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Lenin’s politics: A rejoinder to David Adam on Lenin’s liberalism

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 40 | October 2011


THE PRINCIPAL MISTAKE MADE by those who contemplate Lenin's political thought and action is due to assumptions that are made about the relation of socialism to democracy. Lenin was not an “undemocratic socialist” or one who prioritized socialism as an “end” over the “means” of democracy. Lenin did not think that once a majority of workers was won to socialist revolution democracy was finished. Lenin was not an authoritarian socialist.[1]


Stalin, Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin in 1919. Kalinin was the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, or head of state of the Soviet Union, 1919–46.

Socialism is meant to transcend liberalism by fulfilling it.[2] The problem with liberalism is not its direction, supposedly different from socialism, but rather that it does not go far enough. Socialism is not anti-liberal. The 20th century antinomy of socialism versus liberalism, as expressed in Isaiah Berlin’s counterposing of “positive and negative freedoms” or “freedom to [social benefits] versus freedom from [the state],”[3] or the idea that social justice conflicts with liberty, travesties (and naturalizes) and thus degrades the actual problem, which is not a clash of timeless principles—liberalism versus democracy—but a historically specific contradiction of capitalism. To clarify this, it is necessary to return to a Marxist approach, such as Lenin’s.

The error consists of addressing a dialectical approach to politics such as Lenin’s in an undialectical and eclectic manner, as if there were a number of criteria to be checked off (anticapitalism, democracy, etc.), rather than a set of intrinsically interrelated historical problems to be worked through together. The actual dialectic of the historically interrelated developments of capitalism, democracy, and the struggle for socialism demands a dialectical approach in both practice and theory. The reason that various moments of Lenin’s thought and action can appear contradictory is due to an undialectical interpretation of Lenin, not to Lenin himself. Lenin is subject to the same interpretive problem as Marx: the question of Lenin cuts to the heart of Marxism.[4]

This is recognizable by way of considering Lenin's various discussions of the state, political parties, and society.[5] Lenin assumed that these were not the same thing and did not assume that "socialism" meant making them into the same thing. Most of Lenin's readers (both followers and detractors) either praise or denounce Lenin, mistakenly, for his supposed attempts to make society into an undifferentiated totality. Not only what Lenin said, but what he did shows otherwise. Furthermore, one must take into account how Lenin avowedly sought to be true to Marx, whether one judges Lenin to have been successful in this or not. Therefore, at least in part, one must reckon with the problem of evaluating Lenin as a Marxist.

It is a fundamental error to regard Lenin as a largely unconscious political actor who was reduced to theoretically "justifying" his actions. Readers often commit the fallacy of projecting their own inclinations or fears onto Lenin and misinterpret him accordingly. On the contrary, one must address what Lenin said and did in terms of the coherence of his own self-understanding. For this, it is necessary to regard the historical, that is, social and political, circumstances within which Lenin not only acted but spoke. From the various available records, Lenin did not write treatises but political pamphlets, moreover with propagandistic purpose, including his most "theoretical" works such as The State and Revolution (1917).

What is clear is that Lenin did not advocate the partyification of the state (or statification of the party) or the statification of society—in this crucial respect, Lenin remained a “liberal.” Both of these phenomena of Stalinization post-date Lenin and need to be addressed in terms of a process beginning after Lenin's medical retirement, the dangers of which Lenin was well aware and against which he struggled, in vain, in his final years.[6]

The ban on factions that seems to impugn Lenin’s motives and show a supposed continuity between him and Stalin can be addressed rather straightforwardly. Lenin came in 1921 to advocate banning organized factions—not dissent!—within the Russian Communist Party, precisely because of the differentiated realities of the party, the state, and society in the Soviet workers' state of the former Russian Empire. Many careerist state functionaries had joined the party (though, according to Lenin, they deserved only to be “shot”), and the party-controlled state faced a deeply divided society, in which he thought that the party could become a plaything in the hands of other state and greater societal forces. The ban on factions was meant not only to be merely a temporary measure, but it should be noted that Lenin did not call for such ban on factions in the Communist International, which was considered a single world party divided into national sections. The ban on factions was meant to address a danger specific to the Bolsheviks being a ruling governmental party under certain conditions, and it was inextricably tied to the contemporaneous implementation of the New Economic Policy. One might interpret the ban as directed against the Left, whereas in fact it was directed against the Right, that is, directed against the power of the status quo in the former Russian Empire swamping the politics of social revolution. So, the ban on factions was a self-consciously limited and specifically local compromise to Lenin’s mind, and not at all the expression of any kind of principle. It is a serious mistake to regard it otherwise. The fact that the ban on factions helped lead to Stalinism does not make it into an “original sin” by Lenin. Revolution beyond the Soviet Union was the only way to ameliorate the problems of Bolshevik rule, as Rosa Luxemburg, for one, recognized.[7]

The other mistake, indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the relation of the struggle for proletarian socialism to democracy and the politics of the state, is to regard problems of economics and politics as similar in kind. There is no contradiction between democracy in politics and hierarchy of authority in various concrete activities, whether economic or military. The question is one of social and political leadership and responsibility. Is a factory responsible only to its own employees, or to society as a whole? Lenin was certainly not a syndicalist or “council communist,” that is, Lenin did not think that socialist politics can be adequately pursued by labor unions or workers’ councils (or more indeterminate “democratic assemblies”) alone, but this does not mean Lenin was undemocratic. The issue of democracy in economic life cannot be considered in an unmediated way without doing violence to the societal issues involved. The point of “democratizing the economy” is not to be understood properly as simply workplace democracy. This is because socialism is not merely a problem of the organization of production, let alone merely an economic issue. Socialism is not merely democratic. Rather, democracy poses the question of society and, from a Marxist perspective, the “social question” is capitalism. Marxism recognizes the need for democracy in capitalism. Lenin addressed the possibility of overcoming the necessity of the state or, more precisely, the need for democracy. Marxism agrees with anarchism on the goal of superseding democracy, but disagrees on how to get there from here. Marxism recognizes the need for a democratic state posed by capitalism that cannot be wished away.

The society and state in question were addressed by Lenin with respect to the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which is, importantly, not a national state. His vision was for a workers’ state at a global scale. Because the bourgeois state is a global and not a national phenomenon, neither is the Marxist vision of the “workers’ state.” Lenin did not pursue a national road to socialism. As a Marxist, he recognized that, under capitalism, “the state”—of which various national states were merely local components—was essentially the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” This did not mean that there were no political struggles among the capitalists to which various nation states could and did become subject. Rather, the need for socialism was tied to a need for a global state as well as a truly free global civil society already expressed under capitalism.[8] Only by understanding what Marx meant by the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” in liberal democracy can we understand what Lenin meant by the "dictatorship of the proletariat" in a revolutionary “workers’ state.”[9]

Lenin was a liberal because he understood the necessity of politics within the working class, which does not and cannot take place outside the domains of bourgeois rights and politics, but which is rather inevitably and necessarily part and parcel of them. Lenin did not advocate the unmediated politicization of society, which he knew would be regressive, whether understood in authoritarian or “libertarian” terms. The Soviet workers’ state in Lenin’s time was indeed like the Paris Commune of 1871, if it had been led by Marx and Engels, had fought off Versailles, and had held on to power.

The Russian Revolution presented new problems, not with regard to socialism, which was never achieved, but rather with regard to the revolution, which failed. Like the Commune, the revolution that opened in 1917 was abortive. Isolation in Russia was defeating: the failure of the German Revolution 1918–19 was the defeat of the revolution in Russia. Stalinism was the result of this defeat, and adapted itself to it. Lenin already contended with this defeat, and distinguished his Marxism from both Right opportunism and ultra-Leftism.[10] The question is, what can we learn about this failure, from Lenin’s perspective?

