Paul Le Blanc on the Meaning of Lenin

Paul Le Blanc

For poet Langston Hughes, Lenin was a symbol who “walked around the world” even long after his death. Paul Le Blanc talks to Jacobin about how to understand his complex legacy.

Vladimir Lenin in 1920. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Owen Dowling

As a symbol of revolution, Vladimir Lenin lived on throughout the century that followed his death. This symbol was there in the hunger marches and anti-fascist street battles of the 1930s, in the block-by-block resistance at Stalingrad, in the partisan risings across Europe, in the underground war against apartheid, and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Yet he was also kept alive in the iconography of the Moscow Show Trials against his old comrades, and in the slogans of the socialist-humanist reformers of the Prague Spring. As Langston Hughes memorably lyricized, this Lenin “walked around the world.” But whatever the political crusades for which his embalmed mummy was conscripted, Lenin the man died of a stroke on January 21, 1924.

A hundred years on, a new book from socialist activist and historian Paul Le Blanc offers a welcome reappraisal of Lenin’s revolutionary life and thought. Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution follows Lenin from his Simbirsk childhood through his discovery of Marxism, his entrance into Russia’s revolutionary movement, and the rise of the Bolsheviks — from repression through war, Red October, the revolutionary government, and the Cassandra-like “last struggle” against the seeds of Stalinism. It has been described as “perhaps the best introduction to Lenin available in English.”

Owen Dowling sat down with Paul Le Blanc to discuss Lenin’s life and death, his contributions to the arsenal of socialist thought, and his significance for the Left today.

Owen Dowling

Today marks the centenary of Lenin’s death. As Lenin as a figure passes further back into history, what prompted you to compose this study of his political life and thought — and why now?

Paul Le Blanc

I’ve been engaged with Lenin throughout my thinking, writing, and activism. I’m also on the editorial board of Verso Books’ Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, and one of my fellow board members, an excellent comrade who lives in the UK and works for a more mainstream publisher, asked if I would consider writing this book. That was the immediate stimulus. As it turned out, her publisher wasn’t interested, but Pluto Press was.

As I worked on it, the book just flowed, because I think today these ideas somehow seem more relevant than ever. Not just to me, but also to a broad swath of activists who have found that some other things we’ve been trying — whether it’s anarchism or reformist activity or whatever — haven’t quite worked out. So, people are thinking “what should we do?” Plus there’s the climate crisis, and it’s not clear to me we’re going to be able to get out of that, but if we do we’ll need some of the insights and sensibilities and practices related to the Leninist tradition. We’re in a serious situation right now, so that fed into my wanting to produce this book.

Owen Dowling

A key statement you make is that “Lenin was always a fierce partisan of genuine democracy — which he saw as rule by the laboring majority.” Would you characterize Lenin as a theorist of democracy? What significance did that have in his vision for proletarian revolution, and human liberation more broadly?

Paul Le Blanc

I hadn’t thought about Lenin as a “theorist of democracy,” but I appreciate you raising that: it seems true. Many people read The State and Revolution, but there’s a work of Lenin’s from 1915 called “The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” which includes a brilliant discussion of democracy and its place within the strategy for socialist revolution. I’ve produced a major excerpt of that essay in my book, because I think it answers some of the things that you’ve just raised. Lenin is distinctive. Some people see him as “rejecting democracy and launching dictatorship.” But this is false. He wanted a genuine democracy, not a phony democracy. He felt that a lot of what passed for democracy was democracy for the rich at the expense of the poor. He wanted to push for full democracy, because this was consistent with his vision of socialism, but also had a strategic value.

Lenin saw the working class as strategically key, and felt that the revolutionary movement should base itself on whatever democracy exists, defending it while also challenging its limitations and pushing forward to a more complete, more genuine democracy — that was a pathway to socialism. So, I think this helped make Lenin an important theorist of democracy. One can find contradictions and problems in Lenin, just as one can find them in any theorist worth their salt. But for anyone genuinely interested in the link between democracy and socialism, Lenin is one of the places to look.

Owen Dowling

Your book charts a narrative of Lenin’s life from his youth, his father’s liberal politics, the execution of his radical older brother Aleksandr, his important relationship with his sister Olga who died prematurely, up through his becoming involved with the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). What was the RSDLP?

Paul Le Blanc

In the late nineteenth century, there was a growth of socialist, social democratic, and labor parties throughout Europe and some other parts of the world. Influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx and others, they gathered in the Socialist International. The RSDLP was part of this development. It began in 1898 with a founding conference in Russia, with a small group mostly made up of intellectuals. They had discussions, made various decisions, and as they left the building they were immediately arrested.

So, it took a while to build up that RSDLP. It took Marx’s perspective and tried to apply it to Russia. It went through evolutions, and Lenin was part of that: he joined in its early years, and helped to build it up along with others. There were divisions that then developed within the RSDLP, and Lenin became the leader of a major faction within it. This faction had a majority — and then its majority/minority status fluctuated over the years. But the word “majority member” in Russian is “Bolshevik,” and that is what Lenin and his comrades called themselves.

Owen Dowling

You mentioned the Second International. How important for the RSDLP’s pioneers was the example of other incipient mass left-wing parties in Europe, like the German Social Democratic Party?

Paul Le Blanc

Centrally important, including for Lenin. In his early 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, he points to the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) as a model. He wanted to apply to Russia what was learned through the comrades building social democracy in Germany. This had to be done under different conditions. As I said, right after the Russian party was founded, all its founders were arrested. So, it largely had to operate in different, underground conditions. But the ideal — for Lenin, and for all RSDLP members — was the SPD.

Whether they became Bolsheviks or Mensheviks, they were committed to carrying out a democratic revolution that would overthrow the Tsarist absolute monarchy and establish a democratic republic. Within that context they believed it would be possible to build up the workers’ movement, and at the same time capitalism would develop, generating a working-class majority. At some point in the future, then, there could be a possibility of a socialist revolution in Russia.

Owen Dowling

How important for Lenin’s subsequent formation was the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1905?

Paul Le Blanc

It was incredibly important — for him and for others, because it involved actual experience in revolutionary struggle. There was a mass upsurge that was not initiated by the Bolsheviks or the RSDLP, but that they participated in, and they learned a lot. Another important aspect is that the RSDLP hadn’t had a large working-class base. They were committed to working among workers, to recruiting workers, to creating a mass working-class party. But through 1905, a mass working-class base — of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks — was actually created.

A couple of other things impacted Lenin in this experience. One was the (semi-)spontaneous formation of democratic councils within workplaces and working-class communities, called soviets, which became very important. They weren’t controlled by any particular socialist or left-wing political party. Lenin was very impressed with that development, which stirred his thinking in several ways. Some of his comrades saw these soviets in a sectarian way (“we shouldn’t be involved with that nonsense; we’ve got to make a Bolshevik revolution”). Lenin came into conflict with some of his comrades around that.

There was also a question of how the flood of radicalizing workers would fit into this underground or semi-underground organization. Some comrades favored a tighter approach, but Lenin pushed in a direction of openness, to draw ever more workers into the party’s structures. So these were important aspects of Lenin’s experience of 1905: the revolutionary experience itself, the involvement of workers, the creation of soviets.

Another issue was also posed just before 1905. Russia’s working class was a relatively small minority. Then you had capitalists, a large peasantry, and the aristocracy and the tsar. So, if you wanted a democratic revolution to overthrow tsarism, who should you ally with? The Mensheviks concluded, “Well, this is a bourgeois-democratic revolution. We want capitalist development as well as a democratic republic, so our natural allies are the bourgeois liberals.” Lenin disagreed, and argued for a “worker-peasant alliance.”

He agreed that this was going to be a democratic, not a socialist revolution. But through the experience of 1905 he also considered the possibility that it may turn out to be an “uninterrupted revolution” — he used that phrase — with the democratic revolution flowing in the direction of a socialist revolution more rapidly than originally anticipated. One Menshevik leader accused Lenin of wanting “a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie.” When we look at what Lenin was doing and saying in this period, there’s some truth to that. This helped to create precedents in his thinking that clicked into place even more strongly in 1917.

Owen Dowling

What were the broad outlines of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and its development after 1905, with its principle of democratic centralism? Programmatically, what were the “Three Whales of Bolshevism?”

