Tamás Krausz on the life and thought of Vladimir Lenin

From the Monthly Review press release: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is among the most enigmatic and influential figures of the twentieth century. While his life and work are crucial to any understanding of modern history and the socialist movement, generations of writers on the left and the right have seen fit to embalm him endlessly with superficial analysis or dreary dogma. Now, after the fall of the Soviet Union and “actually-existing” socialism, it is possible to consider Lenin afresh, with sober senses trained on his historical context and how it shaped his theoretical and political contributions. Reconstructing Lenin, four decades in the making and now available in English for the first time, is an attempt to do just that.

Tamás Krausz, an esteemed Hungarian scholar writing in the tradition of György Lukács, Ferenc Tőkei, and István Mészáros, makes a major contribution to a growing field of contemporary Lenin studies. This rich and penetrating account reveals Lenin busy at the work of revolution, his thought shaped by immediate political events but never straying far from a coherent theoretical perspective. Krausz balances detailed descriptions of Lenin’s time and place with lucid explications of his intellectual development, covering a range of topics like war and revolution, dictatorship and democracy, socialism and utopianism. Reconstructing Lenin will change the way you look at a man and a movement; it will also introduce the English-speaking world to a profound radical scholar.

Krausz, wrote this shorter piece that was translated for the Platypus Review back in 2011. Though I’m not a Wallersteinian, hopefully a PDF will appear of his new biography shortly so that I can read and review it.


Lenin’s legacy today

Tamás Krausz
Platypus Review 39
September 2011

An historically adequate interpretation of Lenin’s Marxism must begin with the recognition that Lenin’s legacy is essentially a political application of Marx’s theory of capital as a historically-specific social formation. It required further development in light of experiences under determinate historical circumstances, such as the development of capitalism in Russia, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the crisis of Marxism in 1914, the evolution of imperialism, the October Revolution of 1917, War Communism, and the New Economic Policy. Lenin’s basic awareness of the concrete possibility of social revolution and the transition to communism grew more determinate in the course of his political practice after 1905. Because of this, Lenin’s political and theoretical legacy, as a historical variant of Marxism, is unique and unrepeatable. On the other hand, the original experience of revolutionary theory and action, its “methodology” in practice, has played an undeniably colossal role in the history of the twentieth century. In our own time, under less than promising circumstances, there are attempts to “refurbish” Lenin’s Marxism for the anti-globalization movement.[1] The main reason for this is that the Leninist tradition of Marxism is the only one that has offered, at least for a time, an alternative to capitalism. It alone has breached the walls of capitalism, even if today that breach seems mended. The world situation over the last two decades demonstrates that the global dominance of capital has engendered new forms of discontent. These did not obviate the need for Marxism as a theory and a movement. Indeed, they could not. Instead, in their search for alternatives, the discontented run into “Lenin’s Marxism” at every turn. Thus, if we talk of Marxism, the stakes are higher than we may think, for this legacy — that is, the primacy of Lenin’s Marxism — is not a thing of the past.

Concept and systemization

Though he knew everything there was to know at that time about Marx and Engels, Lenin did not simply excavate Marxist theory from beneath layers of Western European social democracy and anarchism. He applied it in his own way to Russian circumstances by tying theory and revolutionary practice together. In the process he contributed many original ideas to the theoretical reconstruction of the revolutionary actions and the movement as a whole in confronting reformist social democratic tendencies.

The systematization of Lenin’s legacy began in his lifetime as part of the struggle over the inheritance of his mantle. What was characteristic of these “deconstructions” was not that Marxism was identified with Lenin’s legacy, nor its embodiment in him, nor that Marxism was “Russified” and, later, “Stalinized” as a result of that struggle. Rather, it was interpreted simply as the theory and practice of revolution and class struggle, omitting the stages and method of development that made the phenomenon what it was. This reductionist approach simplified Lenin’s Marxism to the ideology of political class struggle and eventually to an ideology that justified the Bolsheviks’ preservation of power above all. The subsequent Stalinist period came to see Leninism as party ideology, the main and almost exclusive “vehicle” of Marxism, with the Communist Party, then its general staff, and eventually its leader alone functioning as its sole guardian. The soviets, the labor unions, and other forms of social self-organization, all of which Lenin thought to be central elements in the transition to socialism, were increasingly omitted in the “reproduction” of theory and ideology: Everything became nationalized. Marxism-Leninism became the legitimation of this new state socialism. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union did it become an “emperor with no clothes” as Leninism as the Soviet Union’s legitimizing ideology sank into the dustbin of history. The result is a condition in which it is impossible to “excavate” the legacy of Lenin without steady determination and strict analysis.

