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Lenin and the ‘Radiant Future’

Lenin’s Embalmers

by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson, translated from the French by Barbara Bray
Harvill, 215 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Following the Russian Revolution of 1905, a minor participant in that inconclusive upheaval, Vladimir Ulyanov, was on the run from Finland (then in the Tsar’s empire) to Sweden. It was December 1907, and his route lay over the Gulf of Bothnia separating the two countries. As it turned out, the local comrades guiding him to a remote ferry landing were the worse for drink, and on the last leg to the pier he barely made it over breaking ice. “What a stupid way to die,” he later recalled his thought at the time—for he was a man with a mission. And that was “to overturn all Russia” with “a party of a new type”—a goal proclaimed in 1902 in What Is to Be Done?, the work that made his name in every sense, since it was the first he signed “Lenin.”

This incident is often cited to emphasize his presumed indispensability to the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. Indeed, no less a person than Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, makes the un-Marxist admission that without Lenin October would have been impossible. But can we really say “no Lenin, no communism”—that is, no twentieth century as we know it? Reputable historians have argued “no Hitler, no Holocaust”—which would make another defining feature of the century “accidental.” Yet how far does history depend on “great men”?

This is only one of the big questions Lenin’s career poses. Even more basic, and contentious, is whether the October Revolution he led was genuinely Marxist. And similarly central is whether Stalin was his true heir. The best place to begin assessing Bolshevism’s founder is the work of the British historian Robert Service. The present volume, Lenin: A Biography, is the fourth the author has devoted to his lifelong subject, its three predecessors, published between 1985 and 1995, being a meticulous chronicle of Lenin’s political life. Yet the past decade has produced sufficient archival material to make possible a biography of Lenin the man, and this is the new volume’s task. It may also serve as a summary of the preceding trilogy, to which readers can refer back for fuller details at any point. That procedure will be followed here. For the completed tetralogy is now the indispensable reference work on Lenin.* Even in Russia, historians prefer Service’s nuanced and judicious account to the more sensational work of the late Dmitri Volkogonov, as well as to the standard Western treatments.

Indeed, Service is consciously writing against the predominant Lenin canon in both East and West. In the former Soviet Union, Lenin was presented as a genius with the “correct” solution to every problem in achieving and consolidating Soviet power. In the West, he has also generally been portrayed as a single-minded figure, though what his mind concentrated on has been diversely interpreted. Thus, at one extreme, the British historian Neil Harding casts him as a Marxist consistently basing his decisions on ideology. At the other extreme, Richard Pipes, the principal American specialist of Lenin, sees him as a cynic for whom ideology is only a cloak for the pursuit of power for its own sake.

By contrast, Service seeks to reconstruct Lenin’s motives historically, decision by decision, as the settings of his action changed. Moreover, his analysis has been refined by the vicissitudes of time. When he began writing, Brezhnev was still in power, and Lenin’s work appeared to be an enduring achievement. Accordingly, Service, though hardly uncritical, approached his subject with a certain deference. Yet as the Soviet Union unraveled after 1985, each new volume made its argument with increasing self-confidence, though never with facile triumphalism.

Lenin was the product of what was best in Imperial Russia: an elite educational system that brought the fruits of “enlightenment” to a European backwater, and at the same time afforded social mobility to all who passed through it. The Ulyanov family, though thoroughly Russified, was of mixed origin, with Jewish, German, Swedish, and probably Tartar forebears, and possibly without a Russian among them. By dint of hard work, Lenin’s father became director of schools in Simbirsk province on the Volga, thereby “making it” to the rank of hereditary noble. Both parents were devoted to self-improvement through learning, and transmitted this ethos to their six children. Vladimir graduated from the gymnasium with a gold medal.

Yet the virtues that brought the parents advancement in society led the children into conflict with that same order, founded as it was on autocracy and an oppressed, if no longer enserfed, peasantry. Since the Great Reforms of the mid-century, university students had increasingly demanded changes so sweeping that the system could hardly concede them and survive. Repression and hence further radicalization followed, and by Lenin’s birth in 1870, Russia had a continuing revolutionary movement.

After one faction of this movement, the People’s Will, assassinated the Tsar in 1881, Lenin’s older brother, Alexander, joined a new plot against his successor. When the plot was discovered in 1887, he was executed. In consequence, the once-respectable Ulyanovs were ostracized by polite society, and Vladimir was for all practical purposes barred from a professional career. So he, too, became a revolutionary, as did his sisters and younger brother in their turn—all with the support of their adoring and now widowed mother. Lenin’s life mission thus arose not out of compassion for the “people”—he scarcely knew them at the time, or indeed in later life—but from the injury done him and his kind, the bearers of “enlightenment” to a benighted nation.

