From the 1903 until 1914, Lenin was the leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. During this time, nobody ever thought of such a thing as “Leninism.” As Lars Lih documented extensively in his book Lenin Reconsidered, he merely considered himself a follower of Karl Kautsky and a proponent of the Second International in Russia.
Between 1914 and 1917, Lenin mulled over the crisis of Social Democracy, a result of socialists throughout the world capitulating to World War I. In 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks led an insurrection against the Russian state, and thus some of the world’s attention first began to focus on the practices of Lenin and his comrades in Russia as an alternative to Kautsky. Within a few years, Lenin fell ill and withdrew from political activity, dying in 1924.
It was only then that “Leninism” was born.
Stalin sat himself at the throne of Lenin, declaring himself the rightful heir of a kingdom that was never meant to be, consolidating power and legitimacy in his hands. The day before Lenin’s funeral, Stalin gave a speech declaring the Russian Communist Party the “army of comrade Lenin.” The doctrine of “Marxism-Leninism” was revealed in Stalin’s speeches and writings and Petrograd, the center of the Russian Revolution, was renamed Leningrad.
The party even introduced the “Lenin Levy,” which brought in hundreds of thousands of new members, mostly petty bourgeois careerists who sat out the revolution but could now be relied upon to form a new bureaucracy that would suffocate the remaining forces of revolutionary workers who remained in the party. This all went down a bit easier under the name of Lenin.
Finally, Lenin’s body was embalmed and sat on display in Red Square for loyal “Leninists” to view. This was the ultimate reification of “Leninism,” transforming his body into a stale monument to be glorified and beheld, undying, unchanging, inalterable and held up as a standard to be studied and mimicked, if only the followers could be so bold as to dare to reach His level of greatness. Stalin’s Leninism entailed the worship of Lenin’s body while rewriting the history of the revolution.
Few if any Leninists today hold up Lenin’s physical body in such high regard, but the monument of “Leninism” remains in the veneration of his body of work.
The pillars of “Leninism”
There are a handful of specific organizational concepts which are often held up as more-or-less defining features of Leninist party building. We will call these the pillars of Leninism. However, when investigated it is not clear that there is anything uniquely “Leninist” about any of them, or that they are even unique to revolutionary organizations.
The vanguard party
The standard Leninist view is that Lenin conceived of a party only of the revolutionary vanguard — the “advanced guard,” the most class conscious and militant members of the working class — while Kautsky conceived of a party of the entire class, including liberal and reactionary workers. But Lenin scholar Lars Lih rejects this stark difference, pointing out that Lenin was not proposing something new but adhering to the principles of mainstream Social Democracy and that “neither Kautsky nor Martov [the leader of the Mensheviks] — no social democrat would ever say that the party should be a party of “the whole class,” whatever that is supposed to mean.” At a very basic level, the idea that revolutionaries should have their own organization with their own theory and their own tactics is not unique to either Leninism or Marxism. Certainly, there are many radicals and revolutionaries who organize this way, they just don’t describe it as Leninist.
This concept has been defined in various ways by Leninists of differing stripes, from banning factions, to following orders without questions, to having a single monolithic line on every political issue, to “maximum debate but unity in practice.” However, as Lars Lih points out, this term was introduced by the Mensheviks, rarely used by Lenin and not really a guiding concept of Bolshevik practice. “I am compelled to conclude,” Lih writes, “that the common supposition that Lenin had a particular organisational philosophy called ‘democratic centralism’ that was distinct or essential to Bolshevism is something of a myth.” More often than not, democratic centralism is the overarching term used for the rules and norms of any given Leninist organization with little or no direct relation to Lenin or the Bolsheviks. That Leninists can continue to invoke this term as some sort of guiding principle after reading and praising Lars Lih ought to raise alarm bells.
