Socialist Worker

Lenin for the 21st century

The struggle against war is linked to the struggle against the system that produces war, writes Ian Birchall, author of a new pamphlet on Lenin

Issue No. 1969

Street art of the Russian Revolution — Vladimir Lebedev’s sketch from 1918 for a wall panel “Long Live the International”

Street art of the Russian Revolution — Vladimir Lebedev’s sketch from 1918 for a wall panel “Long Live the International”

One of the best things about the current anti-war movement is the range of people involved. Nuns, Muslims and atheists march together in good-humoured unity. But one face that hasn’t been very visible is Lenin’s. If he appears at all, it is on banners alongside Stalin and Mao Zedong — company he would have detested.

That’s why earlier this year I wrote a little pamphlet called A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin. I’ve been involved in anti-war campaigning for 45 years, ever since the Aldermaston nuclear disarmament march in 1960. Lenin’s writings have been very important in helping me to see clearly what needed to be done.

Of course we have to ditch the idea, at one time very common on the left, that you could solve any problem by quoting Lenin (like quoting the Bible).

Lenin wasn’t Nostradamus — he couldn’t foresee what the world would be like 80 years after he died.

In his last speech to the Communist International, the global body he helped to found, he was so ill, he had to be carried onto the platform. Lenin urged delegates to study conditions in their own countries and think for themselves, not mechanically imitate what had happened in the 1917 Russian Revolution.

We have to abandon the idea that there is something called “The Leninist Party” — Lenin always stressed that forms of organisation must fit the political tasks of a particular time.

The best guide to the real Lenin is Tony Cliff’s biography, which inspired most of the ideas in my pamphlet. But that is three fat volumes.

I wanted to offer a basic introduction and encourage people to read Lenin. The pamphlet covers several topics, but here I want to give just one example — Lenin’s relevance to the anti-war movement.

In September 1915 Lenin attended an anti-war conference at Zimmerwald in Switzerland. It was a very small conference—less than 40 people.

A year earlier the whole socialist movement, with a few exceptions, had supported the war. Zimmerwald was one of the first attempts to get opponents of the war together.

Lenin welcomed the conference as a “step forward”. But he also wrote a little pamphlet called Socialism and War to be distributed to the delegates.

Much has changed since then, but what is striking is how much still remains relevant. It can be read on the the Marxists Internet Archive at

Lenin began by stressing he was not a pacifist. Throughout history people have been oppressed and they have only been able to improve their situation by fighting back.

But the First World War was different. Lenin observed the first signs of resistance to war — notably fraternisation in the trenches — and pledged that socialists would “take a most ardent part in every movement and in every demonstration” against the war.

Beyond that it was important to understand that the basic cause of war was capitalism. No capitalist can simply stand still and mark time — capitalists who don’t expand production and find new markets will be crushed by their competitors.

As Lenin saw, this led to capitalists expanding out across national boundaries and thus inevitably producing conflict between nation states.

Lenin already recognised many features of what today is called globalisation. His picture of a greedy, grasping capitalism still rings true today:

“Capitalism now finds the old national states, without the formation of which it could not have overthrown feudalism, too tight for it. Free trade and competition have been superseded by the striving for monopoly, for the seizure of territory, for the investment of capital, for the export of raw materials from them, and so forth.”

Some of Lenin’s contemporaries argued that the spread of trade internationally would make war less likely. The theory was revived a few years ago as the “McDonald’s theory” — the idea that two countries with a McDonald’s restaurant would never go to war.

It disappeared in 1999 when Nato bombed Belgrade, which is full of McDonald’s outlets. Lenin argued that the drive to war could not be suppressed as long as capitalism lasted. History has proved him right so far.

Lenin cut through the hypocrisy around the war. “The most widespread deception of the people perpetrated by the bourgeoisie in the present war is the concealment of its predatory aims with ‘national liberation’ ideology,” he wrote.

“The English promise the liberation of Belgium, the Germans of Poland, etc. Actually, this is a war waged by the oppressors of the majority of the nations of the world for the purpose of fortifying and expanding such oppression.”

Likewise today George Bush and Tony Blair launch wars in the name of “democracy” and keep quiet about their real motivations.

In 1914 Britain and France claimed they were fighting to defend “little Belgium”. Belgium might have looked “little” on a map, but the country’s rulers were guilty of extremely brutal colonial rule in Africa.

The crocodile tears over national self-determination in 1914 are very reminiscent of how US imperialism suddenly discovered the suffering of the Iraqi people — after decades of backing Saddam Hussein.

The Vietnam War in the 1960s led to demonstrations around the world and growing discontent within the US armed forces, which finally persuaded the US to pull out.

For some years people talked of the “Vietnam syndrome”, believing the US would not engage in such a war again.

Now I scarcely believe my eyes as I watch Bush making the same mistakes as were made in Vietnam. Except they aren’t just “mistakes” — they are the product of capitalism’s drive to war. Until we smash the whole rotten system, it will happen again and again.

Lenin argued that the only way to end war was by revolution. In 1915 Lenin seemed to be a tiny minority within a minority. But just two years later Russia was on the brink of revolution.

Things will probably not move anything like so quickly for us, but the principle remains — wars will go on until the social system that breeds them is smashed. So Lenin argued for a political break with those who wanted to work within the existing system.

Some people, who lack Lenin’s judgement, think they are being “Leninist” by being abusive about those who disagree with them. But the real job is to build a political current that rejects not just war, but the whole economic system.

In 1917 Lenin wrote his most important book, State and Revolution (available at, in which he attacked the big lie, still current today, that socialism means state ownership and state control. Lenin argued that it is only when we destroy the existing state that we can build a world without war.

State and Revolution can be hard going. It is written in old-fashioned language and is full of references to people now long forgotten. So it’s a good idea to first read an article, also called “Socialism and War”, by my old comrade Duncan Hallas, written at the time of the Falklands War in 1982 (

Duncan had fought in the Second World War — and had helped to organise a mutiny just after it. He knew what war was like, and he hated it.

He recalled “seeing, in an ordinary commercial cinema in Manchester a year or two after the end of the Second World War, a showing of the classic anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front.

“At the point where one German soldier says to another, ‘We should make the generals and politicians fight it out with clubs,’ the audience, a fair number of whom must have been ex-soldiers, burst into loud and spontaneous applause.”

While Duncan welcomed such anti-war feeling, he followed Lenin in realising that you couldn’t end war within the existing system. That meant the hard task of building a revolutionary alternative to those who talked of socialism, but worked within the system.

Duncan ended by describing the Labour MPs who flocked to support the Falklands War as “cowardly, mean, chauvinist, grovelling before the ruling class”. If he had lived to see Blair’s cabinet today, I think Duncan — one of the most articulate people I ever met — would have been lost for words.

Ian Birchall’s pamphlet A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, priced £2. Go to or phone 020 7637 1848

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Sat 24 Sep 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1969
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