No perfect Lenin: Review of ‘Revolutionary Collective’

Simon Hannah reviews the latest book by long-time activist and Professor of History at La Roche College Paul Le Blanc. Revolutionary Collective: Comrades, Critics, and Dynamics in the Struggle for Socialism is published by Haymarket Books and is out now.

 

Revolutionary Collective: Comrades, Critics, and Dynamics in the Struggle for Socialism by Paul Le Blanc.

Paul Le Blanc’s new book is a collection of existing essays and articles covering the ideas and lives of several key revolutionary theoreticians and the movements they operated in. The book has short and illuminating essays on Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukács, Burnham and Bensaïd among others so serves as a great introduction to some of the key ideas that motivated these socialist thinkers and activists. The conclusion of the book explores these debates in the context of Le Blanc’s own political journey, in particular the collapse of the International Socialist Organisation in the USA which he had joined a few years previously after being active on the revolutionary left for decades. It poses a simple question; as we face runaway global warming and the growth of the far-right, why are our socialist organisations still so primitive and our understanding of previous revolutionary leaders so one-sided?

Paul Le Blanc

A central theme of Le Blanc’s politics is to defend revolutionary socialist politics whilst challenging some of the standard assumptions that many groups that look to the heritage of Russian Bolshevism have. Primarily he wants to slay the view that Lenin was a flawless strategist and political leader and that what Lenin wrote in exile in Switzerland was automatically Bolshevik policy and then immediately deployed across Russia by an army of cadre who followed his every word. “The point is that we cannot really understand the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 with conventional but simplistic conceptualisations which focus on a heroic Lenin (or an evil genius Lenin) leading an abstract entity—‘The Party,’ or ‘Party-and-Soviets’—to take political power.” 

Le Blanc looks at how Lenin often appears to contradict himself in various articles, but often this is because Lenin himself is trying to work out the complexities of the revolutionary strategy, for instance, whether the coming Russian Revolution would be a one that led to capitalist growth or one that went straight to socialism and working-class power.

There was no ‘perfect Lenin’ who was right on every question. He existed as part of a revolutionary collective and it is the interweaving of ideas and strategies, some wrong, some more right than others, few flawless that make up the revolutionary movement. 

The book also has illuminating essays on Bognaov and Georg Lukács which pits their political contributions to the development of revolutionary politics in a useful and clear context. The chapter on Bogdanov is useful because many people might only know him from Lenin’s philosophical polemic against him Materialism and Empirocriticism, but Bogdanov was a hard-working party leader until 1910 who then split from the Bolshevik faction mainly over strategic questions. The essay on Lukács is a very clear look at his views on class consciousness and revolutionary social theories whilst dealing with the tragic political collapse he had around Stalinism which led to him denouncing some of his most interesting and useful work.

Le Blanc looks at the heritage of Trotsky’s politics, pointing out the unoriginality of Trotsky’s thinking – not in a bad way, but to say that Trotsky was politically intimately linked to the best theories and strategies of the second international and the later anti-Stalinist movement and reflected the best of those ideas. Again there was no ‘perfect Trotsky’ that existed at all points to prove the clarity of the revolutionary programme. He was also someone trying to work through the ideas in the practice of a revolutionary struggle against Tsarism and capitalism.  It was really his passion and dedication to fighting for the ideals found in early Marx and Engels that marked him out.

Le Blanc argues that “Trotsky’s distinctiveness is that, unlike many, he sought to remain true to the original revolutionary perspectives”

Le Blanc argues that “Trotsky’s distinctiveness is that, unlike many, he sought to remain true to the original revolutionary perspectives” – class independence in the face of the popular front, the spirit of internationalism, the idea of the working class as the leading force in the fight for democratic rights and as a consequence an uninterrupted revolutionary struggle for socialism against the capitalists’ and not alongside them.

Similarly, his attitude to Luxemburg is that “we must treat her as a person, not as a ‘revolutionary goddess’.” Le Blanc focuses this chapter on her commitment to mass revolutionary action as a route to socialism, her criticism of the decaying corpse of social democracy and challenges the general view that Luxemburg was a ‘spontenaist’ who didn’t understand the need for organisation.

Considering she spent her life in the Social Democrat Parties of Poland and Germany and then formed the Spartacist League which helped found the German Communist Party this has always been a strange claim. Her perspective was always to agitate for workers to take action around their immediate demands and that this action (the “lovely madness” of a mass strike) would educate and inform workers in their own power for a socialist transformation. Her view more specifically “involves an essential interplay of organizational leadership with semi-spontaneous mass action.”

There are two chapters on ex-socialists who broke publicly and politically with revolutionary socialism, James Burnham and Karl Korsch. It is worth reading these chapters in full for Le Blanc’s riposte to their arguments. We get the impression that Burnham’s collapse was largely a moral and spiritual one, he simply lost faith. In doing so he began a path to becoming one of the USA’s leading conservative thinkers of the post-war age.

