Vladimir Lenin is universally seen as one of the most important figures of the 20th century. His interpretations of Marx’s Communist writings were responsible for great changes in Russia and also in the rest of the world. In most eyes, Leninism has failed in its efforts to bring about a new utopia. The renowned economist, Mancur Olson, offered an insight into why this happened through his analysis. Both Lenin and Olson contended that there are inherent problems in bringing about Communist revolutions. Lenin did offer a solution, that of a revolutionary Vanguard, but this is seen to be only partially effective after being examined with Olson’s contentions.
In his book, The Logic of Collective Action, Olson talked about the “Free-rider” problem. He began by discussing groups of various sizes and how motivated their members would be to make a contribution for the greater good. The case that is applicable here is that of groups whose rewards are split among their constituents. The rewards obtained by such groups are called public goods, since they benefit everyone in the group. It does not matter how much work a member does since “no one in the group is excluded from the benefit or satisfaction brought about by its achievement.” (Olson, 15)
Lenin, in his works, outlined his vision for the instigation and successful execution of a communist revolution in Russia. He was of the opinion that the proletarian masses were incapable of class consciousness. As a result, they would only be able to rise up in brief struggles of low global significance and would engage in “trade-union politics.” According to Olson, it would be irrational for individual workers to act in the interest of their class, “for class oriented action will not occur if the individuals that make up the class act rationally.” (Olson, 105) Thus, Olson and Marx agree that the Proletariat do not rise up by themselves.
Marx felt that the Proletariat needed the help of bourgeoisie sympathizers, called the Vanguard, to carry out a revolution. This Vanguard would rouse the Proletariat and guide them into violent revolution. Indeed, in What Is To Be Done], he says, “To bring political knowledge to the workers the must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions.” (Lenin, 56) This could be a possible solution to the free rider problem. Olson, on the other hand, states that “large organizations do not support themselves without providing some sanction, or some attraction distinct from the public good itself, that will help the individuals to help bearing the burdens of maintaining the organizations.” (Olson, 15)
The Vanguard is certainly a solution to the first part of the problem- that is, convincing the workers that they are players in class warfare and that they need to collectively rise up and herald a new Communist era. Workers, by themselves have only a vague class consciousness and are therefore not even an organized group by Olson’s measure. The committed and impassioned Vanguard can quite conceivably create this awareness in workers and convince the bulk of them to participate in a revolution. Even so, the very distinct possibility still remains that many workers could still remain inactive, consciously or unconsciously reckoning that they would enjoy the fruits of revolution anyway.
The second and more drastic part of the problem is to ensure that a sufficient number of workers are interested in participating in a revolution to make it a distinct possibility. Here, Lenin and his Vanguard can at best try their utmost to ensure that most of the workers agree to revolt with them. This task is very difficult since Olson’s contention- that workers will behave rationally- still holds. The Vanguard can still persuade the workers that the rational thing to do would be for them to join the revolution. The workers would be convinced that the long-term interests of their families and them would lie in creating a new, Communist society where they would enjoy greater freedoms and less poverty. In a way, this can be seen by workers as an incentive, beyond the public good. Of course, the resources and capabilities required for an operation of such magnitude by the Vanguard is enormous. Lenin does have a conception of the free rider problem himself since he knows that it would be difficult to convince people from all classes, especially workers, of his message. It can be deduced that he lays special emphasis on the working class when he says, “The ideal audience for political exposure is the working class, which is first and foremost in need of all-round and live political knowledge, and is most capable of converting this knowledge into active struggle, even when that struggle does not promise “palpable results”. (Lenin, 54) However, he seems confident that the Vanguard can pull it off when he says, “Have we sufficient forces to direct our propaganda and agitation among all social classes? Most certainly.” (Lenin, 53) What Is To Be Done, in fact, contains a complete list of things that the Bolsheviks can do to arouse greater support among all classes. One example is the use of a national media mouthpiece- “We are now in a position to provide a tribune for the nation-wide exposure of the tsarist government and it is our duty to do this. That tribune must be a Social-Democratic newspaper.” (Lenin, 54) All this seems to indicate that Lenin was aware of the hesitancy of potential revolutionaries and saw the Vanguard as a mechanism to get rid of the problem.
Karl Marx was thought to believe that it was inevitable that workers would develop class consciousness and revolt against the Bourgeoisie. Lenin thought this was an incorrect interpretation and said that it was his feeling that the working classes would have to be instigated by the Vanguard. But, in spite of this realization, he too seems to have an almost blind faith in the tendency of workers to convert to his cause. He states that “ is most capable of converting … knowledge into active struggle, even when that struggle does not promise palpable results.” This clearly flies against the face of Olson’s assertions. Olson would most certainly point out that Lenin’s belief was flawed and that there is no inevitability in a worker developing class consciousness.
Lenin states that, “there a single social class in which there are no individuals, groups, or circles that are discontented with the lack of rights and with tyranny and, therefore, accessible to the propaganda of Social-Democrats as the spokesmen of the most pressing general democratic needs?” (Lenin, 54) Therefore, he recognizes the fact that the working class is made of many different groups and individuals. Olson’s views regarding groups can be applied here to show that this complexity of classes would work against the revolution. An applicable statement of Olson is that, “since the larger the group, the smaller the share of the total benefit going to any individual, , or to any small subset of members within the group, much less any single individual, will gain enough from getting the collective good to bear the burden of providing even a small amount of it.” (Olson, 48) This means that the potential spoils of revolution vary wildly for members of the working class, depending of their sociopolitical circumstances, so many of them will not be inclined to partake in a violent upheaval. The complexity of the working class also means that the number of interactions, compromises and negotiations goes up dramatically, and so, it does not operate very smoothly. Finally, the Vanguard itself can be seen as a self-interested group. Its members could be antagonistic to each other and the free rider problem may be applicable to it too. All this together might mean that a comprehensive awakening of the working class might not be possible.
It can be argued either that the Bolsheviks took power in Russia through cynical manipulation of the system or through a genuine revolutionary movement. In either case, it cannot be discounted that the Vanguard played a key rule in mobilizing support and resources for the Bolsheviks. The hand of the working classes is questionable, especially after an examination of the inherent prevalence of the free rider problem. It is not altogether impossible for a co-operative and efficient Vanguard and conscious working class to come about. As Olson himself said, “certain small groups can provide themselves with collective goods without relying on coercion or any positive inducements apart from the collective good itself.” (Olson, 33) Perhaps there is some way to apply this to revolutionary groups in the vein of Lenin’s philosophy. Ultimately, however, it must be concluded that the Vanguard itself can only partially solve the free rider problem since it can bring about class consciousness to a great degree, but cannot induce the working class to rise on the strength of a promised Communist utopia as a result of the inherent complexity of the targeted classes and of the movement itself.
Olson, Mancur. Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Harvard University Press, 1971.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. What is to be Done? Dover, 1987.
Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. Signet Classics, 1998.