By Gaither Stewart
Leftists like to cite Lenin. To quote Marx is to delve into the theory of Socialism/Communism. But Lenin is another cup of tea. You get into Lenin and you’re in revolution. When you read Lenin’s The State and Revolution, which contains the core of Leninist thought, you are no longer in the world of socio-economic theory. This powerful text offers insights into Leninist policies and elaborated Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism, above all the class conflict, the crushing of the bourgeois state and the establishment and role of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Reading Lenin today is to enter the realm of the overthrow of Capitalism and the transition from Capitalism to Communism. Fantasy? Not many years ago such words seemed like maniacal ravings. But that was before the shit hit the fan in the bourgeois capitalist world, right smack in its heart on Wall Street. The images of capitalism digging its own grave seemed to many the theoretical wishful thinking of a handful of radical eccentrics. But today? Lenin’s writings now read like contemporary political thought. The younger Trotsky noted in his autobiography, My Life , that “Lenin, although he was firmly entrenched in the present, was always trying to pierce the veil of the future.” That quality underlines the difference between Lenin and many of his contemporaries and marks him as the true revolutionary.
His second outstanding quality was his tenacity about his main idea: his companion and wife Nadezhda Krupskaya said he was a “bulldog”—his was the death-grip. For he was a man of a single idea, to which he dedicated his life. Revolution was an idea. But an idea, in the words of Mussolini, “which possesses bayonets.” Bertram Wolfe in his monumental Three Who Made A Revolution , notes that Lenin added to that the word organization. And that was his genius. The ironclad organization of specialists in revolution.
Lenin was not the great writer as was Trotsky. His genius was flexibility and vocabulary. Vocabulary is a fundamental aspect of Leninist writing, highly visible in some of the excerpts I have included here. Proletariat and bourgeoisie, capitalism and Socialism, greedy capitalist exploiters and oppressed toiling masses, class struggle, revolution and capitalist reaction, flunkies and lackeys of capitalist exploiters, imperialist war and socialist war. These are constants of the vocabulary of the bulldog revolutionary and social-political visionary activist and interpreter of Marxist theory, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-Lenin. Lenin was the motor of the seizure of power in Russia in November, 1917. Though disappointing to some purists, according to Bertram Wolfe pragmatic Lenin said on the eve of the Revolution: The point of the uprising is the seizure of power; afterwards we will see what we can do with it.” The second phrase exemplifies his recognition of the role of destiny and chance in the history of men. Uncertainty and destiny were ever present in Leninist thought; yet when the historical climax arrived, it deceptively seemed to have been inevitable. That too was the Leninist method.
The contemporary crisis of capitalism underlines the extraordinary vision of Marx of 150 years ago and of Lenin a century ago. In this sense Marxism-Leninism is NOT outdated and anachronistic. T heir words are right on target, current, modern, contemporary, far from quaint social philosophies of the distant past. A return to Lenin, an adventure if you want, is a worthwhile exercise for us all.
As described by Lenin, Socialism/Communism is natural and just. In essence it is a dramatic redistribution of wealth and control over who does the distributing. That simplicity cannot be disturbing except to the rich who exploit the poor. In his last articles in 1922 Lenin defined “Socialism” (I use here Socialism and Communism interchangeably, as was originally proper!) in these broad terms: “An order of civilized co-operators in which the means of production are socially owned.” His use of the word Socialism thus cuts a wide swath through the world of the Left.
I want to sketch out some of the principles of Lenin the revolutionary, originally taken from his own writings. For this I have referred to several books: Three Who Made A Revolution by Bertram Wolfe, Lenin’s articles in Essential Works of Socialism edited by Irving Howe, My Life by Leon Trotsky, Marxism On Government by Vladimir Lenin, Lenin, A Biography , by David Shub, a member of Lenin’s Social Democratic Party who participated in the Russian Revolution of 1905-6 and frequented Lenin and other revolutionary leaders.
Strategy for gaining power
I repeat, these lines about “reading Lenin” are not about ancient history. For purposes of this article one should keep in mind the explosive obvious: the causes of today’s crisis in the world of finance derives not only from exploitation of the rapidly growing proletariat (now inclusive of a great part of the impoverished middle class), but also from the elitist aloofness and egoism of the crème de la crème of the globalized bourgeoisie.
Therefore, far-sighted as ever, Lenin: “The proletariat may continue to pledge allegiance to the old ruling class which had no qualms in exploiting them in myriad ways. But the proletariat, having assembled sufficiently powerful political and military ‘striking forces’, must overthrow the bourgeoisie and deprive it of the power of the state, so as to wield this instrument for its own class purposes….” (Lenin, Collected works, Vol. XVI p.148.
This, Lenin said, is to be achieved by “smashing to atoms” the old state and creating a new apparatus adapted to the struggle of the proletariat. Though universal suffrage and the ballot reveal the conditions of the various classes, the solution of the social problems is to be achieved by the class struggle in all forms, even in civil war, but above all not by the vote. (How obvious today when elections are sold and bought like merchandise!) The revolutionary participates in parliamentary activity in order to educate the masses but the parliamentary struggle is by no means decisive. Practical Lenin believed that participation in bourgeois parliaments makes it easier to show to the backward masses the reasons why such parliaments must be eliminated. The heart of Leninist thought was that the working class must instead use and exploit the institutions of the bourgeois state against it, for its destruction.
