Analysis Education History & Theory

The legacy and relevance of Lenin after 100 years

By Imran Kamyana

It has been more than a hundred years since the Russian revolutionary VI Lenin died on January 21st, 1924. Like Karl Marx, he is among the people most vilified and demonized by the ruling classes throughout modern history. He has been portrayed as a blood-thirsty tyrant and a power-hungry dictator not only by conservatives but also most liberals—while most left-reformists, along with repeating these bourgeois slanders, depict him as an impatient adventurist who somehow sabotaged the organic process of the Russian Revolution by leading his party to power in October 1917.

In this regard, the Bolshevik Revolution is often portrayed as a “coup” made by Lenin’s party, instead of being a popular yet organized uprising in which the workers and soldiers took power—which it actually was. Even if they acknowledge the popular content in the October insurrection, it is still deemed as “premature.” It is also declared that these were Lenin’s policies which ultimately paved the way for Stalinism.

But Stalinists tend to take things to another extreme. Stalinists raise Lenin to the status of a saint or a prophet, an omnipotent, all-knowing figure who had the whole blueprint of the revolution in his mind from the very beginning—and who could make no mistakes. In this vulgar version of history, the Bolshevik Party uninterruptedly moved towards state power under the undisputed leadership of Lenin. Ironically, in actual political work and policy, these same Stalinists stand for everything which contradicts him and betrays the legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution to the core.

It is a duty of Marxists to defend Lenin against these two vulgar or dogmatic approaches, which makes it necessary to comprehend him first.

Lenin, in the final analysis, like every other human being, was the product of his times. But he was not an ordinary product. He was one of those few extraordinary people who are not only able to grasp the objective process of history, but also able to give a logical and conscious expression to this unconscious historical development—hence altering its very course.

In this respect, he, along with Leon Trotsky, built upon the basis laid by Marx and Engels. For this, he first of all had to defend the legacy of Marxism against the ideological onslaught of the bourgeoisie and the intrigue of the social democratic reformism of his times (although the fundamental arguments of reformism have not changed much since then). Throughout his life, particularly during the sharp turns of events, he had to illuminate and bring out the essence of Marxism from loads and loads of dust thrown upon it by the left and right reformists. He continuously fought against the tendencies of turning Marxism into a dogma or, by taking the class struggle out of it, rendering it into a benign or harmless ideology, a kind of mysticism.

Lenin’s immense contributions to Marxism span from the spheres of political economy to philosophy, from history to the art of party building, and from his very prolific work on the national question to the problems facing a socialist revolution in a backward country like Russia. We should have no doubt that his overall approach, analyses and conclusions remain very much valid and relevant to this day. Here, we will try to concisely highlight the essence of Lenin’s works in the aforementioned fields.

The need for a revolutionary party

Let’s first of all take the question of party. One of Lenin’s foremost contributions to the cause of the historic emancipation of proletariat has been that he, taking lessons from Marx and Engels, developed the science of a “vanguard” or revolutionary party. A revolutionary party for him was the fundamental tool in the hands of the working class to transform society, something without which socialist revolution was (and is) unconceivable.

In his article What Is to Be Done? (1902), and later many others, Lenin articulated his idea of a revolutionary party, emphasizing the necessity of a highly disciplined, unified organization made up of dedicated revolutionaries. In order to organize the proletariat in carrying out a victorious socialist revolution, Lenin emphasized the significance of a strong organizational structure, intellectual coherence, ideological consistency, and a central leadership. For this he proposed “democratic centralism” as a dynamic political mechanism within the party, which he defined as “universal and full freedom to debate and criticize, but a complete unity of action when a decision has been reached.”

There should be no doubt that despite all the internal contradictions, weaknesses, or confusions, it was only through such a revolutionary organization that Bolshevik Party was able to give a logical conclusion to the Russian Revolution by taking power in October 1917. And, in spite of modifications in tactics, organizational structures and/or strategy owing to differences in objective conditions, the prime instrument of a victorious proletarian revolution remains the same to this day.

Defending dialectical materialism against idealism

Similarly, Lenin had to wage a ferocious war against various currents of idealism, which in our times mostly present themselves as the reactionary and absurd philosophy of postmodernism. Like Marx, philosophy for Lenin was not merely an activity of intellectual debate and discussion, but an indispensable weapon of class struggle. While vigorously defending dialectical materialism against subjective idealism (“empirio-criticism” in his time, which reduced knowledge to a description of pure individual experience), Lenin not only acknowledged the existence of an objective material world but highlighted the importance of understanding the objective reality as a constantly evolving, interconnected process.

