by Louis Proyect, 4 March 2010
Lars Lih is on the left
The September 2010 issue of Historical Materialism includes a symposium on Lars Lih’s “Lenin Reconsidered”, a mammoth book that includes his own new translation of “What is to be Done” (Chto Delat in Russian)—the object of his research. Put simply, Lih argues that this seminal text is not a harbinger of a party of a “new type” but rather Lenin’s call for building a party in Czarist Russia that is modeled on the German Social Democracy. Not only did I come to this conclusion long before reading anything Lih has written (I confess to having read only partial selections of “Lenin Reconsidered”), I have quoted this selection from WITBD frequently to support this claim:
Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny. It does not lull itself with arguments that the economic struggle brings the workers to realise that they have no political rights and that the concrete conditions unavoidably impel the working-class movement on to the path of revolution. It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressist as city mayor (our Economists have not yet managed to educate. the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against “obscene” publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc. Everywhere the Social-Democrats are found in the forefront, rousing political discontent among all classes, rousing the sluggards, stimulating the laggards, and providing a wealth of material for the development of the political consciousness and the political activity of the proletariat.
I especially love the business about “obscene” publications and government interference in the election of professors. That’s a Lenin who would appreciate what we are up against today, with neo-Czarists like Glenn Beck and Daniel Pipes on the scene.
It should be stressed that Lih was not the first person to develop this approach and neither was I. Back in 1982 or so after I started working with Peter Camejo to launch a new left organization, he advised me to read Neil Harding’s “Lenin’s Political Thought”. Harding was very careful to stress Lenin’s debt to Karl Kautsky on organizational questions. For reasons I cannot fathom, Lih does not acknowledge Harding’s ground-breaking work in this area.
Lih has two aims in his book. The first is to challenge the academic “textbook” interpretation of WITBD that blames it for Stalinism. It interprets the idea of socialist consciousness coming to the workers from the outside by intellectuals as elitist and a necessary building block in the erection of the totalitarian state. In high school, my teachers used to sneer at the USSR as a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, words they assured us during the height of the Cold War as meaning dictatorship over the proletariat. Lenin is blamed for Stalin and Marx for Lenin.
The other challenge is to activists like Tony Cliff, John Molyneux (a disciple of Cliff), and Paul LeBlanc who are singled out in the introduction (the introduction can be read in its entirety in the google books entry for “Lenin Reconsidered).
The articles break down into two categories, one comprising left academic experts whose approach to WITBD is of a more specialized and scholarly interest. It is simply beyond the scope of this article to address their arguments.
The other category includes a couple of those “activists” who Lih finds fault with. One is the late Chris Harman who obviously shares the views of Tony Cliff and John Molyneux, fellow members of the state capitalist current. The other is Paul LeBlanc, whose article I found quite interesting. I have had exchanges with LeBlanc going back to the mid-90s that can be read here:
While I understand that HM is not the sort of thing that most Unrepentant Marxists have a subscription to, I recommend tracking it down at a research library since the question of Lenin’s intentions back in 1903 are very germane to the problems we face today. While Lih does not have any kind of activist past—as far as I know—the elevation of WITBD into some kind of guidebook for party-building throughout the ages has led to terrible problems. Ironically, despite Harman and LeBlanc’s praise for Lih’s research, they can’t swallow the main point he is making, namely that Lenin was never about building a party of a “new type”. As members of the SWP in Britain and, in LeBlanc’s case, the ISO in the USA, it is clear that must adhere to concepts of “democratic centralism” that have hobbled the left ever since Zinoviev turned WITDB and other of Lenin’s writings on party-building into a kind of cookbook.
