Personal Notes on Lenin’s 150th Birthday: A Revolutionary Against Capital

The significance of Lenin and of the revolution led by the Bolsheviks in October 1917 can be gauged by the efforts continuously made to the present day to discredit them. Do insecurity and hatred on the part of the ruling class still lie so deep that even a somewhat balanced evaluation is impossible? * In

The significance of Lenin and of the revolution led by the Bolsheviks in October 1917 can be gauged by the efforts continuously made to the present day to discredit them.

Do insecurity and hatred on the part of the ruling class still lie so deep that even a somewhat balanced evaluation is impossible?


In 1914, Tsar Nicholas II and Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef were seized by the same delusional idea that the fortunes of war, which always led to the misfortune of the peoples, could rescue their empires. Both precipitated their own collapse. It was no different in June 1917 with Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky, Russia’s Minister of War and the Navy, seeking to deploy an emaciated, demoralised army to preserve his government’s rule by launching a desperate military offensive, which brought about its downfall.

Russia counted 1.8 million dead after the First World War. The refusal of the workers, peasants, and soldiers to continue the war, which ultimately led to the October Revolution, was no less justified than any uprising against commanded killing is and will always be.

An anecdote has it that during the filming of October, which Sergei Eisenstein directed for the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, more people were wounded than in the actual storming of the Winter Palace. Was the Revolution then nothing more than a coup by a vanguard led by Lenin and Trotsky? If this were really so then Soviet power would have collapsed within months when the Russian military caste – equipped with foreign weapons and money – attempted to destroy it and when the victorious powers of the World War – Great Britain, France, and the US, along with Japan – deployed massive troop contingents to intervene against it.


In a pointed debate it is not wise to counter one-sidedness with one-sidedness. The success of Lenin’s strategy and the Bolshevik Revolution became the foundation myth of the world communist movement, which left several white spots and dark corners on the mental map of communists.

Rosa Luxemburg’s view of the Revolution was characterised by sympathy and sobriety. In her manuscript On the Russian Revolution, written in 1918 and not published during her lifetime we read: ‘Clearly, not uncritical apologetics but penetrating and thoughtful criticism is alone capable of bringing out treasures of experiences and teachings.’[1] And then comes the famous sentence that has generally been quoted in abbreviated manner and become a calendar motto: ‘Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege.‘[2]
How different this affirmation of the Revolution on the part of Rosa Luxemburg is from the eulogies typical of the cultural repertoire of communists under Stalin that circulated worldwide!

At the same time as Rosa Luxemburg wrote her unpublished text, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci praised Lenin’s and Trotsky’ victory as a ‘revolution against Capital’,[3] by which he meant two things: a victory against the class of capitalists but also against the path of revolution sketched out by Marx in his main work, which then constituted the socialist orthodoxy. It was against this orthodoxy that Lenin’s shift of paradigm gave priority to revolutionary subjectivity before economic determinism. However, more than a decade later, Gramsci also recognised the limits of this new strategy and called in his Prison Notebooks, for replacing the strategy of a ‘war of manoeuvre’ that had been successful ‘in the East’ with a tenacious ‘war of position’ that would be the form adequate to a developed capitalist society with democratic parliamentary structures.[4]

Rosa Luxemburg’s critique and Antonio Gramsci’s thesis meant to say that it was impossible to transfer the Russian revolutionary model to advanced capitalist societies and that the communist movement had to reorient itself. The Communist International came over to this view only in 1936 as the result of the victory of Nazi-fascism in Germany. But this turn was, in any case, only an episode, as after the victory over Nazi-fascism Stalin implanted throughout Eastern Europe the system of authoritarian state socialism he had conceptualised and in so doing repressed all resistance inside and outside the parties.


After the 1930s, however, the issue no longer was the inadequacy of the revolutionary strategy pursued by the Bolsheviks but the methods they used to construct ‘socialism in one country’. After his usurpation of power in the party and society, Joseph Stalin set into motion his monstrous terror machine.

