The great merit of Neil Harding’s book is that it takes Lenin’s ideas seriously.
This might seem like a modest achievement. After all Lenin was an extraordinarily erudite thinker and a prolific writer whose collected works in English run to 45 volumes. Treating his ideas as central to any understanding of his political practice would seem self-evident.
Yet the dominant interpretation has insisted Lenin was a pragmatic politician seeking influence and power, willing to opportunistically seize on any theoretical justification to advance those goals. Indeed, one version of academic orthodoxy has questioned whether he was really a Marxist, in any meaningful sense, at all.
Rather he is located as part of a pre-Marxist Jacobin tradition, or its Russian variant, Narodism (or Populism), that believed that political will alone sufficed to create a revolution and socialism in Russia.
Lenin’s alleged voluntarism is held to contrast with (a caricature of) Marxism that insists on the iron laws of economic determinism. These supposedly demonstrated, as Lenin’s rivals the Mensheviks endlessly asserted, that undeveloped Tsarist Russia was ripe only for a photocopy of the great bourgeois revolution in France in 1789.
Harding breaks with all this. He argues that “Lenin altered his political course only after thorough theoretical work had convinced him of the need to do so”. Once convinced, nothing would divert Lenin from fighting to implement a new course, whatever the initial resistance.
The first part of Harding’s book (it was originally published in two separate volumes) examines the theoretical framework Lenin established in the 1890s and held to until the First World War. Lenin engaged in an exhaustive study of Russian social and economic conditions to understand the class forces at play. His conclusion was that the coming Russian revolution would be a bourgeois revolution breaking the hold of the landowners over the Tsarist state, allowing the development of capitalism in Russia to escape its cramped confines.
But he firmly rejected the apparent logical conclusion of this perspective, that the Russian bourgeoisie would lead the revolution, with the very small working class limited to a supporting role. Lenin’s detailed research led him to conclude that the weak capitalist class was too closely tied to the old order to play the role it had in France in 1789. Leadership of the revolution would instead fall to the urban working class in alliance with millions of land-hungry peasants. Their victory over Tsarism would create a democratic state that would foster the objective growth of the working class as capitalism rapidly expanded and industry grew, and its subjective strength as workers took advantage of bourgeois democratic freedoms to organise.
The pivotal work here was Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia, published in the last year of the 19th century. But Harding rightly establishes that this was a brilliant elaboration of the original orthodoxy of the first generation of Russian Marxists (whose outstanding figure was Plekhanov), and in no sense a break from that tradition. Lenin’s achievement was to go on, armed with the confidence his research and theory gave him, to build a much more powerful revolutionary organisation than that first, isolated, generation of Marxists could aspire to.
Harding’s argument is that the advent of world war in 1914 together with the abject (and to Lenin very shocking) collapse of the international socialist movement into support for the slaughter in the trenches forced Lenin to begin to reassess as he sought out explanations for these momentous events.
Lenin’s focus increasingly turned to international capitalism as a whole. The key work is his Imperialism: The Latest (not “highest” as often mistranslated) Stage of Capitalism. Again the research was exhaustive – Harding tells us Lenin read 148 books and 232 articles in preparation for this work. Lenin’s conclusion was that the world was ripe for socialism: “Socialism is now gazing at us from all the windows of modern capitalism.”
The basis for Lenin’s leap, in the midst of 1917, to the conviction that a socialist revolution was possible in Russia was laid in these analyses, which rooted themselves in the development of the world economy. The fate of workers’ power in Russia would be intertwined with that of an international revolution.
Together with Tony Cliff’s multi-volume biography of Lenin, Marcel Liebman’s Leninism under Lenin and Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Harding’s book is one of a handful of outstanding studies of Lenin.
Harding’s study is not faultless. Its limits are those of any study that focuses on ideas rather than integrating them with an examination of the historical conditions of their birth (in contrast to Lenin’s method, as Harding shows).
One other glaring fault is the failure to discuss Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution seriously. Harding does, however, provide ample evidence that Lenin in fact, if not in word, converted to this theory on his arrival at St Petersburg’s Finland Station in April 1917.
But this should not detract from a simple fact: every socialist who takes Lenin seriously should read this book.
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