Lenin’s Political Work

Rather than a relic of the past, Lenin's revolutionary thought and praxis represent an unexhausted fount of creative political imagination and strategic audacity from which the contemporary left still stands to gain vital lessons and inspiration for achieving fundamental egalitarian change amidst capitalism's lurching crises. By Michael Hauser.

 

Note from LeftEast editors: this text was originally published in Czech on SOK-Socialistický kruh.

Lenin and the Revolution: nothing is closed

The contemporary view of Lenin and the October revolution is predominated by their historical images as provoking the impression that they are nothing more than pieces of history with no relation to the present time or our future. When speaking about Lenin and the October revolution, we can, however, change the perspective and ask about their “eternal” relevance.  As a rule, the historical approach limits itself to description of the relevant circumstances that formed the revolutionary situation. We find that this situation was the result of Russia’s troubled development from the early twentieth century onwards and reflected Russia’s position in the world system. Russia was a country on the semi-periphery of the imperial world system, to use Immanuel Wallerstein’s term. As the Hungarian historian Tamás Krausz shows in the interview “Reconstructing Lenin” beyond the lies and distortions,” the Russian democratic bourgeoisie was weak and behaved subordinately to the Tsarist regime. Unlike the bourgeoisie in Western countries, it failed to act as an instigator of modernization and political emancipation. Backward Russia was heading towards being a semi-colony from which Western empires would draw raw materials and cheap labour. Krausz articulates where the general legitimacy of the October Revolution lies: had it not occurred, Russia would likely have ended up as a semi-colony of the West with a fascist autocratic regime. If the democratic bourgeoisie lacked the modernizing and emancipatory drive, the only force that could carry out modernization and break the country out of the Western imperial system was the socialist movement organized as a revolutionary force.

We then count other historical circumstances that made the revolution possible. These were the disruption of the legitimacy of the Tsarist regime at the end of the First World War and the dismal social conditions in which the broad layers of the peasantry and the numerically small industrial proletariat lived. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, two revolutions had broken out in Russia: the brutally suppressed revolution of 1905 and the February Revolution of 1917. In their throes, the previously stagnant and conservative Russian society was set in motion that was unparalleled in its scope and intensity in any European country of the time.

Most people sticking to the historical approach conclude that Lenin’s policies and the October Revolution are a thing of the past and their political relevance was finally exhausted by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The symbolic end to all this history is supposed to be the last official celebration of the anniversary of the “Great October Socialist Revolution”, which took place on Red Square on 7 November 1990.

 Krausz is an example of a historian who rejects this conclusion and declares that nothing is closed. He provides his historical analysis of Lenin’s policies and the October Revolution as a blueprint for all countries that are today on the semi-periphery or periphery of the world system.

Politicians as servicemen of the class State   

Then there is another approach that raises the question of the relevance of Lenin and the October Revolution for the present or the long future. In the Czech Republic, this question has recently been addressed by the young political scientist and leftist politician Vítek Prokop in his article “Lenin’s Century”.

He writes that Lenin calls on us to express ideas and insights that are enclosed in complex and terminologically overloaded leftist theories in a generally understandable language and to disseminate them by all available means, especially through social media. Similarly, German philosopher Michael Brie in his article “Seven Reasons Not to Leave Lenin to His Enemies”, expressed a recommendation addressed to the contemporary left, to which I will return later.   

This approach to Lenin and the October Revolution is fully developed by French philosopher Alain Badiou in his ontological opus The Immanence of Truths (Badiou 2018: 640-657). Badiou distinguishes between two kinds of politics. First, there is the politics that has been pursued throughout human history, beginning with the early civilizations that emerged in various parts of the world around the fourth millennium BCE. Throughout history, forms of government, class composition, the shape of hierarchies, technology, and many other things have changed, but politics has remained essentially the same. Principally, it has always been about controlling and managingthe apparatus of the State. In all transformations, the state organization has the basic function of concreting given property and power relations. The state apparatuses and institutions are the effective way of keeping economic and social domination and oppression. As Badiou puts it, this politics is limited to the repetition of a few procedures to carry out the maintenance of the State.

Badiou calls it the politics of finitude – it is governed by the limited rules of the State, and this politics takes precedence over the realization of this or that ideal or value. An example is the transformation of Christianity, which became the state religion at the end of the Roman Empire. Christianity acquired a state function, and this suppressed its original universally egalitarian ideas. The state function has a similar effect on leftist politics. The left differs from the right in rhetoric and various emphases, yet it behaves in the same manner as the right in state functions. It is easy to imagine that politicians espousing radical views prior to elections will limit their governance to what the class apparatus of the State allows them to implement. As Badiou argues, such a politics is a procedure that is constructible. It results in the repetition of pre-given procedures in some variations.

