Was Lenin a despot or a democrat?

The cliché of the authoritarian Lenin has become so common that the vast majority of writers repeat the mantra without feeling compelled to cite any evidence at all. Recycling a few hacked up, decontextualised quotes suffices. The mirror image of this caricature is the Stalinist conception of Lenin the mastermind, single-handedly pulling the strings of mass sentiment to orchestrate a revolution that would put him and the Bolsheviks at the helm of the Soviet state.

These pictures share a disdain for the potential of workers to change society through social struggle. Both rely on the trope of an ill-informed, easily manipulated mass led blindly, for better or worse, into the throes of a revolution.

Western commentators and Stalinists alike have been completely unscrupulous in quoting Lenin out of context, contorting his legacy to fit their agenda. The caricatures they present couldn’t be further from the truth.

Lenin was a democrat first and foremost. From his early struggle against the Narodnik terrorists, to his orientation to political rivals and throughout 1917, a democratic spirit underpinned Lenin’s thought and practice. He articulated this affirmation of the democratic heart of socialism in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution:

“Creative activity at the grass roots is the most basic factor of the new public life. Let the workers set up workers’ control at their factories … Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach; living, creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.”

What is to be done?

Lenin was a product of the traditions of Russian socialism. The repressive conditions that characterised tsarist Russia made democratic rights not only desirable but a necessary demand for all oppositional political currents. For the socialist movement, the basic tasks of organising workers meant a political confrontation with the regime.

Handing out a leaflet, organising a meeting, printing an oppositional newspaper, let alone organising a strike – all could result in a prison term or exile in Siberia. As historian Neil Harding points out, “The imperative to work for political reform, for the realisation of democratic freedoms, was in this way shown to be no mere abstract formulation of Russian orthodoxy. It proceeded rather from the everyday struggle of the working class”.

Lenin was one of the most fervent advocates of democratic rights. He cut his teeth arguing against the conspiratorial tactics of the Narodniks, and he distinguished his political friends and enemies on the basis of their commitment to the struggle for democracy. For example, he was adamant that the lack of socialist credentials of the populists did not disqualify them as key allies in the democratic struggle. On their program, he iterated: “It is progressive in so far as it puts forward general democratic demands, i.e. fights against all survivals of the medieval epoch and of serfdom”.

Lenin’s detractors often cite a single work to substantiate their claims. The text in question, What is to be done? (WITBD), is one of the most quoted and least understood works of all time. Characteristic of the dominant readings of WITBD, right wing historian Richard Pipes asserts that Lenin held a deep distrust of the masses, hated spontaneity and believed that socialist consciousness was a quality restricted to a select few “professional revolutionaries”.

In his encyclopaedic study of WITBD, Lars Lih offers a different reading, one much more in line with the cut and thrust of Lenin’s earlier and later convictions. According to Lih, WITBD was premised not on distrust of the masses but the opposite – the belief that the workers’ movement was surging towards a revolutionary challenge to tsarism, but the socialist movement – in particular the intellectuals – was lagging hopelessly behind.

WITBD was a polemic against the tailing tendencies of his rivals who wanted to limit the workers’ movement to economic demands and who, as Lenin put it, “treated the workers to ‘politics’ only at exceptional moments, only on festive occasions”. Lenin’s own words leave little doubt as to the target of his polemic: “No one, we think, has until now doubted that the strength of the present-day movement lies in the awakening of the masses (principally, the industrial proletariat), and that its weakness lies in the lack of consciousness and initiative among the revolutionary leaders”.

The February Revolution

This history helps us to understand the role of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917.

The February revolution is often distinguished as the legitimate, popular revolution because it was “spontaneous”, in contrast to the planned insurrection in October. This conception misunderstands both the nature of the February events and the broader relationship between spontaneity, consciousness and organisation. The February revolution was sparked by women workers taking to the streets in opposition to the deprivations of the war, convincing male workers at nearby factories to walk out and join them.

In his history of the revolution, Leon Trotsky articulates what made this possible: “In every factory, in each guild, in each company, in each tavern, in the military hospital, at the transfer stations, even in the depopulated villages, the molecular work of revolutionary thought was in progress … Elements of experience, criticism, initiative, self-sacrifice, seeped down through the mass and created … an inner mechanics of the revolutionary movement as a conscious process”.

Trotsky emphasised the limited and elitist character of the explanations of these events that fetishised spontaneity:

“The mystic doctrine of spontaneousness explains nothing … To the smug politicians of liberalism and tamed socialism everything that happens among masses is customarily represented as an instinctive process, no matter whether they are dealing with an anthill or a beehive. In reality, the thought which was drilling through the thick of the working class was far bolder, more penetrating, more conscious, than those little ideas by which the educated classes live … To the question, ‘Who led the February revolution?’ we can then answer definitely enough: conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.”

Alongside the establishment of the provisional government, the February revolution resurrected the revolutionary workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils that arose originally in the 1905 revolution. Based on direct democracy in the workplace, immediately recallable delegates capable of making and enacting political and economic decisions, these institutions were the embryo of a democratic workers’ state. Lenin’s unwavering commitment to the workers’ councils, articulated in the slogan “All power to the soviets”, shaped his orientation throughout 1917.

The October Insurrection

The soviets had the support of the vast bulk of Russian workers, peasants and soldiers. While the provisional government had de facto power, the soviets were in fact in charge. The Bolsheviks were the only party to call for the soviets to take power. They were a minority in the soviets in February. But by September, as the provisional government refused to budge on the two key demands of the revolution – an end to the war and land to the peasants – the balance had shifted decisively in favour of the Bolsheviks.

It was on the basis of this democratic legitimacy that the Bolsheviks went about organising the October insurrection. The precondition of widespread support for insurrection was no abstract formula. Lenin argued:

“To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon the revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height … That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism.”

Given this history, the misrepresentations that predominate in school textbooks seem ludicrous. As Harding writes: “The insistence upon the need for democratic rights was so integral to Lenin’s strategy, was so central to the orthodoxy he inherited and was repeated almost ad nauseam by him in virtually all of his programmatic statements, that it is almost inexplicable to find chorus of commentators asserting that Lenin had jettisoned the struggle for democracy”.

This is just one of many distortions that pervade scholarship on the Russian revolution. Little is written of Lenin’s opposition to World War One, of the decree to give self-determination to nations oppressed by Russia or of Lenin’s views on women – all of which put today’s “progressive” politicians to shame. Lenin’s stance on these issues was not extraneous but fundamental to his commitment to real and thoroughgoing democracy – a system that puts the vast majority of the world, the working class, in charge.

Lenin wasn’t always right, and was often in a minority in his own party. Nevertheless, Lenin’s key interventions reflect an optimism based on faith in ordinary people. This was no fatalistic, deterministic optimism that hoped for better days. It was an optimism that put a premium on organisation, clarity of ideas, the need to do battle and debate, on seizing opportunities and seeing potential, however nascent it might be.

The Russian revolution was defeated. Stalinism, which grew in the ashes of the revolution, embodied the antithesis of the revolution and the democratic spirit it had unleashed. For both Stalin’s acolytes in the East and Cold War warriors in the West, the myth that Lenin led to Stalin served their respective agendas – in one part of the world to glorify dictatorship as communism; in another to denounce communism as dictatorial. In both cases, this narrative sought to crush a sentiment that we ought to resurrect and champion: “Another world is possible”.