A review of Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography (Monthly Review Press, 2015), £25
Reconstructing Lenin is a thoughtful and compelling study of Lenin. Tamás Krausz reveals Lenin as an activist revolutionary whose thoughts were shaped by immediate political events but who also at the same time never strayed far from a coherent theoretical framework. As a work of scholarship it deserves to be up there with Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered.1
Krausz is a long-time activist scholar who has lived all his life in Hungary. Thus he is able to bring a fresh Eastern European erudition to the “Lenin Renaissance” of recent years.2 He can be linked to the “Budapest School”, a group of Hungarian philosophers and historians who were taught or influenced by Georg Lukács and whose pre-eminent figure in Britain is the esteemed Marxist writer and thinker István Mészáros. Even when on the other side of the iron curtain, the best among them, like Krausz, never accepted the folding of Lenin’s heritage back into Stalinism and suffered for it. When the Berlin Wall came down their courage left them well placed to reject the equally malevolent perspectives of the Western Cold War ideologues and their successors.
In mentioning the term the “Lenin Renaissance” it is worth just briefly considering what writers like Krausz, Lars Lih, Paul Le Blanc and others have been up against. During the Cold War years a group of American and British historians including Alfred G Meyer, Leonard Schapiro, Adam Ulam and Richard Pipes started to produce some of the most widely read academic studies on the Soviet Union. They all knew each other and had a basic loyalty to the framework set out in Bertram Wolfe’s key 1948 publication Three Who Made a Revolution about Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin which is widely regarded as the most potent book on Lenin ever written in the West. Lars Lih has rather cheekily but not inaccurately referred to these historians as “the Wolfe-Pack”. They all concurred that Lenin was the ultimate source of Stalinism and that this outcome was destined to be the only possibility that could ever arise from Lenin’s Marxism from the moment he wrote “What Is To Be Done?” in 1902.3
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union an even more irrational conservatism has been injected into the mix. Reginald Zelnik informs us that: “Lenin could not be fully explicit about his worry about workers because of the ‘dangerous political implications’ of clarifying his views, even to himself”.4 Lenin supposedly could not admit his real views even to himself—the mind boggles. The former distinguished historian Robert Service, author of Lenin: A Political Life in 1985, now subsequently in the year 2000 enlightens us as to the real roots of Lenin’s revolutionary activism—“Lenin was a rather strange little boy, as a baby he was literally a head banger… He would periodically raise his head from the floor and bang it down again. He was a really raucous little monster of a baby and was a rather selfish little boy thereafter who was cheeky to his mother”.5 Of course, these attempts to demonise Lenin literally from birth as a psychologically dysfunctional anti-social creature are also meant to reinforce the conservative mould, that all who seek radical and revolutionary change to the prevailing order are as mentally unsound as Lenin supposedly was. Krausz looks at Lenin’s childhood in some detail and says that “nothing out of the ordinary can be found”. He dismisses accounts of him being a strange child as: “using a method of banal psychology to project into the personality of Vladimir Ilyich, even at that ‘tender age’, some sort of ‘pitiless’, ‘tyrannical’ trait”.6
Throughout the book Krausz not only exposes the former Eastern Bloc attempts to turn Lenin’s words into a state dogma and use them to justify their regimes. He also brings to life a Lenin who still has relevance today: “If we talk of Marxism, the stakes are higher than we may think for the legacy of the primacy of Lenin’s Marxism is not a thing of the past”.7 To this end, Krausz argues strongly that the end of history did not occur in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and therefore there is no need either to mourn the collapse of so called Communism or accept that Lenin’s ideas are firmly dead and buried: “One need not be a prophet to foresee that the need for the revolutionary salvation of the world will arise again”.8
The book does not follow the usual chronological narrative in tracing the development of Lenin’s political thought but instead interrogates a number of themes found throughout Lenin’s immense catalogue of work. An opening chapter entitled “Who was Lenin?” provides a compact biography of Lenin’s early life, the influences on his intellectual and personal development, as well as his later political practice and activism. Other chapters reflect his distinctive theoretical contributions to Marxism. “Russian Capitalism and the Revolution” explores the strategic and tactical ramifications of Lenin’s application of the Marxist method to analyse Russia’s historical situation in the face of its own emergent capitalism and the wider uneven development of the world economy. Krausz highlights how Lenin’s investigations from a very early stage would become the building blocks of his theory of imperialism: “in the merciless competitive fights for external markets, ‘state support, and utilizing state enforcement powers was the ignition to the imperialist period and a defining feature of imperialism’.” This led him to ascertain that Russia was “the weak link in the chain of imperialism”.9
In Chapter Three “Organisation and Revolution” Krausz deals particularly well with the misrepresentations of the concept of the revolutionary vanguard party:
