Revolutionary Crisis, Lenin today, and Daniel Bensaïd (‘Leaps, Leaps, Leaps’ essay excerpt)


Daniel Bensaïd (far-left)

“The revolutionary crisis appears as the critical moment of the possible resolution, where theory becomes strategy: ‘History in general and more particularly the history of revolutions is always richer in its content, more varied, more many-sided, more alive, more ingenious than is conceived by the best parties, the most conscious vanguards of the most advanced classes. And that is understandable since the best vanguards express the consciousness, the will and the passion of tens of thousands of men, while the revolution is one of the moments of special exaltation and tension of all human faculties – the work of the consciousness, the will, the imagination, the passion of hundreds of thousands of men spurred on by the harshest class struggle. Hence two practical conclusions of great importance: first, that the revolutionary class must, in order to carry out its task, be able to take possession of all forms and all aspects of social activity without the slightest exception; secondly, the revolutionary class must be ready to replace one form by another rapidly and without warning.’

From this Lenin deduces the need to respond to unexpected events where often the hidden truth of social relations is suddenly revealed: ‘We do not and cannot know which spark … will kindle the conflagration, in the sense of raising up the masses; we must, therefore, with our new and communist principles, set to work to stir up all and sundry, even the oldest, mustiest and seemingly hopeless spheres, for otherwise we shall not be able to cope with our tasks, shall not be comprehensively prepared, shall not be in possession of all the weapons.’ [9]

  • Stir up all spheres! Be on the watch for the most unpredictable solutions!
  • Remain ready for the sudden change of forms!
  • Know how to employ all weapons!

These are the maxims of a politics conceived as the art of unexpected events and of the effective possibilities of a
determinate conjuncture.

This revolution in politics brings us back to the notion of revolutionary crisis systematised in The Collapse of the Second International. It is defined by an interaction between several variable elements in a situation: when those above can no longer govern as they did before; when those below will not tolerate being oppressed as they were before; and when this double impossibility is expressed by a sudden effervescence of the masses. Adopting these criteria Trotsky stresses in his History of the Russian Revolution: ‘That these premises condition each other is obvious. The more decisively and confidently the proletariat acts, the better will it succeed in bringing after it the intermediate layer, the more isolated will be the ruling class, and the more acute its demoralisation. And, on the other hand, a demoralisation of the rulers will pour water into the mill of the revolutionary class.’ [10] But the crisis does not guarantee the conditions of its own resolution. That is why Lenin makes the intervention of a revolutionary party into the decisive factor in a critical situation: ‘It is not every revolutionary situation that gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, “falls”, if it is not toppled over.’ [11] The crisis can be resolved only by defeat, at the hands of a reaction which will often be murderous, or by the intervention of a resolute subject.

This was very much the interpretation of Leninism in Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness. Already at the Fifth Congress of the Communist International this earned him the anathema of the Thermidorian Bolshevisers. Lukács in fact insisted on the fact that ‘Only the consciousness of the proletariat can point to the way that leads out of the impasse of capitalism. As long as this consciousness is lacking, the crisis remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle …’ Lukács replies that: ‘the difference between the period in which the decisive battles are fought and the foregoing period does not lie in the extent and the intensity of the battles themselves. These quantitative changes are merely symptomatic of the fundamental differences in quality which distinguish these struggles from earlier ones … Now, however, the process by which the proletariat becomes independent and “organises itself into a class” is repeated and intensified until the time when the final crisis of capitalism has been reached, the time when the decision comes more and more within the grasp of the proletariat.’ [12] This is echoed in the thirties when Trotsky, facing Nazism and Stalinist reaction, produced a formulation equating the crisis of humanity with the crisis of revolutionary leadership.

Strategy is a calculation of mass, speed and time’, wrote Chateaubriand. For Sun Tzu, the art of war was already the art of change and of speed. This art required acquiring ‘the speed of the hare’ and ‘coming to a decision immediately’, for it is proven that the most famous victory could have turned to defeat ‘if battle had been joined a day earlier or a few hours later’. The rule of conduct derived from this is valid for politicians as well as soldiers: ‘Never let any opportunity slip, when you find it favourable. The five elements are not everywhere, nor are they equally pure; the four seasons do not follow each other in the same fashion every year; the rising and setting of the sun are not always at the same point on the horizon. Some days are long and others short. The moon waxes and wanes and is not always equally bright. An army that is well led and well disciplined aptly imitates all these variations.’ [13]

The notion of revolutionary crisis takes up this lesson of strategy and politicises it. In certain exceptional circumstances the balance of forces reaches a critical point. ‘Any disruption of the rhythms produces effects of conflict. It upsets and disturbs. It can also produce a gap in time, to be filled with an invention, with a creation. This happens, individually and socially, only by passing through a crisis.’ A gap in time? An exceptional moment? Whereby can arise the unaccomplished fact, which contradicts the fatality of the accomplished fact.

In 1905 Lenin comes together with Sun Tzu in his praise of speed.

Lenin exhorts Petrograd crowds to revolt (1917)

Lenin exhorts Petrograd crowds to revolt (1917)

It is necessary, he says ‘to begin on time’, to act ‘immediately’. ‘Form immediately, in all places, combat groups. We must indeed be able to grasp in flight those “fleeting moments” of which Hegel speaks and which constitute ‘an excellent definition of the dialectic’. For the revolution in Russia is not the organic result of a bourgeois revolution extended into a proletarian revolution, but an ‘intertwining’ of two revolutions. Whether the probable disaster can be avoided depends on an acute sense of conjuncture. The art of the slogan is an art of the favourable moment. A particular instruction which was valid yesterday may not be so today but may be valid again tomorrow. ‘Until 4 July [1917] the slogan of all power to the soviets was correct’. After it was no longer correct. ‘At this moment and this moment alone, perhaps for a few days at most, or for a week or two, such a government could survive.’

A few days! A week!

On 29 September 1917, Lenin wrote to the Central Committee which was hesitating: ‘The crisis has matured’. [14] Waiting was becoming a crime. On 1 October he urged them to ‘take power at once’, to ‘resort to insurrection at once’. [15] A few days later he tried again: ‘I am writing these lines on October 8 … The success of both the Russian and the world revolution depends on two or three days’ fighting.’ [16] He still insisted: ‘I am writing these lines on the evening of the 24th. The situation is critical in the extreme. In fact it is now absolutely clear that to delay the uprising would be fatal … Everything now hangs by a thread.’ So it is necessary to act ‘this very evening, this very night.’ [17]

‘Breaks in gradualness‘ noted Lenin at the beginning of the war in the margins of Hegel’s Science of Logic. And he stressed: ‘Gradualness explains nothing without leaps. Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!’ [18]

Three brief remarks to conclude on the relevance of Lenin today. His strategic thought defines a state of being available to act in relation to whatever event may arise. But this Event is not the absolute Event, coming from nowhere, which some people have mentioned with reference to 11 September. It is situated in conditions of historically determined possibility. That is what distinguishes it from the religious miracle. Thus the revolutionary crisis of 1917 and its resolution by insurrection become strategically thinkable in the framework traced by The Development of Capitalism in Russia. This dialectical relation between necessity and contingency, structure and break, history and event lays the basis for the possibility of a politics organised in duration whereas the arbitrarily voluntarist gamble on the sudden explosion of an event may allow us to resist the mood of the times, but generally leads to a stance of aesthetic resistance rather than militant commitment to patiently modify the course of things.

