05-01-2016 | Thinking Big

Lenin, if we judge him from his major writings, was a confirmed high modernist. The broad lines of his thought were quite consistent; whether he was writing about revolution, industrial planning, agricultural organization, or administration, he focused on a unitary scientific answer that was known to a trained intelligentsia and that ought to be followed. The Lenin of practice was, of course, something else again. His capacity for sensing the popular mood in fashioning Bolshevik propaganda, for beating a tactical retreat when it seemed prudent, and for striking boldly to seize the advantage was more relevant than his high modernism to his success as a revolutionary. It is Lenin as a high modernist, however, with whom we are primarily concerned.

The major text for the elaboration of Lenin's high-modernist views of revolution is What Is To Be Done? High modernism was integral to the central purpose of Lenin's argument: to convince the Russian left that only a small, selected, centralized, professional cadre of revolutionaries could bring about a revolution in Russia. Written in 1903, well before the "dress rehearsal" revolution of 1905, this view was never entirely abandoned, even under totally different circumstances in 1917 between the February overthrow of czar and the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, when he wrote State and Revolution.

Certain metaphors suffuse Lenin's analysis of the link between the vanguard party and the workers in What Is To Be Done? They set the tone of the work and limit what can be said within its confines. These metaphors center on the classroom and the barracks. The party and its local agitators and propagandists function as schoolteachers capable of raising merely economic complaints to the level of revolutionary political demands, or they function as officers in a revolutionary army who deploy their troops to best advantage.

In their role as teachers, the vanguard party and its newspaper develop a pedagogical style that is decidedly authoritarian. The party analyzes the many and varied popular grievances and, at the right time, "dictates a positive programme of action" that will contribute to a "universal political struggle." In fact, Lenin complained, the party's activists have been woefully inadequate. It is not enough to call the movement a "vanguard," he insisted. "We must act in such a way that all other units of the army shall see us, and be obliged to admit that we are the vanguard." The goal of the vanguard party is to train willing but "backward" proletarians in revolutionary politics so that they will be inducted into an army that will "collect and utilize every grain of even rudimentary protest," thereby creating a disciplined revolutionary army.


Thus the vanguard party not only is essential to the tactical cohesion of the masses but also must literally do their thinking for them. The party functions as an executive elite whose grasp of history and dialectical materialism allows it to devise the correct "war aims" of the class struggle. Its authority is based on its scientific intelligence. Lenin quotes the "profoundly true and important utterances by Karl Kautsky," who said that the proletariat cannot aspire to "modern socialist consciousness" on its own because it lacks the "profound scientific knowledge" required to do so: "The vehicles of science are not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia."

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State p. 147-150

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