Thursday, June 18, 2015

Reading :: The Foundations of Leninism

As with the previous review, I have linked above to the Kindle version that I read, but you can also read this book at

And, as with several of my reviews lately, I'm looking at a text that should help me to better understand the milieu in which activity theory developed. Today's book was published in 1924, which was a momentous year for the Soviet Union and for activity theory. Lenin died; Ilyenkov was born; Vygotsky was invited to join Psychological Institute in Moscow as research fellow, where he began working with Luria and Leont'ev.

Although Lenin and Stalin had tensions that year, when Lenin died, Stalin immediately took advantage by appointing himself the leader of the Lenin cult. The Foundations of Leninism can be understood as one way he developed this cult and his role in it.

In the Introduction, Stalin uses a question-and-answer format. I suggested that Stalin's Dialectical and Historical Materialism could have been called Dialectical Materialism for Dummies; based on its format, The Foundations of Leninism could have been called The Leninist FAQ. Except, of course, these were not frequently asked questions per se; they were leading questions that Stalin posed in order to provide his answers.

Here's one example from the introduction, framing the book as a whole:
What, then, in the last analysis, is Leninism? 
Leninism is Marxism of the era of imperialism and the proletarian revolution. To be more exact, Leninism is the theory and tactics of the proletarian revolution in general, the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular. Marx and Engels pursued their activities in the pre-revolutionary period, (we have the proletarian revolution in mind), when developed imperialism did not yet exist, in the period of the proletarians’ preparation for revolution, in the period when the proletarian revolution was not yet an immediate practical inevitability. But Lenin, the disciple of Marx and Engels, pursued his activities in the period of developed imperialism, in the period of the unfolding proletarian revolution, when the proletarian revolution had already triumphed in one country, had smashed bourgeois democracy and had ushered in the era of proletarian democracy, the era of the Soviets. 
That is why Leninism is the further development of Marxism.
Stalin deftly retains Marx and Engels as unimpeachable authorities while adding Lenin as a further, more specific authority.

In Chapter 1, Stalin discusses the historical roots of Leninism. "Leninism grew up and took shape under the conditions of imperialism," he tells us, recalling Lenin's Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. As the title suggests, Lenin saw imperialism as the last stage of capitalism, threatened by three contradictions: "the contradiction between labour and capital"; "the contradiction among the various financial groups and imperialist Powers in their struggle for sources of raw materials, for foreign territory"; and "the contradiction between the handful of ruling, "civilised" nations and the hundreds of millions of the colonial and dependent peoples of the world." These contradictions, Stalin says, have made capitalism moribund. Stalin alleges that this moribund capitalism was behind World War I, the result of the three contradictions.

Although Marx had expected the socialist revolution to take place in the most developed, industrialist countries, it happened in Russia
Because Russia was the focus of all these contradictions of imperialism. 
Because Russia, more than any other country, was pregnant with revolution, and she alone, therefore, was in a position to solve those contradictions in a revolutionary way. 
Stalin discusses the issues, then concludes: "As we know, the course of the revolution in Russia has more than vindicated Lenin's prediction." (He does not discuss Lenin's further prediction that the worldwide socialist revolution was imminent.)

In Chapter 2, Stalin discusses the method of Leninism. This discussion starts with some fulmination about the Second International, the international socialist organization in which Lenin had participated before the Revolution. Socialists had disagreed on what tack to take, with Lenin characteristically taking an aggressive stance. Stalin tells us that the Leninist method was developed here:
What are the requirements of this method? 
Firstly, the testing of the theoretical dogmas of the Second International in the crucible of the revolutionary struggle of the masses, in the crucible of living practice-that is to say, the restoration of the broken unity between theory and practice, the healing of the rift between them; for only in this way can a truly proletarian party armed with revolutionary theory be created. 
Secondly, the testing of the policy of the parties of the Second International, not by their slogans and resolutions (which cannot be trusted), but by their deeds, by their actions; for only in this way can the confidence of the proletarian masses be won and deserved. 
Thirdly, the reorganisation of all Party work on new revolutionary lines, with a view to training and preparing the masses for the revolutionary struggle; for only in this way can the masses be prepared for the proletarian revolution. 
Fourthly, self-criticism within the proletarian parties, their education and training on the basis of their own mistakes; for only in this way can genuine cadres and genuine leaders of the Party be trained.
After some historical discussion, Stalin concludes the chapter:
What is contained in Lenin's method was in the main already contained in the teachings of Marx, which, according to Marx himself, were "in essence critical and revolutionary." It is precisely this critical and revolutionary spirit that pervades Lenin's method from beginning to end. But it would be wrong to suppose that Lenin's method is merely the restoration of the method of Marx. As a matter of fact, Lenin's method is not only the restoration of, but also the concretisation and further development of the critical and revolutionary method of Marx, of his materialist dialectics.
This transition takes us to Chapter 3, on theory. Stalin argues that

