Sunday, October 1, 2023

Review: Lenin Rediscovered by Lars Lih

Lih takes as his target western marxists that wish to exonerate Marx from his association with Lenin. This so-called “textbook interpretation” of Lenin’s 1901 What Is to Be Done?, favoured by academics and Trotskyist, takes a couple passages out of context and uses these passages to argue Lenin was dismissive of the intelligence and abilities of workers and that this pamphlet is a founding document of a party of a new type, one distinct from the socialism that sprung from Marx’s milieu and one that is more authoritarian. Although this interpretation requires dismissing thousands of pages of Lenin’s other writings, including passages from within the same text, it nevertheless predominated at the time of Lih’s writing of this book (2005).

Lih’s approach is to demonstrate the continuity between German Social Democracy and Russian Social Democracy in the last half of the 19th century, elevating particularly the role Karl Kaustky played in shaping social democracy. Lih supports his argument by quoting extensively from Kautsky and contemporaries to explain the “merger theory”, a concept that would have been very familiar to socialists across Europe during this era. Briefly, the scientific analysis of capitalism and proposals for a better socioeconomic order become apparent to socialists, who study the system carefully. However, they are few in numbers and cannot effect change on their own. Workers also become aware also of the flaws of the capitalist system through their experience as labourers, but without the ability to study the system in its entirety (due to the oppression of capitalism clawing away as many hours of their life as it can) are capable only of militant fights for economic and labour rights, but not for universal political change — i.e., they are limited to trade unionist politics. The merger theory describes the meeting of these two parties that need each other: the socialists with the workers, each mutually instructing each other on what is to be done. Far from dismissing the intelligence and abilities of the workers, the merger theory (and Lenin’s dogged defense of it in What Is to be Done?) hinges on the workers being rational, curious, coordinated, powerful. After reading Lih’s background, I realized how foundational this concept was to writing of the late 19th and early 20th century — much like how a modern television show wouldn’t bother explaining how the internet works, the existence of the merger theory is assumed knowledge rather than explained.

In bringing Lenin closer to Kautsky (I remain unconvinced that Lenin is uniquely passionate about Kautsky, rather than taking him as just one of many valuable instructors), Lih tries to distance Lenin from the Russian revolutionary tradition: Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Pisarev. This is a factual error: Lenin refers to these authors extensively in his writing — indeed also in this very book — and (according to his wife, Krupskaya, Chernyshevsky and Lenin) elevated them as inspiration to the level of Marx and Engels. It is also an error for those wishing to understand the course of history: 1917 was an anti-imperialist revolution, which necessitates a strong, shared vision of national identity.

Though I gnashed my teeth through large swathes of this book, I also found it to be very useful. Reading What Is To Be Done? without the intellectual history and historical context Lih provides would likely have been a far less productive experience. This book is too eurocentric and too overly long to recommend broadly. I wish there was a modern accompaniment to What Is To Be Done? that spent a little less time on Kautsky and a little more time looking forward to the ripples of this book and the debates featured within it. Still, for the reader eager to learn about movement building and hoping to turn to theoretical works from 120 years ago to do so, it’s an excellent read.

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