On Revolutionary Agency : Some Considerations on the Russian Revolution and its Legacies. Part One : Lenin and the Question of Revolutionary Agency

On Revolutionary Agency : Some Considerations on the Russian Revolution and its Legacies. Part One : Lenin and the Question of Revolutionary Agency

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In Beyond Capital, Meszaros writes that Lenin’s…

advocacy of the clandestine form of party organisation as the universally valid guarantor of the correct ideology and strategy, to be applied also in Germany and elsewhere in the West, and later his direct ideological appeal to the model character of the Russian revolution, had their insuperable dilemmas. Once the strategic orientation of ‘socialism in one country’ prevailed in Russia after Lenin’s death with dogmatic finality, the general line of the Third International – which continued to insist on the model character of Soviet developments – was in fact a contradiction in terms as far as the prospects of development for a genuine international socialist movement were concerned. It was therefore not in the least surprising that the Third International should come to the sorry end which it eventually reached

(Beyond Capital, p.318, From Hegel’s ‘World Spirit’ to Socialist Emancipation).

And accordingly…

Thus, the adoption by the Third International of the perspectives according to which the Russian revolution and its aftermath represented the ‘near and immediate future’ of even the capitalistically most advanced countries cannot be dissociated from Lenin.

(p.500, Beyond Capital, Notes to Part Two, Material Mediation and Transition)

This is a startling criticism of Lenin’s position in relation to ‘his direct ideological (sic!) appeal to the model character of the Russian revolution’ and the implicit articulation and application of the conception of agency in the Russian Revolution in relation to the prevailing historical conditions in the most advanced capitalist centres at the time (Western Europe, Japan, USA).

It was indeed ‘ideological’. In what sense? Any attempt to appropriate or develop a conception independently of, and divorced from, actually existent historical conditions or, of and from, a grasp of the historical conditions under and within which the conception emerged and developed is nothing more than an ‘ideological’ misappropriation or mis-deployment of that same conception. In the course of such an ‘appropriation’ or ‘deployment’, the conception itself is emptied of its historical content and significance and, thereby, is robbed of its life and vitality.

It was a method of ‘appropriation’ which was alien to Marx himself who was not an ‘ideologist’, contrary to what the ideologues of capital, media chatterers and the left groups and sects say and write day in day out. Both Marx and Engels sought to explain the origins of ideology but they did not accomplish that by ‘ideological’ means. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and the rest are ideologies. Indeed, it could be argued that Marx -“ism” is ideological, partly at least. But the actual work of Marx is not ideology. This ideologisation of Marx is what passes for ‘Marx’ in the different aspects of many Marx-“isms”. Lenin, here, is actually (and most surprisingly) divorcing the necessary form of agency from the historical conditions within which it actually germinates and grows. This became clear in the work and programmes of both the Third International and later in Trotsky’s Fourth International.

Lenin’s conception of revolutionary agency was fundamentally influential throughout the 20th century and even today. His conception was taken out of the historical conditions within which it was made necessary and then attempts were made to graft the conception into different conditions in other parts of the world where the conditions of its origination did not exist. His conception of revolutionary agency was developed in the conditions of struggle in Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. But beyond that, in the more advanced capitalist countries, its relevance was questionable to say the least. The fact that it was necessary in the conditions of Tsarist Russia did not, in my opinion, render it necessary for other parts of the capitalist world at the time where more advanced conditions prevailed . But Lenin’s ‘centralist party’ conception distilled over into the work of the Third and Fourth Internationals. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, the conditions in Russia were worlds away from those in fully developing, capitalist western Europe and the United States. And this means these more mature conditions were not necessarily conducive to Lenin’s conception of agency and required different forms of agency even at that time.

Central, of course, to the formation of Lenin’s conception was his theoretical response and political articulation to the historical conditions prevailing in Tsarist Russia at the time he wrote What is to be Done? I doubt if Lenin actually wrote this book in the spirit of writing a car repair manual as a handbook of revolutionary organisation (“party structure and organisation”) valid for all times and all places regardless of the established historical conditions. In other words, he did not conceive or write it like an instruction manual.

We need to consider the conditions of persecution, clandestinity, arrest, execution, exile, etc, at the time it was written (1901/2) and, in the light of these prevailing conditions, locate its content and historical significance.  In my opinion, it was written and developed by Lenin essentially as a tactical/strategical (and not axiomatic as taken by the left-wing sectarian groups, etc) document/consideration informing political organisation under very definite, specific, concrete historical conditions which we saw in Tsarist Russia. This was Lenin’s conception at the time. In Marx’s approach to agency, we see an actual critique of bureaucratic “centralised organisations” in his correspondence. He actually wrote that workers “have to learn to walk by themselves” [1]. But Marx himself was working in the most advanced capitalist country of the time and this itself must have influenced his conception of agency. With both Lenin and Trotsky, of course, we find a ‘template-isation’ of their conception of revolutionary agency in the Russian Revolution re-appearing in their work in the Third and Fourth Internationals. And apparently regardless of the widely differing historical conditions in different parts of the world politically represented within these Internationals from 1919 to 1940. I ask myself if it was mere coincidence that these two decades of ‘Leninist agency’ also coincided with the worst defeats for the international proletariat in the 20th century.

This was an ‘ideological’ approach to the question of revolutionary agency which was, only in potentio, to be found within the Kautsky-influenced What is to be Done? but which later became actualised and manifest in the work of Lenin and the Bolsheviks after 1917. It is vital that we study those historical forces which mediated the development of the Russian Revolution after 1917 and which were the source for this ‘ideological’ approach to agency which we find in the later Internationals. In my opinion, Lenin’s method of approaching the question of agency actually altered after 1917.

What is to be Done? was Lenin’s ‘non-ideological’ response to the conditions in Tsarist Russia mediating the activities of the Bolsheviks. His conception of agency at the time arose out of his approach to these conditions. Both he and Trotsky took this ‘model’ of agency and then ‘grafted’ it, lock, stock and barrel, into the international context in the work of the Third and Fourth Internationals which were composed of sections where historical conditions prevailed that did not remotely resemble those of Tsarist Russia at the start of the 20th century.

Therefore, the conception of agency developed by Lenin was ‘of time and place’. It arose under the backward conditions of struggle in Tsarist Russia. His work ( What is to be Done? ) on organisation, in my opinion, has to be understood within the context of these historically specific conditions. It could not, at the time, and indeed, cannot today be metaphysically extrapolated to more mature conditions of the capitalist system. It found root and germinated under the immature conditions of Tsarist Russia. Lenin orientated his conception towards the organisation of the class under these conditions.

To try to ‘lift’ his conception from Marx’s work in the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) would itself have been ‘ideological’. Marx’s conception that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’ [2] makes no mention of ‘revolutionary consciousness’ being imported from outside or being exported into the proletariat by the bourgeois intelligentsia because Marx’s conception presupposed a historically more advanced, more ‘mature’ proletariat than was found in Tsarist Russia in 1900. But it was Kautsky who actually put forward this thesis, under the more advanced conditions of a rapidly developing, state-directed industrialisation in Germany at the time. With an expanding industrial proletariat, closely studied by Engels. I cannot find anything in Engels where he explicitly states or implies this conception of consciousness being delivered ‘from the outside’ of the proletariat. I am sure Marx himself would have pulled it apart both theoretically and politically.

As Cyril Smith writes…..

If the working class is going to develop that ‘communist consciousness on a mass scale’, which is the essence of Marx’s notion of revolution, we must stop trying to reconcile Bolshevism with Marx’s conception of ‘mass communist consciousness’. The two are diametrically opposed. That is why it is so vital that we tear ourselves away from the idea that Lenin’s work gave us a ‘model’ for all revolutionary activity. Lenin’s idea of forms of party organisation changed with the political context in which he fought. But that is not the basic issue. These changes themselves were decided by ‘the Vanguard Party’, always lagging behind the changes in the class movement. It is neither a matter of correcting Lenin’s ‘mistakes’, nor of deciding whether ‘Lenin planted the seeds of Stalinism’.

[ Meszaros on Lenin. Cyril Smith

http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-cyril/works/articles/meszaros.htm ]

Marx did not exclude revolution in ‘backward’ lands but he was presupposing a more ‘mature’ stage of development of the capitalist system. This constitutes the historical and theoretical basis for the explicit or implicit aspects of his conception of revolutionary agency which can be studied in detail in the documents of the IWMA and in his work on the Paris Commune of 1871.

We must not forget that the IWMA was essentially a movement of the most advanced sections of the global proletariat. The Russian proletariat was in its infancy when Marx and others were forming and attempting to build the IWMA within the ranks of this most advanced section. We need to explain Marx’s conception in contrast to that of Lenin by taking into account the differential character of the conditions in which they worked.

Lenin’s conception in What is to be Done? was a remarkable piece of strategical thinking which was rendered necessary by the conditions confronting the young Russian proletariat, him and his fellow revolutionaries. Adopting an approach to revolutionary agency, even at that time, which was more suited for bourgeois democracies where the proletariat had and was developing more democratic rights would have been disastrous with the likely consequence being the wholesale destruction of Lenin’s organisation. The strategy and tactics Lenin adopted and developed made possible the actual formation of his revolutionary organisation. This would not have been possible  – or not have lasted that long  –  under the conditions of the time if any other strategy had been elaborated. The strategy he initiated and developed arose directly from the historical conditions within which he was working. We are now living under radically altered historical conditions. Today it would be folly to deny the possibility that ‘trade union consciousness’ and ‘spontaneity’ cannot develop into a higher form of agency and ‘mass communist consciousness’. Such a conception would only come from the sundry publications of the ‘vanguardist’ groups.

Even then, at the start of the 20th century, the form of agency developed by Lenin was totally unsuitable for the more advanced proletariat in Western Europe and the United States. And absolutely ‘out of time’ now. Lenin – through the Third International and Trotsky – through the Fourth International – both conceived the Bolshevik-type cadre/vanguard party as the historically necessary form of ‘revolutionary agency’ for the proletariat the world over. That was both a theoretical and a political mistake. It was wrong then and it is most certainly wrong now.

What determines the form of revolutionary agency to be a initiated and developed by the proletariat in Europe and the United States? Indeed, anywhere? The real living, existent conditions or the conditions of a backward semi-feudal, asiatic, barely industrialised country, now passed away? To proceed on the basis of the latter is indeed an ‘ideological’ way of proceeding. Such agency must arise  ‘organically’ out of these very conditions and not be ‘imported’ from ‘conditions’ which barely resembled existent ones in advanced capitalist countries even at the time. But after the Russian Revolution, this emulation of the ‘Leninist model’ took place everywhere. It was totally inconsonant, at variance, with the historical conditions which existed in Western Europe, even Japan and certainly the United States at that time.

In section 10.2.2 of Beyond Capital (pp.394-96), Meszaros discusses Lenin’s approach on the question of agency in ‘opting for an organisation of professional revolutionaries who can operate under the conditions of strict secrecy’ rather than ‘the creation of a mass political organisation’. He then proceeds to show why such a model would now be ‘hopelessly inadequate’ under the present conditions at the start of the 21st century, the century of capitalist globalisation. There are those “revolutionaries” who would acknowledge the content of the first three paragraphs of this section (10.2.2) but then conveniently proceed to ignore the discussion, conclusions and implications to be found in the rest of the paragraphs of this section. And, specifically, on how the ‘from outside’ becomes the ‘from above’.

The forms of revolutionary agency are historically conditioned and are most certainly not transcendent of place or time. The ‘truth’ (outcome) of the consideration here gravitates around the fundamental question regarding the continuation of this ‘orienting framework’ of the ‘model’ of the Russian Revolution (with all the ‘vanguardist’ accoutrement) in parts of the world where conditions were totally unsuited to it at the time of the Russian Revolution never mind today. Moreover, and this is just as critical, in post-revolutionary Russia (‘postrevolutionary societies’) itself where ‘the so-called from outside – vis-a-vis the masses of workers – becomes simultaneously also the hierarchically self-perpetuating from above’ (italicisation by Meszaros, Beyond Capital, p395).

Both Lenin and Trotsky maintained this ‘orienting framework’, this ‘model’, this mechanistic historical displacement of the ‘template’ of agency in the Russian Revolution into and within the later Internationals (where it became ‘rule’). And, of course, all the sundry Leninised and Trotskyised groups and sects that came later adopted it. Stalin and Mao raised it to the level of holy scripture. One of the ten commandments or sacred pillars of so-called ‘Leninism’. The ‘template’ was ahistorically, mechanistically (anti-dialectics) and metaphysically extrapolated and carried over into the later period where, organically and historically, it had not actually arisen out of the more advanced existing conditions of struggle. Extracting a historically-conditioned form of agency from those Tsarist  Russian conditions and attempting to re-locate it where it had not grown. Like the incongruous juxtapositioning of an object against its backdrop in a Surrealist picture.

It is one thing to be accused of being ‘anti-historical’ in theoretical and political work. It is quite another to actually transform them into iron principles of organisation divorced from the real conditions of life of the proletariat in different parts of the world. Trotsky was still demanding a ‘democratically centralised Bolshevist-type party’ for the Western European proletariat at the end of the 1930s without any reference whatsoever to the markedly different historical conditions of their lives compared to the Russian proletariat at the turn of the century. The ‘spirit’ became subsumed under the ‘letter’.

As with Lukacs, and with an ‘indeterminate validity’ (Meszaros), Trotsky turned ‘Lenin’s historically defined proposition into a general methodological principle’ (p.393, Beyond Capital, italicisation by Meszaros). The most we can say here about Lenin’s conception of agency was that it was historically specific to the conditions under which it originated and developed and very soon revealed its limitations and its potential for deformation and adaptation to the needs of reaction and bureaucracy in the post-revolutionary epoch in Russia and, of course, its complete inadequacy as the guiding framework of revolutionary agency and organisation in the most advanced capitalist countries from this time onwards.

Meszaros (p. 394, Beyond Capital) refutes the following as “unjustified”, however, in my opinion, Lenin was indeed ‘under the influence’ of Kautsky’s conception that revolutionary consciousness can only be brought into the class ‘from without’ when he ‘formulated his organizational principle’. I think that is undeniable. If he quotes Kautsky ‘approvingly’ then it would be rather odd to think otherwise regardless of whether or not he quotes Kautsky on ‘science and technology’. He quotes Kautsky in order to hammer the point home, in order to further his conception of ‘political organization’ for revolution under the ‘brutally repressive Czarist regime’ (p.394, Beyond Capital) with Lenin ‘opting for an organization of professional revolutionaries’, etc. Of course, if he hadn’t, they would have been destroyed. Lenin orientated his activity in close relation to the conditions of struggle under Tsarism as we must today under the prevailing conditions at the beginning of the 21st century. And who wouldn’t  today? Except the madcap ‘vanguardist’ sects and cults, many of which have turned What is to be Done? into the dogma of a Vedic mantra.

Meszaros alludes to this when he writes…

The objective potentialities of the socialist offensive are inherent in the structural crisis of capital itself, as we shall see in a moment. Now the point is to stress a major contradiction : the absence of adequate political instruments that could turn this potentiality into reality (emphasis IM). Furthermore, what makes things worse in this respect is that the self-awareness of the organisations concerned is still dominated by past mythologies, depicting the Leninist party, for instance, as the institution of strategic offensive par excellence (emphasis IM).

[Beyond Capital, p.675, section 18.1.2, first paragraph]

The implicit recognition here is that a ‘vanguard-type party’ is rendered unnecessary today as a result of the radically altered conditions of struggle of the proletariat at the beginning of the 21st century.  We need to develop forms of revolutionary agency which arise organically out of the specific nature of these conditions so that the forms of agency developed in one part of the globe may not be adequate – and therefore different – for other parts, etc.

So the ‘spirit’ of Lenin in What is to be Done? is to orientate the development of revolutionary organisation in relation to the prevailing conditions under which he was working. Nobody is denying that Lenin’s text and the Bolshevik organisation was the necessary outcome of these conditions; an adequate response and organisational articulation to them in order to oppose them in their political activity.

But the form of organisation necessarily developed under these conditions, whilst being an adequate response to them, could only be taken as adequate for these specific conditions. And this is not what actually took place throughout the 20th century. The work of the Third and Fourth Internationals was testimony to the transposition of this ‘orienting framework’ beyond those historically specific conditions in which it was made necessary.

Meszaros argues, in paragraphs 3 and 4 (pp 394-95, Beyond Capital), that to maintain ‘from the outside’ as the ‘orienting framework’ now becomes ‘inadequate’ ‘in ‘1968’. But it was ‘inadequate’ at the first congress of the Third International and later with Trotsky’s International. It is undoubtedly ‘inadequate’ in 2013 and beyond.

Here, at this point, we need to acknowledge that the historical process is a totality of unfolding historical conditions, possibilities and actualities which dialectically embodies both the object and the subject of history inextricably bound into and constituting this totality of conditions. It is very easy to bury the subject of history under an avalanche of “objective conditions”. So much so that this active subject can be almost written out of the historical process itself. Then the historical dialectic becomes a one-way street in which the subject “responds” to “objective conditions” but does not actively create the very conditions to which humanity “responds”. The conception in Marx that humanity is both the creation and active creator of its own history loses its dialectical content and significance as a result of this metaphysical separation of the subject and the object of history.


[1] Marx to Schweitzer, 13 October 1868, in The First International and After, Political Writings, Vol 3.  (Penguin, 1974, Ed. David Fernbach), pp155-56

[2] Marx. Provisional Rules of the International Working Men’s Association.  p.82. The First International and After. Political Writings, Vol 3.  (Penguin, 1974, Ed. David Fernbach), approx 400pp

Shaun May

October 2013




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