Lenin and the First Communist Revolutions, I

The history of Communism as a practical movement begins with a single man: Vladimir Ilich Lenin. The Russian Marxist movement preceded Lenin by two decades, but it was Lenin who split off a militant faction from the rest of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and forged it into a potent weapon for totalitarian revolution. Totalitarian tendencies were veritably omnipresent in the entire Russian Marxist movement - in not only the Leninists, or "Bolsheviks," but also in his Menshevik opponents. As the 1903 party program of the R.S.D.L.P. - written by Plekhanov, a Menshevik who harshly criticized Lenin - explains, "As essential precondition for this social revolution is the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the conquest by the proletariat of such political power as will enable it to quell all opposition by exploiters." But while the totalitarian impulse permeated the Russian Marxist movement, it was Lenin who gave this tendencies a rigorous theoretical foundation upon which he always acted with perfect consistency.

  • Lenin's Theoretical Innovations

    Lenin accepted most of Marx's thought without alteration. He prided himself upon his Marxist orthodoxy, attacking any new idea that struck him as heretical. But probably his greatest hatred was reserved for the so-called Revisionism of Bernstein and other avant-garde socialist intellectuals who admitted, among other things, that contrary to Marx the absolute living standard of workers had vastly improved under capitalism.

    The scientific concept, dictatorship, means neither more nor less than unlimited power resting directly on force, not limited by anything, not restrained by any laws or any absolute rules. Nothing else but that.
    V.I. Lenin, A Contribution to the History of the Question of Dictatorship

    But for all of his rage against Revisionism, Lenin's theoretical innovations begin by accepting the Revisionist observation that the condition of the proletariat had improved. But while the Revisionists tended to see this as proof that Marx's economics was unsound, Lenin offered an alternative explanation: the workers whose living conditions had improved were being "bribed" by capitalists who made up their losses by further tightening their grip on the hapless native workers of Europe's colonies. As Franz Borkenau explains, Lenin argued that World War I was...

    ...an "imperialistic" war, which meant a war by which the bourgeoisie of the big powers aimed at securing monopolistic, colonial, and semi-colonial markets for their export trade and their capital export, and cheap raw materials... But this very imperialism, by providing colonial "extra-profits" for the bourgeoisie, put it in a position to bribe the upper strata of the proletariat; these strata, so bribed, naturally behave as "traitors." (World Communism)

    Marx was not really mistaken, but simply underestimated the duplicity of the bourgeoisie. But Lenin went one step further, and argued that even if they were not being "bribed," workers by themselves would never initiate the socialist revolution. As Richard Pipes explains, "The longer he observed the behavior of workers in and out of Russia, the more compelling was the conclusion, entirely contrary to the fundamental premise of Marxism, that labor (the "proletariat") was not a revolutionary class at all: left to itself, it would rather settle for a larger share of the capitalists' profits than overthrow capitalism... In a seminal article published at the end of 1900, Lenin uttered the unthinkable: 'the labor movement, separated from Social-Democracy... inevitably turns bourgeois.'" (The Russian Revolution) As Lenin put it in his What is To Be Done?, "The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively by its own efforts is able to develop only trade union consciousness."

    If the working class by itself develops mere "trade union consciousness," then how can mankind reach the final stop on the March of History - namely, Communism? Lenin's answer was that this could only be accomplished with the firm guidance of professional revolutionaries who would be a combination of sages and generals of the proletariat. As Paul Johnson explains:

    [Lenin's] entire life was spent among the members of his own sub-class, the bourgeois intelligentsia, which he saw as a uniquely privileged priesthood, endowed with a special gnosis and chosen by History for a decisive role. Socialism, he wrote quoting Karl Kautsky, was the product of "profound scientific knowledge... The vehicle of [this] science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia: contemporary socialism was born in the heads of individual members of this class. (Modern Times)

    No man [than Lenin] personifies better the replacement of the religious impulse by the will to power. In an earlier age he would surely have been a religious leader. With his extraordinary passion for force, he might have figured in Mohammed's legions. He was even closer perhaps to Jean Calvin, with his belief in organizational structure, his ability to create one and then dominate it utterly, his puritanism, his passionate self- righteousness, and above all his intolerance.
    Paul Johnson, Modern Times

    But if the intellectuals guide the workers, who guides the intellectuals? That, Lenin answered, is to be done by a rigidly hierarchical, strictly disciplined Party - headed by himself. As Lenin continued to develop his tactical views, it became clear that not only would the party lead the proletariat to victory, but would also hold the reins of power for the proletariat after victory was achieved. Leon Trotsky, though initially a critic of Lenin, eventually became his enthusiastic supporter; he explained their doctrine thusly:

    In the composition of [the proletariat] there enter various elements, heterogeneous moods, different levels of development. Yet the dictatorship pre-supposes unity of will, unity of direction, unity of action. By what other path can it be attained? The revolutionary supremacy of the proletariat presupposes within the proletariat itself the political supremacy of a party, with a clear program of action and a faultless internal discipline. (The Defense of Terrorism)

    Lenin conspicuously failed to elaborate upon the great void in Marxist theory: to wit, precisely what would "socialism" be? Marx had repeatedly declared it "unscientific" to specify - a clever trick for uniting quarreling socialists, but hardly intellectually satisfying. Lenin scarcely advanced further than this when he seized power: "All citizens are here transformed into hired employees of the state, which is made up of the armed workers... All that is required is that they should work equally, should regularly do their share of the work, and should receive equal pay. The accounting and control necessary for this have been simplified by capitalism to the utmost, till they have become the extraordinarily simple operations of watching, recording and issuing receipts, within the reach of anybody who can read and write and knows the first four rules of arithmetic." (State and Revolution) But Lenin combined simple-minded programs with a calculating cynicism. For whatever policies he might advocate, there was but one target in his sights, as he plainly states: "The point of the uprising is the seizure of power; afterwards we will see what we can do with it."

    Planning for Leninism: Forging the Vanguard Party