Cyril Smith


What is to be done? Leninism, Anti-Leninist Marxism and the question of revolution today. Edited by Werner Bonefeld and Sergio Tischler. Ashgate, 2002.

A volume to mark the centenary of the publication of Lenin’s ‘What is to be done?’ was a good idea. As the scattered forces of the Left try to get to grips with the new century, exorcising the spell of Leninism is among its most important tasks. Alas, while some of the ten contributors to this volume have interesting and important things to say, the book as a whole actually has very little to tell the reader, either about the content of Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet or its place in the history of the revolutionary movement.

Studying the ruins of the 1848 revolutions, Marx in his ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’ mused that ‘the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare [Alp] on the brain of the living’. To liberate the thinking of the today’s new generation from the Leninist past is a delicate task of brain surgery, demanding great care and scrupulous objectivity, not the hammer-and-chisel equipment of some of these contributors. In particular, if we are to awake from the nightmare of the twentieth century, we have both to remember the Russian Revolution, and to stop thinking of it as the paradigm for all progressive social change.

These problems do not belong to an academic ‘history of ideas’. We are talking about how the international workers’ movement has tried to understand the development of its own self-knowledge. Unless we see the contributions of people like Lenin and Trotsky – both their heroism and their mistakes – as aspects of this objective process, we separate subjectivity and objectivity – precisely the error which has to be put right.

While ‘What is to be done?’ is concerned with problems of the Russian movement, it is really rooted in the history of the Second International. When Lenin wrote his booklet, to be issued by the Iskra Editorial Board in preparation for the 1903 Congress of the RSDLP, he was at pains to show himself an orthodox supporter of the International, and in particular of Kautsky’s fight against Bernstein. This is especially true of the notorious passage about ‘bringing socialist consciousness into the working class from the outside’. Lenin backs this up with a long quotation from Kautsky, which seeks to hammer into the heads of his Austrian comrades that ‘modern socialist consciousness’ requires not just the proletariat but science, and that ‘the vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia’. Lenin gives the quotation with no reservations. We should also note that Lenin’s organisational proposals were in essence supported by the Iskra editorial board as a whole, including Plekhanov.

It’s worth getting historical details right here, and bits of leftist folklore are not enough. Some of the contributors to this volume want to jump straight from Lenin’s struggle for a revolutionary organisation of Russian Marxists in 1902 to the outcome of the 1917 Russian revolution, which thought of itself as socialist. But. Russian Marxists did not begin to talk of a socialist revolution until Trotsky’s 1907 ‘Results and Prospects’, and Lenin did not think in those terms for another decade after that.

Already at the 1903 Congress, Lenin tried to avoid ‘What is to be done?’ being read as a theoretical work. The experience of the 1905 uprising led him to downplay the significance of his 1902 contribution still further, declaring in his introduction to the 1908 re-issue that it should be seen as a ‘"summary" of Iskra tactics and Iskra organisational policy in 1901 and 1902’. Bogdanov, who split with Lenin in 1908, went so far as to denounce its author for betraying ‘What is to be done?’. The raising of the pamphlet to canonical status as a manual of revolutionary organisation dates only from Zinoviev’s work in bureaucratising the Comintern after 1922. Indeed, until then, there was no such canon.

Trotsky, who comes in for some sharp denunciation in this volume, and must, of course, be considered a Leninist, vigorously criticised ‘What is to be done?’ in 1904, and never changed his mind about its views concerning socialist consciousness and ‘combating spontaneity’. However, he kept rather quiet about this disagreement and we Trotskyists, who had made something of a fetish of Lenin’s booklet, were embarrassed to note that, he had revealed his life-long opposition to its views in his last book, ‘Stalin’.

None of this excuses the wrong-headedness of Lenin’s pamphlet. But if we are to get to grips with its errors, we have to get the story right. That is why I can’t see ‘anti-Leninist Marxism’ as the positive answer to Leninism that we so badly need. The tendency exhibited by some of the contributors is to throw Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin on top of each other, labelling the heap ‘for shredding’, and this makes it impossible to get to the heart of the problem.

If we separate ‘What is to be done?’ from later history, it reveals something more important than Lenin’s ‘politically incorrect’ disparagement of proletarian consciousness. As always, Lenin takes ideas from ‘Marxist orthodoxy’ and states them in the most extreme form he can. In this way he sometimes reveals what might otherwise be hidden. What matters about his denial that proletarians can ‘spontaneously’ discover ‘socialist consciousness’ is what this tells us about the ‘Marxist’ idea of ‘theory’. Removed in this way from living activity, it is made to develop in parallel with it, and this is the heart of the direct opposition between ‘Marxist’ ‘dialectical materialism’ and the ideas of Karl Marx. When Lenin found himself attempting to apply his Second International ideas amid the ruins of the Tsarist Empire and a brutal civil war, this opposition between and abstract ‘theory’ and living humanity turned Marx’s humanism on its head.

The volume under review starts off with a thirty-year old lecture by the veteran ‘Council Communist’, Cajo Brendel, ‘Kronstadt: Proletarian Spin-Off of the Russian Revolution’. Somehow, the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 is supposed to be linked with Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet. The two decades and three revolutions which separate them are simply air-brushed out of the picture. Of course, there is a connection, but this has to be worked out.

Worse than this, in straining every nerve to depict Trotsky as ‘the Gustav Noske of the Russian Revolution’, Brendel messes up the whole story. This is how he refers to the Petrograd strike movement of 1921, which he seeks to assimilate with Kronstadt:

They demanded freedom for all workers; abolition of the special decrees; free elections for the councils. These were the same demands that were raised a few days later in Kronstadt … This immediately gave way to the ‘worker opposition’ that was led by two former metal workers. (p 22)

In fact, the members of the Workers Opposition of Shliapnikov, Miasnikov and Kollontai, which was expelled by the Tenth Congress of the Party, just as the Kronstadt rebellion broke out, were most enthusiastic about its suppression, agreeing with the Party view that it was a peasant-influenced attack on Soviet rule. In fact, the strike movement expressed, not some ideological outlook, but sheer starvation, in precisely the same disastrous economic situation which gave rise to the Kronstadt uprising.

