Roderic Day

Understanding Lenin


Reading Lenin

I do not wish to get into useless fights about what Lenin “truly meant” or what he “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 “cite” two short works of his. Which is to say, I will reproduce them in full, inline.

The first is a finalized published work, addressed to mass audiences. The second is an excerpt from private draft notes, published posthumously.

Civilized Barbarism (1913) [1]

Britain and France are the most civilized countries in the world. London and Paris are the world’s capitals, with populations of six and three million, respectively. The distance between them is an eight- to nine-hour journey. One can imagine how great is the commercial intercourse between these two capitals, what masses of goods and of people are constantly moving from the one to the other. And yet the richest, the most civilized and the freest countries in the world are now discussing, in fear and trepidation — by no means for the first time! — the “difficult” question of whether a tunnel can be built under the English Channel (which separates Britain from the European Continent).

Engineers have long been of the opinion that it can. The capitalists of Britain and France have mountains of money. Profit from capital invested in such an enterprise would be absolutely certain. What, then, is holding the matter up?

Britain is afraid of — invasion! A tunnel, you see, would, “if anything should happen,” facilitate the invasion of Britain by enemy troops. That is why the British military authorities have, not for the first time, wrecked the plan to build the tunnel. The madness and blindness of the civilized nations makes astonishing reading. Needless to say, it would take only a few seconds with modern technical devices to bring traffic in the tunnel to a halt, and to wreck the tunnel completely. But the civilized nations have driven themselves into the position of barbarians.

Capitalism has brought about a situation in which the bourgeoisie, in order to hoodwink the workers, is compelled to frighten the British people with idiotic tales about “invasion.” Capitalism has brought about a situation in which a whole group of capitalists who stand to lose “good business” through the digging of the tunnel are doing their utmost to wreck this plan and hold up technical progress. The Britishers’ fear of the tunnel is fear of themselves.

Capitalist barbarism is stronger than civilization. On all sides, at every step one comes across problems which man is quite capable of solving immediately, but capitalism is in the way. It has amassed enormous wealth — and has made men the slaves of this wealth. It has solved the most complicated technical problems — and has blocked the application of technical improvements because of the poverty and ignorance of millions of the population, because of the stupid avarice of a handful of millionaires.

Civilization, freedom and wealth under capitalism call to mind the rich glutton who is rotting alive but will not let what is young live on. But the young is growing and will emerge supreme in spite of all.

Theses on Anarchism (1901) [2]

1. Anarchism, in the course of the 35 to 40 years (Bakunin and the International, 1866-) of its existence (and with Stirner included, in the course of many more years) has produced nothing but general platitudes against exploitation. These phrases have been current for more than 2,000 years. What is missing is α) an understanding of the causes of exploitation; β) an understanding of the development of society, which leads to socialism; γ) an understanding of the class struggle as the creative force for the realisation of socialism.

2. An understanding of the causes of exploitation. Private property as the basis of commodity economy. Social property in the means of production. In anarchism — nil. Anarchism is bourgeois individualism in reverse. Individualism is the basis of the entire anarchist world outlook. Defence of petty property and petty economy on the land. Keine Majorität[3] Negation of the unifying and organising power of the authority.

3. Failure to understand the development of society — the role of large-scale production — the development of capitalism into socialism. Anarchism is a product of despair. The psychology of the unsettled intellectual or the vagabond, and not of the proletarian.

4. Failure to understand the class struggle of the proletariat. Absurd negation of politics in bourgeois society. Failure to understand the role of the organisation and the education of the workers. Panaceas consisting of one-sided, disconnected means.

5. What has anarchism, at one time dominant in the Romance countries, contributed in recent European history? No doctrine, revolutionary teaching, or theory. Fragmentation of the working-class movement. Complete fiasco in the experiments of the revolutionary movement (Proudhonism, 1871; Bakuninism, 1873). Subordination of the working class to bourgeois politics in the guise of negation of politics.

What do I get from Lenin?

  1. 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. Criticism of capitalism 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. Capitalists are described as an obstacle to progress, and even to their own explicit long-term goals. They’re not seen as masterminds. (See 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. The active construction of pre-WW1 British fear of France, sabotaging profitable trade for the sake of a “nationalist” narrative that keeps workers focused on an external enemy, 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.
  5. Class analysis as 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.

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. [4]

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, and so must we.

Lenin onwards

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. Civilised Barbarism at the Marxists Internet Archive. [web] 

  2. Anarchism and Socialism at the Marxists Internet Archive. [web] 

  3. No majority (i.e., the anarchists’ non-acceptance of the submission by the minority to the majority). — Ed. — Lenin 

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