Paul Le Blanc

After 1905, there was disillusionment among both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Some, particularly some Mensheviks, wanted to “liquidate the underground” and just work on legal reform activities. Lenin considered that opportunistic and a move away from revolutionary struggle, which he fiercely opposed. But among his own comrades, some went in a more ultraleft direction: “The revolution didn’t quite happen in 1905, but it’s going to happen any day now, and we should focus on preparing for the armed struggle, and not worry too much about elections to the tsarist duma (parliament) and trade union or reform activity.”

Initially Lenin went along with that, but then concluded that this would isolate the Bolsheviks, and that they needed to be involved in the real struggles of the working class and the oppressed. So he pushed against both the opportunistic “liquidationism” of some Mensheviks and the ultraleftism of some of his own Bolshevik comrades. Many Bolsheviks, and some others, cohered around Lenin’s orientation. By 1912 they had organized a more coherent segment of the RSDLP.

“Democratic centralism” was a term that was first used in 1905 by Mensheviks when they and the Bolsheviks were still in the same party. The Bolsheviks and Lenin agreed that it made sense. It meant that comrades working together on the various projects would have a discussion on what to do, make decisions, then carry through on the decisions, then learn from the results. That was an important aspect of how the organization around Lenin functioned. But the Mensheviks had a problem: some of them favored liquidating the underground, some of them didn’t. To hold together, they had a looser operation in which there would be discussions and decisions, but if the decisions went against the liquidators, they wouldn’t be carried out. They couldn’t function as coherently as the Bolsheviks.

At the same time, Lenin and the Bolsheviks had the orientation I mentioned, favoring a worker-peasant alliance for the democratic revolution. And they had three demands that they kept repeating to get those across to more people. These came to be known as the “Three Whales of Bolshevism”; it refers to a Russian folk tale about the world being balanced on the backs of three whales.

The “Three Whales of Bolshevism” were: 1) an eight-hour workday, especially important to the working class; 2) land reform, giving land to the peasants; and 3) a constituent assembly to create a democratic republic. That reflects the worker-peasant alliance for a democratic republic, and they would relate their practical activity to this strategic orientation.

Through this organizational and political coherence, they became increasingly influential in the workers’ movement between 1912 and 1914, and the major force — much stronger than the Mensheviks — within the RSDLP as a party.

Owen Dowling

1914 saw the beginning of some revolutionary strikes, the beginning of a sense of real tumult in Russia perhaps for the first time concertedly since 1905. Then came catastrophe: the outbreak of World War I.
In your book you emphasize the centrality of “catastrophe” to Lenin’s view of “the evolving reality of his time,” as “an essential element in the Bolshevik strategic orientation.” What significance did the “catastrophe” of World War I have in the trajectory of Lenin’s thought and the road to revolution?

Paul Le Blanc

I’ll begin my answer by talking about today. Climate change is happening, millions of people are suffering from it, and millions of people are dying or will do so through global warming and the pollution driven by the fossil-fuel industries and capitalism in general. It is possible to stop that — except it’s not being stopped, because it would not be profitable in the short term to do so. Many of us are aware of this and are horrified, more and more people are being affected, and what the science says is “it’s going to get worse!” This is a catastrophe; it feels like there’s no hope. Now, I think we have to keep fighting. In the face of catastrophe there will also be radicalization, and there will be opportunities and possibilities to fight back, indeed harder and more effectively — and we must do that, in my opinion.

And what struck me was that, in some ways, that is similar to Lenin’s situation with World War I. Lenin and other Marxists could see it coming: the acceleration of imperialist rivalry, militarism, and competing nationalisms. But they couldn’t stop it from erupting. And then there was massive, horrific slaughter, worse than awful. Also, as you pointed out, the eruption of the war disrupted a revolutionary upsurge that was taking place in Russia. There was confusion among the revolutionaries, and there was repression — they were screwed. Many workers were swept up in patriotic pro-war enthusiasm, and some revolutionaries gave into that. Those who didn’t were attacked, arrested, drafted into the army and sent to the front, or forced into exile. Many were disappointed and discouraged. But revolutionaries were forced to think more deeply about things, just as we must do now.

The catastrophe of World War I also, as Lenin perceived, would increasingly have a radicalizing impact because of the suffering that the workers and others throughout Europe were facing: many maimed and dying, many loved ones destroyed, lives turned into chaos. This had a radicalizing impact, just as climate change is likely to have that kind of impact on larger numbers of people. Lenin developed his strategic and tactical thinking within that context, as we must do so in the context that’s shaping our own.

Owen Dowling

There’s obviously lots we could talk about here: Lenin’s theory of imperialism, his attitude to the SPD’s support for the German war effort, the Zimmerwald antiwar conference, etc. But perhaps we should move on to the situation in Russia in 1917 after the February Revolution, and to Lenin’s April Theses after his return from exile. In your view, do Lenin’s famous call for “Peace, Land, and Bread — All Power to the Soviets,” and his flirtation that summer with a kind of anarchism in his The State and Revolution, represent more a continuity with or a break from the prior trajectory of his thinking?

Paul Le Blanc

Here, we’re also talking about debates among scholars, including between myself and other people like Lars Lih, for example, on this question of continuity as opposed to break. My conclusion is that we can see both. Lars has argued that there’s a lot of continuity. There’s truth in that. There’s continuity in the notion of a worker-peasant alliance to carry out the democratic revolution, and also in Lenin’s notion of an “uninterrupted revolution.” There’s the fact that Lenin and others had also read Marx and [Friedrich] Engels’s 1882 introduction to the Communist Manifesto where they considered “what if the revolution breaks out in Russia first?” — responding that this might signal the rising of revolutionary forces in the West, too, that would join the Russians in carrying out a revolutionary transformation in Europe and the world. So there’s a lot of continuity between Lenin’s approach in 1917 and things that he and his comrades had been thinking about previously.

At the same time, his notion of “uninterrupted revolution,” had been in the background as one possibility in 1905 but came powerfully into the foreground in 1917. He couldn’t have written The State and Revolution in 1905 — but it came pouring out of him in 1917. What’s in The State and Revolution, and the emphasis on the soviets, not a constituent assembly, shows that there are differences, there are changes in Lenin’s thought in 1917. In some of what he had to say in this period, we see him drawing closer to things he had earlier rejected with contempt, including some notions similar to anarchist thought. So, both things are happening: there’s a continuity, but Lenin isn’t static — there are dynamics in his thinking that reflect the new things that he and other comrades of his are learning and thinking about. It’s important to see the continuity and what’s new.

Owen Dowling

What kind of popular support did Lenin’s Bolsheviks enjoy on the eve of the revolution in October 1917?

Paul Le Blanc

Here, I want to mention two contemporary accounts useful in answering the question: one being John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World. He traced an upsurge of support for the Bolshevik positions in September and October of 1917. In an earlier period that hadn’t necessarily been the case. But because of the experience that people had gone through since the overthrow of the Tsar in February–March, growing numbers of workers, soldiers and peasants were rejecting the orientation of the more moderate socialists, liberals, and conservatives who claimed to be in favor of the revolution, because they weren’t reflecting the aspirations of the people who actually overthrew the Tsar.

Here, I also want to bring in Isaac Don Levine. Reed was totally sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, and joined the Communist movement shortly after the Revolution. Isaac Don Levine was a different kind of guy: he was an immigrant from Russia, he was fluent in Russian, his sympathies were with Alexander Kerensky — he didn’t particularly like Lenin. But he wrote a book based on newspaper articles he’d written for the New York Tribune, a book entitled The Russian Revolution, which came out in June 1917.

He reported that you had what Leon Trotsky later called “dual power.” You had a provisional government made up of conservatives and liberals and some moderate socialists, which Levine compared with the government of the United States under Woodrow Wilson in its orientation. Then you had the soviets, made up of the people who fought and bled to overthrow the tsar. He reported that the soviets were socialist. They believed it was necessary first to overthrow the autocracy, to overthrow tsarism, but then they wanted to move forward to end the war and to create a socialist world. That is what Levine was reporting in June 1917.

