Long Live Leninism!

Je reste un soixante-huitard. In both senses of “sixty-eighter”.

Next May will be the half-centennial of the defining month of the “sixties”.

Marx and Engels were “forty-eighters”. A much more significant generation/cohort that took part in the defeated European revolutions of 1848. Two decades later some 200,000 German forty-eighters fought in the second American revolution, making up about 10% of Lincoln’s armed forces, with greater success. The sixty-eighters had no such defeats and no such successes. But we did do something. Half a century is far too long between rounds. But I don’t think it will be as long again before, once more,

the times, they are a-changin’

Last year, 2017,  was part of a rather dreary few decades with the left moribund. But it had several anniversaries that deserve many books each. Not just to commemorate the past but for their lessons for the future, and hopefully the immediate future.

It was 150 years since publication of Karl Marx’s Capital Volume 1 in a first edition of 1000 copies (September 14, 1867). That was two decades after the “Communist Manifesto” of the “forty-eighters”. Itself following “scarce two hundred years” of bourgeois rule since the English revolution.

Two centuries earlier, in 1817, Europe was just emerging from the Napoleonic wars. The French and American revolutions were recent and what is now the modern world was not yet fully visible. Most of the world – Asia, Africa and Latin America had not emerged into modern history.

November was the centennial of the “October Revolution” (November 7, 1917).

It was 60 years since the Sputnik was launched (October 4, 1957).

That was a decade before the half-centennial of “Red October”.

I remember celebrating that half-centennial in 1967 with half a bottle of vodka, despite the Red Flag having already gone down by the time the Sputnik went up. I got literally blind drunk (on the floor and unable to see). I did not make that mistake again  in November, indeed it put me off alcohol for life.

It is also about half a century since Mao launched the Chinese Cultural Revolution and about 40 years since his death and defeat of the Chinese revolution. It has been a very long temporary setback!

It is difficult to claim that communism is still “the mind, the heart, the conscience of our era”.

The social-fascists and lemmingist sects seem to have long ago completely obliterated Leninism, Maoism and communism.

As Marx said:

 “ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” (“what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”). [5]

Indeed the very concept of a “left” in its broadest sense seems to have been displaced by the pseudoleft so that the generally accepted meaning of “left”, as understood by both supporters and opponents, is more or less identical with “reactionary”. That is the tendency fundamentally hostile to modernity and progress that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop”. This allows the conservative right to parade as rebels.

All the more reason to raise the Red flag and the banner of Red October and Lenin!

Do the traditions of “Leninist vanguard parties” have much relevance today? No, and they never did. Lenin thought the Comintern resolutions on organization were “too Russian”. The Bolshevik party was a mass party based on the organizational principles of the German workers party that led the second international before its collapse, as necessarily adapted to cope with the Tsarist secret police. There never was a mass revolutionary workers party in the West.

Does Lenin’s work “Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism” have much relevance today? No, there have certainly turned out to be a few more higher rungs on the ladder since that was written. Lenin’s claim that the period of the first world war was the final rung before victory of proletarian revolution, looked plausible enough then, but it makes no sense a century later! It was only a pamphlet dealing with the specific circumstances leading up to that imperialist world war, published under Tsarist censorhip. Lenin was right about the times he lived in but wrong about the future. He certainly cannot be blamed for the “anti-imperialist” pseudoleft whose “anti-globalist”, “anti-capitalist” and “anti-elite” politics and solidarity with putrid third world kleptocrat regimes has recently been “Trumped”.

According to Stalin:

“Developing capitalism,” says Lenin, “knows two historical tendencies in the national question. First: the awakening of national life and national movements, struggle against all national oppression, creation of national states. Second: development and acceleration of all kinds of intercourse between nations, breakdown of national barriers, creation of the international unity of capital, of economic life in general, of politics, science, etc.

“Both tendencies are a world-wide law of capitalism. The first predominates at the beginning of its development, the second characterises mature capitalism that is moving towards its transformation into socialist society” (see Vol. XVII, pp. 139-40).

