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Notes on Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered

What follows are some notes on Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered. An upcoming second post will conclude these notes with some separate conclusions on the continuing relevance of What is to be Done? in regards to thinking about revolutionary organization.


Lenin Without “Leninism”

Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to Be Done? in Context is a major reevaluation of the famous (and infamous) work by Lenin. The status of What is to Be Done? in the history of the revolutionary Left since the Russian Revolution has obscured the actual context and meaning of Lenin’s arguments on organization. While Lenin’s book became one pillar for the “vanguard party-building model”, it also evolved into a kind of shorthand for what was to become known as “Leninism”. Taking apart the myth of What is to Be Done? is the subject of Lih’s book, which consists of an almost 700 page commentary and a new translation.

Lih not only takes issue with the revolutionary Left that claims the “leninist” mantle. He also critiques those who see in What is to Be Done? the foundations of authoritarianism and one-party dictatorship. However, it wasn’t only Cold War era academics in the West who crafted this kind of argument. A highly developed form of this idea was also developed by revolutionary marxists, which has continued to characterize WITBD ever since. It is best summarized by Trotsky’s attack in 1904 that what Lenin actually proposed was “subsitutionism” in which “the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee”. Luxemburg brought an even more distinct leftwing critique, citing Lenin as an example of a marxist who theorized a party of “blanquist” intellectuals as the agent of history rather than the working class.

Lih calls these approaches to What is to Be Done?—whether from the left or right—the “textbook interpretation”. He defines this approach as one that sees WITBD as a break with the prevailing social democratic marxism of its time. While the rightwing use of the “textbook interpretation” argued that WITBD cast in terms of organization an authoritarian and undemocratic worldview, the leftwing use said that it showed a clear rejection of the central role of worker self-activity.

Lih equally takes to task a more subtle use of the “textbook interpretation”. He writes:

The textbook interpretation is thus, on the whole, a postwar creation. One reason for its rise is a great forgetting of what prewar international Social Democracy was all about. The principal reason for this loss of context is the watershed of the 1917 revolution, which split prewar Social Democracy in two and gave the name ‘Social Democracy’ only to the more moderate side. On the other, a number of writers with no or very shallow roots in the Second International—Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch—created a theory (not shared by Lenin) that Leninism was the principled rejection of the fatalistic Marxism of the Second International and of Kautsky in particular. (32)

Lih points to a version of this interpretation in the Trotskyist tradition. Perhaps the best example is Tony Cliff’s classic four-volume work on Lenin. The Trotskyist recuperation of WITBD, Lih argues, sees Lenin as establishing a real if not completely realized break with social democratic marxism. While there is no doubt, the argument goes, WITBD overstates the role of a party working on an “unconscious” proletariat, Lenin “bends the stick” back during the 1905 Revolution, to not only reinsert the category of workers self-activity into his theory of revolution, but also into his approach to organization when he castigated rank-and-file bolsheviks for not “opening up” the party to the masses of newly radicalized workers.
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