OVER 100 years ago, Lenin argued that the model for revolutionaries “should not be the trade union secretary, but the 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 the people it affects”.
Revolutionaries have a duty not just to fight over workplace or trade union issues, but to be at the forefront of fighting all injustice and oppression.
Before the Russian Revolution, for example, Lenin argued for the defence of religious and national minorities, and students facing police repression.
The Bolsheviks were also committed to women’s liberation. After the revolution they were part of establishing real gains for women—both legally in terms of rights to divorce and abortion, and by attempting to destroy the material roots of women’s oppression by providing communal childcare, laundries and kitchens.
For Lenin the fight against oppression was more than a moral issue. It was also about building solidarity against the ruling class and their attempts to divide and weaken our side.
Karl Marx pointed out many years ago that the power of the English working class was weakened by the scapegoating of Irish immigrants.
Overcoming attempts to divide and rule us is just as crucial in Britain today, where the recomposition of the working class means including far more black, Asian and women workers.
Writing about the national question, Lenin pointed out that to achieve real unity it is not enough just to declare yourself for equality.
Socialists need to actively campaign on the side of the oppressed. Across Europe today, for example, socialists should be at the forefront of defending Muslims against scapegoating and attacks on civil liberties.
Sadly there are too many on the left in France and elsewhere who hold abstract notions of secularism (separation of church and state) above the defence of the rights of young Muslim women fighting for the right to wear the hijab in school.
The fight against oppression is part of a wider fight against ruling class ideas.
Lenin argued that the fight for the self determination of nationalities oppressed by the Tsarist Russian Empire was important for the oppressed nationalities, but also to win Russian workers away from their rulers’ nationalism: “Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.
“The interests of the freedom of the Great Russian population require a struggle against such oppression.”
The fight to break down racist or nationalist ideas is part of a fight to break down the idea that workers and bosses of the same country have the same interests.
Lenin wrote that, when tyranny is exposed, “the most backward worker will understand that the students and religious sects, the muhzniks and authors are being abused by the same dark forces that are crushing him at every step of his life”.
He argued that revolutionaries had to fight against all forms of oppression and also show how they are connected, and “to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.”
Yet Lenin knew that ideas change primarily in the process of struggle. Revolutions are not made by revolutionaries but by the mass of ordinary people, with different ideas.
He ridiculed people who were looking for a pure revolution: “To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by the small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petit bourgeousie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses…is to repudiate social revolution. Whoever expects a ‘pure’ revolution will never live to see it.”
This critique of revolutionary purity is relevant today when some on the left argue that it is diluting our politics to work with people who are not revolutionary Marxists, or that socialists and Muslims cannot work together.
For Lenin, you had to be part of the fight for change and argue within the movement for the way forward.
In 1905 Lenin wrote, “Revolutions are festivals of the oppressed and the exploited.” In the fight for change, the most oppressed and downtrodden come to the forefront.
Young Asian women led many of the recent anti-war demonstrations.
The Bolsheviks themselves, in a country where pogroms against Jewish people were rife, had many Jewish leaders, including Leon Trotsky.
Lenin was committed to the self emancipation of the working class as a way of liberating all of society.
The gains of the Russian Revolution give us a glimpse of how socialist revolution can transform society. Next week I will look at how Lenin organised for revolution.