Lenin, 1918. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Lenin, 1918. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We republish Chapter 14 from Tony Cliff’s Lenin 1: Building the Party on the 20th anniversary of his death

The 20 years 1894-1914 saw an enormous growth in the maturity of the Russian labour movement. This development was a living school for tactics and strategy. Lenin, its greatest product, grew with the movement, influenced it, and was influenced by it. These two decades constituted a long preparation, for him and for the working class as a whole, for the greatest test in both tactics and strategy – that of the terrible slaughter of the war, and its termination by the revolution. The most intensive lessons of this preparatory period were provided by the 1905 Revolution and its aftermath. 

Marxism – Science and Art

As we have noted, when the 1905 Revolution broke out, Lenin hastened to study the military writings of Karl von Clausewitz, which influenced him considerably in formulating his political tactics and strategy.

Clausewitz, the great philosopher of war, who drew his inspiration from Napoleon, defined tactics as “the theory of the use of military forces in combat,” and strategy as “the theory of the use of combat for the object of the war.” Lenin defined the relation between revolutionary tactics and revolutionary strategy in terms very similar to those of Clausewitz. The concept of tactics applies to measures that serve a single task or a single branch of the class struggle. Hence, Lenin speaks about the tactics needed, say, during the January days of 1905, or in relation to Gapon. He also speaks about trade union tactics, parliamentary tactics, and so on. Revolutionary strategy encompasses a combination of tactics that, by their association and growth, lead to the working-class conquest of power.

The Second International, emerging during the period of the slow, organic, systematic growth of capitalism and the labour movement, in practice limited itself to the question of tactics: the tasks of the day-to-day struggle for reforms in the trade unions, in parliament, local government bodies, co-operatives, etc. The Russian revolutionary movement, which developed in very stormy times, when the direction of events was often rapidly changing, had to face up to the larger issue of strategy and its relation to tactics. No one was more competent to develop this question than Lenin, who knew better than anyone else how to raise Marxism from the level of a science to that of an art.

Marxism is constantly referred to as a science, but as a guide to action, it must also be an art. Science deals with what exists, while art teaches us how to act. Lenin’s main contribution is in developing Marxism as an art. If Marx had died without participating in the founding of the First International he would still be Marx. If Lenin had died without establishing the Bolshevik Party, giving a lead in the 1905 and later in the 1917 Revolution, and founding the Communist International, he would not have been Lenin.

To advance from theory to practice, from science to art, Lenin had to demonstrate the dialectical relation between them – what is common to both and what distinguishes one from the other.

‘“Our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action,” Marx and Engels always said, ridiculing the mere memorising and repetition of “formulas,” that at best are capable only of marking out general tasks which are necessarily modifiable by the concrete economic and political conditions of each particular period of the historical process.’[1]

There is an enormous difference between the general laws of motion of society and the actual concrete historical conditions, for life is infinitely more complicated than any abstract theory. With so many factors interacting, book knowledge alone is no basis for a knowledge of reality. Lenin loved to repeat, “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.” Living reality is always richer in developments, in probabilities, in complications, than any theoretical concept or prognosis, and Lenin therefore derided those who turned Marxism into an icon: “An icon is something you pray to, something you cross yourself before, something you bow down to; but an icon has no effect on practical life and practical politics.”[2] He wrote bitterly in a letter to Inessa Armand, “People for the most part (99 per cent of the bourgeoisie, 98 per cent of the liquidators, about 60-70 per cent of the Bolsheviks) don’t know how to think, they only learn words by heart.”[3]

The main obstacle to a non-dogmatic understanding of Marxism, to its use as a guide to action, is the inclination to substitute the abstract for the concrete. This is one of the most dangerous errors, especially in a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situation, when historical development is erratic, full of jumps, retreats, and sharp turns.

