Twenty-something years ago, I vividly remember feeling a shock of emotional horror when I read an account, by Victor Serge, I think, of how, one drunken night in Moscow in the late '20s, the author and a friend had seriously talked about breaking into the Lenin Mausoleum and burning Lenin's mummy.
Not because they were hostile to Lenin, but because they believed the cult of Lenin, of which the sainted medievalist mummy on display in Red Square was a part, to be a gross offence against the real Lenin and what he had represented.
I saw immediately that they were right, and that it would be far better, more communist, and indeed more "Leninist", to burn the waxy remains of Lenin than have them continue there where he had been put on show by Stalin. Yet the initial shock I felt - feeling of Oedipal sacrilege, perhaps, as if Lenin were both Pope and father - told its own story of how powerful the Lenin cult was and that is probably why I remember it so sharply
The Lenin cult was strong even with people who believed they should hate and seek to destroy all cults, religions and all pseudo-religions, including the pseudo-political ones.
The cult was in its entirety a creation of Stalin. Up to his collapse at the end of 1922, a year before he died, Lenin had immense authority within the Bolshevik Party and within the Communist International it had founded in 1919. But he was primus inter pares, first among equals.
Lenin had to argue and fight for his positions, using the methods appropriate within an organisation of self-respecting militants. Sometimes he was in the minority, as on the issue of peace with Germany early in 1918, a matter of life and death for the revolution.
It was Stalin and his partners between 1923 and 1925, Zinoviev and Kamenev - whom he would have shot in 1936 - who made Lenin into a secular all-knowing god, the Russian "God the Son" to Marx's universal "God the Father".
Lenin had tried to get rid of Stalin, and had spent his last strength attempting to organise a campaign against Stalin's Great Russian chauvinist activities in Georgia and against the growing bureaucratism of the state, centred increasingly on the new-minted (1922) General Secretary of the party.
He had broken off all personal relations with Stalin, and written to the Bolshevik Party congress asking them to remove him. But Lenin's memory, like his corpse, was a prisoner of the speedily fledging bureaucratic dictatorship.
The bureaucrats used his writing and their own alleged continuity with Lenin as a source of authority in the struggle which began in the autumn of 1923 between the working-class Trotskyist opposition and the Stalinist apparatus.
They were the Leninists, those who in fact continued Lenin's real
politics. But, said the regime, Trotsky and his comrades were lapsing back-to Menshevism or “had never really broken with it".
As Kamenev - who, with Zinoviev broke with Stalin in 1925 and joined the working-class opposition for a while once he had understood what was happening to Russia - said to-Trotsky, looking, back, "The trick was to link up the disputes of 1923-4 and after with the old disputes in the decade before the revolution. Party history was stereotyped and falsified to provide the ruling Stalin faction with ideological labels and categories into which to try to slot their current opponents.
'Lenin" was a source of authority. but Stalin and his allies decided what Lenin was, backed up by the power of the State and its organs of propaganda and repression. It was a game of ideological blind man's buff.
At the beginning Stalin certainly did not know where he was going or what he represented. He knew enough, however, to give himself a lot of help with his interpretation of "Lenin".
He used Lenin's death to open the doors of the party - which had considered itself under siege, holding on in Russia until the European workers' revolution could come to their aid - to vast numbers of careerists who could be relied on against the revolutionary working class forces in the Party. Naturally he called this shepherded influx of careerists "the Lenin levy".
The more things moved away from Bolshevism and socialism, the more "Leninist" they were proclaimed to be. Stalin's version of the history of Bolshevism and of the Revolution began to play the role in Russian society that the tales about the life of Jesus played for centuries in the lives of intensely Christian countries.
Lenin's comrade and wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, was part of the Zenoviev-Kamenev group, and with them surrendered to Stalin in 1928, lived out her last 12 years as Stalin's political and moral prisoner, a publicly honoured living political mummy. But she had spoken the truth in 1926 when she said that if Lenin were still alive, he would be in jail.
Lenin's mummy came to symbolise his place in history - the dumb dead icon of a regime he would have loathed and fought as long as he had breath in his body; the official ventriloquist's dummy through which others could speak, albeit in a pastiche of his own words, phrases and ideas; the cardboard-thin image assigned roles he did not play and often were the opposite of those he really played.
