1280px-Lenin_addresses_the_troops,_May_5,_1920_with_Trotsky_in_foreground. (1)a

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.

Every one of the sources of Lenin’s Marxism combined in the articulation of theory with practice, of the class approach to culture and politics. And yet Lenin resisted the vulgar ideology of class, the populist perception of class struggle, and the appeal to its negative counterpoint, the teleological abstraction of reality. In Lenin’s “theoretical practice” the basic issue is always the relation between action and theory, the transitions, the elaboration of the contacts between the two. The sources of his Marxism resolved him upon an anti-messianic and anti-utopian approach. Lenin’s interest in long-range objectives was deeply pragmatic. Finally, the issues he raised and the solutions he advocated always incorporated the objections or conclusions of his comrades in debate. In this sense, Lenin’s comrades in the Second International also belong to the array of sources that influenced his Marxism: in addition to Plekhanov and Kautsky, there was [Eduard] Bernstein and the young [Petr] Struve, [Nikolai] Berdyaev and the ethical socialism of his younger years, [Viktor] Maslov and [Leon] Trotsky, [Aleksandr] Bogdanov and [Anton] Pannekoek, [Mikhail] Bakunin and [Georges] Sorel, and [Rosa] Luxemburg and [Nikolai] Bukharin. And in addition, there were the “leftist” tendencies with which he had to contend in the aftermath of the revolution, which postulated a permanent revolution at a time when the counter-revolution was already underway. Lenin transcended these tendencies — albeit with grave contradictions. Nevertheless, his responses to their queries reflected a narrowing of alternatives, even in the particular political context of his office.

Lenin was an independent thinker, but the idea that he created a distinct theoretical system that can be denominated “Leninism” is a Stalinist invention. What he did was rediscover, reenergize, and deepen elements of the Marxist tradition that mainstream European social democracy was intent on burying. Certainly, his Marxism was a Marxism, and not the theory of a “conspiratorial party.”

The issue of organization

Lenin’s notion of a centralized, vanguard, and underground party (“the party of professional revolutionaries”) is usually ascribed to its Russian origins and, indeed, this has some factual basis. The historical experience of building an underground party was important to Lenin’s Marxism. His “theory of party” was a product of this. What remains important is Lenin’s conception of the “workers’ party” as a social counter-power, a political and cultural leader of a network of civil society organizations, which never exclusively signified the party of manual laborers. In this context, the party becomes a network promoting understanding and articulation of interests, the “organizational form of proletarian class consciousness,” as Lukács put it. This party was the demiurge of a broad, horizontally and vertically segmented social resistance, the “moving force of which is the proletariat.” In Lenin’s concept and practice the cadre of the “counter-society” is the underground and centralized party. Thus, in Lenin’s theory the historical role of the party (social democratic, later communist) was not simply to “import class consciousness into the proletariat from the outside” (this was already understood by Kautsky, when Lenin ”inherited” the idea), but rather that the party, as part of the social class, indeed “its most revolutionary part,” becomes an independent actor with a vested interest in the conscious, revolutionary transformation of society. He raised the issue already in April 1917 when he argued that the existence of the party is justified only as long as the class of wage-earners has not created the economic and political conditions for its own liquidation. He had no ready-made theory to the effect that the party should become the embodiment of the missing components of socialism, whether in organization, in theory, or in sociology. One cause and consequence of the one-party system that eventually emerged in the U.S.S.R. was that the party itself took on the functions of the proletariat. But even the communist parties that came into existence elsewhere in Europe included only the most revolutionary strata of the working class. Lenin was aware that in this situation the evolution of the party was impacted by the combination of bureaucratic pragmatism and revolutionary messianism. Proletarian class consciousness was increasingly embodied in the Russian Bolshevik Party as a kind of substitute: The organizational issue was thus raised to the level of the general issue of application of state power. Looking at it from the point of view of the 1930s, the “etatization” of the party became inevitable with the defeat of European revolution.

Lenin never adequately explained the failure of the revolutionary breakout in Western Europe. Analyzing the causes of the ideological crisis of Second International Marxism in his magisterial work, History and Class Consciousness, the young Lukács came to the conclusion that Menshevism and economism, or the emphasis on the role of the workers’ aristocracy and on their bourgeoisification, probably did not affect the “totality of the issue, that is, its essence.” In recognizing the “limits of revolutionary spontaneity,” Lukács found that it was not enough to merely enlighten the masses with propaganda in order to endow them with consciousness sufficient to overcome the impasse. The party must hold “the entire proletariat” through its direct immediate interests, according to this argument: “the experiences of the revolutionary struggles have failed to yield any conclusive evidence that the proletariat’s revolutionary fervor and will to fight corresponds in any straight forward manner to the economic level of its various parts.”[2] Thus, Lukács came to the decisive role of “forcing decisions” by increasing the role of the people in the Leninist organization.

