Lenin Was Not a Leninist



A comment on Paul LeBlanc’s Leninism is Unfinished — The crisis in the British SWP over the handling of rape allegations against a leading member has led to a new and wide-ranging debate on the issue of “Leninist” parties. This happened because the party’s response to critics was that it had only upheld Leninist organizational norms. I don’t think I have much to say about the rape allegations except that the comrades who have complained seem to have a very strong case, and I believe them. But I’m thousands of miles away.

I do very much have an opinion on the idea that the SWP leadership was just defending Leninism. And that opinion can be summarized in one word: Bullshit! 

At least if by “Leninism” what is meant is what Lenin believed, advocated and practiced. Quite simply, I don’t think Lenin was a “Leninist.” And I think it is baby-simple to demonstrate.

Those of us who have been around — or even worse, in — one of these groups know that nothing is more sacred than safeguarding the party’s — I mean The Party’s — internal life. Only members are allowed to access the Innermost secrets of the group — what its members really think — and mostly not even that. These are to be found in that Holy Book — err, I mean Holy stapled-together 8-1/2” X 11” booklets (and sometimes not even that) — the Truly Revolutionary Party™ Internal Discussion Bulletin.

Following is the full text of all the articles Lenin ever wrote for the internal discussion bulletin of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, or the party’s Bolshevik wing, or the “Bolshevik Party” (which was never the formal name of a Party in the early 20th Century in Russia, but never mind), and the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks):


And that is a direct word-for-word quote, except for the quotation marks, of course. And there is nothing except the quotation marks, because Lenin and his friends didn’t have an “internal discussion bulletin.” For a brief time in 1910-11, during one more effort to reunify the RSDLP,Diskussionny Listok (Discussion Bulletin) came out three times as a supplement to the Central Organ and with its own multi-tendency editorial board. But this was not an internal publication.

In the fall of 1920, on the basis of motions drafted by Lenin, a discussion bulletin and the Central Control Commission were established. But I’ve not been able to find anything Lenin wrote for that bulletin. And actually, from a very quick Googling of the Russian name, the one leader of the Russian Revolution who stood out as an author there was Stalin. No Lenin.

Instead, to his last conscious moments, Lenin insisted that big political discussions be public. The last thing Lenin ever wrote was the second part of a message to the 12th Party Congress harshly criticizing the government bureaucracy, which he finished on March 2, 1923, and, at Lenin’s insistence, was published in Pravda on March 4.

To get a feel for Lenin’s tone, let me quote a bit of the piece:

Our state apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, has not yet reached the stage of a culture. […]

The most harmful thing would be to rely on the assumption that we know at least something, or that we have any considerable number of elements necessary for the building of a really new state apparatus, one really worthy to be called socialist, Soviet, etc.

No, we are ridiculously deficient of such an apparatus, and even of the elements of it, and we must remember that we should not stint time on building it, and that it will take many, many years.

That was Lenin, in the last thing he ever wrote, a letter to a party Congress, and to send it he didn’t put it in a bulletin, nor did he use the post office or one of those yellow inter-office mail envelopes. It was in Pravda, a newspaper. And his starting point was that their state apparatus was a piece of shit (of course, Lenin would never put it that way in a family newspaper likePravda).

The next to the last thing he ever wrote, which was the first half of the message he addressed to the 12th party Congress, was to the effect that the Central Committee sure could use a Control Commission of 75-100 utterly dedicated and incorruptible worker- and peasant communists to participate in all its meetings and double-check everything as well as sending a few of the Control Commission members to every Political Bureau meeting to keep them honest. And in practical work his plan was to fuse them with the government’s worker and peasant inspectorate, which would be reduced in size by keeping only the best few hundred.

Our Central Committee has grown into a strictly centralised and highly authoritative group but the conditions under which this group is working are not concurrent with its authority. The reform I recommend should help to remove this defect, and the members of the Central Control Commission, whose duty it will be to attend all meetings of the Political Bureau in a definite number, will have to form a compact group which should not allow anybody’s authority without exception, neither that of the General Secretary [Stalin] nor of any other member of the Central Committee, to prevent them from putting questions, verifying documents, and, in general, from keeping themselves fully informed of all things and from exercising the strictest control over the proper conduct of affairs.”[emphasis added]

Lenin uses “control” here in the sense of verification, supervision and double-checking, not in the sense of dictating what is to be done. When you think about it, having an independent group of people looking over the shoulder of the Politburo so that its probity can be assured is hardly a statement of unequivocal confidence in the party leadership.

That is a very different “Leninism” from the one usually portrayed by the groups that claim to be Leninist. How many of these outfits have the structure that Lenin recommends, that an autonomous control commission be a watchdog over the Central Committee and the Political Bureau? I think the list is as long as the collection of articles by Lenin for internal discussion bulletins that I quoted above.

And Lenin’s plan was more audacious because he was proposing to fuse the state and party bodies, in effect removing the combined operation from under either the state or party hierarchy. And Lenin insisted — over politburo grumbling — that this all be public. In fact, I read somewhere that the politburo even considered printing up a fake Pravda with his article to give to Lenin. But, in the end, they rejected the idea.

