Review: Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony

by Viktoria Ivanova • Published 12 January 2017

The very weight of organised numbers in motion, of the masses, can lead to the emergence of unforeseen political forces, possibilities and positions. But a position staked out today can always be invested and transformed tomorrow in accordance with the strategic calculation of an adversary… Leadership in the class struggle thus demands a consciousness open to the struggles of the masses, yet willing, where necessary, to counterpose its own political analysis to their spontaneous movement.[1]

To this day, debates brew within the international left around the meaning of “Leninism” and the value of Lenin’s historical, political and philosophical contribution to Marxism. In this review, I will argue that Shandro’s Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony both aligns with and complements the understanding of Lenin outlined in earlier articles in this journal.[2]

The significance of the book is that, in tracking the development of hegemony in Lenin’s praxis, Shandro portrays Lenin as a theorist as much as a politician.[3] This way of understanding Lenin helps him avoid stale and dogmatic assertions. More importantly, it highlights a method that can be useful for Marxists today, one that goes beyond seeing the achievements of the revolution as a historical anomaly, or the product of a single individual’s ultimately inexplicable genius.

This approach is in contrast to that of historian and academic Lars Lih, whose work has been crucial in pushing against the conception of Lenin as an elitist authoritarian.[4] His detailed attention to the texts is the key to the significance of his work, but this was not without its price. In trying to extract truth from Lenin’s written, work down to the letter, but without a theoretical framework, he has been unable, in my view, to grasp the fundamental features of Leninism and an understanding of the dynamics of class struggle that were central to Lenin’s world view. This also, despite his intentions, opens up his work to being seen as “the last word” on Lenin.[5]

In a way, this is not entirely avoidable. Every account of Lenin and Leninism risks being read in this light. In fact, this points towards the existence of a tension or antinomy characteristic of any textual analysis. A close reading can exclude a conceptual or theoretically deep reading, and vice versa. Pursuing either side of this antinomy in isolation is problematic. This is something Shandro addresses, to his credit. He writes: “Going beyond the letter in this way is vulnerable to the illusory certainties of conventional wisdom and hence, as Gramsci cautioned, to the danger of dilettantism, of arbitrariness and superficiality”.[6] It is my view, however, that Shandro’s awareness of this danger, as well as his consistent and rigorous application of theory and his grounding in the historical and contextual, has largely overcome this problem.

Shandro’s work is framed initially with a breakdown of Kautsky’s orthodoxy, arguing that the latter’s political trajectory was not based on a misunderstanding of praxis so much as an orientation to hegemony which conflicts with that of Lenin. As such, Kautsky is only able to superficially grasp the dynamics of class struggle, seen in the light of a “unilinear logic” whereby the sole path to socialism is also that of least resistance.[7] Shandro also frames his approach to Lenin with a superb attack on post-Marxists, responsible for “decades of postmodern mischief” in which they have tried to purge the Leninist component of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.[8] Shandro’s takedown is thorough and satisfying and worth reading for anyone tackling the post-Marxist political current. However, further discussion of these aspects is not in the scope of this review.

I will not attempt to summarise the whole text, which has a conceptual unity and structure that is meaningful in and of itself. Rather, I will draw out some key areas that highlight the significance of the theory of hegemony in order to encourage a serious study of Shandro’s book. In particular, I will argue that Shandro’s analysis can strengthen our arguments around the dictatorship of the proletariat, which on its own demands an engagement with the theory of hegemony.

Two orientations to hegemony

The origins of the historic split between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks following the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) are often mythologised. The basis for the split is not explicitly clear unless seen in light of two orientations to hegemony. Because of this, there has been a tendency to ascribe a prescience and foresight to Lenin that is superhuman.

Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin struck a different note. He popularised an interpretation of Lenin as elitist prior to 1905. Following Kautsky, it is argued, Lenin believed that socialism would have to be introduced to the working class by intellectuals. Following 1905, he is said to have learned from the class struggle and changed his position.[9] As Lih points out however, the textual record simply does not back up this interpretation.[10]

While Cliff’s version has the advantage of acknowledging that Lenin developed from his experiences in the class struggle, it fails to understand that development in terms of his theory of hegemony. And it is an unnecessary concession to the portrayal of Lenin as authoritarian, at least until 1905. It also misses the conceptual significance of the split, which reflected the historical context of Russia and went beyond the understanding of its participants.[11]

Specifically, the context was a “revisionist crisis in international social democracy…with the newly apparent threat of a rival, bourgeois-liberal hegemonic project”.[12] This allows us to grasp the concrete significance of the pre-1905 debates. On the surface, Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? is an attack on Economism and an argument for centralisation and party discipline. Yet, on a deeper level, it was a conflict about two very different approaches to proletarian hegemony within the leadership of the RSDLP. Lenin saw this debate as a necessary precondition for unity.

Economism held that social democratic consciousness would emerge in the working class as an organic and natural result of economic organisation and struggle. While not identical with Menshevism by any means, as Shandro outlines, the economist approach lined up with the Mensheviks’ approach to hegemony and leadership, which was to “facilitate the self-activity of the workers…thereby stimulating their class-consciousness”.[13]

On one end, the Mensheviks were arguing for a decentralised party model, which put primacy on workplace struggles scattered across the country. Workers would learn through strikes and direct conflict with the bosses. This approach assumed a harmonious relationship between the development of socialist consciousness and working class self-activity. It was akin to Kautsky’s organic, gradualist and evolutionary conceptualisation of hegemony and ultimately meant the Mensheviks shrank from the key political issues of the day.

On the other end, for Lenin, the overthrow of tsarism and political and organisational questions of legality and the state were central. He emphasised the revolutionary newspaper, Iskra, as a unifying and party-building institution pitched primarily around the democratic revolution. He argued that to do otherwise would be to tail the working class, which was already fighting around this question, and to cede vital ground to political opponents. And this was proven when the Mensheviks fell in line behind the liberal-bourgeois Kadet party after the upheavals of 1905 subsided.[14]

This did not arise from a lack of Marxist theory on the part of the Mensheviks. In fact, they saw themselves as defenders of the same orthodoxy as Lenin. The key difference is that for Lenin, theory always has to be related to the concrete needs of class struggle in a given conjuncture. This is what hegemony meant for him. The Mensheviks’ conception was more formal and rigid and consisted in the abstract application of theory to a given circumstance. Ultimately, they left “the working-class ship bereft of a theoretical rudder”.[15]

This initial debate, which revealed Lenin’s revolutionary concept of hegemony, despite occurring early in the history of the RSDLP, contained in embryo differences which would later become actualised in very different concrete situations. Shandro uses the primary examples of the peasant movement and the soviets to illustrate this, emphasising the strengthening of Lenin’s insistence upon concrete analysis of concrete situations. He quotes Lenin in 1906:

Absolutely hostile to all abstract formulas and to all doctrinaire recipes, Marxism demands an attentive attitude to the mass struggle in progress, which, as the movement develops, as the class consciousness of the masses grows, as economic and political crises become acute, continually gives rise to new and more varied methods of defence and attack… Under no circumstances does Marxism confine itself to the forms of struggle possible and in existence at a given moment, recognising as it does that new forms of struggle, unknown to the participants of the given period, inevitably arise as the given social situation changes. In this respect Marxism learns…from mass practice.[16]

This isn’t to telescope Lenin in 1905 into Lenin in 1917, but rather to discover an initial and still immediate concept of hegemony which would become concretised over the next two decades. Without this further development, Lenin’s initial concept of hegemony would have become a footnote in history at best.

At this stage, it is worth briefly discussing Shandro’s critique of Lukács in his understanding of the split in the RSDLP. Although this is not a large part of Shandro’s argument, it is of interest given the importance of Lukács as a theorist of Lenin.[17]

Shandro objects to one of Lukács’ formulations, where he locates the essential difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism in the revolutionary will and single-mindedness of party activists:

The emphasis he [Lenin] places upon the single-minded devotion of revolutionaries suggests the real thrust of his argument, that Lenin’s definition was the juridical expression and the Bolshevik organisation the institutional embodiment of revolutionary will and activity.[18]

Shandro connects this with Lukács’ concept, “the actuality of revolution”. Based on this critique, he argues that Lukács, while clearly not a Menshevik himself, inhabits the same conceptual universe. This has its philosophical dimension in Lukács’ well-known and commonly criticised concept of the proletariat as the identical subject-object of history. Shandro, like others, sees this as prefigurative and as an idealist imposition on the real working class.

