The bourgeoisie has always taken great care to distort the history of the workers' movement and to portray those who have distinguished themselves in it as either harmless or repulsive. The bourgeoisie knows this as well as we do, and that's why it still uses every possible means to distort or conceal the transmission of the struggles of the great revolutionaries of the past and their contributions to the workers' movement, in order to erase them from the historical memory of the proletariat. One of the fundamental weapons of our class in its ongoing confrontation with capitalism is its class consciousness, which inevitably draws on revolutionary theory, marxist theory, as well as the lessons and experiences of its struggles. Today, a century after Lenin's death, we can expect renewed ideological attacks on the great revolutionary that he was, on all his contributions to the struggles of the proletariat: theoretical, organisational, strategic...
The bourgeoisie's falsification of Lenin
If Marx is presented as a daring and somewhat subversive philosopher, whose supposedly outdated contributions nevertheless enabled capitalism to avoid its worst failings, the same cannot be said of Lenin. Lenin took part in and played a major role in the proletariat's greatest revolutionary experiment; he took part in an event that shook the foundations of capitalism. In his many writings, Lenin left great traces of this fundamental experience, which was extremely rich in terms of lessons for the future struggles of the proletariat. But long before the October Revolution, Lenin had made a decisive contribution to shaping the organisation of the proletariat, both politically and strategically. He implemented a method of debate, reflection and theoretical construction that are essential weapons for revolutionaries today.
The bourgeoisie knows all this too. Lenin was not a "statesman" like the bourgeoisie has always produced, but a revolutionary militant committed to his class. This is what the bourgeoisie tries to hide the most, by presenting Lenin as an authoritarian, making decisions on his own, dismissing his opponents, enjoying repression and terror for the sole benefit of his personal interests. In this way, the ruling class can draw a continuous direct line, a line of equality, between Lenin and Stalin. According to this view, Stalin completed Lenin’s work by establishing a system of terror in the USSR, supposedly the exact culmination of Lenin's personal designs.
To reach this conclusion, in addition to a constant stream of shameless lies, the bourgeoisie dwells on Lenin's errors, isolating them from everything else, and above all from the process of debate and clarification within which these errors arose and could have been overcome. It also isolates them from the international context of the defeat of the world revolutionary movement, which prevented the Russian revolution from continuing its work and led it to retreat towards a singular form of state capitalism under the grip of Stalin.
The leftists, led by the Trotskyists, are not the last to capitalise their ideological mystifications on Lenin's errors, particularly when he was seriously mistaken and deluded about national liberation struggles and the potential of the proletariat in the countries on the periphery of capitalism (the theory of the “weakest link”). The leftists have used and still use these errors to unleash their warmongering propaganda to push proletarians to become cannon fodder in imperialist conflicts through their nationalist slogans and their support of one imperialist camp against another. This is the total opposite of the revolutionary and internationalist perspective that Lenin so resolutely defended. The same goes for Lenin's false conception of the trusts and big banks, according to which the concentration of capital would facilitate the transition to communism. The leftists seize on this to demand the nationalisation of the banks and big industries and thus promote state capitalism as a springboard to communism, and to justify their false argument that the "Soviet" economy and the brutality of exploitation in the USSR were not an example of capitalism.
But Lenin absolutely cannot be summed up by reducing him to the mistakes he made. This does not mean that they should be ignored. Firstly, because they provide important lessons for the workers' movement through critical examination. But also because, in the face of the bourgeoisie's repulsive portrait of him, there can be no question of setting Lenin up as a perfect, all-knowing leader.
Lenin was, in fact, a working-class fighter whose tenacity, organisational insight, conviction and method command respect. His influence on the revolutionary developments at the beginning of the last century is indisputable. But all this takes place in a context, a movement, a struggle, an international debate, without which Lenin could have done nothing, contributed nothing to the revolutionary movement of the working class. It’s the same for Marx, who could not have acted and achieved his immense work in the service of the proletariat, nor contributed his commitment and militant energy to the construction of an international proletarian organisation, outside the historical context of the political emergence of the working class.
It is only in such conditions that revolutionary individuals express themselves and give the best of themselves. It was in these particular historical conditions that Lenin, throughout his short life, built and bequeathed a fundamental contribution to the proletariat as a whole, in organisational, political, theoretical and strategic terms.
The militant, the fighter
Far from being an academic intellectual, Lenin was above all a revolutionary militant. The example of the Zimmerwald conference is striking in this respect. While Lenin had always been a staunch defender of proletarian internationalism, positioning himself at the forefront of the fight against the collapse of the Second International, which would drag the proletariat into the war in 1914, he would find himself at the forefront of the fight to keep the internationalist flame alive while the guns were blazing in Europe.
But the Zimmerwald conference was not only attended by convinced internationalists, there were also many defenders of pacifist illusions who weakened Lenin's plan to combat the nationalist madness that kept the proletariat under a blanket of lead. Yet Lenin, within the Bolshevik delegation, understood that the only way to give the proletariat hope at that time was to make major compromises with the other tendencies at the conference.
But he would continue to fight, even after the Conference, to clarify the issues at stake by resolutely criticising pacifism and the dangerous illusions it promoted. This steadfastness, this determination to defend his positions while reinforcing them through theoretical study and the confrontation of arguments, lies at the heart of a method that should inspire every revolutionary militant today.
Defending the party spirit
In organisational terms, Lenin made an immense contribution during the debates that shook the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903. He had already outlined his position in 1902 in What is to be done?, a pamphlet published as a contribution to the debate within the party in which he opposed the economist visions that were developing in its ranks, and instead promoted a vision of a revolutionary party, i.e. a weapon for the proletariat in its assault on capitalism.
But it was during this same Second Congress that he waged a decisive and determined struggle to have his vision of the revolutionary party accepted within the RSDLP: a party of militants, driven by a fighting spirit, aware of their commitment and their responsibilities in the class, in the face of a lax conception of revolutionary organisation seen as a sum, an aggregate of "sympathisers" and occasional contributors, as the Mensheviks defended it. This struggle was therefore also a moment of clarification of what a militant in a revolutionary party is: not a member of a group of friends who give priority to personal loyalty, but a member of an organisation whose common interests, the expression of the common interests of the entire working class, take precedence over everything else. It was this struggle that enabled the workers' movement to move beyond the "circle spirit" towards the "party spirit".
These principles enabled the Bolshevik party to play a leading role in the development of the struggles in Russia up to the October uprising, by organising itself as a vanguard party, defending the interests of the working class and fighting any intrusion of alien ideologies into its midst. We continue to defend these principles as the only way to build the party of tomorrow.
In his book One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin revisits the struggle of the Second Congress and demonstrates on every page the method he used to clarify these questions: patience, tenacity, argumentation, conviction. And not, as the bourgeoisie would have us believe: authoritarianism, threats, exclusion. The impressive quantity of writings left by Lenin is already enough to understand the extent to which he defended and brought to life the principle of patient and determined argumentation as the only means of advancing revolutionary ideas: convincing rather than imposing.
Defending the perspective of revolution
Fourteen years after the 1903 Congress, in April 1917, Lenin returned from exile and applied the same method to get his party to clarify the issues of the period. The famous April Theses set out in a few lines the strong, clear and convincing arguments that would prevent the Bolshevik party from becoming locked into defending the bourgeois Provisional Government and launched the fight for a second phase of the revolution.
It was not a text written by Lenin on behalf of the party, which would have accepted it as it stood, but a contribution to a debate taking place within the party, in which Lenin sought to convince the majority. In this text, Lenin defines a strategy based on the minority nature of the party within the masses, which requires discussion and patient propaganda: "explain patiently, systematically, doggedly". This is what Lenin was in reality, not the figure that the bourgeoisie continues to portray as a "bloodthirsty autocrat"...
Lenin never sought to impose, but always to convince. To do that, he had to develop solid arguments and, to do that, he had to develop his mastery of theory: not for his own personal culture, but to pass it on to the whole of the party and the working class as a weapon for future struggles. He summed up his approach as follows: "there can be no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory", and a particularly important work provides a concrete understanding of this: The State and Revolution. While in the April Theses Lenin warned against the state that had emerged from the February insurrection and emphasised the need to build a revolutionary dynamic resolutely against this state, in September he felt that the subject was becoming increasingly crucial and began writing this text to develop an argument based on the achievements of marxism on the question of the state. He never finished the work, which was interrupted by the October uprising.
Here again, Lenin's method is illustrated. The bourgeoisie liked to put forward men presented as natural leaders whose authority was based solely on their "genius" and "flair". Lenin, on the other hand, owed his ability to convince to a deep commitment to the cause he was defending. Rather than seeking to impose his point of view by taking advantage of his authority within the party or by scheming behind the scenes, he immersed himself in the work of the workers' movement on the question of the state, delving deeper into the subject in order to argue in favour of breaking with the social democratic idea of simply taking over the existing state apparatus and highlighting the imperative need to destroy it.
A revolutionary cannot "discover" the right strategy through genius alone, but through a deep understanding of what is at stake in the situation and the balance of power between the classes. This was exemplified in July 1917. In April the Bolshevik party had launched the slogan "all power to the soviets" to direct the working class against the bourgeois state that had emerged from the February revolution; in July in Petrograd the proletariat began to oppose democratic rule on a massive scale. The bourgeoisie then did what it does best: it set a trap for the proletariat by trying to provoke a premature insurrection that would have allowed it to unleash unrestrained repression, particularly against the Bolsheviks.
The success of such an enterprise would undoubtedly have decisively compromised the revolutionary dynamic in Russia and the October Revolution would probably not have taken place. At that point, the role of the Bolshevik party was fundamental in explaining to the working class that the time had not come to lead the assault, and that elsewhere than in Petrograd, the proletariat was not ready and would be decimated.
To achieve clarity on the slogans to be put forward at a given moment, it was necessary to be able to understand in depth where the balance of power stood between the two determining classes in society, but it was also necessary to have the confidence of the proletariat at a time when the latter, in Petrograd, was eager to overthrow the government. This confidence was not gained by force, threats or any kind of "democratic" device, but by the ability to guide the class in a clear, profound and well-argued way. Lenin's role in these events was undoubtedly crucial, but it was his years of incessant and patient struggle, from the founding of the modern party of the proletariat in 1903 to the days of July, via Zimmerwald and the April Theses 1917, that enabled the Bolshevik party to assume the role that corresponded to the each phase of the revolution and thus enabled it to be recognised by the whole proletariat as the true beacon of the communist revolution.
The bourgeoisie will always be able to portray Lenin as a power-hungry strategist, a proud man who would not accept any challenge or acknowledgement of his mistakes. They will always be able to rewrite the history of the Russian proletariat and its revolution in this light, but Lenin's life and work are a constant denial of these crude ideological manoeuvres. For all the revolutionaries of today and tomorrow, the depth of his commitment, the rigour of his application of marxist theory and method, the unshakeable confidence he drew from this in the ability of his class to lead humanity towards communism make Lenin, a century after his death, an infinitely rich example of what a communist militant should be.
GD, January 2024
The picture shows the party newspaper Iskra ("The Spark") from the early 1900s. Lenin always insisted on the vital importance of the revolutionary press.
 The aim of this article is not to go into the details of this fight. We refer our readers to the series of articles we wrote about the origins of Bolshevism: 1903-4: the birth of Bolshevism, International Review 116; 1903-1904: Trotsky against Lenin, International Review 117; 1903-1904: the birth of Bolshevism, Lenin and Luxemburg, International Review 118
 The April Theses of 1917: signpost to the proletarian revolution, International Review 89
 Lenin's State and Revolution: Striking Validation of Marxism, International Review 91
 80 years since the Russian Revolution: The July Days and the vital role of the Party, International Review 90