As an aspiring socialist activist I’ve kept a close eye on developments on the left, and have watched with interest the crisis that is sweeping the Socialist Workers Party (U.K.), as I think the crisis (instigated by the appalling sexist treatment of female comrades and the atrocious mishandling of rape allegations by the Party) represents an opportunity for a decisive break with sectarianism and the failed “Leninist” party model, not just within the SWP (UK) but for the broader socialist left.
20th-century socialists seem intent on restaging the tragedy of the Russian Revolution, “conjuring up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes.” Yet for those of us living in the 21st-century—over two decades after the collapse of “actually existing socialism”, and the embrace of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (i.e., capitalism in red drapes) by China; and nearly a century since the Russian Revolution—the costumes and battle slogans of the Russian Revolution come off as farcical. For somebody who came to Marxism on his own, not through any socialist sect, I find the continued obsession with the Russian Revolution and the effort to model contemporary socialist organizations on “the Party of Lenin” (to borrow a line from the old Soviet anthem) bewildering. Not least because—as Pham Binh, Lars T. Lih, Louis Proyect and others have argued—“Leninism” has little to do with Lenin and the RSDLP, the true heirs of which all “Marxist-Leninists” (i.e., Trotskyists, Stalinists, Maoists) claim to be. What is more bewildering is the idea that the organizational structure and tactics of the Bolsheviks, who were operating in largely agrarian Tsarist Russia, can or should be a guide for socialists today in advanced capitalist countries.
What the various defences of Leninism by Sandra Bloodworth, Alex Callinicos, and Paul LeBlanc have in common is the presupposition, as Bloodworth eloquently puts it, that “[w]hile capitalism is constantly restructuring the world system, the fundamentals do not change. It remains a system of exploitation and crisis, and so the need for and the possibility of revolution link our times to those of the Bolsheviks. In spite of differences of detail, the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is a guide to the kind of organization which needs to be built again today.” LeBlanc, while admitting that “the organizational forms and norms associated with Leninism must be applied creatively and flexibly, continually adapting to the shifting political, social, cultural realities faced by revolutionaries,” insists that “in seeking to accomplish what the Bolsheviks accomplished, but to do it better, we need to engage with the praxis (thought and practical experience) of Lenin and his comrades, making use of it in facing our own realities.” Callinicos believes that “the Bolsheviks succeeded in breaking the grip of the reformists … and winning the active support of the majority of workers for the conquest of power” because of their organizational structure (a structure he thinks is emulated by his SWP).
To hear them say it, the success of the Russian Revolution is almost entirely due to the “organizational forms and norms associated with Leninism”; Lenin unlocked the secret to revolutionary success, and what we must do is apply it. This same account is applied to explain the degeneration into reformism of the social-democratic parties of the Second International: the Social Democrats had the wrong type of party, which is why they became reformist; the Bolsheviks had the right type of party, which is why they were able to seize power when the time was right (the particular historical circumstances in which the Russian Revolution took place are looked at almost as an afterthought).
This apotheosis of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is understandable in historical context. The prestige of having successfully seized state power, combined with the perceived betrayal of revolutionary socialism by the social-democratic parties of the Second International, saw many socialists “seek to accomplish what the Bolsheviks accomplished” by copying the Bolsheviks, and the Bolsheviks encouraged and eventually enforced this on the parties of the Comintern. The success of the Russian Revolution and the failure of all other revolutionary attempts was taken as proof of the effectiveness of the Bolsheviks’ methods.
We can forgive socialists at the time for thinking this. After all, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution it might have looked like a good idea to try and do what the Bolsheviks did. But with nearly a century of experience of continued failure of Leninist parties in the advanced capitalist countries to grow beyond small, largely ineffectual, sects, we have to reconsider the idea that Leninism holds the secret to building a socialist party and movement. The successful seizure of state power by the Bolsheviks had more to do with particular historical circumstances and political machinations than it did with the organizational forms and norms. The view that their organizational forms and norms are universalizable to all socialist parties, regardless of time or place, is absurd.
To take a lesson from Marx: “The socialist revolution of the 21st-century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the 21st-century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.”
Rather than being weighed down by Leninist organizational forms and norms, and by Leninist slogans and costumes, socialists today need to begin the real work of building a mass socialist movement fit for present conditions—not those of Tsarist Russia. Leninism has been tried. It has failed. It is time to try something else.
Lenin died; Lenin is dead; Lenin will stay dead. It is high time we stopped dragging his corpse around with us. Let’s finally bury him and move on, and with that unburden our brains from the traditions of dead generations.