Lars Lih online: Recent studies on Bolshevism, Lenin, and Kautsky

by John Riddell on January 7, 2014

Lars Lih is one of the most influential and innovative contemporary historians of Marxism, and my April 2013 listing of eight of his online studies proved unexpectedly popular. Since then, six more online papers by Lars have come to my attention. Here are the six new articles, followed by the original list. For each article, I have added a quotation indicating its topic. (John Riddell)

1. Fortunes of a Formula: From “Democratic centralism” to “Democratic centralism (2013)

Lars T. Lih

Lars T. Lih

“Lenin only employed the term ‘democratic centralism’ in two strictly limited periods: 1906-7 and 1920-1…. In each of these two periods, Lenin’s use of the term was triggered by groups to which he was opposed: by the Mensheviks in 1906-7 and the ‘Democratic Centralist’ group headed by N. Osinsky and others in 1920…. [T]here is barely any connection between the meaning of the term as used in 1906-7 and in 1920-1. This is more than a matter of differing emphases: the terms simply refer to different things in the two periods. The phrase ‘democratic centralism’ always has a working part and a decorative part. In 1906-7, the working part was ‘democratic’ and the formula referred to intra-party elections, control from below, and so forth. In 1920-1, the working part was ‘centralism’ and the formula referred primarily to the uniform policies required by a ruling party.”

2. Further Fortunes of a Formula: Bogdanov and Zinoviev on Democratic Centralism (2013)

“The two documents presented [here] also help us put ‘democratic centralism’ in the context of more basic Bolshevik organisational norms. The 1909 document [Bogdanov] uses the term partiinost, ‘partyness’, to sum up the basic Bolshevik approach. The 1923 document [Zinoviev] makes it clear that ‘worker democracy’ was a more fundamental goal, at least in aspiration, than ‘democratic centralism’.”

3. On Marxism and Melodrama: An Interview with Lars Lih (2013)

“I’m very lucky to have a real audience who read me and challenge me, who like some things and don’t like others, and who will call me on it—and I’ve been reacting and interacting with this audience. For example, in Lenin Rediscovered, one of the things I talk about is the relation of Lenin to Kautsky. While I’m far from the first to bring up the link between the two, I’ve emphasized it in a more radical fashion, emphasized how much Lenin got from Kautsky and owed to him. And so people challenged that, as they should have, because the book was restricted to a short period, essentially from 1900 to about 1903–4. My critics said: Well, we all know that later on Lenin turned against Kautsky, and as he went on, Lenin rejected everything Kautsky stood for and rethought Marxism. So I had to take these criticisms into account.”

4. Lenin and Kautsky, The Final Chapter (2008)

“What was Lenin’s attitude toward Kautsky? Up to 1909, it was extremely admiring and intense. From 1910 to 1914, Lenin’s attitude became much more wary. After 1914, when Kautsky took a centrist position on the war and refused to split with the majority leadership, Lenin’s attitude became extremely negative, and remained so until the end. The question arises, how did Lenin after 1914 regard his own earlier admiration for Kautsky?” (Together with related talks by Paul Le Blanc and Helen Scott)

5. Light and Air of Political Freedom (2010)

“…[D]uring the 19th century … the most committed, the most orthodox and most dogmatic revolutionary Marxists were friends, in fact champions, of political freedom. But in the 20th century – especially if you see the 20th century as beginning in 1914 and ending in 1989 – …the most committed, the most orthodox and most dogmatic revolutionary Marxists were not friends of political freedom, to put it mildly. There are all sorts of qualifications one can add here, but this is obviously the reputation that revolutionary Marxism has today. It is even more striking that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is, as I like to call him, the ‘poster boy’ for both these assertions.”

6. Stephen Cohen’s ‘Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War (2012)

“More than any other Western writer I can think of, Cohen is immersed in Russian public opinion…. The ultimate strength of his interpretations throughout the book is that they are so strongly anchored in the way Russians have experienced and reflected upon their own history-a strength only available to someone who has spent decades interacting with members of that fascinating society.”


And here’s the original list, published in April 2013…

Lars Lih online: Eight recent studies on Bolshevism, Lenin, and Kautsky (April 2013)

1. Kautsky-as-Marxist data base (2011)

“The Kautsky-as-Marxist database is a collection that I have compiled of all comments by Lenin in his final decade, 1914-1924, that bear on the issue on his attitude during those years toward Kautsky’s prewar writings—or rather, his writings up to and including 1909.”