The Revolutionary Newspaper
Lenin’s proposal for an all-Russian newspaper in Where to Begin? is nothing new. There were prominent newspapers among revolutionaries well before Lenin, from the French Revolution to the American Abolitionists. Even among Marxists, it seemed that Lenin borrowed rather than invented his conception of the newspaper. In one of Lih’s many interesting insights from his book Lenin Rediscovered, he quotes Franz Mehring describing the SPD when it was forced underground in the 1890s due to German anti-socialist laws: “Bernstein [the editor of the SPD newspaper] well understood how to maintain the newspaper as an organ of the whole party and to give it, at the same time, a definite, firm, clear direction that took into account all tactical demands without violating principle.” This is surprisingly close to Lenin’s formulation of the paper in Where to Begin? written a few years later. It is also worth pointing out that Eduard Bernstein is the notorious villain of Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution? — the most significant proponent of Second International reformism and revisionism. Thus, Lenin’s conception of the newspaper, whatever strengths it has, is hardly unique nor even uniquely revolutionary.
The idea that the revolutionary party is specifically focused on recruitment is often seen as a hallmark of Leninism. Yet, all sorts of organizations hold meetings, march behind their own banners and advocate for people to join them. One fascinating example comes from Evangelical Christian sociologist Rodney Stark, who describes in the book Cities of God how the early Christians built a mass following, largely by recruiting people in the “ones and twos.” The lessons drawn from this book would be fascinating to any Leninist. The point, however, is that there is nothing unique to Leninism or even revolutionary politics to organizational recruitment and the challenges entailed. In fact, there is a wealth of sociological literature on this subjection, although none of it would fall under the category of “Leninism.”
These are, more or less, the pillars of Leninism. And yet, there is nothing uniquely Leninist about any of them. Perhaps Leninism is the collection of these strategies into a single organizational form? Perhaps. But if that is all there is, then quantity would hardly be expected to lead to quality, and the inclusion of the nefarious practices sometimes grouped under “democratic centralism” should be expected to degrade quality.
Granted, Lenin wrote extensively about other political issues, but what typically defines one as a Leninist is adherence to these conceptions of building a party and declaring oneself a Leninist. The problem is, after we have knocked down the above pillars as not being necessarily unique or even non-trivial, we are left with very little.
Perhaps we can hold onto the common description of Lenin as having a remarkable flexibility in practice, while maintaining a single-minded focus on the ultimate goal. Well, I hate to break it to you comrades, but even though Lenin may be an exceptional example of this, these skills are also learned and employed by anybody who organizes a church group or assembles a couch from IKEA. In fact, it is a problem that the great skill of “flexibility” even needs to be mentioned at all. I doubt many working class militants need to be reminded of the importance of flexibility in tactics, not to mention a single mother on food stamps whose primary goal is to pay the rent and feed her children. But for Leninists, this is some great insight.
The monolithic party line, a consequence of distorted views of “democratic centralism,” is particularly problematic. If democratic centralism really means open debate with unity in practice, and this applies to decisions about theoretical issues as well — a bizarre approach to theory — then there is no way around theory ossifying after some decision has been made about it. The point of theory is to guide practice, which can then lead to new areas of theoretical study as a consequence of this experience. But if theory cannot be changed, then nothing can be learned from practice. In this case, it is not even theory, just religious dogma. Maintaining a situation where the leadership can change the theory but nobody else can is hardly any better. Monolithism, rather than developing leadership, is nothing more than a stale formula for creating stale formulas, which then hold back young revolutionaries from widening their perspectives and discovering some innovative new theory or understanding of the world — making them better able to change it. Rather than developing a “vanguard,” the monolithic party line assures that any vanguard is extinguished.
On the question of recruitment, we do not really know how the Bolsheviks went around recruiting people. Are there any examples? I’ve never seen one, and I doubt most Leninists have either. They almost certainly did recruit in some way, either actively or passively, but if we do not know how they did this, we cannot mimic the example nor can we attempt to improve on it. To say that “we use a Leninist method of recruitment,” for example, is to do no more than to put the method up on a pedestal.
