Lenin and the current status of his legacy

Image: Sasha Kruglaya


Some central elements in Lenin's theoretical and political production that contribute to understanding the contradictions of the present

This January marks one hundred years since the death of Vladimir Lenin. This milestone should inspire debates throughout the year, both by academics and left-wing organizations, whether those who claim Lenin's legacy or those who criticize him. But, no matter the perspective one takes in relation to Lenin, his political and theoretical legacy for the history of workers' struggles and Marxism is central to understanding the current reality.

In the economic sphere, one of his most important contributions involves studying the economic development of Russia. Written in 1899, Lenin shows that the understanding of economic development should escape schematism and, in the case of Russia, he showed that the idea of ​​“mature” or “backward” countries was insufficient. Lenin, by using the idea of ​​uneven and combined development (although he refers to the “unequal character of economic development”), elaborated by Marx and Engels and later deepened by Trotsky, shows how capitalism in Russia concentrated both industrial production relations and elements rural. Lenin states:

“Given the very nature of capitalism, this process of transformation cannot occur in any other way than in the midst of a series of inequalities and disproportions: periods of prosperity are followed by periods of crisis, the development of one industrial branch causes the decline of another, the progress of agriculture affects aspects of the rural economy that vary according to the regions, the development of commerce and industry surpasses that of agriculture, etc.” (The development of capitalism in Russia. São Paulo: Nova Cultural, 1988, p. 373).

The development of these economic and social relations did not occur in isolation in Russia, but within the dynamics of the world economy. In this sense, Lenin points out that capitalism “destroys the isolation and particularism (and, consequently, the narrowness of spiritual and political life) of the old economic systems, uniting all the countries of the world into a single economic totality” (The development of capitalism in Russia. São Paulo: Nova Cultural, 1988, p. 31).

This discussion on the world economy brings together Lenin's first economic reflections with one of his most popular works, in which he investigates imperialism. Written in 1916, his book analyzes the change that had been occurring in relations between nations, moving from colonialism, which had lasted for centuries, in which the role of the nation-state was decisive, to a situation in which large economic conglomerates of a small handful of countries that would gradually control capitalism worldwide. The process was described by Lenin as follows:

“Imperialism emerged as a development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism in general. But capitalism became capitalist imperialism only when it reached a certain, very high stage of its development, when some of its fundamental characteristics began to transform into their opposite, when they gained shape and the traits of time of transition from capitalism to a higher economic and social structure. Economically, the replacement of free competition by capitalist monopolies is fundamental in this process” (Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2021, p. 113).

Financial capital, merging industrial capital and banking capital, dialectically surpassing the export of goods by the export of capital, controlled by banks and financial agencies that represent the capitalists of the dominant countries, becomes the central element in this process. Lenin sought to show how this action of financial capital took place:

“The gigantic dimensions of financial capital, concentrated in a few hands, creating an extraordinarily vast and dense network of relationships and connections and subordinating the masses not only of small and medium-sized ones, but also of the most insignificant capitalists and entrepreneurs, on the one hand, and, on the other, the exacerbation of the struggle against other national-state groups of financiers for the sharing of the world and for domination over other countries, all of this leads to the indiscriminate transition of all possessing classes to the side of imperialism” (Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2021, p. 135).

Although limits can be pointed out to Lenin's elaborations – for example, the public debt domination mechanism was not a reality at the time nor was the United States the dominant power worldwide – the central elements of the method of analysis are found in his work . It is also worth remembering that world capitalism in Lenin's time still appeared as a colonial system, which only began to collapse with the liberation struggles in Africa and Asia, decades later. In other words, in his analysis, Lenin sought to bring to light an element that was not yet so evident, with regard to the relationship of imperialist domination, but which already had a central influence on the economic and political situation worldwide. In fact, with regard to the characterization of countries, Lenin drew attention to the fact that the relationship between countries could appear in different ways:

“[…] financial capital and its corresponding international policy, which translates into the struggle of great powers for the economic and political sharing of the world, create countless forms transient of state dependence. For this era, not only the two fundamental groups of countries are typical - those with colonies and colonies -, but also the various forms of dependent countries that, politically, formally, are independent, but, in practice, are entangled in webs of financial and diplomatic “dependence” (Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2021, p. 110).