Unfortunately, Shandro’s critique is not based on the same careful reading that he insists upon when it comes to Lenin. In the same page from which Shandro quotes, Lukács goes on to insist that Lenin’s concept of the party is thoroughly opposed to Blanquist models which privilege “intelligent” revolutionaries at the expense of the masses. Lukács writes:

[Blanquism] misses the core of Lenin’s concept of party organization simply because, as Lenin said, the group of professional revolutionaries does not for one moment have the task of either ‘making’ the revolution, or – by their own independent, bold actions – of sweeping the inactive masses along to confront them with a revolutionary fait accompli. Lenin’s concept of party organization presupposes the fact – the actuality – of the revolution.[19] [emphasis in the original]

This concept, actuality of revolution, is regularly misunderstood. In fact, it is a historic periodisation – not an injunction to revolutionary will. Similarly, Lukács’ argument about the proletariat as the subject-object of history ought to be understood not as a statement of fact but in terms of a process of education in which the proletariat becomes the agent of praxis. In this sense, the theory is roughly equivalent to Shandro’s understanding of hegemony.

This isn’t the place to go into detail on these debates. Suffice to say, as the above quote suggests, there is a very strong case to be made that Lukács’ concept of revolution is thoroughly democratic; neither the party nor philosophy are transcendental terms for Lukács. Rather, they only have significance in relation to the class consciousness and praxis of the proletariat.

The case for such a reading of Lukács has been made in this journal, and it is part of a tradition which includes Merleau-Ponty, Goldmann and Andrew Feenberg, among others, who have contested the interpretation of Lukács as an idealist and voluntarist. Raising this is not intended to discredit Shandro’s book, as Lukács occupies a very small place in his work. Rather, it is intended to open a pathway. Lukács’ conceptualisation of Lenin remains one of the most important in the twentieth century, and it would no doubt be fruitful to view it in light of Shandro and Gramsci.

Spontaneity and consciousness in the class struggle

If the relation between consciousness and the spontaneous movement is essentially contradictory, then spontaneity must be recognised as a potential site not just of difficulty and danger, but also of criticism, experiment and invention. The point is not that there is something, pure spontaneity or particularity, that is in principle beyond the grasp of theory, but rather that no one, neither the Marxist activist nor the Marxist party can hope to grasp everything, politically or cognitively, at once.[20]

Shandro here identifies the antinomy between spontaneity and consciousness, though he does not express it in these Lukácsian terms. This antinomy should be viewed in light of the role of the party and intellectuals in relation to uneven class consciousness and the task of relating to the class struggle and masses in motion.

The difficulty with antinomies is that each side is abstract and presupposes the other. As such, the resolution of an antinomy ought to be a genuine synthesis; a new concrete term. With regard to the above antinomy, the Leninist party primarily inhabits the side of consciousness. There is no point in denying this, although in light of spontaneous struggle, there may arise an ultra-democratic temptation to dissolve the consciousness of the party.

This temptation proves that spontaneous struggle may at times be politically more radical and significant than the isolated consciousness of the party. Rosa Luxemburg picked up on this, articulated in The Mass Strike. Lenin was acutely aware of this fact, always pointing to the popular movement and the revolutionary fervour of the working class. But the problem in liquidating the party, or conversely refusing to engage with a serious rival political force on battleground not of the party’s choosing, is that it denies and further obscures the messy realities of class struggle. This can only jeopardise the capacity for the working class to establish hegemony.

Every political formation thrown up in a revolution is a real force that has a real basis in society. There is no wishing them away. For Lenin, this, more than anything else, was the beauty of spontaneous struggle. It throws up forces that rally around real, concrete and immediate goals. The point of the party and Marxist theory is to illuminate the right path in these concrete situations, in the context of a real debate, and to present this to the working class so that they can recognise their own interests and make a choice. Perhaps The April Theses is one of the clearest and most successful examples of this political methodology.

