Lenin’s Playbook


In Lenin On Politics And Revolution, editor James E. Connor makes the point that “for Lenin, to be a Marxist meant to be a revolutionary.”  This is fundamental to understanding Lenin.  Perhaps the only other thing of equal importance to know about Lenin is that, unlike many revolutionaries and socialists of his day, he was most definitely NOT anti-authoritarian.  Indeed, the Marxist brand of Socialism never pretended to be anti-authoritarian at all.  Marxists just didn’t like who was currently running the show.  If, on the other hand, the Proletariat could seize the reins of power, well then, a strong central authority could be used for the good– not of “everyone” tis true– but for the (formerly) oppressed classes.  And while we’re on the subject of Lenin’s most historically important characteristics, number three on the list –after 1) Lenin put Revolution above all other considerations, and  2) Lenin was an Authoritarian– is… 3) Lenin could be a Pragmatist.  He would adapt or ignore Marxist doctrine (usually making some sort of excuse for Russia’s particular needs) if he felt the situation on the ground merited it.


First and foremost, Lenin was a Revolutionary, intent on destroying the Tsarist regime of the Romanovs.  Lenin did not want to play at Revolution.  He wanted to murder the old system and stomp the earth down tightly upon its grave.  He was drawn to the violent upheaval side of Marxist doctrine, and was very much against anytaming or palliating of Marx.  Lenin wrote in State And Revolution in 1917 that it is the age-old and common policy of the powers-that-be to co-op reformers and “convert them into harmless icons.”  He complains that… “what is happening to Marx’s theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation.”  Via this iconization of Revolutionary leaders, the oppressors succeed in… “robbing revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge, and vulgarizing it.” […] “They omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side of the theory, its revolutionary soul.  The push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie.”  In What Is To Be Done, Lenin warns that… “to belittle the Socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree, means to strengthen Bourgeois ideology.”


Lenin knew that a real Revolution had to have soldiers, people who were not only prepared to put their lives on the line, but had the skill-set to actually be effective.  “As soon as our available forces permit,” he states in What Is To Be Done, “we must without fail devote the most serious attention to propaganda and agitation among soldiers and officers.”  He also advocated the creation of “military organizations affiliated with our Party.”  The Party must be ready, at every side, to spring into action when the Revolutionary tide breaks.  Grand ideas and a supportive population was not enough.  He felt that a para-military force under the control of the Communists would be essential once the Revolutionary tide rolled in.


As early as 1905, in Two Tactics of Social Democracy In The Democratic Revolution, Lenin was already stressing the importance of catchy propaganda… “There is nothing more dangerous in a revolutionary period than belittling the importance of tactical slogans that are sound in principle.”  In What Is To Be Done, he stresses the role of the unions in disseminating propaganda, encouraging “the direct and conscious effort of the socialist trade union members to influence their comrades.” […] “Every effort must be made to raise the level of consciousness of the workers.”  This meant giving them, not just “workers’ literature,” but educating them by making available “general literature.”  He was convinced that the workers, by themselves, could not achieve full awareness of their position.  “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without.”  In other words, from the educated elite.


What frustrated Lenin in the days leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, was the lack of coordinated direction among agitators.  There was plenty of anti-government energy seething in Russia at the time, but no one was properly channeling that energy into the appropriate avenues.  “A basic political and organizational shortcoming of our Movement is our inability to utilize all these forces and give them appropriate work,” he laments in What Is To Be Done“We are unable to gather, if one may put it so, and concentrate all these drops and streamlets of popular resentment that are brought forth” [and have them] “combined into a single gigantic torrent.”

Time and again in What Is To Be Done, Lenin bemoans the lack of PROFESSIONALISM in the Revolution.  He felt that the problem with the agitation in Russia was that it was in the hands of “amateurs” who rebelled, not in any coordinated fashion, but here and there whenever local conditions became intolerable.  Lenin held no delusions that such disconnected “spontaneity” (as he called it) would ever lead a countrywide revolution which could not only topple the current regime but be able to assume power and to maintain that position in the ensuing disorder.

“Our movement is indeed in its infancy,” he writes, “and in order that it may grow-up faster, it must become imbued with intolerance against those who retard its growth by their subservience to spontaneity.”  In other words, this idea held by some that the people would “spontaneously” arise and overthrow the government, was malarkey.  What Lenin advocated was the creation of a professional Revolutionary class in Russia…  “Our primary and imperative practical task” [is] “to establish an organization of Revolutionaries capable of lending energy, stability, and continuity to the political struggle.”  […] “No Revolutionary movement can endure without a stable organization of leaders maintaining continuity.” 

This authoritarian prescription for the Revolution in direct opposition to much being exposed in the political pamphlets fluttering about Europe at the time.  Many agitators advocated and expected the Revolution to arise as a grassroots movement with little or no centralized control and with all agreements openly arrived at.  Lenin scoffed at this idealism, maintaining that… “the spontaneous struggle of the Proletariat will not become a genuine class struggle until this struggle is led by a strong organization of revolutionaries.”   He was convinced that “centralization of the most secret functions in an organization of Revolutionaries will not diminish but rather increase the extent, and enhance the quality, of the activity.” 


So we can see that in the run-up to Revolution, Lenin has on his mind a few things especially:  1) the militarization of the movement, and  2) the recruitment and readying of the worker, and 3) the general professionalization of the Revolution.  There were also a few things he expressly warned AGAINST doing…

Lenin never supported the terrorist tactics used by some socialists and anarchists, the so-called “propaganda of the deed.”  Lenin declared in What Is To Be Done that “substituting excitative terrorism for political agitation drags us back politically.”  And he disparaged the demagogues attempting to ride to power upon the backs of the agitated masses, proclaiming that “demagogues are the worst enemies of the working class” for… “nothing is easier than to employ demagogic methods to mislead the masses.”  


A real Revolution could not be conducted by open, democratic means, said Lenin.  What was needed was a system of independently operated cells, whose leaders directed their teams without having to explain themselves and risk sensitive information being leaked to the opposition.  “The smaller each separate operation in our common cause,” states Lenin, “the more people we can find capable of carrying out such operations” and “the more difficult will it be for the police to net all these detail workers, and the more difficult will it be for them to build a case out of an arrest for some petty affair.”  Expanding upon his theme, he contends that “the only serious organizational principle for the active workers of our movement should be the strictest secrecy of members, the strictest selection of members, and the training of professional Revolutionaries.” 

Democracy is just not a workable solution for Revolution, thinks Lenin.  Continuing in What Is To Be Done, he rhetorically asks, “is it possible for all to elect one of these Revolutionaries to any particular office, when in the very interests of the work, the Revolutionary must conceal his identity from nine out of ten of these all?”  Lenin goes on to put it bluntly… “Broad democracy in Party organization” […] “is nothing more than a useless and harmful toy.” 

Lenin felt that the last thing the Revolution should be doing once it’s underway is giving any oxygen whatsoever to the inevitable counter-revolution.  For one thing, the conservative faction (those clinging to the old ways) will have at its disposal immeasurably more means of disseminating its viewpoint.

Lenin the strategist saw what needed to be done if the Russians were actually going to be able to seize the moment offered by the World War One destabilization of the Romanov regime.  Namely, that the Revolution had to grow teeth, had to become ferocious, had to cast aside amateurism and utopian dreams.  To Lenin’s way of thinking, what was needed to take advantage of the flash of opportunity offered by the War was not public debates, not strategy decided by the majority opinion of a bunch of amateurs, but cold and calculated action, carried out by hardened and determined professionals.  And the Revolution certainly should not be publicizing its decisions on strategy in the name of democratic decision-making.  Democracy was a luxury that the Revolution could not afford.  Openness is for the tundra.  The name of the game in Revolution is secrecy.  Wrote Lenin…

“The only serious organizational principle for the active workers of our movement should be the strictest secrecy of members, the strictest selection of members, and the training of professional Revolutionaries.  Given these qualities, something even more than democratism would be guaranteed to us, namely, complete, comradely, mutual confidence among Revolutionaries.”