Cushioning the Ulyanovs’ clash with tsarism, however, was a landed estate inherited by Lenin’s mother; and the revenue from its peasant tenants went to finance his revolutionary career. And Lenin, though a self-trained, licensed lawyer, never held a job in his life. Moreover, as the oldest surviving Ulyanov male, he was the object of his mother’s and sisters’ veneration. When he departed into Siberian exile in 1895, to the ranks of these supporters at home he added a notably plain wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who accompanied him and thereafter worked as his secretary. After he emigrated to the West in 1900, he acquired a notably attractive Franco-Russian mistress, Inessa Armand, and Krupskaya put up with this as necessary for Vladimir’s equilibrium. Without the lifelong care of this group of devoted females, Lenin could never have lived full-time for revolution.

And they took very good care of him. Revolution is strenuous business, and Lenin was subject to depression and nervous exhaustion. Hence in emigration he took long walking vacations in the Swiss Alps with Nadezhda and Inessa. And back home in Petrograd in 1917 for la lutte finale, just as Bolshevik strength was about to peak in the July Days, exhaustion sent him to the Finnish forest for rest; in December he went there again on the eve of dissolving the democratically elected Constituent Assembly, a potentially risky action. Moreover, whenever physical danger threatened, he decamped so hastily that his comrades were embarrassed. But was not his first obligation to survive for the cause?

That cause was revolution in the near future—this was not personal extremism, but the general expectation of the Russian intelligentsia after 1900. For as the country modernized and drew closer to the rest of Europe, it became increasingly clear that the autocracy would have to share power with the landed gentry, professionals, businessmen, and other members of emerging civil society. Even liberals committed to the rule of law believed that such a change would probably require a revolutionary break. So the intelligentsia elite staked out their positions for the coming crisis, with Lenin advancing the most radical program of all.

As set forth in his famous pamphlet What Is to Be Done?, published in 1902, its argument ran: The economic struggle of the workers can “generate only a trade-union consciousness” directed toward the reform of existing society. To make this struggle genuinely socialist, therefore, a “vanguard party” of full-time “professionals” must bring to the proletariat, “from without,” a “revolutionary consciousness” aiming for a totally new society. And such a leap of consciousness requires the “profound scientific knowledge… born in the heads” of Marxists from the “bourgeois intelligentsia” (Lenin’s emphasis). Thus did Lenin substitute an intelligentsia faction for the real proletariat; and this, his critics charge, is not Marxism but the specter of the People’s Will of the 1870s and 1880s.

The vanguard party is indeed Lenin’s chief amendment to Marx. Even so, the “orthodoxy” of his position cannot be determined by the single criterion of political organization. It can only be evaluated in the full historical setting of Russia’s revolutionary movement. That movement appeared following the Great Reforms of the 1860s as narodnichestvo, or populism, whose adherents believed that a democratic Russia could be founded on the model of the peasant commune. Convinced that this institution made the peasants natural socialists, they expected that the perceived “injustice” of the Emancipation settlement of 1861 would produce a rural insurrection. When this did not occur, they resorted to conspiratorial terrorism to provoke an uprising.

By the 1890s, however, peasant socialism was losing ground to Marxism as adapted to Russia by the “repentant nobleman” and former populist Georgi Plekhanov. After the failure of the People’s Will, Plekhanov argued that the peasantry was a backward, not a revolutionary, class, and that Russia could not be forced by elite action to skip the logical phases of historical development. And this logic, as Marx argued, led from agrarian “feudalism” to industrial “capitalism,” and only then to “socialism.” From this perspective Russia’s forthcoming revolution would be in two stages, “bourgeois” and socialist, in both of which—paradoxically—the workers would play the leading role. As it happened, the accelerated industrialization of the 1890s was at last bringing capitalism to Russia. Welcoming, even exaggerating, this development, the twenty-year-old expelled student Ulyanov proclaimed himself a Marxist.

Service copiously illustrates the depth of this commitment. A lifelong student of Marx’s writings, Lenin always quoted him with unequivocal veneration. In particular, he displayed a thoroughly Marxist detestation of the “idiocy of rural life,” and hence he ardently supported a capitalist road for Russia as the necessary prelude to socialism—a course of action that was anathema to populists. After the revolution, under Stalin, these commitments were translated as requiring Bolshevik crash-industrialization and forced collectivization of the peasantry—policies inconceivable if the populists had won in 1917.

To be sure, not all of this is literally in Marx. Yet the master never viewed his system as a dogma yielding a single orthodoxy (he once famously declared, “I am not a Marxist”). Rather, he expected his system to evolve “dialectically” as historical conditions changed. One of Service’s more interesting points is that Lenin was very aware of Marx’s debt to Hegelian dialectics. Thus, while marooned in Switzerland during the war, he spent days in the Berne library studying Hegel’s Logic, even digging back to the latter’s base in Aristotle (whom he read in Greek with a facing German translation), an experience that reinforced his existing tendency to treat Marx “creatively.”

  1. *

    A shorter up-to-date treatment is Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Lenin, translated from the French by George Holoch (Holmes and Meier, 2001).

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