The still-powerful elements of pre-Stalinist Marxism were analyzed in the 1960s by [Georg] Lukács and his anti-Stalinist followers, just as they had been earlier by Gramsci. The resulting “Lenin renaissance” permitted under Khruschev rose to a high philosophical level. By the 1970s many European and anti-Soviet Marxist Communist authors (from Rudolf Bahro to Valentino Gerratana, or even Ferenc Tőkei or [György] Bence and [János] Kis) attempted to mobilize these views as a criticism of state socialism, and in the service of constituting an authentic socialist alternative. Such writers made it clear that the historical, political, and theoretical-scientific power of Lenin’s Marxism could not be reduced exclusively to power management or to the “welfare state” as the Soviet ideologues and their bourgeois adversaries had tried to do for the past several decades. These efforts formed part of an attempt worldwide to sketch a new, critical framework for Marxism. Marxists from a wide range of perspectives sought during these decades to forge a kind of “third way” between the preservation of state socialism and the restoration of capitalism — a way back to a Marxist politics that could lead to authentic socialism. In contrast to these attempts, which may be considered various expressions of individual and collective freedom, or participatory democracy, the arguments of the anti-Leninists, almost regardless of ideology, all derive from folding Lenin’s heritage back into Stalinism. To this day they form vital elements of the discourse of anti-Leninist anti-capitalism.

The reservations voiced with regard to Lenin’s Marxism are understandable, as it only became widely apparent after the collapse of the Soviet Union that this historically specific intellectual and practical achievement, which no longer served state legitimation, can resist liberal and nationalist justification of the system. At the same time, the internal logic of Lenin’s Marxism can only be resuscitated through a new combination of Marx’s theory of social formations with revolutionary anti-capitalist practice. Yet another subjective ground for the rejection of Lenin’s Marxism on scientific grounds by leftist experts in academia is that Lenin’s ideas philosophically resist fragmentation by discipline as the experience of many decades has shown. All its constituent elements point toward the totality, the indivisible process. Following Marx, Lenin knocked down the walls separating science from philosophy, and theory from practice. Lenin’s theoretical work cannot possibly be separated from the movement overcoming the capitalist system. In this sense his Marxism is linked indissolubly to the workers movement in the 20th century as a surprisingly adept methodological tool for the apprehension of processes as a whole within different frameworks. Marx’s philosophical and economic achievements may continue apart from any revolutionary workers movement, but not Lenin’s. Until 1917 all his theoretical and political arguments were aimed at the workers movement and revolution. After 1917, as the founder of a Soviet state in the grips of the acute contradictions between holding on to power and the announced aims of the revolution, between tactics and strategy, Lenin tended to vacillate, becoming increasingly aware that the objectives of the revolution had to be postponed for the unforeseeable future.

The origins of Lenin’s Marxism

Lenin’s Marxism derives from different directions, each representing in its time an opportunity for changing society in a revolutionary way. These included the French Enlightenment and revolutionary Jacobinism as the inheritance of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, without which it would not be possible to transcend traditional society. Then there was the Paris Commune as the apex of French socialism. Among his Russian roots we find [Nikolai] Chernyshevsky and the Westerners ([Aleksandr] Herzen, [Vissarion] Belinsky, and others), reinforcing and complementing one another, as well as the revolutionary Narodniks, the mainstay of the Russian Jacobin tradition. All these Lenin synthesized in the name of Marx and Engels, absorbing a lot, particularly the interpretation of philosophical materialism, from the earlier generation of Russian Marxists, chiefly [Georgii] Plekhanov. He finally he absorbed the ideology and practice of modern workers movement organization from German social democracy, chiefly [Karl] Kautsky. Continue reading