Lenin, 150 Years After His Birth

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c6/Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-71043-0003%2C_Wladimir_Iljitsch_Lenin.jpgAtilio Borón

Vladimir Illich Ulyanov was born in 1870 in Simbirsk, Russia. He was the founder of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), the undisputed leader of the first triumphant worker-peasant insurrection on a national scale in the history of humanity: the October Revolution in Russia (which brought to an end that which the heroic Paris Commune could not do) and architect and builder of the Soviet state. In addition to this, he was also a remarkable intellectual, author of numerous and essential writings on subjects as varied as philosophy, economic theory, political science, sociology and international relations. According to the brilliant definition proposed by György Lukács, Lenin made three decisive contributions to the renewal of a living theory, Marxism, which he always understood as a “guide for action” and not as a dogma or a sclerotic set of abstract precepts. Thanks to Lenin, the theoretical foundations established by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were enriched with a theory of imperialism that shed light on the most recent developments of capitalism in the first decade of the twentieth century; with a conception about the strategy and tactics of the conquest of power and with a renewed theory of revolution based on the “worker-peasant” alliance and the role of the intellectuals; and its different theorizations about the political party and its tasks in different moments of the social struggle. An extraordinary theoretical heritage, as it emerges from the preceding enumeration.

In this brief commemoration of the birth of such an exceptional character, I would like to draw attention to one of the three contributions: the question of the party. In fact, there is concern about the harmful persistence of the commonplace -and deeply erroneous- talk about Lenin’s “theory” of the party as if he had formed one, absolutely imperturbable in the face of the changes and challenges of the historical process. As we have shown in our introductory study in a new edition of What Is to Be Done? Lenin modified his conception of the party in correspondence with the variations in the conditions that characterized the different moments of the development of the revolutionary struggle in Russia,[2] it is evident that his historical and theoretical sensibility was incompatible with any dogmatism, which made him quickly take note of the lessons left by the 1905 revolution and the marginal role played in it by the political organization to which he belonged, the Social Democratic Workers Party of Russia. His self-critical reflection was expressed in the prologue of a frustrated book – which was to be called En Doce Años (In Twelve Years) – which would compile the books and articles he wrote between 1895 and 1907. Despite the modest liberalization that Czarism had consented to after the revolutionary essay of 1905 and the defeat that the Czar’s troops had suffered in the Russo-Japanese war, the truth is that those materials were confiscated through censorship and never saw the light of day. Nevertheless, the prologue was safe and provides important keys to understanding the evolution of Lenin’s thought [3] In this 1907 reflection, Lenin explained that the model of the party proposed in What Is to Be Done? was explained by the harsh conditions imposed by the clandestine struggle against tsarism and its impressive repressive apparatus. However, once the Revolution of 1905 had triumphed, Lenin modified his conception of the party-which was still revolutionary but no longer had to operate in the underground-and came close to a position similar in a certain sense to that of German social democracy (remember that Lenin had just repudiated Karl Kautsky’s theorization in 1909), which, at that time, was the “leading party” of the Second International. Given that the party is not an entelechy that flies over the contingencies and ups and downs of history-the change in the correlation of forces between tsarism and the social forces of the revolution, as well as the mutations operated in the institutional framework in which the political struggle took place-profoundly modified Lenin’s vision of the character of the party, its organizational structure, its tactics and its organizational activity in the new historical circumstances. The struggle for revolution, on which Lenin never made any concessions, had to appeal to a new party format. And he did so.

However, the triumph of the revolution in February 1917 precipitated the gestation of a third theorization in which the centrality of the party in the vanguard of the revolutionary process was displaced by the overwhelming protagonism of the soviets. With his proverbial sagacity Lenin noticed this mutation, a sort of Copernican revolution in the sphere of politics, before any other leader of the Bolshevik party and left it impressed for history in his amazing (and for many comrades, scandalous) slogan of “All power to the Soviets!” This meant, in fact, an extraordinary revaluation of the insurrectionary power of these unprecedented political formations and a certain -and transitory- relegation of the party in the “hottest phase” of the conquest of power, before and shortly after the October triumph. As we shall see below, it could in no way be argued that Lenin had definitely devalued the importance of the party. Yet, as a keen observer, he could not help but corroborate his transitory eclipse in the incandescent furnace of the revolution, where the overwhelming plebeian power of the soviets and their condition of indispensable actors at the moment of achieving the definitive triumph of the revolution were unquestionable. History has shown that that surprising slogan, so much discussed in its time by its own Bolshevik comrades, proved to be correct in the long run, because in the very complex transition between the February bourgeois democratic revolution and the consummation of the October socialist revolution, the exclusive protagonism fell on the soviets and not on the party. Lenin was one of the very few who knew how to understand this change and also to realize that this shift was far from definitive and that sooner or later the party would once again occupy a place of preponderance in the political struggles. Which indeed it did.

Indeed, the stabilization of Soviet power and the enormous challenges of building socialism – in a country devastated by the First World War and the civil war declared by the landed aristocracy, the capitalists and their allies in European governments – gave rise to the birth of a new theorization about the party, the fourth. In this new conception the revolutionary party is redefined (and let me abuse an anachronistic didactic) “in a Gramscian key”; namely, the party as the great organizer of the intellectual and moral leadership of the revolution, as an educator and conscientizer of the masses and especially of the youth; as the forger of a new civilizing consciousness and an indispensable instrument to ensure the durability of the revolutionary triumph. The last writings of his life, having consolidated the victory of the Russian worker and peasant masses, marked precisely this return of the party to the centre of the political scene, highlighting its strategic centrality in the face of the immense task of beginning the construction of the new communist society and a new revolutionary statehood which, inspired by the teachings of the Paris Commune, should not be a mockery of the capitalist state. And this was not only on a national level: the creation of the Communist International in 1919 projected onto the world stage the role of the party at a time when it seemed that capitalism was facing a dead end and that the triumph of the world proletarian revolution seemed imminent.

I conclude this brief reflection by saying that the usual characterization of the Russian revolutionary as an attentive reader and disciple of Marx does not do justice to the immensity of his legacy. As the builder of the first world workers’ state, one of whose most enduring civilizational achievements was his decisive contribution to the defeat of Nazism, and as a refined thinker who brought valuable and necessary developments to the theoretical corpus of Marxism, Lenin’s work attained a theoretical stature that did not go unnoticed by an attentive right-wing observer. We speak, of course, of Samuel P. Huntington, who in one of his most important books states that “Lenin was not the disciple of Marx; rather, he was the precursor of Marx. Lenin turned Marxism into a political theory,”[4] a thesis which must certainly be grasped firmly and which opens up numerous unsettling questions, but which contains some elements of truth that cannot simply be dismissed. And today, 150 years after Lenin’s birth, the challenge posed by the heterodox American thesis is a good opportunity to invite anti-capitalist militancy to take up again the study of the vast theoretical production of the founder of the Soviet Union.


1] Lenin’s Complete Works, which brings together books, articles, essays, journalistic interventions, speeches and messages of various kinds, were first published in Spanish by Editorial Cartago of the Argentine Communist Party between 1957 and 1973. It consists of 50 volumes and two more containing the indexes of the work. It is worth remembering that Lenin died at the age of 54, which highlights the extraordinary wealth of his talent as a writer, publicist and political leader.

2] For a more detailed analysis of these issues see our introduction at V.I. Lenin, What to Do? Problemas candentes de nuestro movimiento (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Luxemburg, 2004), pp. 13-73.

3] Lenin refers to this writing in his What Is to Be Done? (op. cit.), pp. 75-83.

4] See his Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 336.