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(en) The commoner #7 - Cyril Smith - ‘ANTI-LENINISM’ IS NOT ENOUGH

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 16 Jul 2003 12:12:22 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

What is to be done? Leninism, Anti-Leninist Marxism and the
question of revolution today. Edited by Werner Bonefeld and Sergio
Tischler. Ashgate, 2002.
A volume to mark the centenary of the publication of Lenin’s
‘What is to be done?’ was a good idea. As the scattered
forces of the Left try to get to grips with the new century,
exorcising the spell of Leninism is among its most important tasks.
Alas, while some of the ten contributors to this volume have
interesting and important things to say, the book as a whole actually
has very little to tell the reader, either about the content of
Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet or its place in the history of the
revolutionary movement.

Studying the ruins of the 1848 revolutions, Marx in his
‘Eighteenth Brumaire’ mused that ‘the tradition of all
the dead generations weighs like a nightmare [Alp] on the brain of
the living’. To liberate the thinking of the today’s new
generation from the Leninist past is a delicate task of brain surgery,
demanding great care and scrupulous objectivity, not the
hammer-and-chisel equipment of some of these contributors. In
particular, if we are to awake from the nightmare of the twentieth
century, we have both to remember the Russian Revolution, and to
stop thinking of it as the paradigm for all progressive social change.

These problems do not belong to an academic ‘history of
ideas’. We are talking about how the international workers’
movement has tried to understand the development of its own
self-knowledge. Unless we see the contributions of people like
Lenin and Trotsky – both their heroism and their mistakes –
as aspects of this objective process, we separate subjectivity and
objectivity – precisely the error which has to be put right.

While ‘What is to be done?’ is concerned with problems of
the Russian movement, it is really rooted in the history of the
Second International. When Lenin wrote his booklet, to be issued by
the Iskra Editorial Board in preparation for the 1903 Congress of the
RSDLP, he was at pains to show himself an orthodox supporter of
the International, and in particular of Kautsky’s fight against
Bernstein. This is especially true of the notorious passage about
‘bringing socialist consciousness into the working class from
the outside’. Lenin backs this up with a long quotation from
Kautsky, which seeks to hammer into the heads of his Austrian
comrades that ‘modern socialist consciousness’ requires
not just the proletariat but science, and that ‘the vehicle of
science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia’.
Lenin gives the quotation with no reservations. We should also note
that Lenin’s organisational proposals were in essence
supported by the Iskra editorial board as a whole, including

It’s worth getting historical details right here, and bits of leftist
folklore are not enough. Some of the contributors to this volume
want to jump straight from Lenin’s struggle for a revolutionary
organisation of Russian Marxists in 1902 to the outcome of the 1917
Russian revolution, which thought of itself as socialist. But.
Russian Marxists did not begin to talk of a socialist revolution until
Trotsky’s 1907 ‘Results and Prospects’, and Lenin did
not think in those terms for another decade after that.

Already at the 1903 Congress, Lenin tried to avoid ‘What is to
be done?’ being read as a theoretical work. The experience of
the 1905 uprising led him to downplay the significance of his 1902
contribution still further, declaring in his introduction to the 1908
re-issue that it should be seen as a ‘"summary" of Iskra tactics
and Iskra organisational policy in 1901 and 1902’. Bogdanov,
who split with Lenin in 1908, went so far as to denounce its author
for betraying ‘What is to be done?’. The raising of the
pamphlet to canonical status as a manual of revolutionary
organisation dates only from Zinoviev’s work in bureaucratising
the Comintern after 1922. Indeed, until then, there was no such

Trotsky, who comes in for some sharp denunciation in this volume,
and must, of course, be considered a Leninist, vigorously criticised
‘What is to be done?’ in 1904, and never changed his mind
about its views concerning socialist consciousness and
‘combating spontaneity’. However, he kept rather quiet
about this disagreement and we Trotskyists, who had made
something of a fetish of Lenin’s booklet, were embarrassed to
note that, he had revealed his life-long opposition to its views in his
last book, ‘Stalin’.