Lenin’s approach relied on complete trust in the working class to consciously decide the right path, provided they can be sure the party has understood their interests the best. At times when workers fall behind reformist forces, it is not from their lack of socialist consciousness, but more often than not a failure on the part of the revolutionary party to take up their immediate needs and the immediate questions of the day.

At the point during 1905 in which Lenin argued for the party to be opened up to masses of newly radicalising workers, he acknowledged that, even for workers without socialist consciousness, provided they were willing to fight for social democracy, they would represent a positive force in the party: “The workers, who – unlike intellectuals – would not rest content with a mere solution in principle, must take the issue of party unity in hand”.[21]

This also was an acknowledgement of the distinct structural transformation of the Bolshevik party, from small bands of intellectuals to a vanguard party. Lenin writes: “We have ‘theorised’ for so long (sometimes – why not admit it? – to no use) in the unhealthy atmosphere of political exile, that it will really not be amiss if we now ‘bend the bow’ slightly…‘the other way’ and put practice a little more in the forefront”.[22]

For Lenin, the truth is always concrete; the party’s theory needs to be applied to a real situation in its whole totality. Hence why he saw no risk, in periods of upswing in struggle, of opening the party to the masses – for the reason that the masses were already in possession of a higher truth that simply needed to be articulated and made conscious.

All this considered, Lenin was neither for abandoning theory nor the intellectuals of the party. In fact, it was the strength of theory that made it possible to open up to the spontaneity of the working class. Theory and practice were not counterposed in an abstract or absolute sense. In so far as there was a contradiction, it was a dialectical one: Lenin insisted that theory had to develop and concretise in light of the class struggle and spontaneity. This is very different from demanding that theory be submerged or that one’s political position be abandoned in light of spontaneous struggle.

This approach meant that Lenin was not afraid of conflict, as it was only conflict which could provide clarity and open up new possibilities for the class struggle. As a consequence, for the party, democracy was not about consent or everyone agreeing. Rather, the point was to clearly identify differences and positions and to demarcate the Marxist camp as a clear and concrete pole of attraction in order to further proletarian hegemony. Shandro writes: “The advent of democracy did not signal the end of social conflicts but it opened the forum that, in contrast to authoritarian political forms, permitted these conflicts to be engaged consciously”.[23]

The decision by the Bolsheviks to dissolve the Constituent Assembly following the October revolution, when viewed in light of this, goes a long way to dispelling the myth that the Bolsheviks were undemocratic or authoritarian. Rather, it was a recognition of the development of proletarian hegemony, in the form of soviets, that was pushing the limits of human organisation beyond the bourgeois concept of parliamentary democracy. Shandro quotes Lenin:

He who confines the class to an arena, the bounds, forms and shape of which are determined or permitted by the liberals, does not understand the tasks of the class. Only he understands the tasks of the class who directs its attention (and consciousness and practical activity, etc.) to the need for so reconstructing this very arena, its entire form, its entire shape, as to extend beyond the limits allowed by liberals… [T]he difference between the two formulations…[consists in] the very fact, among other things, that the first excludes the idea of “hegemony” of the working class, whereas the second deliberately defines this very idea.[24]

On soviets and the state

Maintaining the commitment to proletarian hegemony was necessary even when, if not especially when, the working class began to organise into soviets in 1905 and in so doing thoroughly alter the political terrain. The existence of soviets begins to allow the overcoming of the antinomy between spontaneity and consciousness, as they are institutions in which the working class and other strata may form their own consciousness distinct from the bourgeois state. They already represent a partial synthesis of theory and practice.

But as Lenin would continually emphasise, a higher form of struggle was to be found in the conflict between the soviets and the provisional government. The key question here is state power and the existence of the soviets casts this question in a much more concrete light. Under conditions of dual power, opposing bourgeois hegemony is no longer an abstract goal but something that could be actualised through concrete political battles.

Dual power is essentially a contest between political class forces. Opportunist political positions, such as those taken up by the Mensheviks, can win influence over the working class which has yet to comprehend its own interests politically. In this contest, clarity is directly connected to real power exercised by a political force and its ability to lead broad masses. For example, during the Kornilov coup, the political clarity of the Bolshevik party allowed it to lead a much broader resistance which in turn bolstered the power of the working class and the revolutionary faction in the soviets.