If Lenin truly believed this latter part (Revolution as an honorable love-fest among rebels), and he wasn’t merely attempting to convince the wary, then I think Lenin here deluded himself as to just how NOBLE a secretive, violent, authoritarian Party structure could and would remain.  Lenin idealized every violent and secretive cell as “a close and compact body of comrades in which complete mutual confidence prevails,” and he believed, or at least claimed to believe, that such Revolutionary units would purge themselves of any worser elements among them, since, he assumes, all the  member of the team will “possess a lively sense of their responsibility” and the cell would “stop at nothing to rid itself of an unworthy member.”    What he says is not patently untrue… it just doesn’t provide a strong enough bulwark against the inevitable decline of community spirit into naked power grabs and personal wealth-building as the Revolution passes through its different phases.

Certainly, with hindsight, we can see down just what dark road these excuses for secrecy and totalitarianism led the Soviet Union.  Lenin was blinded by one over-riding idea:  Revolution– real, true Revolution, Revolution that was not just a game.  But as soon as the others starting following his lead and sacrificing ideals to the idea, any “true” Revolution was over.  The autocracy was merely changing hands.


In the days leading-up to victory of the Bolsheviks, the bee that really got into Lenin’s bonnet was amateurism.  Lenin insisted that would-be revolutionaries sober-up and join him in demanding the end of the “amateurism prevailing among us” and join him in an “unshakable determination to rid ourselves of it.”

It was all well and good to have numbers on our side and Party members gathering to discuss doctrine in reading circles, said Lenin, admitting that, “we must have such circles– trade unions and organizations everywhere– in as large a number as possible and with the widest variety of functions– but,” he adds, “it would be absurd and harmful to confound them with the organization of REVOLUTIONARIES.”

According to Lenin, most of the people supporting revolution or the Party were just not adequately prepared to assume the responsibilities of a real Revolutionary.  A TRUE Revolutionary is not only someone well-versed in, and ultra-committed to, correct Revolutionary doctrine, but he must have practical experience in “the art of combating the political police.”  And most certainly a True Revolutionary would not be one of those who “plead ‘spontaneity of the masses’ as an excuse for his own sluggishness”… “Such a man,” spits Lenin, “is not a Revolutionary, but a wretched amateur!”

But how to acquire these “True Revolutionaries?”  One method Lenin suggests is to pick the most talented from the ranks of the workers and lift them out of their back-breaking, mind-numbing toil and put them into the role of a professional revolutionary.  Instructs Lenin (still writing in What Is To Be Done), “A worker-agitator who is at all gifted and promising must not be left to work eleven hours a day in a factory.  We must arrange that he be maintained by the Party; that he may go underground in good time.  And that he change the place of his activity if he is to enlarge his experience and widen his outlook.”

Lenin had no doubt that he and his fellow Revolutionaries would have much to learn as the Revolution progressed.  “Revolution unites rapidly and enlightens rapidly,” he wrote in 1905’s Two Tactics Of Social Democracy In The Democratic Revolution.  But the Revolution could not be allowed to become the master of the Revolutionaries, no more (to use my own metaphor) than a horse can be allowed to dictate where the cart will go.  “Undoubtedly, the Revolution will teach us,” Lenin said.  But the real question was, “shall we be able to teach the Revolution?”  Lenin worried that a Revolution inadequately planned and executed would disperse its energies in the wrong directions until it had spent itself… leaving the country all but defenseless against the counter-revolutionary onslaught which would assuredly follow.

“It is our business to prepare and organize this force and to employ it actively, not only for defense but also for attack,” instructs Lenin.  Lenin felt that Revolutionaries across Europe were too willing to accept the defensive posture instead seizing the initiative of attack.  “We must learn to set the aims of this action correctly, and then make these aims as widely known and understood as possible.”


When the Russian Revolution was accomplished (or half-accomplished, depending on how one views the successful overthrow of the government), Lenin turned his attention to the strategy of winning the Post-Revolutionary War.  For starters, probably owing to the fact that his own Party was not in charge at that time, Lenin urged his fellow Party members to offer “no support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear.”