The Party as vanguard meant simply that the organisation must find roots as part of the social class and incorporate all progressive and revolutionary elements (that is, “those who are first to mount the barricades”) as mentioned in the Communist Manifesto. This description of vanguard, of course, has no real kinship with the structure that came about in a later period, the bureaucratic embodiment of the “Stalinist State Party,” in spite of the fact that the latter kept referring to Lenin and its so-called origins in 1903.10
An especially relevant chapter on “The War and the National Question” emphasises the importance of Lenin’s turn to Hegel to try to comprehend the magnitude of the catastrophe of the Great War and the betrayal by Karl Kautsky and the Second International: “Lenin’s reading of Hegel in line with the new situation moved Marx into a theoretically and politically more dynamic mode”.11 This is one of many examples throughout the book in which Krausz shows us how Lenin sought to “rediscover, re-energise and deepen elements of the Marxist tradition that mainstream European social democracy was intent on burying”.12 He makes it clear that Lenin’s Marxism was not the theory of a “conspiratorial party”.
Chapter Five on Lenin’s book The State and Revolution spells all this out in more detail. It analyses not only Lenin’s most well-known and influential work but also its wider significance to worldwide political movements, beyond its intimate connection with the October Revolution. Not only did Communists “read the volume like a bible—until Stalin slapped it out of their hands on the grounds of his statist conviction—but anti-statist, anti-capitalist parties thought it merited in-depth study”.13 Krausz powerfully challenges those like Robert Service and the more obscure A J Polan who claim that Lenin’s work is based on authoritarian principles. In his view they have an ahistorical “presentist” ideological perspective rooted in the Weberian liberal analysis, which sees itself in the role of a judge standing above class perspectives. For Krausz: “The State and Revolution speaks plainly. It frankly declares its party alliance and class commitment, a fact that sent shudders down the spine of scientific officialdom even then”.14 This can be summarised in one of Lenin’s better known quotes regarding the essence of politics which Krausz gives prominence: “People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learned to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises”.15
In the chapter entitled “Dictatorship and Democracy in Practice” Krausz presents a detailed account of the arguments surrounding the Bolshevik dissolution of the short-lived Constituent Assembly set up after the October Revolution. His analysis is both thought provoking and firmly anchored within the historical setting of the time. He shows how propaganda and agitation for the restoration of the assembly did not, in reality, represent a bourgeois democratic alternative to the soviets. Historical circumstances had already quickly bypassed the “democratic phase”, a fact even acknowledged by some leading Mensheviks such as Fyodor Dan who said of the Assembly: “it is invested with anti-revolutionary, anti-socialist, and anti-worker sentiments and is apt at present to mold in one, all the forces of the counter-revolution under its banner”.16 Krausz is dismissive of what he sees as the post-1989 trend among ex-Soviet historians, now loyal to the West, for what he judges to be their “highly simplistic”, “unscientific” and “presentist” approach to this topic by ignoring the fact that parliamentarianism does not exist in a vacuum outside of concrete determining factors.17
Elsewhere Krausz does not shrink from uncomfortable detail in taking up issues of the violence, repression and terror that nearly overwhelmed the early Soviet republic. He notes: “the psychological state of the Civil War did not begin with the armed conflicts of 1918 nor the interventionist strikes from abroad but with the centuries-old tsarist system of oppression and the First World War’s tide of blood”.18 It is Krausz’s contention, that it was this fertile ground for violence combined with the organised actions of the monarchist military counter-revolution which: “reinforced the ties of the new regime with the use of force as a tool of survival”.19 As early as January 1918 the monarchist General Kornilov had already given the order to “Take no prisoners”. In other words, in terms of causality, the revolution was not the cause but the consequence of violence. Krausz barely conceals his contempt for Soviet-era historians like Dmitri Volkogonov and Yuri Felshtynsky who, having both eulogised the Lenin caricature they helped to create during the Cold War years, have now, post-1989, quickly flipped over to adopting the iconoclastic approach of Western historiography which “traced the Red Terror back to the revolution, and some form of inexplicable, pathological mania for power—or simply evil—shown by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party”.20
Although Krausz gives a number of specific examples of the stomach-churning barbarity carried out by the anti-Bolshevik White Guard and Polish forces, I think he could have done even more to reveal the vast extent to which these atrocities occurred, as a matter of policy, throughout areas of Russia under their control. Nevertheless, what he does do well is to show how Lenin and the Bolsheviks continually wrestled with the political complexities with which they were having to deal in defence of the revolution. All of this was set against a background of civil war, mass famine, foreign intervention and the systematic dedication to terror of the White armies.
