The Bolsheviks Dared: Interview with Lars T. Lih on Lenin as Theorist and Strategist of Hegemony

As part of our series on the October Revolution, New Socialist interviewed Lars T. Lih.

Lars T. Lih is the author of books on Lenin and the Revolution, including Lenin Rediscovered: “What is to be Done?” in Context; Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914-21 and Lenin. He is also author of a number of articles and book chapters, the most important of which for this interview are “The Lies we tell about Lenin”, “The proletariat and its ally: The logic of Bolshevik ‘hegemony’” and “The ‘new era of War and Revolution’” in Cataclysm 1914: the First World War and the making of modern world politics (the first part of that chapter is available here).

The interview was conducted by Tom Gann. Dan Frost, Chris Green, Andrea Marie and Elle O’Rourke contributed to the questions.

NS: I found Lenin Rediscovered exceptionally useful and illuminating, but on some levels it seems an odd book to have written, nearly 700 pages ostensibly on What is to be Done?, followed by a new translation, arguing What is to be Done is significantly less important than both Lenin’s enemies and putative followers. Why did you think that such a book was necessary (and it definitely is)?

LL: You have correctly identified one of the ideas behind Lenin Rediscovered, which is can be stated thus: What is To be Done? is not so important, but it is very important to see why it is not so important. Certainly, What is To be Done? is a significant document in the history of Russian Social Democracy—only, it does not have the cosmic significance attributed to it by the “textbook version” in its various forms on the right and left.

Imagine a historian of the future studying US politics but restricting his or her self to a very small circle of documents. He or she reads a speech in which the speaker goes on and on about the importance of the First Amendment. The historian might conclude that the speaker is a great innovator who put a new and controversial emphasis on the crucial role of free speech. But after reading a much wider circle of documents, the historian will realize that in fact the speaker is establishing their credentials by showing allegiance to a commonplace – in the literal sense of a proposition that is common to all sides of a debate. The speaker will then go on to tie the consensus view of the First Amendment to the much more specific argument that they are really interested in, the argument that they hope will be persuasive.

The same with Lenin in 1902. The point about “spontaneity” and “consciousness” was a commonplace that everybody accepted. Lenin aimed to show that his opponents did not accept this point in order to discredit them. So, apart from this one chapter in What is To be Done? and this one specific polemic, Lenin did not particularly emphasize this point (and indeed, perhaps ironically, the Mensheviks are the faction most likely to insist on the need for “consciousness” and to accuse Lenin and Co. of relying on unformed, low-consciousness workers in demagogic fashion).

But in order to see the rhetorical role of these commonplaces, one has to read a much wider range of documents than just Lenin’s book alone. And that was my basic research method: I simply read everything piece of writing that Lenin mentioned in his book, either in praise or dispraise. I could then see what points he shared with his interlocutors and what points were more specific to his own project. I call this my “Where’s Waldo” methodology. Imagine a scene in some socialist-realist painting, where, say, Mao is shaking hands with Stalin, and there’s a big field and no one else there, just the two heroes with the wind blowing their overcoats. This is how many people write about socialist history, with this exclusive focus on the succession of prominent figures: from Marx to maybe Kautsky to Lenin, to whoever hero you have next, Trotsky or Stalin, whatever. In contrast, I want to present a huge picture, where, if you look closely, you can find Lenin and make out his individual features, but really there’s tons of people.

Which brings me to another point: I sometimes get the feeling that to many on the left, as they look back on history, what is most important is not that Lenin is right but that everybody else is wrong. It’s not good enough to claim that Lenin is an insightful political leader: he also has to be a highly original theorist who overturns the preexisting Marxist tradition. What repels them about my work is not so much what I say about Lenin as what I say about Kautsky and Kamenev, namely, that they are not the non-Marxist idiots portrayed by many (or that the Marxist tradition itself was deeply flawed and needed to be corrected by Lenin and Co.). Paradoxically, many on the Left are bound and determined to trash just about the entire Marxist tradition from Marx to 1917—and they have done a good job of convincing non-socialists of this evaluation. Many who portray themselves as champions of Bolshevism do not have a kind word to say about almost any pre-1917 Bolshevik leader except Lenin (and even he had to “rearm” himself in 1917, or so we are told).