For Lenin – as for Trotsky – the revolutionary crisis is formed and begins in the national arena, which at the time constitutes the framework of the struggle for hegemony, and goes on to take its place in the context of the world revolution. The crisis in which dual power arises is therefore not reduced to an economic crisis or an immediate conflict between wage labour and capital in the process of production. The Leninist question – who will come out on top? – is that of political leadership: which class will be capable of resolving the contradictions which are stifling society, capable of imposing an alternative logic to that of the accumulation of capital, capable of transcending the existing relations of production and opening up a new field of possibilities. The revolutionary crisis is therefore not a simple social crisis but also a national crisis: in Russia as in Germany, in Spain as in China. The question today is doubtless more complex to the extent that capitalist globalisation has reinforced the overlapping of national, continental and world spaces. A revolutionary crisis in a major country would immediately have an international dimension and would require responses in terms that are both national and continental, or even directly global on questions like energy, ecology, armaments policy, movement of migrants etc. It nonetheless remains an illusion to believe we can evade this difficulty by eliminating the question of the conquest of political power (on the pretext that power today is divorced from territory and scattered everywhere and nowhere) in favour of a rhetoric of ‘counterpowers’. Economic, military and cultural powers are perhaps more widely scattered, but they are also more concentrated than ever. You can pretend to ignore power, but it will not ignore you. You can act superior by refusing to take it, but from Catalonia 1937 to Chiapas, via Chile, experience shows right up to this very day that it will not hesitate to take you in the most brutal fashion. In a word, a strategy of counter-power only has any meaning in the perspective of dual power and its resolution. Who will come out on top?

Finally, detractors often identify ‘Leninism’ and Lenin himself with a historical form of the political party which is said to have died along with the collapse of the bureaucratic party-states. In this hasty judgement there is a lot of historical ignorance and political frivolity, which can be only partially explained by the traumatism of Stalinist practices. The experience of the past century poses the question of bureaucratisation as a social phenomenon, rather than the question of the form of vanguard party inherited from What is to be Done? For mass organisations (not only political ones, but equally trade unions and associations) are far from being the least bureaucratic: the cases of the CFDT in France, of the Socialist Party, of the allegedly renovated Communist Party, or of the Greens, are absolutely eloquent on this point. But on the other hand – as we have mentioned – in the Leninist distinction of party and class there are some fertile trails for thinking about the relations between social movements and political representation. Likewise in the superficially disparaged principles of democratic centralism, detractors stress primarily the bureaucratic hypercentralism exemplified in sinister fashion by the Stalinist parties. But a certain degree of centralisation, far from being opposed to democracy, is the essential condition for it to exist. One the one hand because the delimitation of the party is a means of resisting, to some extent, the decomposing effects of the dominant ideology, but also of aiming at a certain equality between members, counter to the inequalities which are inevitably generated by social relations and by the division of labour. Today we can see very well how the weakening of these principles, far from favouring a higher form of democracy, leads to cooption by the media and the legitimisation by plebiscite of leaders who are even less controlled by the rank and file. Moreover, the democracy in a revolutionary party aims to produce decisions which are assumed collectively in order to act on the balance of forces. When the superficial detractors of Leninism claim to have freed themselves from a stifling discipline, they are in fact emptying discussion of all its relevance, reducing it to a forum of opinions which does not commit anybody: after an exchange of free speech without any common decision, everyone can leave as they came and no shared practice makes it possible to test the validity of the opposing positions under consideration. Finally, the stress laid – in particular by recycled bureaucrats from the former Communist Parties – on the crisis of the party form often enables them to avoid talking about the crisis of the programmatic content and justifies the absence of strategic preoccupation.

A politics without parties (whatever name – movement, organisation, league party – that they are given) ends up in most cases with a politics without politics: either an aimless tailism towards the spontaneity of social movements, or the worst form of elitist individualist vanguardism, or finally a repression of the political in favour of the aesthetic or the ethical.” – Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Leaps, Leaps, Leaps’: Lenin and Politics (July 2002)


About bolshevikpunk

Mainline Marxism or Die. Activist, Student, and Degenerate.
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