You May Call Me A Dreamer: Lenin Against Leninism

4 Nov

Decades ago, I was a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP).  It didn’t last long – primarily because I felt like I was being told how to read books by people who’d read fewer books than I had, and read them less carefully.

Secondary, and related, sources of discontent included: my fast-growing perception that SWP orthodoxy was often precisely the opposite of what a revolutionary strategy would actually demand, the lack of true internal debate, the way that discussion was structured so as to co-opt every ‘socialist’ theorist and reject every ‘non-socialist’ one, the unimaginative and callous way that we focussed on the ‘struggles’ of the unionised  ‘industrial working-class’ whilst habitually failing to notice either that the barmaid clearing up our glasses was doing unpaid overtime – or that we had, if we chose to use them – ways of influencing politicians that went far beyond shouting, waving placards and selling papers.

The party-line justifications for all the points I had problems with seemed, one way or another, to ultimately go back to Lenin.

Amusingly, if I’d looked more carefully at What Is To Be Done? – the work where he lays forth the SWP template of a socialist party as being one that’s based around a newspaper, I’d have found someone who shared some of my concerns.  I’m just going to note two points here.

Here’s the first section that struck me:

“There are rifts and rifts,” wrote Pisarev of the rift between dreams and reality. “My dream may run ahead of a natural march of events or may fly off at a tangent in a direction in which no natural march of events will ever proceed.  In the first case my dream will not cause any harm; it may even support and augment the energy of the working men…  There is nothing in such dreams that would distort or paralyse labour-power.  On the contrary, if man were completely deprived of the ability to dream in this way, if he could not from time to time run ahead and mentally conceive, in an entire and completed picture, the product to which his hands are only just beginning to lend shape, then I cannot imagine what stimulus there would be to induce man to undertake and complete extensive and strenuous work in the sphere of art, science and practical endeavour…  The rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in his dream, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with his castles in the air, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievement of his fantasies.  If there is some connection between dreams and life then all is well.”

Of this kind of dreaming there is unfortunately too little in our movement.  And the people most responsible for this are those who boast of their sober views, their “closeness” to the “concrete”…

Not a million miles away from “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”.

The second point I want to draw attention to in reaction to rereading What Is To Be Done? is the way that Lenin is extremely specific that a national newspaper for the socialist movement is something that is appropriate for the situation as it was in the Russia of his time.  Not for Germany, where socialist organisation demanded a different organisational shape.  Not for “England”, despite how much he despised the kind of trade union consciousness he identifies with the Webbs and their Fabian allies.  No. The point of organising around a socialist national paper in the vastness of the autocratic Russian empire was that local study groups and agitators might get shut down by the political police, but that the effort to produce a national organ would ensure fresh contacts being made by newly-emerging groups.

He makes no effort – in this work – to specify how other countries might organise, or to the kind of organisation demanded in other political systems.  However, if you were to follow the logic he employs here, other ways of organising would follow for those living under other political systems.

The true Leninist – awkwardly either for the SWP’s fetish for selling papers or their continued espousal of Lenin, or perhaps both  – would not base their activism on selling papers.

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