For imperialism these two tendencies represent irreconcilable contradictions; because imperialism cannot exist without exploiting colonies and forcibly retaining them within the framework of the “integral whole”; because imperialism can bring nations together only by means of annexations and colonial conquest, without which imperialism is, generally speaking, inconceivable.

For communism, on the contrary, these tendencies are but two sides of a single cause-the cause of the emancipation of the oppressed people from the yoke of imperialism; because communism knows that the union of peoples in a single world economic system is possible only in the basis of mutual confidence and voluntary agreement, and that road to the formation of a voluntary union of peoples lies through the separation of the colonies from the “integral” imperialist “whole,” through the transformation of the colonies into independent states.

Thanks in large part to the movement led by Lenin and Stalin, the second tendency has largely prevailed and annexations and colonial conquest have become, generally speaking, inconceivable. If another world war did break out it would certainly be ended by world revolution. That makes it rather unlikely for any imperialist power to try their luck.

Were the Mensheviks right that Russia was too backward for the workers to hold power? Yes, and so it turns out were the more advanced countries of the West. But Lenin was right that 50,000 bolsheviks could do a better job of modernizing Russia than 5,000 Tsarist landlords. They did their duty.

They not only fought, but fought well. Under the leadership of Lenin and then Stalin they defeated both feudalism and fascism and dragged not only Russia but the whole of Eastern Europe into modernity (kicking and screaming). Russia went from the sick man of Europe to a superpower. Even after internal defeat the momentum still resulted in the Sputnik which forced the imperialist bourgeoise to join in unleashing science and technology in a way that has transformed the world to the despair of reactionaries. The revolution spread to Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Chinese revolution led by Mao inspired the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam and its retreat worldwide. The Chinese Cultural Revolution and the revolts in Eastern Europe merged with the sixties in the West.

The “years of stagnation” under social-facism leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, with subsequent oligarchical rule, the absurd plutocracy in China, even more ridiculous hereditary monarchy in North Korea and deeply corrupt crony capitalism in Vietnam have been successfully used to discredit those historic victories. But they actually illustrate how huge an achievement those Leninist revolutions were, given the backwardness of those societies.

The English, French and American revolutions were not discredited by British, French and American imperialism. No revolution ends history. There is always a need for another revolution.

Was Rosa Luxemburg right that the party dictatorship in Russia would demobilize the workers and end up a dictatorship against them? Yes, but Lenin was right that the only alternative to Bolshevik dictatorship at the time was not bourgeois democracy, or even the oligarchic kleptocracy that rules today, but semi-feudal Whiteguard reaction. (Even Putin is a vast improvement compared with both Brezhnev and the Tsarist generals that would have replaced Kerensky if the Leninists had not).

Did Leninism lead to Stalinism and Maoism and end up with Brezhnev and Teng Hsiao-ping? Yes, and of course the social democrats are quite correct in pointing out that there is continuity between Lenin and Stalin and Mao. They were indeed on the same side and as the anarchists point out there was also continuity with Marx and Engels who were likewise on the same side. But it was the opposite side to the regimes that have held power in Russia and China for many decades.

Are we still living in the “era of imperialism and proletarian revolution”?

I’m really not sure. That era was only coming into being with the first world war and it has been passing away since the second world war. If we are still in the same era, we certainly lack a good theoretical summary of the phase of that era which we are now in. If we are in a different era there are certainly a lot of historical tasks still uncompleted, including democratic revolution in much of the world and proletarian revolution in all of it and we have not developed any clear idea of where we are or where we are going or even a minimal sketch of the nature of our era.

In working out the theory and tasks of our age we have a great heritage from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao with much to learn from both their sucesses and failures but a very long way to go.

The half century from the “forty-eighters” to the Bolsheviks meant that communists could not just defend and apply the theories of Marx and Engels but had to develop them further to “Marxism-Leninism” as was done under the leadership of Lenin. Lenin died in early 1924, less than 7 years after the revolution he led. His legacy of “Leninism” was most authoritatively described by Stalin in “Foundations of Leninism” very shortly after Lenin’s death. That work is well worth close study today.