No living revolutionary was ever a member of either the Bolsheviks or any other party overseen by Lenin and the early Third International. Some Leninist practices may have come down directly from Trotsky, but he was not a member of the Bolsheviks until a few months before the 1917 revolution. While he certainly learned something from his proximity and experience, he also gave all sorts of horrible advice to his followers about meddling in the affairs of their sister groups and tarnishing internal opponents which he most likely made up.
All the current Leninist organizations sprung forth from previous organizations from which they inherited most of their practices. The preceding organization is probably now considered to be anti-Leninist, which is fine because the practices that were abandoned — and precisely those practices and no others — are what made the previous group anti-Leninist.
So an organization can slap the label “Leninist” on the practices they came up with and/or inherited 20 or 30 years ago and feel like they are being good Leninists. But more often than not, these practices cannot be confirmed as having much to do with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and in some cases — around banning factions and holding a monolithic party line — are clearly the opposite of the Bolshevik’s practices.
All of these practices require various resources, the use of physical spaces and the expenditure of energy over time, leaving behind artifacts not only in the form of newspapers but also leaflets, books, banners and picket signs. However useful this activity might be, the result is the reification of Leninism — taking something ephemeral and transforming it into something real, no longer just an abstract idea. Structures are built up in order to make this happen and they need to be maintained and even defended. Ideas which may not have existed 100 years ago are repeated endlessly and turned into real objects, thus reinforcing their perceived value.
Attaching the term “Leninism” to these practices elevates them to an untouchable status even though they are largely trivial and non-unique. The effort exerted, the objects created and the repetition of the term “Leninist” not only reifies but also naturalizes the concept. This is Leninism. This is how it always has been. This is how it always will be.
Leninism is simply the set of practices carried out by people who identify as Leninists.
To a Leninist, Leninism is what we do. Anti-Leninism is what people who are opposed to us do. How do we know they are against us? Because they are against our methods, therefore they are anti-Leninist.
Once the charge of “anti-Leninism” is bandied about, it is hard to get around it, especially when thrown around amongst Leninists. No good Leninists wants to fall victim to this charge, or be caught defending practices that are deemed anti-Leninist. Just like the charges of “sectarian” or “ultra-left,” this charge obscures more than it clarifies. It’s use merely signifies that some idea or action is outside the terms of debate, set by some arbitrary group of people at some arbitrary time. Much is debatable, but some things are not, lest we negate ourselves.
The charge of “anti-Leninism” is rarely hurled at an action in contradiction to a 100-year-old practice taken directly from Lenin and the Bolsheviks, if for no other reason than these practices are a mystery to most of us. Far more often, the anti-Leninism gun is pointed at a practice dating only a few decades at most. How the methods being criticized can be deemed inherently anti-Leninist is unclear, and remains so, largely because the discussion is shut down at this point.
Occasionally in a Leninist organization, member A will accuse member B of arguing or doing something that is anti-Leninist. In the best case, the comrades will work it out amongst themselves and come to an agreement.
The worst case scenario is when an accused anti-Leninist is and remains a member of a Leninist organization. They are an outsider within our ranks. This creates an untenable situation that must be resolved. Very occasionally — far less often than most non-Leninists would presume — the contradiction is resolved with the dialectic of expulsion. The inside anti-Leninist is now an outsider, and the natural state of things can resume.
It is not so much that the power of expulsion is able to dictate the physical abilities of the now-outsider anti-Leninist. Few if any expulsions ever require physical force. The expulsion of anti-Leninist member B is meant to delegitimize their critique. Since they are now an outsider, their critique is no longer legitimate. Hostile ex-members are a problem, but only insofar as they have a hearing among members. These members become “inside-outsiders” and their status needs to be resolved. They can be anti-Leninist all they want, but not within the Leninist organization, lest we negate ourselves. Expelling the anti-Leninist is the negation of the negation.
