The outbreak of war in 1914 was a global catastrophe. Liberal promises and the dream of a peaceful evolutionary progress were shattered into pieces. The bastions of social democracy, socialist and working class parties across the world, including the biggest and the most influential at that time, the German Social Democratic Party joined the bandwagon of nationalism. The French and German socialists of the Second International who opposed the imperialist war in 1907 and 1912 sessions of the International were in arms against each other defending their respective national governments. The tallest leader of the Second International, Karl Kautsky wrote: ‘In every national state, the proletariat too must use all its energy to preserve intact the independence and unity of its national area.’[i]
Trotsky as a revolutionary socialist did oppose the war but advocated ‘peace without annexations’. In this moment of despair going against all defensive consensuses it was Lenin who could dare to succeed and call for a civil war. Most of the leaders of the central committee including Bogdanov and Krupskaya were sceptic about the madness of Lenin, the man who was impatient for a socialist revolution in Russia in the midst of an imperialist war.
Lenin was not a gradualist like some of the great social democratic leaders of his time who misinterpreted Marxism as social Darwinism or reduced it to vulgar mechanical materialism, waited for the ‘ripe’ moment to arrive according to the barometers of the growth of productive forces, nor did he seek legitimacy from the majority, the touchstone of liberal sanctity, it is because of his brilliant acumen of a revolutionary strategy and absolute commitment to the class, Lenin could go against the evolutionary historicism and scientism of the Second International. Slavok Zizek was apt in saying: ‘This is the Lenin from whom we have something to learn. The greatness of Lenin was that in this catastrophic situation he wasn’t afraid to succeed in contrast to the negative pathos discernible in Rosa Luxemburg and Adorno for whom the ultimate authentic act is the admission of the failure which brings the truth of the situation to light.’[ii]
True, Lenin was not a super-human but definitely a great man. Recall Hegel’s classic formulation on this issue in Philosophy of Right: ‘The great man of the age is the one who can put into words the will of his age, tell his age what its will is, and accomplish it. What he does is the heart and essence of his age: he actualises his age.’[iii] He could voice with great courage the urge of the time, who could see the underlying processes as a moving phenomenon as ever changing with infinite dimensions not petrified by the generalisations of the abstract; he who could see the concrete, the concrete which is far more complex as it is a condensation of infinite processes, the concrete which demands scientific analyses rather than metaphysical speculations and hence capable of making history although being part of a process without a subject.
In 1914 Lenin was in exile. He shifted from Austrian ruled Poland to Switzerland as she had a neutral position vis-à-vis war. Lenin returned to Russia from exile in April 1917 and during this period of 1914-17 he critically engaged with Hegel’s writings, copiously noting down his comments particularly on Hegel’s Science of Logic and History of Philosophy later published as Philosophical Notebooks. In this period he wrote the famous pamphlet Imperialism: Highest Stage of Capitalism, was intensely working on State and Revolution which was published in 1918. Apart from these critical contributions on dialectics and the understanding of the contemporary world he wrote ‘April Thesis’ and engaged in intense debate within the Russian Social Democratic Party as well as with the Second International on two most important issues of the time which are definitely related but also independently significant in terms of revolutionary praxis. The first is what Lenin called ‘revolutionary defeatism’ and turning the imperialist war into a civil war and the second one relates to the specific context of Russia of pushing the February revolution further to completing the socialist revolution in a backward country.
Lenin’s book on imperialism was not a theory of imperialism per se as it does not provide an analytical account of actually why imperialism occurs as a socio-economic tendency rather it delineates the specific conjecture of how such tendency emerges in the monopoly stage. However this small pamphlet which draws heavily from J.A. Hobson and Rudolf Hilferding’s analyses of the monopoly stage of capitalism and finance capital has far greater impact than many theories of imperialism particularly because it drew the coordinates of global conflicts afresh, providing a creative perspective for social revolution in the midst of a catastrophe. It is about perceiving capitalism of the competitive phase transforming and evolving into its opposite, the monopoly phase; capitalism becoming moribund as it survives on ‘clipping coupons’ and rentier capital, it is about acknowledging the new subject of national liberation and bringing in the working people of the colonial world in the centre stage of class conflict. The idea of imperialism therefore no longer remained limited to the Eurocentric view of conflict between advanced nations in which the darker continents thus far were invisible in world politics.
Lenin was categorical in saying: During a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government.[iv] In July,1915 he wrote a short note titled ‘The Defeat of one’s own Government in the Imperialist War’ where he not only took on Kautsky for the line of ‘social chauvinism’ but also unabashedly attacked Trotsky for his high-flown phraseology justifying a wishy-washy line of ‘neither defeat nor victory’. Lenin was blunt with his profound clarity in saying: Those who stand for the “neither-victory-nor-defeat” slogan are in fact on the side of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists, for they do not believe in the possibility of international revolutionary action by the working class against their own governments, and do not wish to help develop such action, which, though undoubtedly difficult, is the only task worthy of a proletarian, the only socialist task.[v]
But this historic position was not a sort of unfounded assertion based on instinct of insurrection instead was derived from the concrete analysis of the particular context. Lenin could see the internal dynamics and self-movement of the capitalist crisis worldwide which inevitably aggravates and intensifies the conflict between classes within every nation and that was the pretext of turning the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war against the bourgeoisie of respective nations. He believed that both the Anglo-French on the one hand and the German bourgeoisie on the other hand were fighting for financial supremacy and in this process were strangling the smaller nations and dividing the working class of various nations into chauvinist rivalry. Russia would be the weakest link in the imperialist chain because in Russia the ruling Tsarist regime had already suffered a big blow in the first revolution February-March 1917, they are enormously weakened and was limping on the crutches of Anglo-French capital. The Russian proletariat has already galvanised the working people of heterogeneous interest against the rulers through Soviets of Workers and Deputies in the struggle for peace bread and freedom. Lenin argued that this is the moment of rupture of marching towards a second revolution, a socialist revolution led by workers and peasants. This moment has to be seized otherwise it would be forfeited for ever. After returning to Petrograd, in the famous April thesis Lenin argued in favour of socialist revolution, of nationalising land and banks, for power in the hands of the Soviets of Workers and Peasants being fully aware of the fact that in these Soviets the Party was a minority force. It was about establishing class rule of the majority not of the party, a concept of a commune state abolishing police, army and bureaucracy essentially far more democratic than the bourgeoisie model of parliamentary republic. He was of the view of smashing the bourgeoisie state which is nothing but an instrument of minority class rule and empowering people’s collectives at various layers in the form of Soviets that would run the country by learning from their own mistakes.