Without the guidance of the socialist vanguard the labour movement would “become petty and inevitably bourgeois.” He foresaw the future of the US working class and the great part of the labour movement in Europe today. The vanguard would consist of persons who devote the whole of their lives to the revolution, that is, the professional revolutionaries, who would teach, indoctrinate and guide. Simple trade unionism, Lenin writes in What Is To Be Done means the ideological subordination of the workers to the bourgeoisie. Working class consciousness cannot be genuinely political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse. To bring political knowledge to the workers, the Social Democrats must go among all classes of the population.”
Lenin dismisses charges that Communists have no ethics of their own. This, he says, is just “throwing dust in the eyes of workers.” But he rejects the ethics of the bourgeois who liken their ethics to God’s commandments. The bourgeoisie uses the name of God in order to continue exploiting the workers of the world, today as yesterday. Hand on the Bible, crosses in the classroom, God bless America and all the rest! Lenin repudiates all ethics that are fraud and deception to clog the minds of workers in the interests of capitalists. Socialist morality instead derives directly from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat.
“Capitalism cannot be defeated … without the ruthless suppression of the resistance of the exploiters … who will try to overthrow the hateful (for them!) rule of the poor. A great revolution is inconceivable without civil war, which … implies a state of extreme indefiniteness…. (Lenin, Selected Works, Russian Edition, Vol. 2, pp.277-8)
Lenin was convinced that only the proletariat led by the socialist vanguard could liberate mankind from the sham, lies and hypocrisy of capitalism, which is (and has always been) a democracy for the rich, a “democracy for the few.” Only the proletariat can make the benefits of democracy available to the workers, benefits which today in 2009 are ever more inequitably distributed, the rich richer, the poor, poorer, a concentrated wealth of grotesque salaries, bonuses and stock options for the rich, the poverty of unemployment and hard bread for the poor.
Lenin’s “proletarian democracy”, that is, what today is called popular or socialist democracy, aimed in the opposite direction. Only the hangers-on, like Lenin’s “flunkies” of the bourgeoisie, or academics blinded to real life by bourgeois propaganda and benefits, fail to see the difference. Capitalists speak hypocritically of democracy while constantly creating obstacles to its realization and reinforcing their own dominant position by distorting the legality of their state. Therefore the urgent necessity of preparing the masses, in 1920 Russia , as well as the USA and Europe in the year 2009.
The USA and Europe have forgotten their revolutionary heritage: the very birth of the United States of America and in Europe the great English and French revolutions. Since it is difficult to even imagine a revolutionary class in the USA , the work of the individual revolutionary today must be one of education and indoctrination. Yet, as Lenin and Marx prophesied, capitalism is digging its own grave as seen everyday in the chaos of its monetary system. As Henry Ford said, “It is well that the people of this nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be revolution before tomorrow morning.”
Peter Chamberlain writes in his fine essay, Sermon From The Corporate Church , “Faith in the infallibility of capitalism and the belief that it is the answer to mankind’s problems permeate American culture” to the extent that the suggestion to a true believer that capitalism is a doomed religion or intrinsically harmful to mankind is unnerving.…”
Chamberlain goes on to say that the masters of deception have interwoven faith in capital with patriotic belief, while depicting doubters as “Communist.” Those who resist the plan for a global empire built on the graves of billions of “useless eaters” are considered enemies of mankind, communists, terrorists, or common criminals. Even though resistance to a plan of mass genocide is an act of self-defense, those who dare to do so are marked as extremists and terrorists, targeted for death or incarceration in the war on terror. Real patriots should instead seethe with anger since America itself is the final target marked for destruction in the envisioned New [Imperial] Order.
The limits on civil liberties seen in Soviet Russia during periods of enormous social stress, much of it induced from abroad, such as the Nazi invasion in WW2, have been the chief factors in capitalism’s condemnation of and attacks on Communism in general, while, as seen today, capitalism has resorted to the same tactics it has criticized in the name of salvation of a declining system. America ’s antagonism toward Socialist Russia of early last century continue down to today.
Lenin: “We declare that we are fighting capitalism as such, the free, republican, democratic capitalism included, and we realize, of course, that in this light the banner of freedom will be waved defiantly at us. But our answer is … every freedom is a fraud if it contradicts the interests of the emancipation of labour from the oppression of capital.” (Collected Works, 1923 Edition, Vol. XIV, pp. 80-1, 203-4)
For Lenin capitalist society was based on the exploitation of labour. A small minority owns everything (more so today than in Lenin’s time); the working masses own nothing. The capitalists command. The workers obey. The capitalists exploit. The workers are exploited. The essence of capitalist society is found in the ever-increasing exploitation of everything from human beings to beast and to nature itself.
