A Note on his Politics
Probably the most influential politician of the 20th century both directly and indirectly was Lenin. Sadly in many respects his influence was negative and in fact his career is a perfect of example of that old cliché the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In the case of Lenin the undoubtedly bad effects his political philosophy and practice had on 20th century history were rooted in certain assumptions that he had concerning the way the world operated. In the case of Lenin we had political philosopher suffused with a rigid dogmatism that would only see the world operating in a particular way and saw opposition in a particular way as perverse.
In the late the 19th century it was becoming clear that Marx and Engel’s mid-century predictions and views of the Capitalist system and future developments were seriously questionable if not wrong. Thus for example Marx’s picture of industrial Capitalism has radically re-shaping the world while right as far as it goes was actually wrong in so far as Marx had only caught the very beginning of their processes and that and radically, even spectacularly underestimated just how much Capitalism would and indeed continues to radically transform the world.1
Further Marx’s so called vision of the worker’s growing absolute, or was it relative, impoverishment proved to be false. I should here point out that what Marx said about absolute versus relative impoverishment is a contentious issue it appears that Marx was in fact talking about relative not absolute impoverishment. However that may be many of the Marxist faithful at the time took it has a matter of course that the industrial worker or Proletariat would in absolute terms get poorer in order for the Capitalists to continue enjoying a profit from their enterprises. This dogma was accepted by many as an article of faith.
Of course the problem with the idea of a steadily increasing absolute impoverishment of the working class was exactly how was such a class to achieve political power? In the Marxian view of historical development previous classes had been overthrown by rising classes due to the rising classes’ steady accumulation of economic power. If the Proletariat was being steadily ground down just how would it acquire political power? In the Marxian view of things political power grew out of economic power. If the Proletariat lacked economic power just how was it to do so?
“Orthodox” Marxists really didn’t try to answer this question. They talked about the organization of the working class and class consciousness and the need for Proletariat labour. They talked about leadership by the “conscience” of the working class etc.
Of course another problem with the notion of impoverishment was that impoverished people are too starved, demoralized and busy scrounging for enough to get by to be actual revolutionary threats. Such people may riot or even rebel but has revolutionaries they don’t work. They are too busy trying to stay alive to be serious threats.
To be threats to the authorities they have to be organized in some fashion, have some education and be conscious not just of their situation but what can be done about it. In other words it requires a group of conscious organizers and activists. How a group of starving, desperate, poorly educated and oppressed people would provide that is questionable.
The solution, which anyone would see who had looked at history would be that the rising class would have enough people with enough economic wherewithal to be able to organize. After all the rising Bourgeoisie of 18th century Europe was led by men with a rising economic stake who felt they were being held back by the Feudal and Aristocratic institutions of their society and sought to get rid of them has impediments on their social, economic and political rights.
Thus one would expect that the leadership of the Proletariat to be overall the economically successful and well educated sectors of the working class. If the Proletariat was composed of ill-educated starvelings barely making subsistence, no such group could arise. Of course some thought that a group of privileged workers could arise even if things got worse for the working class in general. Of course this begs the question of just how a tiny privileged group could possibly lead a huge mass of people barely on the edge of subsistence to power.
And of course the final nail in the coffin for this whole notion of absolute impoverishment is the simple fact that it never happened. The trend over time was for the standard of living of the European industrial working class / Proletariat to get better in the 60 or so years before the First World War. This fact which could not be wished away had to be explained or waved away. For to orthodox Marxists the idea of absolute impoverishment was dogma that was simply true. That this notion was based on a misreading of Marx’s actual writings seems to have escaped them.
Faced with this decisive refuting of a cherished dogma, Marxist’s replied with denial, evasion or ad-hoc explanations. Very few seem to have simply said that Marx never talked about absolute impoverishment but relative which of course leaves plenty of room for peoples standard of living improving. Instead people flayed about trying to explain and explain away how one of their dogmas failed to describe reality. Of course even if it described reality just how was an impoverished class barely making subsistence was supposed to gain power was never satisfactorily answered.
When the first great revisionist Bernstein, of the German Social Democratic Party, declared that since Marx’s prophecy of impoverishment was not coming true, a prophecy Marx apparently never really made, that Marx’s whole scheme of the inevitability of a Proletariat revolution has to be re-evaluated, he was subject to vicious attack. Since they couldn’t quarrel with his facts, that Worker’ lives were getting better, the attacks they made had the feel and aspect of attacking someone for attacking the true faith. Thus Bernstein and his supporters were anathematized for their heresy. Despite this their ideas did gain ground in fact if not in the pronouncements of the various Social Democratic parties, because reality could not be wished away.2
To someone like Lenin the rise of the “Revisionists”, as Bernstein followers were called, was a shock and an affront. Their existence could not be accepted as the virtually inevitable outcome of the failure of the Marxist prophecy of absolute impoverishment instead it had to be blamed on other causes. And the irony of Lenin’s “explanation” for the rise of revisionism is that it was in part at least an abandonment of Marxism.