‘There is no such thing as abstract truth. Truth is always concrete.[4]

… any abstract truth becomes an empty phrase if it is applied to any concrete situation. It is indisputable that “every strike conceals the hydra of the social revolution.” But it is nonsense to think that we can stride directly from a strike to the revolution.[5]

… every general historical statement applied to a particular case without a special analysis of the conditions of that particular case becomes an empty phrase.’[6]

At the same time a clear scientific understanding of the general contours of historical development of the class struggle is essential for a revolutionary leader. He will not be able to keep his bearings and his confidence through the twists and turns of the struggle unless he has a general knowledge of economics and politics. Therefore Lenin repeated many times that strategy and tactics must be based “on an exact appraisal of the objective situation”[7], while at the same time being “shaped after analyzing class relations in their entirety.”[8] In other words they must be based on a clear, confident, theoretical analysis – on science.

Theoretical scepticism is incompatible with revolutionary action. “The important thing is to be confident that the path chosen is the right one, this confidence multiplying a hundred-fold revolutionary energy and revolutionary enthusiasm, which can perform miracles.”[9]

Without understanding the laws of historical development, one cannot maintain a persistent struggle. During the years of toil and disappointment, isolation and suffering, revolutionaries cannot survive without the conviction that their actions fit the requirements of historical advance. In order not to get lost on the twists and turns of the long road, one must stand firm ideologically. Theoretical skepticism and revolutionary relentlessness are not compatible. Lenin’s strength was that he always related theory to the processes of human development. He judged the importance of every theoretical notion in relation to practical needs. Likewise, he tested every practical step for its fit with Marxist theory. He combined theory and practice to perfection. It was hardly an exaggeration for the Bolshevik historian M.N. Pokrovsky to write, “You will not find in Lenin a single purely theoretical work; each has a propaganda aspect.”[10]

Lenin believed in improvisation. But in order for this not to degenerate into simply the shifting impressions of the day, it had to be blended into a general perspective based on well thought out theory. Practice without theory must lead to uncertainty and errors. On the other hand, to study Marxism apart from the struggle is to divorce it from its mainspring – action – and to create useless bookworms. Practice is clarified by revolutionary theory, and theory is verified by practice. The Marxist traditions are assimilated in the minds and blood of men only by struggle.

Theory is the generalisation of the practice of the past. Hence, as Gramsci so well put it, “ideas are not born of other ideas, philosophies of other philosophies; they are a continually renewed expression of real historical development.” [11] To adapt oneself to any new situation without losing one’s own identity, one needs unity of theory and practice.

Lenin knew that no revolutionary organisation can survive without a permanently creative ideological labouratory. He always tried to find an eventual political use for his research. But while he was actually engaged in it, he did not hesitate to take months at a time off from practical politics in order to immerse himself in the British Museum or the Bibliothèque Nationale.[1*]

The program of the party – its basic principles – takes as a point of departure the historical potentialities of the working class, i.e., it is derived from the material conditions of society in general, and from the position of the working class within it in particular. Strategy and tactics, however, take as their point of departure not the material world as such, but the consciousness of the workers. If consciousness – what Marx called the ideological superstructure – reflected the material base directly, then tactics and strategy could be derived directly from the party program. However, the derivation is in fact indirect, complicated, influenced by the traditions and experience of the workers, including the activities of the party itself. A revolutionary party in principle opposes the wages system, but tactically it is far from indifferent to the struggle of the workers for higher wages.

A revolutionary leadership needs not only an understanding of the struggle as a whole, but the capacity to put forward the right slogans at every turning point. These do not derive simply from the party program, but must fit the circumstances, above all the moods and feelings of the masses, so that they can be used to lead the workers forward. Slogans must be appropriate not only to the general direction of the revolutionary movement, but also to the level of consciousness of the masses. Only through the application of the general line of the party does its real value become manifest. The organic unity of general theory and particular tactics was at the heart of Lenin’s struggle and work style.

