Vladimir Lenin — the struggle for revolution

Image: Sasha Kruglaya


The necessary fight for the defeat of the bourgeoisie and the overthrow of the institutions built on capitalism is affected by the reformist perspective

January marked 100 years since the death of Vladimir Lenin, which has led to a set of reflections on his political life and theoretical production. One of the most important marks of this trajectory was the fight against reformism. This discussion appears right at the beginning of one of his most important works, the book What to do?Of 1902.

This work, although best known as Vladimir Lenin's exposition on the main elements of the organizational tasks of revolutionaries, is also a polemic with the reformist sectors of European social democracy. In this work, as part of the dispute waged by revolutionaries within the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDLP), Vladimir Lenin locates the main manifestations of reformists in Europe, highlighting the theoretical role played by Eduard Bernstein.

According to Vladimir Lenin, for these sectors “social democracy must transform itself from a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reforms”.[I] Lenin points out that, as part of this process, “the demand that revolutionary social democracy take a decisive turn towards bourgeois social reformism was accompanied by a no less decisive shift towards bourgeois criticism of all the fundamental ideas of Marxism”.[ii] The development of the class struggle in the following years showed the correctness of Vladimir Lenin's analyses.

At the beginning of the 1899th century, although it was spread across several countries, such as Russia, France and Germany, the reformist current had Bernstein, leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), one of the first theorists to systematize these ideas, being immediately opposed by Rosa Luxemburg. In his clash against the reformists within the SPD, Rosa stated, in a classic text published in XNUMX, that Bernstein made “the first attempt to theoretically substantiate the opportunist tendencies in the party”.[iii]

At the time, the labor movement was experiencing a great rise, in which workers advanced in gaining rights. This achievement of social reforms created the illusion among a sector of socialists that they could advance these rights within State institutions. Rosa showed that, for these sectors, “unions, social reforms and, as Bernstein adds, the political democratization of the State are the means for the gradual establishment of socialism”.[iv]

Reformism, despite its different manifestations in each country and even throughout the 20th century, has in common the abandonment of revolution for the transformation of society and the dictatorship of the proletariat as a strategic perspective. Another important mark of reformism is the complete integration, political and material, of workers' organizations into the bourgeois State.

In the case of Vladimir Lenin, the main fight against reformism took place especially in the clash with the Menshevik current. This struggle was expressed, among other issues, around the dynamics of the revolution in Russia, as the Mensheviks understood that, as a consequence of the bourgeois character of this process, Marxists should fight for a parliamentary republic. Another issue that divided Russian social democracy was the form of organization, insofar as, for Vladimir Lenin, the party should be a centralized organization whose role was to make workers overcome merely economic forms of struggle and consciousness.

Vladimir Lenin, in the preface to One step forward, two steps back (1904), making a political assessment of the Russian party congress, clarifies this issue: “In essence, the entire position of the opportunists in matters of organization began to be revealed already in the discussion in the first paragraph [on the form of party organization] : in his defense of a diffuse and not strongly cemented party organization; in its hostility to the idea (to the 'bureaucratic' idea) of building the party from top to bottom, based on the party congress and the bodies created by it; in its tendency to act from the bottom up, allowing any teacher, any high school student and 'any striker' to declare themselves a member of the party; in its hostility to 'formalism', which requires a party member to belong to an organization recognized by the party; in his tendency towards a bourgeois intellectual mentality, ready only to 'recognize organizational relations platonically'; in his inclination towards this subtlety of opportunist spirit and anarchist phrases; in its tendency towards autonomism against centralism”.[v]

This fight has intensified over the years. At that first moment, according to Vladimir Lenin himself, still writing in 1904, the “character of divergence was just beginning to take shape and many in reality were still unable to orient themselves”.[vi]

This direct conflict within the RSDLP continued until 1912, when there was a rupture between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Vladimir Lenin wrote on the subject, years later: “Overcoming unprecedented difficulties, the Bolsheviks rejected the Mensheviks, whose role as agents of the bourgeoisie in the labor movement was admirably understood after 1905 by the entire bourgeoisie who, for this very reason, supported them with a thousand ways against the Bolsheviks. They would never have been able to repel the Mensheviks if they had not applied correct tactics, combining illegal work with the mandatory use of 'legal possibilities'. In the most reactionary of the Dumas, the Bolsheviks conquered the entire workers’ bench.”[vii]

In the context of this rupture, Vladimir Lenin wrote some contributions that, to a large extent, help to understand the fight against reformism in the current situation. In one of his texts, Lenin pointed out the difference between, on the one hand, defending reforms to organize the struggle and mobilize workers (therefore, as a tactic) and, on the other, limiting himself to achieving immediate improvements in capitalism (therefore, as a strategy). For Lenin, writing in September 1913, Marxists “recognize the struggle for reforms, that is, for improvements in the situation of workers who leave power as before in the hands of the ruling class. But at the same time, Marxists wage the most energetic struggle against reformists, who directly or indirectly limit the aspirations and activity of the working class to reforms.”[viii]

The simplest example of this debate is possibly the wage demand which, although not a directly anti-capitalist struggle, puts tension on the concrete reality experienced by workers, insofar as it means attacking part of the profit that the bourgeoisie obtains through the exploitation of work. These struggles, even without placing capitalist production relations under immediate threat, are fundamental in the process of organization and raising the level of consciousness of workers.