The older Lukács, in polemics with his younger self, discovered the weak points of Lenin’s analysis regarding the party and proletarian class consciousness some fifty years later in his book The Ontology of Social Being. The elder Lukács was no longer seeking the resolution of the basic problem in the “ideological backwardness of the proletariat.” Neither the mechanistic theory of spontaneity, nor the superficial understanding of the importation of class consciousness from the outside could “adequately” explain the crisis in the anti-capitalist consciousness of the proletariat. In his critique of Lenin he drew attention away from the ideological aspect and focused on the economic aspect, on the changes in the nature of the capitalist economy, and on the subjective consequences of these changes. “Lenin’s general thinking — contrasting Marx’s concept in a revolutionary way with the reality of the present…placed too much emphasis on revolutionizing the ideology. Hence he did not direct this ideology specifically on the object to be revolutionized, the capitalist economy.”[3] Lenin was unable to identify the economic features of the “latest” stage of capitalist development, in the transformation of the workers movement in the “developed countries.” Thus, according to the late Lukács, economic interest as a social motive was not at the center of Lenin’s thought in the years following the revolution. Lenin provided a means to break out from the notion of apologetics found in Realpolitik, only to become the theoretician of a new version of the same. The party itself became the organization embodying this new Realpolitik, eventually becoming the party-state, the objective of which was no longer to locate the rights to power in the working class but to preserve the power of an isolated elite. Lukács argued, “The ideological generalization of Lenin’s formulations from this period gave Stalin and his followers the opportunity to present their own ideology, which is the exact opposite [of Lenin’s] in every significant respect, and not its direct continuation.”[4]

Uneven development and the hierarchy of the world system: Is revolution still possible?

Lenin started off from the contemporary analysis of capitalism. His point of departure was his understanding of the development of capitalism in Russia toward the end of the 19th century as both a general and a specific manifestation of capitalism. Even before 1905, Lenin recognized the integration of Russia in the world system as a process, which today we might describe as “semiperipheral integration,” whereby pre-capitalist forms were preserved in accordance with capital’s own interests. Capitalism thereby subordinated pre-capitalist forms within its own processes. Lenin was able to tie the mixing of pre-capitalist and capitalist forms to the concept of internal colonialism under the Tsarist regime. He also identified the existence of a center-periphery relation inside Russia as a form of internal colonialism. He was aware not only of the tripartite structural hierarchy that [Immanuel] Wallerstein specifies as means of explaining the uneven relations of capitalism, but also of a hierarchy within regions and nation-states, such that the development of the core is not understood simply as the result of surplus extraction from the periphery.

Learning the lessons of the Great War, Lenin offered a theory regarding the hierarchical constitution of the capitalist world system, outlining the so-called law of the uneven development of capitalism in the age of imperialism. Within this framework he regarded dynamics at the colonial periphery as the byproduct and manifestation of international capitalist competition and capital accumulation. Parallel to this was the contradictory alliance between anti-capitalist “proletarian resistance” and the struggles for national independence of third world capitalism — a struggle that ties in with the anti-regime struggle of the semi-periphery with the center (primarily in Russia).

The break with the Eurocentric worldview entailed a total theoretical, political, and organizational break with revisionist social democracy in the summer of 1914. That was when the official nuclei of social democracy in Europe almost everywhere decided to support the imperialist governments of their respective countries. In the process of Lenin’s examinations, he was able to outline not only the historical forms of nationalism, but also nationalism in its manipulations, its quasi-religious function within ruling class policies and propaganda. The collapse of social democracy in 1914 made Lenin acutely aware that it represented primarily the interests of the upper echelon, of the ”bourgeois-inclined” stratum of the proletariat. Revisionist social democracy was the political expression of those who had surrendered the concept and praxis of the universal revolution and class struggle as theorized by Marx.

