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Reconstructing Lenin reviewed by Science & Society

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Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography
552 pp, $34 pbk, ISBN 9781583674499
By Tamás Krausz

Reviewed by Tom Mayer in Science & Society, pp. 603-611, vol. 81, no. 4, October 2017

Vladimir Lenin was the pivotal figure of the 20th century. His life and work dramatically pose the central dilemma of that century (and of our own): Should humanity progress by reforming bourgeois society along liberal social democratic lines, or should it move forward by overthrowing capitalism and establishing an entirely different social and economic system? Lenin’s life also suggests that social revolution remains a practical possibility even when historical circumstances seemingly render it unlikely.

Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography

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We are fortunate to have a penetrating new intellectual biography of Lenin by Tamás Krausz, a prolific Hungarian Marxist professor of Russian history. This book, which recently won the coveted Deutscher Memorial Prize, is characterized by deep scholarship, including thorough familiarity with all of Lenin’s known writings and the context in which they were written, plus detailed knowledge of the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent Soviet history. Professor Krausz says that his purpose in writing the book is to reconstruct and contextualize Lenin’s ideas and theoretical views. He clearly admires Lenin, but maintains a critical perspective on Lenin’s viewpoints and actions.

A secondary purpose of Reconstructing Lenin is to rescue the founder of the Soviet state from the clutches of anti-socialist authors like Richard Pipes and Robert Service, who present him as an inveterate, but theoretically sterile, seeker of personal power who led Russia into a barbaric and unnecessary historical cul de sac. Krausz, by contrast, emphasizes Lenin’s selfless dedication to proletarian revolution and his parallel commitment to a constantly evolving Marxist theory. He carefully depicts the creative interaction between Lenin’s choice of political tactics and his efforts to apply and develop Marxist theory. Indeed, Krausz considers the comprehensive integration of theory and practice as the most characteristic feature of Lenin’s intellectual approach.

According to Krausz, the objective interest of the working class was always Lenin’s guiding principle. From this he deduced the necessity of socialism and the consequent necessity of proletarian revolution in order to achieve it. Prior to 1917, Lenin’s politics concentrated on how to foment proletarian revolution in Russia. After the October Revolution his politics centered on how to maintain working-class power, which he usually referred to as the dictatorship of the proletariat. The dialectical approach favored by Lenin emphasized the relentlessly changing nature of reality and the critical importance of adjusting tactics to address this ever-shifting political context. For example, Lenin’s concept of a revolutionary party composed of professional revolutionaries willing to engage in illegal action was designed for the Russian context and was not a universal prescription for working-class organization. This organizational structure had a two-fold purpose specific to Russian conditions: a) enabling the party to carry out revolutionary tactics under conditions of autocratic repression; and b) mobilizing a relatively small and culturally backward working class after a revolutionary seizure of power.

The first chapter of the book deals with Lenin’s family and personality. The most striking thing about the family is that all the surviving siblings became revolutionaries and remained steadfastly devoted to each other. Subsequent chapters concern Lenin’s thinking about Russian capitalism, revolutionary organization, nationalism and World War I, the revolutionary state, dictatorship of the proletariat, world revolution, and the possibility of socialism. In each of these areas, Krausz shows how Lenin’s positions emerged from the interplay between pondering particular events, theoretical excavation, and disputation with both political allies and foes. Lenin was acutely sensitive to how particular events (like the 1905 Revolution or World War I) could transform the prospects for revolution. This sensitivity inspired remarkable tactical flexibility, which sometimes came across as unprincipled opportunism, but was firmly grounded in a constantly evolving Marxist analysis.

Lenin’s argument for proletarian revolution in Russia provides an excellent example of his tactical flexibility and theoretical agility. The Mensheviks, basing themselves largely on the first volume of Capital, claimed that Russia could have a bourgeois but not a proletarian revolution. Lenin asserted that the nation–state framework Mensheviks used to analyze the political situation in Russia was inappropriate. The dynamic principles formulated by Marx were still operative, but capitalism in the age of imperialism had become a world system whose contradictions impacted the entire globe. Capitalism considered as a world system was ripe and overripe for proletarian revolution. The alternative to revolution, said Lenin (and Rosa Luxemburg), was barbarism as evidenced by the hideous bloodletting of the World War.

