Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Lenin; drawing by David Levine

1964 promises to be a vintage year for biographies of Lenin. It is, after all, exactly four decades since his death in 1924. It also happens to be the year of the formal dissolution of “world Communism” into rival camps; but this unexpected event is in the nature of a bonus from the viewpoint of authors and publishers concerned with the personality of the man who started it all. As matters now stand, the proper procedure, for anyone with an urge to be up-to-date, is to begin with the image of the prophet—shrouded and embalmed in his gloomy mausoleum—and then work backward to 1917, and forward to the present year, when this new Islam dissolved into hostile empires centered around Moscow and Peking. In this way one obtains the correct historical perspective, and at the same time links the subject with immediate topical concerns, such as the relation of Russia to Asia. We are all getting expert at this kind of thing. Before long anyone equipped with a college degree and a typewriter may feel able to join the fray.

Meanwhile here are these new biographies: all fairly solid, all based on wide reading, all addressed to the general public, though remarkably dissimilar in scope and level of comprehension. Mr. Payne’s is the easiest to read. It is also the easiest to forget. The particular genre to which it belongs may be said to have been established by the various nonprofessional biographers of Napoleon: notably those among them who insisted that his death on St. Helena was not due to cancer, or the climate, but to the machinations of the British, or to poison administered by someone in his entourage. Mr. Payne, a firm adherent to the conspiracy theory of politics, asserts that Lenin was poisoned by Stalin. Perhaps he was. Trotsky thought Stalin might have had a hand in the matter, and it would certainly have been consistent with the rest of his career if in January 1924 he had manipulated the situation around the dying man to his own advantage. But the fact remains that Lenin had suffered repeated strokes, or brain hemorrhages, in the last two years of his life, and during those final months was a very sick man indeed: his last attempt to dictate a letter occurred in March 1923, ten months before his death. So even if Mr. Payne is right, it does not amount to much.

Apart from this bit of sensationalism, which should help to promote the sale, Mr. Payne’s work is standard amateur biography. Being the work of a literary man, it is consistently readable; it is also consistently superficial and cliché-ridden. Lenin, one learns, was a great destroyer in the tradition of the terrorists portrayed in The Possessed: indeed the authentic embodiment of the “professional revolutionary” foreshadowed by the sinister Nechaev—Bakunin’s luckless emissary to the student youth. The acorn of sense in this notion is relentlessly expanded into a forest, and in the end the reader is left with the firm impression that Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was a character straight out of Dostoevsky. But of how many others, notably among the Narodnicks, might this not have been said? And why did they all fail where Lenin succeeded? It is easy to see why the Mensheviks failed: Russia was no place for Westernizing Social Democrats. Besides, most of their leaders were Jewish intellectuals who shrank from violence. But the major radical party, the Social-Revolutionaries? They were an authentically Russian movement, with roots in village life; there were plenty of terrorists among them (Savinkov alone would repay study); and their ideology appealed both to the masses and to the intelligentsia. In fact if they had won (they nearly did) Mr. Payne would have had an easy time proving to his readers’ satisfaction that Marxism was unsuited to Russia.

It is perhaps unfair to raise such questions, since they properly belong to the province of historians. But this is just the trouble: books about Lenin ought to be written by historians, not by amateurs with a smattering of Russian. However, there is a public for slightly fictionalized biography, and Mr. Payne’s friends need not worry—his work, a Book-of-the-Month Club Selection, is clearly destined to become a bestseller. In a later edition he should try to find another title for the chapter on the “sealed train” in which the Bolshevik leader is supposed to have crossed Germany in 1917. There was no sealed train. It was just an ordinary train, no different from any other.

Professor Possony, who directs a course in political studies at the Hoover Institution attached to Stanford University, does not believe in the sealed train: at least not in the body of his text, though he has forgotten to amend the relevant chapter-heading. He does believe—let it be said, on good evidence—that in 1917 Lenin accepted money from the Germans. This is now denied by few serious historians, for the German archives have become available, and there seems to be little doubt about it. What one makes of the political significance is another matter. Professor Possony makes a great deal of it, while keeping silent on the Western funds which some historians believe to have gone to the democratic parties. These parties, after the fall of Tsarism in February-March 1917, consistently championed war against Germany as part of the general democratic crusade; the Bolsheviks opposed the war. Now did they do this, as Professor Possony hints, because the German Government had a secret hold over Lenin, or because they thought (as some Western historians have come to think) that the war was ruinous for Russia? And were their democratic opponents, who went on with the war, merely misguided, or did the Entente governments have a hold over them? Professor Possony does not properly ask these questions, which is a pity, since a lot depends on them.


The whole business of taking money from foreign governments in war-time is wrapped up with the psychology of revolutionaries. There is evidence that in 1905 Lenin accepted either arms or funds from the Japanese, Japan being then at war with Russia. But then so did other revolutionary groups, including the wing of the Polish Socialists led by Pilsudski, later the national hero of Poland and an arch-foe of Bolshevism. Even that staunch Monarchist, Gapon, may have had a finger in this pie. Professor Possony’s indignation is, however, reserved for Lenin. Clearly it is all a matter of whose ox is being gored. It would not be in the least surprising if in 1917 both the Bolsheviks and their opponents had accepted foreign subsidies. Whether such conduct should be called praiseworthy is disputable, but there is clearly something a little unbalanced about the moral indignation usually expended on this theme. In any case it seems unlikely that many of today’s political émigrés will share Professor Possony’s sentiments on the subject. The age of innocence is past for all of us. Surely it is also past for consultants to US institutions? Taking money from foreign governments to finance one’s revolution, or counter-revolution, has become quite respectable. If all states now or in the past guilty of such behavior were expelled from the United Nations, how many would be left?

Apart from his search for the sources of Bolshevik affluence, Professor Possony is mainly concerned with the complex story of factional intrigue and political controversy among the Russian revolutionary movements. He approaches the matter from what might be called an organizational standpoint. Unlike Mr. Payne he is fully conversant with the issues, but his chief interest lies on the personal side: It is to the unraveling of conspiratorial politics that his effort is directed. As such his work is clearly of value, even though his political judgments are frequently puzzling, not to say eccentric. So far as Bolshevik finances, and organizational skulduggery in the lean years between 1905 and 1917, can be disentangled at this late date, Professor Possony is the man to disentangle them. His documentation is impressive. He is expert at learned footnotes and elaborate cross-references: Even the story of Lenin and Inessa Armand (with which by now everyone must be familiar from Bertram Wolfe’s researches) is told once more in detail, down to the food they consumed during their meetings in Paris. I got a little tired of all this sleuthing, but there is no denying that when it comes to tracking a bank account, or spotting a double agent, there is no one to beat Professor Possony.

His analysis of Russian revolutionary politics is another matter; though competently handled, it betrays a certain impatience with mere ideas, as distinct from facts. Unfortunately ideas are all-important in the early history of a movement, notably in a society such as that of Tsarist Russia. Here Possony does not compare favorably with historians such as Professor Venturi of Turin. I recommend Venturi’s great history of Populism to anyone trying to understand that formative movement, which left so profound an imprint on the mentality of later revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks. Possony does make a brief effort to dissect the student milieu at Samara in the early 1890s, but he does not get very far. He has the usual comment on the execution of Lenin’s elder brother in 1887, but he does not see how important it is to make plain that Bolshevism really stemmed from the same basic tradition as did the terrorist Narodnaya Volya which finally collapsed in the 1880s. The manner in which Russian Marxism emerged during these years from its Populist chrysalis was analyzed almost a decade ago by Mr. Leopold Haimson in a brief study that is both scholarly and readable. Earlier, the reader of Mr. Bertram Wolfe’s well-known work, Three Who Made a Revolution, had his attention directed to the theme. Possony is familiar with the facts, but he does not make much of them, so busy is he explaining what a disagreeable person Lenin was.


All this is a pity. One cannot understand Bolshevism unless one realizes that Lenin’s lifelong attachment to Chernyshevski—the father of Russian Socialism—is one of the keys to the riddle. One can see, of course, why this theme is unwelcome to Communists and anti-Communists alike. For if it is conceded that the founder of Bolshevism was in the Populist tradition, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the party he founded, for all its Marxist doctrines, had Russian national roots. This is an admission all concerned find hard to make. But it has to be made if the subsequent story—down to the current row with China—is to be properly understood.

