Thursday, 7 January 2010

Lenin: how to divide and how to combine

This is Part 3 in a short series on Lenin and the real Leninist tradition.
Part 1: Lenin's 'What is to be done?'
Part 2: Lenin, democracy and freedom of criticism

The 1905 revolution in Russia challenged Tsarism and gave birth to the soviet, or workers' council, which exemplified a new and radical form of direct workers' democracy. Workers in factories directly elected their representatives, who came together to discuss and plan collectively. The revolution was ultimately defeated - and followed by represssion by the Russian state and a period of demoralisation and defeat for workers.

Yet, for a brief period, the Petrograd Soviet offered an alternative democratic vision and challenged for power. The chair of the Petrograd workers' council was a 26-year-old Leon Trotsky, who later led the 1917 Revolution alongside Lenin - 1905 has been described with hindsight as a 'great dress rehearsal' for 1917.

Lenin is frequently viewed as anti-democratic, as presiding in an autocratic manner over his own party. The party in turn treated ordinary workers with contempt - according to this view - and simply acted as a self-appointed revolutionary elite. 1905 gives the lie to that myth in a number of ways.

The unexpected development of such revolutionary democracy was an inspiration to many Marxists, but also generated some uncertainty about how to respond. The creation of workers' councils was not foreseen by Lenin; he learnt a great deal from workers' own initiative. Lenin noted that it was the workers, not merely the revolutionary party, that created this form of democracy.

Lenin rejected juxtaposing the soviet and the party, as if it is necessary to choose between them: 'the decision must certainly be both the Soviet of Workers' Deputies and the Party. The only question - and a highly important one - is how to divide, and how to combine, the tasks of the Soviet and those of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party.' In other words, what are the distinctive tasks of each, and how do they relate to each other?

This question - of the relationship between organised revolutionaries and the wider working class - goes to the heart of Leninism. The authentic tradition of Lenin is utterly different to the caricature. Lenin's view was that a party cannot substitute for mass action by the working class: 'The Soviet of Workers' Deputies came into being through the general strike, in connection with the strike, and for its aims. Who led the strike and brought it to a victorious close? The whole proletariat...'

It would be madness to limit such a body to only those with revolutionary politics, though revolutionaries should play a central role: 'the Soviet of Workers' Deputies, as an organisation representing all occupations, should strive to include... all who want and are able to fight in common for a better life for the whole working people'.

Achieving broad unity in response to the ruling order and its attacks on working people was a fundamental aim. Workers taking action will have extremely diverse ideas, with most expressing a mixture of the radical and the conservative. In this context the Social Democrats (or Marxists), organised in the RSDLP, ought to simultaneously build united action and articulate distinctive socialist strategy and ideas.

Lenin wrote: 'As for us Social-Democrats, we shall do our best, first, to have all our Party organisations represented on all trade unions as fully as possible and, secondly, to use the struggle we are waging jointly with our fellow-proletarians, irrespective of their views, for the tireless, steadfast advocacy of the only consistent, the only proletarian world outlook, Marxism.'

This combination of united action over shared demands and having a distinctive pole of revolutionaries is the core of Leninism. The 1905 experience is a reminder that democracy is at the heart of genuine socialist politics, and that Lenin was a champion of socialism from below not the authoritarian control freak of the anti-Leninist mythology.

Main source: Lenin's 'Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers' Deputies' (1905)
The final part of this series will summarise some key ideas in Georg Lukacs' book on Lenin.

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