Lenin’s Critics

Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95) viewed the 1789 French Revolution as a symbol of the demise of feudalism and inauguration of a bourgeois society which eventually would be dislodged by the socialist revolution.

Lenin’s Critics

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Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95) viewed the 1789 French Revolution as a symbol of the demise of feudalism and inauguration of a bourgeois society which eventually would be dislodged by the socialist revolution. The idea of apocalyptic change, central to Marxism, came from it.

After Marx’s death in 1883, Engels, as the most important theoretician raised doubts about whether armed rebellion was a suitable mechanism for realizing socialism in view of the huge standing armies maintained by the modern nation states and because the SPD in Germany, the largest and oldest socialist party in Europe, through its 1891 Erfurt Programme stressed on reforms while reiterating theoretically its commitment to revolutionary socialism.

Engels’ comment ‘History has proved us and those who thought like us wrong’ was seen as paving the way for the revisionist debate within the SPD. Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) was the first to realise an open cleavage between the Marxist theory and the social, economic and political realities within late 19th century capitalism. He conceded Marx was a genius but stressed on the need to critically assess the development and elaboration of Marxism. In his Evolutionary Socialism (1899), he pointed out that the working class had started to live better and because of the right to vote the workers settled for economism and parliamentarism as opposed to revolution.


Alarmed at these observations, Vladimir Lenin (2 April1850 – 21 January 1924) felt it was important to prove Marx’s prophecy right and because of the passion he had for making a revolution, the other being chess which he gave up as it intruded with his commitment to revolution, fused Marx’s majoritarianism with Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s (1828-89) elite revolutionism in What is to be done? (1901-2). The title was taken from Chernyshevsky’s novel which was written in 1862-64.

Lenin proposed a highly disciplined and organized vanguard party of professional revolutionaries based on the principles of secrecy, centralisation, specialisation and exclusivity to make the revolution on behalf of the working class. His prescription of an all-encompassing and powerful role for the party, the most important post-Marx development within Marxism, led to a split within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks meaning majority and minority respectively in Russian.

Both groups were committed to revolution but the Mensheviks were for open and majoritarian socialist revolution and wanted to prepare for it while Lenin was a man in a hurry. In the aftermath of the 1905 revolution which was spontaneous, Lenin in his State and Revolution (1916) shifted his emphasis from the vanguard party to the dictatorship of the proletariat which Marx mentioned in passing. He claimed the 1917 Kerensky February revolution as a bourgeois democratic one and his own Bolshevik October revolution as the socialist one justifying that he was following Marx’s theory of the two-stage revolution.

The Bolshevik Revolution and the Leninist experiment were severely criticised both within and outside Russia. Most of Lenin’s critics unanimously concurred that it amounted to an absence of democracy and lacked sufficient institutional checks against abuse of power. Georgii Plekhanov (1856-1918), the father of Russian Marxism, warned against Lenin’s minority revolution and accused Bolshevism of displaying Jacobin tendencies which were at variance with the Marxist conception of class struggle. In a similar vein, Julius Martov (1873- 1923), a Menshevik, feared institutionalization of dictatorship or ‘commissarocracy’ because of Russia’s general backwardness and its unreadiness for a socialist revolution. He pointed out that Lenin made the unconscious majority passive objects of social experimentation and dubbed the October revolution as a coup d’etat. Lenin’s suspension of the Constituent Assembly in 1918 provoked the ‘Pope of Marxism’, Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), and the ‘Eagle of the Revolution’, Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), to virulently denounce Leninism for disregarding democratic norms and procedures. Both feared intensification of militarisation and bureaucratisation.

Luxemburg was sanguine that the abandonment of spontaneity would only encourage centralization and personal dictatorship. The restrictions on the press, on suffrage and the right of assembly led her to express in these memorable words “freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”. Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), an anarchist, like Luxemburg, feared the deadening of spontaneous creativity and local initiative because of party dictatorship. Bernstein dubbed the revolution as a counter-revolution and regarded Bolshevism as a ‘brutalized’ version of Marxism as it relied on terror and violence.

Lenin could never comprehend as Bernstein did that any dictatorship whether of the proletariat or the bourgeois could ever be the vehicle of what Marx projected ‘from the realm of necessity to realm of freedom’. The new dawn that Lenin’s revolution promised was structurally defective from the very inception as it had no detailed account of administering a modern state. The brutal repression of the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921 attenuated centralising and repressive elements within the regime.

Lenin attempted half-heartedly to liberalize the Soviet system with his new economic policy (NEP) in 1921 but the failure to liberalize politically eventually led to the rise of Stalinism. If the latter was a malignant form of Leninism, then Leninism itself was an authoritarian offshoot of Marxism. Lenin’s insurrectionist politics, conspiratorial tactics and strategy set aside the entire thrust of Marx’s concept of a majoritarian and democratic revolutionary transformation.

The Leninist revolution in reality was a minority revolution. It is a cruel fact of history that Lenin, like the Tsar who threw away a golden opportunity of transforming Russia into a constitutional state had he cooperated with the moderate liberal opinion after the 1905 revolution, did not attempt to create a constitutional state. The establishment of a repressive and an authoritarian state and the subjugation of civil society logically followed this failure.

Under the Tsar, one was condemned for one’s own action whereas under communism, any deviating thought was dubbed as counter-revolutionary and had dire consequences culminating in the show trials of 1938 that killed Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky. All three were rehabilitated in 1988 after relentless efforts by many like the Bertrand Russell foundation, Noam Chomsky, de Beauvior and Sweezy.

For the collapse of communism, the originators themselves have to be blamed as they never produced a blueprint for actualizing true democracy and full freedom. A well-developed Marxist theory of the state based on equity, just reward, rule of law and freedom as an alternative to liberal democratic theory eluded all important Marxists including Lenin.

(The writers are, respectively, a retired Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi and Professor of Political Science, Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi)