One hundred years since Lenin’s death, Nigerian socialist Abiodun Olamosu describes the revolutionary's influence on his own political development.
Originally published in ROAPE.
Not long after I joined the socialist movement as a student at the Polytechnic of Ibadan in 1980, I was introduced to Marxist literature at the Progressive and Socialist Bookshop which was the sole depot of many left-wing publishers from UK, USSR and China that included Zed Books. By the time I entered university as a mature student, I had already worked as a full-time revolutionary assisting Ola Oni, a foremost Marxist revolutionary and scholar at the University of Ibadan where he lectured. He also owned the bookshop.
My generation were inspired by the history of Russia, the only country that achieved a successful socialist revolution in October 1917. We believed in the cause, and we thought we could replicate the revolution in Nigeria.
The Russian revolution of 1917 became clear to us through access to cheap books by the foremost socialist revolutionaries including Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin, Gorky, and other volumes by Russian writers published by Progress Publishers in Moscow. This was unlike any publisher from the West who charged a fortune for their books.
As a worker I was able to purchase the forty-five volumes of Lenin’s collected works, three volumes of Das Capital by Marx – his major works on political economy – and other works by Engels.
Lenin was a household name amongst comrades across the country, so there was no book that had his signature as the author that did not sell. I usually reserved a copy of any newly published volume of Lenin’s work in advance. His collected works served a useful purpose as reference on theoretical matters but also as a guide in practical struggles. Notable of his books and which I recall sold in their thousands, included his classics, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism and State and Revolution. The close rival at the time remained The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
Across our offices, in our rooms, in the corridors and decorating meetings were posters of Lenin, Mandela and Marx published by the bookshop which were in higher demand than others including Amílcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, Che Guevara, and Kwame Nkrumah.
Lenin remains one of the most brilliant contributors to Marxism as a distinguished original thinker in the area of imperialism, philosophy, the national question, trade union(ism), religion, state and revolution, education and the student movement. In truth, he has no equal in revolutionary politics, which as students we realised was the very reason he was able to win the revolution in Russia. His personal life was intertwined with his political activities.
My readings of the many biographies on Lenin at the university library in the 1980s further exposed me to the aspects of his life and revolutionary activities. Possibly for this reason I became determined to emulate Lenin by becoming a fulltime revolutionary, no other work interested me, and I was determined to advance the cause of the class struggle for socialism and revolution in Nigeria.
We looked to Lenin as an organiser of the revolution, and the revolutionary party. He was an inspiration to us in Nigeria, and we saw our conditions – though dramatically different – as sharing some elements with early Russian industrialisation, and the development of class consciousness.
What are the lessons from Lenin’s life?
While the bourgeois scholars and the press in the West could deceive a generation over their misrepresentation of Karl Marx a ‘reformist’ and simple scholar, they struggled to malign Lenin in the same way. After all, he had been a fulltime revolutionary who had combined theory with practice, but most importantly because he was able to lead a revolution in his own lifetime.
Lenin moved into revolutionary politics because of the murder of his older brother, Aleksandr Ilyich Ulyanov. His brother was executed along with other leading members of the Narodniks (a left-wing terrorist group) whose strategy of struggle hinged on the assassination of the Tsar and other senior figure of the government who personified the system of oppression and exploitation.
Lenin was expelled from his legal studies at the university and embraced Marxism in the 1890s, making a clear departure from of politics of the Narodniks who had dominated revolutionary politics in Russia. The Narodniks had as their main concentration the peasantry, and even when they turned to the working class, it was never to help organise the class to fight for their liberation but to sympathise with the cause to liberate the peasantry.
These were lessons we understood well in Nigeria.
Lenin started his revolutionary activities as a Marxist with four other pioneering members that included Julius Martov and Krzhizhanovsky. They started by forming study groups with workers from the industrial areas especially in the growing cities of Tsarist Russia. They were able to produce leaflets and newspapers that helped the agitation, propaganda, and education of the rank-and-file working class. What separated their method from that of educated elites of the Narodniks and Decembrists was that the working class had the revolutionary duty to liberate themselves.