Nowhere does Krausz capture the subject of violence and terror more than in the fate of Russia’s Jews. This section of Chapter Six in particular sparkles with insightful commentary. It shows the extent to which Lenin was prepared to go to combat anti-Semitism and protect the Jewish population from pogroms, including, shockingly, occasions when these were committed by the Red Army. Richard Pipes and his peers have argued that Lenin was indifferent to horrific crimes committed by Red Soldiers against Polish Jews following their defeat in Warsaw in the summer of 1920. However, as Krausz points out, Pipes ignores the fact that some 400 soldiers from three Red cavalry units were either executed or sentenced to up to ten years hard labour for these crimes after Lenin became personally involved. Indeed, as a result the Jewish population of Russia rallied to the Soviet government. Krausz criticises what he sees as Pipes’s failure to undertake a proper source analysis for his 1996 book The Unknown Lenin.21
Krausz’s concluding paragraph in this chapter is very telling:
Lenin and the Bolsheviks had the courage to take up the fight on theoretical, political and military levels against the racist anti-Semitic tide that later steeped the 20th century in blood…the pogroms were in one sense a forerunner of the Holocaust because the Whites physically exterminated the Jews en masse.22
Even as far back as 1905 Jews accounted for 53 percent of the total number of political arrests by the Tsarist police. Lenin was perhaps the first to realise the significance of the link between anti-Semitism and anti-communism in the ideology of the Whites and their terrorist practices in the Civil War.
The chapter on “World Revolution: Method and Myth” looks at the tremendous political stresses and strains that arose in trying to defend the gains of October while at the same time probing every opportunity to accelerate a more general unfolding of a wider European revolution. In this situation we find Lenin still fully committed to the very real possibility of world revolution while at the same time dealing with the immediate practical challenge of measuring its chances of survival in a hostile bourgeois world.
It is in this context that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had to negotiate the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Lenin had to take concrete measures in international politics under circumstances in which the balance of forces was decidedly unfavourable. Krausz writes: “For ninety years after the ratification of the treaty, not a single serious historian would argue Soviet Russia’s military forces could have withstood the German troops”.23 Lenin was only able to push the treaty through the Central Committee by a hair’s breadth (not helped by Trotsky’s abstention). Later in 1918 the German Revolution confirmed Lenin’s expectation that “the peace of Brest-Litovsk” would not last. In this section Krausz makes some interesting observations on the shifting dynamics in regard to issues of patriotism and internationalism in the context of early Soviet history.
There is already extensive literature covering the Polish-Soviet War of 1920 which began with an unprovoked Polish attack on Soviet Russia despite the fact that the Soviet government had recognised the independence of Poland as early as December 1917. Krausz draws attention to the importance of a number of Lenin’s documents which only came to light in the 1990s, of which he writes: “They make it amply clear that Lenin gave international revolution a central place of importance in the end goals of the Russian Revolution because he was concerned above all with Russian socialism being isolated from its European background”.24 Krausz is particularly critical of Robert Service for not treating these documents with sufficient rigour in his 1995 book Lenin: A Biography. He also points out that closer examinations of diplomatic history prove that Lenin’s perception of the Polish attack as a pan-European enterprise was well-founded.25
Judging by the relatively short amount of space given over to the German Revolution Krausz seems to be indicating a degree of scepticism that a successful outcome was ever very likely. For him the Polish-Soviet War would appear to be the last chance for Lenin to link the fate of the Soviet Republic to that of the world revolution. Apart from portraying, quite rightly, the March Action of 1921 as an example of revolutionary voluntarism and citing Lenin’s criticism of the Comintern representative at the time, Béla Kun, Krausz appears to locate the whole unravelling of the German Revolution as a failure to adopt the new perspective outlined by Lenin in his pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. This may well be of vital underlying importance. However, little detailed analysis is made.
