Ammar Ali Jan and Zahid Ali
The untimely crisis of COVID-19 has melted away political, theoretical and ideological certainties held by many. Its sudden eruption has punctured a hole in existing knowledge revealing the vulnerable void upon which social, economic and political life is built. At a moment in which the coordinates of life itself are disrupted, how do we posit the relevance of Lenin, a political leader often accused of being the architect of a rigid model of politics exercised through the all-knowing vanguard party?
We argue that beyond this depiction of “Lenin the bureaucrat”, by both Leftist admirers and conservative critics, there exists an alternative trajectory present in the thinking of the Soviet leader. This subterranean Lenin is one who is open to acknowledging the contingency of events, confronting disruptions caused by crisis and willing to learn from the heroic initiatives of ordinary people. Through this theoretical openness, Lenin challenged exhausted categories, reposing the political questions of his time beyond the existing limits of theory. We argue that Lenin’s theoretical approach was not a closed system but rather what we can call an open Marxism. He called it a guide to action.
Due to his serious engagement with the dialectical tradition of Hegel and Marx, Lenin emphasised that reality is always much more intricate, lively, and multicolored than theory can ever be, and that theory must continually be developed and transformed through experience and engagement with real political struggles of the masses. We believe a re-reading of Lenin through this lens is crucial if we are to build a socialist politics adequate to our uncertain times.
Lenin’s Break from Orthodox Marxism
Many commentators on Lenin’s thought emphasise how Lenin saw the vanguard party as the site par excellence for political thinking. This stems from a specific reading of his famous work What is to be Done? that views party cadres as essential in bringing political consciousness to the working class. The notion applied a rigid bifurcation between theory and practice, where theoretical ideas appeared from outside the unfolding class struggle rather than being immanent to it.
It is important to note that Lenin’s thought took a major leap in 1914. The beginning of the First World War shattered Western mythology of linear progress that had sustained both liberal and Marxist thought. The horrific violence of the war buried the certainties of orthodox Marxist thinking, revealing the contingent and untimely nature of political events. It is at this juncture that Lenin became interested in Hegel’s dialectics, making detailed notes from Hegel’s Science of Logic to comprehend the crisis of theory in the midst of the Great War. His primary break from conventional Marxism began to appear in this period as he moved away from linear notions of time and began paying more attention to the contradictory rhythm of revolutionary politics, with its unexpected initiatives, traumatic reversals and novel possibilities.
This interest in grasping the contradictions of the actual unfolding political movements made Lenin less interested in the rigidity of the party and the program. He was now more interested in the new creative energy of workers who demonstrated their capacity to take initiatives in the form of organised Soviets that emerged in the middle of the war. After observing the appearance of the Soviets, Lenin came to the conclusion that a new possibility in politics had opened up and, therefore, argued that the current form of the Bolshevik Party will become obsolete if it doesn’t transform itself in sync with the rhythm of the growing workers movement.
This meant that the workers of Russia had demonstrated their capacity to win power and reorganise society through self-mobilisation, making bourgeois democrats and liberals redundant in the struggle for socialism. In that sense, Lenin recognised that practice alone should not have the burden of becoming adequate to theory but theory itself had to be transformed to become adequate to the questions emanating from the terrain of concrete struggles.
Lenin developed his notion of socialism alongside the formation of the Soviets, demonstrating workers’ power—a force repressed by the logic of capital. Soviets represented the creative initiatives and vital energy of the workers. This capacity of the masses for self-determination and for reorganising the world freed from the tyranny of capital is what socialism was for Lenin. Some of his most popular writings during this period attempted to synthesise the lessons of the upheavals caused by the workers movement and to relate them to the crisis of state power and volatility of the global conjuncture.
This is why Lenin did not keep his theory in his books or to himself but used it as political interventions to deepen debate within the actual social struggles. The Threatening Catastrophe, Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?, State and Revolution and other writings offer concrete explanations of strategic possibilities for socialist politics in the political conjuncture.. He was convinced that all ideas must be submitted to discussions with organised workers who were laying the seeds for a new world. Today our task is similar to that of Lenin as we intimately attach ourselves with the creative initiatives and new energies of workers that are developing amidst the COVID-19 crisis. It is from the vantage point of existing struggles alone that we will be able to develop a notion of socialism adequate to our concrete reality.
