Lenin’s work remains a guide for our time

What are some of the key lessons we need to take from Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the coming period of rising revolutionary struggle?

Lenin was the great Marxist thinker who reinstated the revolutionary content into Marxism and updated it for the era of imperialism. His work remains as essential as ever to all those struggling for a better world.

The following article is a slightly extended version of a speech given by Joti Brar to a symposium that was held in Istanbul, Turkey, on 13 January to mark the centenary of Lenin’s death.


There are many aspects of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s immortal contribution to Marxism that are worthy of focused and detailed attention. Since it is not possible to cover them all in a single article, this piece will focus on just three of them – lessons that have tremendous significance for our work today, when a new wave of anti-imperialist struggle is rising to face the twin threats of imperialist global economic crisis and the imperialist drive into a third world war.

The fight against opportunism

Lenin fought all his life against opportunism in the working-class movement, not only in Russia but throughout the socialist movement. By opportunism, we mean the selling out of the long-term interests of the movement for short-term gains, real or perceived, political or personal. According to Lenin, such manoeuvrings can ultimately be traced back to capitalist influence, ideological or financial. “Opportunism is a manifestation of the bourgeoisie’s influence over the proletariat.” (Opportunism, and the Collapse of the Second International by VI Lenin, December 1915)

Lenin exposed and fought against both right opportunists, who openly sided with their own ruling classes when the first world war broke out, and also against so-called ‘centrists’ like Germany’s Karl Kautsky, who tried to find a bridge between the revolutionary and opportunist wings of the working-class movement.

It was in the wake of the betrayal of the ‘official’ socialist parties of the Second International – and out of the success of the Bolshevik-led socialist revolution in 1917 – that the modern communist movement was founded. Out of the confusion and treachery of 1914, there rose like a phoenix from the ashes the Third International, headed by the outstanding Marxist-Leninist leadership of Lenin’s CPSU(B), in 1919. The basis for this regrouping had been laid by the Bolsheviks and other members of the Zimmerwald left – that part of the socialist movement that held true to its principles throughout the course of the first world war.

The Zimmerwald conference of 1915 and its subsequent development has great resonance and relevance for communists today. This conference brought together all those who were dismayed by the militarist, pro-imperialist turn taken by the leaders and significant sections of every one of the European socialist parties in 1914 – in total contradiction to the resolutions they had all signed up to at a congress in Basel, Switzerland just two years earlier.

The course of the war saw the firm incorporation of the right wing of the socialist movement into bourgeois governments and state machines all over Europe. Social democracy emerged as the fully-fledged instrument of bourgeois influence in the working-class movement. Social-democratic leaders became government ministers, their parliamentarians voted for war credits, and they in every way supported and recruited for the war effort.

Those who attended the Zimmerwald conference protesting this development revealed themselves to have three tendencies. The first of these was a consistently revolutionary left wing, headed by Lenin, which stuck firmly to the line that had been previously agreed on. In 1912, all the socialist parties in Europe had made a commitment that they would work to mobilise the workers to actively oppose war when it broke out; that they would do everything possible to transform an interimperialist war, in which workers slaughtered their fellow workers in the interests of the financiers, into a civil war, in which the revolutionary workers would turn their guns against their own imperialist rulers.

On the other side was the Zimmerwald right, those who claimed still to support the old antiwar line, but who in practice were afraid to be seen as ‘splitting the movement’ and wanted to conciliate with the open social-chauvinists, hoping to ‘reunite’ the movement as soon as the nasty interruption caused by the war was over. Objectively, this line was a line of capitulation to the bourgeoisie and to the bourgeois-aligned opportunists, who had revealed their loyalties only too clearly. Lenin wrote extensively about the need to expose rather than cover over these important differences – about the need to break cleanly rather than try to mend what could no longer be considered as whole.

Between these two was a centrist position that tried to reconcile the two. Objectively, this section also acted like the petty-bourgeois vacillators in the class struggle – unwilling or unable to take a firm position; afraid to speak out against former friends and comrades; hoping against hope that a way could be found to square the circle with the minimum of unpleasantness.

