Rescuing Lenin

Issue: 155

John Rose

A review of Tariq Ali, The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution, Verso (2017), £16.99

Can we rescue Lenin for the 21st century? In this the year of the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution we have to admit we are struggling. Either silence or abuse has greeted the centenary. It’s the mummified Lenin presented in the Royal Academy and British Library exhibitions and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is officially ignoring both Lenin and the centenary. For the hundreds of thousands of new recruits to the latest incarnation of a “new left” in Britain, the Corbynistas, or in the United States, the political activists among the millions who voted for Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination in the Presidential elections, Lenin and “Leninism” has little or no purchase.

That’s why Tariq Ali’s book matters. Tariq is one of a minuscule number of public intellectuals who can mount an uncompromising defence, indeed celebration, of Lenin and reach far beyond the narrow confines of the far-left. (We should also include China Miéville and his book October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, also a spirited defence of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.)

In April, the New York Times cleared a page for Tariq for a centenary defence of Lenin’s 1917 April Theses, when he shocked his comrades in the Bolshevik Party by calling for socialist revolution by beginning preparations for “all power to the soviets”. The essay, and the much lengthier discussion in his book, is a perfect complement to Kevin Corr’s excellent article in the previous issue of this journal. In March, the Guardian also gave Tariq a page to précis one of his book’s most sophisticated arguments. This expounds the connection between Russian revolutionary “terror” against the monstrous Tsarist feudal state in the 19th century, Russian classical literature from the period and the state murder of Lenin’s older brother, Sasha (for planning to assassinate the Tsar). Knowledge of these influences on Lenin is essential for understanding his formation as the 20th century’s greatest revolutionary. Tariq calls a truly extraordinary witness to underline the point, arguably Bolshevism’s most ferocious and normally bigoted opponent outside Russia—Winston Churchill:

His mind was a remarkable instrument. When its light shone it revealed the whole world, its history, its sorrows, its stupidities, its shams, and above all its wrongs. It revealed all facts in focus—the most unwelcome, the most inspiring—with an equal ray. The intellect was capacious and in some phases superb. It was capable of universal comprehension in a degree rarely reached among men. The execution of the elder brother deflected this broad white light through a prism: and the prism was red (p70).

The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky made a similar point: “He is earthly—He grasped the earth whole, all at one go”.

Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is To Be Done? inspired both Sasha and Lenin. Lenin returned to it again and again. It is, though, of its time and Tariq warns the reader that his own attempts to read it through have failed. Nevertheless the novel had been essential reading for the terrorist underground intelligentsia and Lenin also found in it “a charge for a whole life” and how to adapt his own life to its appeals for self-discipline and sacrifice.

Lenin, famously, borrows Chernychevsky’s title. This is not just a break with terrorism but is all about the creative application of conspiratorial methods, essential in an autocracy, to find secret ways of taking the written and spoken words of the new modern revolutionary creed of Marxism to workers. And it is about building a revolutionary party with a mass worker base where workers grasp these ideas and help shape and make them their own. Is there room in such a pamphlet for the novelist’s dream? Yes, insists Lenin, and his What Is to Be Done? quotes Dmitry Pisarev, one of Sasha’s favourite writers:

There is nothing in such dreams that would distort or paralyse labour power. On the contrary, if man were completely deprived of the ability to dream in this way, if he could not from time to time run ahead and mentally conceive, in an entire and completed picture, the product to which his hands are only just beginning to take shape, then I cannot at all imagine what stimulus there would be…to undertake…work in the sphere of art, science and practical endeavour…

Lenin’s break with terrorism is absolute. But are all types of terrorism similar? Can we equate 19th century Russian terrorism against the Tsarist state and 21st century Islamic jihadism? Here Tariq takes a turn that, in different ways, is sometimes repeated in his book. He chases a tantalising argument which, although it begins with Lenin, then loses him from the script. We are introduced to The Revolutionary Catechism, a secular instruction manual for terrorists, probably written by Mikhail Bakunin. Its first seven paragraphs concern psychology rather than political economy. One begins, “the revolutionary is a lost man, he has…no cause of his own…absorbed by…a single passion—the revolution”. Another declares “he has rejected the science of the world…he knows only one science, that of destruction”. Another begins, “he despises public opinion”, another calls for him “to prepare for death every day”. Again, “all tender feelings of family life, friendship, love, must be stifled” (pp44-45).

Tariq writes that although these “anarchist warriors” differ in several important ways from “current jihadi groups”, there are nevertheless “more than a few analogies”. Does this discussion fit here? If so, don’t we need to know what “the several important differences” are? Or should we accept that an important question has been legitimately left open for further debate? Or, perhaps most importantly, should we not bring Lenin back and note that the party Lenin built, its communist principles, its commitment to working class self-emancipation and dreams for the future, were the antidote to Russian terror? And then ask if there is a 21st century equivalent antidote to Islamic terror?

