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John Marot: Lenin, Bolshevism, and Social-Democratic political theory

June 11, 2015
Leon Trotsky, V.I. Lenin, Lev Kamenev

Leon Trotsky, V.I. Lenin, Lev Kamenev

The following paper, a criticism of recent studies by Lars Lih, was first published in Historical Materialism, 22:3-4 (2014) and is reposted on John Marot’s request. The abstract and introduction are below; for the full text, see Marot on Lenin and Bolshevism. The first part of Marot’s article takes up Lih’s book, Lenin Rediscovered, available from Haymarket Books. The second and longer part of the paper discusses a major paper by Lih, “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in perspective.”[1] A shorter presentation of this paper is available on this website. Some references to further readings follow the notes.—John Riddell

By John Eric Marot

Abstract: Lars Lih has contributed to our knowledge of Russian Social Democracy lately. However, serious methodological flaws bedevil this advance in knowledge. Lih’s overall approach displays a very static understanding of political ideas in relation to political movements. In the first section, ‘Lenin, the St Petersburg Bolshevik Leadership, and the 1905 Soviet’, I challenge Lih’s position that Lenin never changed his mind about bringing socialist consciousness into the working class ‘from without’.

In the second section, ‘Lenin, “Old Bolshevism” and Permanent Revolution: The Soviets in 1917’, I challenge Lih’s revisionist view that Old Bolshevism’s pre-1917 goal of ‘democratic revolution to the end’ drove Lenin’s partisans to make a working-class, socialist revolution in 1917. On this singular account, Lenin’s April Theses, which called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the transfer of all power to the soviets, was merely a further expression of Old Bolshevik politics, not a break with it, as has almost universally been held.

Introduction: In a landmark contribution, Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context (2006), Lars Lih destroyed the ‘textbook interpretation’ of Lenin’s famous 1902 polemic.* Exponents of the textbook interpretation, some operating in the Marxist ‘activist’ tradition, argued that What Is to Be Done? (hereafter, WITBD?) called for the creation of a special, Leninist party, unlike any other. To those operating in the non-Marxist ‘academic’ tradition, this uniquely Leninist party founded Soviet totalitarianism. For both, Lenin’s ideas and practices were innovatory and largely incompatible with Western European Social-Democratic practice and theory. This interpretation, Lih notes, has ‘served as a distorting mirror for much wider topics – the nature of the split in Russian Social Democracy, the role of the konspiratsiia-underground as a factor in Russian history, the real impact of Bolshevik ideology on the revolution of 1917 and its outcome, to name but three’.[2]

Lih shows once again that WITBD? was a restatement of Russian Social-Democratic orthodoxy. Leon Trotsky had already confirmed this position, a commonplace in the Second International before World War I, [3] and Neil Harding reconfirmed it in academic terms in the late 1970s.[4] Russian Social-Democratic orthodoxy itself was but an expression of ‘Erfurtianism’, the Social-Democratic theory of the working-class movement, elaborated by Karl Kautsky, and espoused by all European Social Democrats. Along the way, Lih demonstrates, in great detail, that Cold War academics welcomed Menshevik criticism of WITBD? because Mensheviks like Trotsky seemed to say that Lenin’s position prefigured or led to Stalinism. Lih shows, instead, that Lenin’s contemporary critics were in fact opportunistic because they were bringing in considerations that had never been brought to anyone’s attention before. He also makes a convincing case that Rosa Luxemburg’s attack on WITBD?, regularly invoked by some on the left to decry party ‘dictatorship’ over the workers’ movement, was an ‘unscrupulous hatchet job’, ‘baseless nonsense’.[5]

However, serious methodological flaws bedevil this advance in knowledge. Lih’s overall approach displays a very static understanding of political ideas in relation to political movements. This prevents him from seeing how new developments in the workers’ movement posed new problems, which called forth different positions from Social Democrats, positions that are incomprehensible simply by reference to or in terms of fundamental premises laid down in the Erfurtian scenario. Indeed, modifications to the Erfurtian scenario itself were not uniformly accepted and were subject to wide-ranging discussions. The great turn-of-the-century international debate over Bernstein’s revisionism comes immediately to mind. Lenin contributed to this debate in WITBD? A few years later, controversy erupted over what lessons Social Democrats everywhere should learn from the 1905 Revolution in Russia, as well as from the explosion of intense labour conflict in Germany the same year. Luxemburg analysed the ‘new epoch in the development of the labour movement’ in The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906), a seminal work. She called into question the Erfurtian vision of a smooth, uninterrupted, evolutionary development of the power of the workers’ movement right up to the very eve of capitalism’s revolutionary overthrow.[6] Events in Russia in particular, she argued, had revealed the labour movement’s discontinuous, episodically revolutionary character, mandating dynamic changes in the SPD’s hitherto more-or-less permanently defensive Ermattungstrategie [strategy of attrition]. She insisted that the party encourage the explosion of working-class activity by providing the workers’ movement with political leadership oriented toward a strategy of confrontation instead of accommodation with the employers and the state, opening the way for victory.

Still, the party model and political strategy of German Social Democracy seemed to work tolerably well – until 1914. That year, the Second International collapsed in infamy. With the exception of Russian Social Democracy, all other parties of the major warring countries rushed to defend ‘their’ governments’ imperialist foreign policy. The German Social-Democratic Party became dead for purposes of socialist revolution – ‘a stinking corpse’ as Luxemburg put it – but very much alive and kicking for fighting against it. At this moment of supreme crisis, International Social Democracy turned out to be not the ‘merger of socialism and the workers’ movement’ as Kautsky had repeatedly held for over a quarter of a century, but the merger of ‘loyalty to Marxism in words’ and ‘subordination’ to counterrevolutionary, bourgeois politics ‘in deed’.[7] Only now would Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and other revolutionaries finally recognise the need to break with Social Democracy and form new, communist, parties pursuing new, communist politics.