When Lenin was saying “All Power to the Soviets,” this was the context in which the Bolshevik slogan was resonating. Then, over summer, the Mensheviks and other moderates discredited themselves and the Bolsheviks came out looking pretty good, and their slogan resonated even more. So, at that moment, they had significant support, certainly among the revolutionary soldiers, workers, and large swaths of the peasantry.

Owen Dowling

How did Lenin’s thinking about a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” translate into practice during the early years of the revolutionary government? What impacts did the experience of civil war have upon the political culture of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party?

Paul Le Blanc

Up through 1917 you can see a coherence and consistency in Lenin’s theory and practice, and in that of the Bolsheviks. I would argue that it was super-democratic: they believed in the possibility of soviet power, which meant power by the democratic councils of the workers and soldiers and peasants and others — a genuine, radical, thoroughgoing democracy. Then with the civil war, the foreign interventions, and the collapse of the economy, that became impossible. It was a brutalizing situation, which resulted in Lenin and his comrades establishing a dictatorship not of the proletariat, of the working class, but of the Communist Party. The Russian Communist Party was in charge, and it unleashed what was known as the Red Terror.

It was preceded by, and interacted with, a “White Terror” — no less brutal, supported and financed by the governments of Britain and France and the United States and others to destroy the revolutionary government. From the standpoint of the Russian generals and admirals who were in charge of the White counterrevolutionary forces, they wanted to establish — if not Tsarism again — some kind of military dictatorship that would wipe out these revolutionaries and working-class upstarts. This was a nasty, vicious, brutal reality. There were human rights violations on both sides, the situation whirled out of control in all kinds of ways, and mistakes were made — terrible mistakes that were not consistent with what Lenin and his comrades had been writing and saying and doing up through 1917.

It was a disaster. Some people have argued that through this authoritarian violence Lenin and his comrades were trying to create a new path to socialism. But they weren’t trying to create that; they were trying to survive. Some may have claimed it was “a new path to socialism,” but it certainly wasn’t, and at some point much of it had to be abandoned.

Lenin’s thinking about “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” before this disaster underwent a partial change, although there was some consistency. Lenin perceived that this was going to be the beginning of a socialist revolution in Russia, joined by other countries that were feeling the same impact of World War I that the Russian workers and peasants had. So, he referred to what was being created in Russia, the government, as “a dictatorship of the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry.” There was still a democratic content to that for Lenin, but in the Civil War period this largely evaporated. There were various Bolsheviks who fought for the old ideals, and at a certain point Lenin did, too. He never gave up on the old ideas but felt they had to be set aside in the Civil War crisis. He attempted to bring them back into the situation as he was dying.

But the Civil War experience had been devastating, and pushed the revolution into an undemocratic swerve. There’s a really fine book by the late Arno Mayer, called The Furies, which looks at violence and terror in the French and Russian Revolutions. Mayer documents a lot of what happened, and I think puts his finger on the dynamic in a way that’s worth thinking about.

Owen Dowling

In your penultimate chapter, you outline in some quite moving depth Lenin’s debilitated final years after suffering a series of strokes. You reference Moshe Lewin’s 1968 book, Lenin’s Last Struggle. What was that struggle? What was his famous “testament,” and — especially on the centenary of his death, which followed shortly thereafter — what place should we give these within our overall account of Lenin’s life and work?

Paul Le Blanc

First I’ll mention my friend Lars Lih. He and I have disagreements on various things, but also we’ve agreed on a lot, and one of the points that he has made that I think is very good is on “Lenin’s testament”. This name — and indeed, “Lenin’s last struggle” — are often used to refer to a letter he wrote to the Communist Party congress evaluating the various Bolshevik leaders and indicating that Stalin had too much power and should be removed. That was an element to Lenin’s last testament, but Lars points out that Lenin’s testament really covers a lot more ground than that: it wasn’t one document but a series of documents and articles.