‘Without a programme a party cannot be an integral political organism capable of pursuing its line whatever turn events may take. Without a tactical line based on an appraisal of the current political situation and providing explicit answers to the “vexed problems” of our times, we might have a circle of theoreticians, but not a functioning political entity.’[13]

The only way to verify the correctness of a strategic plan, or a tactic, is by the test of practice, by checking it against the experience of the actual development of the class struggle:

‘… decisions made with regard to tactics must be verified as often as possible in the light of new political events. Such verification is necessary from the standpoint of both theory and practice: from the standpoint of theory in order to ascertain in fact whether the decisions taken have been correct, and what amendments to these decisions subsequent political events make necessary; from the standpoint of practice in order to learn how to use the decisions as a proper guide, to learn to consider them as directives for practical application.’[14]

Trotsky expressed the same idea very aptly when he said, “The fundamental Bolshevist prejudice consists precisely in the idea that one can only learn to ride when one is sitting firmly on a horse.”[15] Only in the struggle itself can one learn strategy and tactics. Again and again, Lenin quoted Napoleon: “On s’engage et puis … on voit.” Rendered freely, this means, “First engage in a serious battle, and then see what happens.”

In war, and especially in the class war in a revolutionary period, the unknowns, not only in the enemy camp, but also in one’s own, are so numerous that sober analysis has to be accompanied by daring improvisation based largely on intuition, on an active, creative imagination.

‘Marxism differs from all other socialist theories in the remarkable way it combines complete scientific sobriety in the analysis of the objective state of affairs and the objective course of evolution, with the most emphatic recognition of the importance of the revolutionary energy, revolutionary creative genius and revolutionary initiative of the masses – and also, of course, of individuals, groups, organisations and parties that are able to discover an active contact with one or another class.’[16]

Lenin constantly stressed that it was necessary to be aware of the thoughts and sentiments of the masses, and he himself excelled in this. As Trotsky said, “The art of revolutionary leadership in its most critical moments consists nine-tenths of knowing how to sense the mood of the masses. An unexcelled ability to detect the mood of the masses was Lenin’s greatest power.”[17]

Only in the struggle itself can the party find out what the masses really think and are able to accomplish. Marxism accepts neither mechanistic determinism, fatalism, nor voluntaristic self-will. Its basis is materialistic dialectics and the principle that the masses discover their own abilities through action. There is nothing in common between Lenin’s realism and pedestrian, passive Realpolitik. Against the latter must be counterposed, as Lenin put it, “the revolutionary dialectics of Marxist realism, which emphasise the urgent tasks of the advanced class, and discover in the existing state of things those elements that will lead to its overthrow.”[18] He was well aware that a sober assessment of the real forces is necessary, and that the revolutionary party itself is a central factor in the balance of forces. The boldness of the party gives confidence to the workers, while irresoluteness may lead the masses into passivity and moods of depression. The only way to determine the balance of forces, and the willingness of the masses to struggle, is by action in which the party gives a lead.

As the revolutionary struggle develops and changes, one must beware of clinging to tactics that have outlasted their usefulness. The most dangerous, devastating mistake a revolutionary leader can commit is to become a captive of those formulae of his that were appropriate yesterday, but do not fit today’s different balance of forces. Too often it happens that, when history takes a sharp turn, even progressive parties are for a time unable to adapt themselves to the new situation and repeat slogans that were formerly correct but have now lost all meaning – losing it as “suddenly” as the sharp turn in history was “sudden”.

In revolutionary life, the question of timing is crucial. One must determine as exactly as possible the pace at which the revolution is developing. Without this, no realistic tactics are possible. In fact, one’s perspectives regarding the tempo of events will never be absolutely accurate, and one will have to introduce, as quickly as possible, the necessary correction in timing.

For the tactics and strategy of the party to fit its general principles, they must be clear and straightforward. For the masses to understand the politics of the revolutionary party they must not be overwhelmed by detail, distracting attention from the central core of party policy. The policy of the party must be expressed in a small number of simple and clear slogans. “A straight policy is the best policy. A policy based on principles is the most practical policy.”[19]

‘In the final analysis broad, principled politics are the only real, practical politics … Anybody who tackles the partial problems without having previously settled general problems, will inevitably and at every step “come up against” those general problems without himself realising it. To come up against them blindly in every individual case means to doom one’s politics to the worst vacillation and lack of principle.[20]

A line of conduct can and should be grounded in theory, in historical references, in an analysis of the entire political situation, etc. But in all these discussions the party of a class engaged in a struggle should never lose sight of the need for absolutely clear answers – which do not permit of a double interpretation – to concrete questions of our political conduct: “yes” or “no”? Should this or that be done right now, at the given moment, or should it not be done?’[21]

One must calculate the relation of forces extremely soberly and then, once a decision has been taken, act decisively. “There is no man more faint-hearted than I am, when I am working out a military plan,” wrote Napoleon to General Berthier. “I exaggerate all dangers and all possible misfortunes … When my decision is taken everything is forgotten except what can assure its success.”