Lenin after the Revolution
The tragedy of the Russian Revolution is that the flexibility in thought and practice displayed by Lenin after the revolution was replaced by the dogma of the party. Raya Dunyevskaya pointed out in her book, Philosophy and Revolution, that “never, for a single moment, did Lenin ever lose sight of the program. He made strategic concessions, but he kept the program, the new Universal, concretely before the people.”
For example, in his pamphlet “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government”, Lenin defines the tasks of the workers as the creation of new “subtle and intricate” relations of labor. Without the creative power of the workers, there would be no socialist revolution. That is how Lenin saw the task of the government, to conjure, to draw out this creative power, to clear out of its way the leftovers of the old bourgeois ideology, including its institutions and social practices. Speaking at the Fourth Conference of Trade Unions in 1920, Lenin articulated the crisis of the Soviet state with his usual precision, stating “The workers as workers must in their unions protect themselves, their economic and cultural interests, against the workers acting in their party as rulers of the state.” Lenin here identifies a tension between workers embedded in the state apparatus and workers involved in the politics of the workplace—a productive, dialectical tension that undermines the later Stalinist emphasis on absolute loyalty to the Socialist State and the party.
More importantly, by insisting that workers should organise independently, Lenin was emphasising the capacity of subaltern groups to organise themselves as a ruling bloc. It is pertinent to note that Lenin was writing in a country that was still largely agrarian and needed an alliance of different marginalised social groups to build an alternative political project. This meant that the revolution could not follow an already defined path and had to be seen as an experiment in popular participation rather than as an application of an already existing theory.
In his essay “On Cooperation”, for example, he engaged with the problem of party bureaucracy and warned that governance without mass participation is antithetical to socialism. He said,
We should cover Russia, specifically the peasant Russia with a network of peasant cooperatives. The peasants are not active, they are not administering the state, and they are not administering the economy. We have to devise ways and means of making them administer. Cooperation is the way. We are backward, we have not enough culture to make the state of State and Revolution, but if we can get this nationwide co-operative system among the peasants, this would be socialism, as far as we can get.
In other words, only the involvement of working masses in administration could up the possibility of a different order—a theory that nullifies the rigid belief in industrial production as the only hallmark of progress.
COVID-19, Pakistan and the Relevance of Lenin
Lenin’s confrontation with linear notions of time and his insistent on practice to mediate the gap between theory and reality made him an important interlocutor for revolutionary movements in the Global South. . His name became synonymous with the de-centering of the revolutionary movement from Europe as anti-colonial fighters took their inspiration from the Soviet Union’s adversarial position towards colonialism. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lenin’s writings in places like Pakistan rivaled those of Marx in terms of popularity, making Lenin a major mediator between Marxist theory and anti-colonial struggles.
Yet, the Lenin that is popular in Pakistan is a particular kind of Lenin who had already figured out the theory and laws of revolution for the entire world. In this simplistic analysis, the vanguard party is the arbitrator in the revolutionary movement and has the final decision-making power on essential questions of the class struggle. Moreover, it appears as if the categories constructed by Lenin were not limited to the time space in which he conducted his struggle, but were abstract concepts that could be fitted into any external situation. Thus, many of our comrades stick to Lenin’s conclusions which appear rigid, while jettisoning his method that privileges the contingency of social struggles over existing political theory.
In other words, today in Pakistan we are faced with a complex political terrain that demands that we innovate in practice. For example, we are experiencing a loss of deeply held certainties on the political stage. There is no political party that proposes a significantly different vision of development other than the one proposed by International Financial Institutions. The situation became more precarious under COVID-19 as millions of people have been rendered jobless, their worth reduced to the machines that have become redundant during the crisis. What are we witnessing is the disposability of lives that appear superfluous from the point of view of capital.
With the collapse of linear notions of development, the central question for the ruling class is how to manage the poor rather than empowering them. This means that we need a more expansive understanding of political subjectivity in Pakistan to build a genuinely popular alternative.
For example, the existing politics of trade unions is hopelessly inadequate at a time when neoliberalism has eroded the concept of long-term employment and has transformed a vast majority of the workforce into informal labour or unemployed. As trade unions only continue to cater to the salaried classes, union membership has dropped to below one percent of the workforce. The situation requires annulling the gap between contract and salaried workers, as well as between the growing number of unemployed youth.
