I love Lenin. That said, this is probably going to annoy some of my Lenin-loyalist comrades.
But here it goes, I would like to say something in the defense of Julius Martov, leader of the Mensheviks and one of Lenin’s political rivals.
I want to stress that I do love Lenin, but to pretend that Lenin’s ideas were perfect would be shallow and nearsighted. While I think Lenin’s ideas for a centralized party with strong leadership should be the heart of any socialist organization, where I disagree with Lenin is where I think Martov was right.
A Brief History Lesson
The split between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks began when Lenin and Martov disagreed about the structural model of the Social Democratic Labour Party. Lenin wanted party membership to only be open to people dedicated to committing time and labor to the party. Martov was open to a broader party membership, his idea was that anyone who was willing to adopt the party platform as their own should be allowed to call themselves party members.
Why Martov was Right
As someone who believes the future of socialism depends on a mass movement of the working class engaging in class politics and revolutionary organizing, I see a wide membership as a necessity to revolution. This is one of the reasons why the Democratic Socialists of America is now the most popular socialist organization, there are no bars to entry and the organization meets members where they are at.
It is important to have dedicated members committed to the internal mechanisms of the organization, those individuals deserve as much praise as the people who are constantly taking on forward facing positions within the movement, such as writers or direct action leaders. We do not give enough support to organizers who dedicate their time to internal work like volunteer their time to make organizations run.
However, having both dedicated members and on paper members increases the ground one organization can cover. The dues paid by on paper members can supplement the labor of the dedicated membership, it is both a more sustainable model of organization and a more democratic one.
Lenin is right about many things, but limiting membership of the party was not one of them.
Why Lenin Was Right
With that said, I do think Lenin was on to something by limiting party membership to those who dedicate the energy, heart and soul, into the party. While I do not think organizational membership should be limited to anyone, I do think that organizing power from the bottom on up means that a large organizational membership comes back to a strong organizational center where leadership is elected and that leadership both operates the organization and is subject to the democratic scrutiny of the membership.
Yes, this is an argument for a revolutionary vanguard but it is also an argument for making sure that the vanguard is facing constant scrutiny from their constituents.
Some will disagree with that model / definition of “organizing from the bottom on up” and will instead argue in favor of a more anarchist, horizontal model of organization. This reasoning is flawed because all horizontal models of organization lead to a tyranny of structurelessness.
I support Lenin’s idea of the vanguard and I think a vanguard should be the people who dedicate their time and energy to building the mechanisms of the party, but it is up to the masses of the organization to hold leadership accountable.
The Best of Both Worlds
One cannot hope to do anything for the working class, especially in America, unless a majoritarian mass movement is driving the work. This is why Martov’s model is important, a wide party / organizational membership increases public legitimacy of the word socialism and puts socialists in a stronger bargaining position. We need a dedicated vanguard leadership, and we need a large party / organizational membership to take action on behalf of that vanguard.
Martov had a perfectly valid point about party membership. The more people on paper calling themselves socialists the stronger the socialist movement is. Lenin had a point that leaders of a party should be the people who are the most dedicated, but limiting membership to socialist organizations limits democractic capabilites. If your socialism lacks democracy, it is not socialism. This is why organizations like the Party of Socialism and Liberation will never evolve into a mass movement. To join the party you are required to go through a 6 month education process. Their organization will never be larger than what it already is because while you will end up with a dedicated membership, there will inevitably be massive drop-off because making demands of your membership is far less democratic that meeting them where they are at.
It should also be noted this one analysis of one school of socialism in one country from a century ago. The scope of socialism is bigger than Lenin and the Russian Revolution, especially in America and especially now as the George Floyd Rebellion continues to dismantle the institutions of white supremacy in America. Socialists should do their due diligence and look to thinkers and socialist histories of other organizations, especially the Black Panthers or the Pan African Movement. However I will always maintain that the Russian Revolution was without a doubt one of the most successful revolutions in world history and at such a revolutionary time as this moment, it makes perfect sense to study the theories of men like Lenin or Martov.