It is impossible to downplay the terror either as unavoidable in the context of a catch-up development that had to be compressed into a very short time, or by pointing to the violent way in which capitalism established itself through the process of its ‘primitive accumulation’.  Nor can it be relativised by referring to the tremendous sacrifices of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War over Nazi-fascism.

Was the slide towards Stalinist terror the logical consequence of the ideological implacability with which Lenin carried out the Revolution? We could only accept this if we saw people as machines and ideologies as logarithms that people automatically followed. In reality, the path to Stalinism ran through many crossroads: Stalin’s decision to go against Lenin’s advice and force through a precipitous collectivisation of agriculture by means of terror; Trotsky’s compliance in not making Lenin’s last letters, in which he warned of Stalin’s unlimited power, available to the plenum of the party congress, Bukharin’s, Zinoviev’s, and Kamenev’s involvements in the intrigues of the party apparatus, which discredited them and compromised their credibility when they publicly turned to their fellow communists. All of them, companions of Lenin, became, with the exception of the General Secretary himself, victims of a system in whose construction they themselves participated. The same can be said, though with a few notable exceptions, of the hundreds of thousands of upper and mid-level cadre of the ruling party and its apparatuses whose conformist mentality Trotsky so impressively described in his book The Revolution Betrayed.

Was Stalinism then the result of that backwardness of Russian society that Lenin often bemoaned? Or was it the consequence of a paranoid mentality that spread among the Bolsheviks in the face of the hostile surrounding environment?

Historians will debate this for a long time to come. However, it is indisputable that communism, which undertook ‘to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being’,[5] failed to build in safeguards against its own terroristic exercise of power, that is, that it failed on the level of the most elementary human rights – that of freedom from persecution and oppression.


But what does this mean for the hundreds of millions of people who fought in the ranks of communist parties against (Nazi-)fascism, for the rights of the working class, and for liberation from colonialism?

The decades-long dominance of Soviet-type party communism within the radical left was tied to the ideological myth that the split in the labour movement between a reformist, social democratic wing and a revolutionary communist one was the result of Lenin’s intransigence, seemingly vindicated by the October Revolution. In reality, the split reached further back. Within German Social Democracy the orthodox and the revisionists had already confronted each other since 1898; in Russia the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks split in 1903, and in 1915 the rift among social democratic pacifists at the Zimmerwald Conference anticipated the founding of the Communist International four years later.

What the Russian Revolution really accomplished was to provide the material basis for the dominance of communism à la Lenin and Trotsky within the radical left, which in succeeding years made Stalinism into the ideology of the world movement.

This basis came to an end in the later twentieth century. Already by 1986 the historic leader of Italian Communism, Enrico Berlinguer, declared that the dynamic unleashed by the October Revolution had been exhausted. Five years later the Soviet Union was dissolved. The silence that had too long been maintained regarding its deformation should have spurred communists to serious, self-critical reflection.

But the desire for emancipation from capitalism, patriarchy, and racism embodied by the communist movement lives on.

The state of affairs in which communist parties were the only ones to give expression to this desire is now a thing of the past. In many countries of Europe and the world new political formations have stepped onto the stage of class struggle and politics.

This allows us to determine Lenin’s place in history more realistically. The revolution he led offered a glimpse of a new age but did not open it up. Other revolutions, like the Chinese, followed and  corresponded to a greater extent to the characteristics and challenges of the twentieth century.

About the Russian Revolution Rosa Luxemburg wrote accurately: ‘In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia.'[6]

For a century, people struggling for a more just world have been inspired by Lenin’s ideas and strategies. If they are appropriated historically-critically and without illusions they might continue to serve this goal.


[1] Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, chapter 1.

[2] Luxemburg, chapter 6. 

[3] Antonio Gramsci, La rivoluzione contro il Capitale, Avanti, 24 November 1917.

[4] Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebook 4, in Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (eds), Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, New York: International Publishers, 1971, pp. 238 f.

[5]  Karl Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’ (1843/1844), Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, New York: International Publishers, 1975, p. 182.

[6] Ebd., 365.