Signalfire is pleased to present the following contribution in belated honor of Lenin’s birthday (first in a three part series) received from a member of the Ignite Collective in NYC-Editor
Today marks the 142nd birthday of Vladimir Ilynich Ulyanov (Lenin) and there is no better time to comment shortly on some developing notes towards the elaboration of a fuller Communist politics that directly inserts itself within the space of the ‘shades of opinion’ among the general ranks. The notes I am offering here in a couple parts in brief on Lenin are part of my general study with the aim of a comprehensive document to appear on the politics of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM).
The figure of Lenin is something of a particular oddity these days. There has been over the years a particular resurgence of interest in him as strategist, tactician, theorist, politician, etc within the domain of academia. The irony here is of course that Lenin himself was already well aware of this particular dynamic in relationship to Marx in Russia itself among the trend of ‘legal Marxists.’ As any observant viewer of gangster films will know “your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends.” In Russia of the turn of the last century, the liberal bourgeoisie came as friends in guise of ‘legal Marxists’, by 1917 they were in the majority in the camp of reaction. Lenin observed that the crisis among the liberal bourgeoisie had pushed them towards Marx, but they as a class objectively were incapable of overthrowing the Tsarist state. In the end they would of course unite with Tsarism in the Cadet Party in fear of the proletariat.
Crisis again reigns in the class structure of the imperialist system with the unstable classes clinching at the coattails of what is novel. Marx again is rendered palpable to a section of the Bourgeoisie, Lenin is rendered so to a section of the petty-bourgeoisie themselves. In truth much of our class is awakening – either allowed the freedom to move, think, or simply jolted from a particular comfortableness that marked the “end of history” and victory of an American century.
Where we Begin: Lenin as a Young Man
Lenin was born in Simbirsk on the Volga river to a middle class administrative family. His father was a school inspector, his mother an educated womon the daughter of a physician. The family was a progressive one politically and identified with the political movement that had formed around Chernyshevksy – a Russian populist that formed what is known as the Narodnik movement; a movement with socialist aspirations but of a petty-bourgeois character and which sought revolutionary transformation of Russian society within the pre-capitalist mode of production, within the peasant communes of Russia.
Lenin’s brother, Alexander, was arrested and executed by the Tsarist police. He was a part of a revolutionary terrorist organization, a part of the general Narodnik movement, that aimed to assassinate the Tsar. Alexander and the organization he was a part of though were a part of a general movement of young people among the Narodniks moving towards Marxism. After Alexander’s death, Lenin carried forward the study of Marxism.
In the same year his brother was executed, Lenin entered the university in Kazan but was expelled for riotous activity with the police together with other revolutionary students. After his expulsion, Lenin dedicated himself to both his academic study, his study of Marxism (reading Capital by age of 21), his study of capitalist development in Russia and investigation among the people. Lenin broke from the prevailing radical thought of Narodnism in favor of Marxism. Narodnism, as with many base radical populisms, was a petty-bourgeois romantic movement. Petty-bourgeois intellectuals attempted to join the peasantry in their active lives. They hoped to build socialism from the communal production system. They failed. Capitalism had already penetrated Russia and began creating centers of industry, in those centers of industry the emerging proletariat was in its embroyo. Capitalism had already penetrated the peasant mode of production, the communal system was rotten with small proprietary organization and production within. The peasants were split into new emerging landlord class, the rich peasantry known as ‘kulaks,’ and a new semi-proletarian class of peasantry who were losing their land and being forced to work the land of the kulaks.
Lenin utilized the scientific system of Marx to develop a concrete analysis of the concrete situation in the Russian Empire. In 1893 Lenin moved to St.Petersburg at the age of 23 years. There he joined up with the emerging workers’ strike movement and the Social-Democratic underground carrying out agitational work among them. Lenin made careful study of the conditions of the workers and worked closely with them in preparing agitational material and lectures. All such things were carried forward in the underground and Lenin was arrested within the decade.
The work that Lenin carried forward in such a few years was immense. He managed to build a revolutionary organization based among the working class, so deeply rooted that arrests did not simply uplift their whole work. He managed to build the embryo of the future Bolshevik Party in the advanced section of the St.Petersburg working class movement all within his 20s’.
Lenin as an Agitator-Propagandist
Central to the work of Lenin consistently was the work of perpetuating Marxist theory and revolutionary politics among the working masses. From the beginning Lenin was opposed to opportunist tendencies among the Social-Democratic movement which reduced the role of the conscious Social-Democrats to mere auxillary, that fetishized worker’s economic struggle but not their political struggle; in essence those politics which reduced Marxism to just the tasks of organizing strike funds and had no role for revolutionary politics. This is a trend known as “economism.”
Lenin on the other hand was methodologically advocating for a proselytization of socialism among the working class, to programmatically speak for revolutionary struggle at all sites of oppression (not merely economic). The role of the Social-Democratic was as Lenin put it to bring the revolutionary science of Marxism from without into the working class movement. Lenin explains it this way in What is to be Done?