None of this excuses the wrong-headedness of Lenin’s
pamphlet. But if we are to get to grips with its errors, we have to get
the story right. That is why I can’t see ‘anti-Leninist
Marxism’ as the positive answer to Leninism that we so badly
need. The tendency exhibited by some of the contributors is to
throw Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin on top of each other, labelling the
heap ‘for shredding’, and this makes it impossible to get to
the heart of the problem.

If we separate ‘What is to be done?’ from later history, it
reveals something more important than Lenin’s ‘politically
incorrect’ disparagement of proletarian consciousness. As
always, Lenin takes ideas from ‘Marxist orthodoxy’ and
states them in the most extreme form he can. In this way he
sometimes reveals what might otherwise be hidden. What matters
about his denial that proletarians can ‘spontaneously’
discover ‘socialist consciousness’ is what this tells us
about the ‘Marxist’ idea of ‘theory’. Removed in
this way from living activity, it is made to develop in parallel with it,
and this is the heart of the direct opposition between
‘Marxist’ ‘dialectical materialism’ and the ideas of
Karl Marx. When Lenin found himself attempting to apply his
Second International ideas amid the ruins of the Tsarist Empire and
a brutal civil war, this opposition between and abstract
‘theory’ and living humanity turned Marx’s humanism on
its head.

The volume under review starts off with a thirty-year old lecture by
the veteran ‘Council Communist’, Cajo Brendel,
‘Kronstadt: Proletarian Spin-Off of the Russian Revolution’.
Somehow, the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 is supposed to be linked
with Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet. The two decades and three
revolutions which separate them are simply air-brushed out of the
picture. Of course, there is a connection, but this has to be worked

Worse than this, in straining every nerve to depict Trotsky as
‘the Gustav Noske of the Russian Revolution’, Brendel
messes up the whole story. This is how he refers to the Petrograd
strike movement of 1921, which he seeks to assimilate with

They demanded freedom for all workers; abolition of the special
decrees; free elections for the councils. These were the same
demands that were raised a few days later in Kronstadt … This
immediately gave way to the ‘worker opposition’ that was
led by two former metal workers. (p 22)

In fact, the members of the Workers Opposition of Shliapnikov,
Miasnikov and Kollontai, which was expelled by the Tenth
Congress of the Party, just as the Kronstadt rebellion broke out,
were most enthusiastic about its suppression, agreeing with the
Party view that it was a peasant-influenced attack on Soviet rule. In
fact, the strike movement expressed, not some ideological outlook,
but sheer starvation, in precisely the same disastrous economic
situation which gave rise to the Kronstadt uprising.

(A minor point: while Trotsky always accepted political
responsibility for the suppression of Kronstadt, he was actually not
present, being ill at the time. Bolshevik mythology about Kronstadt
is bad enough. There is no need to replace it by another set of

Dietard Behrens’ ‘Perspectives on Left Politics: on the
Development of anti-Leninist Conceptions of Socialist Politics’,
gives a useful account of a number of left criticisms of Lenin,
especially within the German movement. However, while he starts
with Luxemburg’s criticism of ‘What is to be done?’, he
omits any mention of Trotsky’s even more savage attack.)

With Simon Clarke’s ‘Was Lenin a Marxist?’, we enter
more serious territory. Clarke gives a careful argument to show how
Lenin’s entire outlook is marked by Russian populism. In this,
Clarke demonstrates, Lenin is a faithful follower of Plekhanov, in his
philosophical work as well as in his organisational outlook.
However, I think Clarke goes astray when he tries to exempt
Kautsky from these charges (p 72).

For me, the question ‘was Lenin a Marxist’ – which
Clarke answers with a clear ‘NO!’ – is less important
than the question ‘was Marx a Marxist?’ Plekhanov and
Kautsky are equally implicated in the formalisation of the doctrine
called ‘Marxism’ in the Second International, obliterating
the essential ideas of Karl Marx in the process. The undoubtedly
wide gap between Lenin and Kautsky is of far less importance than
the gulf which separates both of them from the ideas of Marx.