In this sense, according to Vladimir Lenin, “Marxists work tirelessly, not missing a single 'possibility' of reforms and their use, not disapproving, but rather supporting and attentively developing, any departure from the limits of reformism, both in propaganda and agitation and in mass economic action”.[ix] The role of revolutionaries is highlighted in advancing the consciousness of workers, showing that the class struggle is not a mere economic struggle, but also a political clash.

Another issue involves the reformists' attachment to old structures, after all, their strategic perspective is on maintaining the existing order and not on overthrowing it to build a new society. According to Vladimir Lenin, writing in March 1913, “the supporters of reforms and improvements will always find themselves deceived by the defenders of the old as long as they do not understand that every old institution, however barbaric and rotten it may seem, is maintained by the force of one ruling class or another”.[X]

In Brazil, this debate refers to reformists who, faced with the complete putrefaction of the New Republic, a political regime built by the pact between the military and the institutional opposition in the transition from the end of the dictatorship, tirelessly defend democracy. These sectors, therefore, refuse to point to a new political and social organization that mobilizes workers against the established order, preferring an alliance with sectors of the bourgeoisie to save unstable political stability.

The necessary fight for the defeat of the bourgeoisie and the overthrow of the institutions built on capitalism is affected by the reformist perspective, which, by remaining the hegemonic current in the workers' movement, makes their struggle difficult. According to Vladimir Lenin, “the stronger the influence of the reformists over the workers, the weaker the workers are, the more dependent they are on the bourgeoisie, the easier it is for the bourgeoisie to reduce reforms to nothing through various subterfuges”.[xi]

This has been a reality of the situation in Brazil, after all, even with the workers' willingness to fight in the face of the attacks suffered in recent years, they find themselves hostage to the reformist leadership, which does nothing more than talk about the fragility of the workers' strength, of the impossibility of wresting any achievement from the “fascists” in government and, in particular, that it is not possible to change the current situation if not through institutional dispute.

For Vladimir Lenin, revolutionaries need to build themselves as the conscious current of the labor movement, presenting a concrete analysis and, therefore, a scientific understanding of reality and irrefutably showing the need to overthrow the established bourgeois order. Reformists, in turn, do not see reality beyond bourgeois democracy and cling to the defense of capitalist institutions.

The revolutionaries, at the same time as they fight for the immediate achievements of the workers, fight for these demands as part of a transition program, demonstrating that, even if possible reforms may bring momentary improvements, they will be withdrawn as soon as the bourgeoisie sees the possibility of any crisis. . Only with the end of capitalism will workers be able to guarantee effective achievements, which was demonstrated in theory and practice by Vladimir Lenin.

*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).


[I] Lenin. what to do. São Paulo: Martins, 2006, p. 108.

[ii] Lenin. what to do. São Paulo: Martins, 2006, p. 109.

[iii] Rosa Luxemburg. Social reform or revolution? In: Selected works. São Paulo: UNESP, 2011, Vol. I, p. 82.

[iv] Rosa Luxemburg. Social reform or revolution? In: Selected works. São Paulo: UNESP, 2011, Vol. I, p. 24.

[v] Lenin. One step forward, two steps back. Moscow: Edições Progresso, 1984, p. 6-7.

[vi] Lenin. One step forward, two steps back. Moscow: Edições Progresso, 1984, p. 74.

[vii] Lenin. Leftism, childhood disease of communism. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2014, p. 54.

[viii] Lenin. Marxism and reformism. In: Selected works in six volumes. Moscow: Progress; Lisbon: Avante, 1984, p. 115.

[ix] Lenin. Marxism and reformism. In: Selected works in six volumes. Moscow: Progress; Lisbon: Avante, 1984, p. 117.

[X] Lenin. The three sources and three constituent parts of Marxism. In: Selected works in six volumes. Moscow: Progress; Lisbon: Avante, 1984, p. 94-5.

[xi] Lenin. Marxism and reformism. In: Selected works in six volumes. Moscow: Progress; Lisbon: Avante, 1984, p. 116.

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