Election Year with Lenin
In an election year like 2024, the 20th century Bolshevik revolutionary holds more insights for us today than one would expect.
“What do you mean by patience?” the Russian revolutionary Nadezhda Krupskaya countered a question posed by a fellow Bolshevik, Nikolai Valentinov. “If you mean determination, persistence, and perseverance, then obviously [Lenin] has these qualities in greater measure than anyone else.” Krupskaya knew perhaps better than anyone, she was Lenin’s wife, that the revolutionary leader was not patient in a “petty-bourgeois” sense. When Lenin learned new languages, for example, becoming fluent in French, German, and to such a degree in English that when Bertrand Russell interviewed him, he was surprised when the entire conversation naturally flowed in Russell’s native English tongue, Lenin would obsessively tear through dictionaries and grammar books until the job of mastering a new linguistic nomenclature was complete. Whether it be with ice skating, a hobby which he mastered during his exile in Siberia, or chess, an obsession that gripped him even in his dreams—Krupskaya once recalled hearing him call out in his sleep, “If he moves his knight here, I’ll counter with my castle,”—Lenin was always throwing himself exhaustively and without hesitation into his activities. Patience, in the bourgeois sense, had little meaning in a life constantly in motion and this is why Krupskaya rejected the term and preferred to characterize Lenin aptly as a “strong-willed man.”
One hundred years after the death of Lenin, the question of patience is once again looming over the world. We still live in the age of imperialism, the term Lenin used to describe the stage of capitalism in which capitalist countries fight for inches of territory in a world already divided up among capitalist nations. There’s also today the added time-sensitivity of climate change, genocide in Palestine, and the looming threat of fascism in the West. None of these existential crises will be solved in the next election cycle and, despite spontaneous mass protest against each issue and a growing labor movement, there is a sweeping sense of political defeat and cynicism spreading. Many on “the left” today might have some assumptions on how a strong-willed revolutionary like Lenin would react to said events. They might assume that he’d advocate for Americans to pick up arms to overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat today, to bring about the necessary changes to fix these problems overnight. They might shift between revolutionary vocabulary on the one hand and cynicism in the face of such a dreadful future. Those on the left could learn from Krupskaya who understood the difference between impatience and strong-willedness, between unguided spontaneity and strategic struggle. Central to Lenin’s theories was the concept of addressing conditions as they are, not how one wishes them to be. And so electoralism, that evil system understandably detested by radicals, was a recurring theme throughout his work. As so many Americans are finally waking up to the limitations of America’s two-party liberalism, Marxists should return to Lenin for insight on how to confront our dire political situation.
“The Least Worst” and the Myth of Later Lenin
Liberal democracy is expectedly dreary to America’s population, at least a third of whom don’t vote in elections. Few see any differences between the Democrats and Republicans except for vocabulary—Democrats make sure that their imperialist policies are LGBTQ inclusive while Republicans want them purged from the ranks of the military (it should be noted that there is a clear difference here, more than just vocabulary, but nonetheless climate change and other issues continue to go unaddressed). The British critic Mark Fisher once wrote an essay titled “Don’t Vote, Don’t Encourage Them,” echoing what his fellow Brit Russell Brand was communicating at the time in the early 2000s: “Choosing “the least worst” is not making this particular choice, it is also choosing a system which forces you to accept the least worst as the best you can hope for.” In other words, Fisher argued that voting, when there is little difference between the two parties running, is inherently an endorsement of a “corrupt and unjust” system itself. Today in America, few want a sequel to 2020’s “lesser of two evils” election of Joe Biden, especially as he continues to fuel Israel’s genocide of Palestinians. Fisher’s thesis, however, is largely accepted as the Marxist line on electoralism by many on “the left” in the US.
But recognizing that bourgeois democracy is really a one-party system, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, is only the beginning of understanding how to make change. It’s not enough to know that liberal democracy is a sham. It’s also not enough to disengage from said liberal democracy once you understand that it’s a sham. Nobody understood this better than Lenin who wrote in State and Revolution that “we can and must imagine democracy without parliamentarianism,” to go further than Fisher’s cynicism. But neither Marx nor Lenin were utopians. They did not believe that you could just overthrow parliamentarianism overnight, a reality that Lenin faced as a member of Russia’s parliament. He understood that a new system had to be built on top of the old. “We, the workers,” Lenin wrote, “shall organize large-scale production on the basis of what capitalism has already created [emphasis added]…” This was his main qualm with anarchists at the time who called for the immediate abolition of the state apparatus with no compromise or strategic steps to get there and would’ve likely been his qualm with Marxist thinkers like Fisher.
In a famous lecture by Noam Chomsky, the academic argued that Lenin was a “right-wing deviation” of the socialist movement and, at the same time, that his politics in the leadup to the revolution were just opportunistically going with the flow of “libertarian socialism.” He remarked that after the revolution, Lenin swiftly switched gears and resorted to “authoritarianism.” The same argument is employed to discount Marx who, with equal accusations of opportunism, is often described as humanist in his “early” works and an authoritarian automaton in his “later” works. A similar accusation is thrown at most successful socialist revolutions—that they were genuinely socialist for around thirty seconds, but then they canceled out their socialism and just become authoritarian. Upon closer examination, however, these claims fall apart. In Lenin’s “later” works, like one titled “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, published after the revolution in 1920, the apparent rabid authoritarian Communist advocates for a dictatorial cause that would make Chomsky shudder: to engage in electoral struggle. “Parliamentarianism has become “historically obsolete,”” Lenin wrote, “but everyone knows that this is still a long way from overcoming it practically.” Although it might be apparent to some on the left that parliament/congress is simply an instrument for capitalists, that doesn’t mean that we can afford to ignore it or only speak of abolishing it. Here’s the “late,” supposedly authoritarian Lenin in the section of “Left-Wing” Communism titled Should we Participate in Bourgeois Parliaments?:
Criticism—the keenest, most ruthless and uncompromising criticism—must be directed, not against parliamentarianism or parliamentary activities, but against those leaders who are unable—and still more against those who are unwilling—to utilisee parliamentary elections and the parliamentary tribune in a revolutionary, Communist manner.