That is what "Lenin" has been for more than six decades. When bureaucratic factions fell out in Moscow or Beijing, they argued in terms of a Stalinised 'Leninism', like medieval religious-political figures arguing their own interests in terms of Biblical texts.
When Hungarian workers erected barricades behind which to fight the Russian Army in 1956, they used statues of Lenin to taunt the Russians. Most of the people on either side would not have suspected that Lenin could not possibly have chosen to be anywhere else in that grim Budapest except on the barricades with those fighting the Russian Army.
The real Lenin had written some of the most profound and powerfully felt argument in favour of national self-determination. He had infused the Russian labour movement - which was to break down the walls of the Tzar's prison house of nations - with his own spirit on this question. Without knowing it, those Hungarian workers acted as if under guidance of some benign spirit of historic truth!
The official Stalinist state cult of "Lenin" was not entirely negative,
for they did publish his books and pamphlets, in vast editions in many languages and at cheap prices. It was even possible to read what he said and to learn by analogy what he would have thought of those who staged their annual military parades to glorify the Stalinist version of Asiatic despotism around his mausoleum.
More than that too, as my own experience will show. Long ago, in
the late '50s, I was a teenage Lenin cultist!
I had joined the Young Communist League, wanting a working-class communist revolution, but painfully ignorant about it all. Then I learned that we believed in peaceful revolution! By way of votes to elect "Labour, Communist and Progressive" Members of Parliament! Of the British Parliament!
The British ruling class would surrender peacefully? For anyone who knew Irish history, or even as much of it as I did, this could not make sense.
I'd just been beaten in a Salford police station by two cops investigating vandalism at a timber yard from which I'd been sacked for trying to organise a branch of the TGWU, and that stiffened my ingrained, inherited, Irish conviction that revolution was not just a matter of winning elections. I didn't believe it. Couldn't.
But I couldn't argue against it, either, not against people who could throw Marx at me in support of the idea.
Then I read Lenin, dealing with the argument that "Marx believed in peaceful revolution" in a polemic with Karl Kautsky,
Yes, said Lenin, Marx did think a peaceful revolution it was possible in Britain and in the USA. Is the world still what it was when Marx analysed it 50 years ago? Are Britain and the USA? They are not. Marx's conclusions of 50 years ago are not valid any longer.
Lenin was immensely respectful to political and ideological Marxist "authority", to Marx and Engels and, before 1914, to Karl Klutsky, but he never reasoned from authority, from texts. He brought in what Marx said, and used it to help him think about what he was analysing.
There could be no more direct contrast with the way the Stalinists used Lenin's words as themselves proof of whatever they were trying to prove at a given time. They used Lenin as a political equivalent of a ventriloquist’s dummy.
History does show that Lenin could indeed be used as the source of dogmatic certainties as interpreted by various "Leninist" popes. But you could not read arguments like the one about peaceful revolution, critically and with your mind open, without learning to think for yourself.
Lenin did not offer you a priori dogmas, or his own pontifications, he offered you reasonings. No matter how dim you were, no matter how strongly inclined to settle in to the self-hypnosis of quasi-political religious certainties, Lenin – the Lenin that exists, the books – did not accommodate you.
He dealt in and offered you a Marxism which was historically rooted, conditional, evolved and evolving.
That Lenin is vivid and alive still. He cannot tell us anything directly about the things that have come into existence in the world in the decades since he left it, but he can teach us how to think about it as Marxists.
Sections of the Russian bureaucracy now favour an open repudiation of Lenin, and also of the October Revolution, by the Russian state. Gorbachev – who belongs to and represents a different class from the class Lenin belonged to and represented –
apparently still wants to go on arguing for his programme in the old Stalinist way, invoking aspects of Lenin's writings that suit his needs. That cannot last if Gorbachev and his faction carry through their full programme, which is now, on current evidence, a programme of restoring capitalism. They too will break with Lenin.
Cood! The sooner the better! The sooner they relieve Lenin from his long posthumous captivity the sooner the workers in the Staiinist states and elsewhere will feel free to explore Lenin's real ideas and what he really fought for.
The day they burn or bury the poor dead remains of the great iconoclast Vladimir Lenin will be a good day for socialism. And for Leninists.
“Against the Tide” Column,