This weakness of Krausz’s is in contrast to a good examination of the Kronstadt revolt. All is set against the background of the decimation of the working class base of Bolshevism as a result of the Civil War. This situation necessitated not the “commune like state” envisaged in The State and Revolution but instead the concentration and centralisation of power in the hands of the state and party in what came to be known as War Communism. Krausz contextualises the Kronstadt revolt within what he muses to be the irreconcilable contradictions between War Communism and the subsequent New Economic Policy (NEP). He discusses how increasing peasant resistance to compulsory grain appropriation combined with the workers’ disaffection even in Petrograd signalled the fact that War Communism was no longer tenable. Lenin described the Kronstadt events as acting: “like a flash of lightning which threw more glare upon reality than anything else”.26 Although Krausz does not use this quote he clearly accepts its sentiment. As with Brest-Litovsk a breathing space was now needed and the NEP was launched. Krausz acknowledges that: “The [Kronstadt] revolt had the effect of speeding up the process of introducing the market economy”.27 Again, however, he convincingly rejects the now fashionable idea among some ex-Soviet historians, post 1989, that the NEP could ever have been the political instrument for the development of liberal capitalism.
The final chapter on “The Theory of Socialism—Possibility or Utopia?” covers Lenin’s views on the conceptual origins of socialism before the October Revolution and the pressures that had to be endured after 1917, the political tensions between the tortuous daily battles for survival and the end objectives. It is Krausz’s view that in this “so-called transitional period” Lenin was no longer in a position to write a theoretical analysis and that this was not simply due to a lack of time: “Developments were not yet susceptible to classical analysis. But the three phases following the October Revolution—the ‘market economy’…until spring 1918, the War Communism of 1918-1920, and the ‘state capitalism’ of the NEP from March 1921 onward—left substantive and easily outlined theoretical traces in Lenin’s thought”.28
In looking at each of these phases and their transition Krausz provides a wealth of information and analysis which makes this chapter particularly stimulating. Under both War Communism and the NEP Lenin was fully aware of and reacted to the contradiction of how workers could defend themselves in what was a de facto distorted workers’ state.
It is at this point we see Krausz raise a major criticism of Lenin’s limitations—both methodological and political. According to Krausz, the root of the problem was the failure to grasp clearly that the soviets had been unable to fulfil the tasks given to them by the Party Programme of 1919. He contends that given the historical set of relations, which could not be transcended, at that time: “No one, Lenin included, could come up with ‘dialectical solutions’ in those days”.29 It is unclear what deeper conclusions we are meant to draw from this and Krausz’s failure to elaborate the point is somewhat unsatisfactory. He does, however, acknowledge that Lenin—tried to develop mechanisms to check the powers of the state apparatus. Krausz writes: “Lenin put up a determined defence of the right of the trade unions to ‘protect workers by all means at their disposal’ in their struggle against capital”.30 He also makes it clear that at all times Lenin’s long-term goal was: “a regime of direct democracy of the workers”.31 It was this alone that could justify party dictatorship and keep the hope of socialism alive. Giving up was unacceptable to him. Just as Lenin did not believe War Communism was the application of Marxist theory neither did he, like Bukharin, identify the “state economy” as socialism. Nevertheless it was this definition of socialism as state socialism that metamorphosed into the ideological medium of the Stalinist period, cutting Lenin out completely. Krausz wryly observes how Lenin could not have known that in the decades of supposedly “actually existing” socialism:
Hordes of writers who considered themselves Marxists would mix and match state and social property together—arm in arm with the (neo)liberals and neoconservatives. Not to mention the false explanations that have come to the fore since the collapse of state socialism, the most typical and common of which is state socialism being called “communism”.32
At the heart of Krausz’s penetrating study is a defence of his view that apart from socialism no other historically and theoretically grounded alternative has yet emerged to challenge the established world order. It is within this context that he locates Lenin’s enduring significance, warts and all, as being worthy of diligent study and honest appraisal: “The main reason for this is that the Leninist tradition of Marxism is the only one that has offered, at least for a time, an alternative to capitalism. It alone made a breach in the walls of capitalism, even if today that breach seems mended”.33