This is precisely what Lenin meant when he pushed his comrades to move beyond trade unionism or the immediate battle at the work place. Unless one takes into account both production and reproduction (the latter involving housing, health care, education, water), we will not be able to build working class unity that can seriously confront the myriad ways in which capital seeks to divide the people. We need to build workers committees who not only agitate on the factory floor but link these struggles with those in the communities where a large number of unemployed youth reside.
Moreover, new forms of resistance have emerged against Pakistan’s decadent state structure that excludes large sections of the population from the ambit of citizenship. One example is the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) which represents Pashtuns from the war-torn areas of ex-FATA. The region was reduced to mere cannon fodder for the state and imperialism’s geo-strategic calculus. It is in the context of a war economy and brutal repression of communities in Pakistan’s peripheral regions that a movement such as PTM, which asserts the dignity of the people, can gain so much popularity. The state has responded by accusing such movements of being foreign conspiracies, since they exceed the normative language that the state uses to designate acceptable behaviour. This is why grassroots activists such as Baba Jan from Gilgit-Baltistan, Mehr Abul Sattar from Okara Military Farms and a host of abducted activists from Sindh and Balochistan appear as a major threat to the state. They all insist on asserting their equal status by demanding justice, and thus exceed the violently patrolled boundaries of acceptable speech and behaviour in Pakistan.
We are also witnessing the emergence of a powerful movement for women’s emancipation that is challenging the patriarchal structures of society. Hundreds of young women have mobilised under the banners of Aurat March and Aurat Azadi March, putting women’s rights on the national agenda. Similarly, last year saw the emergence of a new consciousness on the climate crisis among the youth of the country. The Climate March in September last year saw hundreds of young people pour out into the streets of dozens of cities in Pakistan to protest our disastrous economic model that not only diminishes the dignity of labour but is annihilating the environment on which we depend.
Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, many orthodox Marxists view these movements with suspicion as they do not follow the trajectory of class dualism. Yet they shed light on the disparate forms of oppression that are essential to peripheral capitalism and also point out the absences within the Left, particularly on the role of women in any emancipatory struggle.
It is precisely here that the repressed side of Lenin discussed at the beginning of the article is so crucial to unearth. Lenin is not a thinker who imagines class struggle to be a neat and clear antagonism between workers on the one hand and the bourgeoisie on the other. Instead, he recognises the historically-sedimented differences that are used by the state to cement its power, a fact that shapes the terrain of the class struggle in each specific context. As Mathieu Regnault has argued, Lenin is a thinker of combinations of struggles that can help produce an alternative politics that could not only confront the hegemony of capital over people’s lives, but also undermine the power of the state that uses coercion to separate people from each other.
The point is made clearer in the following quote by Lenin on the impurity of the revolution.
To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism,” and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism,” and that will be a social revolution! … Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.
This is the side of Lenin who is looking for strategic alliances, weakest links and is not afraid of appearing “impure” in order to advance the struggle of the oppressed. If the Left has to move towards a winnable strategy, we must play the role of building bridges between different indices of pain and combining them to produce a common project. In Pakistan, this means bringing together the politics of oppressed nationalities, unemployed and precarious youth, women and the climate justice movement with that of traditional unions to create a new political subject adequate to the questions of our time.
We must acknowledge that currently the Left in Pakistan does not have the form that can weld together these different struggles. But if we learn from the Lenin who privileged practical innovation over theoretical fidelity, we will be able to open up space to develop a new hypothesis for the Left. Our task here is less of an attachment to scientific “laws of revolution” allegedly discovered by orthodox Marxists and implemented by the party. Instead, we must create a new conceptual vocabulary for understanding the present moment and imagining novel horizons for our practice. The challenges of today’s revolutionary politics force us to think as artists involved in building new constellations of love and solidarity. As a profound thinker of excessive contingency and unexpected encounters, Lenin is a major interlocutor for us in our efforts to build a new revolutionary practice in Pakistan.
Ammar Ali Jan is a historian, teacher and member of Haqooq e Khalq Movement.
Zahid Ali is a member of the Haqooq e Khalq Movement and currently working as research assistant at LUMS.