He argued that by downplaying the actual truth of the outside world, idealist notions breed a skepticism and agnosticism that weakens the working class’s ability for class struggle and revolution. Moreover, he maintained that sensations alone cannot provide a thorough comprehension of the material world. In this regard, reflection and abstractions are essential for a comprehensive and scientific perspective. Hence, Lenin basically contended that the objective world not only exists, not only it can be comprehended and understood, but can also be changed. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909) reflects Lenin’s vow to defend and develop the philosophical fundamentals of Marxism against reactionary ideological tendencies. The work remains an important text in the history of Marxist philosophy and the tradition of revolutionary materialist thought.

The analysis of imperialism

Likewise, Lenin made invaluable contributions to the Marxist theory of imperialism. Analyzing the political economy of global capitalism of his era, he highlighted the fact the capitalism had evolved a lot since Marx’s times and entered its highest stage. Hence, while Marx critically analyzed capitalism at a time when it had not much outgrown the boundaries of nation states and market competition was still more or less prevalent, Lenin made an analysis of capitalism in its monopoly stage, and built a theory of imperialism on scientific grounds (1916). It doesn’t mean at all the Marx’s analysis had been rendered obsolete. But Lenin essentially developed the political-economic analysis of capitalism from the point Marx and Engels had left it, and hence complemented their work.

However, it is the responsibility of Marxists today to develop Lenin’s work on imperialism further, as, particularly after the Second World War, global capitalism has undergone many profound changes, and exploitative mechanisms of imperialism have also evolved or transformed significantly. Nevertheless, the basic tenets of Lenin’s analysis of imperialism remain valid even after hundred years.

Devising a revolutionary policy regarding national question

Today, a vast majority of the global population still resides in colonial or formerly colonial countries with belated capitalism, having deep imprints of uneven and combined pattern of development on their societies. Among many other peculiar problems emerging from this pattern of belated capitalist development, the national question also remains mostly unsolved in these countries, many of which are societies composed of numerous nationalities.

Here, once again, Lenin’s prolific work on the national question acquires utmost importance and relevance for a viable revolutionary strategy and program. A transitional program which is unable to sufficiently address the national question in such circumstances would not only be incomplete but generally irrelevant. In the Marxist movement of his times, there were elements which were unwilling to admit the importance or sometimes even the very existence of national question.

Then there were people on the other extreme, who tended to subordinate the class struggle to the struggle of national emancipation. Lenin had to wage an extensive fight against both of these currents. He vehemently fought for the inclusion of the right of self-determination for oppressed nations in the party program. But at the very same time he clarified that Marxists don’t generally advocate the separation and formation of small states on national basis. Similarly, he always subordinated the national question to the wider struggle for the socialist transformation of the society. This very well-thought-out Leninist position on the national question played a vital role in the victory of the Bolsheviks by winning the trust of exploited masses of the oppressed nationalities of Tsarist Russia (which Lenin appropriately used to call a “prison of peoples”), and in Trotsky’s words, helping pour the national indignation into the channel of Bolshevism. Trotsky also declared the national policy of Lenin among the eternal treasures of mankind, and very correctly so.

The fight against sectarianism

Another invaluable contribution of Lenin to revolutionary strategy has been that he not only insisted but also devised the policy of intervening and working in reformist organizations and institutions, whether it be mass social democratic parties, trade unions or bourgeois electoral processes. Here, once again, he had to fight against the ultra-leftist currents, who he rightly denoted as suffering from an infantile disorder (1920). The prime motive for working in the mass reformist organizations for Lenin was to win over the workers present there through the struggle for pro-proletarian reforms, and also exposing the reformist leaderships and limitations of reformism in the same process.

Hence, he always quite artfully differentiated in between the struggle for reforms and reformism in general. This policy was later developed and adapted by various Trotsyist groups according to the given circumstances in the strategy called “entryism,” and in many cases proved to be quite fruitful—although the cases of its over-use or even abuse for opportunistic reasons are also numerous. However, as long as capitalism exists, reformist organizations would not only remain but at times would be able to gain mass influence. As a result, Lenin’s fight against sectarianism and his guidelines for connecting with the masses involved in reformist processes and winning them over to the revolutionary program would remain imperative.

The economic transition after socialist revolution

Finally, we would come to an aspect of Lenin’s legacy which remains mostly obscure and unexplored even to this day. Unfortunately, not only Stalinism but also the Trotsksyist movement in general have either suppressed or shun this discussion. It’s Lenin’s work on the economics of transition which he initiated in the last part of his life, which ultimately culminated first in his conception of state capitalism in a workers’ state and later in the New Economic Policy (NEP). This policy, in which elements of the market were given concessions in the conditions of extreme backwardness, devastation and isolation of Russian Revolution, also shows that while Lenin was absolutely determined, resolute and uncompromising in preserving the revolutionary essence of Marxism, he was very flexible when it came to tactics. He even didn’t hesitate to make compromises when necessary, but such compromises used to be tactical rather than ideological, and through them he used to buy time to strike back at an appropriate moment.