If tracking down HM is too daunting a task, I would recommend a look at John Molyneux’s 2006 review of “Lenin Reconsidered” that can be read here: http://johnmolyneux.blogspot.com/2006/11/lihs-lenin-review-of-lars-t-lih-lenin.html. Molyneux writes:
My argument, then and now, is that, in the period 1903–14, there developed a fundamental difference between the (reformist) practice and nature of the Social Democratic Parties and the (revolutionary) practice and nature of Bolshevik Party. This is explained, in the main, by three factors:1) differences in the objective social and political conditions between Russia and Western Europe, including the non-emergence in Russia of a trade union and party bureaucracy; 2) differences in the level and intensity of struggle, especially in 1905 and 1912-14; 3) Lenin’s concrete, sometimes ad hoc, empirical (‘instinctive’) political responses to these circumstances. Here, as elsewhere in the history of our movement (the Paris Commune, the role of Soviets in 1905 and 1917) practice ran ahead of theory. In 1914 the scales fell from Lenin’s eyes regarding Kautsky, Bebel and the rest and theory caught up with a vengeance (see Imperialism- the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, the Philosophical Notebooks, Marxism on the State, The State and Revolution and much else besides).
You can also find the same argument from Paul Blackledge, an SWP member who also wrote the introduction to the Lenin symposium in HM. Again, we are fortunate enough to be able to read his views online at: http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=218. Once again, the formulations are the same as Molyneux’s and Chris Harman’s—a symptom, alas, of the problems inherent in a schematic reading of Lenin’s party-building articles. Blackledge writes:
The novelty of this form of organisation was less than obvious in the early part of the last century, and Lih is right to point out that Lenin was attempting to build something like the German SPD in Russia.53 Nonetheless, it is also true that Lenin did succeed in building something different, and better, than the SPD. It is in this respect, I think that Lih is wrong to reject Georg Lukács’s interpretation of Lenin, upon which many of the activists have based their analyses.54
And just to drive the point home, let’s see what Chris Harman has to say:
It took the outbreak of the First World War to reveal to Lenin that his interpretations of Kautsky’s argument had been very different to those of Kautsky himself. This because it was only then that the practical implications of the Kautskyite approach became clear internationally. Until that point, people could read what they wanted into Kautsky’s writings, within certain limits.
Paul LeBlanc says exactly the same thing in his article:
The reality of German Social Democracy was certainly more problematic than what Lenin was able to glean from the very best writings of Karl Kautsky. This became clear to Lenin himself in 1914. At that point, it became obvious that Lenin was building a very different party than the actual SPD.
Fundamentally the problem with Molyneux, Blackledge, Harman and Le Blanc is that they superimpose problems of program on that of party building. If your main point is to demonstrate that Kautsky was a reformist, arguably long before WWI, while Lenin was a revolutionary, then the investigation revolves around what the American SWP used to call “revolutionary continuity”. Instead of putting the emphasis on what at least I see as the real problems with how to interpret WITBD—namely, how do socialists organize themselves—they shift it to questions of what socialists should fight for.
This is especially critical in coming to an understanding of what Lenin meant by a “vanguard”, a term that is so poorly understood in self-declared vanguard organizations like the SWP and the ISO (of course it should be understood that they pay lip-service to the idea that a vanguard can only emerge through struggle and might encompass broader forces than their own, etc.). Lih does a good job demonstrating that the term predated WITBD, specifically on page 556 passim of “Lenin Rediscovered” that can be read online (with all the usual frustrating deletions) on google books.
Let me conclude with my own remarks on WITDB that owe much to my reading of Neil Harding as well as my sad experience in a group with “vanguard” pretensions that reduced itself to rubble. It was part of a long article titled “Lenin in Context” (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/lenin_in_context.htm) that I wrote back in 1994 or so.
The next time you run into one of our latter-day “Marxist- Leninists” who trace their lineage to the historic split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in the Russian Social Democracy, give them a little quiz. Ask them to identify the authors of the following 2 opposing motions around which the historical split took place. One is Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, the other is Martov, the Menshevik leader.
1. A party member is one “who recognizes the Party’s programme and supports it by material means and by personal participation in one of the Party’s organizations.”
2. A party member is one “who recognizes the Party’s programme and supports it by material means and by regular personal assistance under the direction of one of the party’s organizations.”