“Is it worth trying, as Kautsky and co are doing, to force the pus back into the body for the sake of ‘unity’ (with the pus), or should the pus be removed as quickly and thoroughly as possible, regardless of the pang of pain caused by the process, to help bring about the complete recovery of the body of the labour movement?” (Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International, January 1916, Collected Works Vol 22, pp108-20)

Further: “The split in the labour and socialist movements throughout the world is a fact. We have two irreconcilable working-class tactics and policies in respect of the war. It is ridiculous to close your eyes to this fact. Any attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable will make all our work futile.” (The tasks of the opposition in France, 10 February 1916)

History has furnished us with ample proof as to which position was correct. The success of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution was based in their firm adherence to a correct line; their willingness to speak uncomfortable truths in order to educate the workers and guide the movement. No doubt many at the time considered Lenin to be ‘harsh’, ‘abrupt’, ‘bad-mannered’, ‘sectarian’ and so on. No doubt many of them asked themselves: ‘Who is this upstart Russian to lecture the German socialists about Marxism? Who is he to tell the biggest working-class party in the world about the correct strategy and tactics for making proletarian revolution?’

Ultimately, his vacillations and attempts to find a ‘peaceful’ way out of the divisions of the movement, along with his attempts to conjure up a ‘peaceful’ future for imperialism and a ‘peaceful’ path to socialism, led Karl Kautsky, who had been considered the theoretical leader of world socialism, into the camp of those who denounced the October Revolution and worked actively to destroy it. (See The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918)

History, of course, we know. Not only did the Bolsheviks, guided by Lenin’s brilliant scientific leadership, prove correct. Not only were they successful in establishing the world’s first socialist state and building the world’s first socialist economy, but they inspired the development of parties of the Bolshevik type all over the world. That is why almost every country today has an ‘official’ communist party whose establishment dates to the years immediately following the October Revolution and the establishment of the Comintern.

Lenin’s fight against opportunism was key to the Bolsheviks’ success in conditions of global crisis a century ago – and it will be the key to our success in the coming period too.

The insistence on theory

In his 53 years of life, Lenin left us a huge body of work, comprising 45 volumes of investigations, articles, lectures, speeches and letters. And all these writings are permeated with his deep knowledge of and dedication to scientific socialism.

Understanding that Marxism holds the key to the liberation of all humanity, and of the proletariat in particular, Lenin made it a point to conduct all his investigations from the point of view of Marxist science. And just like the founders of that science, Marx and Engels, he never jumped to conclusions based on prejudice, popularity or expedience. Instead, he carefully worked out what was the correct, proletarian viewpoint on any question – and then worked tirelessly to have that viewpoint accepted by his party and by the wider working-class movement.

This scientific approach of sifting all available evidence and examining it through the prism of dialectical and historical materialism before deciding on a conclusion was a key contributing factor in the Bolsheviks’ stunning successes. Lenin’s approach stands out clearly from that many of the supposedly ‘socialist’ (but really bourgeois-liberal) intellectuals who dominated popular left-wing discourse.

These were of a type we are still all too familiar with today, and just as they did then, many of these liberal intelligentsia continue to describe themselves as Marxists. Unlike real Marxists, however, these individuals start with an ‘idea’ they wish to present as ‘progressive’ (usually something that fits neatly with prevailing bourgeois prejudices and agendas) – and proceed to selectively and eclectically gather ‘evidence’ in support of their preordained conclusion, disregarding anything that does not fit with the chosen narrative.

Not only have the whole of bourgeois academia, polity and media become machines for creating just such ‘narrative-driven’ argumentation, but many in the self-described ‘official’ communist movement have also developed this habit. But no amount of sprinkling the name of Lenin or a few of his phrases, taken out of context and used as Biblical non sequiturs, can transform such spurious argumentation into ‘Leninism’.

All they do is to remind us that our enemies have grasped what too many workers still have not: that Leninism, real Leninism, the science of revolutionary Marxism, holds the keys to success in our struggle for liberation from imperialist and capitalist exploitation.

Only this can explain the great efforts that the ruling classes put into creating a huge variety of fake ‘Marxist’ materials and fake ‘Marxist’ organisations – each aimed at a section of the population that the bourgeoisie recognises as having the potential to make a significant contribution to the struggle for socialism.

Lenin did not only resuscitate and reinvigorate Marxist theory; he also insisted that revolutionaries must translate their theoretical positions into real action. Following the great betrayals of the Second International, Lenin declared that organisations must be judged not only by their grandiose statements, but by the way they translated those declarations into deeds – by the reality of their practice. It was not good enough, he explained, to write articles and sign statements: these words must be turned into real revolutionary action.

Lenin’s insistence on theoretical clarity, and on the unity of theory and practice, on the necessity of having a thoroughly worked out scientific basis for all points of programmatic action, was key to the Bolsheviks’ success in building their party, extending its influence and educating the working class for revolutionary action – and it will be the key to our success in the coming period too.