After quoting this statement, Trotsky comments,

‘Except for the pose involved in the inappropriate word faint-hearted, the essence of this thought applies perfectly to Lenin. In deciding a problem of strategy he began by clothing the enemy with his own resolution and far-sightedness. The tactical mistakes of Lenin were for the most part by-products of his strategic power.’[22]

The formulation of a bold design on the basis of the least favourable premises was characteristic of Lenin. 

“Seizing the key link”

Lenin teaches us that in the complicated chain of political action one must always identify the central link at the moment in question, in order to seize it and give direction to the whole chain.

‘Every question “runs in a vicious circle” because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain’.[23]

He often returned to this metaphor and in practice always obeyed the rule that it illustrated; during the most critical periods he was able to set aside all the secondary factors and grasp the most central one. He brushed aside anything that could directly or indirectly divert him from the main issue. As Trotsky aptly put it,

‘… when the critical hurdle was happily cleared, Lenin would still now and again exclaim: “And yet we quite forgot to do this or that … ” Or “We missed an opportunity because we were so preoccupied by the main thing … ” Someone would answer him: “But this question had been posed, and this proposal had been made, only you did not want to hear anything!”

“Didn’t I? Impossible!” he would say, “and I don’t remember a thing.”

At that point he would burst out laughing, with malicious laughter in which there was an admission of “guilt”; and he would make a characteristic gesture of raising his arm and moving it helplessly down, as if resigned: well, one cannot do everything. This “shortcoming” of his was only the obverse side of his talent to mobilise, to the utmost degree, all his inner forces. Precisely this talent made of him the greatest revolutionary in history.’[24]

Again Trotsky writes:

‘Vladimir Ilyich was often criticised by many comrades, and by myself among them, for seemingly not paying attention to secondary matters and certain side issues. I should think that in times of “normal” slow development this might have been a defect in a political leader; but in this lay Comrade Lenin’s pre-eminence as the leader of a new epoch, in which all that is inessential, all that is incidental and secondary recedes into the background, becomes overshadowed, and what remains is only the basic irreconcilable class antagonism in the acute form of civil war. It was Lenin’s peculiar gift, which he possessed to the highest degree, that with his intense revolutionary gaze, he could see and point out to others what was most important, most necessary, and most essential. Those comrades who, like myself, were given the chance to observe Lenin’s activity and the working of his mind at close quarters, could not help but enthusiastically admire – yes, I repeat, enthusiastically admire – the perspicacity, the acuteness of his thought which rejected all that was external, accidental, superficial, and reached to the heart of the matter and grasped the essential methods of action.’[25]

He did commit tactical errors – largely because of his concentration on the essential link and because of his long absences from the scene of action. But the other side of the coin was his magnificent strategic grasp. Party strategy was ruthlessly defined from a distance, even if tactical errors of judgement were involved.

In principle, Lenin was right when he insisted on “bending the stick,” one day in one direction, another in the opposite. if all aspects of the workers’ movement had been equally developed, if balanced growth had been the rule, then “stick bending” would have a deleterious effect on the movement. But in real life, the law of uneven development dominates. One aspect of the movement is decisive at any particular time. The key obstacle to advance may be a lack of party cadres, or, on the contrary, the conservatism of the party cadres may cause them to lag behind the advanced section of the class. Perfect synchronisation of all elements would obviate the need for “bending sticks,” but would also render a revolutionary party or a revolutionary leadership superfluous.

Intuition and Courage

The most sober evaluation of the objective situation does not in itself suffice to develop a revolutionary strategy and tactics. Above all, a revolutionary leader must be endowed with a very keen intuitive sense.