I think the central concepts of Leninism are expressed in this quotation:

“The dictatorship of the proletariat,” says Lenin, “is a stubborn struggle-bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative-against the forces and traditions of the old society. The force of habit of millions and tens of millions is a most terrible force. Without an iron party tempered in the struggle, without a party enjoying the confidence of all that is honest in the given class without a party capable of watching and influencing the mood of the masses, it is impossible to conduct such a strategy successfully”

The world has changed a lot since then. But I cannot imagine a a transition from capitalism with bourgeois rule via anything other than a  protracted stubborn struggle for working class rule, as described. Nor can I imagine success in that struggle without a party as described.

Plainly these conditions do not currently exist. “Party building is bullshit!” was the correct, Leninist, response to lemmingists pretending that such conditions existed four decades ago. A different response will be necessary when the times are again a-changing’.

Meanwhile the other main lesson I would draw from Leninism is the central importance of “theory”, as mentioned in Chapter 3 of Stalin’s “Foundations”.

“Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”

Stalin led the Soviet Union, and the world revolution, for some three decades, including victory in the war against fascism. But even a casual reading of “Foundations of Leninism” shows he got a lot wrong. The dangers to the revolution that he described were successfully defeated as Stalin said they would be. But the main danger was, as always, the one not prepared against – the “unknown unknowns”. We now know the enemy was right inside the party, with a social base in the “forces and traditions of the old society” that was indeed a “most terrible force”.

Mao took the struggle much further, and in a far more backward society. He correctly analysed many of Stalin’s errors, again  developing Marxism-Leninism to a new and higher stage.

That too was defeated and the decades of collapse have been a lot longer than I ever expected. Capitalism did remarkably well in continuing to develop the productive forces.

I think we may be heading into another period of turbulent upheaval soon. It would be astonishing if no revolutionary theory suited to the times emerges in such conditions. When it does, it cannot resuscitate the theories of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin or Mao but it will develop them further based on lessons learned.


4 thoughts on “Long Live Leninism!

  1. “Does Lenin’s work “Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism” have much relevance today? No, there have certainly turned out to be a few more higher rungs on the ladder since that was written. Lenin’s claim that the period of the first world war was the final rung before victory of proletarian revolution….”
    OK we can start with agreement Lenin was wrong about imperialism but this is not news it was decades ago that I read about Lenin being factually wrong about imperialism because even in his day capital investments were predominantly between developed nations not between developed nations exporting surplus capital to colonies.
    So why did Lenin get it wrong?
    I think he got it wrong because Marx got it wrong.
    Marx clearly believed in collapse theory and Marxists around Lenin’s time were trying to work out why collapse hadn’t happened. Some came up with the idea that the overproduction of capital was being relocated to the colonies thereby taking capitalism to a higher and last level.
    Now before you deny that Marx believed in collapse theory consider that Bernstein commenced his critique with a refutation of Marx’s collapse theory. If Marx didn’t subscribe to collapse theory then orthodox Marxists could just point to that but they didn’t instead Luxembourg in her rebuttal of Bernstein stated that collapse theory is a “cornerstone” of Marxism and no one contradicted her.
    As far as theory goes Marx was wrong about collapse but prediction is really hard his descriptive stuff about how capitalism works is gold. Lenin got it wrong about Russia sparking a European wide revolution but I think I think that it was worth a shot. Stalin got it wrong about socialism in one country but I guess you will just have to keep polishing that turd.


  2. 1. Lenin was proved right about the revolutionary situation arising from the imperialist war. The centennial was of the actual October revolution, and related revolutoionary wave not some discredited idea of Lenin’s.

    2. He was wrong in believing that capitalism could not last for another hundred years.

    3. It was Kautsky who linked imperialism to capital exports to developing countries. Lenin explicitly rejected this:

    “Kautsky’s definition is as follows:

    “Imperialism is a product of highly developed industrial capitalism. It consists in the striving of every industrial capitalist nation to bring under its control or to annex all large areas of agrarian [Kautsky’s italics] territory, irrespective of what nations inhabit it.” [1]

    This definition is of no use at all because it one-sidedly, i.e., arbitrarily, singles out only the national question (although the latter is extremely important in itself as well as in its relation to imperialism), it arbitrarily and inaccurately connects this question only with industrial capital in the countries which annex other nations, and in an equally arbitrary and inaccurate manner pushes into the forefront the annexation of agrarian regions.