It is important to emphasise, as Shandro does, that “the proletarian character of these institutions [soviets] is to be sought not in the class exclusiveness of their membership, but precisely in their openness to the heterogeneous ensemble of the people”.[25] This acknowledges two things: firstly, that the working class is a universal class, capable of ultimately breaking down class distinctions. Secondly, that soviets educate the proletariat in forming their own politics and policies in relation to other classes. They are therefore the embryo of a workers’ state.

To illustrate how this differs from bourgeois hegemony, Shandro evokes Lenin where he compares the eviction of a working class family by the capitalist state with the instalment of a poor family in the house of a wealthy man. For the former, under capitalism, armed forces are brought in externally with no regard for the conditions of those who are being evicted. For the latter:

Lenin would have us imagine a squad of workers’ militia fifteen strong, two soldiers, two sailors, two class-conscious workers, one a party sympathiser, a student, and the rest working people, at least five women, domestic servants, unskilled labourers. They inspect the apartment, arrive at a reasonable allocation of space, socialise access to the telephone, and assign light duties to the unemployed members of the wealthy family; this “state order” is drawn up in duplicate by the student and a written declaration of compliance with the order demanded.[26]

The key here is that the process of smashing the state is not bureaucratic or top-down despite the need for bureaucracy. Rather, via soviet organisation, it has the positive potential of imbuing workers and the oppressed with confidence in their workers’ state.

Courage in the class struggle

There was a split in the international working class movement following the October revolution, centred around the nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Shandro argues that Lenin extends his approach to “freedom of criticism” in What Is To Be Done? to further his argument for proletarian hegemony in this context of a transition towards a classless society.

The tension lies in “the desirability of constitutional liberties and the irreconcilability of the class struggle”.[27] For Kautsky, in opposition to Lenin, this was to be overcome with the application of a liberal conceptualisation of democracy, which he counterposed to dictatorship. It is an abstraction of the political form which fails to move beyond the bounds of bourgeois order: “[s]ubordinating the class struggle to an abstraction of political equality…gives expression to a quixotic yearning for an imaginary reconciliation of class interests characteristic of the petty bourgeois”.[28]

Lenin is clear: “[T]here can be no real, actual equality until all possibility of the exploitation of one class by another has been totally destroyed”.[29] Democracy, in light of this, needs to be concretely considered in terms of the class struggle and the logic of hegemony. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press and other political rights necessarily need to be repressed for the former exploiter class. It is important they are treated as a class and “consequently, the infringement of ‘pure democracy’, i.e. of equality and freedom, in regard to that class”.[30]

Conversely, for the ruling proletariat, the formation of a new society needs to be open-ended, open to the innovations of the actors involved in its development. This means laws and decisions on the nature of its rule are to be worked out throughout the course of the revolution, rather than dictated from the start according to a blueprint. In this sense, it is an acknowledgment that the dictatorship of the proletariat has a constructive aspect that goes beyond just the oppression of the bourgeoisie and deterring a counterrevolution.

In fact, Shandro argues that there is a direct relationship between repression and the unleashing of “popular self-confidence, the people’s courage for politics”.[31] It is not just that the oppression of one class or individual enables another. Rather, force can function “as a conduit of solidarity and as a resource for collective action and collective heroism”.[32] Shandro uses the example of a picket and enforcing an anti-scab rule to illustrate this:

[The workers] direct the threat at themselves as much or more than at others – but the constraint can serve, if not as the foundation of their confidence in each other, then as a more or less effective means of consolidating it against the employer’s attempts to play upon…desperation and personal tragedy. It can serve to knit together the threads of the strike community.[33]

This is addressing the antinomy of force and consent as theorised by Gramsci, where neither can be viewed in isolation from the other. The overcoming of this antinomy, as always, has to be grounded in a concrete situation and measured against the requirements of proletarian hegemony. Shandro makes it clear that when excessive force is no longer matched with consent and “the repressive aspect eclipses its enabling aspect, force, no longer encouraging, becomes demoralising”.[34]

Shandro stresses – acknowledging the difficulties of Russia, but that no revolution unfolds outside a crisis – that there is no guarantee of success here: “while the Bolsheviks were able to fashion useful analytical tools and plough up a wealth of experience and insight upon which future attempts can draw, they proved unable to master its contradictions”.[35]

Leninism today

Any debates around Lenin and Leninism are less historical than they are indicative of political positions and approaches to theory and practice today. In light of this, Marxists have a lot to gain from engaging with Shandro’s contribution. It helps resist the pull of dogmatism and orthodoxy in light of theory and concrete analysis which is firmly grounded in the reality of class society and the logic of class struggle.