Korsch wrote important books in the 1920 and 30s before ending up sucked into the academic circuits in the USA. Le Blanc gives a sympathetic but critical account of Korsch’s best-known works, Marxism & Philosophy and Karl Marx pointing to the way that Korsch rejected all non-Marxist philosophy as Bourgeois and ultimately fell away from Marxism (or retreated or abandoned?) when the outcome of World War 2 was an economic boom and the relative stability of capitalism.

The sections dealing with how the Russian revolutionaries debated the question of democracy and socialism is also useful. It is noteworthy that a lot of the debates that were being had in Russia under Tsarism are unfortunately not that unfamiliar to us even today over a hundred years later in liberal democratic countries. Under the growing threat of creeping authoritarian politics and neo-fascist movements, Lenin’s argument about the relationship between the fight for democracy and the fight for socialism is very relevant. Democracy is not a stage separate from socialism it is a path of struggle that leads to a post-capitalist world.

“We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics in respect of all democratic demands, including a republic, a militia, election of government officials by the people, equal rights for women, self-determination of nations, etc. So long as capitalism exists all these demands are capable of realization only as an exception, and in incomplete, distorted form. Basing ourselves on democracy as already achieved, and showing up its deficiency under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism and expropriation of the bourgeoisie as an essential basis both for abolishing the poverty of the masses and for fully and thoroughly implementing all democratic transformations.”

But democratic institutions established under capitalism cannot solve the social antagonisms of capitalism which are rooted in the basis of production. This is the root of the economic inequality between workers and capitalists and it cannot be resolved by a parliamentary vote – as we have seen in the whole history of capitalism since universal suffrage was introduced. I found the aspects in the book that dealt with these contradictions some of the most useful.

Don’t assume that any one sect has a monopoly on truth, no matter how bombastic they might be in their self belief.

Whilst recognising the essential aspect of building a socialist organisation in his conclusion, Le Blanc warns against the deification and idealisation of left groups and urges socialists to be a little more flexible about learning from each other. Don’t assume that any one sect has a monopoly on truth, no matter how bombastic they might be in their self-belief.

Furthermore, we must not base politics on an idealised or deified working class that exists in our heads but understand the messy and multifaceted nature of class today. It means seeing class struggle not just around economic issues but against all forms of oppression and tyranny. Too often people on the left might act ambivalent about oppressions that they think ‘only affect middle-class people’. Le Blanc quotes Lenin on this “Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected”. The working class is a universal class because it is not just in every country and encapsulates a rich multifaceted kind of human existence but because it alone can consistently lead the struggle for democracy and against sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and so on.

He concludes his book with a clear restatement of the revolutionary position against capitalism, an important point given the rise in left reformist ideas in the USA (Sanders) and Britain (Corbyn). But ideas without people are just ephemeral aspirations, what is needed is for activists to make them a reality. Le Blanc does not shy away from using the term cadre which many consider old fashioned but in fact, this is just a term to describe an experienced socialist activist who is self-activating and can make useful judgments on how to run a campaign, engage with a community or cause and convincingly argue a socialist position.

But ideas without people are just ephemeral aspirations, what is needed is activists to make them a reality.

“A cadre is someone who can help ensure that the collective can be what it must be, who can help others see the need to become part of the collective, and who can help members of the collective (and even people who are not members of the collective) become cadres in the sense that is suggested here.”

His summation of what he understands democratic centralism to mean continues his argument from Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (1990), that it is a basic principle of the socialist movement that if you have a vote and decide on the action then you collectively do it; “If the decision is to support a strike action, or an antiwar action, or an antiracist action, then no comrade is to work against the action.”

This doesn’t mean that you can’t voice your disagreements in public, the Bolsheviks certainly did, but that “if the collective decides to do one thing, it is not acceptable for dissident members simply to do the opposite.” Nevertheless, Le Blanc has opposed the view that democratic centralism is a rigid form of total discipline, that it is primarily a set of commands directed from a central committee to a passive and uncritical membership. He is also critical of the view that it requires unity of thought and argument on every question from history to philosophy to cultural analysis.

He is also critical of the view that it requires unity of thought and argument on every question from history to philosophy to cultural analysis.

Socialist groups that demand that their members have the same view on whether the Big Bang happened or not for instance are skating very close to how Stalinism imposed strict ‘lines’ on science and philosophy in the 1930s. Ultimately transparency and democracy amongst the widest layers will always be more fruitful and enriching than clandestine or strict top-down decision making – unless you are operating under a repressive regime.

So this book is certainly worth getting if you are new to socialism but also for veterans who might appreciate a new insight or perspective on some of the established leaders of the movement and the ideas that motivate them. Ultimately it is an appeal for us to know our history and stick to our principles while being flexible in how we build movements and adapt to new problems.  Le Blanc best sums up the 200 years of socialist theory and movement building when he says “Things are incredibly complex, fluid, horrible, hopeful . . . yet-to-be-determined.”


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Simon Hannah is a socialist, a union activist, and the author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: the fight to stop the poll tax, and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution.


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