“The dreamer himself sees in his dream a great and sacred truth; and he works, works conscientiously and with full strength, for his dream to stop being just a dream. His whole life is arranged according to one guiding idea and it is filled with the most strenuous activity. He is happy, despite deprivations and unpleasantness, despite the jeers of unbelievers and despite the difficulties of struggling with deeply rooted ways of thought.”
Dmitri Pisarev (Lih 2011 p.205-06)
Lars T Lih's excellent short biography of Lenin (Reaktion, £10.95) is a welcome addition to the serious socialist literature on classical Marxist history. Although it contains some nuggets from the archives and some references to interesting but lesser known contemporary sources, the book’s chief merits are its strongly contextual interpretation of Lenin’s life and its readable style.
Caricature of Lenin
When Oliver Cromwell insisted that his portrait should include ‘warts and all’, Lih comments that most recent studies of Lenin seem to be based on the methodology of ‘nothing but warts’ (2011 p.13). We’ve all seen the stereotypical image of Lenin: the bloodthirsty monster of the liberal, anarchist and conservative imagination. Pessimistic, voluntaristic, elitist, conspiratorial. Lenin who like Chernyshevsky’s Rakhmetov was sure to have slept on a bed of nails to toughen himself up. A man fuelled by ambition and desire for supremacy, whose self-assurance was so great that it either repelled people or forced them to submit to him. On this view, Lenin was perpetually "worried about the workers", hence his alleged conception of an elite, centralised party raised above the masses.
Lih demolishes this view, preferring to understand Lenin as a product of the broad European socialist movement of his time, who had to work out his politics in the terrible conditions of tsarist Russia. The Lenin that emerges is deeply committed to working class self-emancipation and a rightful heir to the revolutionary socialism of Marx and Engels.
Vladimir Ulyanov becomes Lenin
Lenin’s origins are now well known. He was born Vladimir Ulyanov in 1870 in Simbirsk on the Volga river. His father was a teacher and school inspector who set up village schools to advance learning. On his mother’s side, Vladimir’s great-grandfather Moishe had grown up on a Jewish shtetl, but was later baptised and took the name Dmitri. His grandfather received noble or gentry status as result of his work as a doctor. In the early 1930s, his sister Anna discovered the family’s Jewish origins and personally asked Stalin to publicise the fact as a way of combating anti-semitism. Stalin refused and the facts only became established in the glasnost era and after (2011 p.20).
However the critical turning point in his youth was the hanging of his older brother Alexander in May 1887 for participating in a plot to assassinate the tsar. The apocryphal anecdote of his sister Maria is that when Vladimir heard the news of his brother’s unsuccessful attempt at terror, he said through clenched teeth, ‘No, we won’t go that way – that’s not the way we must go’. The expression highlights where Vladimir found the personal motivation to ‘find another way’ to revolution, in contrast to the methods of most of the populist and terrorist left, and how he came to Marxism.
Vladimir went to Kazan University in the autumn of that year to study law. However he soon got into student politics and was expelled organising a disruptive student demonstration. It was from 1888 that he began to participate in illegal Social Democratic circles and to read Marx. As Lih puts it: “Vladimir’s search in the years following his brother’s execution led him to the conclusion that a stripped-down, bare-bones version of the Social Democratic strategy could be applied even under tsarism” (2011 p.31).
Vladimir Ulyanov became Lenin after his arrest after agitating among the St Petersberg workers in 1895. He had made his name as an energetic activist (praktik), a “propagandising intellectual” among the “purposive” (class conscious) workers. He was exiled to Siberia for three years, where he completed his study of the Russian social formation and began to develop his ideas on party organisation. But as Lih shows, these were grounded in the Marxist orthodoxy of the time.
Lenin ground out an assessment of Russia during the last decade of the nineteenth century, which laid the foundation for his politics for the rest of his life. Lih shows how Lenin’s appreciation of the capitalist transformation of Russia during that period was central to his political conclusions. Behind the dry statistical tables of land ownership and employment “was the creation of new fighters who were both willing and able to wrest political freedom from the grip of the absolutist tsarist government” (2011 p.34).