Angelica Balabanoff, born in the Ukraine in 1878 and today, at the age of eighty-six, in retirement in Rome among her surviving friends of the Italian Socialist movement, knew Lenin intimately for years before the Revolution, and afterwards for a while functioned as secretary to the Communist International, until its underhand methods got on her nerves. Her memoirs are of interest not only for their lively sketches of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, and other personalities of the heroic period, but because they show so clearly what it was that divided West European Socialists—even the most radical among them—from the Bolsheviks. Differences over policy might have been resolved. What could not be resolved was the clash between Socialists accustomed to free debate, and the conspiratorial atmosphere of Bolshevism, with its reliance on intrigue, corruption, and character assassination. In the end she broke free and went back to her spiritual home in Italy (to be expelled by Mussolini, whom she had known before 1914, when he was still a Socialist).

Though a bit disjointed, these memoirs present an animated portrait of Lenin and a lively account of Moscow in the first few years after the Revolution. One gets a glimpse of Trotsky deploring the crudity of his Bolshevik colleagues and at the same time being subtly corrupted by power; there are pen-portraits of minor Comintern personalities. But the little book is dominated by Lenin, and the reader is made to feel that, after all these years, Angelica Balabanoff is still puzzled by her old comrade. What made him so different from the others? Why was he at once so selfless and so ruthless? One fact she brings out very clearly is that Lenin could never have worked with authentic labor leaders in the way European Socialists in the tradition of Marx and Engels did. He could work through them, but not with them. But then he was not a democrat, and “the Party” to him was something very different from an organization based on free discussion and voting.

Mr. Bertram Wolfe’s Preface includes a brief sketch of the young Angelica: a wealthy landowner’s daughter in the almost medieval Russia of the 1880s, having her hand kissed by wretched peasants, and being revolted by the monstrosity of it all. This was the generation that sacrificed its private life and staked its all on total revolution. Its opposite numbers today can be found in countries like India, where Socialism still has a revolutionary ring. In Europe—even in Italy, now fast becoming prosperous and modern—these fires have burned themselves out.

Mr. Louis Fischer, whose weighty biography of Lenin crowns a lifetime of literary achievement largely concerned with the Russian Revolution, is better on the subject of early Bolshevism than Professor Possony, and he has of course a great deal more source material at his disposal than did Mr. Wolfe in 1948. His book is the most substantial of all these biographies. In some ways it is almost too substantial: over 700 papers is rather a lot, even for Lenin. Also the author is not always in full control of his material: several lengthy sections—including an account of Chicherin’s handling of foreign affairs during the early years of the new regime—seem to have been included for no better reason than that Mr. Fischer happened to be acquainted with the dramatic personae. There are altogether too many of these biographical excursions. Thus the reader once more is told at length about those loquacious secret agents: Bruce Lockhart, Jacques Sadoul, and Raymond Robins—especially the latter. The romantic appeal of these cloak-and-dagger stories palls somewhat after the lapse of almost half a century, even though it is useful to be reminded (on Mr. George Kennan’s authority) that in 1917 Colonel William B. Thompson—officially head of the American Red Cross mission to Russia—drew on his personal account with J. P. Morgan to the extent of one million dollars, for the benefit of those anti-Bolshevik and pro-war Social-Revolutionaries who supported the Kerensky government. Clearly the Bolsheviks were not alone in regarding foreign money as morally neutral. But there is altogether too much about Robins, Lansing, Wilson, and the Fourteen Points. None of this—as Mr. Kennan has made clear in his authoritative study, Russia Leaves the War—was of the slightest consequence.