By expelling the anti-Leninist element from the Leninist organization, Leninism is further reified and naturalized. Lenin’s body of work is preserved from destructive elements. Not that anybody actually knows for certain how Leninism is supposed to work, but at least there is some certainty restored to the current situation.
Finally, it may turn out that member A, the accuser, was actually wrong to make the accusation. Does this mean that they are anti-Leninist for attacking an idea that was essentially Leninist? Not necessarily. As long as the comrades come to an agreement, the contradiction can vanish rather than be negated and the Leninist stasis may resume. We are all Leninists once again.
What any of this has to do with the revolutionary struggle against capitalism is utterly unclear. What it has to do with building and sustaining and defending an organization should be very clear. Unfortunately, while these are not mutually exclusive, they are not necessarily the same thing either.
Solidarity means attack, and vice-versa
[T]he facts are plain to see: the advanced industrial societies are still without the revolutionary force that can wrest power from the capitalists who hold it, and the Leninist model has never yet proved itself effective for this purpose.
– Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, page 428
The anti-Leninist is the outside agitator of the Leninist organization. A critique from an anti-Leninist is an attack from the outside. It cannot be accommodated, it must be challenged. Otherwise we will succumb to anti-Leninism.
This sort of thinking is unfortunately all too common among many Leninist organizations. Criticizing a set of ideas that have been reified and naturalized into Leninism cannot be seen as anything but an attack, not because the organization cannot survive change but because the norms and practices have been placed next to the world’s first successful workers’ revolution, even if that is not historically the case.
Leninists sometimes employ a model of their organization as operating in concentric circles, with the party at the center, surrounded by fellow travellers and activist allies, surrounded by passive liberals, surrounded by hostile liberals, conservatives, etc. Each circle creates the ability to both affect the outside world and be properly influenced by it. Unfortunately, this model can sometimes look like a medieval fortress, with each circle a moat or stone wall protecting from outside attack. Sometimes, the drawbridges in the inner circle are retracted, the center is surrounded but temporarily secure, neither influencing the world nor influenced by it. Leninism is safe.
What needs to be asked is, if the critique is hostile, then hostile to what exactly? Is it hostile to the working class, or to the revolutionary struggle against capitalism? Is it an obstacle toward building these struggles? Does it accommodate capital or the state, or the liberal and reformist forces that uphold them?
If a critique is deemed to attack “Leninism,” then perhaps it is not attacking anything at all, or perhaps it is working in solidarity with attempts to build a stronger resistance against capitalism with better forms of organization.
What “Leninism” does more than anything else is raise various methods to the level of world-historic principle. Arguing about whether something is Leninist or anti-Leninist is largely counter-productive, unless we are simply having an academic discussion over Russian history.
We can continue fighting over Lenin’s body or we can do what revolutionaries — including Lenin — have always done: evaluate the situation as it is and seek out new forms of organization and resistance that empower the working-class, regardless of what came before. The truth is, many of us have ideas about this, but ultimately we do not know. Revolutionaries and radicals are in the process of discovering these practices, not only through study of the past but through experiment in the present.
The future working-class rebellions in the US will not self-identify as Leninist, not this long after the Soviet Union has fallen and the Leninist parties of the world have collapsed. To believe otherwise would be utter idealism, along the lines of believing that a revolution will occur because enough people read the Communist Manifesto. Rather than arguing over “Leninism,” Leninists would be better off building resistance to neoliberalism with an explicit eye toward societal transformation and joining forces with all those who seek to do the same. Rather than seeing the world through 100 years of Leninism and Trotskyism, adjusting by inches one way or another to improve their practice, we should seek to build something new that nobody else has even considered before, just as every revolutionary before us has done. After all, it is the creation of something new that is revolutionary, not the reconstruction of the old. We do not need to ignore history, but we do need to enthusiastically embrace the future.
Lenin did not have a Leninism to fall back on, and neither do we.
Scott Jay is a writer and activist living in Oakland, CA.
(Originally published at to the victor go the toils)