One of the most annoying features of the Marxist “faith” is that so many of practitioners used the vocabulary of “Science”. They again and again proclaimed their beliefs to be scientific and grounded in “Science”. Frankly much of the time this was little better than uttering the words “Science” and “Scientific” has a ritual chant. The profoundly irrational, prophecy larded aspects of the Marxist “faith” could be passed over and ignored by this chanting. In the end it was the prophecy encrusted aspects of the Marxist “faith” that attracted converts to it. That this was the case is shown by the profound political irrationality of many of its adherents.3
Lenin despite his considerable skills as a tactician and intriguer was in the end a dogmatist who accepted a whole slew of dogmatic beliefs on faith. In many respects Lenin’s whole life is a monument to the idea that false faith is false faith regardless whether or not God enters into it at all.
Thus Lenin rather than abandon or at least thoroughly review the beliefs that he oh so rigidly accepted instead resorted to ad-hoc explanations all of which reveal in detail the quasi-religious underpinnings of his “faith”.
In Marxian terms the explanation for the rise of Bernstein revisionism is actually rather simple. The failure of the working class to get steadily more absolutely poor, the opening up of various parliaments to representatives of the working class, the creation in other words of liberal or quasi liberal democracies would create a situation in which sections of, or most of, the Proletariat would see that strike action, political organizing working through parliament would achieve their aims. And why would they not see it that way in so far as it was manifestly working. So the rise of “Revisionism” or to be probably more accurate accommodationism would be a predicable outcome of such a situation.4
Lenin showed that the basis of his belief was irrational by thinking up explanations that were at once irrational and frankly non-Marxian.
Thus Lenin viewed the struggle for a “true” party representing the “true” interests of the Proletariat as a struggle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. In other words in terms that were Manichean-religious. Thus Lenin engaged in vicious polemical writing that damned those who disagreed with him as the demonic other. Such a way of categorizing those who disagree with you is in essence religious and hysterical; it is also very personal.
For Lenin regarded the revisionists has not simply wrong but has traitors, liars, betrayers of the working class. Further that their betrayal had been bought in some fashion. In other words the betrayal was for personal, individual reasons. It had little link with large scale forces that made the emergence of “revisionism”, virtually the inevitable and logical outcome of impersonal forces of social development and change. Instead according to Lenin it was the result of the personal failings of certain politicians / leaders who were thereby “betraying” the Proletariat. That this volunteristic interpretation of the rise of "Revisionism" is profoundly un-Marxian seems to have escaped Lenin.5
Thus we get the notion that some cabal of evil men were responsible for perverse reasons for betraying the whole world wide Proletariat.
Thus we get the notion that some cabal of evil men were responsible for perverse reasons for betraying the whole world wide Proletariat.
Thus when World War I broke out and the various Social Democratic parties rushed to the support of their various national governments; all Lenin could say was to bloviate about betrayal. The actual reasons why where not subject to study; in fact they were not really noticed instead we got the Manichean discourse about the sons of light versus the sons of darkness and nonsense about a few evil men betraying the workers and thus changing the course of “inevitable” history. That this was and remains profoundly anti-Marxist is obvious.
Of course like so many dogmatic “orthodox” Marxists before the war Lenin constantly, underestimated the force of nationalism. If nationalist passions affected a population / workers that was largely false consciousness or the result of treachery / betrayal by the leadership of the workers. That nationalism was a real force of real effect was largely ignored. Of course Lenin did adopt a policy of encouraging “Nationalism” in the Russian empire but mainly has a tactical tool to attack the Tsarist regime. In reality he meant that a state dominated by the Proletariat would regard national rights as just cute “cultural” rights and that anything like real “self-determination” would not be allowed in a true “workers” state.
Since Lenin accepted the Marxian “orthodox” dogma that the workers were entirely bound by class and not national consciousness, despite the evidence, what happened in 1914 could only be explained by him in terms of betrayal.