  • Theory was central to the proletarian movement. He lauds Lenin for developing theory connected to revolutionary practice, specifically his Materialism and Empiro-Criticism (n.b., I began this work but was unimpressed and didn't finish it). 
  • The party needed a vanguard. He notes that theory had to ground the proletarian movement by guiding the vanguard. The alternative, he notes, is the theory of spontaneity: that a movement can effect change without disciplined and theoretically guided leadership. What results, he claims, is opportunistic compromises with capitalism rather than a true revolution. (Compromises are bad, dialectical synthesis is good.)
  • The party needed a theory of proletarian revolution. And Lenin's theory had three theses: (a) The "grossly parasitic character of monopolistic capitalism," shown in various guises, would lead the masses to revolution; (b) colonialism had "split the population of the globe into two camps: a handful of 'advanced' capitalist countries which exploit and oppress vast colonies and dependencies, and the huge majority consisting of colonial and dependent countries which are compelled to wage a struggle for liberation from the imperialist yoke"; and (c) imperialism and resulting imperialist wars "leads to the intensification of the struggle on the third front, the inter-capitalist front, which weakens imperialism and facilitates the union of the first two fronts against imperialism: the front of the revolutionary proletariat and the front of colonial emancipation."
The theory of proletarian revolution implied three "conclusions"—by which I think Stalin means tactics:
  • "intensification of the revolutionary crisis within the capitalist countries and growth of the elements of an explosion on the internal, proletarian front in the 'metropolises.'"
  • "intensification of the revolutionary crisis in the colonial countries and growth of the elements of revolt against imperialism on the external, colonial front."
  • "under imperialism wars cannot be averted, and that a coalition between the proletarian revolution in Europe and the colonial revolution in the East in a united world front of revolution against the world front of imperialism is inevitable."
Thus, he argues, we must 
  • think of the socialist struggle in global, not national terms;
  • accept that no matter the local conditions, the global conditions are ripe for revolution;
  • understand that "the separate national fronts of capital have become links in a single chain called the world front of imperialism, which must be opposed by a common front of the revolutionary movement in all countries." It's the capitalists vs the socialists, all over the world.
Stalin finishes the chapter with some mop-up work defending Lenin from charges of inconsistency. 

In Chapter 4, "The Dictatorship of the Proletariat," Stalin argues for this peculiar institution:
The revolution can defeat the bourgeoisie, can overthrow its power, even without the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the revolution will be unable to crush the resistance of the bourgeoisie, to maintain its victory and to push forward to the final victory of socialism unless, at a certain stage in its development, it creates a special organ in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat as its principle mainstay.
Notice the language of inevitability here: socialism creates a special organ at a certain stage in its development. Stalin here recapitulates and amplifies Lenin's argument in The State and Revolution. But Lenin had implied that the dictatorship of the proletariat would last for just a short while—until the imminent worldwide socialist revolution had occurred—and then the state would wither away. Seven years later, the worldwide revolution hadn't yet happened. Stalin brazenly gives us a new story:
It scarcely needs proof that there is not the slightest possibility of carrying out these tasks in a short period, of accomplishing all this in a few years. Therefore, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the transition from capitalism to communism, must not be regarded as a fleeting period of "super-revolutionary" acts and decrees, but as an entire historical era, replete with civil wars and external conflicts, with persistent organisational work and economic construction, with advances and retreats, victories and defeats. The historical era is needed not only to create the economic and cultural prerequisites for the complete victory of socialism, but also to enable the proletariat, firstly, to educate itself and become steeled as a force capable of governing the country, and, secondly, to re-educate and remould the petty-bourgeois strata along such lines as will assure the organisation of socialist production.
Forget the imminent withering away of the state: the country was stuck with the dictatorship of the proletariat, likely for "an entire historical era." Stalin deftly pivots to a Marx quote and then back to Lenin for another quote that seems to make the case Stalin is trying to make.

