Letter to the Editor, New York Times: On “What Was Lenin Thinking?”


Dear Editor,

In Tariq Ali’s April 3, 2017 editorial in the New York Times, Mr. Ali wove together a good story of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Russian ascent to power. Yet Ali’s nearly hagiographic essay is not even really about Leninism but a simplified take on Marxism. Ali’s Leninism (Marxism) reads as a singular, coherent idea whose mission was to act as a foil or alternative to Western capitalism and Russian monarchism.

Ali fails to grapple with the central nexus: Lenin’s innovative idea of a “vanguard,” the point where Lenin’s politics and Marx’s ideology clashed. For Marx left his followers without an explanation for how the rebellious proletariat (working classes) could organize their Socialist/Communist revolt and how they could sleninportrait2ubsequently rule. Lenin’s key innovation was that the “vanguard,” an elite cabal of ideological warrior-thinker-administrators, would serve as the head of the proletariat giant in another Russian Revolution. [As a side note, this kind of revolutionary rule most likely is Steve Bannon’s fantasy when he evangelizes over Leninism.]

With the idea of the “vanguard” of Red rulers, Marxism became Marxism-Leninism with all of its attendant contradictions: the “dictatorship of the people,” the many led by the few, the corrupt and bureaucratic state of apparatchiks, the Party that developed to administer the “vanguard’s” ideas for/over the masses.

Without understanding Lenin’s innovation, historicizing his tortured sense of betrayal by European Marxists who had chosen country over communism during the First World War, Lenin’s often messianic Russian nationalism, his compromises, Ali misses the central quandary: did the Soviet Union abandon Leninism or was it a product of Leninism in real life? Ali crafts an easy morality tale as he vaguely suggests the former while never grappling with the possible consequences of the latter interpretation.


Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, PhD

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