Dismissed and derided for decades, socialism is back.
From Jeremy Corbyn to Bernie Sanders, the forces fuelling its comeback are associated with movements against austerity, racism and war. But their main focus for pushing through social change is still parliamentary reform.
So if reformist socialists who focus on parliament are making headway, why should the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s ideas matter today? John Molyneux’s Lenin for Today argues that “Lenin is relevant because the Russian Revolution is relevant”.
Nineteen seventeen showed that working class people not only have the power to win reforms from the ruling class, but run society without it altogether. With capitalism driving the planet towards catastrophe, uprooting our whole rotten society is crucial.
Lenin’s Bolsheviks were just one among many, larger European socialist parties, but they were the only one to see a successful socialist revolution. Understanding Lenin’s ideas is crucial to understudying why this was.
For those new to socialist politics, Lenin isn’t always the easiest to get to grips with.
Everything Lenin wrote was aimed at trying to win a particular argument about how to take the movement forward. When the political situation changed, so could his views on what revolutionaries should argue.
Without knowing the political context, it’s easy to accept the bougie bunkum about him being a power-hungry opportunist. Molyneux’s book helps explain the context for a wide range of Lenin’s writings.
Two of the most useful arguments that Molyneux deals with are about the working class and imperialism.
He takes on the dominant view that “Lenin’s relationship with the mass of working class people was elitist and manipulative”. Critics latch on to Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What is to be done? where he argued that “class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from outside”.
This wasn’t Lenin arguing that stupid workers had to be told what to do by a revolutionary socialist party. As Molyneux explains, Lenin’s aim was to “combat the trend in the Russian socialist movement known as ‘economism’.”
This group saw workers’ “economic struggles”, such as for higher wages, gradually building up into a fight for socialism. For Lenin revolutionaries had to be “tribunes of the oppressed” and raise political slogans against the Tsarist dictatorship.
During the 1905 Revolution, workers set up the first workers’ council (“soviet”) in St Petersburg. Seeing workers’ ideas radicalising Lenin shifted his position sharply, arguing that “the working class is instinctively, spontaneously social democratic”.
This context is crucial to understanding Lenin’s broader argument. While the revolutionary Bolshevik party was to give socialist leadership within the working class, it was also part of the working class.
Similarly, Molyneux rightly does not treat Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism as scripture. While much of its economic analysis isn’t right, Lenin’s insights into imperialism as a global system of competing capitalist states remains useful.
Again Molyneux brings out the political context and significance. Imperialism was part of waging an argument against Europe’s socialist parties that had abandoned their internationalist politics and supported the First World War.
But the book is weaker when dealing with some specific problems and details around Lenin’s theory.
Lenin’s Imperialism was a powerful rejoinder to the German Marxist Karl Kautsky’s theory of “ultra imperialism”. Kautsky argued that the growing international links between capitalist firms made war less likely.
This was rubbished by Lenin’s great insight about “uneven development”. Because capitalism doesn’t develop evenly across the world — it’s not a system of equal capitalist states — conflict is built into the system.
Nonetheless, Kautsky has been taken up by writers such as Tariq Ali who point to how the US managed to unite Western capitalist states under its leadership. This underplays both tensions between the US and Germany and rivalry with growing powers such as China.
Molyneux writes that “we cannot say that history has delivered a conclusive verdict on this question” because “there hasn’t been another world war”. “But the balance of evidence strongly favours the Leninist as opposed to the ultra-imperialist side,” he writes.
Of course, Molyneux’s book is not focused on Marxist debates about imperialism, but it feels like this is shying away from delivering a polemical blow. The modern-day Kautskyites deserve much shorter shrift.
Such differences aside, Molyneux’s book is an accessible starting point for those who want to understand Lenin’s ideas and their importance in fighting to change the world.