Lenin, the politician of infinity

According to Badiou, another politics occasionally emerges, which he calls the politics of infinity. It began to crystallize after the French Revolution in the shape of socialist, communist and anarchist currents. It brought into society a dispute about what politics actually is. Should politicians strive forthe best possible management of the class-state apparatus or its revolutionary transformation? This dispute over politics leads to a new division of society. It is not a division between the supporters of the government and the opposition forces which, despite all differences, respect the class State. Society is divided into a part that adheres to the given order and a part that seeks a revolutionary transformation of the State organization. Badiou points out that these two parts are irreconcilable and their synthesis is impossible. There is a non-consensual discussion of politics itself, which establishes the principle of two. This principle is a condition of every truth procedure, not only of the political procedure.

Lenin’s politics in the critical period after the February Revolution of 1917 is an example of such a politics. Lenin introduced the principle of division into the state in question and sought a revolutionary transformation of state organisation. In The April Theses he called for the February Revolution to pass into another revolution, since the first one had only modified the class state apparatus and was moving towards oligarchic parliamentary democracy. In Badiou´s words, Lenin thus inserted into the February Revolution the divisive principle of two: in that revolution, there is a second revolution, which would completely change the state organization of society and eliminate the economic oligarchy, which would link up with parliamentary democracy. The result of the February Revolution would be “capital-parliamentarism”.

This is how Badiou interprets the relevant points of The April Theses. Let us take those that express various aspects of the revolutionary transformation of the state apparatus. 

• The smashing of the old state apparatus – the replacement of the bourgeois parliamentary republic by a type of Paris Commune state, i.e. a republic of soviets, organised from the bottom up and replacing the police, army and bureaucracy with a general arming of the people and elected officials.

• The agrarian programme – immediate confiscation of landlords’ land, nationalisation of all land and transfer of the right to dispose of land to soviets of agricultural workers and poor peasants.

• The immediate union of all banks into a single national bank, and the institution of control over it by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

• It is not our immediate task to “introduce” socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.

• The establishment of a new, revolutionary International.

In this situation there was a political logic, which Lenin clearly recognised and acted upon. Badiou summarizes it as follows. The popular masses are internally divided, and therefore a political organization is necessary to strive for their unification. It follows that communist activists must link up with the popular masses. Communists should work within the masses and at the same time shape them from the “outside”. They are indispensable for the revolution for the reasons given by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto: they are the most decisive part of the mass movement; they formulate its demands; they have an overall vision; they think internationally. 

Lenin’s policy was guided by the principle of universal equality regardless of the class State.  Instead of repeating a finite set of state procedures, an infinite perspective of further development appeared before him, which would bring more and more real possibilities.

Revolution as the invention of a new 

Consider that it is shortly after the October Revolution and we want to abandon the traditional class State. What then should the form of government look like? It will not be an autocratic government, nor a parliamentary democracy, nor any of those that have gone before. A new political form must be invented: a republic of soviets. Instead of copying Western or Eastern political systems that remain within the boundaries of the class State, a new horizon of political thought and action has opened. The October Revolution provokes unprecedented social creativity, but it does not take place in a protected green field where we are allowed to create and experiment undisturbed. It all happens in a time of fierce civil war, which enforces strict discipline and often harsh measures. Post-revolutionary political institutions are often born under the pressure of circumstances, and yet they show ingenuity and creative energy. A number of new institutions are created: ministries are abolished and people’s commissariats are created; a system of soviets (councils of workers, peasants, soldiers, etc.) is formed to combine horizontal and vertical decision-making. Soviets are elected from below. From the local or regional soviets, representatives are elected to the higher soviets, and from these, representatives are elected to the highest soviets. These institutions were in some way loosely inspired by the popular organs of the Paris Commune, and followed the soviets that had spontaneously arisen in the previous two revolutions. 

There had been various collective forms in Russia before, which had acquired a new vigour thanks to the Revolution. In post-revolutionary society, artels – cooperatives of craftsmen, artists, and workers living in communes and working at home or in shared workshops – proliferated with equality of distribution often without legal contracts. In Russia, village communes (in Russian “obshchina”, also called “mir”) had an ancient tradition. Village communes had common ownership of land, which was the Russian form of “commons”. In Western countries, communal land was mostly forcibly enclosed and privatized in the early stages of capitalism. In Russia, commons were retained. After the revolution of 1905, Prime Minister Stolypin was introducing agrarian reform to privatize Russian commons, but he encountered resistance from the population, which refused to abandon the way of farming and decision-making inherited from ancestors. Due to the conservative opposition to the privatisation of the commons, Stolypin’s plan failed.