Capitalist development meant that “the exploitation of working people in Russia is everywhere capitalist in nature” and it created new classes out of the Russian people. First and foremost were the urban factory workers, the class leaders who were “the sole and natural representative of Russia’s labouring and exploited population and [therefore] capable of raising the banner of worker emancipation” (Friends of the People, 1894). Second there were the rural workers, who would be class followers in Lenin’s scenario. These workers would then lead the peasants and the village poor in the great struggle against tsarism (Lih 2011 p.35).
As Lenin summed it up in 1894: “When its advanced representatives have mastered the ideas of scientific socialism, the idea of the historical role of the Russian worker, when these ideas become widespread, and when stable organisations are formed among the worker to transform the workers’ present sporadic economic war into conscious class struggle—then the Russian WORKER rising at the head of all the democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism and lead the RUSSIAN PROLETARIAT (side by side with the proletariat of ALL COUNTRIES along the straight road of open political struggle to THE VICTORIOUS COMMUNIST REVOLUTION” (LCW 1 p.300).
Heroic class leadership
Lih argues that the central organising idea concept of Lenin’s life was heroic class leadership. This meant two things. First, it meant working class leadership of the Russian revolution. On this view, the industrial, waged working class would be the leader (vozhd) of Russian people (narod) in the revolution against tsarism. Despite the overwhelming majority of the peasants, it was the place given to workers in this scenario that marked out Lenin’s politics. Second, the romantic idea of leadership within the working class, whereby Lenin sought to inspire the rank and file activist – the praktik – with an exalted idea of what their own leadership could accomplish. Together, this party-led, class movement encompassing the whole people would sweep away tsarism and detonate workers revolution across Europe (and latter the globe (2011 p.14-15).
Lih sums up the heroic scenario in one sentence: “The Russian proletariat carries out its world historic mission by becoming the vozhd of the narod, leading a revolution that overthrows the tsar and institutes political freedom, thus preparing the ground for an eventual proletarian vlast [sovereign power] that will bring about socialism” (2011 p.192). As he points out this was actually “Marx’s grand idea”, that “only as voxhd of all the labourers will the working class achieve victory” (2011 p.213).
Lih quotes a comment by Zinoviev in his History of the Bolshevik Party (1924) that is particularly apposite: “The advocates of Economism did not acknowledge the hegemonic role of the proletariat. They would say: ‘So what, in your opinion, is the working class, a Messiah?’ To this we answered and answer now: Messiah and messianism are not our language and we do not like such words; but we accept the concept that is contained in them: yes, the working class is in a certain sense a Messiah and its role is a messianic one, for this is the class which will liberate the whole world.
“The workers have nothing to lose but their chains; they do not have property; they sell their labour, and this is the only class which has an interest in reconstructing the world along new lines and is capable of leading the peasantry against the bourgeoisie. We avoid semi-mystical terms like Messiah and messianism and prefer the scientific one: the hegemonic proletariat” (1973 p.60).
SPD – the textbook a la Kautsky
Lih argues forcefully in this book and in his previous work, particularly Lenin Rediscovered (2006) that Lenin was largely applying the strategy of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to Russian conditions. In particular he took the writings of the SPD’s principal theorist Karl Kautsky as his textbook. This is not an original thesis – it was well established in Moira Donald’s book, Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists, 1900-1924. But I think Lih rightly indicates how the SPD model is found in the DNA of what became Leninism. Kautsky may well deserve the epitaph of “the father of Russian Marxism”, though Lih perhaps unfairly downplays Plekhanov’s role in this enterprise as well.
The SPD strategy of party-led class leadership was applied to Russia in the following way: “In the first episode the Social Democratic party is founded and becomes accepted as leader of the proletariat. This episode is summarised by Kautsky’s foundational formula about ‘the merger of socialism and the worker movement’. In the central episode the proletariat leads the narod in a crusade to overthrow the tsar, ‘the shame and curse of Russia’. In the final episode party and proletariat move toward the climax of the drama, socialist revolution itself” (2011 p.196). The strength of Lih’s approach is his recognition that much of Lenin’s heroic scenario was not unique to him, but reflected much more widely held socialist viewpoints at the time.