In a revolutionary situation, where so much is unknown and so much is open to chance, to complications, a strong will is not enough. What is necessary is the capacity to grasp the whole situation quickly, so as to be able to distinguish the essential from the inessential, to fill in the missing parts of the picture. Every revolution is an equation with many unknowns. Hence, a revolutionary leader has to be endowed with a highly realistic imagination.

Apart from a very short interruption in 1905, Lenin spent the 15 years preceding the revolution abroad. His feeling for reality, his grasp of the mood of the workers, did not diminish over time, but increased. His realistic imagination was rooted in deep theoretical understanding, a good memory, and creative thinking. It was nourished by occasional meetings with individuals who came to see him in exile.

His revolutionary intuition was uncanny. Here is just one example, showing how he managed to visualise a whole social-political situation from a single sentence spoken by a worker, which would probably have passed unnoticed by anyone else.

‘After the July days, thanks to the extremely solicitous attention with which the Kerensky government honored me, I was obliged to go underground … In a small working-class house in a remote working-class suburb of Petrograd, dinner is being served. The hostess puts bread on the table. The host says: “Look what fine bread. ‘They’ dare not give us bad bread now. And we had almost given up even thinking that we’d ever get good bread in Petrograd again.”

I was amazed at this class appraisal of the July days. My thoughts had been revolving around the political significance of those events, weighing the role they played in the general course of events, analyzing the situation that caused this zigzag in history and the situation it would create, and how we ought to change our slogans and alter our Party apparatus to adapt it to the changed situation. As for bread, I who had not known want, did not give it a thought. I took bread for granted …

This member of the oppressed class, however, even though one of the well paid and quite intelligent workers, takes the bull by the horns with that astonishing simplicity and straightforwardness, with that firm determination and amazing clarity of outlook from which we intellectuals are so remote as the stars in the sky. The whole world is divided into two camps: “us”, the working people, and “them”, the exploiters. Not a shadow of embarrassment over what had taken place; it was just one of the battles in the long struggle between labour and capital. When you fell trees, chips fly.

“What a painful thing is the ‘exceptionally complicated situation’ created by the revolution,” that’s how the bourgeois intellectual thinks and feels.

“We squeezed ‘them’ a bit; ‘they’ don’t dare to lord it over us as they did before. We’ll squeeze again – and chuck them out altogether,” that’s how the worker thinks and feels.’[26]

Krupskaya was absolutely right when she wrote: “Ilyich always had a kind of special instinct – a profound comprehension as to what the working class was experiencing at a given moment.”[27] Intuition is especially vital in grasping the feelings of the masses at the most dramatic points of history, and Lenin excelled in this. “The ability to think and feel for and with the masses was characteristic of him to the highest degree, especially at the great political turning points.”[28]

Once the decision on certain tactics has been taken, the revolutionary leader must show no hesitation; he must have supreme courage. In this, Lenin was certainly not lacking; M.N. Pokrovsky well describes this characteristic quality.

‘Now, when we are looking into the past, it seems to me that one of the basic characteristics of Lenin was his tremendous political courage. Political courage is not the same as bravery and defiance of danger. Among revolutionaries there has been no lack of brave people unafraid of the rope and the gallows or of Siberia. But these people were afraid of taking upon themselves the burden of great political decisions. It was always clear that Lenin never feared to take upon himself the responsibility for decisions, no matter how weighty. In this respect he would never shrink from any risk and took responsibility for moves which involved not only his person and the fate of his party, but also the fate of the whole country and, to a certain degree, the fate of the world revolution. This was so peculiar a phenomenon that he always had to begin his action with a very small group of people, because only very few were bold enough to follow him right from the start.’[29]

Many a “Marxist” has tried to avoid the obligation to reach important decisions by giving Marxism a fatalistic nature. This was characteristic of the Mensheviks. In every crisis, they showed doubt, hesitation, and fear. A revolution, however, is the most ruthless method of solving social questions. And indecisiveness is the worst possible condition at a time of revolution. Lenin was the most consistent of revolutionaries. He was supreme in his boldness of decision, in his readiness to assume responsibility for the greatest actions.

The Dream and the Reality

To carry out revolutionary strategy and tactics, one must be not only a realist, but also a dreamer. Many writers describe Lenin as a realist and not a romantic, which is to do him an injustice. One cannot be a revolutionary without the inspiration of a great dream.