In a world system primed for anti-capitalist revolution, the initial insurrection would occur in the system’s weakest link, which was in fact the Tsarist Empire. Moreover, Lenin argued, there were strong reasons why a conventional bourgeois revolution could not occur in Russia. As the 1905 Revolution demonstrated, the Russian bourgeoisie relied heavily upon both the Tsarist autocracy and foreign capital. It was terrified of rebellious masses. Such a class would not lead or even endorse a democratic revolution against the autocracy.

The revolution with which Russia was pregnant must be spearheaded by the urban working class in alliance with poor peasants and soldiers (mostly peasants in uniform). These insurgent masses would not rest content with change limited to bourgeois democratic reforms. Hence a Russian revolution must quickly become a proletarian insurrection with socialist objectives. This would be the spark igniting a global, or at least European, socialist revolution. And European revolution would enable backward Russia to realize its socialist aspirations. Lenin’s bold theoretical analysis and the political tactics implied by it are why Antonio Gramsci described the October Revolution as “the revolution against Karl Marx’s Capital.”

World War I precipitated a sea change in Lenin’s political thinking. It marked, he claimed, the collapse of relatively peaceful capitalist accumulation and the onset of sustained warfare, economic crisis, and strident class conflict. The war created unmistakable revolutionary opportunities in Russia and elsewhere, and could sound the death knell of the entire global capitalist system. The war revealed that the parties of the Second International were hopelessly riddled with nationalism and entirely lost to the cause of proletarian revolution. A new truly revolutionary international was imperative. The war also transformed Lenin from an obscure Russian Marxist into a key leader of the European antiwar movement and an eminent tribune of world revolution.

Krausz contrasts Lenin’s conceptions of proletarian revolution before and after October 1917. His famous pamphlet The State and Revolution, written in August–September 1917, envisions a rapid decline in state coercion and a correspondingly rapid growth in working-class self-government. The process of revolution, accordingly, involves little violence and approaches a virtually anarchist ideal of a stateless society. This is the implicit meaning of the slogan “all power to the Soviets.” However, Krausz points out that The State and Revolution relies upon abstract formulations and lacks concrete detail about how such a profound but relatively painless transformation could actually happen.

Lenin’s understanding of proletarian revolution shifted drastically after the Bolshevik seizure of power. Now the nature of proletarian revolution seemed heavily dependent upon the particular circumstances under which it occurs. The circumstances of the October Revolution were unfavorable, to say the least. They included a vast numerical preponderance of peasants over workers, international political isolation, a devastated economy, massive foreign intervention, savage counter-revolution, and widespread famine. Under these appalling conditions, proletarian revolution could only be a robust dictatorship exercised by what Lenin considered the organizational embodiment of working-class interests: the Communist Party. The real alternative to this was bloody annihilation of the working-class revolution. For the remainder of his life Lenin worked doggedly to maintain Bolshevik power for three main reasons: 1) to preserve the power of the soviets; 2) to instigate socialist and/or anti-imperialist revolution elsewhere; and 3) to explore the possibilities of building socialism in Russia.

Krausz discusses Lenin’s January 1918 decision to close the elected Constituent Assembly at some length. This apparent violation of democratic principle flowed jointly from Lenin’s general critique of bourgeois democracy as a fraud that disempowers all subaltern social classes, and his sense that the composition of the Assembly was discordant with the class alliance that made the October Revolution. Lenin’s critique of bourgeois democracy as a road to working-class power is largely validated by subsequent world history. However, his denigration of the civil libertarian components of bourgeois democracy has harmed revolutionary socialist movements over the past century. When Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917, he characterized it as “the freest country in the world” referring largely to freedom of speech. This could hardly be said about post-October Russia. After October Lenin’s ideas about building socialism went through three distinct phases. The first phase, which might be called “state capitalism I,” envisaged a mixed economy in which capitalist and socialist sectors competed peacefully under the general political aegis of the soviets. A decisive advance towards socialism would happen when proletarian revolution broke out in Germany and/or other advanced European countries. By the summer of 1918, the escalating civil war and the specter of mass famine brought this phase in Lenin’s strategies for building socialism to an abrupt halt.