Which brings me to my current work on 1917, where my message can be summed up in a way similar to my approach to What is To be Done?: the April Theses are not so important, but it is very important to see why they are not so important. The Bolshevik debates in fall 1917 over the timing of armed insurrection are not so important, but it is important to see why they are not so important. In each case, an over-estimation of the significance of disputes is based on lack of knowledge about the more general framework that united the two sides and gave meaning to debates about more specific decisions. Indeed, inspired by this interview, I am now thinking of titling my projected book on 1917 as All Power to the Soviets!: Bolshevik Disputes in Context—thus stressing its connection with my earlier study.

NS: How far, and in what ways, would you say Lenin’s (and Zinoviev’s) concept of hegemony differs from (and is more useful) than Gramsci’s? I found the passage in Lenin Rediscovered (p. 110) which briefly discusses this exceptionally suggestive, especially the slide from a confident Leninist version to a pessimistic Gramscian one and the importance of questions of hegemony after as much as before taking state power (relevant to UK now), exceptionally suggestive, I wonder if you could expand on it?

Equally, in “The Proletariat and its Ally: The Logic of Bolshevik “Hegemony”” text, the question of hegemony and political alliances feels very significant and in some ways quite timely. Are there parallels with Laclau and Mouffe in making the question of hegemonic alliances constituted by linked but not identical political antagonisms? Is the central difference with Laclau and Mouffe the importance of questions of leadership, both by the Party and the proletariat over their allies?

LL: I do not pretend to any expertise on Gramsci, so my remarks will be somewhat general. Let me mention that I hope soon to write up a comment on Perry Anderson’s portrait of Bolshevik hegemony as presented in his recent publication on hegemony, The H Word. I am also finishing up an article to be published in Historical Materialism that will touch on the roots of the hegemony outlook in Marx’s writings.

We can look at hegemony from two angles: the hegemony of the dominant classes and the hegemony of the socialist proletariat. In each case, we mean the ability to lead other classes based on acceptance of basic ideas. Of course, a Marxist must believe that the hegemony of the dominant classes is a scam while the hegemony of the proletariat is based on genuine perception of real interests.

Socialists did not have to wait for Gramsci to tell them that elite domination of the press, education, intellectual and cultural life, etc. posed an enormous challenge to the socialists. Somewhere I quote Wilhelm Liebknecht to the effect that the bourgeois press is a more dangerous threat than the bourgeois army. On the whole, however, prewar Social Democracy was optimistic about its ability to challenge bourgeois hegemony (this term itself was not used) with the means available to it—means that I sum up with the term “the permanent campaign” (I did not yet employ this term when I wrote Lenin Rediscovered, although the basic concept is set forth). Political freedom was necessary for the maximum employment of these means, which is why the Bolsheviks were so intent on obtaining it through a democratic revolution. Yet Lenin – supposedly someone who worried that the workers would stubbornly harken to the siren call of the bourgeoisie – was also confident that the Russian Social Democratic party could effectively challenge tsarist and bourgeois leadership even with the meager means of the enforced underground. He was also absolutely positive that if Russia attained political freedom, the Social Democratic message would spread b leaps and bounds—which is precisely why he fought so hard for a democratic revolution.

For various reasons, the Bolsheviks became officially less optimistic about “bourgeois democracy” after they got in power and argued that, for example, worker newspapers under capitalism were almost powerless against the juggernaut of the bourgeois press. In Soviet Russia, the permanent campaign morphed into “state monopoly campaignism” (another LTL coinage) that denied political freedom to everybody but the ruling party.

Turning now to hegemony as exercised by the socialist proletariat: the Bolsheviks used this term to discuss a specific strategy based on the leadership of the Russian peasantry by the socialist proletariat—leadership made possible by the land question and the tsarist regime’s inability to solve it. Thus this strategy was based on an empirical finding, as set forth by Kautsky in Germany and Lenin in Russia: there existed a substantial community of interests between the Russian peasantry and the Russian proletariat. I emphasize the adjective “Russian” in order to bring out the contextual nature of this strategy.

