Lenin, Putin and Me


Vladimir Putin doesn’t like Lenin very much

The title is silly, I know, but reading about Vladimir Putin’s comments on January 22, 2016 that Lenin had placed an atomic bomb under the Soviet Union triggered my own thinking about this single-minded revolutionary who so many hate and socialist workers adored.

Although Vlad doesn’t like Lenin much, I learned that his grandfather, Spiridon Ivanovich (1879-1965), cooked for Lenin for a time. Did Putin’s grandfather tell him what Lenin’s favourite dishes were—one wonders. But we do know that Lenin thought that too many cooks spoiled the revolutionary broth.

I was also reminded of my visit to the last remaining Lenin Museum outside the former Soviet Union in Tampere, Finland with my old leftist buddy Jukka. Founded in 1946 by the Finland-Soviet Union Society, it was located in the historic Workers’ Hall, itself built in 1900.

It is a modest little museum, lacking pizzazz and zip. But this very room hosted underground meetings of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1905 and 1906. There Lenin met Stalin. What might they have talked about?

I was also reminded of my visit to the splendid Workers’ Museum in Copenhagen. Touching and tenderly constructed dioramas of workers’ little rooms jab at the heart. Banners proclaiming the worker desire for a 10 hour day adorn the walls. God! The suffering, the suffering! The Museum even had a little display of a worker’s twisted spine—a victim of scoliosis caused by slaving away in some damn factory. One could also eat in a large hall where workers of time past held their rousing meetings.

Outside in the courtyard, I finally met Lenin in massive statue-form, four metres high. Towering over me, I held his massive hand, and my wife snapped a photo. A communist Sailor’s Union owned this statue of Lenin (obtained from the Soviet Union); it had been displayed since 1998 in a permanent exhibit, “The People’s Century.” Several right-wing groups have pressed the Danish government to have it removed. If it were to stay, they wanted to add a supplementary text to the plaque: Lenin as “murderer and executioner.”

The unimaginable challenges of the Russian Revolution

It is difficult to imagine how the early Russian revolutionaries thought they might overthrow the Tsar and launch a revolution in this vast backward country that few revolutionaries (including Marx and Engels) imagined could even launch a proletarian revolution.

The sheer unimaginable vastness and complexity of a Russian revolution leaves one gasping for breath like a fish out of water. How in the world could such an event crash into history and derail capitalism’s smooth sailing to the end of history? Perhaps the Russian imaginary—think of the sweep of Tolstoy’s War and Peace—has this expansive capacity that other cultures lack.

Lenin could imagine it; we cannot. But imagining is one thing; how does one pull it off, violently overthrowing an oppressive regime, then beginning to create a society that is not permeated with oppression and violence itself?

Although I am most certainly not a Russian history scholar (of the scholars sleeping on my book shelves only Hobsbawm (Age of Extremes: the short twentieth century 1914-1991. London: Abacus Boks, 1995) is sympathetic to Lenin; Francois Furet (The Passing of Communism: the idea of communism in the twentieth century. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999 certainly hates him), I have been interested for quite some time in how the workers were to acquire the revolutionary consciousness that would move them into collective action. And Lenin has some fascinating ideas about how this would work!

Marxian scholarship has paid very little attention to the learning processes, pedagogies and sites where industrial-era workers could acquire an emancipatory consciousness (the “organization of enlightenment”) and engage in revolutionary praxis (“the organization of action”). The Marxist theoretical tradition and revolutionary praxis offers us different models.

In the early writings of Marx and Engels, the “harsh but hardening school of labour” was thought to be the site where the emancipatory rabbit could be pulled out of the hat of bitter experience in the factories. The revolutionaries simply had to play midwife to the revolutionary learning process unfolding before their eyes. They had to help the proletariat name the new world they were giving birth to.

Later, a much chastened Marx and Engels would argue that, left to themselves, the proletariat could not develop on their own the requisite revolutionary consciousness. They needed a Communist Party to help. The pedagogical task of the Communists was to point out and bring to the fore common interests of the entire proletariat.

“The educator needs to be educated”: one of the most legendary of Marx’s 11 theses on Feuerbach. And what a Gordian knot of a puzzle this aphorism is! Who, indeed, will educate the educator? One of Marx and Engels’ models clearly gives this role of educator to the uprising workers themselves.

Another recognizes the role of scholarly enlightenment in the formation of the educator (thus privileging their knowledge and insight), all the while holding on to the necessity that revolutionary educators not impose their views without dialogue with the vulgar working class. The latter statement is sweet and easy to say, isn’t it?

