Professor of Russian history at the University of Budapest, Tamás Krausz is the author of an intellectual biography of Lenin. In this interview, Krausz draws a portrait of the October Revolution and the beginning of the Soviet experience, rigorously showing the contemporary relevance of Lenin’s analyses, as well as their limits, without yielding to the simplifications and “superficial theories” that prevent us from understanding that founding event.
Alex Anfruns: Your book “Reconstructing Lenin” defends the postulate that Lenin’s theoretical and political legacy continues to be of real interest to the political forces of the left, and that only after the disappearance of the USSR can we better understand his thought and action, which have suffered many “deformations”. How does your research shed light on this question?
Tamás Krausz: Between 1895 and 1916 Lenin analyzed the fundamental characteristics of Russian and world capitalism on a historical and theoretical level. As far as the essence of his historical analysis is concerned, he understood – and in a way that is valid even today – the main characteristics of Russian historical development as – using G. Arrighi’s term – the semi-periphery of the world system. Russia incorporated at the same time almost all the contradictions of the latter.
Simplifying and summarizing: the manifestation of Russian feudal capitalism is that the Russian bourgeoisie does not play an independent political role, but subordinates itself to tsarist authoritarianism. Lenin came to the conclusion that the revolutionary perspectives that had opened up for the bourgeoisie of the West in previous periods were now opening up for the workers’ movement. These revolutionary tasks can only be carried out by the movement of the proletariat and the landless peasant strata. It is possible to carry out both bourgeois and socialist tasks, however not in cooperation with the bourgeoisie, but in struggle against it. By the way, this is what separated Lenin from Plekhanov and the Mensheviks who still believed in the bourgeois democratic revolution.
Today we can see how right Lenin was: 30 years after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, no democratic bourgeoisie has yet established itself in Russia. But Lenin also saw that if Russia remained alone, the ease with which the Soviets took power could become its opposite: it could become a source of endless difficulties, because 80 percent of the population could not read or write.
Lenin’s analyses are instructive also for the semi-periphery of our time: there is no alternative but the second type of socialism, one based on social democracy. It is not by chance that many people hate and falsify Lenin’s political and theoretical performance. Using his analytical method, we still today come to the conclusion that the alleged liberal and democratic capitalism, which is opposed to the oligarchic capitalist system so widespread today, is nothing more than a purely political vision. Outside of socialism there is no alternative to the system. Today this message has become globally valid.
AA: After the revolution of February 1917, the facts refuted the advance of the revolution “by stages”. In this regard, you claim that Lenin “came to understand the practical and intrinsic significance of revolutionary organizations only gradually”…
TK: Lenin recognized even before the war that bourgeois democracy had no support in Russia: the struggle for democratic rights was the responsibility of the workers’ movement. After February 1917, in analyzing the concrete constellation and its rapid changes, Lenin soon realized that the forces driving the revolution had organized within the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants, occupying and expropriating factories and lands, or deserting the front. It was in the midst of the war’s collapse that the revolutionary forces discovered the tool of “class warfare” as a system.
AA: Lenin considered the aspirations for a Constituent Assembly as “constitutional illusions”. What kind of government did he have in mind then?
TK: Instead of bourgeois constitutionalization and the declaration of purely political equality, Lenin and the Bolshevik party moved towards the establishment of social equality. They were in the vanguard of this movement when he addressed all the forces concerned. Seeing the revolutionary situation, Lenin refused to cooperate with political parties that supported domination based on capitalist private property. Instead, he sought – before and after the Second Pan-Russian Congress of the Soviets – to bring all truly socialist organizations into the government of the Soviets.
The fact that only revolutionary socialists (SR) from the left joined the Bolsheviks shows that, for the masses gathered in the soviets, the question of land, nationalization, the organization of production and consumption was the most important. The legal sensibility of the social forces of the “unique” revolution in Russia (according to György Lukács’ formula) had not been able to fully develop in the previous centuries. Why would the socialist revolution have been supported by the capitalist parties? The Revolution finally overcame them…
AA: The proscription of the Bolshevik Party and the Kornilov revolt led to the conclusion that “the civil war has already begun”. Thus, for weeks, Lenin tried to convince his own party that the decisive moment of the seizure of power had arrived, and that this should not involve too many risks. However, the tragic outcome of the Commune in France and the lessons Marx learned from it had been studied by Lenin. What motivated his confidence?
TK: Lenin already knew in 1905 that in the eyes of the peasant masses the ‘legitimacy’ of the despotic power had been weakened. In 1917, the Provisional Government did not have any more legitimacy either, because it had shown itself incapable of getting out of the war or of solving a single important question. They could not even arrest Lenin… In the face of the tsarist general Kornilov, the predominance of “petty bourgeois democracy” and the worker-peasant revolutionary camp was evident.
In September 1917, clandestinely, Lenin reflected on the experience of the Paris Commune and the theory of socialism, and wrote his work “The State and the Revolution”. The actuality of socialism stemmed from the fact that capitalism had collapsed as a result of the world war and seemed incapable of resisting global or at least European revolutionary initiatives. For him, the fundamental question was how the “world revolution” would break out. The Gordian knot was cut by him, that is, by the Russian revolution. Lenin’s analysis of Russia as “the weakest link in imperialism” was correct: in the autumn of 1917 class power relations would change enormously in favor of the oppressed classes, since all traditional power was completely paralyzed.