Yet underneath this particular strategy and giving rise to it is a particular logic that has its roots in Marx, which might be summed up like this: in order to accomplish its long-term goals, the proletariat needs to accomplish short-term tasks (crucially, the democratic revolution and the acquisition of political freedom). It should therefore look around for possible allies who also have a direct interest in this same task. For the proletariat, the short-term goal is a means not an end—but precisely for this reason, it can provide the most effective and thorough-going leadership for accomplishing this goal. (The essay of mine that you mention, “The Proletariat and its Ally,” sets forth this logic in more detail.) This logic is not tied to specific circumstances in turn-of-the-century Russia. Perhaps it can still be applied today! But I leave that question to you.

To sum up the question of continuity before and after the revolution: the prewar idea of the permanent campaign remained, but in a form that made it a dire enemy of political freedom. The prewar idea of class leadership of the peasantry also remained, and even expanded: the claim was now made that the peasants could be kept on board all the way to socialism (see Lenin’s last articles).

NS: In “The Lies We Tell about Lenin”, you really stress how one of the greatest, at best mistakes, at worst lies, about the Revolution whether by its partisans or opponents is to over-emphasise theory in the arguments between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, including over alliances and hegemony,

The Mensheviks did not choose their strategy because of doctrinal labels such as “bourgeois revolution,” but rather the reverse: they insisted Russia faced a bourgeois revolution because they didn’t want to dispense with the “bourgeoise” — that is, with educated and trained specialists (or spetsy, as the Bolsheviks later called them when they realized how much they needed them). And the Bolsheviks did not choose their strategy because they first convinced themselves for doctrinal reasons that a socialist revolution was possible in Russia, but rather the reverse: they claimed that immediate “steps towards socialism” were possible because they felt the proletariat had to take power.

More generally your work on Lenin has a strong sense of concrete situations and the limited choices available in them. Given this sense of the empirical and the concrete and your description of the Revolution as a “tragedy without an acceptable solution” is there anything to be learnt from the Revolution? Is there anything still live in it?

LL: You mention an article of mine entitled “Lies We Tell About Lenin” – entitled, I should say, not by me, and I wouldn’t put it that harshly myself—in which I argue that the high-level ideological justifications put forth by Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in 1917 and repeated today were not the base but rather the superstructure of their political stands. What really drove their respective political strategies was empirical perceptions of a complex and contradictory reality. I meant this, by the way, as a compliment to both factions. (I should mention that in a recent post of mine, “The Character of the Russian Revolution: Trotsky 1917 vs. Trotsky 1924,” I cite a Trotsky article from August 1917 in which he makes a rather similar argument, although in less complimentary terms, about the Mensheviks.)

I certainly don’t mean to argue, however, that the empirical realities of 1917 just by themselves determined people’s politics. No, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had been battling this out for over a decade, and both came into 1917 with political strategies to which they remained loyal. But these political strategies themselves were based on readings of the underlying class situation in Russia: the Mensheviks always thought it would be disastrous for the proletariat to “isolate itself,” and the Bolsheviks had always maintained that a proletariat-peasant alliance (with the proletariat providing political leadership) could carry the revolution to the end.

As I argued about hegemony above, the lessons for us today reside more in the questions asked than in the specific answers tied to a specific situation. Indeed, I think that the Bolsheviks consistently misread revolutionary possibilities in Western Europe because they over-generalized from their own searing experience in Russia in 1917: extremely rapid polarization, especially as revealed by discrediting of “agreementist” forces, that is, the moderate socialists who were willing to collaborate with “progressive” bourgeois forces. This scenario simply did not play out in Western Europe.

As for your question “is there anything to be learnt” from 1917, I will cite an answer from my friend David Mandel: “they dared.” My spin on David’s formula is that the Bolsheviks and their constituency among workers, soldiers and peasants presumed to take over the vlast – the sovereign authority in society – after it was made abundantly clear that the elite could not live up even to the minimum responsibilities of political rule. Yes, in many ways the new vlast made a mess of things – but when we have a clearer understanding of the terrible constraints it faced, we may be inclined also to offer them some (grudging?) admiration.

NS: Something I found particularly persuasive and that demanded wider thought about how we conceptualise class was your insistence on using “worker class” rather than working class, I was wondering if you could explain a bit more on why you think this translation/concept is so essential.

