One of side effects of the scandal currently engulfing the SWP is that it seems to have stimulated a rash of debates about the nature and relevance of ‘Leninism’. In particular, the SWP’s Central Committee and its supporters portray its opponents within the party as opponents of Bolshevism, or democratic centralism, its organisational model, or, most damningly, of Leninism. While for most people in the real world, or even in those distant suburbs of the real world which much of the Left inhabit, such accusations seem as comprehensible (and as relevant) as charges of, say, Triclavianism by Pope Innocent the 3rd, they represent an ever present danger to the health of the socialist movement. They are dangerous because they are symptoms of the very common tendency on the left to fetishise the political theory and/or practice of various great leaders and turn their every utterance into holy writ and to regard any criticism as unforgivable heresy. This tendency is nowhere more evident than in the case of Lenin.
Of course, it is also the case that when it comes to poor old Lenin, the reverse is also true. While few would deny that Lenin was a hugely important figure, there is a wide spread and long-standing body of opinion, made up of social democrats of various types, disgruntled revolutionaries, various sub species of anarchists and right wing academics, who would claim that he was a thoroughly Bad Thing. For them, there is a thread of malignancy that spread from his politics, his theoretical work and his models of organisation, through the Bolshevik Party to its fully mestastasised form in the horror of Stalinism.
For such people, one can only repeat the words of the great Victor Serge: “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?”
However, the curious thing about a great many of the self styled ‘Leninists’ that I know are that they are no such thing, but rather people who cling to a rather dog eared snapshot of Leninism that bears little or no relationship to the historical reality of a set of organisational principles that Lenin laid down in 1902 but subsequently modified drastically in 1905 and again in 1917. The Lenin of the awful What Is To Be Done? and the Lenin of State and Revolution are the same man, but the politics are very different. However, to the hagiographers of most of the far left sects, they are revealed truth.
That was not the case as far as Lenin himself was concerned. While, in 1902, when he published What Is To Be Done? his view was “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness,” and that it was necessary to develop a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries to bring “class political consciousness” from outside the economic struggle, his view was profoundly flawed in a number of ways, he was writing about a particular problem – the fight against economism – in a particular historical context.
But as the situation changed, his position did too, several times. For example, in 1904 he emphasised that his organisational views were not universally applicable: “Under free political conditions our party can and will be built up entirely upon the principle of electability. Under absolutism this is unrealisable.” While in 1902 Lenin wrote that the workers through their own efforts could only reach trade union consciousness, by 1905, in the light of the Petrograd Soviet, he wrote, “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic”. By 1921, he was unhappy with the proposed translation of What Is To Be Done? into non-Russian languages because of the its capacity to be unthinkingly misused. He said, “that is not desirable; the translation must at least be issued with good commentaries which would have to be written by a Russian comrade very well acquainted with the history of the Communist Party of Russia in order to avoid false application”.
Just to be clear, in the debates between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg on the nature of the party and socialist democracy I think that Rosa was largely right and Lenin largely wrong. And, to quote Tony Cliff (before he discovered that he was a reincarnation of old Vladimir Illyich) “For Marxists in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s.” However, the point is, to paraphrase Jim Higgins, that the Leninism of 1917 was addressing problems that have not existed for almost a century, and are of little help to revolutionary socialists in 2013. The Leninism of the 1930s, which we call Trotskyism, offers us the same thing only written very, very small.
Lenin argued for the necessity of a revolutionary party ‘of a new kind’. Indeed, but the world has moved on and it is time leave the old heroes (or villains if you prefer) behind, and build parties of an even newer kind, with new strategies and perspectives for the 21st century. To quote Jim, properly this time “It is past time for Lenin to vacate the mausoleum and be finally laid to rest, alongside his mother, where he always wanted to be. Let him rest in peace.”