Leninism Revisited

Tom Twiss

Lenin and the Revolutionaryy Party
By Paul Le Blanc, introduction by Ernest Mandel
Humanities Press International, 1990, $55 hardcover.

THE DEMOCRATIC UPHEAVALS in Eastern Europe and the USSR have elicited from the media a barrage of retrospective evaluations of the Bolshevik experience.

Typical is the account in Time magazine of how the “malign genius” of Lenin was responsible for the construction of a small, conspiratorial party which sought to be the vanguard of the working class “but no more than a vanguard.” The article recounts how Lenin “fought ruthlessly for control” of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party against his “more open-minded opponents,” and how he “as usual insisted on getting his own way.”(1)

Meanwhile, the New York Times offers the expert testimony of Walter Sablinsky of the University of Virginia that, in contrast to the Mensheviks, “Lenin wanted a party subordinate to one person.”(2) Of course, these evaluations are no more than popular rehearsals of the standard account of Bolshevik elitism and authoritarianism, which has been articulated for decades by the political and academic opponents of Leninism.

In the midst of this new wave of anti-Leninism, it is refreshing to read Paul La Blanc’s spirited defense of Lenin’s organizational principles.

Much of this study will be familiar to those who have read the important studies on Lenin by Marcel Liebman, Tony Cliff and Neil Harding published over the last two decades.(3) However, Le Blanc’s work is distinguished by its sharper focus on the organizational question and by its consistent agreement with Lenin’s perspectives.

For the most part, his arguments are convincing. Even readers sympathetic to Leninism, however, will not necessarily agree with all of Le Blanc’s conclusions. For example, while it is probably true that the 1909 split between the Leninists and the ultra-Left was inevitable, that Lenin’s orientation in this dispute made the most sense, and that the Bolsheviks were ultimately strengthened by the split, it is difficult to justify the way in which Lenin engineered the expulsion of Bogdanov and his leading supporters. (The superiority which La Blanc claims for Lenin’s philosophical orientation in this dispute may also be questioned.)

The book, however, is not an act of pious homage to Lenin. Though Le Blanc concludes that Lenin was essentially correct in all the major organizational disputes within Russian socialism at least through 1917, he arrives at this conclusion only after a critical interrogation of Lenin’s writings, evaluated in their political, economic and social context.

To a large extent La Blanc allows Lenin to speak for himself. Though the extensive use of quotations at times makes this a difficult book to read, it is clearly necessary for correcting the distortions and falsifications of previous interpretations. The author further utilizes a wealth of contemporary memoirs as well as recent scholarly studies to provide historical background.

Principles and Politics

The author states his central thesis at the outset:

“Two things are fundamental to Lenin—the political program of revolutionary Marxism and the living movement and struggles of the working class. The function of the revolutionary party for Lenin is to bring these two phenomena together. to develop the program in a way that advances the workers’ struggles, and to help advance the workers’ struggles in such a way that contributes to the realization of the program.”

In Lenin’s attempt to create such a revolutionary party, Le Blanc argues, he stressed three fundamental points which continue to be universally applicable. The first of these is the “absolute primacy of the revolutionary program—the principles, general analysis, goals and strategic and tactical orientation which can lead the class struggle to a revolutionary socialist conclusion.”

Second is the need for a vanguard party “which seeks to interact with the working class to influence it in a revolutionary direction.” Third is the understanding that this party must combine both organizational centralism and internal democracy to complete its revolutionary mission. Necessarily, the balance between democracy and centralism must be a dynamic one, shifting to correspond to the current situation and the needs of the class struggle.

Some of the more important historical and interpretive points Le Blanc makes are the following:

• From the beginning, Lenin’s perspectives were marked by a “deeply democratic sensibility,” though one which was necessarily tempered by the repressive conditions of tsarism.

• Lenin’s classic work, What lsTo Be Done? (1902) did not, as is commonly claimed, advance anew and distinctively Leninist organizational orientation. Rather, it was simply a “concretization” of tactics embraced by the entire revolutionary wing of the RS.D.LP. gathered around the paper Iskra. Further, though it contained certain polemical exaggerations, its stress on centralism and the active role of the party in winning workers to socialism was, and remains, “reasonable and valuable.”