2. Lenin and ‘Bolshevism’: 1912, 1917, 1920 (three-part series, 2012):

a. A faction is not a party

“Lenin’s views on this topic in the years before World War I can be summed up succinctly: Bolshevism was a faction (fraktsiia), a part of a larger whole: namely, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).”

b. How the party became (bolshevik)

“When Lenin returned to Russia at the beginning of April 1917, he carefully avoided using ‘Bolshevik’ to refer to the party.  Several reasons led to this reluctance. … but [Lenin] soon discovered that the name of the party wasn’t up to him, or even up to the party!  People outside the party, both friends and foes, knew it as the party of the Bolsheviks, and—especially in the new context of open politics and electoral competition—their outlook was decisive.”

c. Bolshevism and revolutionary Social Democracy

“[For Lenin in 1920,] the focus was no longer on setting up soviets, but rather on the party as a vehicle of revolutionary preparation in a non-revolutionary situation. The question then arises: what kind of party? And Lenin answers: a Bolshevik-type party, as opposed to the philistine, opportunist, careerist parties of the pre-war Second International. [But] Lenin’s rejection of theactual parties of the Second International does not mean he is rejecting itsparty ideal.  … Lenin goes out of his way in “Left-Wing” Communism to claim that ‘history has now confirmed on a large, world-wide and historical scale the opinion we have always advocated, that is, that revolutionary German Social Democracy came closest to being the party which the revolutionary proletariat required to enable it to attain victory’.”

3. Falling Out over a Cliff (2012)

“If the standard story is correct, and Lenin really did have the conscious intention of using the Prague Conference [1912] to make the Bolshevik faction equivalent to the party as a whole, then he thoroughly deserves the severe condemnation he received from his political foes at the time…. Any such secret intention on his part meant that the process of calling the conference was deeply dishonest and calculated in a disloyal way to wreak as much damage as possible on the parent organisation…. But, since there is no real reason to believe Lenin had any such secret intention, these dire conclusions do not follow.”

4. Lenin, Kautsky, and ‘the new era of revolutions’ (2011)

“In autumn 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Lenin wrote to his associate, Aleksandr Shliapnikov: ‘I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy.’ … Ultimately more useful in understanding Lenin’s outlook, however, is another comment, made around the same time to the same correspondent: ‘Obtain without fail and reread (or ask to have it translated for you) Road to Power by Kautsky [and see] what he writes there about the revolution of our time! And now, how he acts the toady and disavows all that!’”

5. An introduction to Kautsky’s ‘Republic and Social Democracy in France’ (2011)

“The Marxists were far from politically indifferent [to the republic], Kautsky asserted: they strongly supported the republic, and in particular saw thedemocratic republic as the only possible form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the bourgeois Third Republic was not particularly democratic – in fact, it was accurately described as a ‘monarchy without a monarch.’”

6. Kautsky, Lenin, and the April Theses (2010)

“Kautsky’s article may provide an answer to a long-standing historical mystery. In April 1917, Lenin made certain ideological innovations that seemed to come out of the blue. Historians have proposed various explanations, but none have been generally convincing. I believe that the key to the mystery lies in the impact of Kautsky’s article on Lenin’s outlook.”

7. ‘We must dream!’ Echoes of `What Is to Be Done?’ in Lenin’s later career (2010)

“Lenin himself did not talk directly about What Is to Be Done? very much…. Even in Soviet Russia, What Is to Be Done? was only discovered again after Lenin’s death. In fact, it’s really a myth that What Is to Be Done? served as the founding document of Bolshevism. Nevertheless, it became clear to me that some of the major themes, often accompanied by characteristic vocabulary, do surface again and again in Lenin’s writings.”

8. Chávez’s gift to Obama: What’s to be made of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (2009)

“Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, has just announced on Venezuelan television that the next time he meets with President Barack Obama, he will give the American head of state a short book written in 1902 by one Lenin, entitled What Is to Be Done? (Chto delat’?). A surprising announcement. The last time Chávez showed his willingness to fill out Obama’s reading list, he gave him a topical book on the situation in Latin America. But what topical interest can be found in a book over a century old, written under the drastically alien circumstances of tsarist Russia?”

(Originally compiled and published by John Riddell)

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