(A minor point: while Trotsky always accepted political responsibility for the suppression of Kronstadt, he was actually not present, being ill at the time. Bolshevik mythology about Kronstadt is bad enough. There is no need to replace it by another set of myths.)

Dietard Behrens’ ‘Perspectives on Left Politics: on the Development of anti-Leninist Conceptions of Socialist Politics’, gives a useful account of a number of left criticisms of Lenin, especially within the German movement. However, while he starts with Luxemburg’s criticism of ‘What is to be done?’, he omits any mention of Trotsky’s even more savage attack.)

With Simon Clarke’s ‘Was Lenin a Marxist?’, we enter more serious territory. Clarke gives a careful argument to show how Lenin’s entire outlook is marked by Russian populism. In this, Clarke demonstrates, Lenin is a faithful follower of Plekhanov, in his philosophical work as well as in his organisational outlook. However, I think Clarke goes astray when he tries to exempt Kautsky from these charges (p 72).

For me, the question ‘was Lenin a Marxist’ – which Clarke answers with a clear ‘NO!’ – is less important than the question ‘was Marx a Marxist?’ Plekhanov and Kautsky are equally implicated in the formalisation of the doctrine called ‘Marxism’ in the Second International, obliterating the essential ideas of Karl Marx in the process. The undoubtedly wide gap between Lenin and Kautsky is of far less importance than the gulf which separates both of them from the ideas of Marx.

That is why I think that Mike Rooke’s ‘The Dialectic of Labour and Human Emancipation’ is among the best contributions to this book. In heading a section of his paper ‘Marx’s Revolution against Philosophy’, Rooke takes us to the heart of our problem. The Second International, followed closely by the Third and Fourth, evaded Marx’s central concern with the nature of humanity and its self-changing struggle against inhuman social forms. (The part played by Engels in this evasion needs to be handled with great care, however. His formulations opened the door for the burying of Marx under the weight of positivism, but did not always go through it, I think.)

In ‘State, Revolution and Self-Determination’, Werner Bonefeld presents an excellent outline of Marx’s concept of communism. (I shall ignore Bonefeld’s unfortunate references to Kronstadt, where he has been led astray by Behrens’ dream-historical account.) Bonefeld’s essay gives us a basis for a return to Marx’s conception of revolution, which had been buried under the notion of ‘taking power’ in the Second, Third and Fourth Internationals.

Alberto Bonnet’s ‘The Command of Money-Capital and the Latin-American Crises’ is very interesting. But it deals entirely with economic matters, honestly and openly evading any discussion of ‘What is to be done?’

Maybe it is the fault of the translation, but I did not find Sergio Tischler’s contribution, ‘The Crisis of the Leninist Subject and the Zapatista Circumstance’ easy to read. However, I think it does contain some important insights. Tischler explains very clearly Lenin’s reified conceptions of state, economy and class struggle.

The Leninist idea of subject embodies an instrumental conception of class struggle. It projects at a theoretical level, the rupture between subject and object. In this game, the subject is finally reduced to the party or the state, while the ‘empirical’ class plays a supporting role, in the best of cases, or is presented as a reconstruction from a centre that gives it a ‘real’ political consistency.

(Pages 177-8.)

George Caffentzis’ ‘Lenin on the Production of Revolution’ shows the baleful results of not getting to the heart of ‘Marxism’. Caffentzis, having in mind the work of the ‘anti-globalization’ movement, thinks we still have much to learn from Lenin’s 1902 booklet. Lenin, he says, was the first to ‘apply Marxism to Marxism’, something which apparently had not occurred to old Marx. In this, Lenin presented the world with a ‘communication model’ of revolution. With its aid, we can understand how to ‘produce revolution’. But what on earth does he think a revolution is, a piece of computer software? Does he imagine the world has to wait for a group of people to work out how to read his blueprint, like revolutionary IKEA customers?

Johannes Agnoli’s ‘Emancipation: Paths and Goals’ is certainly less enthusiastic about Lenin’s ‘model’, but his idea of social change is equally instrumental. For him, emancipation requires us to answer questions about institutional forms. He is impressed by the experience of the German Greens, who set out along the emancipatory road, then decided that it led them on ‘the long march through the institutions’, and ended up as a parliamentary party. ‘The organisation must anticipate the goal of emancipation and determine its character on the basis of this goal.’ OK. To coin a phrase, what is to be done? ‘How this is possible cannot be determined theoretically,’ says Agnoli. ‘It is a practical question.’ Thanks a lot!

The final essay, John Holloway on ‘Revolt and Revolution, or Get out of the Way, Capital’, does not pretend to give definitive answers to such problems, but it does clear some ground for such answers to be investigated. He pinpoints ‘two elements … in thinking about the possibility of revolutionary change’.

The first is telling capital (and capitalists and their politicians) to go away. … The second is to think how to avoid being recaptured, forced back into submission by our lack of access to the means of doing. (Pages 198-9.)

As in his book, ‘Change the World without Taking Power’, he shows how these questions express the very nature of human life. That, I believe, is the essence of what was wrong about ‘What is to be done?’.

The task of breaking away from the legacy of Bolshevism can’t be evaded, either by ignoring it or by simply throwing it away. Altogether, this volume was worth producing, but the shortcomings of some of the contributions should lead us to work harder and with greater care.