Stick bending and the infallible Lenin


The phrase, bending the stick, is often used to describe Lenin‘s organisational method.  Lenin bent the stick or used exaggeration in order to grab attention. The single-minded focus on what really mattered. For many Leninist’s, he might have bent the stick too far in some circumstances, but he always bent it back or corrected his mistake in the long run. This was the infallible Lenin who embodied the actuality of the revolution. Even so, a twisted stick can distort reality. Also, the bent stick analogy is also used to suggest continuity where inconsistency exists.

Lenin’s polemic against the so-called Economists in What is to be Done (WITBD) resulted in a concept of the relationship between organisation and class which bent  Marxist theory. According to Lenin: “the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts is able to develop only trade-union consciousness.” Therefore, “there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the workers themselves. Socialist consciousness is introduced into the proletarian struggle from without.” [1]   This was, as Trotsky stated at the time absurd. The historical  facts are that  the mass strikes of the Russian workers from 1896 to 1905 confirmed workers spontaneously went beyond trade union consciousness, as they did in the earlier Chartist movement in Britain.

Lenin’s formulations were an aspect of his political imagination. Lenin exaggerated the influence of Economism and saw Economism  where it did not exist. The reality was that Akimov and his Rebochee Dyelo comrades were not economists. In  words and deeds, they had opposed leaving the political struggle to the Liberals.  In fact, Lenin saw them as rival leaders. So a  factional war with false polemics was waged against them. Zinoviev, Lenin’s Bolshevik spokesman,  claimed that “Akimov told workers to know their place and not concern themselves with politics.” [2] This claim was entirely false.

The view of Marx was that the emancipation of the working class is an act of the working class itself. If socialist consciousness derives from the intellectuals, and the spontaneous class struggle against exploitation is simply trade unionism,  then little is left of  this conviction of Marx expressed in a letter to Bolt, in November 1871:  “the political movement of the working class has its ultimate objective, of course, the conquest of power by the working class developed up to a certain point and rising precisely from its economic struggles.” [3]

A one-sided  focus on the politics of the expected bourgeois revolution, which  was a mistaken perspective, caused Lenin to downgrade the workers’ class struggle rooted in their material conditions. Lenin had previously argued that socialist conscious could develop through economic struggle. The organisation was to be rooted in the factories where the industrial workers were most susceptible to Social Democratic ideas. [4] The political struggle was not outside the economic struggle. Rosa Luxemburg’s intricate analysis of the Russian mass strikes showed the strikes, “passed from the economic field to the political so that it was almost impossible to draw a dividing line between them.”  [5] The economic  and political factors were interwoven.

Trotsky  mocked Lenin’s short-term instrumental use of theory in WITBD and One Step Forward Two Steps Back. He wrote, yesterday the proletariat were crawling in the trade union dust; today the workers are raised to the role of teachers, instructing the intelligentsia in working class discipline. Yesterday the intelligentsia was the teacher of socialist consciousness; today  it is a pupil learning factory discipline. “And this is supposed to be Marxism.”[6]  The task of Marxists was to replace factory discipline not glorify it.

A communist organisation is created in the process of class struggle. Marxists are not outside, but internal to the  movement of workers. Luxemburg criticised Lenin for making a fetish of centralism:  “The ultra-centralism that Lenin advocated, was imbued not with a creative spirit, but with the sterile spirit of the overseer.” [7]  The Leninist central committee would think for every member of the organisation down to the smallest detail or in Trotsky‘s sarcastic words “ I am recognised by the central committee therefore I am.” [8] However, the working class must learn from its own mistakes. There is no other way.

Lenin’s response to these criticisms was defensive:  “Comrade Luxemburg says for example that my book is a clear and detailed expression of intransigent centralism. Comrade Luxemburg thus supposes that I defend one system against another. But actually this is not so. From the first  to the last page of my book, I defend the elementary principles of any conceivable system of organisation.” [9]  Lenin’s concept of the party was technical rather than political. Lenin was an advocate in this period of  bureaucracy rather than democracy because it saw it as effective in Russian conditions.  In Marcel Leibman’s opinion, Lenin’s letter to a comrade on organisational tasks, written in 1904, assumed  all power would reside in  executive bodies. There was no account of the requirements of democracy.”[10]

In  One Step Forward Two steps Back, Lenin disregarded the  issue of the  degree of centralism. It was centralism, centralism, centralism.  Democracy was  dismissed: it was a mere  toy. To open up the party to publicity and elections was to open up the organisation to arrests and detention. Nonetheless, this one-sided stress on centralism did not answer points about lesser forms of democracy such as local autonomy. Besides centralism is not an organisational form which necessarily keeps out the police. It can make an organisation more vulnerable if the central committee  is penetrated by a state agent, as the Bolshevik central committee  was by Malinovsky. In any case, the Bolshevik underground organisation was not very effective in keeping out the police. And even if ultra-centralism was necessary, why make a virtue of it?

It is a myth that Menshevism and Bolshevism were fully formed political tendencies at the time of the split following  the 1903 congress. There were no  programmatic differences. Nor was it a break between revolutionaries on one side and opportunists on the other. On Lenin’s side was Plekhanov who would go on to oppose the Moscow insurrection of 1905 and the revolution of 1917. Against Lenin was Trotsky the leader of the Soviets in 1905 and 1917. The Mensheviks accepted Lenin’s rule on membership at the unity congress in 1906. So this rule was not a life and death question as Lenin admitted. Lenin went on in isolation to break organisational rules and set up his own central committee against the Bolshevik central committee but described his opponents as individualistic intellectuals.

