As we celebrate 150 years since the birth of the Russian revolutionary leader, Socialist Review outlines his core beliefs, and defends his legacy from the liberal critics and the right wing.
It is still usual in certain circles to treat Lenin as the father of Stalinism. This is as true of the libertarian left as of the liberal right. Yet those who met Lenin in the early years of revolutionary Russia paint a completely different picture of the Bolshevik leader.
One of them was them was the French syndicalist Alfred Rosmer. Contact with Lenin and Lenin’s ideas converted him to Bolshevik ideas, which he adhered to for the rest of his life, although he denounced Stalinism from 1924 onwards and came to believe that Russia was state capitalist.
This account of Lenin is from his Lenin’s Moscow. “I was called to the Kremlin by Lenin. He was anxious to make direct contact with the delegates, to get to know them personally, and to ask them questions. As soon as they arrived he was preparing the interview.
“One of the things that struck me most at this first meeting was the relaxed atmosphere that was established form the first words of the conversation, and which was kept up throughout it. And also his simplicity, the way he could say to me, whom he hardly knew, “I must have written something stupid.”
The Executive Committee of the Communist International had sent out an appeal: “To all communists, to all revolutionaries!”, inviting them to send delegates to the Second Congress, for which the date
and place had boldly been fixed — 15 July in Moscow. But for these delegates the blockade still existed and every frontier was a serious obstacle.
There was something intoxicating about the atmosphere of Moscow in that month of June 1920; the quiver of the armed revolution could still be felt. Among the delegates who had come from every country and every political tendency, some already knew each other, but the majority were meeting for the first time. A true spirit of comradeship was born spontaneously among them. The discussions were heated, for there was no shortage of points of disagreement, but what overrode everything was an unshakeable attachment to the Revolution and to the new-born communist movement.
From his vantage point in the Kremlin, Lenin followed the preliminary work for the Congress attentively. For the first time since the Revolution, he had the opportunity to make contact with communists from Europe, America and Asia. So he hastened to question them; as soon as you arrived you were summoned to his office in the Kremlin.
On the way to his quarters in the Kremlin, you wondered what sort of a man you were going to meet. His works, apart from the most recent ones, we knew only slightly, or not at all, and we had only rather vague ideas about the passionate struggles which in the past had brought him into conflict with the various tendencies of Russian social democracy.
His writings showed him to be a revolutionary of a new type: a surprising mixture of “dogmatism” (it would be better to say unshakeable attachment to certain fundamental principles) and of extreme realism.
He gave great importance to tactics, to “manoeuvring” (a typically Leninist expression) in the battle against the bourgeoisie. You would prepare questions and replies, and then, all at once, you found yourself in the middle of a cordial and familiar conversation with a man you seemed to have known for a long time, though it was the first time you had seen him.
This simplicity and easy way of welcoming people could hardly fail to make a deep impression on the delegates, and you could be sure that when they returned they would begin and end the story of their visit by mentioning this impression.
He did not claim to know everything, yet he knew a lot, and had a rare grasp of the labour movement in the West. This allowed him to follow events going on there and to assess them at their true value, to give them their precise meaning. But just because he knew a lot he was able to fill out his knowledge when the opportunity arose, and also, an unusual thing in a “leader”, to recognise that he had quite simply been wrong.
It is well known that, when necessary, he could be hard and pitiless, even with his closest associates, when questions were in his view decisive for the future of the revolution. In such cases he did not hesitate to make the most severe judgements and to defend the most brutal decisions. But first of all he would explain patiently; he wanted to convince. In 1920, his authority was immense. Events had shown that in the gravest circumstances he had seen aright. He appeared in the eyes of all as the surest guide of the revolution, but he was still the same man, very simple, cordial, and ready to explain in order to convince you.
Some copies of a book by Lenin called State and Revolution had arrived in France early in 1919. It was an extraordinary book and it had a strange destiny. Lenin, a Marxist, was treated as an outcast by the theoreticians of the socialist parties which claimed to be Marxist. “It isn’t Marxism,” they shrieked, “it’s a mixture of anarchism and Blanquism.”
On the other hand, for revolutionaries situated outside the mainstream of orthodox Marxism, for the syndicalists and anarchists, this Blanquism was a pleasant revelation. They had never heard such language from the Marxists they knew. They read and reread this interpretation of Marx, which was quite unfamiliar to them.
It was precisely the revolutionary nature of Marxism which was to be found in State and Revolution: texts from Marx and Engels, and commentaries by Lenin. And for him too, in a sense, these texts had been a discovery. He remarked: “All this was written less than half a century ago, and now one has to engage in excavations, as it were, in order to bring undistorted Marxism to the knowledge of the masses.”
Lenin comments: “The proletariat needs the state – this is repeated by all the opportunists, who assure us that this is what Marx taught. But they ‘forget’ to add that, according to Marx, the proletariat needs only a state that is withering away, i.e. a state so constituted that it begins to wither away immediately, and cannot but wither away.
“‘Breaking of the state power’, which was a ‘parasitic excrescence’; its ‘amputation’, its ‘smashing’; the ‘now superseded state power’ – these are the expressions Marx used in regard to the state when appraising and analysing the experience of the Commune.’”
And finally “the proletariat needs the state only temporarily. We do not at all disagree with the anarchists on the question of abolition of the state as the aim.”
So, for Lenin the socialist revolution was no longer a faraway objective, a vague ideal to be achieved piecemeal, within the strictest observance of bourgeois legality. It was a concrete problem, the problem of the present day, which the war had posed and which the working class was going to solve. These texts, in which they could find a language akin to their own, a conception of socialism which resembled their own, particularly pleased revolutionaries from the anarchist and syndicalist traditions.