Scaffolding of Lies

The Rise of the Gulag: Intellectual Origins of Leninism

by Alain Besançon, translated by Sarah Matthews
Continuum Books, 329 pp., $19.50

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…

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