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Boris Kagarlitsky: a new letter from prison

Renowned dissident and sociologist, now imprisoned by the Russian state, on why we should continue to find Lenin interesting

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In his latest letter from a Russian prison, Boris Kagarlitsky addresses why, in 2024, we should continue to find Lenin interesting.

Help the campaign to free Kagarlitsky by sharing this letter along with the petition calling for his release and all other anti-war political prisoners.

The letter was translated from the original Russian version by Renfrey Clarke for LINKS. Clarke also translated Kagarlitsky’s latest book, The Long Retreat: Strategies to Reverse the Decline of the Left, available now for pre-order from Pluto Press.

Articles on Lenin are supposed to be written and published at least once a year, to mark the date of his birth on April 22, and sometimes in January as well, as one or another anniversary of his death approaches. It would not be hard to compile a multi-volume collection of such texts, and indeed, I can no longer remember how many articles I have written personally to commemorate dates of this kind. Does this mean there is nothing left to be said or published?

If we dispense with the obligatory anniversary raptures and (just as obligatory) ritual curses, all of which are now so deathly-dull to reread and repeat, there is one question that remains: why should we now, in 2024, find Lenin interesting? The obvious answer has to do with the texts that the Bolshevik leader wrote 110 years ago in opposition to World War I, texts that are now supremely relevant.

As we know, most of the social democrats in the various belligerent countries were united in supporting their governments and “their” bourgeoisies, in coming up with all sorts of justifications for the war, and in explaining that “their” countries were in no way guilty of aggression, but had been forced to take up arms and were fighting against injustice and the imperial ambitions of others. At first, the logic of “supporting our troops” was effective enough. On whichever side of the lines, the propaganda was always the same: “we” were in the right, while “they” were not, and whatever “we” did, we were merely defending ourselves. Whatever might happen, “they” were to blame for everything. Yesterday’s associates were presented as the embodiments of all evil, at the same time as patently obvious villains were suddenly declared good fellows.

In fairness, it should be said that it was far simpler and less dangerous for Lenin, at this time in emigration, to criticize the military efforts of the Russian authorities than it was for his co-thinkers who were still in Russia. For all that, the situation had its oddities, and Lenin was nonetheless arrested; in Cracow, where he and Krupskaya had settled in order to be closer to Russia, the Austro-Hungarian officials came close to mistaking the Bolshevik leader for an agent of the tsarist government (there is a wonderful Soviet film, entitled Lenin in Poland, dealing with these events). Soon, it is true, the Austrians let him go, and allowed him to move to neutral Switzerland. Meanwhile, the Bolshevik deputies to the State Duma were jailed for their anti-war position.

Nevertheless, it took courage to speak out against the war, and not just personal courage, but political courage as well. With hindsight, we can see just how effective the position Lenin took was in political terms. The fact that he and his supporters were an obvious minority meant that they stood out sharply against the general background. Then when circumstances changed, when the patriotic outpourings about “war until victory” were replaced by weariness, disillusionment, and a grasp of the absurdity of what was occurring, and when three years of bloodshed had created a powerful demand for change, it was to Lenin and the Bolsheviks that millions of people turned their gaze (and not only in Russia). The wheel of fortune had turned, with the result that the Bolsheviks and the government authorities had changed places. The previous handful of radical socialists, whom not even the leaders of the main social-democratic parties had taken seriously, had suddenly appeared at the head of a mass movement. Lenin during the first half of 1917 had been slandered as a foreign agent, but before the year was out he was to emerge in Petrograd as the head of a revolutionary government.

This story needs to be remembered not for the reason that such turnabouts occur from time to time; to hold out hopes of another such development would be premature and rash. Far more important is to understand why Lenin took such a position and made such a choice, which at first turned him into a marginal political figure even within the social-democratic forces, though it was later to raise him to the heights of power. Playing a considerable role here were, of course, his revolutionary principles. The position he took was in line with the philosophy of Marxist socialism and with the decisions that the Second International had taken earlier—decisions that the leaders of the largest parties of the International had since hastily repudiated. This, however, was not the only thing. Ultimately, the Bolshevik leader could have expressed himself in less radical terms, avoiding an acute conflict with more influential politicians in the social-democratic majority (this was the course chosen by many other left-wing figures). At the heart of Lenin’s position was not simply ideology; also in play were political analysis, calculations of cause and effect, and a sense of where history was headed. It was no coincidence that Lenin conducted his research on the nature of imperialism precisely during the period of World War I, or that he included his well-known formula on the revolutionary situation in his article on the collapse of the Second International.

None of this was abstract theorizing. The Bolshevik leader analyzed the political situation and sought to predict how it would develop. It was clear to him that the authorities of the Russian Empire had not just involved the country in a war that was completely unnecessary to its people, but that they had done this for reasons that included Russia’s internal political situation. War had been regarded as an antidote to revolution, and against political change in general. Unfortunately, the country’s failures in the war would themselves act as a trigger for revolution. In denouncing the war, Lenin, unlike the various pacifist currents, was not merely staking out a moral and ideological position, but was also seizing a political bridgehead for participation in future revolutionary events. His belief in the imminence of revolution was not based on faith or conviction, but on his analysis of the social contradictions that, as they developed, would inevitably blow the system apart. This confidence, it would seem, was shaken only once, at the very beginning of 1917, when he uttered his famous words, “We shall not live to see the revolution.” Indeed, it seemed at that point that the system in some mysterious fashion was coping with all the problems and even with its own failures, while the Russian people were enduring, with astonishing patience, everything the regime was doing to them. This, however, was in the darkest hour just before the dawn. The contradictions were soon to burst forth, in such a fashion that we are still to this day hearing the echoes of that explosion.

The point, however, does not have to do only with the accuracy of Lenin’s forecast or with his understanding of the inevitability of the revolution. By no means all of his predictions came to pass, and his analysis of situations was not always correct. The most important thing was that his most important prediction hit the mark—that his forecast was borne out, even if later than expected, and that his analysis was confirmed. It was thanks to this that Lenin, from being a revolutionary theorist, became a politician. Or more precisely, that he had the opportunity to realize his potential as a political actor, something that he had, in fact, always been.

The problem for today’s left is that while reasoning philosophically, while pondering philosophical questions and arguing about who is the most authentic Marxist and which formula is most correct from the point of view of abstract ideology, we lack the skills and readiness to be politicians. This is understandable: we have no such thing as a serious, vital body of political practice. There is nothing for us to train ourselves on.

Lenin in 1917 coped with this problem. Will we cope, if we suddenly get the chance?

Boris Kagarlitsky is a professor at the Moscow Higher School for Social and Economic Sciences. He is the editor of the online journal and YouTube channel Rabkor. In 1982 he was imprisoned for dissident activities under Brezhnev and later faced arrests both under Yeltsin in 1993 and under Putin in 2021. In 2023 the authorities declared him a “foreign agent” but refused to leave the country, unlike many other critics of the regime. His books in English translation include Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (Pluto Press 2007), From Empires to Imperialism: the State and the Rise of Bourgeois Civilisation (Routledge 2014), and Between Class and Discourse: Left Intellectuals in Defence of Capitalism (Routledge, 2020).


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