• The 1903 rupture between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks was not a product of Lenin’s authoritarianism; nor did it arise primarily over differences in the party program. Instead, it was precipitated by the refusal of Menshevik leaders to abide by the decisions of the party congress.

• Lenin’s attempt to maintain and widen the split in early 1905 was in response to the growing divergence of the Mensheviks from the traditional party program’s insistence upon the political independence of the working class.

• The split between the two factions was temporarily healed by the return of the Mensheviks to the traditional party orientation under the impact of the revolution of 1905. At the same time, the 1905 events, together with Lenin’s intervention, pushed the Bolsheviks to renounce the “impulse to sectarianism” latent in their faction. This programmatic convergence finally resulted in the reunification of the two organizations in 1907 on the basis of “democratic centralism”—an organizational principle first introduced into the RS.D.LP. by the Mensheviks.

• During the years of reaction that followed, democratic centralism was rendered inoperable within the RS.D.LP. by the reemergence of fundamental programmatic differences. It was this basic programmatic divergence, not Leninist sectarianism, which led to the expulsion of the ultra-Left leaders from the Bolshevik faction in 1909 and the formation of a separate Bolshevik party in 1912.

• The resultant “programmatic clarity and tactical flexibility” of the Bolsheviks enabled them to capitalize upon the new working class upsurge of 1912-1914 and become the dominant force on the Left.

• Despite the temporary decline of the revolutionary movement with the outbreak of World War I, the Bolsheviks were able to rebuild their organization and become a pole of attraction for both revolutionary and moderate socialists. To a large degree, this was made possible by the Bolsheviks’ “legendary intransigence and organizational seriousness.” Another factor contributing to Bolshevik success was the deepening of Bolshevik revolutionary internationalism during the war. At the same time, Lenin demonstrated his own readiness to tolerate considerable diversity in the party.

• In 1917 the combination of programmatic reorientation and broad inner-party democracy enabled the Bolsheviks to resolve the tension between “diversity and discipline,” and to rise to leadership of the popular upsurge.

• In the first months of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks expressed their sincere commitment to the principle of “left-wing pluralism.” However, in the following years this, together with party democracy, fell victim to the effects of international isolation, civil war, economic collapse and bureaucratization.

Questions of History and Today

Perhaps the weakest chapter is the one dealing with the Bolshevik party in power. Le Blanc openly acknowledges this, admitting that he is only offering a broad sketch of developments after 1917, and noting that it would require at least another book to do the subject justice.

Nevertheless, the chapter could have been strengthened by a provisional attempt to distinguish between the authoritarian features of Bolshevik rule which were inevitable under the circumstances, and those which were avoidable In part, this weakness is rectified by Ernest Mandel’s introduction, which sharply criticizes the ban on opposition parties instituted in 1921.

On the other hand, one of the most interesting chapters is the conclusion, where Le Blanc assesses the relevance of Lenin’s organizational perspectives for today. The author makes clear that his interest in the subject is more than academic; it arises from his own commitment to revolutionary socialism and from his desire to retrieve those elements of Leninism that have universal applicability and present-day relevance.

Specifically, Le Blanc is a member of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, an organization that defines itself as Leninist. Yet his book is not just an exposition of the organizational perspectives of his own group. The questions he addresses have significance and immediacy for the entire revolutionary left.

Le Blanc recognizes that attempts to build Leninist parties in the United States have repeatedly produced nothing more than sterile sects. Yet he concludes that Leninism still provides the only real alternative for those who recognize the need for a “serious, democratic and cohesive organization guided by a critical minded and revolutionary Marxism.”

One of the prerequisites for such an organization, he explains, is a deeper understanding of the actual experience of the Bolsheviks. Le Blanc’s book provides a significant contribution to this understanding. It can only be hoped that a future paperback edition at a substantially reduced price will make this book more available to those who can use it best.

Notes

  1. Otto Friedrich, “Headed for the Dustheap,” Time, 19 February 1990: 36.
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  2. Constance L Hays, “A Victory for a Faction Silenced 70 Years Ago,” New York Times, 8 February 1990: A10.
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  3. Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1975); Tony Cliff, Lenin, 4 vols. (London: Pluto Press, 1975); Neil Harding Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Praxis in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, paperback ed. 1983).
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May-June 1991, ATC 32