Reading Lenin

Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context, Lars T. Lih, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008.

It is a rare and extraordinary opportunity that one has the chance to enjoy a study of such depth and significance that Lars T. Lih has written. In every science there is a number of subjects and fundamental ideas that poses almost an axiomatic status and surely there is nothing that makes these ideas more adamant than the occasion when otherwise hostile groups of scholars, agree on a certain issue. Challenging such deeply imbedded ideas thus becomes a daunting task, one which requires in equal parts insatiable intellectual curiosity, rigorous analytical skills and last but not least a great deal of self-confidence and courage to stand against the self-evident truths nobody bothers or dares to question anymore. Lih presents all of these qualities and as the tittle of the study already suggests, through meticulous analysis of the various layers of context that surrounded the publishing of “What Is To Be Done” (WITBD), he is able to quite literary rediscover Lenin. Through a kind of historical forensics, Lih shows us that everything we thought we knew about WITDB actually tells us more about the interpreters and their intentions, and almost nothing about Lenin’s own.

The usual story about the WITDB goes along these lines: in this document Lenin for the first time articulates his vision of an extremely centralized party, which is very distrustful about the workers and conspires to achieve absolute power. Such is (supposed) importance of this document that some authors even claim that: “the argument and the flavour of What Is To Be Done? have remained imbedded in the values and beliefs of the Soviet system. They are evident in the pronouncements of Khrushchev as they were in those of Stalin and Lenin”. This is what Lih calls the “textbook interpretation” of WITDB, one that both the academic and activist, otherwise hostile towards one another, tradition of Soviet scholarship represents. Former includes Richard Pipes, Leonard Schapiro and Herbert Marcuse among others, the latter is represented by authors such as Tony Cliff, John Molyneux, Paul Le Blanc and others, deriving mostly from the Trotskyist tradition. Both of these groups share a common understanding of WITDB as fundamentally important, as a certain breakthrough on the field of party organization that had immense influence and they both share the believe that this document reveals a deep mistrust of workers, something Lih characterizes as “worry about workers” thesis.

The only thing that basically separates the academic and activist interpretation are the implications one draws from such beliefs. The academic side takes it as a clear sign of Lenin’s early dictatorial aspirations which ultimately culminated in the “socialism in one country” under the command of Stalin. Activist side admits to allegations of Lenin showing mistrust for the workers, emphasizing the role of intellectual etc. but is quick to assert that Lenin latter on changed his mind. A substantial body of work on Lenin and WITDB of both, socialist as well as conservative provenience than ultimately leaves us with an agonizing dilemma. Either Lenin was consistent all along and there is a clear and linear development that starts with WITDB and ends in a gulag, or Lenin was an incorrigible opportunist who changed his views about socialism in fundamental ways and one is left wondering why is one better than the other. In other words if there are many Lenin’s and some are not his final form, which Lenin should we trust?

Lars T. Lih, an adjunct professor of musicology at McGill University in Montreal and an independent researcher of history of Social Democracy is here to disagree and one by one dismiss all of the above mentioned premises. First of all, is WITDB rightly seen as a ground-breaking political document, an ABC of Bolshevism and therefore justified in its notoriety? A simple but definitive answer is- no. When WITDB was published in 1902, it was a document that in no particular way stood in odds with the broader political space of European Social Democracy. On the contrary, Lenin is at pains in trying to assert his allegiance to the conventional and widely agreed upon understanding of the role and mission of Social Democracy. The highest organizational, political and theoretical embodiment of this model at the time, was Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and one of its leading ideologues was notorious Karl Kautsky, the author of Erfurt program. A lot is known about Kautsky the Renegade, his betrayal of working class interests on the verge of its greatest historical challenge, the I. World War. Lenin, or so the story goes, realized that and categorically dismissed the II. International, Karl Kautsky and everything that they stood for and instead built “a party of new type” and lay fundaments for the III. International- The Comintern.

Again, it is a highly misleading story, as Lih asserts: “… the insistence on seeing a great gulf between Kautsky on the one hand and Lenin (…) on the other has condemned those in the post-war Trotskyist tradition to a deep misunderstanding of their own heroes”. As a matter of fact Lenin was not a passionate pupil of Kautsky only before the outburst of I. World War, but remained as such practically until the end of his (political) life. How can this be? It’s for a fact that Lenin was extensively referring to Kautsky and Erfurtian party model as the ultimate authority of all of the Russian Social Democrats, before the war, what is less known is that he continued to do so after the war has begun and positive references on Kautsky can be found in Lenin’s writing as late as in 1920. Lih has, through a series of articles he published after the study of WITDB, built a strong case that Lenin even later on, referred to: “Kautsky when he was a Marxist”, and maintained him as a positive reference. Before turning Renegade, Kautsky the Marxist then obviously had some very valuable insights that Lenin did not hesitate to admire. Indeed very early on, his proclaimed goal was- organising a party as much like the German SPD as possible under the Russian conditions of autocracy. That is, building the Efurtian party with all its distinctive characteristics.

These are as follows. First of all Erfurt allegiance, i.e. explicit acknowledgement of the three sources of authority: the party, the programme and the theoretical works of Karl Kautsky. Secondly the Merger formula¸that stated Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement. Thirdly, the idea of Good news, Social Democracy’s main task is to spread good news of the workers’ world-historical mission. Fourthly, Party ideal, commitment to build an independent class-based political party. Fifthly, Political freedom, urgent priority of achieving political freedom (overthrowing the Tzar). Sixthly, Popular leadership or the belief that the party has the potential to become a party of the whole people. Seventhly, Hegemony, workers should be the natural leaders in the national struggle for political freedom and lastly, Internationalism, an aspiration to join and be worthy member of the international Social-Democratic movement.

Going through this list, Lih shows us that Lenin was through and through a devoted Erfurtian, one passionately studying and analysing the experience of German Social-Democracy. WITDB is a faithful document of such political devotion and therefore did not cause any particular hustle when it was published. Even later on, Bukharin one of the foremost Bolshevik theoreticians did not include WITDB in the party textbook ABC of Communism. It was only years after the end of II. World War that official soviet historiography started writing about the WITDB as of a document with special, almost messianic status. Western scholarship followed the example as did the above mentioned Trotskyist current. Lih shows how this, by the standards of its own time, completely conventional document, became everybody’s introduction to Lenin’s beliefs and a basic teaching tool for understanding the essence of Bolshevism. However, as Lih so thoroughly shows, this is anything but an introductory text, it is rather one that should frighten the expert. If one bothers to read it, that is.

Lars T. Lih is perhaps above all else a thorough reader, someone who actually bothered to read Lenin on his own grounds. That inevitably produces a much broader understanding of various and complex dimensions that one has to take into account to fully understand the project of WITDB. This entails an understanding of a broad array of figures, newspapers and organizations with whom Lenin polemicized, but are now almost forgotten. Lih provides all this background, this in itself is a major work, but he should be especially commended for providing his own translation of WITDB, as well. As it appears a great deal of original message was already lost in translation. All well and good, one might add but since I am not a specialist, why should I bother and labour through more than 800 pages? What can be done with “What Is to Be Done?”, might be a question one would ask himself. The answer is rather obvious in dismantling the misconceptions about one of the most important periods in the historical development of socialism, Lih is not doing antiquarian work, completely detached from here and now. Rather he is showing how much one can and should learn from the historical examples that were much more advanced than anything contemporary left has to offer. Anyone seriously devoted to struggle for socialism and a fight for a better tomorrow will therefore immensely benefit from this book.

Photo: Lenin playing chess with Bogdanov on his during to Gorky

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