LL: My main motive for using the term “worker class” in Lenin Rediscovered was translation accuracy, since both the German Arbeiterklasse and the Russian rabochii klass simply took the normal term for “worker” and put it right up against “class”. But on consideration, I felt that this verbal procedure reflected a sense of the class as an agent, as made up of individuals who had their own projects and views. In contrast, “working class” defines the class in terms of a social function, and so, rather passive and in line with conservative views about society. (I can’t remember if I did any research on when and where the locution “working class” was introduced and became standard in English, but it would be worthwhile finding out.) Let’s put it this way: isn’t the project of making the “worker class” the ruling class more plausible than giving this mission to “the working class”?

Having said all this, I have to admit that in my writings after Lenin Rediscovered, I have by and large not bothered to make this distinction. Explaining why I was using an unfamiliar locution such as “worker class” was too much of a distraction in articles devoted to other topics. Perhaps I felt a little guilty imposing on my readers so many neologisms. In any event, your question will make me rethink the salience of this particular “terminological inexactitude.” And, as it happens, I am using “worker party” to translate Arbeiterpartei in the Marx article I am now finishing up.

NS: In what way, even, or perhaps especially, at its inception, do you think the Labour Party in Britain refuses the German Social Democratic and then Lenin’s “hegemony scenario”? How did Germany and Britain differ in their class structure and the organisation of the working class to produce on the one hand a politics with a hegemonic horizon and on the other a politics of what Lenin calls tred-iunionist politics, of sectional defensiveness, a refusal of leadership and an alliance in a subordinate position with the bourgeoisie?

LL: I have little to say beyond the obvious about any contrast in the social structure of the UK and Germany. Let me point out, however, a historical-political contrast arising out of the date when meaningful political freedom was won in each country—and we can add Russia to this list. Speaking very generally, we can put the countries in this order: UK, Germany, Russia. We also note that the extent of the political freedom in each country follows the same list, in descending order: fairly substantial in UK, meaningful but limited in Germany, minimal in Russia even after the 1905 revolution. Why is this important? Because the later in time we get, the more the workers of a particular country are imbued with Social Democratic militancy. My suggestion is that hegemony is the strongest in countries where political freedom is the least and latest but Social Democratic militancy is the newest and greatest. First, lack of political freedom may itself lead to this kind of militancy. Second, this situation makes the worker class the natural champion of all groups whose interests would be served by political revolution or at least a radical extension of democracy.

NS: A central part of your argument is the “merger thesis” and the interpretation of the notion that socialist consciousness comes from outside or from without the worker class but that this doesn’t entail the elitist, domineering notion of politics that are presented in orthodox interpretations of What is to be Done? How far too could “from without” be extended to forms of consciousness acquired from other areas of life, and not only political consciousness, outside of the consciousness produced at the point of production? I’m thinking here about the applicability of a “from without” thesis to, for example, socialist feminist struggles around social reproduction.

LL: “From without.” First let me emphasize that the “merger formula”—“Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement”—implies a “from without” dynamic for both sides. The workers must come to see that socialism is needed to attain the long-term goals of the worker movement—this is one aspect. But the pre-Marxist socialists must also come to see that their perspective is one-sided and that they need to embrace the militancy of the worker class. Look at the critique of the various socialist schools in the Communist Manifesto, especially “utopian”: Marx charges that they are opposed to worker political action and thus are making themselves irrelevant.

After the merger takes place—that is, once there exists a viable Social Democratic movement that understands itself as “the worker class engaged in fighting for socialism”—do we still need the “from without” logic? At this point, we have a movement with a definite message that it is trying to spread and to put into practice. Of course, one part of the mission of Social Democracy (as defined by Kautsky and others) is to put itself at the head of all democratic and progressive strivings. Is this what you mean by “from without”?

You also suggest that “from without” is less significant in my discussions of hegemony and 1917. I’m not sure I follow you. In my view, the Bolsheviks are saying in both cases: here is a political/social program that will both solve pressing national problems and at the same time bring about prerequisites for further movement toward socialism. In 1917, the heart of the Bolshevik case was the following argument: the national crisis—the devastating war, the collapse of the economy, the need for radical solutions in the city and countryside—cannot be solved as long as the elite parties have enough political power to sabotage genuine solutions. The only answer is (put positively) “All Power to the Soviets!” and (put negatively) “complete rejection of ‘agreementism’ and futile attempts at coalition. Whatever else this is, it is a political program put forward as a serious response to current national problems.

