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How Lenin uses the term ‘tactics’

July 18, 2017

A terminological issue with political implications

By Mario C. Plaza. Although Lenin is considered one of the main strategists of the Russian Revolution, the term “strategy” is hardly used is his works. The word does appear sometimes in his writings of the 1920s, but not always in a political sense; sometimes he’s talking about military movements.

Moreover, we usually read many comments or works about him talking about “tactics and strategy” as a fixed term. And so, in the index volumes of Lenin’s works, we find a listing for “Tactics and Strategy of Bolshevism.”

Instead of strategy, one of the key concepts in his thought is “tactics.” What exactly did he mean by this concept? I am writing these notes in search of an answer to this concept, and I ask for help from anyone who has thoughts about this and wants to contribute. I know this is a technical question, but addressing it can help us read Lenin’s texts more thoroughly as we take part in today’s emancipatory politics.

For reasons of space, and because this is not an academic or formal paper, I won’t make any specific references to Lenin’s texts.

There is an apparent paradox here: Lenin, the strategist, almost always talks about tactics. This may well be resolved if we recall that Lenin was an orthodox Social-Democrat for the most of his life. In that political tradition, a Social-Democratic political force must achieve clarity on three crucial questions: program, tactics, and organization.

I don’t read German, so I don’t know exactly how the German Social-Democrats used the term “Taktik.” But we can certainly say that the programatic issues —i.e., the whole set of political and economic objectives— are excluded from the term “tactics” in Lenin’s works.

Therefore the emancipatory objetives can definitely be considered strategic issues. It is noticeable in this sense, how the social-democratic tradition distinguished two levels in its emancipatory aims: the minimum and the maximum program. A “minimum program” or the immediate goals of a socialist force should be feasible and coherent with a given whole epoch of socio-economic and political development.

In the case of Russian socialists, the immediate goal was an advanced democratic republic, founded in the course of a revolutionary process that should also trigger a socialist revolution in Western Europe (especially in Germany), which in turn should help the democratic Russia to achieve socialism. Both are just examples of connecting various emancipatory (strategic) goals at various levels.

But, while this may be true, what is the specific use of “tactics” in Lenin? I think that he uses it in a rather broad or generic sense. Nonetheless I think that its meaning can be traced two levels:

  1. When he talks about “the worker-peasant alliance for carrying out the democratic revolution to the end, in spite or neutralizing the liberals” he uses at least three terms: “fundamental principle of the Bolshevik tactics,” “line of tactics,” but also simply “tactics.” He even calls Bolshevism as a “tactical tendency” of Russian Social-Democracy. But actually that’s what one might call strategy.We normally accept today that a strategy is proposed after an analysis of a long period of development and its main socio-economic and political tendencies. Strategy also focuses on the fundamental social classes and the “immediate” emancipatory objectives achievable within these conditions, — and ultimately the “mediated” ones, socialism and communism . But many times in Lenin’s works all that falls under the term “tactics”.
  2. Within those long periods, there are also concrete phases of struggle. Lenin also uses the term “tactics” with regard to the set of actions or course of action that should be followed in a peculiar and specific phase – that is, the set of actions that should solve specific tactical tasks, thus leading to tasks on a higher level of struggle. For example, during the revolutionary crisis of 1905, organizing the armed insurrection, entering an hypothetical provisional government, boycotting the Duma, etc. And later, in the counter-revolutionary phase, participating in the Third Duma, maintaining the underground party apparatus, and so on.

My provisional conclusion is therefore that Lenin normally uses the term “tactics” (not strategy) in a broad sense that includes what we now normally call strategy (political objectives and social classes). Actually, Trotsky sometimes calls this the “strategic line” in one of his writings on Spain. And it also includes tactics as to the set of actions for a specific phase of struggle.

Nevertheless, I don’t intend to close the discussion and I hope that other people (more qualified than myself) will  contribute.

With thanks to Mario C. Plaza for this contribution. Mario is a socialist activist based in Spain. Comments may be submitted at the bottom of this text.  — JR

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From → Marxism, Theory

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