The Most Advanced Ideas? Some Reflections on Contemporary Leninism
Paul LeBlanc’s speech at the Dangerous Ideas Festival last weekend raised a number of interesting questions about Leninism, organisation, and what it means to talk about a revolutionary vanguard in contemporary society. This is an attempt to think through some aspects of these questions in light of LeBlanc’s comments and the left’s current predicament.
A central concern of Leninism is the relationship between those who are ‘revolutionaries’ and those who are not. Consider a sentence like the following: “A great strength of Leninism, as we understand it, is its capacity to respond to the challenge of unevenness within the working class by grouping together those workers with the most advanced ideas and arming them to intervene among wider layers within the class.” I have taken this from a specific place, but it is a fairly common formulation. The devil, with this sentence, is in the detail, in particular with the words ‘the most advanced ideas’.
What are the most advanced ideas?
Let me start with something uncontroversial. Some of us have reached the conclusion that an alternative to capitalism is both necessary and possible, and that it will not come about through piecemeal reforms. It makes sense that we organise together to try to convince others of our ideas. What’s more, we believe that such a revolution requires “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”. So not only do we have to convince others of our ideas, we have to convince them to become active and confident in asserting their own interests as part of a project of collective liberation. All the more reason, surely, for us to be organised. This is one sense in which we might say our ideas are the most advanced – we have reached conclusions that we believe that everyone else must at some stage reach.
A different sense in which our ideas might be most advanced is in theory. We believe (or at least I do) that Marxism offers a framework in which to understand the operations of the capitalist system, make general claims about its strengths and weaknesses, and identify the points at which it might begin to fracture. When our theory is good it can help us understand the dynamics of the system in order to know where to focus our energies, to anticipate and respond to events. Sometimes we can make predictions, and sometimes they work out the way we say (though the old joke that Trotskyists have predicted 7 out of the last 3 recessions comes to mind here – has anyone ever really drawn up a balance sheet?). These kinds of ideas are important, they inform practice, and are tested in confrontation with reality. Having the right theory matters – and in that sense perhaps these can be described as the most advanced ideas.
Finally, there is what might be called, for want of a better word, practical consciousness. This is the kind of knowledge that does not precede practice, but proceeds from it. It is the kind of consciousness acquired by being at the sharpest end of the struggle against the existing system, and especially by scoring victories in that struggle. Consider the following quotation from a slightly unusual source, the Aristotelian philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre poses the question of how someone becomes a revolutionary:
Only, I believe, by the experience of concurrently trying to make and remake the badly needed institutions of everyday life through grass-roots organisation, trade unions, cooperatives, small businesses that serve neighbourhood needs, schools, clinics, transport systems and the like, so that they may serve the common good, and,by doing so, learning that only by breaking with the political norms of the status quo can the relevant common goods be achieved. [T]hose who engage in such making and remaking will encounter that resistance to any breach of those norms which is the characteristic response of the established order. It is that resistance that makes revolutionaries.
Something like this kind of consciousness is what Lenin describes in the passages from Left-Wing Communism on which LeBlanc focuses, in which he talks about the revolutionary party depending upon “the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and its devotion to the revolution, its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism.” It is also, I think, what Marx means by the kind of consciousness, which is formed through revolutionary practice, in which the working-class can “succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”. This kind of consciousness, too, can be described as involving ‘the most advanced ideas’.
It seems to me that one of the greatest risks of contemporary Leninism is to confuse these three senses of ‘advanced ideas’, and in particular to think that the first two are sufficient for the third. To declare oneself a revolutionary is not meaningless; but we should not fall into the trap of thinking that doing so grants us automatic access to the kind of ideas which can only be formed through struggle. Correct theory is essential, but it is not the same as practical consciousness, even though they ought to be able to both inform and learn from one another. To forget this risks elevating an abstract commitment to revolution or a particular theoretical position to a prerequisite of leadership, and to risk ending up, as Lenin puts it, “in phrasemongering and clowning”.
In fact, we can go further. Not only are the first two not sufficient for the third, they may not even be necessary. To be the most ‘advanced’ in terms of a class-consciousness formed through struggle may not involve a formal, explicit commitment to revolution. Marxists have always been alive to the ways in which the revolutionary content of events can exceed their apparently reformist form, even despite the explicit commitments of their participants. The most revolutionary elements may not be those who declare themselves to be revolutionaries.
This is important because, given the state of the left in Britain (and in much of the world), this revolutionary vanguard is unlikely to find itself within any particular organisation. Lenin talks about how the conditions for discipline in a revolutionary party “are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory, which, in its turn, is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.” In Britain what we in fact have is a number of relatively small ‘revolutionary’ groups - some growing, some shrinking – capable of pulling of impressive initiatives but with a relatively weak implantation in the kinds of locations in which a vanguard might emerge. We should avoid the trap of thinking that the vanguard is necessarily to be found in an area where one group or another happens, for historical reasons, to have a lot of members. We have a job on our hands to create the conditions which Lenin describes as necessary for a genuine revolutionary party: To identify the kinds of conditions in which a class conscious vanguard might emerge, to work with the widest layers of people, and to develop the kind of strategy and tactics that can create real victories. No organisation on the British left can short-cut this and declare itself to be that revolutionary party without, to be blunt, looking a bit silly.
Le Blanc offers a perfectly fine starting point for this process, which I will end by endorsing: “I think it is important for our different groups of the socialist left not to rush into hothouse efforts to forge some premature organisational unity. Instead we should focus on working together in real, practical struggles, with an eye towards possible unity, but with a focus on the actual struggles. Those struggles are the necessary, transformative precondition for possible unity. The only fruitful unity will come on the basis of joint action in such real, practical struggles.”
It would be wrong to prejudge the struggles in which a genuine revolutionary vanguard might emerge. Nonetheless, we are faced in Britain with an attempt to reconfigure the public sector which creates the need for urgent defensive struggles, but also forces us to ask big political questions: What should our public services look like? What is education for? What is ‘the public’ and why should we defend it? Who knows best what working-class communities need? These are questions not just for the workers whose pensions and jobs are at stake, but for entire communities. Being part of and advancing a nationally co-ordinated but locally rooted movement that can both ask and start to practically answer those questions is a pretty good starting point.