Felix Morrow

Lenin’s “Secret” Weapon

(25 January 1941)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 5 No. 4, 25 January 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

V.I. Lenin died on January 21, 1924, at the age of 54. He left behind him the most gigantic heritage ever bequeathed by one man. Nor is that heritage only in the Soviet Union and in his books and the minds of revolutionists; it is also in the minds and hearts of hundreds of millions of people in the capitalist world whom one would not ordinarily call revolutionists.

Yes, there are hundreds of millions under capitalist rulers who know that Lenin was opposed to the World War and branded as traitors to the working class those “socialists” who supported it; that he and Trotsky successfully led the October revolution and founded the Soviet Onion as a workers’ state. And, without being able to formulate it, these hundreds of millions know that the socialist revolution led by Lenin put an end to the first World War; in the midst of the hopelessness of the second World War they are hoping for another Lenin to lead them in putting an end to this war.

Let us keep clearly in our thoughts these hundreds of millions of the people as we commemorate the 17th anniversary of Lenin’s passing. Our Memorial to Lenin is no empty ritual; that kind of mummery we leave to those who keep the dried mummy of Lenin on display in Moscow. We have much more pressing work. We have the profound responsibility of finding our way to the minds and hearts of those hundreds of millions who remember Lenin in their own way. We must ask ourselves: “What would Lenin have said to them today?” And equally important: “What would Lenin have learned from them today?” For Lenin could teach so richly precisely because he learned so fully from the masses whom he taught how to overthrow their oppressors.

“Say what is.” Lenin never lied to or flattered the masses. In 1941 as in 1914 he would have told them the truth. Lenin wrote, on November 1, 1914: “Imperialism has placed the fate of European culture at stake. After this war, if a series of successful revolutions do not occur, more wars will follow – the fairy tale of a ‘war to end all wars’ is a hollow and pernicious fairy tale.” And so it has come to pass. The workers did not achieve “a series of successful revolutions” and are paying the price of that failure. That price includes the Stalinist degeneration of the isolated USSR.

“Say what is.” Those who flattered the working class and endowed it with all possible virtues were bitterly excoriated by Lenin. He shocked the sentimental “lovers of the people” out of their wits by setting down as a fundamental proposition that the working class by itself could develop no further than trade unionism: revolutionary socialism is brought to the working class “from outside.” This was his iron-firm way of insisting that the working class could get nowhere without the leadership of a revolutionary party. All attempts to define the party and the working class as one and the same thing, Lenin resisted as the root of all evil. He began this fight in 1903 as a Russian struggle; after 1914 he conducted a world-wide struggle against it.

This was Lenin’s “secret weapon”: his profoundly original conception of the revolutionary party. It is Lenin’s greatest contribution to revolutionary theory and action.

Lenin’s conception of the party is not easy to grasp in all its ramifications; it is not the first thing one learns in approaching Lenin but, more likely, the last. Especially difficult to grasp is it for those who merely read Lenin and do not try to carry out his theories in the actual life of the revolutionary party. On the other hand, workers who read but little but who devote their lives to the revolutionary party indicate often a profound understanding of Lenin’s theory of the party. For Lenin’s idea of the party is practical; it works; for serious revolutionists it becomes the only, conceivable method of functioning in the working class; they find it hard to imagine why all real revolutionists did not hit upon Lenin’s idea of the party.

Why the German Revolution Failed

Yet the terrible record of history tells us that there were great evolutionists who failed to grasp Lenin’s conception and, because of that, led into the abyss revolutions which had every objective possibility of success. The German revolution of 1918 was thrown back because Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg and their associates, Leo Jogisches, Frank Mehring and Clara Zetkin failed to understand the Leninist concept of the revolutionary party. I make this statement not on my own authority but on that of our German comrades, who have had many bitter years to ponder the causes of the defeat of the German working, class. All other causes they trace back to the mistaken notion of the role of the party held by the German left.

As early as 1904 Rosa Luxembourg saw that the leadership of the German Social Democratic party were conservatives and not revolutionists; as early as 1910, she and Liebknecht saw that Kautsky, leader of the “center” wing of the party and the international theorist of socialism, was made of the same stuff as the conservatives. It is from 1910 that the German left begins. In all this they saw more clearly than Lenin, whose illusions concerning Kautsky were not shaken until the war began.

The German left was equal to the Bolsheviks in revolutionary courage in the struggle against the imperialism war. As a matter of historical fact, the most inspiring revolutionary act of the first three years of the war was Liebknecht’s May Day speech of 1916. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky (though he had been President of the Petersburg Soviet in 1905) were as widely known or beloved among the great masses as were Liebknecht and Luxembourg.

Yet Lenin and Trotsky made the revolution, while Karl and Rosa and their comrades of Spartacus were without representation of any kind in the first German Congress of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils (soviets) and were murdered with impunity by Junker officers. Why? Superficial historians and anti-Leninists have tried to find the explanation in the difference between Russian and German conditions. [1] The truth is quite simple. The German left did not begin to build a party in 1904, when Luxembourg realized the degeneration of the official leadership; nor did the German left begin to build a party in 1910, when she and Liebknecht correctly estimated Kautsky’s degeneration; nor did they begin to build in 1914, when the full scope of that degeneration became clear; nor even in 1918!

Lenin called the revolutionary party “Jacobins bound up with the working class” but separate and apart from it in their own organization. The German left defined it entirely differently: in Luxembourg’s words the party was “the self-movement of the working class.” In other words, in 1904, 1910, 1914, 1918, she admonished the Social Democratic leadership with the threat, “The working class, will overrule you.” Instead, however, the workers, even when gritting their teeth, followed the leaders, i.e., the party. Only through another party could the workers be led in the correct path; that party did not exist, thanks to the terrible error of the German left. But the Bolsheviks had built their party, and by it led the Russian masses to victory

A note of asperity, of irritation and harshness toward the masses, creeps into Luxembourg’s writings during the war. She can speak of them as having “succumbed to the chauvinistic madness.” Lenin, who never minced words, nevertheless could never write like that. That was precluded in advance by his conception of the working class and its relation to its parties. He could pour vitriol on the reformist and centrist leaders; never on the masses. Had he not said that the working class would get nowhere without a revolutionary party? He was not one to scold the workers with a failure which was not theirs but their leaders’. Out of his thorough realism, therefore, flowed his deep faith in the masses: Give them revolutionary leadership and they will storm the heavens.

That, then, would be the first thing that Lenin would tell the thinking workers: “Help the revolutionists to build the vanguard party. Join them in building it. That comes first. All other things follow.”

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1. Max Shachtman, for instance, in New International, May 1938. The German comrades appropriately answered him. New International, February 1939. The reader interested in the roots of Shachtman’s later degeneration will find them, in part, in his failure to understand, the fundamental difference between the party conceptions of Lenin and Luxembourg.

Last updated on 14 November 2020