“We must propagate among the broadest sections of the Proletariat,” instructed Lenin, “the idea that the armed proletariat, led by the social-democratic party, must bring to bear constant pressure on the provisional government for the purpose of defending, consolidating, and extending the gains of the Revolution.”

Lenin warned that, after the onset of the Revolution, the fact that perfection has not rained down from the heavens will make the people susceptible to the propaganda of the former power-holders.  Writing in The Immediate Tasks Of The Soviet Government, Lenin states that “there has not been, nor could there be, a Revolution in which the supporters of the Old System did not raise a howl about chaos, anarchy, et cetera.”   For Russia, Lenin was especially worried that the uneducated peasantry could be swayed by the dire pronouncements of the former oppressing class.  In his tract, The Impending Catastrophe And How To Combat It, Lenin instructed that “the peasants must be wrested from the influence of the Bourgeoisie.  That is the sole guarantee of salvation for the Revolution.”


Lenin’s strategy, brilliantly effective, was to exert the most possible influence at the level of the “soviets” (recently established local governing councils).  “The masses,” he declares in The April Thesis (early 1917), “must be made to see that the Soviets Of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of Revolutionary government.”  True, Lenin’s people did not yet control the soviets, but that did not mean that, with superior organization and tactics, they could not sometimes gain their way in the soviets.  “In most of the Soviets Of Workers’ Deputies,” he writes, “our Party is in a minority, so far a small minority,” and… “as long as we are in the minority, we carry on the work of criticizing and exposing errors, and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets Of Workers’ Deputies.”  Under his direction, the Party adopted the slogan, “Power to the soviets!”

The reliance of the Party on the soviets cannot be overstated.  In a speech to the Extraordinary Seventh Congress Of The Russian Communist Party, meeting less than a year later (March 1918), after the Party had successfully obtained power through the soviets in exactly the manner Lenin had prescribed, Lenin remarked that “had not the popular creative spirit of the Russian Revolution, which had gone through the great experience of the year 1905, given rise to the Soviets as early as February 1917, they [Lenin’s Communists] could not under any circumstances have assumed power in October, because success depended entirely upon the existence of available organizational forms of a movement embracing millions.  The soviets were the available form.”  Explaining to the Party how they had pulled the rabbit from the hat, Lenin stated that “the new form of political power was already available, and all we had to do was to pass a few decrees, and transform the power of the soviets from the embryonic state in which existed in the first months of the Revolution into the legally recognized form which had become established in the Russian state, that is, into the Russian Soviet Republic.  The Republic was born at one stroke.”

But in 1917, victory for Lenin’s Part was far from assured.  No one, not even Lenin, knew then how things would ultimately play out.  Writing to the Party’s Central Committee in late 1917, Lenin declares that the provisional government which had assumed temporary control after the Tsarist regime tumbled “is tottering” and that “it must be given the deathblow at all costs.  To delay action is fatal.”


Lenin contended that it would be folly to allow the fate of the government to be decided by the upcoming elections.  Using a strange-sounding sort of logic he declares that “the people have the right and are in duty bound to decide such questions not by a vote, but by force.”  To stand back and simply allow the elections to go forward “would be a disaster,” he proclaims.  Obtain power first and at all costs, he advises the Central Committee, then worry about the details of form… “the seizure of power is the business of the uprising.  Its political purpose will become clear after the seizure.”

Quoting Marx and Engels, Lenin writes (in The State And Revolution) that FORCE… “is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilized political forms.”  Putting it bluntly, Lenin maintains that the Bourgeois State can only be superseded by “the Dictatorship Of The Proletariat” through “violent Revolution.”

Lenin ends The State And Revolution with a (we can imagine) hastily scrawled postscript.  The date is 30 November 1917, and all in Russia hangs in the balance.  He has managed to get to Petrograd where he takes a moment to apologetically explain to his readers that he must interrupt his work on the book due to the events in Russia, stating charmingly (if we can grant that a violent Revolutionary can be charming)… “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the experience of the Revolution than to write about it.”


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