Essential Works of Lenin: "What Is to Be Done?" and Other Writings
Edited by Henry M. Christman
This review is part of my ongoing investigation into the roots of Soviet activity theory. I did not anticipate having to read Lenin, but he is cited extensively by Ilyenkov and less so by Leontiev, and his legacy certainly impacted the Soviet Union. Below, I attempt a thumbnail sketch of the following works in this volume: What is to be done?; Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism; and The state and revolution. I won't cover The development of capitalism in Russia except to note that Lenin preferred capitalism to the feudalism from which Russia had so recently emerged (p.32) partly because it was a relatively progressive development (p.46).
What is to be done?, published in 1902, focused on Bolshevik control and discipline as the party attempted to maintain ideological purity and to survive the Tsar's forces. I remarked on Twitter that it should have been called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Lenin: Lenin strenuously argues that any divergence from socialist ideology bolsters bourgeois ideology (p.82). and is tantamount to the abandonment of socialism (p.83). The class political consciousness, he says, can only be brought to workers from the outside (p.112); the theory of socialism came from the intelligentsia (p.74); the role of the vanguard can only be fulfilled by a party guided by an advanced theory (p.70). All of these claims suggest a revolution centrally controlled by intelligentsia, by professional revolutionaries (p.147). In the repressive climate of prerevolutionary Russia, he argues, we must create a conspiracy (p.158)! Here in the 21st century, I can see how this repressive environment helped to shape Lenin's paranoid, tightly controlled style of governance.
Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism was written in 1916, when Lenin was in exile. He wrote it to get past the Tsar's censors. But it was only published in September 1917, after the February revolution and at the eve of the October revolution. According to my research assistant, Mr. Google, this text is considered to be the antithesis of Schumpeter's 1919 State imperialism and capitalism: Whereas Lenin regarded imperialism to be the natural end of capitalism, Schumpeter regarded imperialism as a sign that feudal aspects survive in capitalism. In any case, Lenin uses data from the US and Europe to argue that entrepreneurship rises when the number of competing enterprises is low (p.182); that capitalism leads to imperialism via cartels (p.183); that the imperialist stage of capitalism is a transition from free competition to socialism, in which production is socialized but appropriation is private (p.186). He also argues that rapid technological process leads to more disturbances in coordination across industry (true), and this leads to more monopolies as firms try to get a handle on these disturbances (p.189). When Lenin accuses monopoly as penetrating into every sphere of public life, I imagine him eagerly taking notes (p.212).
The state and revolution, Lenin's major work, was mostly written in exile in Switzerland in early 1917, then published in August 1917, just before the October revolution. Here, Lenin argues against democracy, saying that it is fundamentally incompatible with Leninism. The argument goes like this: The State is a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonism (p.273). It is set above and alienated from society; liberation requires the destruction of the apparatus of state power (p.274). So even socialists such as the Mensheviks—who supported a democratic socialism—were playing into the hands of the bourgeoise by insisting on a "modern" state; democracy was simply another way of prolonging the state and the class antagonisms that manifested it (p.270). When class struggle is abolished, Lenin argues, the state will wither away (p.280).
Lenin draws from Engels for this account, but he corrects (?) readers who have read Engels too hastily. It is not the bourgeois state that will wither away, but the proletarian state. The bourgeois state must be overthrown and replaced by a dictatorship of the proletariat, one that represented the proletariat's repression of the bourgeoisie (p.282). After all, "The state is a special organization of force; it is the organization of violence for the suppression of some class"—in this case, "the exploiting class, i.e., the bourgeoise" (p.287). Only when the bourgeoisie had been eliminated as a class could the state wither away. Obviously, then, the dictatorship of the proletariat was irreconcilable with reformism (p.286).
How will this happen? Building on what capitalism has established, the workers will organize production, relying on their own experience; "establish strict, iron discipline supported by the state power of the armed workers"; and reduce the role of state officials to mere management (p.307). Eventually, that managerial work (Lenin says) will die out as a stratum of the population, replaced by a rotation of workers who take on this task (p.307), all sharing the same ideology (p.344). As the state is abolished, so is organized and systemic violence (p.333). (Until then, workers should remained armed—p.345.)
(Note: Max Weber published his work on bureaucracy, Economy and Society, posthumously in 1922—five years after Lenin published this text. He argues that democracy only works because of bureaucracy, and I think his analysis would suggest that Lenin's vision is unrealistic.)
Of course, this shift couldn't happen until the proletariat had revolted across the world—until that happened, the dictatorship of the proletariat had to continue in order to guard against the influence of international capitalism (p.307; compare p.338). But it was only a matter of time before the proletariat arose against the bourgeoise internationally—this was not a matter of utopianism, Lenin declared confidently, but science (p.340).
Of course, things didn't turn out that way. Individual countries became socialist and even communist, but the worldwide revolt against capitalism never happened. So the Soviet Union remained stuck in the dictatorship of the proletariat, growing a new bureaucracy rather than letting it die out. Workers were certainly not allowed to stay armed. And despite Lenin's protests in this book, his vision did turn out to be impossibly utopian.
Should you read this book? If you are interested in the Soviet Union, yes. If you're interested in the roots of activity theory, maybe. If you're looking for tips on good governance, I think not.