Because democratic discontents, the workers’ movement, and anti-capitalist and socialist political parties, operate in a differentiated totality of bourgeois society that must be transformed, they are subject to politicization and the problems of democratic self-determination that liberal bourgeois society has historically placed on the agenda. Proletarian socialism, in Lenin’s view no less than Marx’s, does not nullify these problems but seeks to allow them a fuller scope of activity. Lenin advocated not only a workers’ “state,” but also workers’ political parties and other workers’ civil society institutions such as labor unions and workers’ publications, which the struggle for socialism necessitated. This is true after the revolution even more than before because the workers’ social revolution is meant to build upon the existing society. Lenin was an avowed Marxist “communist.” As Marx put it, communism seeks a society in which the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[11]

Both “libertarian” and authoritarian tendencies in socialism tend to avoid the importance of Lenin’s Marxism on this score, because both tendencies tend to conflate society and politics. This is not only anti-liberal but illiberal—and un-Marxist—whether understood hierarchically or “democratically.” Capitalism is already a “grassroots” and thus a democratic phenomenon, and not merely a baleful hierarchy of authority: its problem goes beyond democracy.

The proletarian socialist revolution, in Lenin’s view as well as Marx’s, was not meant to bring about the Millennium, but rather to clear certain obstacles to the struggle for the working class's social and political self-determination (not exclusively as a matter of the state), which Marx and Lenin thought could lead society beyond capitalism. Moreover, this was conceived largely “negatively,” in terms of problems to be overcome. The revolution, in Marxist terms, does not produce an emancipated society ready-made, but only, perhaps, political forms through which emancipatory social transformation, otherwise blocked by capitalism, might be pursued and developed further. Lenin, like Marx, thought that overthrowing both the rule of capitalist private property in the means of production and the subjection of society to the vicissitudes of the market, the classic demands of proletarian socialism as it had developed after the Industrial Revolution, might allow this.

Neither Marx nor Lenin came with blueprints for an emancipated society in hand. Rather, Lenin, following Marx, advocated pursuing the forms of the struggle for socialism that had emerged historically in and through the development of the workers’ movement itself. Historical Marxism did not formulate independent schemes for emancipation, but sought the potential social-emancipatory content of emergent political phenomena in light of history. Lenin as well as Marx advocated the workers’ right to rule, but followed other socialists in doing so. It is necessary to address Lenin as a consistent advocate of workers’ power, and consider how he understood the meaning of this in the struggle for socialism.

Socialism in the original Marxist sense that Lenin followed does not seek to undo but rather tries to press further the gains of historically “bourgeois” liberal democracy. Liberalism is not meant to be negated but fulfilled by democracy, just as bourgeois society is not meant to be torn down but transcended in overcoming capitalism. Liberal and democratic concerns need to answer to the historical tasks of emancipatory social transformation, not timeless political “principles.”

Lenin himself was very clear on this, even if neither most of his supposed followers nor his detractors have been. The problem is anti-Marxist interpretive bias that is blinding. |P

[1]. See my “1917,” in The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century: Toward a Theory of Historical Regression, Platypus Review #17 (November 2009), available online at <>

[2]. See my “Lenin’s Liberalism,” Platypus Review 36 (June 2011), available online at <>

[3]. See Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), in Four essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1969).

[4]. See Tamas Krausz, “Lenin’s Legacy Today,” Platypus Review #39 (September 2011), available online at <>

[5]. See Spartacist League, Lenin and the Vanguard Party (1978). Available online at: <>

[6]. See Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (New York: Pantheon, 1968).

[7]. See Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Tragedy” (1918). Available online at: <>.

[8]. See Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” trans. Lewis White Beck, in Kant on History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963).

[9]. The reason why the global state under capital tends toward liberal democracy at the core but tolerates tyranny in its subordinate domains or peripheral extremities is the expediency or convenience of opportunism; despotism in the center, by contrast, is highly politically contentious and untenable. Indeed, it has led to world wars.

[10]. See Lenin, “Left-wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920). Available online at: <>.

[11]. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). Available online at: <>.


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