That is why I think that Mike Rooke’s ‘The Dialectic of
Labour and Human Emancipation’ is among the best
contributions to this book. In heading a section of his paper
‘Marx’s Revolution against Philosophy’, Rooke takes us
to the heart of our problem. The Second International, followed
closely by the Third and Fourth, evaded Marx’s central concern
with the nature of humanity and its self-changing struggle against
inhuman social forms. (The part played by Engels in this evasion
needs to be handled with great care, however. His formulations
opened the door for the burying of Marx under the weight of
positivism, but did not always go through it, I think.)

In ‘State, Revolution and Self-Determination’, Werner
Bonefeld presents an excellent outline of Marx’s concept of
communism. (I shall ignore Bonefeld’s unfortunate references
to Kronstadt, where he has been led astray by Behrens’
dream-historical account.) Bonefeld’s essay gives us a basis
for a return to Marx’s conception of revolution, which had been
buried under the notion of ‘taking power’ in the Second,
Third and Fourth Internationals.

Alberto Bonnet’s ‘The Command of Money-Capital and the
Latin-American Crises’ is very interesting. But it deals entirely
with economic matters, honestly and openly evading any discussion
of ‘What is to be done?’

Maybe it is the fault of the translation, but I did not find Sergio
Tischler’s contribution, ‘The Crisis of the Leninist Subject
and the Zapatista Circumstance’ easy to read. However, I think
it does contain some important insights. Tischler explains very
clearly Lenin’s reified conceptions of state, economy and class

The Leninist idea of subject embodies an instrumental conception of
class struggle. It projects at a theoretical level, the rupture between
subject and object. In this game, the subject is finally reduced to the
party or the state, while the ‘empirical’ class plays a
supporting role, in the best of cases, or is presented as a
reconstruction from a centre that gives it a ‘real’ political

(Pages 177-8.)

George Caffentzis’ ‘Lenin on the Production of
Revolution’ shows the baleful results of not getting to the heart
of ‘Marxism’. Caffentzis, having in mind the work of the
‘anti-globalization’ movement, thinks we still have much to
learn from Lenin’s 1902 booklet. Lenin, he says, was the first to
‘apply Marxism to Marxism’, something which apparently
had not occurred to old Marx. In this, Lenin presented the world
with a ‘communication model’ of revolution. With its aid, we
can understand how to ‘produce revolution’. But what on
earth does he think a revolution is, a piece of computer software?
Does he imagine the world has to wait for a group of people to work
out how to read his blueprint, like revolutionary IKEA customers?

Johannes Agnoli’s ‘Emancipation: Paths and Goals’ is
certainly less enthusiastic about Lenin’s ‘model’, but
his idea of social change is equally instrumental. For him,
emancipation requires us to answer questions about institutional
forms. He is impressed by the experience of the German Greens,
who set out along the emancipatory road, then decided that it led
them on ‘the long march through the institutions’, and ended
up as a parliamentary party. ‘The organisation must anticipate
the goal of emancipation and determine its character on the basis of
this goal.’ OK. To coin a phrase, what is to be done? ‘How
this is possible cannot be determined theoretically,’ says
Agnoli. ‘It is a practical question.’ Thanks a lot!

The final essay, John Holloway on ‘Revolt and Revolution, or
Get out of the Way, Capital’, does not pretend to give definitive
answers to such problems, but it does clear some ground for such
answers to be investigated. He pinpoints ‘two elements … in
thinking about the possibility of revolutionary change’.

The first is telling capital (and capitalists and their politicians) to go
away. … The second is to think how to avoid being recaptured,
forced back into submission by our lack of access to the means of
doing. (Pages 198-9.)

As in his book, ‘Change the World without Taking Power’,
he shows how these questions express the very nature of human
life. That, I believe, is the essence of what was wrong about
‘What is to be done?’.

The task of breaking away from the legacy of Bolshevism can’t
be evaded, either by ignoring it or by simply throwing it away.
Altogether, this volume was worth producing, but the shortcomings
of some of the contributions should lead us to work harder and with
greater care.

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