On the 150th anniversary of Lenin's birth, John Westmoreland, in the first of a three-part series, takes on the myths and distortions to reveal the politics at the heart of the Bolshevik party up to 1917
What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the name Lenin? It’s dictator! I know because I have often asked the question to students (I had yet to teach) and other history teachers.
Students of A level history are often asked questions about ‘Lenin’s dictatorship’, or ‘Lenin’s terror regime’ and that seems to make it official.
There again we might ask what’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the name Jeremy Corbyn? You know the answer any BBC commentator would come up with right? And yet you know he is an anti-racist, yes?
So this is our starting point. If liberal historians call Lenin a dictator, and the BBC agrees, he was probably the opposite.
To argue that Leninist political organisation was about creating a dictatorship is pretty lame. Dictators take power from the existing apparatus of the state, i.e. they rest on the military and bureaucratic forces of the state. Pinochet, Hitler, Mussolini and many others came via this route with the acquiescence of the ruling class.
Lenin lived most of his life far distant from any organs of state power, mainly in exile. Lenin advocated workers’ power and a full working class democracy when he declared “All power to the Soviets”; advocated full religious freedom; and expressed a very strong desire to see state power “wither away” in his 1917 pamphlet The State and Revolution.
In Russia, Marxism was very popular because the need for revolution was self-evident. Russia was one of the Great Powers. The empire presided over by the tsars was so big that as the sun went down in the west it was simultaneously rising in the east. Yet Russia was backward, and the development of capitalism made it inherently unstable.
While the vast majority of Russians, and the fifty seven other nationalities that made up the empire, were peasants, vast industrial cities were springing up to build the docks, ships, railways and weapons a capitalist state needs. Peasant illiteracy and superstition was easy for the tsars to dominate, but modernity was terrifying.
Tsarism was a byword for brutality. A vast bureaucratic police state spied on, exiled and executed its opponents. The middle classes knew the tsar was an anachronism, a feudal obstacle to capitalist progress. Many turned to terror, and as a result Tsar Alexander II was killed by a bomb in 1881. However, this produced an even more fearsome terror by the state.
Mass arrests and trials followed. Lenin’s older brother, Alexander, was one of the victims and was hanged in 1887. A new form of state terror was developed to divert popular resentment onto Jews – the pogroms. Pogroms were planned. Tsarist mobs carried a portrait of the tsar while military bands and Russian Orthodox priests led them into the Jewish quarters. Three days of slaughter and pillage were allowed and thousands of Jews died in the name of the tsar.
Russian Marxists could see that revolution was needed to smash the tsarist state and move Russia forward. And this focused their attention on how the power of the emerging working class could be marshalled to that end. This was no easy task. The repression was so severe that most of the Marxist leaders, including Lenin were forced to live in exile. How to overcome these problems and connect Marxism with the working class was Lenin’s main concern.
In his 1902 pamphlet What is to be done? Lenin provided an answer of enduring importance to this question, as Lenin took the science of Marxism towards the art of revolution.
What is to be done?
Liberal historians see What is to be done? as a blueprint for dictatorship.
Lenin used the pamphlet to promote the creation of a tightly knit party of professional revolutionaries. Membership, said Lenin, should be restricted to those who were committed to the revolution. An elected central committee would form the leadership of the most able comrades, who in turn would then direct the party members. Thus the central committee would control the party’s line of march through its newspapers and pamphlets. The party would be an organisation of professional revolutionaries, but rooted in the working class and their fight for power, not some quasi-religious sect.
For the aforementioned liberal historians What is to be done? gives them their one and only chance to quote Trotsky favourably.
Trotsky, who agreed with Lenin that the working class should be the authors of the coming revolution, argued that if Lenin had his way the party, and not the class, would become the focus of activity and authority. This would lead to the party substituting itself for the working class, and in turn the central committee would substitute itself for the party, leading to a dictatorship by a preeminent individual. And Lenin’s encyclopaedic knowledge, his grasp of theoretical issues and his ruthless determination to argue his case, made him just such an individual.
Those wretched liberals never mention that Trotsky completely repudiated this view in the heat of the 1917 revolution!
Trotsky came to agree with Lenin and abandon his theory of ‘substitutionism’ precisely because Lenin’s Bolshevik party was the key to the workers taking power in 1917.
Theory and practice
Lenin’s insistence on a party of professional revolutionaries was not in any sense because he saw himself as the indisputable font of all Marxist wisdom. Lenin was happy to be tested. He wanted every party member to know the arguments and for himself and the leadership to be subject to the same scrutiny as everyone else.
The Leninist party came to be known as the Bolsheviks (majority) after it split with the Mensheviks (minority) at the 1903 Congress of Russian Social Democracy (RSDLP).
We could be forgiven for asking why Lenin was prepared to risk splitting the RSDLP over the details of party organisation. The answer lies firstly in the special conditions in which Russian revolutionaries operated, and secondly in the danger of ‘opportunism’. Opportunism in this case means not telling the truth. For example, Blair and Bush went to war in Iraq for oil, but they lied and said it was for democracy.
All the Russian leaders were forced to live in exile. Most had tasted exile in Siberia. Worker comrades in Russia were in constant danger. The Russian secret police, the Okhrana, were everywhere. When the Bolshevik paper Pravda was founded in 1912, two Okhrana agents, Chermanozov and Malinovsky, were leading members of the editorial board. They knew where all the leading members were, and what they were thinking and planning.
For the Russian leadership exile was terrible. Its advantage was that it gave the chance to read and study. But poverty and the inevitable bickering that came with it made life hell. In his second period of exile in Switzerland Lenin said he felt that he had “come here to be buried”.