Part of the significance of Lenin’s opening up of theory and practice to the experience of the working class struggle, which he did through his understanding of hegemony, was admitting that he did not have all the answers. Even though a term like hegemony is a good conceptualisation of Lenin and his method, it is necessarily incomplete. Moreover, the fact that Lenin realised this is partly what enabled him to go as far as he did.

[T]he Marxist vanguard party could no longer be conceived as representing the resolution of the essential contradictions of the historical process. It would have to be seen, instead, as a guide to action, organising the independent political intervention of the working class within a complex and shifting web of interrelated contradictions. What type and what locus of activity…could only be determined in the context of a concrete analysis, informed by the politico-strategic logic of struggle for hegemony, of a concrete situation.[36]

Bloodworth, Sandra 2013, “Lenin vs ‘Leninism’”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2014, “Lenin and a theory of revolution for the West”, Marxist Left Review, 8, Winter.

Cliff, Tony 2002, Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914, Haymarket Books.

Le Blanc, Paul 2015, “Lenin’s revolutionary Marxism”, International Socialist Review, 97, Summer.

Lih, Lars T. 2008, Lenin Rediscovered. What Is to Be Done? in Context, Haymarket Books.

Lopez, Daniel 2014, “George Lukács’ theory of revolution”, Marxist Left Review, 8, Winter.

Lukács, Georg 1970, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought, NLB.

Oakley, Corey 2013, “What kind of organisation do socialists need?”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer.

Shandro, Alan 2015, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle, Haymarket Books.

[1] Shandro 2015, p2.

[2] This may surprise some readers as Shandro’s “early political life revolved around French or at least ‘Francophile’ Maoism”; this has led him towards Althusserianism (established via email correspondence with Shandro). I recommend reading Sandra Bloodworth’s two main articles on Leninism in earlier editions of this journal together. Bloodworth 2014, Bloodworth 2013. Corey Oakley, in his article “What kind of organisation do socialists need?”, draws on Lenin’s theory to argue for a political approach today. Oakley 2013.

[3] Shandro uses Gramscian terms, describing the “[anti-]metaphysical event” as “something like a shift in the relation between theory and practice that establishes a ‘philosophical fact’, a practical-conceptual field, open to analysis of the nuances of the relation of leadership and hence of political agency”. Shandro 2015, p2.

[4] This review is being written in the context of an in-depth reading group that has engaged with Lih’s book Lenin Rediscovered as a key text. Lih 2008.

[5] This criticism was addressed by Paul Le Blanc in his review of Shandro’s book. Le Blanc 2015.

[6] Shandro 2015, p24.

[7] Shandro 2015, p24.

[8] ibid., p316.

[9] Cliff 2002.

[10] Lih 2008.

[11] Shandro 2015, p166.

[12] ibid.,p26.

[13] ibid., p195.

[14] ibid., p195.

[15] ibid., p75.

[16] ibid., p248.

[17] Daniel Lopez writes specifically about Lukács’ theory of revolution, while Sandra Bloodworth utilises Lukács’ theories in her writing on Leninism. Lopez 2014, Bloodworth 2014.

[18] Shandro 2015, p178.

[19] Lukács 1970, p26.

[20] Shandro 2015, p78.

[21] ibid., p238.

[22] ibid., p238.

[23] ibid., p51.

[24] ibid., p245.

[25] ibid., p281.

[26] ibid., p283.

[27] ibid., p290.

[28] ibid., p299.

[29] ibid., p300.

[30] ibid., p301.

[31] ibid., p303.

[32] ibid., p304.

[33] ibid.

[34] ibid.

[35] ibid., p290.

[36] ibid., p196.

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