Lenin is the author of the first motion and Martov the second. As should be clear from this, the split between Bolshevik and Menshevik did not involve the kind of deeply principled questions that caused the Zimmerwald Movement to emerge as a counter to the socialist parliamentarians who voted for W.W.I.
It is essential to understand is that the whole purpose of the convention at which this historic split took place was to form a party where none existed. It was Lenin and Plekhanov’s intention to form a new social-democratic party on the model of the Western European parties. It was not, as our contemporary “Marxist-Leninists” believe, an initiative to innovate some new “democratic-centralist” type of party. Plekhanov was the father of Russian Marxism and Lenin considered himself a disciple of Plekhanov. In the articles leading up to the convention, Lenin continuously pointed to the example of Kautsky’s party in Germany as something Russian socialists should emulate.
As often occurs in the socialist movement, Lenin was confronted by roadblocks. The most important of these was “Economism”. Economism was a current within Russian social democracy which tended to limit struggles to bread- and-butter issues at the individual factory level. It was suspicious of any efforts to make the struggle nation-wide and general, such as was the goal of more orthodox Marxists like Plekhanov and Lenin.
Lenin was a master of getting to the heart of underlying socio-economic dynamics. He explained that “Economism” was a reflection of the more primitive, handicrafts phase of Russian capitalism when shops were smaller and more isolated. He noticed the great concentration of large factories in major cosmopolitan centers and concluded that a more professional and more generalized approach was needed in line with the changed circumstances.
Economism belonged to Russia’s past; orthodox Marxism was the way forward. He saw modern social democracy as corresponding to the highly complex and specialized nature of modern mass production. He saw socialist parties as the working-class equivalent of large-scale industrial plants. A centrally-managed, large-scale division of labor was needed to move the struggle forward, just as it was necessary to construct steam locomotives. Lenin was no enemy of capitalist technology and mechanization. Rather he sought to appropriate its positive features whenever necessary.
The split between Bolshevik and Menshevik took place at only the second convention of the Russian socialist movement not the 22nd or the 32nd. The basis goal of the convention was to establish the structure and purpose of a new Russian socialist party.
One of the key ingredients of a socialist party, according to Lenin, was a newspaper. He saw a national newspaper as a way of uniting and orienting social democrats. A newspaper would allow the party to have a national focus. It would allow all of the particular economic struggles to be politically linked together in a meaningful fashion.
Lenin did not envision the newspaper as a means of propagating a “party line”.It had just the opposite role. The newspaper would be the vehicle for allowing opposing views to be compared and weighed against each other in order to allow the party to arrive at a political orientation.
Lenin argued that unity must be “worked for”. He said:
“Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise our unity will be purely fictitious…We do not intend to make our publication a mere store-house of various views. On the contrary, we shall conduct it in the spirit of a strictly defined tendency. This tendency can be expressed by the word Marxism. … Only in this way will it be possible to establish a genuinely all-Russian, Social- Democratic organ. Only such a publication will be capable of leading the movement on the high road of political struggle.”
Another common source of confusion is Lenin’s use of the term “professional revolutionary”. In his view, “professional revolutionaries” are the key to the success of Russian social democracy.
In modern “Marxist-Leninist” groups, “professional revolutionaries” are those who are on movement payroll. People who are not full-timers but who contributed lavishly of their time and funds are lower on the hierarchy. They are like the drone bees who keep the hive functioning.
This of course has nothing to do with Lenin’s understanding of the term. For Lenin, the need for “professional revolutionaries” arose within the context of the difficult and semi-clandestine nature of socialist activity under Czarism. Professional revolutionaries were needed at the core of the party to keep the apparatus functioning in case of police crack-downs.
As an extension of his ideas about divisions of labor in large-scale capitalist enterprises being adapted to socialist organizations, Lenin saw the need for gradations of skill, expertise and conspiratorial training appropriate to the levels of risk in each phase of organizational activity. At each level the degree of risk could be minimized by introducing specialization of function, so that, at no matter what level, activists would have the chance to become proficient in dealing with their own area of work.
