About 40 years ago, an ageing relative gave me a leaflet from 1925. Under the heading “Lenin Lives!” it urged us to “come en masse” to New York’s Madison Square Garden for a Sunday afternoon event.
Attractions included a 400-voice choir, a 100-piece symphony orchestra, together with speeches from four leading US communists. All this for an admission fee of 50 cents – a significant sum for a worker back then.
Thousands of workers flocked to such meetings. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party were seen as having an answer to the misery that capitalism had created.
But Lenin lived and died long ago. Why should we bother with him today in our very different world?
A partial answer includes the fact that poverty, oppression, exploitation, imperialism, military violence and inequalities of wealth and power continue to afflict us. These were all part of the capitalism that Lenin analysed and struggled against so forcefully.
This certainly doesn’t mean that Lenin was right about everything. But it does suggest his ideas may have relevance for those developing an understanding of our history and our time.
Despite this, many on the left agree with liberals who quote conservatives to assure us that Lenin and his revolutionary communist perspectives were inhumane and authoritarian.
There is, however, a growing accumulation of scholarly, creative and intellectual work that is challenging this anti-Lenin conception.
One example is a recent book of essays, Lenin Reloaded, in which an impressive set of 21st century intellectuals argue for what the old communist flyer insisted – that “Lenin Lives!”.
In that book the US Marxist critic Frederic Jameson describes Lenin’s formidable writings as coming from a man who is unaware that he is dead:
“He does not know that the immense social experiment he singlehandedly brought into being (which we call soviet communism) has come to an end.
“He remains full of energy, although dead, and the vituperation expended on him by the living – that he was the originator of Stalinist terror, that he was an aggressive personality full of hatred – none of those insults manage to confer a death, or even a second death, on him. How is it, how can it be, that he still thinks he is alive?”
Such scholarship and intellectual broodings reflect something that has been happening in the larger social and political reality.
In the post-9/11 world, dominant ideologies are being undermined by political, social and economic crises – crises which have been generating insurgent forces that may be ready to see a new relevance in Lenin.
Varieties of conservatism, reformism, anarchism and fundamentalism (secular as well as religious) have been tried, continue to be tried, and yet the times in which we live seem to grow more terrible. That seems unlikely to change, regardless of who was elected US president last month.
What masses of people are experiencing, feeling and thinking today gives recent Lenin-influenced works a growing resonance, and so they may find a greater audience than has previously been the case.
Lenin’s starting point is a belief that socialist theory and practice are necessarily interconnected with the working class and labour movement.
The working class – those whose living depends on selling their ability to work for a pay cheque, those whose labour provides the basis for human society – are increasingly becoming the majority of the world’s people. This is certainly the case for advanced capitalist countries such as the US.
In Lenin’s view, this working class cannot adequately defend its interests and overcome its oppression without embracing the goal of socialism – a system in which the economy is socially owned and democratically controlled to meet the needs of all people.
Inseparable from this is the need for socialists to understand the working class as it actually is – which involves grasping the great diversity and unevenness of working class experience and consciousness.
This calls for the development of a practical revolutionary approach that seeks to connect, in serious ways, with the various sectors and layers of the working class.
It involves understanding that different approaches and goals are required to reach and engage one or another worker, or group, sector or layer of workers.
This means thoughtfully utilising various forms of educational and agitational literature, and developing different kinds of speeches and discussions, in order to connect the varieties of working class experience, and – most important – to help initiate or support various kinds of practical struggles.
The more “advanced” layers of the working class must be rallied not to narrow goals (in the spirit of “pure and simple trade unionism”), but to an expansive sense of solidarity and common cause which has the potential to draw the class as a whole into a struggle for its collective interests.
This fundamental orientation is the basis for most of what Lenin has to say. It is the basis of other key perspectives that one can find in his voluminous writings. These include:
- understanding the necessity of working class political independence in social and political struggles, and the need for its supremacy if such struggles are to triumph
- a coherent conception of organisation that is practical, democratic and revolutionary
- developing the united front tactic, in which diverse political forces can work together for common goals – but in a manner that allows socialist organisations to advance effective revolutionary perspectives
- intellectual and practical seriousness in using Marxist theory – and a lack of dogmatism or sectarianism
- a profound analysis of imperialism and nationalism
- a vibrantly revolutionary internationalist approach.
Lenin stressed the necessity for active socialist and working class support for struggles of all who suffer oppression.
“Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected,” he wrote.
This included issues of freedom of speech and expression, cultural freedom, the rights of religious minorities, the rights of racial and ethnic groups, the rights of women, of soldiers, of students and of peasants.
Their oppression must be seen by the worker as coming from (according to Lenin) “those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life”.
A revolutionary must be a “tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of people it affects”, he wrote.
Lenin’s approach also involves integrating struggles for reforms with revolutionary strategy. This is combined with a remarkable understanding of how democratic struggles flow into socialist revolution.
At the heart of Lenin’s theory was a “democratic imperative” that weaves together “the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary programme and revolutionary tactics relative to all democratic demands – a republic, a militia, officials elected by the people, equal rights for women, self-determination of nations, etc.
“Basing ourselves on democracy as it already exists, exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we advocate the overthrow of capitalism [and] a complete and manifold realisation of all democratic forms.”
Of course, the bourgeoisie – the capitalists, owners of big businesses, the multinational corporations exploiting our planet – have immense power and want to prevent the possibility that people might rule over the economy.
Their power can only be challenged and overcome through systematic and sustained education, agitation, and organisation on the part of the working class majority. And this cannot be accomplished unless revolutionaries are organised to work together.
The skills and knowledge necessary to build effective protests, to advance life-giving reform efforts, to create revolutionary possibilities, will only be passed on by those dedicating, as Lenin put it, “the whole of their lives” to bringing to birth a better world.
This article is based on a talk given at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop in London. Paul Le Blanc has recently edited the collection Revolution, Democracy, Socialism and is the author of Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience. Both are available from Bookmarks – phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk