To Lih, or not to Lih, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Book Reviews,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
Peter Taaffe has written many great articles. His review of Lars T Lih’s biography of Lenin (Reaktion Books, 2011) isn’t one of them, unfortunately. The review of Lars T Lih’s book tries and succeeds in distorting Lih’s work. Peter has been badly advised attacking this book. In just the second sentence, Peter says Lih changes Lenin into a “woolly liberal”. What does “woolly” mean? The dictionary definition is “lacking sharp detail or clarity”. What does a liberal mean? Its common meaning as defined by the “Urban dictionary” is “Political tendency which, in the European context, sits firmly in the middle of the spectrum, without any strong political ideology.”
So the Lenin presented by Lih is supposed to be a middle of the road political figure whose ideas lack theoretical sharpness. Is there any truth in this? “Liberal”, Lenin’s favourite mode of explanation was, according to Lih, not to confuse but to attack. The Lenin of Lih hated compromise over theoretical matters. He would ruthlessly criticise his political opponents even inside his own Party! To quote from another book of Lars T Lih, ‘Lenin Rediscovered’ (2005): “…Lenin wants to justify breaking the taboo against harsh polemics between Social-Democratic comrades. (Oh yes! Don’t rush to raise a howl against the “un-comrade-like methods” of my polemic.)”
Lih’s works are peppered with references about Lenin the polemicist, not Lenin the liberal. That is one of Lars T Lih’s most important messages. Any deviation from Marxist theory was thoroughly exposed.
According to Peter, Lih writes about Lenin in a “cloudy and abstruse fashion.” Again, this is simply untrue and we wonder if Peter has actually read Lars T Lih at all, or if he has just been provided with a list of isolated quotations? Lih quotes more extensively from Lenin than any other writer. His focus is on accuracy of translation and in making Lenin’s intentions clear, so that he re-translated ‘What is to be Done?’ to give the text more context and clarity. He destroys the impression created by capitalist historians that Lenin was opposed to spontaneous workers’ struggles. Lih’s new translation gives the lie to this gross misrepresentation of ‘What is to be Done?’ by bourgeois historians, and some who claim to be Marxist, that have persisted even in the workers’ movement for generations. The working class is deeply indebted to Lars T Lih for this alone. He has once and for all destroyed the myth that Lenin’s works on Party organisation contain the embryonic seeds of dictatorship. ‘What is to be Done?’ is not, as some say, a founding document of Stalinism. Lih makes it clear that Lenin in no way believed that socialism would be brought from without by a tiny group of elite revolutionaries who would then lead the Soviet Union into dictatorship.
The implication that Lars T Lih’s works are somehow another capitalist hatchet-job of Lenin, albeit of a milder form, along the lines of Orlando Figes or Robert Service, is wide of the mark. How do we know this? Apart from the Lenin (Critical Lives) biography, Lih wrote ‘Lenin Rediscovered’ a reappraisal of early Russian Social Democracy? Written in 2005 Lih’s first sentence tells us “[t]his study was undertaken without any institutional support.” Yes, ‘Institutions’ want to hide the real Lenin! That’s why they won’t support works like this.
Lih is accused of painting Lenin and Stalin with the same brush. Peter says “It is ludicrous to identify the regime founded by Lenin, as Lars does, with that presided over by Stalin, already, ten years after Lenin’s death, one dominated by a privileged bureaucratic elite.” What? To accuse Lih of confusing Lenin with Stalin is quite unbelievable. In fact, Lih does the complete opposite. He maintains that there is absolutely no connection to Stalinism from within Leninism. Lih stresses the fact that Lenin was criticised within the Marxist movement for concentrating too much on political freedom and not enough on workers’ struggles! How on earth can this be interpreted as Lih identifying Leninism with Stalinism? What Lih means by this, and not what Peter says he means are polar opposites. Lih means that the Soviet Union in 1934, although formally the same regime, bore no resemblance at all to the intentions of its founder Lenin! It is shocking to accuse Lih of somehow trying to conflate the two things. Peter must withdraw this assertion. It reflects badly not on Lars T Lih, but on Peter’s excellent reputation.