‘“There are rifts and rifts,” wrote Pisarev of the rift between dreams and reality. “My dream may run ahead of the natural march of events or may fly off at a tangent in a direction in which no natural march of events will ever proceed. In the first case my dream will not cause any harm; it may even support and augment the energy of the workingmen … There is nothing in such dreams that would distort or paralyse labour-power. On the contrary, if man were completely deprived of the ability to dream in this way, if he could not from time to time run ahead and mentally conceive, in an entire and completed picture, the product to which his hands are only just beginning to lend shape, then I cannot at all imagine what stimulus there would be to induce man to undertake and complete extensive and strenuous work in the sphere of art, science, and practical endeavour … The rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in his dream, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with his castles in the air, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievement of his fantasies. If there is some connection between dreams and life then all is well.” Of this kind of dreaming there is unfortunately too little in our movement. And the people most responsible for this are those who boast their sober views, their “closeness” to the “concrete”.’[30]

Lenin subordinated his own romantic streak to the need for action. He despised the unworldliness of the Russian intelligentsia. Again and again, he referred contemptuously to Oblomov, the hero of the famous novel of the same name by Goncharov, a “superfluous man,” always dreaming of great deeds, but too slothful and enervated to carry them out.

Ferdinand Lassalle expressed the fundamental requirement of revolutionary politics well. “Every great action begins with a statement of what is.” Lenin often used to repeat in English, “Facts are stubborn things.” Marxism, he said, “takes its stand on the facts, and not on possibilities. A Marxist must, as the foundation of his policy, put only precisely and unquestionably demonstrated facts.”[31] He was always searching for the bridge from the actual to the possible. He was not afraid to look straight into the abyss between the greatness of the tasks facing the movement, and the actual poverty of the same movement. His feet were on the ground, but his head was in the sky.

The Party as a School of Strategy and Tactics

Questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics held a meaning for Lenin only if the possibility of implementing them, through the revolutionary party, was a real one. He saw the party as a school for strategy and tactics, a combat organisation for the conquest of power by the working class.

How can the revolutionary leadership learn from the masses and know what they think and feel, unless it forms an integral part of these masses, listening to them at their workplaces, in the streets, in their homes, in their eating places? To teach the masses, the leadership must learn from them. This Lenin believed and practised all his life.

The party must not lag behind the advanced section of the class. But it must not be so far ahead as to be out of reach. It must stand at its head and be rooted in it:

‘To be successful, all serious revolutionary work requires that the idea that revolutionaries are capable of playing the part only of the vanguard of the truly virile and advanced class must be understood and translated into action. A vanguard performs its task as vanguard only when it is able to avoid being isolated from the mass of the people it leads and is able really to lead the whole mass forward.’[32]

The need for a revolutionary party, as we have already pointed out, is a reflection of the unevenness of consciousness in the working class. At the same time, however, the party exists in order to hasten the overcoming of this unevenness, by raising consciousness to the highest possible level. Adaptation to the average, or even to the lowest level of consciousness of the class is in the nature of opportunism. Organisational independence and isolation from the most advanced section of the proletariat, on the other hand, is the road to sectarianism. Raising the advanced section to the highest possible level under the prevailing circumstances – this is the role of the really revolutionary party.

To learn from the masses, the party must also be able to learn from its own mistakes, to be very self-critical.

‘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 fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for 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.[33]

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.’[34]

The masses must be involved in correcting party mistakes. Thus on 21 January 1905, Lenin wrote:

‘We Social Democrats resort to secrecy from the Tsar and his bloodhounds while taking pains that the people should know everything about our party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its program and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party Congress delegate said at the Congress in question.’[35]

Open debate is even more vital and essential during a period of direct revolutionary struggle, as Lenin wrote in a leaflet on 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 Social Democrat 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.’[36]

He urged repeatedly that debate should not be limited to inner party circles, but should be carried on publicly so that non-party people could follow it.