Thus we do not get from Lenin a judicious explanation of what happened in 1914. Instead we get hysteria, polemic and accusations of betrayal. That this is an infantile explanation for what happened is of course obvious. The simple fact is that the wave of hysteria for war that swept over Europe in August - September 1914, afflicted all classes including the working class of all the European countries involved. In fact the Social Democrat leadership was shocked by the depth of Nationalist fervor among their supporters. Not surprisingly the Social Democratic leadership fearful of being left behind and considered irrelevant went along. In fact many of the leadership were surprised by the depths of nationalism they personally had.6
This being the case talking about the workers being “betrayed” is stuff and nonsense. A Marxian analysis would have come to the same conclusion that the leadership going along with their members is hardly a surprise. Lenin not really understanding the depths and power of nationalism could only see events in terms of treachery and betrayal. It was and remains an infantile solution to figuring out what happened. It also remains a profoundly anti-Marxian solution.
Allied to this was Lenin’s notion, which he wrote up in his Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism,7 of the workers being bribed.
Now Lenin did reluctantly accept the fact that the lives of workers were in fact getting better. But he fudged it. First he still thought that the doctrine of progressive absolute impoverishment of the working class was basically true. That this was a dogma that Marx apparently never really held was ignored. He said that there was a “Labour Aristocracy” that was being bribed by the Capitalists into acceptance of the Capitalist order. Thus they got the best jobs, best hours etc. In return they helped to elect a leadership that would “betray” the Proletariat to the Capitalist class. Thus the new “Labour Aristocracy” was not the “true” Proletariat but a group of bribed traitors. And of course the leadership of this bribed section of the working class was similarly “bribed” to “betray”. Thus they were all doing it for selfish economic advantage.
The theory of the “Labour Aristocracy” of course faces a number of problems. One is that it doesn’t make sense in Marxian terms. Generally in Marxian terms the most advanced sector of a rising class are its leaders so the “Labour” Aristocracy” are the natural leaders not some bribed bunch of traitors. Also in the past it was generally the most successful and advanced sectors of previous rising classes that provided the leadership. Thus it was the successful bourgeoisie that advanced the French Revolution and the end to Aristocratic privilege. Thus Lenin denouncing the “Labour Aristocracy” is un-Marxian.
Also his explanation for where the Capitalist’s got the money for paying, in his view bribing, the “Labour Aristocracy”, was imperialism. This was the notion that through the “super profits” created by imperialist exploitation the Capitalist class was able to bribe the “Labour Aristocracy”. I will not go into here into the problems with this notion of imperialism or the supposed “super profits” suffice to say Lenin’s solution to this problem was and is wrong. For Lenin says at one point:
Imperialism has the tendency to create privileged sections also among the workers, and to detach them from the broad masses of the proletariat.
It must be observed that in Great Britain the tendency of imperialism to split the workers, to strengthen opportunism among them and to cause temporary decay in the working-class movement, revealed itself much earlier than the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries; for two important distinguishing features of imperialism were already observed in Great Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century—vast colonial possessions and a monopolist position in the world market. Marx and Engels traced this connection between opportunism in the working-class movement and the imperialist features of British capitalism systematically, during the course of several decades. For example, on October 7, 1858, Engels wrote to Marx: “The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.” Almost a quarter of a century later, in a letter dated August 11, 1881, Engels speaks of the “worst English trade unions which allow themselves to be led by men sold to, or at least paid by, the middle class”. In a letter to Kautsky, dated September 12, 1882, Engels wrote: “You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.” (Engels expressed similar ideas in the press in his preface to the second edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England, which appeared in 1892.)
This clearly shows the causes and effects. The causes are:(1) exploitation of the whole world by this country; (2) its monopolist position in the world market; (3) its colonial monopoly. The effects are: (1) a section of the British proletariat becomes bourgeois; (2) a section of the proletariat allows itself to be led by men bought by, or at least paid by, the bourgeoisie.8The above quote is revealing along with the quote mining from Engels to support Lenin’s point of view. It is clear that Lenin viewed the “Labour Aristocracy” has fundamentally non-Proletarian.
Lenin was also trying to explain why Capitalism was not dying. He latched on to the “explanation” that imperialism was prolonging its life by taking from the exploited colonies “super profits” that were propping up a declining system. Like Marx and so many others Lenin seriously underestimated not just the staying power of Capitalism as a system but its ability to radically transform human life. This explanation for the survival of Capitalism was also wrong.9
Capitalism is still with us and the system that Lenin thought would be the grave digger of Capitalism is quite dead.