Although Lenin wrote no original works, whether in sociology or in philosophy, he clearly outlined the practical movement and theoretical requirements necessary for the overthrow of capitalism. Nevertheless he did not fully envision the particular political, sociological, psychological, and organizational configuration that arose in a consequence of the very uneven development of global capitalism that he himself had discovered. In other words, he did not fully realize the consequences that uneven development within the world system would impose. In fact, this would become obvious only in our own day. As we know, history can never provide decisive proofs on theoretical issues, and the developments after 1945 certainly did not validate the expectations of Lenin, or of Marx. Rather than the capitalism of the center growing ripe for socialist revolution, it stabilized in the form of the welfare state. Acknowledging this is not to excuse the historical role of social democracy. On the contrary, since the “end of history” did not occur in 1989, one need not be a prophet to foresee that the need for the “revolutionary salvation” of the world will rise again.

The method and philosophy of revolution

The Great War signaled the arrival of a new period, one that promised the fulfillment of the conditions for the revolution. At the same time, a turn took place in Lenin’s revolutionary tactics inspired by his studies of Hegel in consequence of which he came to an integrated conception of theory, politics, and organization. From the beginning of the war his revolutionary strategy was based on the premise that there could be no compromise with any pro-war attitude or with pacifist half-solution. Lenin realized that the war had engendered a potentially revolutionary situation within Russia (and in Europe). He addressed the masses that had no interest in pursuing the war, because he counted on the evolution of the subjective conditions of a revolutionary situation. Hence, he broke with the centrists and called for a new International. Authors who argue that Lenin’s Marxism elicited a radical reinterpretation of subjectivism, mainly as a result of his reading of Hegel, are correct. Lenin became aware of the historical circumstances that caused the awakening of the consciousness of the individual and of the masses. He understood that these could provide a “foundation” for revolutionary politics. That is, the objective relations of forces could be reconfigured, since even ten may suffice to confront the war, and under the new set of circumstances, millions could join them. Lenin knew this by the time recruits were marching to the front, singing in high spirits. In contrast to the elitist and speculative “mass philosophies” and the utopian, “prophetic” socialists, Lenin, on the basis of his study of Hegel and Marx, emphasized the ideas and practices of revolutionary change. It was partly this challenge that motivated his philosophical studies and debates, as well as the notion that the revisionism of official social democracy was striving to “save” the collapsed world order. Their empiricism or neo-Kantian “messages” sought to lull workers with the promise of the pacification of the capitalist order.

The opinion of some experts, that at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries Lenin considered revisionism merely as an ideological or political aberration, would suggest to us that the Bernsteinian “turn” (reconciliation of capitalism and the workers’ movement) has been validated in light of recent decades. Ultimately, they argue, social reforms, rather than social revolution, have found their justification. Of course, this apologetic revisionism does not stand up to analysis, because it continues to reflect only the Eurocentric view of the core countries. The global capitalist system did not overcome the starvation affecting hundreds of millions, the crises, the wars, the dictatorships, nor the unemployment, the social and cultural alienation. Lenin’s Marxism strived for totality in its manner of contemplation. That is, in contrast to his previous contemplative materialism, he moved in the direction of an “active dialectical practical philosophy.” With the Great War, the time had come when the proletariat could take its fate into its own hands worldwide. In contrast with Western social democracy and the partial solutions it offered since the turn of the century, Lenin took the position of considering the whole. He restored the Hegelian Marxist theoretical and methodological awareness, based on “totality,” to its rightful place, including, first of all, the “qualitative leap” of revolutionary change, the dialectical dismissal of the old civilization. In accord with its basic objective, Lenin’s Marxism had arrived at the theory and practice of social transformation in the historical moment when it did indeed prove possible to break through the surface of the capitalist world order, at least for a time.

In Lenin’s social theory history provides multiple potentialities. Hence, the art of revolutionary politics is contained in recognizing and finding a way among alternatives. This does not necessarily signify “from the perspective of the proletariat” a choice of the most radical revolutionary action. The starting point can only be what is specifically possible. In Lenin’s thought the prerequisite for determining what is and what is not possible resides in the historical, concrete analysis of political relations and the respective power of the classes, a selection of the direction of change and of strategy for securing lasting allies for the working class.