Lenin’s concept of a political organisation was strongly influenced by the model of German social democracy, with a heavy stress on the role of leaders at the top of the organisation. “Without a dozen tried and talented leaders professionally trained, schooled by long experience and working in perfect harmony, no class in society can wage a determined struggle.” [11] Lenin’s political machine  – predominantly made up of the intelligentsia- was left behind by the creative spontaneity of the Russian workers in the revolution of 1905. The Bolshevik leadership in Russia trained in the organisational concepts of WITBD, and One step forward, distrusted spontaneity, were suspicious of strikers and saw the St Petersburg soviet and non-party mass organisations as a rival to the Bolshevik organisation.

Lenin was compelled to attempt to re-educate and reorganise the Bolsheviks to correct his previous distorted view of the relationship between party and class. “Lenin was essentially forced to rehabilitate working class spontaneity as a  politically important factor of revolution.” [12]  But there was no repudiation of previous positions or self-criticism. Contrary to WITBD workers were instinctively spontaneously social democratic. Although he added that more than ten years work by social democrats had helped transform spontaneity into consciousness. He said that he had not intended to give his previous formulations a programmatic status.

Lenin is often seen as separate from other Bolshevik leaders  if he had no responsibility for their organisational methods. Writing in exile in the 1930’s, and trapped in the cult of Lenin, Trotsky described Lenin as a political genius. Lenin was not so much the machine as the workers in motion. Yet in 1905 it was Trotsky who had an organic connection with the self-activity of the masses.  Trotsky  was one of the first exiles back in Russia to lead the St Petersburg soviet. By contrast, Lenin’s less positive relationship with spontaneity resulted in  ten months delays in a  return to Russia following the outbreak of the revolution.  Following the 1905 revolution, Trotsky described Lenin’s perspective of dissolving the class struggle into a democratic coalition in a bourgeois republic  as hopelessly idealistic. [13]

For Lenin, politics is an endless chain, but “the whole art of politics lies in finding and taking a firm grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at any given moment.” [14]  The problem with this method, as we have seen, is short-termism, inconsistency, and a  lopsided view of reality. Part of the Marxist truth is not the Marxist truth. As Alan Woods puts it “it is about the demands of the moment rather than abstract theory.”  [15] So for Lenin, a general Marxist truth in some  circumstances was the wrong priority. This flexibility towards Marxist theory was a hallmark of Bolshevism.

Barry Biddulph


1. V.L Lenin, CW. Vol 5 Progress Publishers, Moscow,  1978,p.375

2. G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, New park Publications, 1973,p.60

3 Kenneth Lapides, Marx and Engels on Trade Unionism, International Publishers, New York 1987,p.113.

4. V.I.Lenin, CW Vol 2, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1977,p.327.

5 Kevin Anderson (Edited) Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Monthly Review Press, New York,2004,p194.

6 Leon Trotsky, Our Political Tasks, New Park Publications, undated,p.104.

7 Rosa Luxemburg, as above,p.256.

8 Leon Trotsky, Report of the Siberian Delegation 1903, New Park Publications, undated,p.44

9 Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Humanities Press new Jersey,1990,p.

10 Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin ,Merlin Press ,London,p39.

11 VI Lenin, CW Vol5 Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1973, p.461.

12 Lynne Poole, Lenin and Trotsky a Question of Organisational Form, in The Ideas of Leon Trotsky,1995 p.123

13 Leon Trotsky, Our Differences, p.330, in  Leon Trotsky 1905, Penguin Books,p.330

14 Alex Callinicos, Leninism in the 21st Century, p.26, in Lenin Reloaded, Edited by Slavoj Zizek, Sebastian   Budgen and Stathis Kouvelakis, Duke University press, 2007.


2 thoughts on “Stick bending and the infallible Lenin

  1. You assert that in 1905 workers spontaneous consciousness went beyond Trade Union consciousness. Could you define the latter and show how workers exceeded this please?


  2. raved:

    Trade union consciousness – the desire to form and operate within the boundaries of a trade union, going no further than this.

    What happened in 1905 Russia – workers formed Soviets (councils) that took control of factories and workplaces, organized local communities against government and capital, and were quite radical, forming the base of the social revolution in Russia

    Lenin (and Trotsky) both denounced the Soviets at first, considering them little more than liberal community councils with no revolutionary purpose as they were not organized by any revolutionary organization. Lenin’s WITBD reflected this lack of faith in the Proletariat, and it never really changed – he saw the role of the “vanguard party” of “the most intelligent members of the class” as needing to assume “leadership” OVER these councils. His *rhetoric* changed over the course of the revolution to support the Soviets (not to do so would have been political suicide), only to assume control over them at the first opportunity and, once solidifying that power, began to abolish them or “integrate” them in to his developing state apparatus.

    To Lenin, the workers can achieve nothing meaningful without the leadership of the “revolutionaries from without” either sparking or assuming control of any movement or formation created by the workers themselves.


Comments are closed.