A Leninism for the 21st century



One hundred years after Lenin's death, the lack of Leninists has never been so felt


One hundred years after Lenin's death, not many on the left still define themselves as Leninists. Lenin is not popular. Justice be done, this reality tells us more about the majority of the contemporary left than about Lenin. The historical stage has remained reactionary since the capitalist restoration. And there is no indication that it can get better before it gets worse. There are many leftist leaders who are not Marxists, and there are many different varieties of Marxism. Leninism is revolutionary-Marxism. A complex explanation for this isolation refers to many factors, but the main one is that, in the last fifty years, no anti-capitalist revolution has triumphed. As a result, there are few revolutionaries in the world.

But the lack of Leninists has never been so felt. It is when the conditions of struggle are most difficult, like today, when the center of leftist tactics should be the fight against the extreme right, in much of the world, that they are most needed. Lenin's strategic clarity was expressed in three tactical turns in the dramatic interval between February and October 1917. First with the defense of the April theses, repositioning Bolshevism on the line of independence and demands on the provisional government – ​​Bread, Peace and Land – and all power to the soviets.

Second turning to the United Front with Kerensky against Kornilov's coup. Third by defending the need for insurrection. Tactical flexibility is the art of politics. It must be based on the analysis of possibilities limited by the analysis of the relationship of forces, as long as it is anchored in firm principles. We are doing poorly when what prevails is tactical rigidity and strategic effrontery.

The radical left would have a lot to draw inspiration from in this legacy. Paradoxically, there are not many Leninists. Not due to the absence of revolutionary situations in this half century, but due to a long accumulation of defeats. Defeats are discouraging. There is not a single country that is transitioning to socialism and can be, in some way, an inspiration. Socialist ideas, even in the most moderate forms, became a minority. The workers' movement, the social heart of the anti-capitalist project, has retreated, in the last thirty years as if it were more than a hundred years, to a context prior to the victory of the Russian revolution in October 1917.

It is true that campism has regained influence in some left-wing circles looking for a breather in extolling the successes of Chinese growth. But the expectation that China could be a support point in the anti-imperialist struggle collapsed, even on the diplomatic field, in the face of the wars in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip. And it is not easy to convince someone to make a serious bet on Beijing's strategy of restoring capitalism for a hundred years, and then “turn the corner” and return to a socialist direction. If social inequality were not enough, maintaining a single-party dictatorship regime. This bet is equivalent, for militants educated in some variant of Marxism, to what for religious people is to believe in life after death. Being a socialist is a commitment to an unbreakable hope for the future, but everything has limits.

Being a Leninist in the 1968st century is “not for the weak”. Although it is true that revolutionary waves never stopped exploding. But since the open stabilization after the reactionary consolidation in the eighties, which buried the XNUMX impulse, only in Latin American, Asian and African countries. In central countries – the historical strongholds of capitalism – even among those that experienced political crises with important mass mobilizations, the regime of domination was preserved intact. In the last five years, liberal democracy has been threatened, not by the mobilization of workers organized in unions, or popular movements of the oppressed, but by the social, political and electoral offensive of a neo-fascist extreme right. If Leninist groups are not built, it will be more difficult to defeat them.


Will revolutions happen again? Political revolutions against tyrannical regimes have swept the world and toppled dictatorships over the past half century. They defeated coups, such as the resistance that returned Hugo Chávez to the presidency, and even displaced elected governments. Before the open process of capitalist restoration in 1989/91, at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties, the dictatorships of Somoza in Nicaragua, Shah Reza Pahlavi in ​​Iran, in addition to the military regimes in the Southern Cone fell. Over the last thirty years, a revolutionary wave expanded from Argentina to Venezuela, passing through Ecuador and Bolivia between 2002/05, and another set fire to the Maghreb from Tunisia and Egypt in 2012. But most democratic revolutions, even some among the most radicalized ones, were defeated, or interrupted. There was no shortage of revolutions, there was no shortage of Leninists.

It could be argued that the social forces in struggle used the human material they found at their disposal to defend their aspirations, and this is independent of the quality, greater or lesser, of the talents available. This is also right. But it does not resolve the issue: if the quality of the political subject is, ultimately, irrelevant, and can be improvised, then the explanation for the victories and defeats of social subjects in struggle would be restricted to the greater or lesser maturity of the objective factors. In other words, an objectivist, almost fatalistic approach.

Revolutionary situations will not stop opening up, because capitalism will face immense difficulties in the face of accumulating crises: danger of medium and long-term stagnation, preventing the reduction of poverty, and increasing social inequalities; increased rivalries and disputes over power positions in the international system of States and a growing arms race with the outbreak of regional wars; climate emergency precipitated by the growing consumption of fossil fuels, in addition to the fatal threat of the rise of neo-fascists to governments, even in imperialist centers, and through elections.

What remains in force in the Leninist legacy for the 21st century? The most controversial continues to be the theorization about the need for an instrument of revolutionary struggle. It is no less decisive because we are in a long reactionary stage opened by the historic defeat of capitalist restoration in the USSR.