NS: In Revolution and Counter-Revolution, Kevin Murphy argues that by early September 1917 when the Bolsheviks “adopted an “open door” recruitment strategy believing the workers experience in the school of revolution more than compensated for any lack of theoretical knowledge”. Is there a point where the “from without” ceases to be necessary, demands can be clarified, accelerated and radicalised through struggle and the sharpening of contradictions or is this just the development of consciousness rooted in previous “from without” agitation and organisation? Equally in “The Proletariat and its Ally” it feels that the “from without” role of the Party is much less significant than in your analysis in Lenin Rediscovered and it’s more a question of relations between class forces by 1917.

LL: You ask in this question: “Is there a point where the ‘from without’ ceases to be necessary, demands can be clarified, accelerated and radicalised through struggle and the sharpening of contradictions or is this just the development of consciousness rooted in previous ‘from without’ agitation and organisation?” My first response is to say that these alternatives are not at all mutually exclusive—in fact, they look just about the same to me.

The big point about the politics of 1917 after Kornilov is that the soviet constituency as a whole (a wider category than the industrial workers) had decisively rejected agreementism, and that therefore the only party that could lead it was the Bolsheviks, the only non-agreementist party. This central development determined all else. The exact boundaries between the party and the workers as a whole—just like the exact timing of an “armed uprising”—were significant, no doubt, but should not be allowed to obscure the central logic of events.

NS: Finally, we’d like to ask two questions about imperialism, the Second International and 1914 as the decisive break with most of social democracy going over to imperialism and national chauvinism and a major part of the break between the Second and Third Internationals being, (Zinoviev) that, “the Second International was restricted to people with white skin. The Third International does not classify people according to the colour of their skin”[1]. Lukács, for example, argues that “the different attitudes of the various socialist currents in 1914 were the direct, logical consequences of their theoretical, tactical and other positions up till then”[2], which would suggest that the differences between Lenin and Kautsky were always there, albeit latently. There is too the “Hegelist” reading which you discuss, critically, in your “New Era of War and Revolution” chapter, which argues, broadly, that shocked by the outbreak of war and social democracy’s complicity, Lenin retreated from politics to read Hegl’s Logic, which produced an entirely new politics. You insist, by contrast, on Lenin’s “aggressive unoriginality”. Firstly, I’m wondering precisely what you’d say Lenin is loyal to, is it something real in social democracy, or something virtual- the promise of Kautsky against really existing social democracy? Secondly, how then to explain the failings of social democracy in 1914? Was it an economic question, the position of the representatives of the labour aristocracy, “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class”? Or, and clearly there’s an overlap here, precisely what one would expect from social democracy in the imperial core- so that Russia’s ambiguous position was needed to make good on an international which was, despite Kautsky’s earlier words, genuinely internationalist or anti-imperialist? Or, was it more a contingent question of hegemony within social democracy (coming back to the sense in the gap between Lenin and Gramsci, where hegemony in Lenin is in some ways an internal relation, how is leadership exercised within an alliance or bloc, compared to an external relation in Gramsci, how does the bloc lead society), whereby opportunistic or backward tendencies were successful in winning over the centre or intermediate tendencies and isolated the internationalist or advanced parts?

The central idea of Kautsky’s that you discuss as being crucial for Lenin in his reaction to World War I, indeed it’s the title of your chapter, is “the new era of war and revolution”. Again, how far does Lenin take this over in its entirety and how far does he transform it beneath the rhetoric of aggressive unoriginality? For Lenin it seems that the new era of war and revolution offers a way out of a stagist determinism in a way that Kautsky couldn’t make good on, perhaps because of how the notion of super-imperialism stabilises things. Lenin himself mentions the importance of Hobson as he “helps to reveal the basic falsity of Kautskyism” on imperialism in thinking imperialism wasn’t grounded in economic necessity and therefore could be resolved in a broadly reformist fashion by free trade and international arbitration. I’m thinking here too of Laclau and Mouffe’s argument,

Lenin no longer conceives of the revolutionary rupture as a necessary and predetermined point in the unfolding of a single contradiction, but as a specific critical conjuncture, dominated by a displacement in the relation of forces between classes. The background to this conception is the perception of the world capitalist system as an imperialist chain, whose weakest links — those in which a revolutionary rupture is possible — do not necessarily coincide with those in which the contradiction between productive forces and relations of production has reached its highest point.