‘Our party’s serious illness is the growing pains of a mass party. For there can be no mass party, no party of a class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without 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.’[37]


‘Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party programme must be quite free (we remind the reader of what Plekhanov said on this subject at the second Congress of the RSDLP) not only at party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism or such “agitation” (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited.’[38]

There is a dialectical relationship between democracy within the party and the party’s roots in the class. Without a correct class policy and a party composed of proletarians, there is no possibility of healthy party democracy. Without a firm working-class base, all talk of democracy and discipline in the party is meaningless verbiage. At the same time, without party democracy, without constant self-criticism, development of a correct class policy is impossible.

‘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.[39]

… the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise.’[40]

If democracy is essential in order to assimilate the experience of the struggle, centralism and discipline are necessary to lead the struggle. Firm organisational cohesion makes it possible for the party to act, to take initiatives, to direct the action of the masses. A party that is not confident in itself cannot win the confidence of the masses. Without a strong party leadership, having the power to act promptly and direct the activities of the members, a revolutionary party cannot exist. The party is a centralist organisation that leads a determined struggle for power. As such it needs iron discipline in action.

Clausewitz on the Art of War

At the beginning of this chapter, we mentioned that Lenin’s concept of strategy and tactics was profoundly influenced by the writings of Clausewitz. One has only to quote from Clausewitz to perceive a startling similarity in formulation and attitude.

Clausewitz begins his book On War by arguing that there is a radical difference between the abstract concept of war and actual concrete wars. Real war is different from abstract war, says Clausewitz, because idealised conditions are never realised. Events are governed not only by simple causality, but by the intersection of different chains of causes and effects; chance plays a great role; psychological factors are important determinants of decisions taken by men; and so on. Clausewitz classifies all these circumstances under the heading “friction”, an obvious allusion to the analogous concept in physics that explains the discrepancy between real and idealised mechanical processes. Only by taking “friction” into account can one grasp the relation between the real war and the abstract one, between experience and theory. This is the source of the “difference between the reality and the conception” of war, and “the influence of particular circumstances”.[41]

In order to bring the concept into line with the real world, one needs to “fall back upon the corresponding results of experience; for in the same way as many plants only bear fruit when they do not shoot too high, so in the practical arts the theoretical leaves and flowers must not be made to sprout too far, but kept near to experience, which is their proper soil.”[42]

The art of war depends on many sciences – physics, geography, psychology, etc. – but it is nevertheless an art. The great war leader is one who manages to learn how to use these sciences for the specific task of crushing the enemy. Because of the complexity of war, the commander needs, above all, experience and strong willpower on the one hand, and intuition and imagination on the other.

‘… every war is rich in particular facts, while at the same time each is an unexplored sea, full of rocks which the general may have a suspicion of, but which he has never seen with his eye, and round which, moreover, he must steer in the night. If a contrary wind also springs up, that is, if any great accidental event declares itself adverse to him, then the most consummate skill, presence of mind, and energy are required … The knowledge of this friction is a chief part of that so often talked of, experience in war, which is required in a good general. Certainly he is not the best general in whose mind it assumes the greatest dimensions, who is most over-awed by it … but a general must be aware of it that he may overcome it, where that is possible, and that may not expect a degree of precision in results which is impossible on account of this very friction. Besides, it can never be learnt theoretically; and if it could, there would still be wanting that experience of judgement which is called tact.’[43]

Clausewitz formulated very well the relation between tactics and strategy.

‘Strategy is the employment of the battle to gain the end of the war; it must therefore give an aim to the whole military action, which must be in accordance with the object of the war; in other words, strategy forms the plan of the war; and to this end it links together the series of acts which are to lead to the final decision, that is to say, it makes the plans for the separate campaigns and regulates the combats to be fought in each. As these are all things which to a great extent can only be determined on conjectures some of which turn out incorrect, while a number of other arrangements pertaining to details cannot be made at all beforehand, it follows, as a matter of course, that strategy must go with the army to the field in order to arrange particulars on the spot, and to make the modifications in the general plan which incessantly become necessary in war. Strategy can therefore never take its hand from the work for a moment.’[44]

Tactics must be subordinated to strategy. A successful series of tactical moves may however necessitate a change in strategy.

