Platypus Review 39
Platypus Review 39
Though he knew everything there was to know at that time about Marx and Engels, Lenin did not simply excavate Marxist theory from beneath layers of Western European social democracy and anarchism. He applied it in his own way to Russian circumstances by tying theory and revolutionary practice together. In the process he contributed many original ideas to the theoretical reconstruction of the revolutionary actions and the movement as a whole in confronting reformist social democratic tendencies.
Lenin’s Marxism derives from different directions, each representing in its time an opportunity for changing society in a revolutionary way. These included the French Enlightenment and revolutionary Jacobinism as the inheritance of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, without which it would not be possible to transcend traditional society. Then there was the Paris Commune as the apex of French socialism. Among his Russian roots we find[Nikolai] Chernyshevsky and the Westerners ([Aleksandr] Herzen,[Vissarion] Belinsky, and others), reinforcing and complementing one another, as well as the revolutionary Narodniks, the mainstay of the Russian Jacobin tradition. All these Lenin synthesized in the name of Marx and Engels, absorbing a lot, particularly the interpretation of philosophical materialism, from the earlier generation of Russian Marxists, chiefly [Georgii] Plekhanov. He finally he absorbed the ideology and practice of modern workers movement organization from German social democracy, chiefly[Karl] Kautsky.
Lenin’s notion of a centralized, vanguard, and underground party (“the party of professional revolutionaries”) is usually ascribed to its Russian origins and, indeed, this has some factual basis. The historical experience of building an underground party was important to Lenin’s Marxism. His “theory of party” was a product of this. What remains important is Lenin’s conception of the “workers’ party” as a social counter-power, a political and cultural leader of a network of civil society organizations, which never exclusively signified the party of manual laborers. In this context, the party becomes a network promoting understanding and articulation of interests, the “organizational form of proletarian class consciousness,” as Lukács put it. This party was the demiurge of a broad, horizontally and vertically segmented social resistance, the “moving force of which is the proletariat.” In Lenin’s concept and practice the cadre of the “counter-society” is the underground and centralized party. Thus, in Lenin’s theory the historical role of the party (social democratic, later communist) was not simply to “import class consciousness into the proletariat from the outside” (this was already understood by Kautsky, when Lenin ”inherited” the idea), but rather that the party, as part of the social class, indeed “its most revolutionary part,” becomes an independent actor with a vested interest in the conscious, revolutionary transformation of society. He raised the issue already in April 1917 when he argued that the existence of the party is justified only as long as the class of wage-earners has not created the economic and political conditions for its own liquidation. He had no ready-made theory to the effect that the party should become the embodiment of the missing components of socialism, whether in organization, in theory, or in sociology. One cause and consequence of the one-party system that eventually emerged in the U.S.S.R. was that the party itself took on the functions of the proletariat.
Lenin started off from the contemporary analysis of capitalism. His point of departure was his understanding of the development of capitalism in Russia toward the end of the 19th century as both a general and a specific manifestation of capitalism. Even before 1905, Lenin recognized the integration of Russia in the world system as a process, which today we might describe as “semiperipheral integration,” whereby pre-capitalist forms were preserved in accordance with capital’s own interests. Capitalism thereby subordinated pre-capitalist forms within its own processes. Lenin was able to tie the mixing of pre-capitalist and capitalist forms to the concept of internal colonialism under the Tsarist regime. He also identified the existence of a center-periphery relation inside Russia as a form of internal colonialism. He was aware not only of the tripartite structural hierarchy that[Immanuel] Wallerstein specifies as means of explaining the uneven relations of capitalism, but also of a hierarchy within regions and nation-states, such that the development of the core is not understood simply as the result of surplus extraction from the periphery.
The Great War signaled the arrival of a new period, one that promised the fulfillment of the conditions for the revolution. At the same time, a turn took place in Lenin’s revolutionary tactics inspired by his studies of Hegel in consequence of which he came to an integrated conception of theory, politics, and organization. From the beginning of the war his revolutionary strategy was based on the premise that there could be no compromise with any pro-war attitude or with pacifist half-solution. Lenin realized that the war had engendered a potentially revolutionary situation within Russia (and in Europe). He addressed the masses that had no interest in pursuing the war, because he counted on the evolution of the subjective conditions of a revolutionary situation. Hence, he broke with the centrists and called for a new International. Authors who argue that Lenin’s Marxism elicited a radical reinterpretation of subjectivism, mainly as a result of his reading of Hegel, are correct. Lenin became aware of the historical circumstances that caused the awakening of the consciousness of the individual and of the masses. He understood that these could provide a “foundation” for revolutionary politics. That is, the objective relations of forces could be reconfigured, since even ten may suffice to confront the war, and under the new set of circumstances, millions could join them. Lenin knew this by the time recruits were marching to the front, singing in high spirits. In contrast to the elitist and speculative “mass philosophies” and the utopian, “prophetic” socialists, Lenin, on the basis of his study of Hegel and Marx, emphasized the ideas and practices of revolutionary change. It was partly this challenge that motivated his philosophical studies and debates, as well as the notion that the revisionism of official social democracy was striving to “save” the collapsed world order. Their empiricism or neo-Kantian “messages” sought to lull workers with the promise of the pacification of the capitalist order.
If only because of the limits imposed by historical circumstance and individual mortality, Lenin was able to provide only a very limited Marxist answer to the issue of having to resort to a dictatorship even against its own social base, for the sake of preserving Soviet power. On the one hand, he tried to compensate for political oppression by proclaiming in opposition to the “remaining” and ever stronger state power that “the working class must defend itself against its own state.” He left unexplained how it could do so with the support of that very state. In other words, the workers must confront the state, yet defend the state and all its institutions at the same time. There was no dialectical solution to such a contradiction. Moreover, there was another contradiction without resolution: Lenin reserved to the party and the state the capacity for extra-economic compulsion, which was proportional to the lack of conditions for realizing socialism. Even Peter the Great had to resort “to barbarian methods to sweep away the barbarian conditions.” The earlier theory and practice of social self-defense in Lenin’s ideas not only grew faint, but was eventually completely displaced by the Stalinist turn, which later obviously contributed to the fall of state socialism. (The “ideologizing” of the unplanned developments of “state socialism” is completely absent from Lenin’s ideas, and this absence was one of the theoretical sources in the lively debate engaged in by Trotsky and his comrades — joined later by others, including Jean-Paul Sartre — challenging the coherence and meaning of the Stalinist thesis of “socialism in one country”).
Translated from Hungarian by Mario Fenyo and Balint Bethlenfalvy.
 Georg Lukács, “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organization” in History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 305.
 Georg Lukács, A társadalmi lét ontológiájáról [The ontology of social being] Vol. 3, Prolegomena (London: Magveto könyvkiado, 1976), 270.
 Ibid., 279.
 Nikoilai Ustrialov, Nacional-Bolshevizm (Moscow: Algoritm, 2003), 372-76.
 Slavoj Žižek, 13 opitov o Lenine (Moscow: Izdatelstvo Ad marginem, 2003), 252-53.