Lenin was not happy with the swerve that had taken place away from the commitments and ideas and principles that he’d been fighting for all of his life. When he was felled by the first stroke — there was a series of strokes in 1922, ’23, and ’24, and the last one killed him — one of his closest comrades, Lev Kamenev, went to visit him and essentially asked the question: “What is Lenin unhappy about?” He answered, “Pretty much everything, and especially the development of bureaucracy.” So, one aspect of Lenin’s last testament was trying to find ways to control and push back the growing bureaucracy, to give more voice and influence and power to the workers and peasants. Another thing that drove him nuts was what he called “communist conceit” (you know, “We know everything comrades, just leave it to us!”). It drove him crazy, because the comrades didn’t know everything — there was a lot they didn’t know, and they should stop posturing, and “instead learn and learn and learn,” and be more modest. Another element of his testament was praising John Reed’s book and criticizing other, more negative interpretations. One part of his testament, then, was defending the 1917 Revolution, but also trying to protect it and advance it in various ways.

Another aspect of his testament was very interesting. Before his strokes, he met with the old anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin, whom he had a lot of respect for. Kropotkin was surely very critical of Lenin, and the Bolshevik dictatorship, but he really liked The State and Revolution and the idea of the withering away of the state, where he saw a drawing together of things that Lenin was saying and the kinds of things he stood for — a stateless socialism as the ultimate goal. In their discussion, Kropotkin argued for cooperatives, which Lenin dismissed, but one of his last articles was on the need to develop cooperatives that would involve workers and peasants controlling various aspects of the economy — both consumption and production activities. This would bring the Soviet Republic more in the direction of the kind of socialism he favored.

So, all these things were part of his testament. Then you had the question of leadership, and the fact that Stalin had immense power and was — whether purposefully or not — undermining some of the things that Lenin was reaching for. There needed to be a shift in the leadership, Lenin felt. All this was too little too late, but this “last struggle” indicated Lenin’s continuing commitment to the things he’d been fighting for all of his life, and also gives some sense of directions in which socialists should think of going.

Owen Dowling

Lenin died of a final stroke, aged fifty-three, on January 21, 1924. A century later, the themes that you identify as especially characteristic in Lenin — democracy and catastrophe — loom ever more ominously. As we’re talking, we face not only an overarching “polycrisis” and emerging general climate crisis, but are almost two years into a terrible war in the historic heartland of the October Revolution, and three months into a genocide in Palestine — with the danger stirring of a wider regional conflagration. What can those fighting for socialism in this dark moment, including those not necessarily identifying with any circumscribed “Leninist tradition,” obtain from a “return to Lenin” on this centenary?

Paul Le Blanc

I think a lot that can be learned, by people who do or absolutely don’t consider themselves Leninists. Some of the things you referred to — the theory of imperialism, a commitment to a radical thoroughgoing democracy, and to the centrality of the working-class majority — are part of Lenin, and need to be taken seriously by all of us, whether or not we agree with all of Lenin’s ideas.

Our activism has to be guided not simply by our moods and passing fashions, which is too often the case, and not by soundbites and slogans, but by study and serious discussion, disagreement sometimes, and activism and experience. It is essential that we be open, but we need to blend that openness with theory, with analysis, with principles, and keep learning and not assume that we know it all. These are essential aspects of Lenin. Some of these things are not exclusively his, but Lenin could be very good at them, and it’s worth looking at him and Rosa Luxemburg, and various other revolutionaries (including ones who strongly disagreed with Lenin).

There’s something else. It’s important to develop critical-minded cadres — the activists who learn how to size up a situation, how to organize, how to write a leaflet that can be effective, to organize a meeting and have effective decisions come out of it. Not everyone can do this. But such people also need to help organize people and teach them how to do the same kind of stuff. That’s very badly needed to build a mass revolutionary movement that has the possibility of being effective. Lenin was very committed to that kind of thing.

But he also has this notion that they shouldn’t be arrogant know-it-alls, and we have to be open to learning. And comrades have to be willing to make mistakes — that’s inevitable. The point is to recognize the mistakes and learn from them.

And that implies an additional kind of functioning. It can’t be about following some wise all-knowing leader or central committee; there needs to be a democratic collective functioning, with more and more people bringing in their insights, their knowledge, their experience, their understanding.

Within this context, we need to be able to discuss, debate, evaluate what is to be done, decide, carry out the decision, learn from the results, and then repeat. That was part of Lenin’s approach. We should do that, too, if we’re to deal effectively with the catastrophes unfolding all around us.