, Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Education, Kamenev, the President of the Republic and Zinoviev.

They went as far as resigning from the government, thus compelling Lenin and his supporters to open negotiations with the other parties. The negotiations broke down because the right-wing socialists insisted on the exclusion of Lenin and Trotsky from the coalition government.

Again, on the question of holding or postponing the elections to the Constituent Assembly in December 1917, Lenin found himself in a minority in the central committee, and the elections were held against his advice.

A little later he was again defeated on the question of the peace negotiations with Germany at Brest-Litovsk. He was for an immediate peace. But at a meeting of the central committee and active workers, held on 21 January 1918, his motion received only 15 votes against Bukharin’s motion for “revolutionary war”, which received 32 votes, and Trotsky’s for “neither peace nor war”, which received 16.

At a session of the central committee next day, Lenin was again defeated. But at last he succeeded, under the pressure of events, in convincing the majority of members of the central committee of his point of view, and at its session on 24 February his motion for peace gained seven votes, while four voted against and another four abstained.

As a result of the weakness of the Russian working class, after nearly seven years of war and civil war, the isolation of the Russian revolution following the betrayal of the German revolution by right-wing labour leaders – including the murder of the great socialist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – the Stalinist bureaucracy rose in Russia.

It consolidated itself after the mass murder of Lenin’s old comrades in arms during the 1930s. One-man management in the factories where managers earn 100 times more than workers, where workers have no right to strike and are deprived of all freedoms, became the hallmark of the Stalinist regime.

But the future belongs to the ideas of Marx and Lenin. The basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism:

  • That the working class is the agent of socialism.
  • That the working class needs a vanguard party to lead it, to raise its combative ability, consciousness and organisation.
  • The need to smash the bureaucratic militarist police state machine of capitalism and replace it with democratic workers’ councils, where all officials get the same wages as the workers they represent, with regular elections of all officials and the right to recall them.

These ideas are of vital importance to workers everywhere, whether in Britain or Russia, the United States, China or India.

The future belongs to the ideas of Marx and Lenin.

This article was published on the marxist.org

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