The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.
How is this to be understood? First and foremost let us just say what is explicit here. Often more so than not there is a monopoly of intellectual life, of scientific practice, in the hands of the Bourgeoisie and middle classes that are not the proletariat. As the passage will go on to even note that Marx and Engels were actually of propertied class, they enjoyed the ability to pursue intellectual interests as academics, university students, etc. Both of whom utilized this of course to develop a materialist conception of history, to scientifically grasp the development of modes of production, of class societies, and in particular they looked at the enveloping world system of capitalism which was emerging within their time. Many Marxists refer to this as historical materialism, a scientific way of understanding history. The role of the intellectual then within the formation of revolutionary theory and its dissemination takes on a character fundamentally that of which is already the role of the intellectual within the bourgeois society.
Lets express this another way – class struggle is the site and place for what is a revolutionary science of Marxism; it is the site as the much as the human body is the site of anatomy or the universe for cosmology.
The revolutionary intellectual is a bridge to science. A very important bridge. Today the anti-authoritarian milieu attempts to scandalize this issue with moralistic appeals. However, and this is really the truth, any hard look by these people at them own-selves will reveal to us enough of what we need to know? From where is this criticism against what? Have we not seen enough college educated muddled people walking around these days who speak for the people to speak against speaking for the people? Yes we know many of these types and what’s further the case is that within the conditions of the proliferation of education has allowed for the bridge of even the intellectual to “organically” pass (driven by the necessity to skill much more of the labor pool) to the proletariat we still have these people saying the same thing. It is altogether a philistine attitude.
Compare such philistinism against Lenin and the early Russian Social-Democrats. Here people were smuggling newspapers, books, and other scholarly material to conduct the work of building a revolutionary class consciousness among the people – literally risking imprisonment, exile, just for circulating written material.
Lenin as Editor; as Party Builder
Lenin served on the editorial board of Iskra, a newspaper of the Social-Democratic movement created abroad in Munich, Germany. More than just a newspaper, Iskra served as the medium of developing a party organization from the the disperse Social-Democratic groupings throughout Russia. It was accompanied with a periodical known as Zarya. Lenin depended in this work on the Russian emigre intellectuals that surrounded George Plekhanov (largely considered the father of Russian Marxism) known as the Emancipation of Labor group.
The alliance of Lenin and Plekhanov in formation of Iskra was of course – in general – the process of development of an all Russian Social-Democratic Party. At first such an alliance with Plekhanov and the Russian emigres of the Emancipation of Labor group was carried forward mostly under the preponderance of strength to Plekhanov and his followers. The editorial staff was Lenin, Plekhanov, Martov, Potresov, Zasulich, Axelrod – none of these people will end up joining Lenin in the Bolshevik Party. Despite the preponderance of the editorial board being in the hands of the “soft” Iskra-ists, how did Lenin utilize Iskra to win a great many of the Russian Social-Democratic movement? How was it that much of the Iskra agents themselves became the “hard” Iskra-ists? The answer to that question lies fundamentally in the method and utilization of Iskra by Lenin to draw out political lines and to show demarcations to all party workers in their concreteness. The answer to the second is that the agents of Iskra were skilled cadre in fact, who mostly sided with Lenin, because of their organization and experience with the repressive administration of the Tsarist state.
For a couple of years Iskra schooled the social-democratic movement in Russia in the line of Marxism, against opportunism. Lenin himself took to task the economists, Bundists, the ‘legal’ Marxists often to the disagreement of the “soft” Iskra-ists who emphasized unity with these opportunist forces. What seems as a “methodological” was in fact a contradiction within Iskra on political lines. For example those who composed “soft” Iskra-ists wanted to achieve as much unity as possible with Struve’s ‘legal’ Marxist group; whereas Lenin felt it imperative to expose the legal Marxists as antagonistic to revolution, as merely a “Marxist reflection in bourgeois literature.” In hindsight we can see the very astute analysis of Lenin, as Struve went on to join outrightly the White Reaction and Plekhanov, Martov and the rest didn’t bother joining the proletarian revolution at all.
Iskra having played a role as a central organizer, as a common teacher of the Russian Social-Democratic movement, allowed for its tendency (both hard and soft) to emerge as three-fifths of the delegates at the second congress. Despite this, at the congress would emerge a fracture between the soft and hard Iskra-ists – it was a split between what would become the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. The line of difference was that on what constituted Party membership – Martov advocated for the broadest possible membership on the basis of simple due payment, whereas Lenin pushed for a party which membership was based on accepting the party program and being within a party organization. Lenin was advocating for a leaner party organization of professional revolutionaries, a party of a new type. Such a party where political unity was strengthened by ridding themselves of the marsh would enable the party to actually broaden itself among the working class.
 Social-Democracy was the name taken up by the Marxist movement of the First International. It reflected a program of Party politics at the time which utilized sections of the state legislative apparatus and unions to advocate for socialism.