A central theme throughout the book is Krausz’s attempt to show how the reductionist approach of the Stalinist period came to use Leninism only as a party ideology which justified the Communist Party’s preservation of power above all else. As Krausz puts it:
The soviets, the labour unions and other forms of self-organisation, all of which Lenin thought to be central elements in the transition to socialism, were increasingly omitted in the reproduction of theory and ideology: everything became nationalised. Marxism-Leninism became the new ideological legitimisation for the preservation of the system.34
In managing to achieve this inversion the essential philosophical tenets and methodology that made Lenin’s thought distinctive have been deliberately eliminated from his legacy. This has meant the neglect of his most important discovery, namely his precise theoretical interpretation of Marxist dialectics and its reconstruction and practical application.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union it has subsequently become apparent that it was impossible to excavate the legacy of Lenin without steady determination and strict analysis. This is precisely what Krausz has done. By building on the pre-Stalinist Marxism of Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, Krausz clarifies how Lenin understood, even from his early twenties, the concept of totality as being at the core of Marxism. He writes:
In his research he consciously strove to link specialised scientific methodology and knowledge with the economic and historical theory and method applied by Marx. Lenin left the old, positivist, sociological approach to history and science behind. These were the grounds on which he criticised the parochialism of certain scholars of the age, those with narrow-minded empirical approaches divorced from other sciences and theory, which left the system as a whole out of consideration and raised “segmentation” and “singularity” to the status of absolutes.35
Reconstructing Lenin is not the last word on Lenin and some of the sentence structure in the translation from Hungarian to English is at times problematic. Nevertheless Mészáros is absolutely correct to describe it as: “a work of exemplary scholarship written with penetrating insights and steadfast commitment”. Tamas Krausz has done us all a great service in cutting through the muck of ages in both Soviet and Western historiography to help us better comprehend Lenin and his contribution to Marxism. It is a contribution which we and future generations are able to draw upon not as an instruction manual but as a reference point with which we may be better able to utilise the positive (and negative) lessons from the Leninist experience in the struggles yet to come.
1: Lih, 2008.
2: As well as Lih’s monumental study, see also Budgen and others, 2007, Le Blanc, 2008 and Le Blanc, 2014.
3: For an absolute demolition of the Cold War historians see Lih, 2008.
4: Zelnik, 2003.
5: Robert Service on “In Our Time”, BBC Radio 4, 16 March 2000.
6: Krausz, 2015, p29.
7: Krausz, 2015, p357.
8: Krausz, 2015, p364.
9: Krausz, 2015, pp88-89.
10: Krausz, 2015, pp118-119.
11: Krausz, 2015, p145-146.
12: Krausz, 2015, p360.
13: Krausz, 2015, p177.
14: Krausz, 2015, p179.
15: Lenin, 1913, quoted in Krausz, 2015, p179.
16: Quoted in Krausz, 2015, p223.
17: Krausz, 2015, p213.
18: Krausz, 2015, p235.
19: Krausz, 2015, p235.
20: Krausz, 2015, p511.
21: Krausz, 2015, p453.
22: Krausz, 2015, p278.
23: Krausz, 2015, p287.
24: Krausz, 2015, p294.
25: Krausz, 2015, p526.
26: Lenin, 1921.
27: Krausz, 2015, p327.
28: Krausz, 2015, p311.
29: Krausz, 2015, p332.
30: Krausz, 2015, p333.
31: Krausz, 2015, p334.
32: Krausz, 2015, p530.
33: Krausz, 2015, p356.
34: Krausz, 2015, p357.
35: Krausz, 2015, p80-81.
Budgen, Sebastian, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek (eds), 2007, Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth (Duke University Press).
Krausz, Tamás, 2015, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography (Monthly Review Press).
Le Blanc, Paul, 2008, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings of V I Lenin (Pluto Press).
Le Blanc, Paul, 2014, Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine (Haymarket).
Lenin, V I, 1913, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism”, in Collected Works, volume 19 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/mar/x01.htm
Lenin, V I, 1921, “Speech Delivered at the All-Russia Congress Of Transport Workers”, in Collected Works, volume 32 (Progress), www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/mar/27.htm
Lih, Lars, 2008 , Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context (Haymarket)
Zelnik, Reginald E, 2003, “A Paradigm Lost? Response to Anna Krylova”, Slavic Review, volume 62, number 1.