He adds:
Briefly: the dictatorship of the proletariat is the rule-unrestricted by law and based on force-of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, a rule enjoying the sympathy and support of the labouring and exploited masses (Lenin, The State and Revolution).
And, he says, two things follow:

  • "The dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be 'complete' democracy, democracy for all, for the rich as well as for the poor. ... Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, democracy is proletarian democracy, the democracy of the exploited majority, based on the restriction of the rights of the exploiting minority and directed against this minority."
  • "The dictatorship of the proletariat cannot arise as the result of the peaceful development of bourgeois society and of bourgeois democracy; it can arise only as the result of the smashing of the bourgeois state machine, the bourgeois army, the bourgeois bureaucratic apparatus, the bourgeois police."
The "democracy" involved in the dictatorship of the proletariat was exercised, he said, through the Soviets: 

Wherein lies the characteristic features of Soviet power?
In that Soviet power is the most all-embracing and most democratic state organisation of all possible state organisations while classes continue to exist; for, being the arena of the bond and collaboration between the workers and the exploited peasants in their struggle against the exploiters, and basing itself in its works on this bond and on this collaboration. Soviet power is thus the power of the majority of the population over the minority, it is the state of the majority, the expression of its dictatorship.

The next chapter addresses "The Peasant Question." You may recall that previous attempts at revolution in Russia attempted to rely on the peasants, but they didn't come through. Lenin decided instead to focus on the proletariat as allies. Stalin provides a hagiography of this period; according to him, when the peasants joined the revolution, they recognized the heroism and leadership of the proletariat and fell in line. Stalin discusses the leaps in agriculture that he expects from collectivization.

The next chapter addresses "The Nationalist Question," essentially focusing on how to support other nations who are ripe for revolt. 

Chapter 7 is "Strategy and Tactics." This sounds exciting, but it's mostly a discussion of intraparty tactics Lenin followed, plus some discussion of reformist tactics and compromises aimed at "flanking movements, of reforms and concessions to the non-proletarian classes-in order to disintegrate these classes, to give the revolution a respite, to recuperate one's forces and prepare the conditions for a new offensive." I'm pretty sure Stalin is trying to justify Lenin's New Economic Policy as well as his own plans to end it.

Chapter 8, "The Party," lists the features of the Leninist party:
  • "The Party is the political leader of the working class," having absorbed the proletariat spirit but having armed itself with revolutionary theory. Stalin likens the Party to "an experienced General Staff" that can correctly see conditions and guide the "revolutionary millions."
  • "The Party as the organised detachment of the working class": essentially, delegates of the working class sent to do its work.
  • "The Party as the highest form of class organisation of the proletariat": The proletariat have other organizations, such as "trade unions, co-operatives, factory organisations, parliamentary groups, non-Party women's associations, the press, cultural and educational organisations, youth leagues, revolutionary fighting organisations..." but the Party furnishes leadership across all these organizations.
  • "The Party as an instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat." The proletariat itself runs the dictatorship; the Party is merely the instrument that works for them. "The proletariat needs the Party for the purpose of achieving and maintaining the dictatorship." Stalin adds: "But from this it follows that when classes disappear and the dictatorship of the proletariat withers away, the Party also will wither away."
  • "The Party as the embodiment of unity of will, unity incompatible with the existence of factions." 
  • "The Party becomes strong by purging itself of opportunist elements," which are the source of factionalism. Stalin plays on (embodies?) the Bolsheviks' paranoia here, warning that such factionalists are the agents of the bourgeoise. 
In Chapter 9, "Style in Work," Stalin says that the Leninist style of work combines "Russian revolutionary sweep" and "American efficiency." He warns that "Russian revolutionary sweep has every chance of degenerating in practice into empty "revolutionary" Manilovism if it is not combined with American efficiency in work," while 
American efficiency, on the other hand, is an antidote to "revolutionary" Manilovism and fantastic scheme concocting. American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognises obstacles; which with its business-like perseverance brushes aside all obstacles; which continues at a task once started until it is finished, even if it is a minor task; and without which serious constructive work is inconceivable. 
But American efficiency has every chance of degenerating into narrow and unprincipled practicalism if it is not combined with Russian revolutionary sweep. 
And he concludes the book:
The combination of Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism in Party and state work. 
This combination alone produces the finished type of Leninist worker, the style of Leninism in work.

I found this book to be (mostly) fascinating. Stalin is attempting to consolidate leadership in the wake of Lenin's death by setting Lenin up as an infallible visionary and himself as Lenin's interpreter. In places, he has to manage some elaborate retconning in order to make this work. Not admirable, by my lights, but certainly skillful.

I have been approaching these Soviet works as historical documents that speak of a very different time and place. Not to sound naive, but when I search for them on the Internet, I am startled by how many people see these documents as useful in themselves, useful for understanding the upcoming capitalist revolution that Lenin thought was imminent 98 years ago. Where I see skillful maneuvering and retconning, at least some people see wisdom about how to better run a liberatory society. For those people, I do not recommend this book. But for those who are interested in how the Soviet Union developed, yes, pick it up.

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