A more serious criticism of Mr. Fischer’s work is that it is neither determinedly popular nor genuinely intended for the serious student. It seems to have been written with the intention of popularizing the results of scholarship (including Mr. Fischer’s own study of Soviet diplomacy). The upshot is something like William Shirer’s bloated history of the Third Reich: a heavy tome which manages to look formidable, without disclosing anything not previously known. Of course we can always do with haute vulgarisation, but for that Mr. Fischer’s style is not quite easy enough. Writing for middlebrows, who have to have the basic facts explained in popular language imposes severe limitations upon the most expert of writers. One never quite knows whom Mr. Fischer is addressing. On the whole he seems to be aiming at the kind of reader for whom a story has to be broken up into short, disjointed, paragraphs if he is not to get discouraged; but in the later part of his work the historian briefly takes over from the popularizer, and the reader is treated to a detailed discussion of the New Economic Policy, and the so-called trade union controversy of 1921-22: these soberly written and documented chapters certainly add to the weight of the work (in every sense) and show that the author has a grasp of the issues and the internal political stresses. The only trouble is that they are not properly integrated into the remainder of the story, and by the time Mr. Fischer gets on to the subject of Lenin’s illness he is once more wallowing in purple prose and reminding the reader of his own presence (as a reporter) at the last Comintern congress addressed by Lenin. All this is a pity. Here was Mr. Fischer’s opportunity to write a major historical study, and instead he prefers to dwell at length on the scenes of his youthful journalistic triumphs.

For information about the inner history of Bolshevism, then, the reader has to turn to the earlier chapters. The comparison here perhaps is with Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky. Mr. Fischer’s account of Lenin’s personal and political struggles is less detailed, but it is well documented and at the same time succeeds in holding the reader’s attention. It is a tribute to Mr. Fischer’s skill in this domain that he manages to be lively without being sensational, and factual without being dull. He is at heart rather fond of his subject, which always helps in a biographer. Others may treat Lenin as a kind of Mohammed who destroyed a Christian civilization: Mr. Fischer sorrows over him and gives due credit to his good intentions, though he regrets his descent into dictatorship and terrorism, which paved the way for Stalin. A circumstance he fails to bring out is that Lenin owed much of his organizational hold to his intellectual capacity, notably as an interpreter of Marxist economic theorizing. This point has escaped those numerous writers who are repelled by his awful style and his philosophical crudities. The fact is that Lenin—unlike the Narodniks who were always pretty weak in the thinking department—had a first-rate mind, though one has to plod through his bulky works on Russian economics and the agrarian problem to discover this. Most people have not the patience which is why they are amazed when told that, compared to Lenin, Trotsky, for all his brilliance, was no theorist at all. It is fair to say that Lenin is usually judged by State and Revolution—probably the worst thing he ever wrote—and by his pamphlet on Imperialism, which is merely a piece of superior journalism. He could do a lot better, and on occasions did, but this is a side of the story that does not appeal to his biographers.

On the issues that divided the Russian Marxists, Mr. Fischer follows the tradition that stresses Lenin’s centralized organizational model: with heavy emphasis on his psychological urge for tight control over his allies. This is all very well, but the crux of the matter is that Lenin fused Marxism with Narodism, and this fusion was not just a psychological affair: it involved genuine political and theoretical issues. For Lenin (as he put it on one occasion) the “agrarian question” was “the national question of…development” in Russia. This formulation already anticipated the upheavals of our own age. It pointed toward the confluence of national and social movement which has now become the hallmark of revolution in all the backward countries influenced by Communism. The Mensheviks, with their attention riveted on what Lenin called “the German model,” never grasped the point. They realized, though, that Lenin was somehow more “Russian” than they were, and indeed frequently complained about his tendency to translate European Marxism into a peculiarly Russian idiom. Trotsky (before the Revolution) went a step further: in 1911 he casually observed that the whole dispute between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was “a struggle for influence over the politically immature proletariat”—a struggle conducted by “Marxist intelligentsia.” This really went home, and the diatribe Lenin composed in reply contained some of his bitterest invectives on the subject of Martov’s and Trotsky’s inability to understand the nature of the coming revolution Trotsky later repented, but it is plain that Lenin never quite forgave him; neither did the true Leninists.

Of all this the reader will not find much in the books here under review, which is why it should be stressed that Leninism was more than one man’s intervention in Russian history. If Communism is still going strong in backward countries, the reason is that Lenin brought off something like a nuclear explosion in politics. The thunders we hear around us today are the echoes of what at one time seemed to be no more than a modest laboratory experiment conducted by a handful of quarreling emigrants. The key figure in the story was a man who fused Marxist theory with the practice of an authentically Russian revolutionary movement. Therein lies his enduring importance.

This Issue

June 11, 1964