This is the fourth and final part of my series on a few key aspects of Lenin and his legacy. The previous posts are here:
Lenin's 'What is to be done?'
Lenin, democracy and freedom of criticism
Lenin: how to divide and how to combine
It is the Russian Revolution and its achievements that gives Lenin his place in history. But it is also the degradation of the original revolutionary spirit under Stalinism that largely accounts for Lenin's poor reputation, even on the left. Georg Lukacs' short book 'Lenin: a study on the unity of his thought' was written in 1924 and expresses the key ideas that guided Lenin in the years preceding 1917 and in the revolution.
Lukacs makes much of Lenin's concept of the actuality of the revolution - and the working class as the revolutionary class. What does this mean? Firstly, it doesn't mean that revolution is always lurking just around the corner. For the vast majority of the time, in a capitalist society, revolution appears a distant horizon: to most people, most of the time, it is unrealistic. But Lenin and Lukacs both recognised the potential for revolutionary transformation that is latent in society. The contradictions of our world mean there is always potential for outbursts of resistance, often very unexpectedly.
Furthermore, the working class is inherently the revolutionary class because of its social and economic position as producers of wealth and due to being able to act collectively. The working class was small and weak when Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto; by 1917, even in a relatively under-developed Russia, it had much greater collective strength. Lukacs wrote that 'the actuality of the revolution means that the bourgeoisie has ceased to be a revolutionary class.'
The era of bourgeois revolutions, which consolidated capitalist power politically, was over. The English and French revolutions of the 1640s and 1789-93 respectively had marked the strengthening of bourgeois rule in developing capitalist societies. But these ruling classes were now the established order - they were in no position to be revolutionary, even in a country like Russia (with its still semi-feudal Tsarist order). Alongside this development is another one: the working class grows. As Lukacs writes: 'Thus the outlines of the situation in which the proletariat, on its own, is called upon to play the leading role become sharper and more concrete'.
Writing about the change between Marx's time and the era of Lenin, Lukacs wrote: 'the actuality of the proletarian revolution is no longer only a world historical horizon arching above the self-liberating working class, but that revolution is already on its agenda.' The contradictions in capitalist society - and in working class consciousness - mean sudden twists and leaps are possible, however superficially stable things may seem. To make the most of new opportunities, revolutionaries require dynamism and flair in giving coherence and leadership (where possible) to the struggles that emerge.
Lenin grasped that the latent revolutionary character of his (and our) times was the framework for determining socialist strategy and tactics. Even modest tactical decisions have to be formulated in that context. He, as Lukacs writes, recognised 'the fundamental problem of our time - the approaching revolution - at the time and place of its first appearance. From then on he understood and explained all events, Russian as well as international, from this perspective - from the perspective of the actuality of the revolution.'
One of Lukacs' intellectual achievements, particularly in History and Class Consciousness, was his theoretical work on the marxist dialectic and its applications. A central element in this work is relating the specific to the whole, analysing every specific situation in relation to the bigger picture. This has, as I've indicated, implications for strategy and tactics, because tactics have to be part of a wider strategy and based on an accurate understanding of social and political conditions. Lenin did this in practice: one of his great strengths was flexibly adapting tactics within a larger strategy, while he was expert in connecting 'what is to be done' to an informed analysis of society. He was extremely adaptable, but once a course had been chosen it was necessary to implement it decisively. This was the essence of leadership - not only personal leadership of the party by Lenin, but leadership of wider struggles and movements by the party.
Lukacs puts it like this: 'Individual actions can only be considered revolutionary or counter-revolutionary when related to the central issue of revolution, which is only to be discovered by an accurate analysis of the socio-historic whole. The actuality of the revolution therefore implies study of each individual daily problem in concrete association with the socio-historic whole, as moments in the liberation of the proletariat'. Looked at in this light, even very minor victories have meaning and worth as part of a revolutionary project - they are 'moments in the liberation of the proletariat'.
A talk on Lukacs' 'Lenin' by John Rees can be viewed HERE. I also suggest looking at THIS.
For an in-depth elaboration of the dialectic - including chapters on Lenin and Lukacs - I strongly recommend The Algebra of Revolution: the dialectic and the classic marxist tradition by John Rees. Volume 1 - Building the Party - of Tony Cliff's Lenin biography is a superb exploration of Lenin's own practice as a revolutionary.