‘… the great point is to keep the overruling relations of both parties in view. Out of them a certain centre of gravity, a centre of power and movement, will form itself, on which everything depends; and against this centre of gravity of the enemy, the concentrated blow of all the forces must be directed.

The little always depends on the great, the unimportant on the important, and the accidental on the essential. This must guide our view.[45]

… the superiority at the decisive point is a matter of capital importance and … this subject, in the generality of cases, is decidedly the most important of all.’[46]

Clausewitz’s undogmatic mind made it possible for him to grasp clearly the relationship between the idealised model and the reality that it is intended to represent. He understood the organic relations between theory and practice in the development of both. He underlined the connection between the sciences whose adaptation is necessary for successful leadership in war, and the art of war. Above all he understood the great importance of the genius of intuition supported by a clear scientific conceptual notion.

Clausewitz’s ideas influenced Frederick Engels’ military writings, and both Clausewitz and Engels greatly influenced Lenin. Lenin’s genius is that these concepts of tactics and strategy, with their complex integration of experience, science, and art, not only became part of his thinking, but also entered into his blood. Instinctively, quickly, Lenin developed the most effective strategy and tactics, and his willpower matched his intellect.

His powers as a strategist and tactician blossomed in the 1905 Revolution and demonstrated their complete mastery 12 years later in the victory of the October Revolution of 1917.


[1*] In his reminiscences, M.N. Pokrovsky relates how the Bolsheviks sent a delegation, of which Pokrovsky himself was a member, to Lenin in 1908, asking him to give up his philosophical studies and return to practical politics. Lenin, however, refused. [12]


[1] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, p.43.

[2] ibid., vol.30, p.356.

[3] ibid., vol.35, p.131.

[4] ibid., vol.9, p.86.

[5] ibid., vol.7, p.65.

[6] ibid., vol.27, p.48.

[7] ibid., vol.26, p.135.

[8] ibid., p.56.

[9] ibid., vol.9, p.103.

[10] Molodaia gvardiia, February-March 1924, p.248.

[11] Gramsci, op. cit., p.201.

[12] I. Deutscher, Stalin, London 1949, p.116.

[13] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.17, p.280.

[14] ibid., vol.9, p.146.

[15] Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, University of Michigan Press 1961, p.101.

[16] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.13, p.36.

[17] Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolutionop. cit., p.138.

[18] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.9, p.149.

[19] ibid., vol.12, p.22.

[20] ibid., p.489.

[21] ibid., vol.9, p.262.

[22] Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolutionop. cit., p.978.

[23] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.5, p.502.

[24] Trotsky, On Lenin, London 1971, pp.124-5.

[25] ibid., pp.193-4.

[26] Can the Bolsheviks retain state power?, in Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.120.

[27] Krupskaya, op. cit., p.106.

[28] Trotsky, Diary in Exile, London 1958, p.81.

[29] T. Deutscher, ed., Not by Politics Alone, London 1973, p.71.

[30] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.5, pp.509-10.

[31] ibid., vol.35, p.242.

[32] ibid., vol.33, p.227.

[33] ibid., vol.31, p.57.

[34] ibid., vol.26, p.58.

[35] ibid., vol.8, p.523.

[36] ibid., vol.10, pp.310-1.

[37] ibid., vol.13, p.159.

[38] ibid., vol.10, pp.442-3.

[39] ibid., vol.11, p.230.

[40] ibid., vol.11, p.321

[41] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, London 1971, pp.164-5.

[42] ibid., p.91.

[43] ibid., p.166.

[44] ibid., p.241.

[45] ibid., p.389.

[46] ibid., p.266.

Tony Cliff

Born in Palestine to Zionist parents in 1917, Ygael Gluckstein became a Trotskyist during the 1930s and played a leading role in the attempt to forge a movement uniting Arab and Jewish workers. At the end of of the Second World war he moved to Britain and adopted the pseudonym Tony Cliff, later founding the International Socialists, and the Socialist Workers Party. Cliff’s works are available on the Marxist Internet Archive. For more on Cliff’slife see his autobiography ‘A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary’ and Ian Birchall’s  'Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time'

Tagged under: