1. One hundred years after Lenin’s death, there are not many on the left who still define themselves as Leninists. Lenin is not popular. To be fair, this reality tells us more about the majority of contemporary left than about Lenin himself. The historical stage has remained reactionary since the capitalist restoration, and there are no indications of it improving, rather worsening. Many left leaders are not Marxists, and there are various distinct varieties of Marxism. Leninism is revolutionary Marxism. A complex explanation for this isolation points to many factors, but the main one is that, in the last fifty years, no anti-capitalist revolution has triumphed. Consequently, there are few revolutionaries in the world.
Yet, the absence of Leninists has never been more keenly felt. It is during the most challenging conditions of struggle, such as today when the central focus of left tactics should be the fight against the far-right in much of the world, that they are most needed. Lenin’s strategic clarity was expressed through three tactical turns in the dramatic interval between February and October 1917. First, with the defense of the April Theses, repositioning Bolshevism towards independence and demands on the provisional government – Bread, Peace, and Land – and all power to the soviets.
Second, by turning towards the United Front with Kerensky against Kornilov’s coup. Third, by advocating the necessity of insurrection. Tactical flexibility is the art of politics. It must be based on the analysis of possibilities limited by the analysis of the balance of forces, anchored in the firmness of principles. We are in a bad state when tactical rigidity and strategic recklessness prevail.
The radical left could find much inspiration in this legacy. Paradoxically, there are not many Leninists. Not due to the absence of revolutionary situations in this half-century, but because of a long accumulation of defeats. Defeats are discouraging. There is not a single country in transition to socialism that could serve as inspiration in any way. Socialist ideas, even in their most moderate forms, have become a minority. The workers’ movement, the social heart of the anticapitalist project, has regressed in the last thirty years as if it were more than a hundred years ago, to a context preceding the victory of the Russian Revolution in October 1917.
It is true that campism has regained influence in some left circles seeking a breath of fresh air in the celebration of China’s economic successes. However, the expectation that China could be a focal point in the anti-imperialist struggle collapsed, even on the diplomatic front, in the face of the wars in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip. It is not easy to convince someone to make a serious bet on Beijing’s strategy of capitalist restoration for a hundred years, only to then “make a turn” and resume a socialist direction. As if it were not enough the persistence of social inequality and the maintenance of a one-party dictatorship. For activists educated in some variant of Marxism, such a bet is akin to believing in life after death for religious individuals. Being a socialist involves an unwavering hope in the future, but everything has its limits.
Being a Leninist in the 21st century “is not for the faint-hearted.” While it is true that waves of revolutions have never ceased to erupt, since the stabilization that followed the reactionary consolidation in the 1980s, which buried the momentum of 1968, only in Latin American, Asian, and African countries. In the central countries – the historical strongholds of capitalism – even amidst significant political crises with mass mobilizations, the regime of domination has remained intact. In the last five years, liberal democracy has been threatened not by the mobilization of organized workers in unions or popular movements of the oppressed, but by the social, political, and electoral offensive of a neo-fascist far-right. If Leninist nuclei are not built, it will be harder to defeat them.
2. Will revolutions happen again? Political revolutions against tyrannical regimes have swept the world and toppled dictatorships in the last half-century. They defeated coups, as seen in the resistance that returned Hugo Chávez to the presidency, and displaced even elected governments. Before the open process of capitalist restoration in 1989/91, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, dictatorships such as Somoza in Nicaragua and the Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran, along with military regimes in the Southern Cone [of South America], fell. Over the past thirty years, a revolutionary wave expanded from Argentina to Venezuela, passing through Ecuador and Bolivia between 2002/05, and another ignited the Maghreb from Tunisia and Egypt in 2012. However, most democratic revolutions, even some of the more radicalized ones, were defeated or interrupted. It wasn’t a lack of revolutions; it was a lack of Leninists.
One could argue that the social forces in the struggle utilized the human material available to them to defend their aspirations, regardless of the quality of the available talents. This is also true. But it does not resolve the question: if the quality of the political subject is ultimately irrelevant and can be improvised, then the explanation for the victories and defeats of social subjects in the struggle would be limited to the greater or lesser maturity of objective factors. In other words, it would be an objectivist approach. Almost a fatalistic one.
Revolutionary situations will continue to arise because capitalism will face immense difficulties as crises accumulate: the danger of medium and long-term stagnation hindering poverty reduction and intensifying social inequalities; increased rivalries and power struggles in the international system of states, along with a growing arms race and outbreaks of regional wars; an environmental emergency precipitated by the increasing consumption of fossil fuels, coupled with the fatal threat of the rise of neo-fascists to governments, even in imperialist centers, and through elections.
What remains relevant in the Leninist legacy for the 21st century? The most controversial aspect continues to be the theorization of the need for an instrument of revolutionary struggle. It is no less decisive because we are in a long reactionary stage opened by the historical defeat that was the capitalist restoration in the USSR.
The theme is immersed in bitter controversies because the portion of the global left that still claims to be Marxist is divided between small marginal circles embittered in doctrinarism and currents that have adapted to electoralism, becoming unrecognizable. However, the Leninist challenge persists. Is it still possible to build revolutionary organizations in such an unfavorable period that find a path protecting them from “museological” ossification while simultaneously avoiding “opportunist intoxication”?
Most revolutions in the 20th century were political revolutions where the energy unleashed by the revolutionary action of the social subject dissipated, more or less rapidly, after the overthrow of the hated regimes and governments. This occurred long before the major tasks of the social revolution (conquest of the state, transformation of economic and social relations) were resolved. These revolutions do not deserve to be disqualified as “less” revolutionary when we examine the radicalization of millions in struggle. However, among other factors that vary from country to country, the constant has been the weakness of Leninist organizations.
3. At a high level of abstraction, the theoretical-historical problem can be stated as follows: how is it possible for the working class, a socially and economically exploited class, politically dominated, to seize power against a powerful capitalist state in the contemporary world? The Leninist answer was the defense of the necessity of a revolutionary party. However, a militant organization is always an imperfect tool. Did the Bolsheviks make mistakes? Many times. Did Lenin make mistakes? Yes, many times. Do their mistakes invalidate their successes from a historical perspective? No.
They made mistakes when they banned the existence of tendencies and internal fractions in the heat of the civil war? Yes, but it would be hasty not to admit that the risks were tragic. Did they make mistakes in Kronstadt? Yes, they did, but it wasn’t a simple decision. Did they make a mistake in imposing a one-party dictatorship? Yes, and end of story. However, nullifying the heroic legacy of the October Revolution based on the errors, even when they were very serious, of the first Socialist Republic is unwarranted. Holding Lenin responsible for the regime of terror led by Stalin, which consolidated ten years after his death, is not serious. Reverse teleology is equivalent to retroactive fatalism. The Russian revolution opened a field of possibilities. Unfortunately, the most promising ones were defeated.
That said, the premise of the Leninist wager on the necessity of a centralized party is that, with the objective factors matured in a revolutionary crisis, the clarity and audacity of an organization of activists structured in the strategic sectors of economic and social life can make a difference. Making a difference means paving the way for victory in the struggle for power. The militant presence of the party over years and decades, alongside popular struggles, allows the conquest of the political authority that is indispensable for the triumph of the revolution. This wager has passed the test of history. All successful anticapitalist revolutions had the leadership of a centralized organization. The drama is that they were, militarily, over-centralized.
Lenin’s party had unity in political action, not military discipline. Lenin was often in the minority. At times, its internal democracy was semi-chaotic. Inspired by this strategic orientation, Bolshevism had the greatest tactical flexibility: it engaged in the most minimal and elementary struggles while agitating politically against the czarist regime; it trained cadres for constant agitation in defense of popular demands but never ceased to publish a newspaper as a collective organizer of the political struggle to overthrow the dictatorship; it intervened in trade unions without succumbing to syndicalist illusions; it participated in elections with its own candidates, formed electoral alliances, or called for electoral boycotts without succumbing to electoral illusions; it fostered theoretical debates, published books and magazines, and regularly organized training schools without turning into an academic “club” for critical intellectuals.
The two most significant criticisms of the Leninist conception of the party are: (a) the accusation that it is responsible for the monolithic form that the Stalinist dictatorship assumed for seven decades; (b) the accusation that it is a form of bureaucratic substitutionism for the spontaneous action of the masses. The arguments are impressive but false.
The first criticism is not historically honest. A theory about the model of political organization is not a reasonable explanation for the persistence of a political regime for five decades in the USSR. It is also unsustainable to attribute it solely to Stalin’s personality, forgetting that the regime once had mass support. Moreover, considering that the single-party dictatorship was the norm in all revolutionary experiences of the 20th century, it is other factors, incomparably more powerful, such as the lag in economic and social development, class struggle, or the international counter-revolutionary siege, that determined the emergence of Stalinism as a regime. However, establishing an uninterrupted continuity between the Bolshevik party that fought to overthrow the czarist dictatorship and Stalin’s party is not serious.
The second criticism is not intellectually honest. The Leninist thesis does not argue that the Marxist party makes the revolution. Revolutions are not coups, conspiracies, or military takeovers. Insurrection is just a crucial moment in the revolutionary struggle. Revolutions are processes of mobilization for power that set millions of people in motion. They represent the highest form of class struggle in complex contemporary societies, and social classes are the protagonists. Political subjects are instruments of representation and organization. Political organizations do not make revolutions. They compete for leadership in a revolutionary process. They are a form of interest representation far superior to individual leadership. Accusing Bolshevism of being a machine serving the power ambitions of Lenin and later Stalin attributes excessive power to political leaders.
The most serious challenge, one hundred years after Lenin’s death, is that the global left faces a vital question: how to impose a historical defeat on mass-based neo-fascism that includes a portion of the working classes? Electoral parties are powerless against the ideologically radicalized, activist “missionary” engagement of far-right movements. Leninism is synonymous with parties of militants.