Lenin for Today

Let me begin a review of Tamas Krausz’s important work, Reconstructing Lenin: an Intellectual Biography, with a generational memory, Lenin as seen from the New Left of the 1960s. The radical cohort coming of age was not, by and large, destined to be a Leninist generation, not even for those who (like myself) found somewhere within Marxist much of what we were looking for. We were more inclined to read and wrestle with the manifesto of a most unleninist, Hegelian/Freudian philosopher, Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1965). This remarkable work enlivened a young generation around us on campus and elsewhere, much to the discomfort of a good number of our contemporaries, the true-blue Leninists. As historian William Appleman Williams’ Tragedy of American Diplomacy made clear the folly of the War in Vietnam, Marcuse’s treatise explained the apathy and conformity of materially prosperous American life and the absolute need for an antiwar counter-culture.

Many of us activists with one foot in theory were, by the last years of the 1960s, looking not reverentially at either Lenin or Marcuse but for a third solution. Excited by the discontent of the restless sections of the working class—especially the nonwhite, young, and culturally alienated workers—we were also drawn to the idea that pervasive youth alienation, the counter-culture, feminism, and so on, might point in some direction reconcilable with a revived Marxism.

A half-century later, with neither Bolshevik nor New Left revolutions in sight, let alone accomplished, at least some innovations Lenin and Marcuse seem rather surprisingly similar, at least to this doggedly heterodox Marxist reviewer. To recuperate Hegelian logic for revolution’s sake, and to look afresh at the sources of revolutionary action—these truisms stand when much of the twentieth century Left history falls away. They may also provide us a fresh way to look at Lenin.

The biographers of Lenin and the historians of Russian Bolshevism (not to mention Menshevism, anarcho-syndicalism, etc.) have been so numerous, with no end in sight, that no single new volume is likely to entirely satisfy either activists or scholars. Tamas Krausz has, however, some impressive credentials. A longtime editor of the only genuine Marxist journal surviving in Hungary—a country with a distinguished history of Marxist thinkers but also what may be called time-serving Marxist mediocrities—Krausz might well be regarded as successor to Georg Lukacs.

Could Krausz be described as having a “Hungarian” approach to Lenin’s life and work? Perhaps, in the sense that his Lenin is a cosmopolitan, but also an Eastern European intellectual of the early twentieth century who went to school to become an economist and hoped, for a while, to live from his book royalties! Politics, of course, got in the way. Readers will want to plow through these heavily reconlenineconomic pages of young Vladimir Ilych, because in his study of “de-peasantization,” the ongoing version of the Enclosures of Britain centuries earlier, he was pointing to the “progressive” role of a brutally exploitative capitalist modernization in creating a proletariat, but he was also keenly aware of the political world process, even if he correctly guessed that Russians might be among the first to break through. The peculiarities of Russian development would always be in front of him.

Other reviewers will want to examine how Krausz’s treatment of Lenin’s personal destiny offers explanatory links to Bolshevik party history and to the multitudinous complications. I am happy to leave such subjects to them, with an exception or two most fascinating to the New Left. The conclusions drawn by Lenin from the failed 1905 Revolution rested upon his understanding of the Paris Commune (then less than two generations away): the new society would be created by mass movements overthrowing the old one, rather than by some steady accretion of power within capitalist institutions. The political State needed to be replaced, in other words, not reoriented, a judgment with wide strategic implications. European social democrats, of course, saw the situation very differently, and bitterly criticized the mass strikes of unskilled workers in the years shortly before the outbreak of the Great War as “uncontrolled” and dangerous. No wonder American Wobblies and European syndicalists at first viewed the Soviets of 1917 as the realization of their visions. No wonder the New Left hailed back to the glory days of mass uprisings: those crowds looked like us in the streets of Berkeley, Paris and Prague. Or at least we thought so.

The proletarian revolution, notwithstanding moments of mass strikes and some attempted uprisings, did not of course happen, not even in the aftermath of an all-destructive war. Perhaps the power of world-ascendant American capital, above all, had been underestimated by the revolutionaries. Or the matter had already been decided in the nineteenth century, as socialist and labor movements in the colonial countries raised few objections to the ravaging of populations and ecologies from Africa, Asia to Latin America and beyond. Capitalism would survive as a world system, a sometimes pessimistic Rosa Luxemburg projected, by accelerating its devastating energy toward the peripheries.

But something had happened to Marxism during the calamitous and promising second decade of the twentieth century that could not be boiled down as simply as the collapse of the social democracies and the rise of Bolshevism as the center of a world socialist movement. Lenin’s grasp of Hegel, as small as this matter seemed to be for the vast majority of Marxists until the 1960s or later, could be described as a useful complication. The little grouping around C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee, breaking with Trotskyism in the later 1940s, leaped at finding Lenin’s self-described “leaps” in his wartime notebooks. For them, and others who have followed, it was nothing less than the recuperation of the dialectic as a philosophic motor of revolution.