The tantalising argument chased in the chapter “Red Army, Civil War, Military Philosophers” keeps Lenin in the script but he is not its focus. Instead this is Red Army chief Mikhail Tukhachevsky, “half-Clausewitz, half-Napoleon” and “a gift from heaven” for Lenin, Leon Trotsky and their comrades. Much space is devoted to Tukhachevsky’s undoubted military prowess in the civil war but the chapter’s main preoccupation is the military commander’s Napoleonic propensity to want to spread the revolution by force of arms. This argument is considered thoroughly and of course it is Trotsky alone who challenges it, literally as the Red Army approaches the Polish border in 1920. Poland’s “conditions were not ripe for revolution…Polish nationalism was an elemental force which could be aroused by a Russian army, no matter what its colours.” Lenin seems rather marginalised here. A menacing impression lingers in the background. The militarisation of the revolution meant that the Red Army displaced workers’ soviets, which never recovered.

Some regular readers of this journal will find much to quarrel with in this book. Yes, we needed to know why Lenin returned to reading Hegel, when, to his amazement and fury, the leaders of the German socialist party, and in particular Karl Kautsky, collapsed into the German war machine in 1914. And Lenin’s intervention with his “Left-Wing” Communism pamphlet to haul back the destructive ultra-leftism of the nascent Communist parties that sprang up in Europe inspired by the Bolsheviks’ victory, needed recognition. The comparisons of the Russian Revolution with the Chinese Revolution will be rejected. But this book is not a primer on Lenin. It is a thoughtful and original way of introducing the man and some of his ideas to a new audience in the hostile environment that is the second decade of the 21st century. If just a handful of those Corbynistas and Sanders supporters buy it, they’ll want to know more. That is the test.

In the chapter “Octobrist Women” 18-year-old factory worker Anna Litveiko learns about the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The former wanted to fight the Tsar and the bosses but the Mensheviks “were neither one thing nor the other”. Here we also have Lenin’s defence of the Zhenotdel, the newly created department for work among women workers and peasants, against much Bolshevik hostility. German revolutionary Clara Zetkin is a fabulous witness here. As she is to Lenin’s response to the famous quip that in a communist society the satisfaction of sexual desires, of love, will be as simple and unimportant as drinking a glass of water. Fun and entertainment guaranteed when the reader reaches these pages. Is too much space devoted to Lenin’s affair with Inessa Armand? Maybe, but we would have missed Lenin’s singing qualities without this excursion! More importantly, the description of Lenin walking alone and broken behind Armand’s funeral cortège tells something rather special about him. This emotional trauma is linked with the political trauma Lenin faced with the crisis in the Bolshevik Party, provoked by the devastation that followed the civil war, and the strokes that finally killed him.

“The Last Fight Let Us Face” titles the last part of this book. But it might equally have been titled “The Position of a Man with a Swollen Head”. This is a sentence from a devastating speech Lenin delivered at his 50th birthday celebration in 1920. Lenin was so opposed to this event that he stayed away from its main speeches by Anatoly Lunacharsky, Maxim Gorky and Stalin. When he finally appeared he warned just how dangerous the party’s position now was. Parties with leaders with swollen heads too often preceded decline and failure. He laid into what he regarded as creeping petty bourgeois instincts and bureaucratisation that were now infecting the party hierarchy, the posturing, the gloating. Petty privileges and indeed outright corruption were hovering in the background.

For Lenin the gloating concealed a cultural crisis. He appealed for modesty, a recognition of how little the Bolsheviks understood, not just about industrial reconstruction but about industrialisation itself. Marxism contained no magical formulas for addressing the Bolsheviks’ crisis. The full significance of the revolution’s isolation was now bearing down on him. Lenin’s defence of bourgeois culture and his disdain for claims of a “proletarian culture” were part of this wider argument.

Lenin’s last fight is with Comrade Swollen Head himself, party general secretary Stalin. Lenin is particularly scathing about Stalin’s “Great Russian Chauvinism”. Yet the potential for elitism was built structurally into the post-civil war crisis. It was exacerbated by the New Economic Policy, which encouraged peasant capitalism. The Bolsheviks’ worker cadres had disappeared. “Those workers who had not perished were interspersed in the party and state bureaucracies… The revolutionary dictatorship had to be tough minded and make sure the revolution did not collapse. Workers’ control in the factories had to be abandoned” (pp311-312).

We have here, additionally, a quite fascinating—and rarely commented on—contrast to Lenin’s relationship to Stalin, a sketch of his relationship with left Menshevik leader Julius Martov. No illusions are offered in Martov. On the contrary, a lengthy extract from Trotsky’s blast against Martov inoculates against such a risk. Nevertheless, Lenin was shaken by reports of Martov’s terminal illness and desperately wanted to see him before he died. This is more than magnanimity. It’s about Lenin’s genuine appreciation of Martov’s contribution to the revolution: “grasping the earth whole”.

The book’s epilogue is superb: a reproduction of Lenin’s On Climbing a High Mountain, playwright Bertolt Brecht’s favourite Lenin text. It’s a hard-hitting yet lyrical prose poem that needs to be read alongside a famous passage by Friedrich Engels reproduced in the book’s introduction: “The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents”.

John Rose is currently studying the roots of the failure of communism in the 20th century.