Lih has shown in his book Lenin Rediscovered that Lenin’s drive for an all-Russian newspaper and an organised, professional, ‘conspiratorial’ apparatus to distribute it was effectively applying the lessons of German social democracy during its own period of illegality. Lenin’s ideas on konspiratsiia (the art of not getting arrested) and professional revolutionaries (i.e. a specialised, skilled worker in an efficient organisation) was about making Social Democratic agitation effective in conditions of repression. Lih regards this – again rightly – as entirely consistent with the heroic scenario of working class leadership and self-emancipation. The professional revolutionary was, in the words of Victor Chernov, “a roving apostle of socialism, a knight who punishes evil-doers... his lifestyle is konspiratsiia, his sport is a contest with the police in cleverness and elusiveness’ He glories in his escapes from prison”. No wonder Lenin became the idol of the praktiki, since he appreciated their difficulties and articulated a way to overcome them, while providing “a romantic self-image of leaders who were capable of inspiring boundless confidence” (2011 p.71).
Lenin comes out of this interpretation as an incorrigible optimist about working-class organisation. He believed that the workers were eager to fight and continually outstripping the capacity of the Social Democrats to provide the requisite knowledge and organisation. He is admonishing the revolutionaries, urging them to rise to the task and providing the means of the newspaper to create the scaffolding for a genuine workers party. This is not substitutionism or socialism from above. It is about building a workers’ movement under conditions of illegality. The perspective was vindicated by the role workers played in the 1905 revolution and the way the Social Democrats adapted their organisational forms in the short period of freedom that the revolution entailed.
Lih writes a breezy narrative of the period between the defeat of the 1905 revolution and the victory on 1917. He does not dwell too heavily on the period of skloki – “the insupportably petty and demeaning infighting that sucked up the time and energy of the émigrés”. He illustrates the point with a joke from the time. Some police officers escorting Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to prison wanted to go for a drink. They decided they could safely leave the prisoners without supervision, since rather than take the opportunity to escape they would spend the whole time arguing with each other (2011 p.102, p.92). No doubt some differences were overblown. However they were not insignificant, as the events of 1917 would demonstrate.
Lenin may have faced the war in 1914 in relative isolation both within Russia and internationally, but he did not lose sight of the heroic scenario. Arrested in Krakow at the outbreak of war and released only with the intervention of the Austrian Social Democrats, he went to Bern in Switzerland, where he picked up the banner of international socialism that the German and other social democrats had abandoned for their own governments.
Lih does not believe that the shock of betrayal in 1914 caused Lenin to reject much of what he had previously considered Marxist orthodoxy. According to Lenin himself it was not he who had changed but the others. “Lenin presented himself not as a bold innovator or a fearless rethinker but as someone faithful to the old verities. His ferocious anger with socialist leaders was because they had reneged on their own word (2011 p.125-126).
Thus Lenin hated Kautsky because he loved Kautsky’s books. Lih regards Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism as “another work that is to an extent a defence of Kautsky-then against the apostasy of Kautsky-now” (2011 p.129). This is absolutely right and should make the “anti-imperialist” left rethink their blandishments. The AWL has long recognised the connection, which is why Kautsky’s Socialism and Colonial Policy (1907) was republished in Workers’ Liberty a decade ago.
1917 and after
Lenin’s heroic scenario was played out after some modifications in 1917. “Ultimately the success of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917 was based on the success of the message they sent to workers, soldiers and peasants. This message can be conveyed in three words and punctuation mark: ‘Take the power!’.” The Bolsheviks insisted that ‘the nature of the class that holds the vlast [the sovereign power] decides everything’ – and they meant everything. ‘Smash the state’ was not anarchism but “smash the bourgeois state and replace it with a strong and effective proletarian state. The bourgeois state is smashed when (a) it cannot be used to repress the revolution and (b) it is thoroughly democratised” (2011 p.135-136). Lih suggests that in 1917 the socialist revolution was justified by the fact that a substantial majority of the workers in St Petersburg and Moscow (and other cities) wanted to take power.