LL: Reading through your questions makes me realize that, when talking about the past, I’m working with a rather different framework than many on the left. This is due at least in part to my own researches, so why don’t we start with some general observations that will begin to answer your questions—suitably reframed.

First, you talk about “stagist determinism.” In general, I don’t think “stagism” is a particularly helpful concept when talking about Marx or Marxists. You wouldn’t happen to know who invented this term, or when it became an established fact that Marx himself, or Engels, or “Second International Marxism” are somehow tainted with “stagism”? My own reading of Marx convinces me that much better terms for his outlook are “taskism” and “interactionism”. Marx thinks of “bourgeois revolution” and “socialist revolution” as historical tasks imposed on the proletariat to facilitate its journey to socialism—he does not think of them as inevitable stages that every country must pass through, or as a period of calendrical time, etc. Rather, the “bourgeois-democratic revolution” is a way of getting things that the proletariat desperately needs, in particular, the political freedom needed to organize and enlighten. And so on.

I would also contend that from the very beginning, Marx thinks in terms of a continuous and powerful interaction between countries (or areas within countries) that are more “advanced” or more “backward,” rather than a lock-step progression through stages. For this reason, I strongly disagree with the people I call “Latemarxists” who maintain that there is something called “Late Marxism” that breaks with earlier Marxism on exactly this question. For this reason, there is nothing new and tremendously innovative about Marx’s remarks on the Russian obschina.

And these two features – taskism and interactionism – are inherited by Kautsky and Lenin. And this includes “weakest link” thinking. Your question includes a long quotation from Laclau and Moffe on this topic. I’m not sure I fully understand exactly what these writers are driving at, but I do not understand why Lenin is credited with the idea that revolutions outside Western Europe might come first and help set off a world revolutionary process. It was a commonplace among Western Social Democrats that events in Russia might serve exactly in this way. And Kautsky himself (as well as other “revolutionary Social Democrats” such as Otto Bauer) actively encouraged upheaval in the “east” for this reason. I use Kautsky’s remarkable correspondence with students in Iran around 1906 or 1907 to make this point.

And this brings up something I would like to emphasize about the relation between Lenin and Kautsky. You quote Lenin about “the basic falsity of Kautskyism”. Do we all understand what Lenin meant by the word translated as “Kautskyism”? Kautskianstvo very definitely does not mean the system of views associated with Kautsky—rather, it means a kind of behavior exemplified by Kautsky after the outbreak of the war. This behavior is well expressed today’s expression: talking the talk, but not walking the walk. As such, kautskianstvo is an accusation flung at people who have little connection with Kautsky’s views—e.g., Trotsky!

In fact, the basic proof of kautskianstvo in Kautsky’s own case is – his refusal to live up to Kautskyism (that is, his own prewar views)! In Lenin’s eyes, Kautsky was, precisely, a renegade. Case in point: “super-imperialism.” This is a new theory advanced by Kautsky around 1914 (and by the way, I really don’t think you accurately describe his new theory by attributing to Kautsky the view that “imperialism wasn’t grounded in economic necessity”—rather, he argued that war wasn’t an inevitable outcome of imperialism, at least as I remember his argument). In this case, Lenin was defending prewar orthodoxy (including Kautsky’s!) about imperialism, and Kautsky was challenging it.

Finally, I think we follow Lenin’s advice and not talk about the Second International as in any sense a unified whole, but as two streams in constant conflict, “revolutionary Social Democracy” vs. “opportunism.” What shocked Lenin in 1914 was not that there was such a thing as opportunism, nor even that opportunism was a powerful tendency, but rather that the rot, the gangrene, of opportunism had spread so far that the official leadership of the parties were “social chauvinists.” Amputation was therefore called for.

Now let’s turn to your questions.

“Firstly, I’m wondering precisely what you’d say Lenin is loyal to, is it something real in social democracy, or something virtual- the promise of Kautsky against really existing social democracy?”

