Eighty years after his death, Lenin is still getting a bad press.
Earlier this year national newspapers were running a story about new research proving that Lenin had syphilis, and that this explains his rantings about revolution.
A BBC documentary a couple of years ago argued that Lenin seized power in 1917 because he knew he had a brain tumour and wanted to grab power before he died!
Yet Lenin was a man who dedicated his life to the liberation of workers and all people, not just in Russia but around the world.
In the first 25 years of the last century, a century of wars and revolutions, Lenin made huge contributions in theory and practice that we can learn from today in our struggle for a better world.
Today we are used to being part of a mass global anti-war movement.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were among only a handful of groups and individuals worldwide who opposed their own governments and the horrific slaughter of that war.
Lenin’s writings on imperialism, looking at how capitalism breeds war, are still useful to our movement today.
His pamphlet State and Revolution, written in the height of revolution, is still one of the clearest explanations of why socialists can’t ignore the question of state power.
However, Lenin is probably most associated with the Bolsheviks and the idea of a revolutionary party. It is certainly the area about which he is most misrepresented.
Quite apart from the strange theories of Lenin’s medical will to power peddled by the media, there is also an understandable distrust of political parties in general. People see the options as the sterile manipulation and deceit of New Labour or the murderous tyranny of Stalinism.
Lenin’s model of a party is a million miles from either of these traditions.
For Lenin the starting point was always the same as Marx’s, that “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class”—ordinary people, not revolutionary parties, make social change.
Lenin argued, “There is an enormous amount of organising talent among the ‘people’, ie among the workers and the peasants who do not exploit the labour of others.”
For Lenin a party was not to dictate to working people, but about tapping into that talent, about learning from the struggle—as well as being part of the arguments about what should be done.
Lenin was very hard on those in the socialist movement who talked down to workers, pointing out that “the workers themselves wish to read and do read all that is written for the intelligensia.It is only a few (bad) intellectuals who believe that it is sufficient ‘for the workers’ to be told a few things about factory conditions, and to have repeated to them over and over again what has long been known.”
He argued fiercely against those on the left that he called “economists”. They were people who argued that workers should limit themselves to struggle over immediate economic demands such as wages and trade union organisation, and leave political struggle and the battle of ideas to the capitalist class and the intellectuals.
There is a strong tradition of this separation in Britain—the idea that the trade unions deal with the economic and the Labour Party deals with the political. Lenin argued that revolutionaries have to see the world as a totality.
Politics, in Lenin’s words, is concentrated economics.
The political decisions of our governments are intimately bound up with the economic interests of big business.
Failure to confront the economic reality of capitalism means ignoring the fact that most of the people who hold power are unelected bosses, bankers and civil services.
At the same time, ignoring political questions means actually weakening our ability to fight on economic issues.
Take the nationwide firefighters’ strike last year or the Scottish nursery nurses’ strike earlier this year—groups of workers who were beaten not by lack of resolve or support but by the political allegiance of their union leaders to the Labour Party.
Lenin also pointed out that not to fight for political ideas is just to leave the field of ideas to the ruling class: “In a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or above-class ideology.”
Lenin thought that economic struggles, such as fights for better wages or trade union organisation, were important.
But he saw these as part of a bigger struggle for working class emanicipation.
He argued that socialists should lead “the struggle of the working class not only for better terms for the sale of labour power, but also for the abolition of the social system which compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich.”
Next week I will look at how Lenin approached questions of oppression and inequality.