Lenin; drawing by David Levine

How does one set about establishing the intellectual origins of the doctrine which has come to be known as “Leninism”? The accepted way in the past has been to trace those ideas or doctrines with which it can be demonstrated Lenin was acquainted, and to argue from the similarity that his ideas bear to those preceding them that they influenced him. By this method one can establish the debt that Lenin owed to traditional Russian ideas before he became acquainted with the works of Marx—those of the populists, and especially of that lone and troubled genius Tkachev and of Chernyshevsky (whose novel, What Is to Be Done?, in Lenin’s own words, “turned me inside out”). Research of this kind established beyond doubt the vital fact that Lenin, who became a revolutionary in 1887, was a traditional Russian revolutionary for several years before he read Capital in 1900 or 1901. One can trace by similar means the influences on Lenin after he felt the impact of Marx: Clausewitz is one; another is Kautsky, who influenced Lenin until 1912 when, as a trustee for a fund claimed by both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, he decided against Lenin and was thereafter abused for his alleged theoretical heresies in the most vulgar terms.

There is another possible method—to trace the steps by which the central notion of Leninism historically evolved in the course of Lenin’s own career. I take the core of Leninism to be that the class struggle is the main element in bourgeois society—a struggle which must be resolved by a revolution ending in the victory of the masses; and that this can be achieved only by a disciplined, professional party which will provide the masses with the revolutionary consciousness that they are incapable of evolving themselves. Such an account would show Lenin in exile after 1895, absorbed in the writing of his lengthy Development of Capitalism in Russia, and, on the rare occasions when he expressed a view on tactics, writing the kind of things that the most orthodox of Marxists would subscribe to—for example (in 1895 or 1896), that the workers acquire class consciousness from the struggle for their daily needs against the factory owners, and that the party should not attempt “to think up out of its head” any kind of plan for them.

Then, on August 31, 1899, Bernstein’s pamphlet, which became the Bible of revisionist Marxism, arrived in the Siberian village where Lenin and his wife lived in exile, following closely on the so-called “Credo,” which purported to be a manifesto of revisionism by a group of Russian Marxists, and caused in the two of them a sense of wild outrage. Within a few months a series of articles poured forth from Lenin which contained the essence of the doctrine (subsequently, in 1902, expounded in What Is to Be Done?) out of which the Bolshevik revolution would grow: the futility of economic struggle, and the need for a conspiratorial, centrally disciplined party, with a newspaper as its pivotal point, which would “introduce into the spontaneous labor movement definite socialist ideals.” There is no evidence that already at this date Lenin envisaged as the key tactic of the revolutionary coup d’état the encouragement of the mass anarchy and mob violence on which the Bolsheviks rode to power in 1917 in the guise of a victory for the Soviets. But he had already conceived the instrument by means of which this anarchy could be exploited, and at a later stage brought under control.

Professor Besançon, in a stimulating and penetrating study, looks elsewhere for the origins of Leninism. He sees them in the evolution of ideology—in the original interpretation which he gives to this much-debated concept. Ideology, he stresses, is not a religion, because at the basis of religion is faith. But faith can apply only to the unknown. Lenin’s belief that the materialistic interpretation of history is scientifically proven and based in experience, however wrong, rests on what is regarded as science. Besançon sums this up in a lapidary phrase: “Lenin does not know that he believes. He believes that he knows.” The ideology “imposes a system of practical politics aimed at totally transforming society” in accordance with the model which it has scientifically discovered.

So far, so good—there is perhaps little in this that is new. What is new, and important, is Besançon’s analysis of the Bolshevik ideology in action. It is first of all based on the class struggle, which is the scientifically proven mainspring of history. Since all “moral, religious, political, and social phrases, declarations, and promises” are a façade for the interests of some class, the Marxist has to wage “unceasing war on the enemies of Marxism.” There can be no compromise with the liberal, for example—the liberal seeks to modify reality, the Marxist seeks to replace one reality by another. When, however, he has achieved, or claims to have achieved, his object, Besançon writes, the reality which he proclaims, in fact, in the ordinary experience of men, bears no relation to the reality which is visible and apparent.


Two consequences follow. First, “the yawning gulf between the party and society, between the world as seen by the party and the world which society knows, is a constant threat to the legitimacy of the government’s power, which rests on the verification of the theory.” Secondly, as a direct result of the first, the ideology has to be maintained by a special language of prescribed lies. The use of this language has two advantages: it provides a protective carapace which shields the party from the gulf between ideology and reality by making real discussion impossible, or at all events illegal. And it provides a ready test of the loyalty of the individual to the ideology, since any departure from the ideological language is immediately recognizable.

Professor Besançon could with advantage have expanded this side of his argument, which in my view contains the core of Leninism, and of Soviet politics to this day. There is overwhelming evidence from the mass of samizdat material now available that the purification of language, the liberation of discourse from the encrustation of official lying in which it is imprisoned, has become the primary concern of the writers and thinkers who strive to escape the constraints of censorship. Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago was a major event in this process. It is not an anti-Soviet novel in the ordinary sense of this term. But it describes the revolution and the civil war in the language of truth, which bears no relation to the language of ideology—hence its threat to the ideology and hence the reason for banning it.

