Two weeks ago, April 22, was the 150th anniversary V.I. Lenin’s birth. What does it mean to consider Lenin 150 years after his birth and at the time of COVID-19? To many on the global left — from anarchists to social democrats — the answer would be a resounding, “He means nothing at all to us,” or, “We reject his legacy.” I believe that this would be misguided, as we still have a lot to learn from the Russian revolutionary thinker, even today, and in spite of the many valid criticisms of his politics and the fate of the USSR that he founded.
I will not rehearse those flaws here in any detail, except to mention briefly his establishment of a single-party state after the revolution and his elitist concept of the vanguard party, both of these criticized from the left early on by Rosa Luxemburg and others. Most of the criticisms relate to his organizational practice before the 1917 revolution and his conduct as leader of that revolution after his Bolsheviks came to power in the second revolution of November 1917.
But these criticisms do not take away the theoretical contributions of Lenin that are the most valuable for us to consider today, which were largely worked out a few years before he became the leader of Soviet Russia and at a time when his organizational practice was rather limited.
I refer to the years 1914-17, when World War I gripped Europe, driving many revolutionary socialists underground or into prison. Lenin managed to obtain exile in Bern, Switzerland, where he could interact with a tiny circle of Bolsheviks. During these years, he had few outlets to publish his writings, let alone the possibility of circulating them inside Russia under the severe repression of all dissent that the Tsarist regime brought down upon society during the war.
Instead of falling into despair as some did, or worse, capitulating to the patriotic wave by moving rightward into the prowar camp, Lenin sprang into action, theoretical action. He took advantage of his isolation, of his “social distancing” if you will, and plunged into his most creative period of work as a Marxist theorist.
In 1914-15 he became the first important Marxist after Marx to engage in a deep study of Hegel and the dialectic, as seen in his famous Philosophical Notebooks. Even better known were his writings of 1915-16 on imperialism and its opposite. In the book, Imperialism: The Highest State of Capitalism, he was one of a handful of creative Marxists to take up the new stage of capitalism that even Engels had missed. In related writings on anti-colonialism and national liberation, Lenin was the only important Marxist thinker to take the next step, to argue that national liberation movements, from Ireland to India, and from Africa to Latin America, should be supported as progressive, potentially revolutionary movements and as allies of the Western working class. Moreover, socialist and labor movements had the responsibility to support these anti-imperialist movements, especially in the colonies controlled by their own governments. Finally, just before the revolution, in early 1917, he compiled Marxism and the State, about 100 pages of research notes and drafts for his epochal book published late that year, during the revolution itself. That book was entitled State and Revolution, and it brought back to life for a new generation two of Marx’s most important texts for then — and now — Civil War in France (on the Paris Commune and the need to “smash” the state) and Critique of the Gotha Program (on real communism as opposed to statist and halfway measures). (It should be noted that there were some problems with Lenin’s treatment of communism here that allowed statist forms to creep back in once again.)
What Lenin achieved in these years was nothing short of theoretical preparation for revolution.
And that is an example worth considering! It is an especially relevant example at this very moment, when COVID-19 has blocked the global left from engaging in much in the way of street protests or face-to-face meetings. Similar to the years of World War I, we are isolated from our normal activities. What will we do with all the time we used to spend attending those meetings and demonstrations, and organizing them?
I suggest that we try to follow Lenin’s example, to engage in theoretical preparation for revolution. There are some indications that this is already happening. A comrade in Brazil reports that no less than 6000 people have signed up for an online study group on Marx’s Capital. On a smaller scale, our International Marxist-Humanist Organization’s Los Angeles chapter public meetings have also gone online, attracting three times our normal attendance, with some logging on from as far away as Europe and South America, as at our recent meeting on the article “Where to Begin? Growing Seeds of Liberation in a World Torn Asunder,” published by several IMHO comrades, here: https://imhojournal.org/articles/where-to-begin-growing-seeds-of-liberation-in-a-world-torn-asunder/
Will original theoretical work come out of the present moment? Obviously, it is too early to tell. What one can say, along with Raya Dunayevskaya, is that today, Marxist theory is not just the province of theoreticians. As she wrote as early as 1958 in her epochal Marxism and Freedom, “No theoretician, today more than ever before, can write out of his own head. Theory requires a constant shaping and reshaping of ideas on the basis of what the workers themselves are doing and thinking.” She of course included other revolutionary elements of society as well: women, youth, Black and other oppressed minorities, and youth.
All activists are potentially theoreticians, if they can connect their experience in creative ways with the dialectical, revolutionary tradition, from Hegel and Marx to today.
In this spirit, I urge comrades all over the world to think about Lenin’s theoretical preparation for revolution, and to try something similar today in the time of COVID-19. We in the IMHO are willing to dialogue with you about this.