Aside from being wrong Lenin’s explanation of the “Labour Aristocracy” didn’t sit too well with the way Lenin personalized the so-called betrayal of the workers. If all this was the result of large scale Capitalist “bribery” personalizing it as treachery seems a bit past and beside the point.
Lenin added to this notion of betrayal via bribery the notion that he and his faction of the party represented the “true” interests of the Proletariat. This is again manicheanistic thinking. The idea was that all who disagreed with him were really motivated by self-interest, more specifically material goods, money etc. Only he and his party represented in a disinterested fashion the “true” interests of the Proletariat. Thus we get again the sons of light versus the sons of darkness religious mentality.
In this view only Lenin and his supporters had integrity all others were motivated by the desire for base material gain. No objection to Lenin’s ideas was “good faith” it was all “bad faith”. All of his enemies were also enemies of the “true” interests of the Proletariat. These enemies lacked integrity and he - Lenin could divine their “real” motives which was to put it crudely greed for filthy lucre.10
In fact for Lenin simple opposition to him and his notions was evidence of a lack of integrity. Hence his continual polemical lambasting of his opponents in strident hysterical terms. Lenin could not accept the idea that his enemies or simply those who disagreed with him simply disagreed. To him they were the other, the forces of darkness.
This Manichean conception of opposition had little or no room in it for good faith opposition. For there was only one correct path and all other paths were false and suggested for ulterior motives. Thus Lenin and his associates could pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves for their virtue as against their enemies who by definition were wicked.
That this is the mindset of a group of religious fanatics is at once obvious. That it would have horrible spiritual and historical fruit if it gained power is clear.
Of course Marxism had from the beginning religious and ideological aspects that made something like Lenin’s way of thinking likely. However it is still the case the Leninism emerged in Russia and not in Western Europe and that by and large the Marxist tradition in Western Europe resisted the Leninist sect. Instead it showed a capacity to accept reality and not to distort it via ad hoc explanations that in essence turned a political philosophy into a quasi-religious cult with Lenin.11
Lenin basically rejected the idea of politics, in the sense of the give and take of a system that settled disputes; instead what we get is a system which accepts only one correct solution and all deviations from that are illegitimate. In fact that is the essence of Lenin’s politics, that politics, i.e., opposition to what he thinks is correct does not have any legitimacy. That is once again a religious faith and as such is not based on reason but on the desire for certainty.12
And the upshot of all this was that Lenin made himself and the Bolshevik party the holders of the key to human history. He made them the saints who would usher in the millennium. They and he would be the faultless few who acting out of pure disinterested motives would bring God’s kingdom to earth. Somehow in them was purity and virtue.
Of course in the end Lenin gained power in Russia and there reality destroyed Lenin’s hopes. The worldwide revolution did not happen. The party, Lenin recognized, was full of people on the make, and the Russian economy a wreak. Lenin’s solutions to these problems were too little too late, embarrassingly simple minded, and did not question the need for the party, still despite its corrupt members, the embodiment of the Proletariat’s “true” interests, to dominate the state.13
It is said Lenin died a disappointed man. Hardly a surprise given the failure of his revolution to usher in the golden age, despite his fiery faith.
I have little doubt about Lenin’s good intentions but the serial cataclysms that his revolution inspired are indeed examples of how the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. Sadly millions upon millions paid for, with their lives, for Lenin’s good intentions.
1. Kolakowski, Leszek, Main Currents of Marxism, v. 1, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978a, pp. 399-415.
2. Kolakowski, Leszek, Main Currents of Marxism, v. 2, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978b, pp. 98-114.
3. Kolakowski, Leszek, Main Currents of Marxism, v. 3, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978c, pp. 523-530, Kolakowski, 1978a, pp. 416-420.
4. Footnote 2.
5. Polan, A. J., Lenin and the End of Politics, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, pp. 163-174.
6. IBID. For a discussion of the waves of nationalist hysteria that struck Europe at the beginning of World War One see Tuchman, Barbara, The Proud Tower, Random House, New York, 1966, and The Guns of August, Ballantine books, New York, 1962, Harding, Neil, Leninism, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 1996, pp. 170-218.
7. Lenin, V.I., Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, at Marxist.org, Here. For a critique see Siber, Irwin, Socialism: What Went Wrong?, Pluto Press, London, 1994, pp. 55-68.
8. Lenin, Marxist.org, Here.
9. Siber, pp. 55-68.
10, Polan, pp. 57-85, 163-174.
11. IBID, Kolakowski, 1978a, pp. 399-423, 1978c, pp. 416-420, pp. 373-412.
12. Footnote 10.
13. Harding, pp. 245-248.