Why did Lenin do this? Because he knew the party didn’t belong to him, the politburo, the central committee, the congress or even its members. The party belongs to its class: it is the political expression of that class social movement that has merged with the ideological reflection of that class movement: socialism, communism, whatever you want to call it.

If you think about it, this isn’t just different but the opposite of a party-building strategy. Lenin didn’t create a tool from a blueprint.

One phrase from Lenin you hear quoted over, and over and over — and without the slightest understanding — is: “Without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary movement.”

The way it is usually presented is not just wrong, but risible from a Marxist, materialist point of view. It is idealism of the purest water: Good ideas lead to a good outcome.

What’s the problem? That we’re missing what Lenin took for granted and was the material base for his “revolutionary theory.” A class movement, one that was becoming immediately politicized thanks to tsarist absolutism. Under those circumstances, yeah, you better have “revolutionary theory” otherwise you’re not going to get a revolutionary movement.

But “revolutionary theory” in that sense doesn’t mean Das Kapital, Materialism and Empiriocriticism, or the complete Silvio Rodriguez discography. It means understanding the class and other social relations of the space you inhabit. Knowing how far along in the development of the movement you are. Who you are, what you are, where you’re going.

You protest: “That isn’t Leninism!”

Right. Because the “Leninism” we know was mostly created and codified after Lenin’s death. And the person most centrally involved was Zinoviev, head of the Communist International who at that time had an alliance with Stalin. That is why I think it should be called “Zinovievism.”

And that’s why I say Lenin wasn’t a “Leninist.” He couldn’t have been. He died before it was invented. No one talked about “Leninism” before 1924 save perhaps in a few polemics criticizing him.

Back to the current debate. What started it was an article by a [UK] SWP leader, Alex Callinicos, titled Is Leninism Finished? The SWP dissidents (now ex-SWP dissidents) responded with Is Zinovievism Finished? and the Unrepentant Marxist Louis Proyect also responded to Callinicos with Leninism is Finished prompting Paul LeBlanc to write Leninism is Unfinished.

I’ve submitted the following comment on LeBlanc’s piece to socialistworker.org, one of the International Socialist Organization’s websites, which published his article.

My old friend Paul LeBlanc –in arguing against another old friend, Louis Proyect, who was in the U.S. SWP with myself and Paul decades ago, cites the Comintern’s 1921 resolution on the Organization and Activity of the Communist Parties as proof that there is more to Lenin’s organizational efforts than simply an attempt to build a standard social-democratic party under Russian conditions.  Paul cites that resolution again and again.

From Paul:

There is no question that Lenin was profoundly influenced by other comrades in the pre-1914 Socialist International, particularly George Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky. But his thought cannot be reduced to that. Nor did his thinking stop in 1914. In fact, the 1921 Comintern theses “The Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work” were put forward at Lenin’s insistence. Not only did Lenin help to shape the theses (which included a substantial emphasis on democratic centralism), he also defended them after they were adopted. [6]

Apparently to present a Lenin more consistent with political points he wishes to stress, Proyect chooses to leave this and much else out of his account of the history of the Bolsheviks.

Thus far Paul LeBlanc. Yet Lenin took the extraordinary step of renouncing and denouncing that resolution, even though in the context of  his speech at the next World Congress of the Communist International, that was dragged in by the hair. After talking quite a bit about the first five years of the Russian Revolution, including a lot of what he considered mistakes, Lenin says the missteps of the capitalists have been much greater and uses that as a pretext to say the 1921 resolution that Paul cites is worse than useless.

I don’t think it will be an exaggeration to repeat that the foolish things we have done are nothing compared with those done in concert by the capitalist countries, the capitalist world and the Second International. That is why I think that the outlook for the world revolution — a subject which I must touch on briefly — is favourable. And given a certain definite condition, I think it will be even better. I should like to say a few words about this.

At the Third Congress, in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it. I have read it again before saying this. In the first place, it is too long, containing fifty or more points. Foreigners are not usually able to read such things. Secondly, even if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian — it has been excellently translated into all languages — but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. And thirdly, if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out. This is its third defect. I have talked with a few of the foreign delegates and hope to discuss matters in detail with a large number of delegates from different countries during the Congress, although I shall not take part in its proceedings, for unfortunately it is impossible for me to do that. I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our own road to further success.

Note the world-historic context in which Lenin places his comment. The prospects for world revolution are favorable “And given a certain definite condition, I think it will be even better.”

If Paul is right that this resolution was a significant milestone in the emergence of a specific Leninist theory of organization, then perhaps we should take into account Lenin’s damning conclusion a year later: ”I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our own road to further success.”

Dumping that resolution was the “definite condition” needed for “further success.” Based on the nine decades since Lenin fell silent, I think the verdict of actual experience is quite clear: Lenin was right. What we have come to know as “Leninism” is a sect-building dead end.


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