Needless to say that revolution cannot be a handiwork of any individual, it is definitely an outcome of a social process but what does ‘actualisation of the age’ mean? It is not something like the subject is observing a process from a distance and the great men are those who can only observe it correctly; neither also the object actualises the subject’s will, it is the moment of condensation, one constituting the other, both changing, uniting and dissolving into one. Lenin was great because he not only did explain the concrete conditions but could change it in favour of the poor and the working class. And at the same time he created new knowledge of social change of understanding dialectics and breaking from gradualism. He could think of a radical rupture because he got his explanation of the concrete context correct, correct not in the sense of some universal parameter but from the perspective of the desired change. Lenin believed that the Russian revolution itself provided ‘an instructive practical refutation of all doctrinarism’, for its development turned out to be ‘more original, more peculiar, (and) more variegated than anyone could have expected’.[vi]
The famous French Marxist philosopher of the twentieth century Louis Althusser in his book For Marx discussed why revolution was triumphant in Russia and not in any other country in spite of the fact that world capitalism was reeling into severe crisis, why the weakest link turned ablaze into a Leninist moment. It was because of a series of mutually influencing internal and external contradictions that historically reached its peak in Russia, became the melting pot of multidimensional conflicts as a critical state of accumulation and exacerbation of historical contradictions.[vii] And these economic, social and political conflicts led to a radical rupture because Russia had the most advanced and conscious socialist leadership at that time.
The crucial understanding of the concrete which emboldens revolutionary courage emerges from Lenin’s deep engagement with the theory of dialectical method which went along with his political activism. His intense study of Hegel during his exile reflected in Philosophical Notebooks of 1914-15 had a much nuanced understanding of dialectics compared to his 1908 book Marxism and Empirio-Criticism. In the earlier book Lenin was engaged in the epistemological debate with the neo Kantian view where truth has been seen as ‘organising of experience’ and has no objectivity. Lenin’s emphasis here was more on materialism and the existence of object as separate from subject. In his later works he was far more nuanced in his understanding of dialectics when he argues the relativity of all our knowledge, not in the sense of denying objective truth, but in the sense that the limits of approximation of our knowledge to objective, absolute truth are historically conditional’.[viii] He argued that there can’t be any absolute truth as truth is always relative and contingent upon historical facts. And this is precisely the reason Lenin could say without any hesitation ‘We do not regard Marx’s theory as something completed and inviolable; on the contrary, we are convinced that it has only laid the foundation stone of the science which socialists must develop in all directions if they wish to keep pace with life.[ix]
On December 1917 after the October Revolution the famous Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote a short piece in Avanti with a very interesting title ‘The Revolution against Capital’ where he argued that the revolution in Russia shows that events do not follow a predetermined course and the Bolshevik revolution seem to have gone against the rigid cannons of historical materialism. It is when events have overcome ideologies, where a collective social will emerges by a proper understanding of the objective tendencies. In normal times a lengthy process of gradual diffusion is required for the collective will to emerge, such situations are repetitive although may be rich in class struggle but it goes through protracted process of realising class experience through various stages. But this regularity need not be some universal rule. In Russia war, famine and hunger galvanized the collective will of men at one stroke, several decades were telescoped into days and months and then Gramsci poses the question Why should they wait for the history of England to be repeated in Russia, for the bourgeoisie to arise, for the class struggle to begin, so that class consciousness may be formed and the final catastrophe of the capitalist world eventually hit them?[x]
Lenin lived in Marxist thought. His grasp of the concrete was therefore not constrained by the rigid doctrine of dogmatic utterances or abstract generalisations. In his dialectical politics the only unchanging principle was to protect the interest of the working class. This is why he not only explained the concrete condition but could explain in a way to change it and the process of changing itself gave rise to new perspectives of social revolution. Lenin was perhaps the tallest personality of the twentieth century who epitomised Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
The author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi
[i] Karl Kautsky, Selected Political Writings, ed. and trans. Patrick Goode, London: Macmillan, 1983, p. 90.
[ii] Slavok Zizek ‘Introduction: between the Two Revolutions’ in Revolution at the Gates London New York: Verso 2002, p. 14
[iii] GWF Hegel, Philosophy of Right, English Translation, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952 p. 307.
[iv] V. I Lenin, Collected Works Vol 21 available at marxist .org
[vi]V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 31(104) and 24(44)
[vii] L. Althussar, For Marx, Allen Lane:The Penguin Press, 1969, p 95-97.
[viii] V. I Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 14, p 136.
[ix] V. I.. Lenin Collected Works Vol 4. P. 177.
[x] A. Gramsci ‘The Revolution against Capital’ Selected Writings 1916-35, new York University Press, p. 32-36.