Yet Lih does not shy away from the regime created after the October revolution. He states that the paradox of Lenin is that a central commitment of the heroic scenario was to political freedom, yet he founded a regime in which many freedoms of speeches, assembly, association etc were “conspicuously absent” (2011 p.201).
Lih quotes the infamous 11 August 1918 telegram in which Lenin calls the Penza communists to “Hang (it must be hanging so that the narod sees) no fewer than one hundred notorious kulaks, rich people, bloodsuckers”. However he points to the context – the starvation of the cities and the fact that armed peasants were withholding grain and challenging the workers’ state power. In fact the rebellion was quelled the following day when 13 ringleaders were shot for the killings of state representatives. Lih goes as far as to state that Lenin’s insistence that the people see the hangings was consistent with his inspiring class leadership, because the people would see the workers’ state really taking on the kulaks (2011 p.144-147).
Lih also tackles another myth – that among the Bolsheviks in 1920 there was some sort of mass hallucination that Russia was on the eve of full communism. Instead he argues that Lenin and others began the painful process of rethinking because things really were not turning out as they thought they would (in particular the absence of European revolutions on which their scenario depended). In the vivid phrase of eyewitness Arthur Ransome, the Bolsheviks had ‘illusion after illusion scraped from them by the pumice-stone of experience’ (2011 p.157).
Lenin by this time was a very sick man. He had been shot and wounded in August 1918. His health deteriorated from overwork and he suffered from nerves, headaches and insomnia. He believed revolutionaries burned out by around the age of fifty and apparently asked Stalin for cyanide pills after his first stroke in 1922 (2011 p.165). Nevertheless in his final articles, he sought with assistance of others such as Trotsky to work out a way for the battered, broken, degenerated workers’ state to hold out. He sought to enlist the middle peasantry to the socialist cause and to advance Russian industry through electrification. He railed against the ‘soviet bureaucrat’ and sought to raise the educational and cultural level of the workers. Lenin compared the Bolsheviks to barbarians who had conquered a higher civilisation. It was a desperate race to decide who would destroy whom. And Lih is also clear about the “radical discontinuity” between Lenin and what came next under Stalin.
The fight for clarity
What is the verdict on Lenin? For Lih rightly “the real essence of Bolshevism was inspired and inspiring class leadership” (2011 p.185). From this Lenin’s actions in politics followed. As Bukharin wrote in 1917 “[Lenin] is a genuine vozhd of the revolution, following out his own logic to the end, scourging any half-heartedness, any refusal to draw conclusions” (Lih 2011 p.211)
Lenin was above all devoted to working class self-emancipation. His writing was dedicated to understanding the conditions under which such self-emancipation was possible. This fight for clarity in socialist aims and methods was captured by Olgin in 1919: "Lenin does not reply to an opponent. He vivisects him. He is as keen as the edge of a razor. His mind works with an amazing acuteness. He notices every flaw in the line of argument he disagrees with, and he draws the most absurd conclusions from, premises unacceptable to him. At the same time he is derisive. He ridicules his opponent. He castigates him. He makes you feel that his victim is an ignoramus, a fool, a presumptuous nonentity. You are swept by the power of his logic. You are overwhelmed by his intellectual passion" (2011 p.209).
Hence Lenin’s ferocity in debate. For Lenin, a philistine was anyone who failed to share his exalted sense of historical events and the overriding importance of working class leadership (2011 p.15). As Lenin put it in a letter to Inessa Armand (18 December 1916): “There it is, my fate. One fighting campaign after another—against political stupidities, philistinism, opportunism and so forth. It has been going on since 1893. And so has the hatred of the philistines on account of it. But still, I would not exchange this fate for ‘peace’ with the philistines” (LCW 35 p.259).
Lenin is ours. The Lenin who understood the potential of the working class. The Lenin who sought inspired class leadership of the whole people, both in Russia and internationally. The Lenin who developed worker-cadres who could work miracles in leading their sisters and brothers. The Lenin who fought for clarity against the philistines who attacked or undermined the class emancipatory project. The great virtue of Lih’s book is that we see Lenin in this light. Lenin is an inspiration for those who share his dreams and fight the latter-day philistines.