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Revolutionary Broth

But with Vladimir Lenin, the mighty Russian man who wanted to provoke a world revolution, the scientifically educated revolutionary educator emerges full-blown into the stormy light of day. Put overly simply, Lenin was so utterly single-minded about fomenting a Russian revolution that it ought not to surprise us that he would place the weight of history on the shoulders of tough revolutionary educators who knew what Russians needed (even though the workers themselves could never get beyond the achievement of a “trade union” consciousness). Let’s set out his argument.

In his educational treatise What is to be Done? (1903), Lenin formulates the pedagogical relationship between educator (socialist intellectual) and those to be educated (peasants and proletariat) in bluntly instrumental and directive terms.

This famous (or infamous) text can be situated in the years between 1872 and 1905 that were marked by the absence of revolution. The existing revolutionary parties held gradualist and economistic beliefs, and Lenin could not see any way forward without “vanguard” subordination of the working class to the Leninist educator.

In a now classic formulation:

We have said that the workers could not yet possess Social-Democratic consciousness. This consciousness could only be brought to them from the outside. The history of all countries shows that the working class, solely by its own forces, is able to work out merely trade-union consciousness, i.e. the conviction of the need for combining in unions, for fighting against the employers, and for trying to prevail upon the government to pass laws necessary for the workers, and c.

The teaching of Socialism, however, has grown out of the philosophical, historical, and economic theories that were worked out by the educated representatives of the propertied classes—the intelligentsia. The founders of modern scientific Socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged by social status to the bourgeois intelligentsia. Similarly, the theoretical teaching of the Social-Democracy emerged in Russian quite independently of the spontaneous growth of the labour movement; it emerged as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary Socialist intelligentsia (Lenin, What is to be done. Oxford University Press, 1963, p. 80).

Since there can be no question of an independent ideology being worked out by the working masses in the very process of their movement, then the only question is this: the bourgeois ideology or the Socialist ideology (ibid., p. 89).

Thus, the teaching of socialism is the cultural property of the radicalized bourgeois intelligentsia. By virtue of their cultural and intellectual formation, socialist intellectuals are, paradoxically, the locus of Marxian analysis and ideas (ideology). They are outside the process of struggle-consciousness which Marx adumbrated in the Third Thesis on Feuerbach.

The “class instinct” of the workers and peasantry is inadequate. They are viewed as being incapable of grasping the links between exploitation and the political structure of the bourgeois state.

Socialism thus emerges as the natural and inevitable outcome of the thought of the revolutionary intelligentsia. This idealist revision of the Marxian axiom that “social being determines consciousness” brings Lenin perilously close to making consciousness of the proletariat the product of the consciousness of intellectuals (R. Rossandra, “Class and party,” The Socialist Register, 1970, pp. 222-224).

In his remarkable essay, “Forgetting Lenin,” Telos, 26, 1973-4), Francois George comments on the status of proletarian experience in Leninism.

The mind secretes thought: sometimes the bourgeois mind secretes socialist thought. The workers certainly do not conceptualize socialism: among them there is only a sort of practical socialism aided by an accessory will, a vague outline of refusal and desire of something else, which is conceptualized among the intellectuals which are autonomous or, in any case, depend only on the development of thought.

This is strongly in agreement with the ‘world view’ or materialist myth founded on the idea of the evolution of matter. Scholars are not engaged in their social being (in Marx’s sense, in matter): instead they are the voice of matter, or the universal substance which at the beginning of the twentieth century achieved full self-consciousness in the Bolshevik Party (p. 76).

Lenin has vested the socialist intellectuals with a sacred authority. The Truth is hidden from the proletariat whose consciousness remains enclosed in “phenomena and appearances: the profane. The Party knows the substrata of history and its paths” (ibid., p. 77).

The proletariat must submit itself to the tutelage of theory

The proletariat is to submit itself to the tutelage of theory. The intellectuals are the pedagogues. With a twist of the dialectic Lenin (in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: the crisis in the party. Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1947]) argues that the “school of labour” not only inculcates the necessary “iron discipline” into the workers but also provides excellent training for membership in the Bolshevik Party.

George (1973-4) comments on the significance of this education.

“For Lenin, it is matter of accepting the proletariat as capitalism has constituted it in order to carry out a slightly different task. It has been ‘well-educated’ and well adjusted. In other words, the basic personality created by capitalism is the one upon which ‘socialism’ must rest. The construction of socialism presupposes alienation in its most profound sense: submission to authority and repression of individual possibilities of imagination, autonomy, liberty, creativity, i.e. of organization. Thus, it will be possible to bring organization in from the outside: to impose it like a transcendental order just as in capitalism” (p.55).

