Dear reader of this occasionally updated blog: I apologize for the inconsistency, but with another round of intense labour in my life, there simply hasn’t been sufficient time to read and (more importantly) analyze the width and breadth of radical publishing. Furthermore, as the world continues its atavistic backslide into law-of-the-jungle primitivism, with the sheer amount of bodies piling up in the US, with the anarchy in the UK regarding Brexit, with Ramadan murders becoming part of the religious ritual, the idea of maintaining a book review site isn’t very inspirational.
On the other hand, this is a radical journal of writing, and as such it will aid and prop up radical, progressive sentiment, especially at the cultural level. This may not be as important as mass strikes and hardcore demos, but it’s a part of that picture.
Now we can flash back a century or more.
Tony Cliff was one of a myriad of dissenters within the official Marxist universe, a universe that had undergone Stalinism and his particular bloody regime in Cliff’s recent past. Cliff was a Trotskyist deviant in the eyes of orthodox Marxism, and not only was he not welcome amongst various Moscow-run parties throughout the world, he was also expelled from the official inheritors of Trotsky, namely the Fourth International. He helped found the Socialist Workers Party in the UK, and continued his heterogeneous, off-beat Marxism until the day he died.
Cliff was as much a furious writer as he was an organizer (and we’ll see some similarities below), and he produced a wide range of work that covered the now-reactionary Russian state, workers rights on a global scale, and most importantly, history. Cliff wrote mammoth, multi volume tomes that dealt with the lives of Lenin, Trotsky and other early Bolsheviks, as well as savage attacks of the recently passed Stalinist era.
Lenin was intended to cover every trace of a revolutionary mastermind over the course of 3-4 volumes, but interestingly the volumes delved deep into the thought process of Lenin as much as it dealt with elements of his actual life. This is an intellectual history, a history which needless to say deals with concrete elements of existence and how they affected Lenin’s thought process, as well as the manner in which Lenin and the Bolsheviks tactically responded to wild changes in circumstance. The emphasis remains focused on Lenin’s thoughts, tactics, philosophy and actions which he utilized at various points.
Vol. 2 deals with building the Bolshevik party, from roughly the late 1800s until 1914 (further discussion of the war, the 1917 revolutions and Lenin’s place in the latter’s landscape are saved for future volumes). This was the formative period of not only Bolshevism, but radical mass movements in Russia altogether. The events that marked this 14 year period included the emergence of the nascent proletariat, the beginning of the shift in attitudes amongst the peasantry; as Lenin was shaped by concrete events on the ground (rather than abstract theory), all of these events influenced Lenin’s tactics and mindset.
The writing follows Little Lenin from association with a small handful of socialists at the turn of the century, through the aborted 1905 revolution, and finally his organizational skills into transforming the Bolshevik into a mass organization that happened to be linked to rest of the workers in the last dying days of Tsardom.
Recently, there has been talk amongst activists of reviving Leninism as a method that remains highly applicable in our current period; Lenin Vol.2 was one of the works mentioned and recommended by a fairly wide variety of Marxists, who are keen on rescuing Lenin from not only the garbage can of history, but from sterile hero worship or even worse, retrograde communism. This is understandable, and Cliff certainly attempts to provide the contextual nature of Lenin’s tactical attitude, as well as offering a wide range of ideas that remain applicable today, in the modern progressive movements of our own age.
The problem, however, is that Cliff follows suit and once again created a fairly fawning, uncritical presentation of the Father of the Revolution. Lenin can do no wrong in these pages, and every single instance in which missteps were made are explained away, creating an almost mythic figure of unassailable abilities.
This runs counter to one of the basic tactical elements of Lenin himself; he was able to self-correct and bend one or another to deal with actual pressing concerns in a wide range of contexts. History and human behavior are fluid, accidents can happen, and Lenin was not a fortune teller. Lenin was able to learn from his mistakes, and learn from the present, current context and act accordingly. However, Cliff’s treatment of the man made him almost inhuman and almost incapable of making bad choices.
Leninism is itself a strange concept in that Lenin was able to move with the times, and while he had a definite end goal, he was also capable of bending in different situations in order to better drive his goals forward, no matter what (with the primary consisting of a successful Marxist revolution) . The idea of creating some kind of unchanging, platonic model of LENINISM that is not prone to change (and in which Lenin’s theory becomes absolute) is the last thing that Lenin would do. The very idea of having static, unwavering ideals that are not willing/able to change with the times is anathema to what Lenin actually did and said during his lifetime.
If nothing else, Vol. 2 presents aspects of Lenin that should draw readers’ attention; these include Lenin’s ability to have a “standpoint” and long term goals to meet, while also being flexible enough to change focus is one of those elements. Further, Lenin’s decisiveness is also quite noteworthy; after gathering information and attempting bring mass actions to the fore, Lenin would act without hesitation. If something unforeseen occurs, it will be dealt with as it comes up, as it pertains to mass action. But the resolve to make bold decisions is a clearly positive element of “Leninism” that can be applied in other instances, and is worth examination.
Lenin Vol 2: Building the Party remains a sought after object, and rightfully so. The volume is almost a handbook of how to deal with the real problems that come with building a party; it also acts as one of the better interpretations of Lenin’s thought process which also bear investigation and reading. Intellectual history, the history of thought itself, is a fascinating subject, and should be explored more often (although I can hear Lenin doing cartwheels in his grave at the mention of he word “intellectual”). A little less hero worship would be greatly appreciated however. Masses make the revolution, not Big Men, and Lenin was keenly aware of that fact.