Reconstructing Lenin

Chris Nineham reviews ‘Reconstructing Lenin. An intellectual biography‘ by Tamas Krausz

Reconstructin Lenin

Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography (Monthly Review Press 2015), 552pp.

No one seriously concerned with changing the world can avoid Lenin. As Hungarian Marxist Tamás Krausz puts it, ‘the discontented keep running into Lenin’s Marxism at every turn’ (p.316). This, Krausz points out, is above all because Lenin was so central to the Russian Revolution, the first, and up to now most important, anti-capitalist experiment aimed at a stateless society (p.9).

Krausz’s book is not an introduction to Lenin, for that you have to look elsewhere.[i] But it is much more than its billing as ‘an intellectual biography’. Krausz has set himself the ambitious task of examining the principles that motivated and guided Lenin and testing how they matched up against reality. Based on decades of research, the book is a bit obtuse in parts, and the translation feels unreliable, but it makes a series of crucial arguments.

One important thing Krausz does is discredit the myths about one the most demonised political figures in history. As he points out, the industrial-scale vilification of Lenin is normally based on two contradictory stereotypes, one that he was a brutal ideologue, the other that he was a ruthless pragmatist. As this book helps make clear, both are travesties. Lenin was famously flexible and creative, but Krausz’s shows, against Lenin’s detractors who talk of ‘many Lenins’, that through the twists and turns of his struggles, ‘there existed a line of intellectual development that kept his lifework together’ (p.10). 

Another great virtue of the book is that, like Lenin, Krausz locates politics in its historical context. His judgements always assess the interplay between human action and stubborn reality. Crucially, Krausz understands that it is only in this way that the ultimately tragic outcome of the Russian revolution can be explained.

Most importantly, Krausz sees Lenin as an essential figure in the history of the struggle for human liberation. Krausz is at pains to show Lenin didn’t create his own ‘ism’, despite repeated attempts to suggest he stood separate from or outside some ‘legitimate’ socialist tradition. His work was in fact a defence and a development of Marx’s and Engels’ emancipatory project, often against those who wanted to blunt its radical edge. Krausz shows that Lenin’s positions and attitudes were already explicit or implicit in Marx. ‘What he did was rediscover, reenergise, and deepen elements of the Marxist tradition that mainstream European social democracy was intent on burying’ (p.360).

Given the nature of most of the literature, some of Lenin’s principles that Krausz outlines may be surprising.

1 Change comes from below. His central project of building a revolutionary movement involved Lenin in a series of struggles against what was then called ‘opportunism’, the idea that socialism could be brought in gradually from above through parliament.

This struggle started at the end of the nineteenth century as Lenin polemicized against the growing strand of reformist politics in the international movement and worked to create an organisation committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the tsarist state. He and his comrades reached a breaking point with the mainstream of the international movement (the Second International) when most socialist parties voted to support their own side in the First World War.

With typical sensitivity to the need for an all-round strategy, Lenin also argued against abstention in parliamentary elections. At the same time, electoralism was only ever a secondary component in the revolutionary process. Revolution was fundamental to Lenin because only radical social transformation could open the way to human control of society and therefore to true freedom, ‘what interested Lenin most in the history of revolutions was how labourers gained the ability to control their lives, if only for a week or a month’ (p.191).

2Method matters. Lenin wrote relatively little philosophy, but it was axiomatic for him that revolutionary theory was a necessary basis for revolutionary action and that the two had to be integrated. In Krausz’s words, ‘there was no doubt that he was the first to recognise the practical significance of methodology in the Marxian theoretical heritage and consciously make it serve applied action’ (p.145).

Two particular insights became more and more explicit in Lenin’s writings. First, his stress on the importance of understanding historical developments in their totality, in all their interconnections. Second, his sense that history is not a linear process, as reformists and many others tended to see it, but proceeds by breaks and leaps, as deep-seated developments reach critical moments of change. In Krausz’s words, ‘he restored the Hegelian Marxist theoretical methodological awareness, based on “totality” to its rightful place, including, first of all, the qualitative leap of revolutionary change, the dialectical dismissal of the old civilisation’ (p.365).

