People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 46

November 12, 2006

The Centrality Of Leninism


Prabhat Patnaik


THE theoretical ideas of the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, whose 89th anniversary we are celebrating this week, are usually characterised as constituting the Marxism of the era of monopoly capitalism. This doubtless is true. But Leninism is also something more: it is the theory of Marxist practice. A theory of practice is implicit in Marxism itself; Leninism makes it explicit, and, in this sense too, constitutes a development of Marxism. Since practice is concrete, a theory of practice must relate to concrete conditions. In Lenin’s case, these were the conditions created by monopoly capitalism, and hence his theory of practice related to monopoly capitalism. But he must be credited not only with having brought Marxism temporally up to date, with having analysed the new phase of capitalism, but also with having thickened it to bridge the entire distance between the abstraction of theory and the concreteness of practice. He developed Marxist theory, in the context of monopoly capitalism, to a level, where, to use the words of Georg Lukacs, the famous Marxist philosopher, “theory bursts into practice”.




We shall not discuss here the specificities of Lenin’s theory which are well-known. We shall rather ask the question: how did Lenin develop this theory of practice? In other words, what was his epistemological point of departure that enabled him to “thicken” Marxist theory to the point where it could cover the entire distance between theory and practice? Georg Lukacs again, in his book, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought, provides a persuasive answer to this question, namely that Lenin always had in mind the actuality of the revolution. To him revolution was not something that, we should assume, would come upon us some day in some unknown, unpredictable and unforeseen manner. He was continuously engaged in charting the route between the here and now on the one hand, and the revolution on the other. How long it would take along that route to reach the goal was a question that did not concern him; in fact he considered it a wrong question. It is not the time that the journey would take, but the route of the journey that was his concern. As conditions change, the route may also change, but the basic point of the Leninist method is that the present has to be appraised and understood always in the context of the route that can be charted between it and the revolution, from the perspective of the revolution as a real thing, to which a route leads from the present. 


Thus, Lenin’s total engagement with the “actuality of the revolution” can be alternatively understood as a method of cognition of the present, of every moment that constitutes the ever-changing present, from the perspective of the revolution. This he saw as the sole means of cognising the present. Looking at it differently, from the perspective of the present, as Lenin comprehended it, the revolution ahead is not lost in a haze of mist, invisible from where we stand today. It is an actual thing that is always within our sight, even though we do not know how long it would take us to get there.




This perception is completely at odds with spontaneism which is a source of both Left and Right deviations. The Left deviation arises from the belief that since the revolution will happen some day anyway when the conditions are ripe for it, all we need to do now, and in the foreseeable future, is to carry out general propaganda for it, without soiling our hands with (“getting bogged down with”) the drudgery of day-to-day organisational work within the Party and on the mass fronts. The Right deviation arises from the belief that since the revolution is going to happen anyway when the conditions are ripe for it, all we need to do now, and in the foreseeable future, is simply the day-to-day organisational work in the Party and on the mass fronts, and leave the rest to history. The perception of the “actuality of the revolution”, which was Lenin’s point of departure, broke with the possibility of both these deviations, and provided the basis not just for a correct revolutionary practice, but also for a correct revolutionary theory of practice. This is not to say that things always turn out the way they were presumed to, that there is no element of spontaneity in the way they turn out. But a mere recognition of this fact cannot be the point of departure for a revolutionary scientific theory. That point of departure comes from the recognition of the need to keep the actuality of the revolution in focus, and to chart a path, which may change with changing conditions, between the present and the revolution.


This approach is also fundamentally different from what one may call the “stages theory”, that there is a stage of capitalism, which, once it has reached its limit, will be followed by the stage of socialism. Once a scientific understanding of the “historical process as a whole” has been developed, which is what Marxism does, and the proletariat appears on the scene, which happens with the emergence of capitalism, the combination of the two produces a powerful force which is imbued with a scientific revolutionary spirit. With science brought to the proletariat, the stage theory becomes irrelevant. It is no longer a scholastic study of what comes after what, but a study from the perspective of this revolutionary force, keeping in view the actuality of revolution, of what route to take from the here and now to the revolution (which too is not an event, but the process of reaching an ultimate goal). 