In the communes, each person was allocated a tenure of land called ‘naděl’, which they could farm independently but could not sell or bequeath. In theory, the allocated land was returned every fifteen years to the commune, which made a new and equal distribution among all male members of the community. Scholars suggest that the communes were the basis for the later emergence of kolkhozes as the main units of Soviet agriculture (Ay 2016: 62). The communes were being turned into the kolkhozes with collective farming until the forced collectivization interrupted their gradual evolution in the late 1920th. The day after the revolution (8 November 1917), the Decree on Land is promulgated, greatly strengthening the political and economic importance of the communes. Instead of the privatization of communes that took place in Western countries, there is a deprivatization of vast tracts of land owned by the nobility, landlords and the church. The Decree on Land abolishes private ownership of land “for ever” and “land shall not be sold, purchased, leased, mortgaged, or otherwise alienated“. All land henceforth “belongs to the whole people”. “Its distribution among the peasants shall be in charge of the local and central self-government bodies, from democratically organised village and city communes, in which there are no distinctions of social rank, to central regional government bodies.“ Lenin’s Decree applies the centuries-old principles of the communes, imbued with a modernising and scientific ethos: “the land fund shall be subject to periodical redistribution, depending on the growth of population and the increase in the productivity and the scientific level of farming“. Contemporary degrowth theorists have emphasized pre-capitalist forms of farming but have so far left aside Lenin’s Decree on Land, which gave them a new dimension. Kohei Saito in the book Marx in the Anthropocene. Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism (Saito 2023) underlines Marx’s reflections on commons, but neglects Lenin’s policies that made pre-capitalist commons the basis of socialist development.

The October revolution instigated a similar move in the domain of art, especially with the help of the Russian avant garde, which was acquiring a massively collective dimension. Nowhere else were avant-garde projects transformed into such monumental collective art as in post-revolutionary Russia. A well-known example is the “Symphony of Sirens” created by Arseny Avraamov for the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution. It took place in several cities and was performed on the largest scale by the inhabitants of the port city of Baku. The whole city was involved in its performance, including ships, locomotives, military troops and sirens. The whole city became a musical instrument. The symphony was to be performed by all the inhabitants of the city, and the score in the form of verbal instructions was published in the newspapers the day before.  Without the post-revolutionary conditions and avant-garde atmosphere of the time, something like this would hardly have been possible. See the revolutionary festivals in civil-war-era Moscow and Petersburg. The reconstruction of the “Symphony of Sirens” was attempted by former members of “Einstürzende Neubauten” Andreas Ammer and FM Einheit at the 2017 Moravian Autumn Festival, but they only performed the symphony in a hint. In today’s circumstances, this symphony is practically unfeasible in its entirety. 

If we realise all the ingenuity and creativity that the October Revolution brought, it is necessary to correct the widespread view that this revolution was nothing other than the dawn  of dictatorship or totalitarianism. After all, was not the Czech philosopher Milan Machovec right when he remarked in the 1960s that this revolution was the greatest achievement of creative Marxism?

The left in the time of ruptures   

Badiou introduces another dimension of politics: political thought and praxis can take on qualities that make it a political work. Lenin’s politics took place in a certain historical space-time and influenced the history of the twentieth century, but this fact did not exhaust its relevance. In today’s situation, we discover its impulses that were previously unknown. In this way Michael Brie proceeds when he relates Lenin’s politics to the current era of permanent crises. Lenin’s politics suddenly speaks to the left, which is seeking its orientation in a period of chaos and uncertainty. Lenin, of course, could not have foreseen that a hundred years after his death the left would, in a way, be at the beginning again, learning to think and act politically. Lenin’s politics may act as a catalyst for the contemporary left: it will provoke a split in the left between the part that aims to improve the class-state apparatuses and the part that thinks about an egalitarian and ecosocialist transformation of the state. Political thought and praxis, which many have considered to be politics lying in the mausoleum with Lenin’s body, suddenly takes on new meanings. Politics with this infinite potential, according to Badiou, constitutes a political work.