Krausz handles this episode carefully, in a few pages, making neither too little nor too much of it, and offering a clear understanding of the way in which reading Hegel was rather less than would-be Marxist Hegelians might wish. Lenin came to see in Hegel’s writing a mechanism, almost literally a lever, for moving Marxist thought forward.  To quote Krausz, “Lenin’s objective was to have dialectics, as a methodology of action, ’engrafted’ into the organizational and political activity of ‘everyday mass struggle,” thus to add a needed depth to revolutionary theory and to practical political considerations alike. (147) James, in his curious volume Notes on Dialectics, and Dunayeskaya in similar writings, sought to do likewise in much-changed historical circumstances. If Herbert Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution (1941) determinedly offered a way out of the mechanistic Marxism toward which Russian-style “dialectics” had fallen, Marcuse like Lukacs before him had probed the deeper questions of Hegel’s own status in philosophy at large, torn between theology and what we might call modern, non-theological thought.

We might have wished for more from Krausz along these lines, but it was, after all, a mere moment for Lenin, amidst so many other considerations. The fate of Russia in a non-revolutionary world was vastly larger and more complicated, and to this Krausz offers deep and valuable insight into twentieth century Marxist movements at large. “Peace, Bread and Land,” and The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, may have been in some part a desperate move by Lenin and his colleagues to encompass the peasantry of Eastern Europe, bring it to the side of revolution rather than reaction. But it had been prepared by an ability to escape the truisms of European social democracy, including its haughty assurances that the forced industrialization of the agricultural world would bring the masses of plain people forward.

The same C.L.R. James, who had tutored the young Kwame Nkrumah on revolutionary tactics, devoted his intellectual energies, from great geographical distance, to Ghana’s great early moments of struggle and statehood seeking to offer solutions similar to those pursued by Lenin in another time, on another continent. Putting together Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977), a volume of essays, letters and documents on the great African leader and the fall of the regime, James included a 1964 essay written for a journal in Ghana, “Lenin and the Problem.” It was no mere theoretical concern but the absolute reality for a revolutionary movement that gained state power and found itself bereft of so much that socialists had expected in these circumstances of triumph. Even, in many ways, the western working class itself, as anything like a modern, massive entity, educated through the socialization of the labor process.

In these two cases, revolution, whether peaceful, violent or in some parts both, brought to power a leading party of Marxists or semi-Marxists who–in the face of no world revolution– needed to “make due,” to create a modern economy and to defend the new nation against neocolonial reconquest. For that work to succeed, one condition stood above all others: mobilization of the masses, not only a temporary but on a permanent basis. Lenin, as Krausz says, devoted his failing energies not to the defense of the Party but rather to the prospects of “self-governing” and  “cooperative socialism,” ways for ordinary people (but above all industrial workers) to take control of their own lives and build the new institutions necessary.

Krausz is by no means the first writer to make this point, but he makes it so memorably that a host of other subjects, above all the intra-party faction fighting, seem to dwindle by contrast, even as they prove crucial in the long run. Krausz insists that the “conception of socialism founded on autodynamic—self-generation—and needs-based production, direct democracy, cooperative features and the ‘cooperative system’ of producer and consumer collectives, traces back to Lenin’s way of thinking.”

Lenin’s solutions were not universally appealing by any means, certainly not to many of the leading forces of working class uprisings. Neither the Wobblies nor the Clydesiders of Scottish ship building nor the European syndicalists and anarchists of course, would have agreed with any party solutions. For them, systems of cooperation would be the only kind of real socialism possible. Revolutionaries that they were, proportionately few could find their way to Leninist parties and stay the course. It was not in their political DNA to do so.

This may bring us back–or at least it brings me back–to the 1960s and the shock with which Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man was received. Marcuse had actually been working with his students in social theory and current conditions, asking how exploitation now worked and how modern social movements could be organized. He ruled out the industrial proletariat rather flatly, too easily, as hopelessly encompassed in a world of consumerism. He pointed, instead, rather more vaguely toward the dispossessed, those effectively outside mainstream consumerism, not only racial minorities and the poor at large, but also the young who resisted the consumer society’s values. He recalled alienation in the broadest sense, an alienation that he had way back in the early 1930s found in Marx’s Economic Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and now seemingly so relevant to the alienated young, whatever their apparently secure material status.

Perhaps this analogy has been extended too far, but I do not think so. Krausz’s Reconstructing Lenin will fill in the gaps for the ordinary reader who wants to know, if not everything about Lenin, enough to understand the life, the difficulties, complications and triumphs of a leader who did not necessary want to create “Leninism.”  He gives us a Lenin who is deeply relevant for the present, but not because some magical formulae exist for the usefulness of philosophy or the necessity of some certain kind of socialist political formation. We need more “leaps,” and this volume will help us.

Paul Buhle is the authorized biographer of C.L.R. James and editor or coeditor of two other volumes on James’s life and work. The biographical C.L.R. James Comic, drawn by Milton Knight and edited by Paul Buhle, will be published by Alternative Comics in 2016.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.