The topic is immersed in bitter controversies because the portion of the global left that still claims to be Marxist is divided between small marginal circles, which have soured in their doctrinarism, and currents that have adapted to electoralism, and have become unrecognizable. The Leninist challenge, however, remains. Is it still possible to build revolutionary organizations, in such an unfavorable period, that discover a path that protects them from “museological” ossification and, simultaneously, avoids “opportunist drunkenness”?

Most of the revolutions of the 20th century were political revolutions in which the energy released by the revolutionary action of the social subject dissipated, more or less, quickly after the overthrow of hated regimes and governments. Long before the great tasks of the social revolution (the conquest of the State, the transformation of economic-social relations) had been resolved. They do not deserve to be disqualified as “less” revolutionary for this reason, when we examine the radicalization of millions in struggle. But, among other factors, which vary from country to country, the constant was the weakness of Leninist organizations.


At a high level of abstraction, the theoretical-historical problem can be stated in this way: how is it possible that workers, a social class, economically, exploited, socially, oppressed and, politically, dominated, can conquer power against a powerful State? capitalist in the contemporary world? The Leninist response was to defend the need for a revolutionary party. But a militant organization is always an imperfect tool. Did the Bolsheviks make a mistake? Often. Was Lenin wrong? Yes, many times. Do your mistakes invalidate your successes, from a historical perspective? No.

Did they make a mistake when they prohibited the existence of internal tendencies and fractions in the heat of the civil war? Yes, but it would be quick not to admit that the risks were tragic. Did they make a mistake in Kronstadt? They made a mistake, but it wasn't a simple decision. Were they wrong to impose a one-party dictatorship? Yes, period. But nullifying the heroic heritage of the October Revolution due to the errors, even when they were very serious, of the first Socialist Republic is frivolous. Holding Lenin responsible for the regime of terror, led by Stalin, which was consolidated ten years after his death is not serious. “Reverse” teleology amounts to retroactive fatalism. The Russian revolution opened up a field of possibilities. Unfortunately, the most promising ones were defeated.

That said, the premise of the Leninist bet on the need for a centralized party is that, once the objective factors are mature in a situation of revolutionary crisis, the lucidity and boldness of an organization of activists structured in the strategic sectors of economic-social life can make the difference. Making a difference means opening the way to victory in the struggle for power. The party's militant presence over years and decades, alongside popular struggles, allows it to gain the political authority that is essential for the triumph of the revolution. This bet has passed the test of history. All anti-capitalist revolutions that triumphed were led by a centralized organization. The drama is that they were, militarily, overcentralized.

Lenin's party had unity in political action, it did not obey military discipline. Lenin was often in the minority. At times, its internal democracy was semi-chaotic. Inspired by this strategic orientation, Bolshevism had the greatest tactical flexibility: it participated in the most minimal and elementary struggles without ceasing to carry out political agitation against tsarism; formed cadres for permanent agitation in defense of popular demands, but never stopped publishing a newspaper as a collective organizer of the political struggle to overthrow the dictatorship; he intervened in the unions without giving in to unionist illusions; participated in elections with their own candidacies, or formed electoral fronts, or called for an electoral boycott without giving in to electoral illusions; it fueled theoretical debates, published books, magazines and regularly organized training schools, without turning into an academic “club” for critical intellectuals.

The two most important criticisms of the Leninist conception of the party are: (a) the accusation that it was responsible for the monolithic form that the Stalinist dictatorship took for seven decades; (B) the accusation that it would be a form of bureaucratic substitutionism for the spontaneous action of the masses. The arguments are impressive, but they are false.

The first is, historically, not honest. A theory about the model of political organization is not even a reasonable explanation for the permanence of a political regime for five decades in the USSR. Nor is it sustainable to attribute it to Stalin's personality, forgetting that the regime had mass support. Even less if we consider that the single-party dictatorship was the standard in all revolutionary experiences of the 20th century. There are other factors, incomparably more powerful, such as the delay in economic-social development, the class struggle, or the international counter-revolutionary siege that determined the emergence of Stalinism as a regime. But establishing an unbroken continuity between the Bolshevik party that fought to overthrow the tsarist dictatorship and Stalin's party is not serious.

The second is not, intellectually, honest. The Leninist thesis does not argue that the Marxist party makes the revolution. Revolutions are not coups, conspiracies, barracks. The insurrection is only a crucial moment in the revolutionary struggle. Revolutions are processes of mobilization for power that set millions of people in motion. They are the highest form of class struggle in complex contemporary societies, and social classes are the protagonists. Political subjects are instruments of representation and organization. Political organizations do not make revolutions. They compete for leadership in a revolutionary process. They are a form of interest representation that is far superior to individual leadership. The accusation that Bolshevism was a machine serving the power ambitions of Lenin, and later Stalin, attributes excessive power to political leaders.

The most serious thing, a hundred years after Lenin's death, is that the global left is faced with a vital challenge: how to impose a historic defeat on neo-fascism with mass influence, including among a portion of the popular classes? Electoral parties are powerless in the face of the ideologically radicalized “missionary” activist engagement of far-right movements. Leninism is synonymous with militant parties.

* Valerio Arcary is a retired professor of history at the IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo). [https://amzn.to/3OWSRAc]

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