As I argue in my contribution to an upcoming volume about the early Comintern, the Third International should be seen as an outgrowth of “revolutionary Social Democracy”: an attempt to set it free from “opportunism.” Of course, big changes happened in the journey from one wing of a prewar International to becoming the whole of an International born of war, revolution, and state power in Russia. Here is a passage from the essay just mentioned:

In 1922, Bolshevik leader Lev Kamenev published an extensive collection of his prewar articles. Most of the articles deal with domestic Russian politics, but at the end of the book there is a short section of five articles that take up international issues. Kamenev introduced this section with the following comment: “The goal of reprinting is to show that even in this area the Bolshevik had before the war already set out the basic points that we needed only to develop further during the war and after it. Of course, at that time we could only set out these points, only feel them out".[3]

Kamenev’s words offer a good formula for understanding the link between the two internationals, particularly in the area of the new international’s global scenario: the basic points were already there, but they became much more focused and foundational during the following years of revolution.

So, in answer to your question: yes, there definitely was something real, in terms of outlook, people, and even organizations who supported and embodied “revolutionary Social Democracy”, but no, “revolutionary Social Democracy” had much fewer and more fragile roots in the actual movement than it realized.

“Secondly, how then to explain the failings of social democracy in 1914?”

Would it be flip to say: “because Germany was Germany and Russia was Russia”? That is, the “establishment” was simply much, much stronger in Germany than in Russia (or perhaps better, much, much weaker in Russia than in Germany): the police, the army, the elites, the roots of reformism in the working class, etc. and etc., meant that revolution was on the agenda in one country and not in the other. I have been reading a fair amount from and about 1917 in Russia lately, and what is striking is the speed and scale of elite collapse. I’m not sure that Bolsheviks ever really appreciated that the frailties of the Russian political system just did not apply to Western Europe. – But as this last comment suggests, my feelings on the topic arise more from detailed knowledge of Russia than detailed knowledge of countries further West.

“The gap between Lenin and Gramsci, where hegemony in Lenin is in some ways an internal relation, how is leadership exercised within an alliance or bloc, compared to an external relation in Gramsci, how does the bloc lead society.”

An interesting comment! – and you are right that “hegemony” points first and foremost to workers leading the peasants. But some caveats that weaken your contrast are in order. First, the workers and peasants are pretty much “Russian society.” Second, before the revolution, the whole point of the bloc was to use the state to carry out a revolutionary transformation of Russia, top to bottom. And third, after the revolution, with the proletariat in permanent state power, the bloc was again remaking society.

“How far does Lenin take the theme of “an era of war and revolution” over in its entirety and how far does he transform it beneath the rhetoric of aggressive unoriginality?”

This is well-put: “rhetoric of aggressive unoriginality.” My observation about the rhetoric (which I think would be hard for anyone familiar with the texts to deny) is not meant to be a theoretical judgment about the actual degree of newness of the actual positions. Here are my thoughts on that topic.

First, Lenin’s opinion about his own orthodoxy was undoubtedly sincere – and he knew both the relevant texts of “revolutionary Social Democracy” and his own thoughts much better than we do. But second, it’s one thing to talk about an era of war and revolution, and another thing to navigate one’s way in the historical hurricanes of such an era. Originality was, as it were, imposed by the objective situation. I would also argue that a real adjustment in Lenin’s, how shall I say, strategic outlook, can be observed starting around 1919, when the ally he counted on the most (the West European proletariat) did not live up to his expectations, and the ally he regarded as only temporary (the Russian “middle peasant”) provided crucial support in the civil war – yes, only “in the last analysis,” but it was just that “last analysis” that counted. In his last articles, Lenin tries to find a way to come to grips with what might be called “reluctant originality.”

I have lately come to a paradoxical conclusion: the biggest change in Lenin’s thinking was his realization that the “hegemony scenario” of 1905-1907 was even more valid than he realized at first. That is, the idea of the workers leading the peasants was only supposed to be valid for a certain set of (vast) “democratic” changes, but more and more it became the template for “socialist” transformation as well.

And with that perhaps provocative thought, I come to an end. Thanks again for our probing questions that helped me clarify my views even to myself!

  1. Martov and Zinoviev: Head to Head in Halle, (London, November Publications, 2011), p. 137 (Owen Hatherley quotes this in his review of works marking the anniversary of the revolution for us ↩︎

  2. Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought, (London: Verso, 2009), p. 40. ↩︎

  3. Lev Kamenev, Mezhdu dvumia revoliutsiiami (Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 2003), 653 (Kamenev’s emphasis). ↩︎

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