Lenin’s theoretical and political theses, grounded in historical and economic fact, held that the Tsarist autocracy could only be dislodged by revolution. This was accompanied by his recognition that the Russian bourgeoisie could play “no leading role” in the revolution. For Plekhanov, such an assessment of the Russian bourgeoisie was disagreeable. Lenin, by contrast, grasped the Russian “national revolution” or “bourgeois revolution” as a joint venture of the urban workers and the landless peasantry. This is precisely what the events of 1905 demonstrated. This naturally led to the well-known thesis that “the bourgeois revolution cannot be separated from the proletarian revolution by a Chinese wall.” With capitalist globalization reaching a higher level by the time of the Great War, this view was vindicated globally as the movement of the disgruntled masses of armed workers and peasants, as well as the movements of the nationalities gained momentum and intimated the possibility of another revolution, namely the revolution of the workers, soldiers and peasants premised on land reform and on exit from the war. Though Lenin called this simply “proletarian revolution,” he was perfectly aware that a purely proletarian revolution was impossible in Russia. His well known, intermittent debates with Trotsky reflect how complex was the actual relationship of policy making and theory.

Yet Lenin had to modify the notion, inherited from Marx, regarding the world revolution and the law of uneven development (“the weakest link in the chain of imperialism”). He argued that world revolution, as a long-range historical process, may indeed begin in Russia. The Russian revolution might well become “the spark” of world revolution. Although Lenin knew well that this was “merely” a historical possibility, he also knew that nothing could be worse than the war itself (even if capitalist civilization was nowhere near its end). Lenin drew his political conclusions from these facts. Other leaders of European Marxism, such as Luxemburg and Liebknecht, agreed.

The socialist perspective: The contradiction that has no resolution

If only because of the limits imposed by historical circumstance and individual mortality, Lenin was able to provide only a very limited Marxist answer to the issue of having to resort to a dictatorship even against its own social base, for the sake of preserving Soviet power. On the one hand, he tried to compensate for political oppression by proclaiming in opposition to the “remaining” and ever stronger state power that “the working class must defend itself against its own state.” He left unexplained how it could do so with the support of that very state. In other words, the workers must confront the state, yet defend the state and all its institutions at the same time. There was no dialectical solution to such a contradiction. Moreover, there was another contradiction without resolution: Lenin reserved to the party and the state the capacity for extra-economic compulsion, which was proportional to the lack of conditions for realizing socialism. Even Peter the Great had to resort “to barbarian methods to sweep away the barbarian conditions.” The earlier theory and practice of social self-defense in Lenin’s ideas not only grew faint, but was eventually completely displaced by the Stalinist turn, which later obviously contributed to the fall of state socialism. (The “ideologizing” of the unplanned developments of “state socialism” is completely absent from Lenin’s ideas, and this absence was one of the theoretical sources in the lively debate engaged in by Trotsky and his comrades — joined later by others, including Jean-Paul Sartre — challenging the coherence and meaning of the Stalinist thesis of “socialism in one country”).

The dead-end of war communism, the removal of ideology from the military measures accompanying a specific kind of state socialism, the realization that the change of social forms can be carried out only partially, was formulated in Lenin’s thinking. The New Economic Policy entailed the recognition that neither direct workers’ democracy nor cooperative economics built on social self-government could be established. He identified this stage as one of “transition within the transition,” as state capitalism overseen by the Soviet state. Unlike the majority of the Bolsheviks, Lenin stressed at this point that the new society could not be introduced by a revolutionary assault. Increasing development or reforms could not be confused with a revolutionary leap, if the human, subjective boundaries of development and the significance of step-by-step progress are taken into account. Yet Lenin never turned into a Bernsteinian, as some authors have suggested. He never dissolved the Marxist heritage into methodological and scientific parts. Rather, he accepted the contradiction, he conceived of it as a relative whole or as a system that could not be complemented or “pluralized,” a concept which could not be deconstructed at will. As opposed to anarchist and dogmatic thinking, which treated totality as an absolute and stressed the universality of gradualness, segmentation, the partial tasks, the particularism of revisionism (and of liberalism), Lenin emphasized a totalizing approach to the totality of the goals of socialism.

Lenin’s key discovery after the revolution was precisely the fact that Russia had to assimilate the basic achievements of Western technology and cultural civilization at the same time as attempting to create a new mixed economy. In such circumstances, the Soviet state was called upon to back the competing social sectors, as “islands of socialism.” The chief imperative of this wave of “modernization” was to advance the state and the social sectors, because the free market — the uninhibited domination of capital — was understood to be the foundation of human oppression. The autonomy of the individual as the main site of the unfolding of communist society remains elusive in Lenin’s legacy as well as in the legacy of the entire period with its insistence on other dimensions of development. In other words, the task of Lenin’s Marxism did not lie in replaying the role of Western European liberalism in the nineteenth-century, but in combining the economic and cultural sectors that supported each other. Yet, objective historical circumstances brought about an irreconcilable contradiction between the “political philosophy bent on preserving power” and socio-economic theory (communist theory). This theoretical conception of socialism, originally broached in State and Revolution, reactivates certain half-forgotten views of Marx: Socialism would be the outcome of a protracted historical process, the first phase of communism would inaugurate the possibility of a future “community of associated producers,” and thereby the possibility of the universal freedom of civilized humanity.

