In the twentieth century, Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov Lenin (1870-1924) occupied an important position as one of its makers. He led the October Revolution of 1917 and established the first communist state in Russia. He was primarily a strategist with a keen purpose of fomenting a social revolution and secondarily a theoretician. Most of his tracts were in response to issues that confronted him as a revolutionary tactician. He ensured the success of the regime through a bloody civil war, founded the Communist International and subsequently initiated the New Economic Policy (NEP) to sustain the system in the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In deference, the communist party invented the term Marxism-Leninism and refused to bury his corpse. The latter was embalmed, placed in the glass case in a mausoleum outside the Kremlin in Red Square for public viewing. On his death, he was hailed as the greatest genius of mankind, creator of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the leader and teacher of the peoples of the whole world. However, 70 years later when the communist system collapsed in the erstwhile Soviet Union, the deification gave way to frustration, anger and even total rejection of the Leninist heritage.
Lenin rejected the social democratic approach of continual reforms within capitalism as that was the result of economic advantages that skilled workers, the ‘labour aristocracy’, enjoyed thereby losing their class solidarity. He considered economism to be the most serious threat to the maintenance of a revolutionary spirit among the Russian workers.
Fearing that Bernstein to be right which meant rendering the Marxist prophecy of a proletarian revolution redundant, he advocated staging of a revolution by subjective action with the help of a body of professional revolutionaries who would educate, guide and produce a revolution on behalf of the working class that was unable to transcend their narrow economic interests. This notion of the vanguard party was articulated in What is to be done? (1903) and has been regarded as his most original contribution to Marxism.
The common point between Lenin and Bernstein was the acceptance of the fact that the industrial proletariat was overwhelmingly rejecting revolutionary Marxism though their remedial measures were poles apart. It is for this reason that Lipset considered Lenin and not Bernstein to have brought about a ‘profound revision in the Marxist doctrine’. Interestingly, Luxemburg disagreed with Lenin’s blunt rejection of ‘spontaneous working- class movement’ though she, like him, was committed to revolutionary Marxism and was critical of Bernstein. Lenin was the first to lay down the ground rules for mass mobilization and manipulation which were subsequently emulated by others like Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
For the Russian Marxists, the central problem was the nature of the impending revolution. Plekhanov cautioned against the establishment of premature socialism in a relatively backward and autocratic country like Tsarist Russia. Lenin regarded Plekhanov’s observations as a gospel and reiterated his views on the industrialization of Russia and the need for a bourgeois democratic revolution before commencing on a struggle to bring about socialism. He justified the October Revolution as socialistic and the February Revolution as bourgeois democratic. Lenin resurrected the controversial and ambiguous Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat which he regarded as the necessary transitional period from capitalism to socialism.
In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), building on Hobson’s thesis of finance capitalism that the latter advanced in 1902, Lenin contended that imperialism would spell doom for capitalism as it would create the objective conditions for a world revolution. He predicted the snapping of the weakest link that would trigger the world proletarian revolution and considered Russia to be that weakest link.
In doing so, he accepted that Marx’s prediction of a world proletarian revolution in advanced capitalist countries had not taken place nor would it take place. According to Lane, “Lenin regarded the October Revolution in Russia as a success for the socialist cause.
However, his approach was incomplete and he provided an erroneous analysis of the disintegration of advanced imperial capitalism. Social and political integration has remained much higher than he anticipated and in this he is not alone. Capitalism in the West was threatened by the October Revolution but not defeated by it”.
The opposing views of Russian Marxists led by Lenin and the Western Marxists reflected two very different situations. In Germany, where the followers of Marxism were the largest and with the existence of the powerful Social Democratic Party, the lot of the working class had improved. This was contrary to Marx’s predictions.
The collapse of capitalism did not seem imminent. The working class also lost its revolutionary spirit. The majority of the SPD members concentrated on utilizing the existing state structure to secure practical benefits in hope of reforming and transcending its bourgeois class basis and evolve gradually but definitely towards an egalitarian, democratic socialist and an emancipatory society.
The Labour Party in Britain was also working towards that direction. The situation in France was similar. All these indicators meant that the ‘Marx’s apocalyptic vision of capitalism”, according to Grenville, “in its last throes bore little relevance to conditions in the most industrialized countries”. Instead of analyzing the social and economic basis of what he contemptuously referred to as ‘revisionism’, Lenin believed that through positive subjective action rooted in a violent revolutionary seizure of power the social developments that the revisionists spoke of would be surmounted.
Leninism was criticized by Kautsky, Luxemburg, Martov and Bernstein for the lack of democratic norms and culture in the Bolshevik experiment. Lenin attempted halfheartedly to liberalize the Soviet system during the phase of new economic policy but that was confined only to the economic field. The failure to liberalize politically 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 just as the Russian Tsar threw away a golden opportunity of transforming Russia into a working constitutional state if he had cooperated with the moderate liberal opinion after the revolution of 1905, Lenin repeated the same mistake by not attempting to create a constitutional government.
The establishment of a repressive and an authoritarian state and the subjugation of civil society logically followed such a denial. Moreover, under the Tsar one was condemned for one’s own action; under communism, any deviating thought was dubbed as counter-revolutionary and dealt with dire consequences. The Tsarist state reincarnated as the Leninist state in a more repressive form.
“Like Marx”, observes Djilas, “even Lenin never ‘spoke of a law governed state… because they considered the state would inevitably wither away”. Instead of withering away the erstwhile Soviet state became omnipotent and repressive eventually straddling all aspects of individual and societal life. 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 Associate Professor of Political Science, Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi