In reply to the charge that historical materialism offers a determinism that turns individuals into marionettes pulled by invisible strings, Lenin writes:
The idea of determinism, which postulates that human acts are necessitated and rejects the absurd tale about free will, in no way destroys man’s reason or conscience, or appraisal of his actions. Quite the contrary, only the determinist view makes a strict and correct appraisal possible instead of attributing everything you please to free will. Similarly, the idea of historical necessity does not in the least undermine the role of the individual in history: all history is made up of the actions of individuals, who are undoubtedly active figures. The real question that arises in appraising the social activity of an individual is: what conditions ensure the success of his actions, what guarantee is there that these actions will not remain an isolated act lost in a welter of contrary acts? Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 159.
This is the first appearance of a theme that will reverberate in different ways throughout his writings: the dialectic of revolution. In this case the dialectical problem takes the following form: how do you make sense of the individual act of rebellion within the larger scale of things, ensuring that such an act is not futile, or that it doesn’t run off into some reactionary position? On another level, it opens to the question as to how you negotiate the unexpected spontaneity of revolution? How do you organise and what conditions ensure that you are both ready for that moment and can direct it in the path you want?
A few choice sentences from Lenin during the rapid ‘education’ of the 1905-7 revolution:
Revolutions are the locomotives of history, said Marx. Revolutions are festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the mass of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order, as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles (Collected Works, vol. 9, p. 113).
Looks like I will need a chapter on Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? in my Lenin and Theology book. Up until this work of 1902, I have found scattered biblical allusions in Lenin’s work and some occasionally entertaining reflections on the church, but in this thoroughly engaging text I hit pay dirt. What Is To Be Done? is saturated with biblical references, drawn especially from the Gospels and the sayings and parables of Jesus. For example, in the crucial section concerning organisation of the workers and of revolutionaries, we find:
It is precisely our campaign of exposure that will help us separate the tares from the wheat. What the tares are, we have already indicated. By the wheat we mean attracting the attention of ever larger numbers of the workers to social and political questions … In a word, our task is to fight the tares. It is not our business to grow wheat in flowerpots. By pulling up the tares, we clear the soil for the wheat. And while the Afanasy Ivanoviches and Pulkheria Ivanovas are tending their flowerpot crops, we must prepare the reapers, not only to cut down the tares of today, but to reap the wheat of tomorrow. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 5, pp. 455-6.
This parable, along with that of the sower, becomes an extended metaphor throughout this crucial section. What happens in the process is not merely that Lenin draws upon Gospel themes for thinking through revolutionary organisation, but that the sayings and parables themselves become radicalised.
Every now and then in my reading of Lenin’s collected works, I come across a passage that may well have been written this morning:
‘Freedom’ is a grand word, but under the banner of freedom for industry the most predatory wars were waged, under the banner of freedom of labour, the working people were robbed. The modern use of the term ‘freedom of criticism’ contains the same inherent falsehood. Those who are really convinced that they have made progress in critical scholarship wold not demand freedom for the new views to continue side by side with the old, but the substitution of the new views for the old. The cry heard today, ‘Long live freedom of criticism’, is too strongly reminiscent of the fable of the empty barrel. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 5, p. 355.