By Kumar David –
It is not usual to write up someone’s 99-th birthday – last week I spoke of the LSSP’s 81-st, an even odder number – but the world is standing so much on its head that it’s ok in both cases. There is another reason for reviewing Lenin at this time, an essay that Ringa Ranga Raja, who keeps me posted with thoughtfully selected material, brought to my attention. I have met RRR only once with my late neighbour Silan, or was it twice, the two of them could hardly stand, so it’s all a bit blurred. One thing about RRR however stands out, that is his self-confessed proclivity to beat up his uncles. Enough of these happy reminiscences, let’s get back to Lenin and the state of the world 99 years after he set it ablaze.
The essay in question is The Real Vladimir Lenin by John Marot (www.jacobinmag.com) in which Marot offers a critical review of Lars T Lih’s 2011 book Lenin (Reaktion Books) which was described thus by another reader, Paul Le Blanc: “Lih made a major step in shattering myths about Lenin in his massive earlier work, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context. He continues that good work in this readable and informative biography”. Marot is less charitable to Lih. My job is not to summarise these mighty tomes and long essays, but to draw out what is useful for today’s state of the political universe. I have to keep to the point, so I cannot afford a Lenin said this, Lih that and Marot something else, style, and so I pass over such attributions.
Lenin and Bolsheviks in Red Square on the second anniversary of the revolution
There are three cardinal issues today and I will denote each by the name of a well- known Lenin booklet. The first is about the concept of class alliances (should we conditionally support Ranil and Sirisena?), linked to Two Tactics of Social Democracy (2TSD); the second is political parties and the sectarianism of left groups which I denote by Lenin’s What is to be Done (WD) and the third is the future, the subject of State and Revolution (S&R). I do not intend to discuss these writings per se, this is not my brief today, but the titles are signposts to problem spaces.
Those who delight in the retreat of left and socialist influences in recent years may snarl ‘Wither Socialism!’ Let that pass. Politically there has been a shift to the right in Europe and the US. Most of these countries pursue implicit capitalist economics. Ideologically, the terrain is infested with ultra-nationalists, xenophobes and bigots, paradoxically, fired by the failure of this capitalist system to meet people’s expectations. One is often told socialism is passé, out of date and out of fashion. Behind the assertion is an absurd act of faith that capitalism will last forever, that it will survive in perpetuity. Apologists when posed with the absurdity of the proposition, back off since no social form will survive indefinitely. It is just 228 years since the Great Bourgeois Revolution in France; but European feudalism survived for a thousand, and in ancient China an unchanging society lasted for even longer though scores dynasties; ditto ancient Egypt. The eternal city held up for close upon a thousand years and Rome’s socio-economic structure did not change much for most of that time. So capitalism has a little more time before its funeral pyre is lit.
An intelligent but hostile interlocutor would say: “Yes, what we now call capitalism will pass away but it not as yet run its course. And what will take its place cannot be foreseen”. The second point is hard to grant because the first shoots of whatever will take its place have to be visible. The stark choices are a less exploitative, more egalitarian society or a monstrous Orwellian dictatorship. The latter is near impossible in advanced societies given the power of the populace. In the US, for example, a military dictatorship is unthinkable; Chinese authoritarianism survives because it is accepted by most. Consumer welfare and political democracy are the requisites for survival of bourgeois democracy advanced societies. All advanced societies are in large measure social democratic – there is a ‘socialist’ bottom line that these governments cannot cross. Incensed, some of my business inclined relatives in the US swear: “It is all bloody socialism here!”
The five Nordic countries, Belgium, Switzerland and France, spend 22% to over 30% of GDP on health, education, social and maternity benefits, generous pensions and paid leave, public transport and unemployment payments. A few months ago Switzerland conducted a referendum on a Universal Basic Income scheme (every adult citizen to receive a guaranteed handout of, if I remember correctly, $500 a month) which won 27% support. It is clear in which direction the wind is blowing. It is pretty inconsistent to say socialism is dead when left parties lose elections when all parties under pressure from the people are implementing an ever expanding “socialist” economic agenda.
A debate today about 2TSD would be about whether in modern times a democratic state could stop short of extensive socialism or be compelled to go the whole hog. Historically, the Yes answer to this poser was of course Trotsky’s famous 1905 Permanent Revolution (Results and Prospects) thesis. Lenin hedged his bets till 1917 when he completely embraced the idea in his April Thesis. This was his theoretical justification for the seizure of power, and is still the rational for Chinese and Cuban communism – straight away to socialism with minimal stepping through interim capitalism. The historical record 99 years on shows it has always been “combined and uneven development” where global and domestic factors make, in each case, an original mix. Marx was right about both the universality of historical materialism and its mediation by complexity of the dialectic and the novelty of individuals. “Men make their own history but do so under circumstances inherited from the past”.
What should the Left do?
Lenin’s most quoted booklet, the party building bible, is WD. last week I dealt with the LSSP at eighty-one and the incontestable need for merging into a single left party. Here I discuss the misuse of What is to be Done by ultra-left fringe movements and sectarians to damage left unity.
It is asserted by the silly-left that WD glorified the role of the practical and professional revolutionary and that it was a “technical manual about building an underground organisation trained in the art of eluding the police”, selling the paper, making false bottom suitcases to hide passports and squabbling with other sects. It is true that creating a radical political movement under the glare of Tsarist autocracy did require a dedicated and disciplined cadre and an undercover component. But there is no reason to believe that in an open society with democratic space Lenin would have stayed with this design, referring to each other by coded names and meeting in dimly lit attics rather than comfortable pubs? No, of course not! Remember he took the Bolsheviks into a period of open politics when the Tsar was forced into permitting Duma elections post-1905.
As Marot points out Lenin devoted a many pages to an analysis of ‘economism’, a revisionist trend in international social-democracy whose ideologue was Eduard Bernstein, a German social-democrat. ‘Economism’ advocated a reformist path for improving capitalism instead of pursuing revolutionary aims. Rosa Luxemburg was the principal opponent of ‘economism’; her booklet Reform or Revolution is a classic. These debates are relevant again today and is the subject of my next section, but there is no sense in treating the outdated party building portions of WD (other than its demand for unconditional serious mindedness) as a technical manual for Lanka today.
The twenty-first century state
Why not end this essay with a bit of crystal ball gazing? Firstly capitalism like all –isms will pass away; second its gravedigger will not be the old working class but a new educated, technically savvy, socially responsible working class, and thirdly in the as-yet less developed world corrupt state-capitalism (which state form is not corrupt?) will display some longevity.
And these state-capitalist examples (China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, even Russia and certain military dictatorships like former Burma, Assad’s Syria) without exception range from the harshly authoritarian to the downright dictatorial. What then becomes of Lenin’s, borrowed from a brief Marx comment in the Gotha Programme, concept of the withering away of the state? “State” in this usage does not refer to the administration of things; railway timetables, management of hospitals, garbage disposal and courts. That is all simply the management of things. The real state in Lenin’s lexicon is the manager of people, the oppressor of classes, and the guarantor of property relations.
In China for example the ultimate purpose of the monopoly of state power is to uphold the rule of thousands of party elite. In the US the role of the Constitution is to fortify capitalist property relations; that is to say guarantee corporate, financial and upper-one-percent America its elevated place. True the state be it China, America, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and dozens more and proto-states ISIS, Boko Haram etc., shows little sign of withering away. But it is challenged by fractal symmetric movements of left and right-wing populisms which are gaining the upper-hand at least for now. The countries where people count more and the instruments of state power are tamed is the Nordic countries, Canada, Switzerland and to a degree mature bourgeois democracies. So Lenin is right, the state is withering away but not where he expected it. That wouldn’t surprise Marx.
This brings us full circle to class collaborationist politics in the context of Lanka and the Critical Support currently extended by the LSSP Majority and a sizable CP faction to the Maithri-Ranil contraption. So folks, relax for now and await next year’s thrilling instalments!