The unity of the struggle against imperialism

It should never be forgotten that it was Lenin who applied Marxism to the generally ignored question of the colonised peoples in the early twentieth century. During the period of the Second International, the national question had been treated by many Marxists as something that concerned only a few European countries such as Poland, Hungary and Ireland. The huge mass of colonised peoples in Asia, Africa and Latin America remained outside their purview.

Lenin broke down the artificial wall that colonialism had constructed between Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans; between the ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ slaves of imperialism. He thus transformed the national question from being an internal question for a few specific states into a general international one – the question of the liberation of the oppressed peoples in the colonial and dependent countries from the yoke of imperialism through self-determination and complete secession.

With this slogan of self-determination, Leninism educated the masses in the spirit of internationalism. He showed how the two struggles against the same enemy could be practically unified so as to assist and amplify one another. Lenin thus transformed the revolutionary national-liberation movements into a reserve of the revolutionary proletariat.

The Leninist solution, basing itself in the teachings of Marx and Engels, had two distinct sides. On the one hand, it emphasised the importance of the right to secession: the importance of allowing oppressed nations to determine their own future without economic or military coercion – a right that needed to be stressed particularly by the socialists of the imperialist heartlands, who had to work to help the workers overcome their chauvinistic prejudices, instilled by decades of pro-imperialist brainwashing by media, religion, politics and culture.

On the other hand, Lenin emphasised the ultimate aim of socialist unity between the peoples – a unity based on solidarity and cooperation, while respecting and encouraging the dignity and development of different nationalities and ethnic groups, their languages and cultures. This aspect of the question was particularly important for the socialists of the oppressed countries to highlight – to prevent them from falling into narrow nationalism and allowing the masses to become reserves of the national bourgeoisie.

Taking a consistently dialectical and holistic approach, Lenin also pointed out, as Marx and Engels had done before him, that no national movement should place its own right to self-determination higher than the interests of the anti-imperialist and socialist movement as a whole. For Marxists, every individual national struggle must be evaluated in the context of the wider balance of forces and its place in the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism.

Again and again, Lenin, stressed the importance of the practical unity of the struggles of the socialist revolutionaries in the imperialist heartlands and of those struggling for national liberation from those same imperialist powers abroad. And he repeatedly pointed out that this unity does not depend on the existence of proletarian elements in the national-liberation movements concerned, nor on their having a socialist or republican programme.

In our era, said Lenin, the world is divided into two great camps: the camp of a handful of imperialist exploiting and oppressing nations, possessors of finance capital which exploit the majority of the population of the globe; and the camp of the oppressed and exploited billions.

The shared interests of the proletarian movement in the developed countries and the national-liberation movement in the colonies call for a union of these two forms of revolutionary movement in a common front against imperialism – against our common enemy. Without such a front, the victory of either is impossible. During wars of national liberation waged by an oppressed people against an imperialist power, it is the duty of the workers within the oppressing country to work for the defeat of their own ruling class and the victory of the liberation fighters.

As Lenin told the second congress of the Comintern: “The revolutionary movement in the advanced countries would in fact be nothing but a sheer fraud if, in their struggle against capital, the workers of Europe and America were not closely and completely united with the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of ‘colonial’ slaves, who are oppressed by that capital.” (August 1920)

By working out in detail the theoretical formulation and the practical programme that could solve the national question in a scientific and revolutionary way, the demands of the oppressed nations were met in the socialists’ programme and the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Russian empire were merged with the socialist struggle of the Russian proletarians and poor peasantry.

This practical union of struggle created a mighty torrent that was able to sweep away Russian imperialism. And this in turn created the foundation for the building of the great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The collapse of so many formerly harmonious socialist republics into balkanised and fratricidal statelets following the counter-revolutions of 1989-91 clearly revealed the brilliance of the Leninist approach to the national question, which was one of the great drivers of Soviet development. While the Soviet Union existed, national oppression and conflict between peoples was replaced by fraternal cooperation and mutual assistance. And having unleashed the potential of its large population and diverse resources through the tremendous power of the all-Union planned economy, the USSR was able to grow at a pace unprecedented in human history, replacing exploitation and colonial slavery with peace and prosperity for all.

Lenin’s insistence on forging the closest possible unity between proletarians in the imperialist countries and the oppressed and colonised masses in the rest of the world was vital to the successful overthrow of Russian imperialism and vital to the building of a strong and resilient socialist economy – and it will be equally vital in our struggle against the US-led imperialist bloc in the coming period.