Abandonment of the policy of War Communism and total nationalization in favor of NEP was one of such tactical compromises and necessary but temporary retreats through which Lenin wanted to buy time and hold on until a victorious revolution in Europe, particularly in Germany. But the NEP contains valuable lessons even today, particularly for the revolutions of underdeveloped countries. As highlighted by Lenin again and again, the crux of the problem is that as long as the socialist revolution remains trapped and isolated in backward countries it will have to make compromises not only with national but also international capital, which, under certain circumstances, can result in the undoing of the very revolution.

Additionally, the more underdeveloped a country is, the more painful, complicated, lengthy and uncertain would be its transition away from capitalism, and the peril of bureaucratic deformities in the workers’ state would always loom large, until and unless capitalism is uprooted in its imperialist centers and proletariat of advanced countries comes to the aid of its class brethren in the backward regions of the world. This is one of the reasons Lenin remained an uncompromising internationalist all his life and saw the Russian Revolution as merely a battle in the historic war for international revolution and global socialism.

The April Thesis

Another proof of why Leninism wasn’t, and still isn’t, a readymade recipe of revolution is the change in Lenin’s conception of the revolution in Russia after February 1917—when taking lessons from the events and circumstances he broke away in the April Thesis with his prior policy of “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, essentially in favor of Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution.” However, even when he upheld the former conception of the revolution in Russia, he always fervently battled the tendencies of class collaboration, reformism and gradualism (including economism), and wanted to give stimulus to socialist revolution in advanced Europe by the overthrow of autocracy in Russia through a democratic revolution.

But then Trotsky himself was mistaken on the character and internal mechanism of the party for quite some time, and ultimately reconciled with Lenin in 1917. The two leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution hence complemented each other. While it is true that without a victorious socialist revolution in Russia, not many people today would have known Lenin and Trotsky, it is also equally true that without them the revolution in Russia wouldn’t have been victorious.

Here, it is also worth mentioning that after returning to Russia in the backdrop of the February Revolution, Lenin had to wage a ruthless ideological struggle even within his own party in order to prepare it for winning the state power.

Ironically, most of the Bolshevik leadership at that time, including Stalin, seemed quite satisfied with the course of the events so far and saw the overthrow of Tsarism and its replacement with a bourgeois democratic regime as an end in itself. Lenin, burning in fury and indignation at this state of affairs, had to go to the extent of scolding the cadres in party meetings to explain the delicacy of the situation to them. In this regard The State and Revolution (1917) is another crucial work by him which he had to complete from his prior notes in the perilous period opening after the July Days, while he was in hiding from persecution of the Provisional Government and would have most certainly been shot if caught.

In this masterpiece, he once again had to blow off the reformist dust thrown upon the Marxist theory of the state and bring home the point that under no circumstances can the bourgeois state be reformed and made fit for the political rule of proletariat. Instead, it would have to be smashed in totality and replaced with a very different kind of political apparatus, a socialist state, which although still necessary to combat the counter-revolutionary elements, would continue to dissolve itself into the society and wither away with the socio-economic development of communism.

It goes without saying that had the Bolsheviks, under the insistence and leadership of Lenin (and, of course, Trotsky), not taken power in October, the German forces would have been in Petrograd in a few weeks’ time. But even without it, Russia would have gone under the yoke of a regime far more reactionary, repressive and barbarian than that of the Tsar’s (keep Kornilov in mind!), which would have started its business with the butchering of millions of revolutionary workers and peasants in order to crush the revolution. A healthy bourgeois democracy like that of advanced Western Europe was no perspective for Russia in any case.

Lenin lives…

Lenin’s last fight was against the degeneration of the revolution and the emergence of Stalinism, of which he was totally aware. Throughout his final years he issued warnings in this regard and tried to resist the rise of bureaucracy in the newborn workers’ state.

But his early death from the gunshot wounds he sustained a few years earlier was a tragedy with historic consequences. After Lenin, the Left Opposition led by Trotsky waged a selfless and glorious struggle against Stalinism but was ultimately crushed, and it was over the grave of Lenin’s genuine party that Stalinism triumphed, as most of the vanguard Bolsheviks had been killed by Stalin by the late 1930s. However, contrary to the malicious bourgeois propaganda, Stalinism wasn’t the ultimate outcome of Leninism, but everything contrary to it. In the final analysis, it was the product of the isolation of the revolution in a very poor and technically and culturally backward country.

Nevertheless, Stalinism is mostly dead after its inevitable collapse in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in late 1980s, but the ideas of Lenin are very much alive and relevant even after 100 years. They continue to shine like a lighthouse in this era of darkness and decay and guide revolutionary socialists all over the world in the historic struggle for the overthrow of a rotten and obsolete social system that is called capitalism.