Ideological argument is dialectical argument. Besançon provides an example from Lenin’s explanation of why it was right from the point of view of the class struggle for the Bolsheviks to urge the convocation of the Constituent Assembly before October 1917 and forcibly to dissolve it when it was finally elected. (The cynical might suspect that it had something to do with achieving and retaining power.) To the plain man all this smacks of ordinary chicanery. When the late Angelica Balabanova once asked Lenin why he called “socialists who have dedicated all their lives to the cause of the exploited, traitors,” she received the familiar reply that treason was “objectively” the result of their conduct. When she retorted that for the ordinary worker “traitor” means what it says, Lenin shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

Professor Besançon has interesting things to say about the intellectual evolution of ideology, in the sense in which he uses the term, both outside and inside Russia. In Russia he traces a parallel in the thought of the Slavophiles. He does not, however, suggest that the phenomenon of ideology is peculiar to Russia, or that the censorship before 1917 bore any relationship to it. It would, however, be hard to deny that the Russian temperament is particularly prone to be fascinated by the one all-embracing theory or formula which it is believed will solve all problems at a stroke. As one of the characters in Turgenev’s Virgin Soil says, “Look at us Russians, we are always waiting. There, something or someone will turn up and will cure all our wounds in a moment…. Who will this magician be? Darwinism? The village…. A foreign war? Anything you please….”

Extreme solutions fascinate Russians. Herzen even took pride in this when he wrote to Michelet, “Russia will never be juste-milieu.” As Besançon rightly points out, liberalism in Russia was not ideological because it did not want to replace one reality by another, illusory, “reality,” but wished to modify existing reality in certain respects. It was for this reason that it was anathema not only to Lenin, but to many of the intelligentsia bred in the tradition of Chernyshevsky.

The intransigent demands for too much, too soon, voiced by the main liberal party, the Kadets, at times made them seem more like radicals than liberals. In the end it was the tragedy of the Kadets that for most of them cooperation with the government after 1906 in an endeavor to encourage the evolution of Russia along constitutional and legal lines proved impossible. The government, it is true, did not make this cooperation very easy. But the polarization between “them” and “us” which the Russian intelligentsia did much to bring about before 1917 in the end helped Lenin to power. Those who warned that something like that would be the consequence, the true liberals like Struve or Shipov, went unheeded. Indeed, the very few voices in Russian history, from Pushkin to Struve, who pleaded for cooperation rather than confrontation, for slow evolution rather than an all-in-one solution, for peace between classes rather than struggle, always went unheeded.


I find Professor Besançon’s book in certain respects not critical enough of Lenin, and in others too critical of him. It is too kind to Lenin in that it fails to show just how far Lenin’s commitment to ideology distorted the Marxism in which its scientific basis was supposed to be found. Marx regarded ideology as applicable solely to bourgeois, capitalist society, and as necessarily false—false not so much as a result of deliberate fraudulence as because the very social relations of capitalist society (value, wages, money, etc.), being false, necessarily lead to the consequence that the bourgeoisie, consciously or unconsciously, uses political, moral, or juridical ideas to shore up its own economic hegemony. The proletariat, on the other hand, on coming to power will abolish property, and by so doing will remove the necessity for all ideology—at least, this is the inference that seems to follow from the argument in the Communist Manifesto.

Lenin in effect rejected Marx’s position on ideology. Unlike Marx, he did not regard it as peculiar to bourgeois capitalist society. In Lenin’s writings ideology is a neutral term, in the sense that he speaks of socialist, proletarian, bourgeois, religious, and other ideologies. The term he most frequently uses (interchangeably with “ideology”) is “revolutionary theory”—this is what the working class requires in order to make the revolution, and this according to Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? can only be brought to it “from the outside,” and cannot possibly evolve of its own in the course of the struggle for better working conditions.

This is poles apart from Marx. Marx may have been naïve or utopian in believing as he did that once you had changed (by revolution or otherwise) the social relations of a community and reached the stage where these social relations were no longer based on property all exploitation would come to an end. But he did not, as did Lenin, invent a theory supposed to be scientific on the basis of which society had to be transformed. The result of following Lenin’s precept was that as soon as the reality did not remotely correspond to the theory, since the theory was “scientific” and therefore ex hypothesi true, the only thing to do was to resort to the kind of organized lie that a society founded on an ideology must necessarily become—as Besançon so convincingly shows. This is yet a further reason for refusing to accept the popular myth that Leninism is derived from Marx.*

On the other hand, where Professor Besançon has, in my view, been unfair to Lenin is in depriving him of any kind of quality as a human being. Yet his commitment to his ideology—in Besançon’s sense of a false set of assumptions accepted as scientifically true, and therefore imposing a kind of carapace of falsehood on reality—seems on the evidence to have wavered toward the end of his life. For one thing, some of his last writings, when he was near death, and out of power, show that he recognized that the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 was premature. This suggests to me that his impulse in 1917 was much more the very human one of seizing power at all costs, rather than an ideological one. Again, these later writings of a man too ill to act for himself, his two secretaries now Stalin’s agents and his wife possibly of doubtful loyalty, seem to me to reveal considerable doubt in Lenin’s mind about the way things had developed in Russia. This again does not seem to me to be the mental approach of a man who is incapable of anything but ideological or dialectical thinking.

What this book proves beyond any doubt—if any doubt can still remain in the face of the overwhelming historical evidence—is the continuity between Stalinism and Leninism. The scale of atrocities for which each ideological straitjacket was responsible certainly differs. It is also arguable that had Lenin lived on to implement NEP to its full extent a different kind of society might have evolved in Russia. But the basic features associated with Stalin’s rule—the polarization of society into those whom the leader at any time regards as loyal and all the rest who are mortal enemies, the ever-continuing struggle on which the social order is based, and above all the scaffolding of total falsehood by which a regime, which bears little if any relationship to what the ideology says it is, is supported—were all invented or developed by Lenin.

This Issue

September 24, 1981