Though in Lenin’s late period around 1923 the military invasions to topple the new socialist regime in Russia had ended in defeat, the new Soviet Russia was isolated. Lenin noted, however, that the international bourgeoisie was not in a position to wage open war on the new revolutionary state because capitalism had to reckon with the opposition on the part of its own working classes. So the war between Socialism and capitalism continued in his time and continues down to our day.
Party unification and unity
Lenin’s book What Is To Be Done, a work of orthodox Marxism adapted to Russia ’s backwardness and to its developing workers movement, contained Lenin’s ideas on party organization. What differentiated Lenin from other Social Democratic leaders was his meaning of party unification. He meant the uniting of all Marxist circles into a centrally controlled and homogeneous All-Russian Bolshevik Party, with a Marxist program as interpreted by himself. The center would safeguard the purity of doctrine and action of the party in “proletarian discipline.” Much of this work is an attack on the intelligentsia, which was, in his words, “careless and sluggish.” I remember when the Italian Communist Party (PCI), one-third of the Italian electorate and the biggest in the West, discussed for years the retention or abolition of the rule of “democratic centralism”, according to which once a decision was made, obedience to it was obligatory. That rule was the glue that held divergent elements together. The rule was abolished and soon after the PCI began its decline.
In 1925, in the book, Against The Stream , co-written with Zinoviev, Lenin underlined the “absolute law of capitalism” according to which economic and political development is uneven around the world. That reality made possible the victory of Socialism in only a few or even in only one country. The proletariat of that country would then rise and lead the struggle against the capitalist world, attracting to itself the oppressed classes of other countries.
The Leninist idea of a chain reaction of anti-capitalist revolution stood behind leftwing terrorists in Europe of the 1970s and 80, Red Brigades in Italy and Rote Armée Fraktion in Germany . Lenin believed workers in the developed countries would eventually disrupt capitalist war policies. To some extent we saw a reflection of his prediction during the Vietnam War, although it was chiefly youth and not workers who helped end that capitalist war. Unfortunately, brainwashed workers have remained attached to their tiny piece of the capitalist pie … or they did until today’s crisis. Now, as millions of workers stand to lose their jobs in the USA alone, the working class is stirring, riots and revolts threaten, perhaps in the beginning in a war among the poor, whites against the rest, natives against immigrants, homeless against landlords, a war which must inevitably turn against the bourgeois masters of all. That uprising is widly considered a threat in the USA today.
Lenin wrote confidently “as long as capitalism and Socialism remain, we cannot live in peace. In the end one or the other will triumph. Either Socialism would triumph throughout the world or the most reactionary imperialism would win, the most savage imperialism which is out to throttle the small and feeble nationalities … all over the world.” That imperialist triumph came to be called globalization. Though the Soviet Union collapsed, capitalism’s victory has soured in the arrogance of power.
On war, national defense and peace
Wars will always be imperialist if fought by capitalist-run nations. War ceases to be imperialist when capitalism is overthrown and the revolutionary proletariat stands at the helm of state. According to Lenin, to defend one’s own nation (a capitalist nation) is a betrayal of Socialism and internationalism. The German or Frenchman or American who defends his own capitalist nation puts his own bourgeoisie above the interests of his class and thus participates in imperialist war. In Leninist thought even the most democratic bourgeois republic is an instrument for the suppression of the workers by capitalists. Imperialist wars are by their nature reactionary and criminal, in order to strengthen capitalist rule, as in Iraq and Afghanistan today. On the other hand, war for the extending of Socialism is legitimate.
Lenin gives another and unfamiliar twist to the nature of war: “The character of war (whether reactionary or revolutionary)… is determined by the class that is waging the war and the politics of which this war is the continuation.” In that sense, wars between imperialist powers of his time, “are to our advantage”, for example, the antagonism between Japan and America . Or between America and the rest of the capitalist world today. Anti-Americanism in Europe today confirms Lenin’s evaluation of the 1920s, nearly a century ago: “ America is strong, everybody is in debt to her (or was until not long ago!) … she is more and more hated, she is robbing everybody …. America cannot come to terms with Europe —that is a fact proved by history.”
Significance of Leninist vision for US today
Noting that the US Army 3rd Infantry’s 1st Brigade Combat Team returned from Iraq some months ago “may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control”, Professor Michel Chossudovsky puts forward the hypothesis that “Civil unrest resulting from the financial meltdown (of capitalism) is a distinct possibility, given the broad impacts of financial collapse on lifelong savings, pension funds, homeownership, etc”.
The Centre for Research on Globalization website posted an article written by Wayne Madsen who refers to a highly confidential official report circulating among senior members of the US Congress and their top advisors. The report, allegedly nicknamed as the “C and R document”, standing for “conflict” and “revolution.” The document reveals that severe financial chaos could spark a major war. Senior American statesmen recognize that financial volatility could fuel a wave of discontent, which could reach troubling proportions. America itself is not immune from “regime-threatening instability” as the Pentagon and the American intelligence community terms it. It is likely that American government officials have been preparing for the worst-case scenario.
Gaither Stewart, novelist, essayist and journalist, is Cyrano’s Journal Online Senior Editor and European correspondent.