Even Lih’s historical research is called into question. To attack Lih over his scholarship is a bit like criticising Barcelona FC for playing the long-ball game. I haven’t made the following quote up. It is real and I still have to read it again to believe my own eyes: “There are many misleading, and consequently erroneous, statements like this in the book and it cannot therefore be fully embraced as a correct account of Lenin’s role in history” says Peter. Which misleading and erroneous statements is Peter referring to? Peter does not provide a single example of a misleading statement. This is not to say that every single line of everything that Lars T Lih has ever written on Lenin is beyond criticism. We can, of course, disagree with Lih’s views about Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution. However, to say that Lih distorts Lenin’s ideas is profoundly wrong and displays considerable unfamiliarity of not just Lars T Lih, but with the process of historical research.
Not satisfied with discrediting him as a historian, Peter goes on to present the works of Lars T Lih as having a demoralising effect on the Left in general. After reading his book, instead of inspiring people to wonder at Lenin’s contribution to Marxism, Lih’s works are supposed to do the opposite: “Lars’s ideas have become the current fashion for those who are fleeing from genuine Marxism and the real traditions of Lenin and Trotsky.” I wonder if the people who are fleeing from Marxism are the same ones who have been so dogmatically defending Marx’s Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall? Is reading Marx and Lenin the thing to do when you’re fleeing from Marxism?
Lih also gets it completely wrong on Democratic Centralism, apparently. Peter thinks “[t]his ‘new’ Lenin is almost a ‘liberal’ in his alleged acceptance of open, public, unrestricted discussion in a revolutionary party.” Here is the heart of the argument. When we read what Lenin actually wrote on the subject it is beyond any doubt at all that Lenin was in favour open debate within the Marxist (Social Democratic) movement. Many of Lenin’s polemical targets were members of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP). He reserved most of his attacks for fellow Marxists as there was a tradition of open debate within the Party overall, but also within Bolshevism itself (Bolshevism was seen as the ‘dogmatic’ wing of the RSDLP). In order to explore the content and tone of these amazing debates on Marxist theory, I would recommend that all Marxists read Lars T Lih’s “Lenin Rediscovered” as a starting point. But let’s draw on another source to in support of Lih.
Leon Trotsky in Revolution Betrayed (1936) wrote this about the emergence of Bolshevism and open debate:
“Freedom of criticism and intellectual struggle was an irrevocable content of the party democracy. The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of epoch decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations? The farsightedness of the Bolshevik leadership often made it possible to soften conflicts and shorten the duration of factional struggle, but no more than that. The Central Committee relied upon this seething democratic support. From this it derived the audacity to make decisions and give orders. The obvious correctness of the leadership at all critical stages gave it that high authority which is the priceless moral capital of centralism.”
Seething debates took place even within the faction of Bolshevism- at a time of exile and vicious Tsarist repression! Remember the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks did not separate into Parties until many years after ‘What is to be Done?’ was written.
Peter charges that “Lenin’s famous book, “What is to be Done?” written in 1901, was devoted to the need for a centralised party in Russia. Lars deals, not very adequately, with some parts of the history. He touches on the disagreements over the formulas of Lenin in answer to the ‘Economist school’, who believed in concentrating on the purely day-to-day struggles. Lenin “bent the stick” too far, in his own words, in his description of how socialist consciousness arises in the working-class movement.”
Perhaps Lars T Lih writes “not very adequately” about ‘What is to be Done?’ in his biography because he had already written an 800-page epic on ‘What is to be Done?’, along with an entirely new translation surpassing any other, back in 2005 in the form of ‘Lenin Rediscovered’!.
Peter says “Lenin “bent the stick” too far, in his own words, in his description of how socialist consciousness arises in the working-class movement.”
Lenin never said that he bent the stick too far. Peter doesn’t finish the quotation. Lenin actually said the complete opposite. He said: “…the economists bent the stick in one direction. In order to make the stick straight it was necessary to bend the stick in the other direction and this is what I did. I am sure that Russian Social Democracy will always straighten the stick that is bent by any kind of opportunism, and that our sticks will therefore always be as straight as possible…”
Peter here not only distorts Lih, but Lenin as well. Peter’s view of Lenin bears an unintentional resemblance to the Lenin of Tony Cliff/SWP and their conception of democratic centralism. In Cliff’s sectarian biography of Lenin, Cliff uses the same phrase: “It was the fear of the danger to the movement occasioned by the rise of Russian economism and German revisionism in the second half of 1899 that motivated Lenin to bend the stick right over again, away from the spontaneous day to day fragmented economic struggle and towards the organisation of a national political party.”
It is a good thing that Peter has reviewed the book, since it is possible for fellow Marxists to correct any misconceptions that arise when we study history. This is the Marxist method. This is the method of Lenin. This is the method of historical truth.