Roderic Day

Understanding Lenin

I do not like to get into useless fights about “what Lenin truly meant” or “what Lenin would have wanted.” It’s not a discussion I can settle, and not even a discussion I care to settle. Instead, I want to explain what I take from his work. To this end, I will refer to two very short works of his: The first, Civilized Barbarism [1], was addressed to mass audiences, finalized, and made public; the second, Theses on Anarchism [2], is an excerpt from private draft notes, and only published posthumously.

So, what do I get from Lenin generally, and particularly from these two works?

  1. A complete rejection of anarchists as primitivists and sentimentalists. Anarchists are more radically committed to liberal notions of individualism than liberals themselves, very eager to romanticize the past as pastoral.
  2. A criticism of capitalism that is dialectical. Some technological feats are freely conceded to capitalism as achievements, society is described as failing to live up to its potential, the story of humanity is not a Biblical “fall from grace,” there’s no traces of a “critique of consumerism” or a notion of “stupid, hopeless, ugly masses.”
  3. An understanding of capitalists as an obstacle to progress, even to the advancement of their own explicit long-term goals. They’re not seen as masterminds. (See also W. C. Roberts in Marx’s Inferno: “We are trapped in a giant collective action problem generating machine, a machine that we have inadvertently created and from which it will be extremely difficult to extricate ourselves.”)
  4. A consistent illustration of abstract concepts with concrete examples. Consider the above lesson: Lenin illustrates how pre-WW1 Britain’s “fear of France” narrative, though successful at inflaming nationalist sentiment and keeping workers focused on an external enemy rather than on themselves, in fact sabotaged clearly profitable trade. This exposes blatant weaknesses where others can only see an in-control and even invincible behemoth. This plays out identically today: American capitalists wage atrocity propaganda campaigns against China, initiate self-defeating “trade wars,” sabotage vaccine distribution, slow the adoption of 5G technology, etc.
  5. Class analysis that is unafraid to delve into class psychology: the cowardice and incontinence of the individual capitalist, the egoism and recklessness of the individual intellectual and vagabond, the solidarity and discipline of the individual proletarian. Each mind is shaped by and adapted to their material everyday experiences.
  6. All of these come together as the foundation of a convincing revolutionary optimism. Lenin’s socialism, far from awaiting the arrival of an unrecognizable “New Man,” argues that social transformation is already here, and very far underway.

I also like to rush ahead of fans and critics, and attempt to answer for myself an important question, so that their answers don’t settle in the void by default: What did Lenin not foresee?

Lenin was a world-class observer and theoretician, not a prophet. He developed his theory of imperialism in the pre-WW1, pre-Soviet era of intra-European imperialist rivalries. Lenin predicted that — precisely due to the petty hubris and instrumental chauvinism laid out in the 1913 text — the various national bourgeoisies would face serious obstacles to cooperation on the matter of the repression of workers. Thus, a proletarian revolution would eventually succeed and, wherever it did, we could expect its chain of sequels to usher in a new era.

In this sense, I would argue that Lenin underestimated capitalists, or at least that capitalists learned and evolved after their first defeat at the hands of the proletariat under his leadership.

The revolutionary threat produced heightened capitalist class consciousness, which allowed them to appreciate the need to band together and plan several steps ahead. This allowed capitalists around the world to collaborate in the establishment of an international dictatorship of the bourgeoisie orchestrated and led by the United States — the first and foremost capitalist state. [3]

This isn’t limited to ideological lip service and military alliances; it certainly includes the coordination of the varying extents to which each nation’s working classes were placated by significant but calculated concessions. A “Nordic-style welfare-state” can be tolerated, but the nationalization of economic backbones like infrastructure (rail, telecommunications) or natural resources (oil, lithium) is not. The project of privatization is advanced ruthlessly by “legitimate” Washington-backed politicians, extortive international institutions like the IMF, and even hybrid warfare and sanctions leading up to outright invasions.

The bourgeois adapted their theory and tactics to account for their defeats. If we are ever to move onwards from ours, so must we. No matter how brilliant a strategist and tactician he was, we cannot go “Back to Lenin” to find ready-made solutions for our current predicaments. Lenin’s work is foundational and inspirational, but any attempts to invoke him as a specter to settle contemporary debates both 1) exemplifies the unimaginative, backwards-looking dogmatism he despised, 2) often is plainly ill-suited to a world of changed circumstances.

I look to Deng Xiaoping, Walter Rodney, Assata Shakur, and Domenico Losurdo as the kinds of people in whom Lenin’s true legacy lives on.

  1. Civilized Barbarism. [web] 

  2. Theses on Anarchism. [web] 

  3. See Domenico Losurdo’s Flight From History? (2000). — R. D. [web]