Most needed for a fuller and more supple understanding of this mottled history is an emphasis on practical and theoretical ruptures with, or discontinuities within the Erfurtian scenario – not in the sense of reinventing the wheel, but in the sense of revolutionary thought reflecting in medias res the discontinuous character of the workers’ movement and drawing certain novel political conclusions from this fact.

Unfortunately, Lih deemphasises discontinuities and disagreements. Instead, his whole approach stresses overarching continuities, consensus over transient disputes, in Social-Democratic practice and theory throughout the pre-1914 period. Indeed, he even thinks the continuity extends beyond 1914, bridging the great divide in the workers’ movement generated by World War I and the October Revolution. The new, Communist parties, he says, were simply ‘more militant, less “careerist”’ versions of the old Social-Democratic parties. Both would ‘confront the same essential challenge and dilemma: being a revolutionary party in a non-revolutionary situation’.[8]

That is a colossal misjudgement. In the quasi-revolutionary situation of 1918–19 the German Social-Democratic Party was not ‘less revolutionary’, ‘less militant’, ‘more careerist’ than its communist competitors, it was an openly counter-revolutionary party that worked furiously to save capitalism and the capitalist state. Its leaders acted decisively and without pity or remorse to destroy the revolutionary left, abetting the brutal murder of Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and countless other radical socialists. Second International leaders displayed none of the ‘indecisiveness’, ‘fatalism’, ‘passivity’ and ‘mechanistic determinism’ so often attributed to them by so many on the left (Lih excepted).

Lih’s assumption of continuity and essential unity within Social Democracy prevents him from asking why, in the near-revolutionary situation of 1919, German Social Democracy, under the leadership of Noske and Ebert, worked overtime to destroy an incipient German October – whereas in 1917 Lenin and the Bolsheviks took advantage of a revolutionary situation to make the October Revolution. Perhaps Lih one day will directly address this issue.[9] Until then, of the many issues Lih has raised, I will address two – and only two – that highlight disabling weaknesses in Lih’s static approach. I have accordingly divided my essay into sections.

In the first section, I offer a detailed summary and narrative of Lenin, the St Petersburg Bolshevik Leadership and the 1905 Soviet and then step back to interpret its historical significance. Historians have told the story before, and the issue is a familiar one:[10] did the 1905 Revolution cause Lenin to distance himself from, or make any changes to any of the formulations in WITBD? about bringing socialist consciousness into the working class ‘from without’? I challenge Lih’s position that Lenin maintained continuity of views on this matter.

In the second section, I take up ‘Lenin, “Old Bolshevism” and Permanent Revolution: The Soviets in 1917’. I again challenge Lih’s continuity thesis, his revisionist view that Old Bolshevism’s pre-1917 goal of ‘democratic revolution to the end’ drove Lenin’s partisans make a working-class, socialist revolution in 1917. On this most singular account, Lenin’s April Theses, which called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the transfer of all power to the soviets, was merely a further expression of Old Bolshevik politics, not a break with it, as has almost universally been held.

Notes

* Keimyung University awarded a Bisa Research Grant to support this work. I wish to thank Robert Brenner for helping me to define the problematic.

[1]. Lars Lih 2011b, ‘The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context’, Russian History, 38: 199–242.

[2]. Lih 2010, ‘Lenin Disputed,’ Historical Materialism, 18, 3, p. 172.

[3]. ‘Lenin considered Kautsky as his teacher and stressed this everywhere he could. In Lenin’s work of that period and for a number of years following, one does not find even a trace of criticism in principle directed against the Bebel-Kautsky tendency. Instead one finds a series of declarations to the effect that Bolshevism is not some sort of an independent tendency but is only a translation into the language of Russian conditions of the tendency of Bebel-Kautsky’ (Trotsky 1932, ‘Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg’ at http://www.marxists.org).

[4]. Harding, Neil 1977, Lenin’s Political Thought, London, Macmillan Press.

[5]. Lih 2006, pp. 526, 529.

[6]. Luxemburg 1971, The Mass Strike, New York: Harper Torchbooks, p. 11.

[7]. Lenin 1962, ‘Socialism and War,’ in Collected Works, 21, p. 312.

[8]. Lih 2012, “Bolshevism and Revolutionary Social Democracy,’ at weeklyworker.co.uk.

[9]. See, e.g., Brenner 1985, ‘The Paradox of Social Democracy,’ in The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook for a probing study of contemporary Social Democracies in the West. The analysis holds good for Social Democracy, as it has existed for well over a century. For a comparative discussion, contrasting Russia and the West, see Marot 2013a, The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect, pp. 144–54.

[10]. See e.g. Cliff, Tony 1975, Lenin 1: Building the Party, pp. 160–4, 176, and Liebman, Marcel 1970, The Russian Revolution.


John Eric Marot is the author of The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History (Haymarket Books: 2013), 273 pp. He teaches history at Keimyung University in Korea and is a supporter of Solidarity in the U.S.

For more on the issues raised by Marot regarding Bolshevik policy in 1917, see posts by Lars Lih (“Fully Armed”), Jim Creegan (“Lenin Insisted on Overthrow”) and Lih (“A Mighty People’s Revolution“). A critical symposium on Lenin Rediscovered, with contributions by Paul Blackledge, R.G. Suny, Robert Mayer, Chris Harman, Alan Shandro, Paul Le Blanc, and Lih, can be found in Historical Materialism, 13:3 (2010), pp. 25-174.

Marot’s paper refers on p. 168 to the recently deceased historian Robert C. Tucker. Click here for another assessment of Tucker’s work.–JR

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