In the first major biography of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in 25 years, Victor Sebestyen writes that “everyone knows the havoc he wreaked”.
His book Lenin the Dictator repeats the familiar official account. He paints Lenin as a “rigid ideologue” guided by “opportunism”, a dictator who “seized power in a coup”.
The reality is a world apart from this caricature.
Until the First World War, Lenin’s Bolshevik party was part of the Second International with Europe’s other socialist parties. But it was the only one to see a successful workers’ revolution.
That’s because Lenin understood what sort of revolutionary party was needed for workers to wrest power from the ruling class.
Opponents claim that his 1902 pamphlet What is to be Done? showed his dictatorial ambitions.
In 1902, socialists in Russia had largely organised in loose study circles easily broken up by the Tsarist secret police. For Lenin, building an organised, nationwide party was crucial to advancing working class struggle.
But he was flexible about how it should be organised.
The Working Class
Lenin also looked at the relationship between the party and the wider working class, and argued that “class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from outside”.
This didn’t mean the party imposed its ideas on working class people. Lenin was arguing against “economism” that “systematically restricts the workers’ movement to defending its sectional interests”.
Against those who saw workers’ “economic” struggles as gradually leading to a fight for socialism, Lenin argued the opposite.
“The ‘economists’ have gone to one extreme,” he wrote. “To straighten matters somebody had to pull in the other direction—and that is what I have done.”
For Lenin, revolutionaries had to take on political, not just workplace, battles and to be tribunes of the oppressed.
But everything Lenin wrote was designed to win an argument to take the movement forward. If the political situation changed, so could Lenin’s outlook of how the party organised.
After the 1905 revolution the situation had changed and Lenin argued that “the working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic”.
Tight-knit organisation built up under illegality no longer suited—so the party had to “open the gates” to workers moving leftwards.
Whatever form organisation took, Lenin argued a party is needed because workers’ ideas are uneven. Some want to smash capitalism, others buy into it, but most have both progressive and reactionary ideas.
Lenin’s vision was for a party of militant fighters that could spread revolutionary politics in the working class.
While the party gave leadership, it also learned from the working class.
During the 1905 and 1917 revolutions workers’ councils (“soviets”) were set up that would become the basis for a new workers’ state.
Lenin saw the soviets’ significance, calling them “organs of revolutionary rule” in 1915, but didn’t initially see them as central. By October 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued, “All power to the Soviets.”
Bolshevik organisation was crucial to the working class taking power. “Lenin matters now,” Sebestyen tellingly writes, “because he was asking the same questions as we are today about similar problems.”
To get rid of our rotten society, we have to learn the answers Lenin gave too.