    Imperialism is a striving for annexations—this is what the political part of Kautsky’s definition amounts to. It is correct, but very incomplete, for politically, imperialism is, in general, a striving towards violence and reaction. For the moment, however, we are interested in the economic aspect of the question, which Kautsky himself introduced into his definition. The inaccuracies in Kautsky’s definition are glaring. The characteristic feature of imperialism is not industrial but finance capital. It is not an accident that in France it was precisely the extraordinarily rapid development of finance capital, and the weakening of industrial capital, that from the eighties onwards gave rise to the extreme intensification of annexationist (colonial) policy. The characteristic feature of imperialism is precisely that it strives to annex not only agrarian territories, but even most highly industrialised regions (German appetite for Belgium; French appetite for Lorraine), because (1) the fact that the world is already partitioned obliges those contemplating a redivision to reach out for every kind of territory, and (2) an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several great powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony. (Belgium is particularly important for Germany as a base for operations against Britain; Britain needs Baghdad as a base for operations against Germany, etc.)”


    4. Rosa Luxemburg was a heroic revolutionary. She tried to refute Marx’s explanation of capitalist reproduction and substitute a “collapse theory”. She was refuted by pretty well everybody else in the second international, including Lenin, who described both the promotion of and the cackling about her errors from revisionists this way:

    “Paul Levi now wants to get into the good graces of the bourgeoisie—and, consequently, of its agents, the Second and the Two-and-a-Half Internationals—by republishing precisely those writings of Rosa Luxemburg in which she was wrong. We shall reply to this by quoting two lines from a good old Russian fable[4]: “Eagles may at times fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles.” Rosa Luxemburg was mistaken on the question of the independence of Poland; she was mistaken in 1903 in her appraisal of Menshevism; she was mistaken on the theory of the accumulation of capital; she was mistaken in July 1914, when, together with Plekhanov, Vandervelde, Kautsky and others, she advocated unity between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; she was mistaken in what she wrote in prison in 1918 (she corrected most of these mistakes at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 after she was released). But in spite of her mistakes she was—and remains for us—an eagle. And not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works (the publication of which the German Communists are inordinately delaying, which can only be partly excused by the tremendous losses they are suffering in their severe struggle) will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world. “Since August 4, 1914,[5] German Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse”—this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg’s name famous in the history of the international working class movement. And, of course, in the backyard of the working-class movement, among the dung heaps, hens like Paul Levi, Scheidemann, Kautsky and all that fraternity will cackle over the mistakes committed by the great Communist. To every man his own.”


    Trotskyite sneering at Lenin’s mistakes are of exactly the same character.

    Here’s a refutation of Rosa’s “collapse theory” from a well known “Left” Communist:



  3. Hi Arthur, I wasn’t putting forward an opinion as to whether the collapse theory was right or wrong (I think as do you that it was wrong) What I was arguing was that both Luxembourg and Bernstein were leading Marxist theoreticians of the time and they both saw collapse theory as central to understanding Marxism. In the 1934 article by Pannekoek he states “The idea that capitalism was in a final, its mortal, crisis dominated the first years after the Russian revolution. When the revolutionary workers’ movement in Western Europe abated, the Third International gave up this theory,…” All these sources would indicate that collapse theory was common currency amongst Marxists at least until reality had proven it false.
    I don’t understand your comment that Lenin rejected the idea of capital export to “developing” countries. In Imperialism Lenin devotes a chapter to the export of capital to these “developing” countries. “The need to export capital arises from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has become “overripe” and (owing to the backward state of agriculture and the poverty of the masses) capital cannot find a field for “profitable” investment.”
    I do object as my quotation marks indicate to the idea of developing countries. The best returns on investment in the British empire came from Indian railways and the British conducted a process of industrialization of India.


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