Marxist revolutionaries built within the ranks of the working class itself. Lenin’s wife was one of those. With these methods, the labour movement was organised and grew in strength while the number of strikes increased with thousands, and tens of thousands of workers involved in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
The first broad socialist group – the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party – grew in strength to challenge the system. The party later broken into two, one faction led by Lenin and the other by Martov. These two groups were known as Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority) respectively. At first the break was because of disagreements on organisational perspectives and how to constitute a revolutionary party. But as time went by the opportunism of the Mensheviks revealed itself, and differences widened on a range of issues.
Lenin saw the Bolsheviks supporting a political party with fulltime revolutionaries constituting the core of the leadership of the party. As a young militant and revolutionary, I saw October 1917 occurring because of the revolutionary processes in Russia and across the world over decades, but importantly emerging from the work and involvement of the Bolsheviks. In addition, Lenin understood that the Russian revolution could only emerge from the revolutionary struggles of February1917 and the great ‘dress rehearsal’ in 1905 from which revolutionaries and the working class of October had learnt many great lessons.
Nevertheless, we saw the role of Lenin in leading the revolution as underscoring the position an individual can make in a social movement. This informed Leon Trotsky’s blunt statement: there would not have been October 1917 without Lenin. Trotsky was highlighting the enormous role that Lenin played in the revolutionary struggles of his era.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks not only achieved a revolution in Russia but underlined the potentialities of the working class in making a revolution in the weakest, peripheral areas of the capitalist world. Revolutionary possibilities in Nigeria – and much of Africa, and the Third World – was interpreted in this light. Though our Russian comrades were also aware that socialism could only truly be won internationally by spreading of the revolution to the developed capitalist countries. Revolutionary ‘permanence’, and internationalism, was a resolutely Leninist idea, rather than one original to Trotsky.
So the revolutionary state of Russia could at best be regarded as a socialist government-in-transition. Unfortunately, two important events broke this ‘transition’. This included the European invasion organised with the military forces of the White Guards to attack Russia with the objective of crushing the revolution in the years immediately following 1917. Though they failed in their efforts and the new Soviet state won the war, it came at a huge price for the revolution in the sacrifices made by the working people. The isolation of the revolution, and its failure to spread to other countries was also a factor in the rise of the bureaucracy with Stalin as its preeminent leader.
Joseph Stalin railroaded himself to power and led the great betrayal of the revolutionary process in Russia and the world. By the late 1930s, Stalin was the only former Bolshevik who had served with Lenin during the Russian revolution, having orchestrated the murder of almost every other leading Bolshevik. He led a government that became dictatorial and reduced the internationalist socialist tendency to ‘socialism in one country’. State capitalism was rationalised as socialism and as a model for other countries who were influenced by Soviet communism.
What an abomination to the body of ideas of Marxism and socialist internationalism! But as a young militant discovering this history, it was an important and hard lesson.
By the time Stalin consolidated himself in power he personified the brutal and autocratic state, and the degeneration to the revolution. Stalin and Stalinism was exported from the Soviet Union as communism until 1989.
Yet the rise of the bureaucracy in Russia was predicted by Lenin before his death and his polemics against the bureaucracy are among his most powerful final works. Before he died, he quickly tried to develop policies which could undermine the growth of the Soviet bureaucracy. He proposed the end to a standing army to be replaced with a militia of working people; no public official should earn more than the average worker, and above all the nationalised economy should be managed and put under the control of working people. Nationalisation without workers control was state capitalism.
These were the lessons we took from Lenin as students and revolutionaries in the 1980s in Nigeria. and they remain vital to us today.
Abiodun Olamosu is a leading Marxist activist in Nigeria and the Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the Centre for Social Policy and Labour Research. He is the National Secretary of Socialist Labour. Read a detailed interview with him on roape.net here.