The second phase in Lenin’s thinking corresponded to the period of War Communism. This interlude featured suppression of both money and markets, confiscation of peasant grain at fixed prices, bureaucratic administration of the economy, and a compulsory egalitarianism. For several years Lenin harbored the ill-founded hope that these ad hoc desperation measures (which included the Cheka’s “red terror”) might evolve into a genuine socialism. A flood of opposition among peasants and soldiers culminating in the Kronstadt sailors’ rebellion (February–March 1918) eventually disabused him of this notion.

Lenin’s final set of ideas about building socialism coincided roughly with the New Economic Policy (NEP) promulgated in March 1921. NEP involved reintroducing significant elements of capitalism partially restrained by Bolshevik control of the state. Lenin now conceived creating socialism in Russia as a long-term project. The immediate task was not building socialism, but producing the preconditions for it within the political space available under NEP state capitalism. This involved two essential projects: 1) raising retrograde Russian culture to the level of bourgeoisie culture in advanced capitalist countries; and 2) encouraging cooperative economic enterprises. Towards the end of his life Lenin conceptualized socialism as a self-governing system of worker cooperatives.

It is not clear how much progress Lenin thought an isolated Russia could make towards building socialism. But progress in this direction could not happen through escalation of state power, a development directly opposed to the very nature of socialism. Lenin specifically warned of three dangers that could sabotage progress towards socialism under NEP: emergence of a native capitalist class allied with imperialism, recrudescence of chauvinist Russian nationalism, and growth of an arrogant uncontrolled bureaucracy. In concluding his discussion of Lenin’s ideas on the subject, Krausz notes that socialism is now widely considered an unattainable utopia, but observes that “there is still no other historically and theoretically grounded alternative to the established world order than socialism” (352, author’s italics).

Although highly appreciative of Lenin’s intellectual resourcefulness, political acumen, and pervasive humility, Krausz criticizes many of Lenin’s assertions. Two of these criticisms are especially important and underlie several of the others: 1) Lenin tends to underestimate the vitality of world capitalism and to exaggerate the prospects for socialist revolution in other countries; 2) Lenin tends to confound Communist Party power with proletarian class power. Both of these critiques seem valid and indicate crucial political misjudgments. Acknowledging the first misjudgment challenges the rationale for the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. Acknowledging the second misjudgment raises doubts about the Bolshevik power monopoly in the years after 1917. Krausz certainly does not claim that the October Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union were errors. But he does suggest that Lenin’s theoretical justifications for these history-making events were flawed.

Reconstructing Lenin has numerous virtues, including a 24-page chronology of the history of the Russian Revolution, a 39-page biographical glossary, and 86 pages of footnotes, many of which contain vital information. The book, however, is not a literary gem. I was often compelled to read passages many times over in order to grasp their meaning, which even then remained obscure. I cannot determine whether these literary shortcomings are attributable to the author or to the translator or to both. Elegant prose often contributes to political influence. This was certainly true for Isaac Deutscher’s famous three-volume biography of Trotsky. Unfortunately literary grace will not enhance the influence of this timely and highly informative volume.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the retreat of China towards capitalism, and the incorporation of Eastern Europe into NATO, why does Vladimir Lenin remain politically relevant? Although the circumstances are quite different, our world requires revolution at least as much as 1917 Russia. Indeed, the survival of human life on our planet depends upon it. Lenin grasped both the theoretical necessity of revolution and the tactical maneuvers by which it might happen. He also understood and accepted the unavoidable risks of revolutionary action: revolution must happen without full knowledge of the future and without full control over the consequences. Lenin possessed the boldness and determination to take the frightening but historically mandatory revolutionary leap; and he inspired this same courage within other people. In the author’s concluding words: “Lenin’s topicality resides in the fact that he transformed his own historical experiences into a set of theoretical concepts that undermine and destroy any justifications for bourgeois society and, in spite of the contradictions involved, he provides tools for those who still think of the possibility of another, more humane world” (370).

Tom Mayer
Department of Sociology
University of Colorado at Boulder

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