One of the standard, ‘textbook’ positions on Lenin is that he was a dictatorial centrist, suspicious of workers, keeping them out of the core of the Social-Democratic party, favouring intellectuals and so on. From where does this image come? You will find it in Menshevik literature of the time, as well as the work of Trotsky, Kautsky and above all Rosa Luxemburg. In her ‘Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy‘, a full-blooded reply to Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, she writes:
Ultracentralist tendency … the Central Committee is the only active nucleus in the party and all the remaining organisations are merely its tools for implementation … absolute blind submission of the individual organs of the party to their central authority … mechanical submission of the party’s militants to their central authority … a central authority that alone thinks, acts and decides for everyone … the lack of will and thought in a mass of flesh with many arms and legs moving mechanically to the baton … zombie-like obedience … absolute power and authority of a negative kind … sterile spirit of the night watchman … strict despotic centralism … the strait-jacket of a bureaucratic centralism that reduces the militant workers to a docile intrument of the committee … an all-knowing and ubiquitous Central Committee.
Given Luxemburg’s authority in some circles, this description has been taken as both the gospel truth and prophecy of what was to come. But is it true? For Lars Lih, it is ‘baseless nonsense’ and a collection of ‘fantasies’ (Lenin Rediscovered, pp. 529 and 551). Why? Luzemburg cites no texts in her argument, hasn’t done her homework and actually read anything, and has responded to Menshevik urgings in the bitter polemic after the Second Congress when the Bolshevik-Menshevik split first arose. However, a close look at the documents of the time (most of them in the Collected Works) reveals a Lenin who was exceedingly optimistic about worker involvement in the party, a decentralised program that even some Bolsheviks thought too much, and a democratic push that respected the collective decisions of the congresses. It turns out that the Mensheviks – a majority who consciously took on the name of the ‘minority’ first, since it signified in their mind a progressive position – were the centralists, wanting rank-and-file adherence to the intellectual core and disdaining the collective decisions of the congresses.