The problem of opportunism derived from the conditions of existence the revolutionaries faced. State repression encouraged socialists on the ground in Russia to compromise, be less militant, in short fail to lead and simply adapt themselves to their circumstances.
But opportunism also affected the leadership. Too many of them also adapted to their circumstances by taking refuge from the struggle in nothing but reading and writing. They were not connected to the workers in Russia. This created a gap between theory and practice. The revolution became a distant dream disconnected from present day reality.
It is worth mentioning that the leadership rarely concerned themselves with the practical issues of running the party. It was actually Lenin’s critics in 1903 who behaved like an elite. Lenin was the one concerned with comrades on the frontline.
Lenin’s idea of a party was to create a weapon to put in the hands of the workers. This meant sharpening up the theory and practice of the revolutionaries. Worker members would benefit from a leadership focused sharply on the revolutionary possibilities of the situation, and offering the necessary arguments to carry the day. The workers’ demands on the leadership were also critical. The leadership would be disciplined by the working class. Lenin added a battle plan to the theoretical insights of Marxism.
Thus Lenin’s party “walked on two legs” of theory and action, and as with this metaphor as long as they walk in the same direction all is well. However, all revolutionary political organisation has to be ready to change and adapt to new situations without dissolving its principles.
Principles and flexibility
Parties whose primary aim is to win elections bang on about the need to change, but often give up their principles in the process.
Lenin insisted that the principles on which the Bolsheviks stood – internationalism, opposition to all oppression, the equality of nations, to name a few - were unbreakable, and had to be fought for no matter how difficult that was. However, the principles should not be a barrier to revolutionary action. This required political toughness, not the slick tongue of a barrister.
The Bolsheviks’ approach to the national question was crucial. Lenin called the Russian Empire “the prison house of nations”. The Russian language and culture was forced on subject peoples. In Poland students were made to study Polish literature in Russian. The tsar wanted Russian workers to see themselves as above the ‘backward’ Poles and the other fifty six nationalities.
The principle of opposing ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ was unbreakable for Lenin. How many times have Labour politicians caved in to shameful support for imperialist war and the suppression of other nations?
Having principles wins respect. In 1917 different national cultures blossomed as the chains of tsarism were broken by the revolution. The Bolsheviks immediately granted national freedom to all oppressed peoples, most of whom stuck by Lenin in the difficult post-revolution years.
When World War One broke out the parties of the Second International, who had all passed resolutions to oppose imperialist war, caved in. They all said their duty to their fatherland must come first. Of course the pressure was very difficult to resist. In Berlin Rosa Luxemburg lamented that patriotic gangs were roaming the streets seizing and beating anyone they suspected of being a French spy.
Lenin was absolutely determined that the Bolsheviks should stand firm. Lenin knew the war would be an unmitigated disaster, and that patriotism would burn out. He was right. In March 1915 Luxemburg recorded that the mood in Berlin had changed. The patriotic mood was replaced by the grim reality of an industrial war of attrition, and its attendant horrors.
There is little doubt that the Bolsheviks would never have survived without a tough position on the war. A slide into patriotism would have seen the opportunists gifted the leadership of the masses.
Party and class
It would be a big mistake to think, despite what has been said about Lenin’s determination to create a serious revolutionary party, that Lenin was a ‘party man’ first and foremost. The Bolsheviks, just like any party of the left today, was a tool, a weapon in the class struggle.
Tony Cliff used to liken the revolutionary party to “a small sharp axe” – easy for the workers to wield when they needed it – unlike a large reformist party dedicated to winning elections.
In fact the targets for much of Lenin’s ire when the class struggle was intense, were fellow Bolsheviks, nearly all of whom thought of themselves as ‘party men’.
To understand why this happened we need to state an obvious truth. Organisation is a secondary issue to politics. If we get this wrong we look like sectarian chumps, and the Bolsheviks fell into the trap of putting the party before the class on a number of occasions.
In 1905 revolution broke out in Petrograd. A mass demonstration against the privations workers were suffering as a consequence of the war with Japan was attacked by troops. The working class needed to organise their struggle at every level – food, rents, the factories, armed struggle – against the tsar, dictatorship and war. To do this they elected councils called ‘soviets’. The soviets ran Petrograd until they were finally suppressed.
The arrogance of the Petrograd Bolsheviks infuriated Lenin. Instead of seeing what was obvious to him (and other leading Marxists like Trotsky and Luxemburg) that the soviet was the “embryo of a future workers’ government”, the Petrograd Bolsheviks referred to them as “immature workers’ organisations”. Instead of joining the soviets and arguing for their position, the Bolsheviks demanded that the soviets should accept their own party programme.
Between 1905 and 1907 Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to open up the party to revolutionary leaders from the struggle and stop thinking that the party was the be all and end all of revolution. If the party was to be the vanguard (leadership) of the class it had to be continually refreshed from the struggle to remain vital and relevant. Lenin begged and bullied the Petrograd comrades. He extolled the virtues of Father Gapon, a priest (and later Okhrana agent) who had led the Petrograd demonstrators. He urged the Bolsheviks to learn from the peasants who wanted to end the rule of the landlords and aristocrats. If the party didn’t “smell of the workers’ vodka” it was not revolutionary.
Lenin also urged the Bolsheviks to show great tactical flexibility. For example, in the elections to the Duma (Russian parliament) in 1906, he cautioned against the Bolsheviks standing aside. As he argued, the issue was not one of gaining approval for revolutionary principles, it was about the struggle. As Lenin put it, “Sometimes we have to stand on a dunghill to address the masses”.
Only a party that steeled itself in the struggle could hope to lead the workers in revolution. That chapter – 1917 and its aftermath - is coming soon.
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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