Lenin’s insistence on a dialectical understanding of reality had concrete outcomes. Judging each situation in its totality, he sought to understand the key, potentially transformative element contained within it, and therefore the priority at any particular moment for revolutionaries, ‘the key link in the chain’. In 1915 for example, Lenin grasped the way in which the eruption of imperialist war was creating conditions that transformed the significance of the revolutionary movement in Russia:

This war has involved all Europe, all the most advanced countries with mass and powerful socialist movements. The imperialist war has linked up the Russian revolutionary crisis, which stems from a bourgeois-democratic revolution, with the growing crisis of the proletarian socialist revolution in the West … The Russian bourgeois-democratic revolution is now not only a prologue to, but an indivisible and integral part of the socialist revolution in the West’  (quoted on p.154).

Humans make history. His hostility to gradualism involved rejecting a widespread prejudice at the time; the idea that change was an inevitable part of the working out of historical processes, not something that had to be consciously fought for to achieve. In Krausz’s words, Lenin was the ‘person who, after Marx, repositioned praxis once again at the centre’ (p.152).

That is to say, he regarded human ideas and action as part of social totality and not somehow outside of it. Following Marx, he understood that in the working class, capitalism had created a  class that had universal interests, that could only liberate itself by abolishing class altogether. He believed that in the right circumstances even small numbers of people can have an enormous influence on the outcome of events. This was not because small numbers can create change themselves but because ‘the potential of millions joining is contained within these conditions’(p.155).

4Imperialism shapes the system. Imperialism was central both to Lenin’s understanding of modern capitalism and to his revolutionary strategy. The mass slaughter of the imperialist war and the growing struggles for national liberation against the great powers opened up new possibilities for revolutionary change. His controversial understanding of nationalism depended on this. He distinguished between different nationalisms. For those living in the great powers any talk of defence of the fatherland was reactionary:

‘In a war between Germany and England the issue is not democracy, but world domination, i.e. exploitation of the world. That is not an issue on which social democrats can side with the exploiters of their nation … presenting it as a democratic war, is to deceive the workers and side with the reactionary bourgeoisie’ (p.160).

This was the starting point that led him to support Karl Liebknecht’s famous slogan raised during World War One: ‘the main enemy is at home.’

The nationalism that emerges in oppressed or occupied countries is radically different. Unlike many socialists of the day he supported the national movements of oppressed peoples as a matter of principle, as well as because they could weaken the structures of capitalist domination. Further, he analysed imperialism and the struggle against it in the context of the wider class struggle; ‘he built the demands for the elimination of national oppression, inclusive of linguistic and cultural oppression, into the “universalist” concept of class struggle’ (p.166).

5Revolutions have to be organised. His critique of reformism also involved a rejection of the idea that fundamental change can come about spontaneously. In his famous 1903 pamphlet What is to be done?, he attacked the common division of socialist activity into parliamentary reform on the one hand and trade-union struggle on the other. One of his arguments was that workers do not automatically reach the level of socialist consciousness through trade-union struggle alone:

‘According to his analysis the working class is subject to bourgeois society not only in its generality, but also concretely, since all preconceived notions associated with the capitalist system find their way into the deepest consciousness of workers. The working class is unable to rid itself spontaneously of these preconceived notions … From this he came to the conclusion that there “cannot be a revolutionary movement without a revolutionary philosophy”‘ (p.114).

After the experience of the first Russian revolution of 1905, Lenin amended some of the formulations he made in What is to be done?, but he held to the basic point which was confirmed over and over again in the tumultuous years that followed. Learning the logic of political struggle, the forces participating in it and so forth, involves conscious strategy, planning and organisation. This requires an organisation dedicated to revolutionary politics. 

Krausz shows that even at the most difficult times Lenin never advocated an organisation separate from workers. On the contrary, he always sought ‘a network of legal and underground organisations dedicated to enlisting in a social-democratic movement. Lenin’s basic objective in creating these networks of agents was to facilitate communication and political activity between different sections of an oppressed society’ (p.115).

6The revolution is international. Lenin’s controversial call in April 1917 to the Russian movement to go beyond bourgeois, democratic demands, and to launch a struggle for a society run by workers and peasants, was based on two insights. One was that the weak and vacillating bourgeoisie could not be trusted to enact even basic democracy; ‘the Russian bourgeoisie and the quavering middle classes could not stabilise either the old “semi-parliamentary” system, (with or without the tsar) or the bourgeois democratic system. In his view, these attempts at stabilisation opened the path to counterrevolutionary dictatorships if the revolutionary solution is set off or suffers defeat’ (p.195).

The second was the understanding of Russian revolution as part of a wider revolutionary process. Even before the end of the nineteenth century, he conceived of the coming Russian Revolution as part of an unfolding of the world revolution (p.91). We have seen that the outbreak of World War One reinforced this sense. Krausz stresses that from 1917 onwards, Lenin and his comrades always saw the fortunes of the movement as inextricably linked with those of the international revolution.

7Democracy and the workers’ state. Lenin’s most widely read pamphlet, State and Revolution, is one of the great expositions of popular democracy as the route to human liberation. It draws strongly on Marx and Engels and in particular ‘excavates’ key ideas of theirs that had been buried by the opportunists (p.177).

The central propositions of the book are that the contemporary state is shaped by its role as a guarantor of the capitalists’ power and is far from neutral. For this reason it cannot be reformed but has to be dismantled and replaced if working people are to successfully construct society anew. The new state would have a radically different social structure, run by ordinary people, and so profoundly and organically democratic it would eventually ‘wither away’.

Yet, precisely because of capitalism’s power and influence over society – wealth ‘is fully capable of achieving domination over any democratic Republic by bribery and through the stock exchange’ – the fight against capitalism doesn’t end, as in the anarchist dream, with one blow. After the initial seizure of power, the new state institutions will be needed to dismantle class society fully and to eradicate the influence of the capitalists (p.195).

As Krausz argues, State and Revolution was not a utopian vision or a party line, it was the theoretical expression of contemporary events. In an astoundingly short period of time mass workers’ and peasants’ councils, called soviets, sprung up in Russia bringing millions into direct political activity. In the following years they sprung up temporarily in many parts of Europe. Communist parties also exploded in size in the same period and ‘by 1919 “communism” had constituted itself as a European mass movement, a “global party”’ (p.197).

The Russian reality turned out very differently however. The workers, peasants and soldiers councils, which initially formed the basis of the new state, were decimated by a combination of Western blockade, invasion, famine and civil war. Within a few years, the Bolsheviks were reduced to fighting a desperate rearguard action. Clinging on to the social gains of the revolution in the face of poverty, civil war and the erosion of the regime’s social base involved methods of repression of counter-revolutionary opponents that took the regime in a very different direction to that outlined in State and revolution.

Krausz questions some of the painful measures that the Bolsheviks took in these years including the banning of opposition parties, and points to contradictions in their policies. However, he also explains that in general, circumstances gave them little room to manoeuvre and he documents how Lenin and his comrades were constantly trying to find ways to counteract the concentration of power in the hands of a new bureaucracy.

He shows how the Bolsheviks continued to struggle for the successful spread of the revolution, a prospect which between 1918 and 1923 was perhaps closer than for which Krausz himself allows. Nonetheless, he also shows that, in the absence of such a breakthrough, the contradictions of the situation became impossible. Lenin, Krausz says, understood the predicament clearly and tried to find ways to ensure that ‘workers could defend themselves against the “distorted workers’ state’” (p.333), but the fundamental problems of isolation, economic weakness and war formed ‘concrete historical sets of relations that could not be transcended at the time’ (p.332).

Krausz portrays Lenin as a dedicated revolutionary committed to workers’ self-emancipation to the end. For all the revolutionary’s inevitable errors, the crucial point is that he ‘was stranded in historical circumstances’ and it was this that opened the way for the Stalinist takeover, that was the antithesis of the Leninist experiment. The argument so dear to reactionary historians that Lenin led to Stalin is therefore a reversal of reality. It was in fact the external limits on the revolution that strangled it. This is why, as Krausz explains, Lenin’s emancipatory project, the logical development of Marx’s in new circumstances, speaks so clearly to us today (p.369).


[i] For good introductions to Lenin see Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought (Verso 2009), a sample chapter of which can be read on Counterfire. Also see Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914 (Bookmarks 1986), and Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (Jonathan Cape 1975).

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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