As in every aspect of his recommendations for Russian Social Democracy, Lenin was operating within the concrete conditions of Russian objective conditions at a given time in history. In 1907 Lenin was very specific about the particular framework of “What is to be Done” which addressed problems in the 1899-1903 time-frame.
“Concerning the essential content of this pamphlet it is necessary to draw the attention of the modern reader to the following.
The basic mistake made by those who now criticize “What is to be Done” is to treat the pamphlet apart from its connection with the concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in the development of our Party.”
So much for our contemporary Bolsheviks who use Lenin’s writings the way amateur cooks use the recipes of French masters such as Jacques Pepin. If they don’t follow the recipe to the letter, what comes out could be inedible. But we now have to create our own recipe, just the way Lenin did.
Let us conclude with an examination of the question of democratic centralism, probably the most vexing legacy of the period coincident with “What is to be Done” and one that has been most widely misinterpreted. In 1906 Lenin said that “the Russian Social Democracy was in agreement on the principles of democratic centralism, guarantees for the rights of all minorities and for all loyal opposition, on the autonomy of every Party organization, on recognizing that all Party functionaries must be elected, accountable to the Party and subject to Recall.”
Later Lenin clarified how tolerant of political disagreements his concept of democratic centralism was. He wrote “The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organizations implies universal and full freedom to criticize so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticisms which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticisms which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party.” Nowhere does Lenin suggest that democratic centralism applies to doctrine. Every member would of course have his or her interpretation of political questions, but once a decision had been made to build a strike or a demonstration, etc., it was incumbent upon each member to concentrate on building the action. Many contemporary “Leninists” attach some kind of apocalyptic meaning to the split at the second congress of the Russian Social Democracy in 1903 as if two radically different and irreconcilable sets of principles were counterposed to each other–Bolshevism and Menshevism. This split is seen as the fountainhead of all 20th century revolutionary politics, the dividing line between communism and opportunism or some such thing.
Those who think that the rival motions between Martov and Lenin constitute some kind of fault-line of revolutionary politics must then explain why Lenin told participants at this congress that, referring to Martov’s motion, “we shall certainly not perish because of an unfortunate clause in the Rules.”
Let’s let this sink in. Lenin, arch-enemy of opportunism, said that the motion which caused the Bolshevik-Menshevik split was simply “unfortunate”.
The differences between orthodox Marxists who were educated by Plekhanov and, on the other hand, the Economists who gravitated to the newspaper “Rabochaya Mysl” were principled and clear. The differences within the orthodox camp, which included the Bolshevik Lenin and the Menshevik Martov, were not so clearly defined. The Bolsheviks were anxious to rid the party of all elements who resisted the creation of a centralized Russian Social Democracy, while the Mensheviks tended to be more conciliatory to the Economists and the Bundists. The Bundists shared with the Economists a resistance to a centralized and unified Russian party that could coordinate struggles on a national level. Their particular interest was in preserving some kind of automony for their exclusively Jewish membership, a goal that was in conflict, needless to say, with creating one party for the entire working-class.
So when Lenin and Plekhanov triumphed, they maneuvered to isolate the Bundists and Economists as much as possible. This meant overruling the original Menshevik proposal that would have preserved some representation on the editorial board of Iskra for Bundists and Economists. The proposal passed by the new Bolshevik majority at the congress consisted of only three seats on Iskra, none to be allocated for the decentralizers.