The Vanguard Party serves to protect the purity of theory from proletarian dilution. Intellectuals, who are committed to talk and rational discussion (a “culture of critical discourse”), are both indispensable and under suspicion in the Bolshevik Party.

Under suspicion—because “who needs discussion groups” (Lenin’s riposte) when the world needs changing–but necessary because without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.

The Vanguard Party must try to lay the foundational requirements for an emancipated and emancipating social theory while exercising control over intellectuals (Gouldner, “Prologue to a theory of revolutionary intellectuals, Telos, 1975-6, p. 372). Intellectuals must be radicalized and socialized to struggle against the status quo. But they must be socialized in such a way so as to prevent endless reflection and discussion.

They must be prepared to stop talking and to submit to party discipline. The question of “who will educate the educator” now surfaces not in the relationship between Party and class, but in the relationship between Party and its members.

The way is opened for a single individual to dominate the Party in the name of Socialism. In the Leninist chain of being, the party first replaces the proletariat as subject. But as both Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky saw, the party’s subjectivity is a sham.

George (1973-4, p. 43) observes acidly: “…(M)ore imperious than ever, the subjective function eventually re-establishes itself in a single individual. Having won out—by his individual qualities, no doubt—over the other individuals naturally pursuing the same goal within the Party’s managerial apparatus, one individual comes to dispose of absolute power over these great objective entities, the Proletariat and the Revolution. Becoming a pure desire for power, the desire for individual affirmation advances in disguise and achieves its ends, protected by official ideology.”

Lenin turned away from the socialist vision of “All power to the Soviets”

In her famous text, On Revolution (New York: the Viking Press, 1965), Hannah Arendt notes that in 1905 Lenin had extolled with great sincerity ‘the revolutionary creativity of the people’ and in 1917, during the October Revolution, proclaimed ‘All power to the Soviets.’”

But, Arendt (1965, p. 261) says, Lenin had “done nothing to reorient his thought and to incorporate the new organs into any of the many party programs, with the result that the same spontaneous development in 1917 found him and his party no less vanguard than they had been in 1905.”

Indeed, the slogan “All power to the Soviets” contradicts “the openly proclaimed revolutionary goals of the Bolshevik Party to ‘seize power’, that is, to replace the state machinery with the party apparatus. Had Lenin really wanted to give all power to the soviets, he would have condemned the Bolshevik Party to the same impotence which now is the outstanding characteristic of the Soviet parliament” (ibid., p. 269).

It is grimly ironic that those who affirm, even half-heartedly, the self-emancipation of the proletariat in the name of Marx, control and ultimately crush concrete expressions of workers’ self-activity, namely factory committees and soviets. Is that a simplistic affirmation?

Once organized in soviets and factory committees, the workers could not imagine, either before, but more particularly after October 1917, that they were not going to get what they had bargained for (Castoriadis, “From Bolshevism to bureaucracy,” Our Generation, 12, 1977, p. 49). By the summer of 1918 almost all of Russian industry had been placed under Party forms of management.

The Communists expressed the fundamental interests of the working class. The dictatorship of the proletariat, as Trotsky declared, was not expressed in the “form in which individual economic enterprises are administered” (L. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1961, p. 162).

In fact, it is well-known that Lenin—to save the Russian revolution—wrote in his “April thesis (1918) that the “Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process” (Lenin, cited, M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers Control 1917-1921: the state and counterrevolution. London: Solidarity Press, 1970, p. 20).

Lenin embraced Taylorism because the iron harsh but hardening discipline of the Fordist factory seemed ideally suited for the moulding of the Bolshevik political activist. This was not the way the young Marx imagined the outcome of worker revolutionary experience in the harsh school of labor. He imagined freedom from iron discipline, not subjugation to capitalist work design.

Brian Fay (Critical Social Science: liberation and its limits, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 134) comments: For those who advocate non-violence as a way to bring about deep change, “the case of the Russian Revolution stands as glaring example of this point: once a small cadre of revolutionaries adopted a military-style organization bent on overthrowing the regime of the Tsar through force and manipulation, it was inevitable that when this cadre took poor it would continue to operate in the same way. The result was simply that one source of oppression was removed only to be replaced by another.”

The answer we give to the question—“Who will educate the educator?—has grave consequences.

PS: I just remembered that when I taught at a Community College ages ago I put a poster of Lenin on my wall. Broom in hand, Lenin was sweeping fat-cat capitalists with fat cigars out of his beloved Russia.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.