The theme of imperialism is also related to another fundamental reflection of Lenin, that of the State. Right at the beginning of his study, Lenin points out the situation of the State in the imperialist era:

“[…] imperialism, the era of banking capital, the era of gigantic capitalist monopolies, the era of transformation of monopoly capitalism into state monopoly capitalism, shows the extraordinary reinforcement of the “State machine”, the unprecedented growth of its bureaucratic and military apparatus in connection with the strengthening of repression against the proletariat, both in monarchical countries and in freer republican countries” (The State and the Revolution. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017, p. 55).

Following in the footsteps of Engels' classic work on the State, Lenin shows its role in relation to class domination. However, by relating this debate to the revolution and workers' struggles, Lenin also shows the role of the State in its counter-revolutionary action and how left-wing reformists invariably end up being co-opted by bourgeois institutions. Lenin, without raising any doubts, is clear in delimiting the issue:

“The State is the product and manifestation of irreconcilable character of class contradictions. The State emerges where, when and to the extent that class contradictions you can not objectively be reconciled. And conversely: the existence of the State proves that class contradictions are irreconcilable” (The State and the Revolution. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017, p. 29).

Criticizing different sectors of the socialist movement, from anarchists to social democrats, Lenin also seeks to reflect on the role of bourgeois democracy, which, whether in the context of writing Lenin's work or even in the present, provokes all kinds of illusions. In this sense, the Russian revolutionary states:

“Democracy is one of the forms, one of the variants of the State. Consequently, like every State, it is the organized, systematic exercise of coercion over men. That's on the one hand. On the other hand, it is the formal recognition of equality among citizens, of the equal right of all to determine the form of the State and administer it” (The State and the Revolution. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017, p. 125).

Lenin is precise in stating the role of the State, defining it as follows: “it is the special organization of power, it is the organization of violence for the repression of any class” (The State and the Revolution. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017, p. 47). In capitalism, according to Lenin, “we have the State in the proper sense of the word, a machine specially designed to crush one class by another, the majority by the minority” (The State and the Revolution. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017, p. 115-6). Therefore, Lenin's conclusion is that, from the point of view of social transformation, it would be no other option for workers, with regard to bourgeois institutions, to destroy the State and build a new power based on their organizations.

However, this overthrow of the State and social transformation is not a natural process, in which workers only need the will to form a spontaneous movement that overthrows the status quo. Workers need management, which acts in two processes. The first process is the development of consciousness, moving from an immediate, economistic vision to a profound, scientific understanding of reality. The revolutionaries, for Lenin,

“[…] not only cannot they restrict themselves to the economic struggle, but they cannot even accept the organization of complaints as their main activity. We must actively undertake the task of political education of the working class, of developing its political consciousness” (What to do? São Paulo: Martins, 2006, p. 166).

The second process involves the perspective of directing a process of transformation, through a permanent organization of revolutionaries that points to the need to tear down the pillars of capitalist society. Lenin warned that the “cult of the spontaneity of the mass movement” and the “lowering of politics” to the level of economistic politics “sums up precisely in preparing the ground for transforming the labor movement into an instrument of bourgeois democracy” (What to do? São Paulo: Martins, 2006, p. 211). In this sense, he categorically stated that “only a party led by a vanguard theory is capable of fulfilling the mission of a vanguard combatant” (What to do? São Paulo: Martins, 2006, p. 129).

These are some of the central elements in Lenin's theoretical and political production that can contribute to understanding the contradictions of the present. It involves, on the one hand, the need for an accurate study of concrete reality and, although without giving up theory, understanding that it is necessary to understand reality and not just fit it into theoretical schemes. However, this understanding proves to be useless if it does not put itself in the direction of social transformation, of the concrete struggle, which cannot only be for the improvement of capitalism and the achievement of reforms, but of pointing to a real, concrete, radical change, which puts a new society on the horizon.

*Michel Goulart da Silva He holds a PhD in history from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC) and a technical-administrative degree from the Federal Institute of Santa Catarina (IFC).

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