In a backward society where the bourgeois revolution has not been completed, this revolutionary force does not wait for the bourgeois revolution to be completed, before it makes its entry on the scene to struggle for a socialist revolution. On the contrary it takes charge of the bourgeois revolution itself, asserts its own hegemony on the process of bourgeois revolution itself, and, having done so, carries out the most thorough-going, the most consistent, the most complete bourgeois revolution possible, as against all the limited, hesitant and incomplete changes, based on compromises with the earlier ruling classes, which the bourgeoisie itself essays in the name of a “bourgeois revolution”. The “bourgeois revolution” that was on the agenda of the Kerensky government was not the bourgeois revolution that was on the agenda of the Bolsheviks. The revolutionary proletariat was interested in carrying out the most thorough-going bourgeois revolution, far more than what any bourgeois force was either interested in, or capable of, doing. As Lenin put it, “in a certain sense, a bourgeois revolution is more advantageous to the proletariat than the bourgeoisie” (Selected Works (3 volumes), Vol. 1, p.452, Moscow, 1976).


But having taken charge of the bourgeois revolution, having provided the leadership to make it fully consistent and complete, the proletariat does not withdraw from the scene, so as to allow the bourgeois revolution to exhaust its full potential, before reappearing again to fight for a socialist revolution. It carries on from the bourgeois revolution to the socialist revolution. The two get linked through a historical process that Lenin anticipated clearly in his Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution: “The proletariat must carry the democratic revolution to completion, allying to itself the mass of the peasantry in order to crush the autocracy’s resistance by force and paralyse the bourgeoisie’s instability. The proletariat must accomplish the socialist revolution, allying to itself the mass of semi-proletarian elements of the population, so as to crush the bourgeoisie’s resistance by force, and paralyse the instability of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie” (op.cit. p.494).




It follows that even when the proletariat is laying the foundations for capitalist development, that necessarily has to be different from the way the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for capitalist development. It follows that when the proletarian Party finds itself historically in a position where it has to build capitalism, the way it goes about the task must be different from the way that bourgeois parties build capitalism. The two cannot be identical. If the proletarian Party builds capitalism in the same way exactly as the bourgeois parties do, on the plea that since the capitalist stage is on the historical agenda, and since it has to pass through this stage, it can act no differently from the bourgeois parties, then it is losing sight of the “actuality of the revolution”, falling prey to a stage theory, and in the process adopting an epistemology that represents a departure from Leninism. Stage theory is fundamentally opposed to Leninism. It is linked to spontaneism, i.e. to an implicit belief that “things will happen on their own when the right time comes”.


The collapse of the Soviet Union was no doubt related to several factors, but what is noteworthy is that the theoretical prelude to this collapse was a faith in spontaneism, an abandonment of the perspective of the actuality of the revolution. When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced reforms in the political and economic systems of the Soviet Union, he was particularly keen to emphasise, even with a degree of pride, that the implications and the consequences of the reforms had not been thought out. This outcome in short was to be determined by “history”, seen as a spontaneous force, instead of history being determined by revolutionary practice. This was the exact opposite of the Leninist perspective, since the Leninist perspective of the “actuality of the revolution” was meant precisely to make history through the intervention of revolutionary practice. It is instructive that the Bolshevik Revolution that had come into being through the adoption of a Leninist perspective against spontaneism, should collapse with the adoption of a spontaneist perspective against Leninism.




It may be thought that since the current conjuncture is a far cry from what Lenin had lived through, all these debates have become irrelevant. What is the point of talking about the “actuality of the revolution” when there are no obvious revolutionary prospects on the horizon, when socialism has received setbacks all over the world, when, notwithstanding a certain glimmer in Latin America, the counter-revolutionary tide continues to be in force, and when the hegemony of international finance capital is in full sway? Surely we live in different times and we have to “adjust” to the times. This position however is empiricist and erroneous. The standpoint of the “actuality of the revolution” has nothing to do with whether a revolution is imminent. It is the fundamental epistemological point of departure of Marxist understanding, namely to see every moment, every present, from the perspective of the revolution, by charting out a path from the present to the revolutionary goal, by charting out in short a revolutionary praxis, starting from the present, that is free of spontaneism and the so-called stage theory. This, as Lenin had shown, is the only way for a Marxist understanding of reality, the only basis for a correct Marxist practice. It remains as true today as it was in Lenin’s time; the specific conjuncture has nothing to do with it. The centrality of Leninism in this basic sense is not altered one iota, even though the specific conjuncture that Lenin had lived through may be different from ours.