How many politicians do we find to whom we can refer after a hundred years, or at least after the end of their mandate? Most politicians fall into oblivion the moment they close the door of their office. Apart from managing a class state institution, they usually accomplish little else. Not only do they leave behind no political work, but they are usually unaware that politics can look like work. As Badiou says, political work is rare. It is rarer than a work of art.

And where does this potentiality of Lenin’s political work come from? If one day the left will again go so far as to not be satisfied with general ethical statements (“we want a just/fair society”, etc.) and start thinking about real political actions that will lead beyond capitalism in the name of these ideals, sooner or later they will discover Lenin. It’s not just a matter of the left finally inviting Lenin “to the table” where those “who sought an emancipated humanity before us” are, as Brie writes. In a situation where the possibility of a real transition to a post-capitalist society opens, Lenin will cease to be a mere fellow diner who, according to Brie, has to search his conscience for having restricted “the freedom of the differently minded” (Luxemburg). We then see in Lenin above all a politician who had to face problems that touched on the very being or non-being of the revolution, and which we will probably face too.

As Badiou says, anyone who attempts to make a transition to socialism or communism will encounter the question of the class state and its apparatuses. Lenin was fully aware that without a revolutionary transformation of the state, the transition to socialism is impossible, since the state organization will always reproduce class inequalities. It is short-sighted to imagine that it is enough to occupy existing state institutions and operate within them socially and democratically, as Chantal Mouffe suggests in her book on left populism (Mouffe 2018). She articulates the widespread liberal view that the state institutions of liberal democracy are themselves neutral and that they can serve the unprivileged majority just as well as they serve the upper social classes and the oligarchic hyperbourgeoisie. These institutions originated in the period of “autocratic liberalism” (the term coined by Fareed Zakaria) as a protection of the privileges of the propertied classes from the “irresponsible” masses. Because of their class construction, they will always modify the demands of the popular masses so as not to undermine the economic and political domination of the privileged classes. Therefore, it is not enough to open these institutions to popular demands, as Mouffe argues, but they need to be transformed (Hauser 2021b: 164).

Badiou also shows the “eternal” relevance of Lenin’s other ideas. A left-wing politics that seeks a transition to a post-capitalist society will necessarily provoke division within the popular masses, and only a part of them will spontaneously develop this politics. Therefore, we cannot act without a political organisation that will operate within the popular masses and at the same time formulate more general goals and define a strategic course of action. Anyone who goes further will be faced with another fundamental question: how to defend the revolution? It is naive to think that everyone will agree with the transition to socialism. The hyperbourgeoisie will hardly stand idly by as a system emerges in which they would lose their extreme property and political privileges. They will expend considerable resources to convince the unprivileged majority that socialism is Evil. The left will have to ask itself the same question as Lenin: how to organize a defence against these powerful forces?

These are existential questions of possible future development, but only a few people are asking them today. Post-capitalism is desired by many, but only a handful of “radicals” are thinking about the real steps that will be necessary to establish it. A new socialist movement may be at its very outset and the debate about its possible goals and strategies in the twenty-first century is only slowly taking off. In the meantime, manifestos are being proposed that seek to spark this debate (see The Manifesto of the Socialist Movement).

Many people are aware that the present era is full of crises and catastrophic tendencies. Some are thinking that sooner or later there will be social ruptures that, at least hypothetically, will open a real transition to post-capitalism. It appears that the relevance of Lenin’s political work will only be fully understood in a future era of ruptures.

Source >> Left East

References

Ay, Karl-Ludwig (2016): On some Observations by Max Weber about Long-termed Structural Features of Russian Policy. In: Eliaeson, S., Harutyunyan, L., Titarenko, L., (eds.), After the Soviet Empire. Legacies and Pathway. Leiden-Boston: Brill, 54-63.

Badiou, Alain (2018): L’Immanence des vérités. L’être et l’événement, 3. Paris: Fayard 2018.

Hauser, Michael (2021b): The Broken Unity of Liberal Democracy (in Czech, Rozlomená jednota liberální demokracie. In: Feinberg, J. G., Hauser, M., Ort, J., Politika jednoty ve světě proměn. Praha: Filosofia, 95-169.)

Mouffe, Chantal (2018): For a left Populism. London-New York: Verso.

Saito, Kohei (2023): Marx in the Anthropocene. Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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Michael Hauser is a Czech philosopher based in Prague. He works at the Philosophical Institute of the Academy of Sciences in the Department of Contemporary Continental Philosophy and lectures at the Faculty of Education of Charles University. In 2002 he founded the civic association Socialist Circle.

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