Lars T Lih’s excellent short biography of Lenin is a welcome addition to the serious socialist literature on classical Marxist history. The book’s chief merits are its strongly contextual interpretation of Lenin’s life and its readable style.
Lih comments that most recent studies of Lenin seem to be based on the methodology of “nothing but warts”. 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 was born Vladimir Ulyanov in 1870 in Simbirsk on the Volga river. His early years, are well known.
Vladimir Ulyanov became Lenin after his arrest after agitating among the St Petersburg 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.
In exile, Lenin ground out an assessment of Russia, which laid the foundation for his politics for the rest of his life. 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”.
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.
Heroic class leadership
Lih argues that the central organising idea 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 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.
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”. As he points out this was actually “Marx’s grand idea”, that “only as vozhd of all the labourers will the working class achieve victory”.
Lih argues forcefully in this book and elsewhere that Lenin was largely applying the strategy of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to Russian conditions. He took the writings of the SPD’s principal theorist Karl Kautsky as his textbook.
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’.
CLIMAX OF THE DRAMA
“In the final episode party and proletariat move toward the climax of the drama, socialist revolution itself”. 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..
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.
Dog days and 1917
Lih does not dwell too heavily on the period of skloki [1905-1917] — “the insupportably petty and demeaning infighting that sucked up the time and energy of the émigrés”.
Lih does not believe the common story that the shock of betrayal in 1914 caused Lenin to reject much of what he had previously considered Marxist orthodoxy. “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.”
Lenin’s heroic scenario was played out after some modifications in 1917. The Bolsheviks insisted that “the nature of the class that holds the vlast [the sovereign power] decides everything” — and they meant everything.
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 difficulties of the regime created after the October revolution under the pressure of civil war. 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 speech, assembly, association etc. were “conspicuously absent”.
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”.
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.
In his final articles, he sought with the assistance of others such as Trotsky to work out a way for the battered, broken, degenerated workers’ state to hold out.
Lih is clear about the “radical discontinuity” between Lenin and what came next under Stalin.
The fight for clarity
For Lih, and he is right about this, “the real essence of Bolshevism was inspired and inspiring class leadership”. From this Lenin’s actions in politics followed.
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 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”.
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. .
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.
• Abridged. Full text here: www.workersliberty.org/node/16761