Lenin and the Partisanship of Freedom

Freedom is openly partisan: this is the apparently paradoxical key to Lenin’s argument concerning freedom. Contrary to one of the more popular recent assessments of Lenin on freedom,[1] the crucial issue is not the distinction between actual and formal freedom, but on what happens with freedom after the revolution. In this case, formal freedom designates the unrecognised conditions under which freedom operates, while actual freedom is the revolutionary moment when ‘everything is possible’, when it is possible to alter the coordinates by which formal freedom operates. But what happens after the exercise of actual freedom when the whole order that has set the terms for formal freedom has been abolished, or at least is in the process of being abolished? Or more simply, what happens after the revolution? The beginning of an answer is that the revolution is not merely the moment – with however long a process leading up to that moment – when the old order has been overthrown and power has been seized by the revolutionaries. It includes that vital period after the revolutionary overthrow when all things have to be made anew.

In this context, freedom becomes what at first appears to be a paradox: freedom is partisan. Is this not precisely the accusation hurled at the bourgeoisie, that their prattle about ‘freedom’ conceals specific class interests? Does it not become another version of formal freedom? Not at all, but let us see why. Five factors play a role in Lenin’s argument. First, in the appropriation of Western political terminology during the revolutionary process after February 1917, ‘democracy’ became associated with the labouring masses of workers and peasants, who were the ‘people’ (demos and thereby narod). The opposite of democracy was not the autocracy or dictatorship, but the classes of the old aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Thus, terms such as ‘democratic elements’ ‘democratic classes’, ‘revolutionary democracy’, along with ‘democracy’ itself had distinct class dimensions. Democracy became synonymous with the range of socialist parties, while those of the bourgeoisie (Kadets) and the old aristocracy (Octobrists and others) were anti-democratic (Kolonitskii 2004).

Lenin played no small part in that process of redefinition, which brings us to our second point, concerning concealment: bourgeois claims to foster freedom in general conceal their class interest. By contrast, one must not conceal the partisan nature of proletarian freedom, for it is ‘openly linked to the proletariat’ (Lenin 1905 [1966]: 48). Third, bourgeois freedom is predicated on the individual, while proletarian freedom is collective. The catch here is that this supposed individuality of bourgeois freedom is in fact a collective position that is, once again, systematically concealed and denied. However, if one begins explicitly with the collective, then freedom begins to mean a very different type of freedom. Fourth, this apparently individual, bourgeois freedom operates within ‘a society based on the power of money, in a society in which the masses of working people live in poverty and the handful of rich live like parasites’ (Lenin 1905 [1966]: 48). In other words, bourgeois freedom serves the cause of capitalism in which the vast majority are systematically denied freedom. Only when the power of money and thereby capitalism is destroyed and replaced with a communist system will the masses be able to enjoy ‘freedom without inverted commas’ (Lenin 1906 [1962]: 264). Finally, all of this means that bourgeois freedom constitutes a false universal, based upon a particular which is concealed, namely the power of capital, while proletarian freedom is a genuine universal, based not upon greed or careerism but upon the interests of the vast majority that unites the best of the past’s revolutionary traditions and the best of the present struggle for a new life.

As a second example, let us turn to the account of Arthur Ransome (an English journalist) at a conference in Jaroslavl in 1920. Even in the midst of the multiple crises brought on by the aftermath of the First World War and the ‘Civil’ War, debates were vigorously open. Upon arrival from Moscow with Radek and Larin (a Menshevik), Ransome notes that the auditorium was full of workers, with not an intellectual to be seen. The topic was industrial conscription. In the first session Radek and Larin lengthily set out their opposing views, but the second session on the following day turned out to be very revealing. Worker after worker came forward to speak, some a little naive but most astutely aware of the political issues at stake, exhibiting a ‘political consciousness which would have been almost incredible three years ago’. The debate rolled on all evening, covering myriad topics, with all who wished to speak given the floor. The outcome: the sympathy for Larin’s opposition faded and Radek’s proposal to support the proposal was carried. Yet the most intriguing point is that for Ransome this is nothing less than the complex process of free debate enabled under the dictatorship of the proletariat (Ransome 2011 [1921]: 28-34).


Kolonitskii, Boris Ivanovich. 2004. ‘Democracy’ in the Political Consciousness of the Freruary Revolution. In Revolutionary Russia: New Approaches. edited by R. A. Wade. New York: Routlege, 75-90.

Lenin, V.I. 1905 [1966]. Party Organisation and Party Literature. In Collected Works, Vol. 10. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 44-9.

———. 1906 [1962]. The Victory of the Cadets and the Tasks of the Workers’ Party. In Collected Works, Vol. 10. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 199-276.

Ransome, Arthur. 2011 [1921]. The Crisis in Russia. New York: Dodo.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2001. On Belief. London: Routledge.

Roland Boer, on the road to Herrnhut, in the far east of Germany

[1] Žižek is responsible for insisting on the formal-actual distinction (Žižek 2001: 113-14). He quotes but does not cite a supposed retort from Lenin – ‘Freedom – yes, but for WHOM? To do WHAT?’ Yet, despite being frequently cited by others who list Žižek as the source, this ‘quote’ is one that – like the Gospel writers – Žižek seems to have placed in Lenin’s mouth. As usual, Žižek reads too quickly, charging a post-revolutionary Lenin with his own version of formal freedom (I decide what the conditions of freedom are) and asserting the need to invoke actual freedom once again. This will turn out to be a superficial reading of Lenin.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!