The immediate end of the war, the demands for land distribution, nationalization, “land, bread and freedom” could only be resolved in a revolutionary way. And finally: the weapon was in the hands of the revolutionary masses and their organizations… It was “now or never”…
AA: In history textbooks the description of a “criminal Lenin” is widely spread, presenting him as a defender of violence seen as a revolutionary method, summarized in the notion of “dictatorship of the proletariat. However, from a historiographical point of view you question the examples that go in that direction, in particular emphasizing his struggle against the pogroms and for the education of the people. Can you tell us more about this?
TK: Official textbooks have been lying for many decades. Lenin did not have a particular theory of terror and violence. One thing he always insisted on after 1907, after the first Russian revolution was drowned in blood: if a revolution cannot defend itself, it is condemned to death. To suppose that the organization of the Red Army and Soviet power – in the midst of the resurgence of the counterrevolution and the attacks of foreign intervention – could have been carried out peacefully is an absurd idea.
Before October, Lenin had just called attention to the possibility of a “peaceful path,” but history has removed it from the agenda. What would have happened if the revolutionaries had ceded power to the counterrevolution? The experience of the 20th century has sufficiently demonstrated that the forces of capitalism, from Hitler to Pinochet, from neo-colonialism to the bombing of Iraq and Yugoslavia, and the two world wars, inflicted hundreds of times more violence on the peoples of the world than the Russian revolution during Lenin’s lifetime.
Nor can the main problem of the “transition period” after the revolution be reduced to violence, although it is clear that any state organization on “Russian soil” presupposes the widespread use of force. The main problem at the beginning was not, in a certain sense, the reorganization of production and distribution, but the eradication of illiteracy, the cultural elevation of more than a hundred peoples and nationalities.
These problems were the main source of violence in the early stages of Soviet development. As the new bureaucratic hierarchy was built, the new struggles of interest between the institutions, the authorities and the local and central apparatus intensified, which justified Lenin’s fears: if the Russian Revolution remains alone, the prospects of socialism are reduced.
AA: One of the preconceived ideas that you destroy in your book is that Lenin’s decisions would have laid the foundations that allowed the Communist Party to restrict democratic life within it, which allows some to establish continuity between Lenin and the notion of “totalitarianism”. What are your arguments?
TK: In the first place, the so-called ‘theory of totalitarianism’ is a primitive line of thought conceived by the provincial propagandists of the capitalist system. If we force Lenin and the Soviet development into the “Procrustean Bed” of this theory, a narrative of totalitarianism emerges that deprives us even of respect for the relevant historical facts. The thesis that ‘all dictatorships are equal’ is a conceptual and political impossibility.
Furthermore, during the Leninist period, the Communist Party dictatorship was accompanied by a broad institutional “pluralism”; for example, each literary current also had independent organizations. Even within the Communist Party, the different tendencies existed and fought each other.
The confusion between the Leninist and Stalinist eras is as great a mistake as if one were to confuse the Jacobin dictatorship with Napoleon’s empire, or Stalin’s with Brezhnev’s authoritarian regime. Lenin, as if he were guessing the subsequent bourgeois manipulation, himself stressed that no system can be described by purely political concepts.
In ‘The State and the Revolution’, he directly projects epochs for which only humanist hypotheses are expressed. The consideration that revolutions must be able to be defended is very revealing in light of the terrorist regimes of the White Guard officers’ dictatorships. Russian liberalism from 1918 to 1921 joined these terrorist military systems. Lenin’s former youth friend, P. Struve, who went from being a “legal Marxist” to a liberal and became Denikin’s “political advisor,” held a leading position in the terrorist system.
AA: After facing gigantic challenges like famine, civil war and the aggression of an international coalition of countries, some questions were urgently imposed on the program for the survival of the Revolution. On the one hand, Lenin elaborates the bases of the NEP, and on the other hand he develops a vision of the need to carry out a “cultural revolution”. What precautions did Lenin take into consideration?
TK: The NEP, the new economic policy of March 1921, as formulated by Lenin, was ‘a partial restoration of capitalism’, because the peasant and petty-bourgeois majority of the population ‘could not exist without buying and selling’; Russian society was not prepared for socialism, for social self-management. The population, the millions of workers had to master many elements of civic culture to create a new culture. In the absence of democratic social customs, methods and traditions, the fundamental question was how to maintain the hegemony of collective socialist cultural goals and plans in Soviet society.
Based on Lenin’s experience, Gramsci wrote extensively on this question. Lenin’s starting point was that after the military victory, ‘cultural hegemony’ could only be maintained if the social masses that were not interested in the restoration of capitalism took over the management of affairs. This was a fundamental contradiction of the revolutionary system, since the various possibilities of violence were rooted in the soil of contemporary Russia. It was a regime of direct social democracy that could have minimized the importance of violence, as we read in “The State and the Revolution.
There were many attempts in this direction in Soviet Russia: communes, cooperatives, artels, a network of workers’ theaters and self-education circles, not to mention many other manifestations of popular revolutionary energies. Lenin “constitutionalized” the Soviet system, the Soviet Union, according to anti-racist and anti-nationalist political principles that aimed at the juridical and social equality of all peoples, and he mocked the hypocritical behavior of the bourgeois systems which, while formally rejecting juridical and racial exclusion -which they never eliminated-, reproduced social exclusion every day. The Soviet historical development of the late 1920s deviated from this trajectory for various historical reasons, which also cannot be explained by superficial “theories”.
In the Soviet system, it is not the lack of civil democracy that should be complained about; this is meaningless, since neither its leaders nor its supporters wanted to conform to it. In that system, it is the autonomous democratic and socialist forms that were seriously deficient, and it is in this spirit that any transgressions can be criticized: the era of economic and social democracy is still ahead, not behind us.