It was this issue more than the original fight over Lenin and Martov’s rival motions which precipitated the split. The narrowing of the Iskra staff meant that such long-time party leaders as Zasulich, Akselrod and Potresov would lose their posts. Why was Lenin so anxious to dump these old-timers? Was it because they were smuggling capitalist ideology into the pages of Iskra? The real concern of Lenin was much more practical, as befits a revolutionary politician who strived for professionalism above all else. In his “Account of the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.”, Lenin describes the motivation for getting rid of them:
“The old board of six was so ineffectual that never once in all its three years did it meet in full force. That may seem incredible, but it is a fact. Not one of the forty-five issues of Iskra was made up (in the editorial and technical sense) by anyone but Martov or Lenin. And never once was any major theoretical issue raised by anyone but Plekhanov. Akselrod did no work at all (he contributed literally nothing to Zarya and only three of four articles to all the forty-five issues of Iskra). Zasulich and Strarover only contributed and advised; they never did any actual editorial work.”
Lenin was simply interested in getting rid of dead wood, people who were not carrying their load. Those who simply “advised” were not needed. Lenin sought to place genuine contributors at the helm of the major newspaper of Russian Social Democracy. I empathize deeply with his lack of respect toward people who are simply “advisers”. The revolutionary movement needs people who can get things done. If this Marxism list ever went through a split between “advisers” and people who know how to get things done, I’m sure that most of us know who these two respective groups would include.
Who did Lenin propose as the three people best qualified to lead the new Iskra editorial board? They were Lenin himself, the great Marxist educator Plekhanov and Martov. Martov, we should remind ourselves, was the individual who put forward a motion rival to Lenin’s on the requirements of party membership. This motion has become synonymous with Menshevism itself. It is like the apple in the Garden of Eden for dogmatic interpreters of the historic split. The trouble is that these dogmatic interpreters can’t account for the fact that Lenin then proposed to put Martov–the Serpent himself–in a leading position at Iskra.
Also, to be perfectly blunt, the reduction of representation on the Iskra leading bodies generated bitter personal rivalries. Personal rivalries! Can you believe that? Aren’t you glad that we’ve evolved beyond those sorts of problems. As it developed, Zasulich and Akselrod were deeply insulted by their firing from Iskra. Martov, an old friend of theirs, rallied to their defense and then decided to step down himself from the newly re-constituted editorial board. Even Plekhanov, one of the most hard- line Bolsheviks, eventually drifted into the Menshevik camp. (Does this sound like typical movement wrangling over “petty” issues? Well, yes it does. Because, believe it or not, it is.)
The Menshevik Akselrod, who had every reason to be bitter at Lenin, saw no great principles involved in the split either. Years later he confided to Kautsky that personality was what caused the great divide between Bolshevik and Menshevik. Kautsky said:
“As late as May 1904 Akselrod wrote that there were ‘still no clear, defined differences concerning either principles or tactics’, that the organizational question itself ‘is or at least was’ not one of principle such as ‘centralism or democracy, autonomy, etc.’, but rather one of differing opinions as to the ‘application or execution of organizational principles…we have all accepted’. Lenin had used the debate on this question ‘in a demagogic manner’ to ‘fasten’ Plekhanov to his side and thus win a majority ‘against us’.”
Would genuine political differences between the two factions eventually emerge? Certainly they would and sooner rather than later. In 1905 and 1906 major struggles between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks developed over how to overthrow Tsarism and to create a democratic republic. In 1903, however, at the famous “split” conference, there were none. Furthermore, attempts to derive some kind of new organizational approach to revolutionary party-building from the split are just as ill-advised.
When one of today’s “Marxist-Leninist” groups votes to change the party line at a convention, then every member has to defend this new line in public. It would mean, for example, that CPUSA members would have been under discipline to defend Soviet intervention in Afghanistan publicly. Party rank-and-file members who oppose the line have to wait patiently for the next convention in order to persuade the majority of his or her position.
The problem, of course, is that in “Marxist-Leninist” formations, it is difficult to maintain such contrary positions and resist peer pressure to conform to the rest of the group in between conventions. When individuals or groupings decide to maintain dissident points of views like these, it is often the prelude to a split. This has nothing in common with Lenin’s concept of democratic centralism. The Bolsheviks were free to criticize party positions publicly as long as they acted in a disciplined fashion with respect to demonstrations, strikes and other actions.