On Lenin’s 150th birthday, we must revisit the political challenges and debates of his time to understand why they still matter. Former YDSA co-chair Ajmal A argues that we have to learn from these political lessons if we want to win socialism today.
Lenin’s 150th birthday comes at a time when socialists are beginning to pivot to organizing on a scale that hasn’t been seen since the early 70’s in the United States. As a Marxist and political strategist, Lenin comes second to none. Lenin was a staunch revolutionary social democrat that followed its tradition before there had to be a formal break from the renegades within the second international. Its teaching raised the Bolsheviks and informed their politics before Bolshevism was born as an organized faction within the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party.
There’s much to learn from this revolutionary social-democratic tradition. But, today, YDSA should focus on a particular aspect of it: the role of students in socialist organizing and the purpose of the political program.
The Role of Students
After his older brother, Alexander Ulyanov, was murdered for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III, Lenin concluded that the path towards a socialist movement in Russia would not be found in individual attempts to assassinate the Tsar and topple the system from the top down, but would require a mass reconfiguration of society starting from the working class.
This inspired Lenin’s turn to Marxism, and he and many Bolsheviks began to analyse the subdivisions within the working class and the broader strategy of building revolutionary hegemony led by the working class.
Lenin’s comments on students and their role as a part of the socialist intelligentsia in particular provide a clarifying role for us today. In his piece, The Tasks of The Revolutionary Youth, Lenin argues that the role of social-democrats is to spread “Social-Democratic ideas among the students and combating ideas which, though called “Socialist-Revolutionary”, have nothing in common with revolutionary socialism; and, secondly, endeavouring to broaden every democratic student movement, the academic kind included, and make it more conscious and determined.”
As Lenin writes, socialist students have a rather particular role during their time in universities: popularizing political demands that would win over the greatest support against Tsarist autocracy, and imbuing socialist consciousness and socialist analysis into these demands and broader strategy. The same spirit and intent still applies today: the work of socialist students should be to increase and intensify class struggle by engaging in campaigns that shift power away from the capitalist class and to workers and students, engage in political education to establish and spread our ideas, and to carry those learnings into the next stage of lives as organized workers. As socialist students, especially as student-workers on campus, we play a key role in advancing demands not just against our individual universities, but on a national scale.
What is made clear through revolutionary social democracy, and implied by the teachings of Marx and Engels that came before, is that socialism as a theory came from without, outside of the working class and needed to be introduced within it. As such, the socialist intelligentsia — workers and students alike — are tasked with merging socialism with the working class. To do this, we should look to Lenin and learn from the German Social Democratic Party and the Russian Social Democrats that learned from them and promote the idea of a program or platform in DSA.
The Political Program
Marxists begin with the program partly because of its unifying factor. The program brings the most class-conscious elements of the working class into play behind a common program, and those class-conscious elements can go on to organize the rest of the working class. Most noteworthy is its unification of the party on a national scale, spreading to higher levels of engagement than purely local work alone. However, the program must be explicit in its fight for socialism and nothing less, demanding socialism not as abstraction, but as an explanation for why the concrete demands for political freedoms and other demands are being made in the first place.
For the revolutionary social democrats, the program had a central role in introducing socialism from without to the working class.The German social democratic Erfurt program served as a foundational model, and Lenin and other social democrats would follow to do the very same in Russia in creating their program.
Historian Lars Lih’s seminal work, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? outlines the following beliefs or commitments of what he calls the “Erfurtian” social democrats:
“Merger formula. …The ideas of scientific socialism already exist. They do not emanate from the Russian working class itself, they are assimilated. Although these ideas originate from outside the working class, Social Democracy only really starts its work when they have become part of the very identity of at least some of the workers.
Good news. Social Democracy’s job is to ensure that the inspiring insight about the historic role of the workers receives a broad dissemination and tha economic war is turned into a genuine class struggle by purposive organisation. The circles of awareness are clearly delineated in Lenin’s sentence: starting from advanced representatives of the factory workers, Social-Democratic awareness moves out, in turn, to factory workers, the proletariat as a whole, and finally ‘democratic elements’ (that is, urban and rural ‘petty bourgeoisie’ who are not ripe for socialist propaganda but are potential supporters of a thorough democratic transformation of Russia)…
Party ideal. The ideal of an independent class-based political party is strongly implied by the assertion that organisations based on the class struggle will undertake the political task of overthrowing absolutism.
National leadership. The Russian worker is called upon to lead all democratic elements to accomplish a task of the most pressing urgency for Russia as whole, namely, the overthrow of the autocracy that dooms Russia to barbarism.
Political freedom. Overthrowing the autocracy – in other words, achieving political freedom – is vital not only for Russia but for the workers who can then set out on the direct road of open political struggle. ‘Open’ should be understood as meaning ‘without the censorship and repression that keeps us from bringing insight and organisation to the workers in the most effective way possible’ .
Hegemony. The anti-tsarist revolution will only occur when the workers organised by Social Democracy take their place at the head of all democratic elements.
Internationalism. One reason for overthrowing autocracy is to be able to work openly with the proletariat of all countries.”
Though today’s conditions are different, these same beliefs that shaped the left-wing of social democracy still apply to Democratic Socialism today with our goal of merging socialism with the working class. As DSA members, we should promote and fight for a common program and platform for our organization to rally behind. We have a unique opportunity to start that discussion off at this summer’s YDSA convention. In the coming months, we should facilitate debate and discussion as to what it looks like to create a singular campaign or platform that’s “programmatic” in action, taking these elements from Erfurt to mind. YDSA currently suffers from a lack of resources and capacity, and we should heavily reassess where we should focus our efforts to have the greatest impact. I believe that a large, unifying campaign like College For All that includes labor and student organizing as well as the opportunity to engage in electoral battles and ballot initiatives, is what YDSA is best positioned to do. Fighting for a campaign like College For All as the demand of the youth section should be understood in terms of how it would fit in a broader program or platform that DSA would champion.
The question of the program raises many others: the structure of our organization, the question of the party, the various organizing tactics to pursue, and more; but in order to properly address them, the merger formula should guide not only our program, but the rest of our work too.
Though Lenin has been gone for 96 years, his teachings have become even more widespread than during his lifetime. With the retranslation of seminal texts such as What Is To Be Done?, socialists in English-speaking countries are becoming better equipped at confronting political challenges we’ve faltered on in the past. The pre-war/revolutionary social democratic tradition must be foundational to Democratic Socialism today, and we should welcome it as our history and tradition (even as we mourn its later rejection of the very principles it stood for).
We can still bring back the age of mass parties today. Now, with the experience of both Bernie campaigns under our belts, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle as the faults and contradictions of class society continue to intensify. The main challenge that now stands between us and the realization of a mass workers’ party is that of political will and organization. And if we continue to look to Lenin and the tradition of pre-war social democracy, we’ll be much better equipped to face it head-on.
Ajmal A is the former YDSA co-chair (2017-2019), and current YDSA College For All supercommittee member. He is a member of Virginia Tech YDSA.
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