Socialist Worker

Lenin and his ideas today

In a time when capitalism is in crisis, the works and life of the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin—born 150 years ago this week—are still crucial, writes Tomáš Tengely-Evans

Issue No. 2701

Lenins ideas are still relevant today

Lenin's ideas are still relevant today


Capitalist society is hurtling towards catastrophe with climate change, global slump, pandemics and the threat of nuclear war.

The ideas of Vladimir Lenin, who was born 150 years ago this month, remain crucial for all of us who want to get rid of this rotten system. 

Most people will have heard caricatures of Lenin. 

These claim he was a dogmatist and dictator who seized power in a coup and led to the horrors of Joseph Stalin’s Russia. 

This is not the reality.

Lenin’s politics were formed at another time of huge crises that showed the system’s disregard for ordinary people’s lives.

He developed new ideas as he grappled with unprecedented problems. And they were tested in the battles against the system—and helped to usher in revolutionary change. 

For a large part of his political life, Lenin had been around and part of Europe’s socialist parties. 

But Lenin’s Bolshevik party was the only one to see a successful workers’ revolution in Russia 1917. This was no accident. 

Lenin explored ideas about war, imperialism, the state and support for oppressed people. 

And, crucially, he understood the need for socialists to build a revolutionary organisation in order to change the world.

Conflict between working class people and bosses is built into capitalism. Bigger revolts and revolutions start as spontaneous struggles often over specific issues. 

The February Revolution in Russia in 1917 began as a protest over bread shortages. 

The recent revolt against neoliberalism in Chile began as a protest over metro ticket prices. In Iran fuel price rises were the spark. 

Challenge

Struggles can develop into a broader challenge to the system. What’s not inevitable is that they win.

In every struggle there’s a battle between reformist forces that limit changes within the system and those who want revolutionary change.

A revolutionary organisation on the model Lenin argued for is vital to have a better chance of success. 

Struggles can develop into a broader challenge to the system. What’s not inevitable is that they win.

You can see that during the wave of revolt across the world before the coronavirus.

In Sudan, for instance, a mass movement successfully forced out dictator Omar al-Bashir. 

The mass movement then gathered in the streets to demand an end to military rule. 

And as it deepened, ordinary people began to question how society was organised. In some of the squares, people set up revolutionary committees that showed a glimpse of how society could be run democratically from the bottom up. 

Groups of organised workers had played an important role in the Sudanese revolt. The logical next step could have been to set up workers’ councils, which could have broken the power of the regime.  

The Financial Times reported, “One cannot know for sure what Russia felt like in 1917 as the tsar was being toppled. But it must have felt something like the capital Khartoum in April 2019.”

Sudan - a history of a mass revolt
Sudan - a history of a mass revolt
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But Sudan didn’t see ­workers seize power for themselves like in Russia 1917. 

The ­leadership of the mass movement was dominated by political forces that weren’t willing to go all the way. 

They signed up to a shoddy deal with the regime—which used it as an opportunity to clamp down on opponents. There was no revolutionary socialist organisation in Sudan that could have argued against compromise and to deepen the revolution.

Opponents of Lenin argue that the revolutionary party is an authoritarian or elitist idea. They use What Is To Be Done?—a pamphlet from 1902 about how socialist parties should organise—as evidence of this. 

In it Lenin writes that “class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from outside”. This can sound like socialists should just tell the rest of the movement what to do or impose their ideas onto the working class. But that wasn’t Lenin’s argument. 

Many of his works are polemics written during a particular row that had come up in the movement. When Lenin wrote What is to be done? he was battling against the “economists”. 

They thought that workers’ struggles over bread and butter issues, for example wages or working conditions, would build up into socialism. 

He said their “economism systematically restricts the workers’ movement to defending its sectional interests”.

For Lenin, revolutionary socialists had to be “tribunes of the oppressed” not just the “trade union secretary”. 

Elsewhere in the What Is To Be Done, he writes that socialists have to be “able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression” and “generalise all these manifestations” to show other workers how the system produces exploitation and oppression.

Militants

A revolutionary party isn’t about being separate from the working class or mass movements. It’s about building an organisation of working class militants, who draw struggles together into a bigger fight against the system as a whole. 

The precise way a revolutionary party organises depends on the political circumstances and Lenin was flexible about the specific features, but whether it’s in a parliamentary democracy or authoritarian state, the need for a revolutionary party remains. 

It flows from how working class people’s ideas are uneven. Some want to tear the head off capitalism, while others are reactionaries who buy into it the system. The majority sit somewhere in between with progressive and backward ideas.

A reformist party—such as the Labour Party—reflects all of those contradictions and panders to backward ideas. A revolutionary party organises together the most militant fighters. 

To be effective, a revolutionary organisation can’t just be set up during a revolution. Lenin’s Bolshevik party was built in difficult conditions before 1905 and 1917. it had tested out ideas, made mistakes, learned lessons and won respect in the working class movement. It had also learned from workers’ struggles. During the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, Russian workers spontaneously set up the  ir own soviets (workers’ councils). 

Lenin recognised they were “organs of revolutionary rule”. And by the time of October 1917, he grasped that they are the basis of a new workers’ state and raised the slogan, “All power to the soviets.” 

One reason why Lenin consistently argued for revolution is because he understood the role of the state in capitalist society. 

In State and Revolution, Lenin argued against the idea that the state is a neutral body. “The state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another,” he wrote. 

“So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.”

Elections and parliament gives a measure of limited democracy. But the capitalist state is run by vast unelected bureaucracies of civil servants, judges, generals and spooks. 

These are backed up by cops and the army and the threat of force—what Lenin called “special bodies” of armed people. 

They look out for the interests of the corporations that make all the major economic decisions. 

That’s why workers can’t use the existing state to change society. They have to set up their own democratic organisations and take political power for themselves in a socialist revolution. 

There have been changes to the state since Lenin was writing, but its repressive function remains.

That’s why workers can’t use the existing state to change society. They have to set up their own democratic organisations and take political power for themselves in a socialist revolution.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a genuine socialist revolution where workers seized power and briefly ran society by themselves. 

Lenin had always been clear that it had to spread to other advanced countries or “we perish”.

The revolutionary wave in Europe didn’t succeed, which left the Russian Revolution isolated. Fourteen imperialist armies invaded to back up forces that wanted a return of the old order. 

The civil war devastated the working class that had made the revolution and hollowed out the soviets, undermining the basis of workers’ power. 

The Bolsheviks were left in charge of a vast bureaucracy and desperately tried to defend some of the gains of the revolution.

But Joseph Stalin represented a counter-revolutionary break. All the social gains—abortion, divorce, legalisation of homosexuality—were reversed. The last remnants of workers’ control were abolished. 

By 1930 the bureaucracy led by Stalin had developed its own class interests. Russia became a state capitalist country, which exploited workers and competed with rivals in the West. 

That wasn’t an inevitable consequence of Lenin’s ideas or dictatorial ambitions. 

His ideas can still help fight against a brutal system.


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