The life work of Lenin reflects that, for him, Marxism as both a theory and political praxis deals directly in the project of going beyond capitalism. For him Marxism was not some sort of abstract discipline valuable for its own sake. Certainly it was not a form of abstract philosophizing about the meaning of life. Science and philosophy are merely tools to achieve human emancipation. An investigation of Lenin’s Marxism therefore needs to start by properly mapping its own historical background. For at the center of his thought and of all his activities, we find the exploration of opportunities for the proletarian revolution in Russia and the world at large, and the inherent potential for their practical realization.

The specific historical form of the revolutionary trajectory examined here — from an aspect of its end-goal, social equality, that is, the end of social classes and the achievement of freedom — was stranded on historical circumstances and human limitations. At the same time however, the methodology of world social transformation survives the failure of the practical experiment. This is the contradiction that modern Marxist tendencies live through day in and day out. The conclusions are still in the process of being drawn. The modern triumph of revisionism has revived the ideological hypothesis confuted by the blood-stained history of the 20th century, the hypothesis that capitalism can be rendered globally civilized, can have a human face. Revisionism’s main discovery was that capitalism can be civilized and can espouse civilization at the “center” of the capitalist system. What Lenin understood was the meaning of the system itself, namely that if it can be “improved” in some way (in fact, we must strive for such improvement locally and internationally), this can only be achieved at the expense of the welfare of peripheral populations. Thus, genuinely improving the system for all requires overcoming the system. To this day, the question of whether capitalist civilization can be conquered by means of social emancipation remains. Any attempt at answering this question cannot overlook Lenin’s theoretical and political contribution. In a writing dedicated to Lenin, his political adversary, Nikolai Ustrialov, looking at the Bolshevik leader’s achievements from the point of view of the “greatness of the Russian nation,” opined that Lenin was deeply rooted in Russian history, that his place was clearly among the “great Russian national heroes,” embodying Peter the Great and Napoleon [Bonaparte], [Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de] Mirabeau and [Georges] Danton, and [Emelian] Pugachev and [Maximilien] Robespierre all at the same time.[5]

Slavoj Žižek has summarized the problem on a Marxian footing: “To repeat Lenin does not mean that we must repeat what he achieved, but rather what he was not able to achieve.” Even Václav Havel admits, as Žižek notes, that bourgeois democracy has exhausted its own resources and is incapable of resolving the world’s basic problems, “but if a Leninist makes this claim, then he is immediately accused of totalitarianism.” Lenin’s topicality resides in that he transformed his own historical experiences into a set of theoretical concepts that undermine and destroy any justifications of bourgeois society, and in spite of the contradictions involved, provide a tool for those who still think in terms of the possibility of another, more humane world.[6] |P

Translated from Hungarian by Mario Fenyo and Balint Bethlenfalvy.


[1] The transfer of Lenin’s ideas into the 21st century according to the leftist critique of the regime is not a matter of individual endeavor or experiment. It is an international phenomenon, involving a group of renowned theoreticians, whose works have been collected under the appropriate title, Lenin Reloaded, edited by Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, Slavoj Žižek, and David Fernbach (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
[2] Georg Lukács, “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organization” in History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 305.
[3] Georg Lukács, A társadalmi lét ontológiájáról [The ontology of social being] Vol. 3, Prolegomena (London: Magveto könyvkiado, 1976), 270.
[4] Ibid., 279.
[5] Nikoilai Ustrialov, Nacional-Bolshevizm (Moscow: Algoritm, 2003), 372-76.
[6] Slavoj Žižek, 13 opitov o Lenine (Moscow: Izdatelstvo Ad marginem, 2003), 252-53.

3 thoughts on “Tamás Krausz on the life and thought of Vladimir Lenin

  1. Pingback: Marxism and biography | The Charnel-House

  2. Pingback: Reconstructing Lenin An Intellectual Biography : Tamás Krausz | controappuntoblog.org

  3. Pingback: VKhUTEMAS exhibition in Berlin: Rediscovery of a Russian revolutionary art school | The Charnel-House

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