Routes to Socialism 1: The October Revolution: Critiques and Analysis.

Room 1.29, Law & Politics Building
Time Slot: 
Monday 26th March 09:30 - 11:00
Panel Chair: 
  • Professor Terrell Carver (University of Bristol)
Panel Members: 
  • Professor Mark Cowling (Teesside University)
  • Dr Paul Raekstad (University of Amsterdam)
  • Dr David Bates (Canterbury Christ Church University)


Convenors: Dr David Bates (Canterbury Christ Church University); Professor Mark Cowling (Teesside University).


The question of how progress from capitalism to socialism might be achieved has been much debated.  The route originally charted by Marx and Engels was that of revolution, and October 1917 (old-style calendar) was the first of a whole series of socialist revolutions in the 20th century, the high tide of which came in the 1970s.  However, there are numerous questions about these revolutions which are still debated.  One is that it was widely assumed that a revolution in one country would be rapidly followed by revolutions in the other leading capitalist countries.  However, the only successful revolution which followed the Russian revolution at all rapidly was one in Mongolia.

Other issues concerning the Revolution to be discussed in this panel are ways in which it was flawed, and the fraught relations between Lenin and the anarchists.

Mark Cowling (Teesside University, retired) “Rosa Luxemburg and the failed German revolution of 1919)”.  (By Skype).


Marxists generally assumed that a socialist revolution in one country would be rapidly followed by revolutions in (at least) a large number of other countries.  The most promising country in the West, and the most crucial one for Russia was Germany.  In many respects, conditions in Germany looked ideal.  There was widespread agreement that the semi-autocratic regime of the Kaiser had to go.  Much suffering was caused by the continuing Allied blockade.  The largest parties were the various socialist parties.  And a potential German revolution had excellent leadership from Rosa Luxemburg.  Luxemburg was recognised as a leading Marxist theorist.  Her ideas about the mass strike offered a democratic way forward from economic discontent to political change.  She had a genuine commitment to liberal freedoms other than economic freedom.

So why was the German revolution an ignominious failure?  The paper considers a number of reasons.  These include:

o     a German love of order, for sound historical reasons.

o     The vast majority of Germans wanted to attain their political goals by means of liberal democracy.

o     Luxemburg’s economic theories gave her excessive confidence in the inevitability of revolution.

o     Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others felt that they were leading the masses, whereas they were leading a disorganised mob motivated by an immediate desire for gain from, for example, looting.



Paul Raekstad (University of Amsterdam) A Vanguard Revolution? Michael Lebowitz’ Critique of the Vanguard Marxism


       The Russian Revolution, one of the most important social and political events in recent human history, is 100 years old this year. On such a momentous occasion, it’s worth looking at it with an eye to what it has to teach us in light of the goals we share with the Russian revolutionaries. This is important for several reasons. Recent years have seen the publication of some outstanding reassessments of Lenin’s thought and actions and another international capitalist crisis that has re-ignited critiques of capitalism as a mode of production, along with speculations about what to put in its place. We have seen the growth of a range of anti-capitalist and other radical social and political movements, from Occupy and the Movement of the Squares to Black Lives Matter and struggles for ecological democracy and justice. This has brought with it vital new debates about Marxism and socialist strategy, which this paper is concerned with.

       This paper discusses Michael Lebowitz’ analysis and critique of what he terms Vanguard Marxism, of which Lenin is considered to be a key representative. Lebowitz criticises Vanguard Marxism for being one-sided, ignoring the importance of human development and praxis. This is connected to vanguard Marxism’s inadequately dialectical world-view. Thirdly, vanguard Marxism takes on its own class perspective – not that of capitalists or proletarian self-emancipation, but that of the vanguard itself – a perspective which is authoritarian, and legitimates installing authoritarian vanguard relations instead of free and democratic, socialist ones.

       After presenting Lebowitz’ critique of Vanguard Marxism, I consider that critique in light of recent works that aim to defend Lenin in particular against charges of authoritarianism, over-centralisation, etc. Here I argue that although these works shed much new and interesting light on Lenin, and do indeed respond well to prominent critiques of his thought and work, they do not suffice to defend either Lenin or Vanguard Marxism more broadly against Lebowitz’ three-pronged critique.

       Finally, I consider what import Lebowitzs critique can and should have for revolutionary Marxist theory and practice in the 21st Century. First, this should lead us to think about Marxism from the perspective of a body of theory committed first and foremost to human development and human self-emancipation. Second, we should foreground the theory of practice, and this should inform the way we think about social change. In particular, the theory or practice needs to be put to work in thinking about how we structure the deliberation, decision-making, and wider culture of our organisations and movements, and the impacts this will have on developing participants’ capacities, needs, and interests. This should lead us to a third point, which is to take another look at those forms of Marxism that Vanguard Marxism often ignored and suppressed, such as autonomism, council communism, and left Marxism, as well as the growing dialogue between Marxism and collectivist strands of anarchism. These have distinct weaknesses and shortcomings, but they have important experiments and lessons to offer about organisational structure and human development through revolutionary practice.

Dr David Bates (Canterbury Christchurch University)  

Lenin and the Anarchists




The relationship between Marxism and anarchism has been an acrimonious one. Marx’s conflicts with Proudhon and with Bakunin were perhaps as much psychological as political and philosophical. The initial fissure between Marxism and anarchism came about in the context of the second half of the nineteenth century. Bakunin’s conflict with Marx in the First International has been written about extensively (See Thomas, 1980). The paper will explore how the initial antagonism between Marx and the anarchists comes to be operationalised by Lenin before, during, and after 1917. In 1901, Lenin wrote: ‘What has anarchism, at one time dominant in the Romance countries, contributed in recent European history? – No doctrine, revolutionary teaching, or theory. – Fragmentation of the working-class movement. – Complete fiasco in the experiments of the revolutionary movement (Proudhonism, 1871; Bakuninism, 1873) - Subordination of the working class to bourgeois politics in the guise of negation of politics.’ (Lenin, 1901)Lenin held to this view and put his opposition to anarchism into practice as he moved to consolidate Bolshevik hegemony in Russia. The construction of the strange historical fiction of Marxism-Leninism allows for a discursive and indeed material silencing (always partial) of anarchism. This is a silencing which comes to reach beyond Russia, to all those revolutionary movements influenced by Marxism-Leninism. The paper will then go on to revisit aspects of Lenin (and Leninism) in the context of contemporary social movements, along with providing some thoughts regarding the relationship between Marxism and anarchism today.  



V.I. Lenin (1901) Anarchism and Socialism. See: 

Lenin: Anarchism and Socialism (1901) Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (1901).

Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980).