Here, it’s clear that Chomsky’s political idealism (always advocating for the revolutionaries who never actually get to the revolution) and simplification of Lenin into “early libertarian Lenin” vs “later authoritarian Lenin” overlooks the revolutionary’s practical methodologies. Michael Parenti mocked Chomsky’s characterization of “power-hungry Leninists, villains seeking not the revolutionary means to fight injustice but power for power’s sake.” Parenti dismissed the false early vs later Marx dichotomy as an “artificial counterposing” that “transforms a relatively minor development in Marx’s work into a chasm between two ways of thinking that have little in common,” and saw Chomsky and other leftist writers in the US essentially as post-Red Scare Marxists, that is, their “intent was, and still is, to distance themselves from the Marxist-Leninist Left.”
Revolutionaries in Counter-Revolutionary Parliaments
Lenin’s practical politics and theories exposes a split in “Marxist” thought. The main difference between those who call themselves “Marxists” and those who are organizers in, or aligned with, their country’s Marxist-Leninist (Communist) party is the theory of practicality and engaging with capitalism where it is, not where we want it to be. The “most dangerous threat revolutionaries can make,” Lenin argued in “Left-Wing” Communism, is mistaking “their desire, their ideological-political attitude, for actual fact.” It would be utopian to look at our current situation and say “don’t engage with elections or capitalism,” to encourage those on the left to isolate themselves. This attitude, one that might nonetheless benefit your mental health, only enables those in power to carry on without resistance (since you’re living off the grid in an anarcho-libertarian-commune instead of radicalizing your local union, running to oust your reactionary state representative, or engaging in the struggle in its varying forms).
To circle back to Fisher, boycotting an election simply because liberal democracy is liberal democracy is not an effective way to look at electoralism as a form of struggle under capitalism. What would Lenin say to the late Mark Fisher? Well, he not only addressed this question in “Left-Wing” Communism, but he lived it when building political power within Tsarist Russia. He detested leftists who had “naively mistaken the subjective “rejection” of a certain reactionary institution for its actual destruction,” seemingly a direct response to Fisher’s essay written almost a hundred years later. “[T]he Bolsheviks did not boycott the Constituent Assembly, but took part in the elections both before and after the proletariat conquered political power,” Lenin reflected. He was adamant about participating in reactionary institutions that fueled society, but not without a long-term strategy in mind:
We Bolsheviks participated in the most counter-revolutionary parliaments, and experience has shown that such participation was not only useful but essential for the party of the revolutionary proletariat precisely after the first bourgeois revolution in Russia (1905), for the purpose of preparing the way for the second bourgeois revolution (February 1917), and then for the Socialist revolution (October 1917).
Lenin, the Patient
Reading Lenin in an election year brings a nuance to conversation about the current state of America. It’s a country with a current president that is committing war crimes overseas and a prospective president who might abolish elections—and also commit war crimes overseas. Lenin’s advice might seem far-fetched for a political landscape that has outlawed the Communist Party and made it virtually impossible for Communists to run openly for office, but to take our reality for what it is and not for what we’d like it to be poses a solution that is not easy or glamorous: to see elections as something practical.
In the case of a reactionary right-wing state as our own, this means taking the steps towards making it possible to wage a political struggle, to take that 20 minutes to go vote for the candidates who won’t put you in concentration camps (as the GOP has called to do to Marxists), to spend the rest of the 99.9% of the year waging a lengthy struggle one ugly step at a time (some within corrupt and reactionary institutions), to combine legal and illegal methods of struggle. Engaging in liberal institutions might not be glamorous, but neither was engaging in the daily theater of a Tsarist parliament. Compromises are essential in earning victories in a reactionary capitalist country, so essential, in fact, that Lenin had an entire section on compromises in “Left-Wing” Communism to take on the issue.
Lenin, who Langston Hughes called a “red star”, was a revolutionary realist. His theories were not just theories, they were tried out in reality. This is why Marxism-Leninism is referred to as a science. Hypotheses are tested and proven or disproven and changed accordingly. Policies and methods are changed based on results or a lack thereof. And while decades of struggle in America might feel like they’ve amounted to very little in the wake of ongoing neoliberalism, it’s important to remember the inspiring words of a, dare I say, patient Lenin:
It is far more difficult—and far more useful—to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to defend the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organisation) in non-revolutionary bodies and even in downright reactionary bodies, in non-revolutionary circumstances, among the masses who are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for methods of action.
In 2024, “the left” would do good to take the Leninist route of seeking to be, as Krupskaya put it, “strong-willed.” Just as fiercely as he learned languages, Lenin implemented literacy programs that raised literacy rates to 86 percent for men and 65 percent for women. And just as fiercely we should fight through the unromantic daily efforts, zigzags, legal, and illegal actions in the brutal reality that we live within, not an idealistic fantasy or one that we “reject” because it is reactionary.