Lenin; drawing by David Levine

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.”

After all, it is too often forgotten that Lenin, though primarily drawn to action, was a genuine intellectual—“a man of the printed word, a fanatical reader and writer,” as Service calls him. Hence Lenin’s famous dictum: “Without theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.” Indeed, Marx’s own “unity of theory and practice” made amendments to his doctrine inevitable—a process that began with Engels and continued to the “pope” of the Second International, Karl Kautsky.

In view of Lenin’s lifelong immersion in such theory, why have so many wanted to deny his Marxism? Two basic currents feed this dismissal. The first is a Social Democratic effort, beginning with the Mensheviks and Kautsky, to rescue Marx from Lenin’s dictatorial clutches. The second is the appropriation of this socialist critique by historians inveterately suspicious of Russia, of whom Richard Pipes is the most visible, in order to portray Bolshevism as nothing more than traditional Russian autocracy painted red. Both groups rely on two key arguments. The first is that Russia in 1917 was not “ready” for socialism, since it had not yet gone through capitalism. The second is that Lenin had simply decked out the Russian conspiratorial tradition, itself the mirror image of tsarist autocracy, with Marxist language in order to satisfy his lust for power.

And certainly, as Bolshevism’s founding document makes clear, Lenin never ceased to have the greatest admiration for the People’s Will and for populism’s patriarch, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, whose novel, also named What Is to Be Done?, had been the breviary of Russian radicals since its publication in 1863. Moreover, when the chips of revolution were down in 1917, Lenin relied on support—if only temporary—from the peasants as much as from the workers. Yet, when taken in isolation, these facts artificially separate the Russian revolutionary movement from its Western counterpart, whereas in reality the two had run on intersecting courses ever since Aleksandr Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin—both of them nourished, like Marx, on German philosophy and French socialism—became involved in the Revolution of 1848.

And Marx in turn became so impressed by the vitality of Russian radicalism that in the 1860s he learned Russian in order to read Chernyshevsky. He especially admired the People’s Will; after the failure of the Paris Commune of 1871, it was for him the only hope for igniting revolution throughout Europe. He therefore bent his system’s developmental “logic” so far as to declare that if the overthrow of tsarism coincided with a European revolution, the peasant commune could in fact offer a basis for socialism in Russia. But this autumnal radicalism only echoed the even greater logical leap of his own debut, in 1848, when he expected that Germany could combine the bourgeois and the proletarian revolutions into one—which is of course what Lenin did in Russia in 1917.

So, after an interval of fifty years, Lenin, the thirty-one-year-old author of What Is to Be Done?, echoed, mutatis mutandis, the twenty-eight-year-old author of the Communist Manifesto. The latter document, too often read as if it were a sociological treatise, was in fact the prospective scenario for an imminent German revolution (which arrived that same year and of course fizzled). Moreover, the young Marx’s awareness that Europe became increasingly backward as one moved from west to east, and of the revolutionary potential this afforded, was paralleled in Lenin’s own day. Plekhanov, Service notes, held that Russia in the 1890s was hardly more laggard in relation to Germany than Germany in 1848 had been in relation to France and England.

But the nub of the problem of Lenin’s fidelity to Marx is deeper than these specifics; it lies in the nature of Marxism as a system. That system is not, at bottom, a construction based on social science. Its driving impulse is a metaphysical, even millenarian, vision of human destiny, which at the end of “prehistory” would culminate in the abolition of human alienation in a classless, stateless society. Of course, in Marxist theory this vision is always plausibly related to the social science categories of Europe’s development—“feudalism,” “bourgeoisie,” “surplus value,” etc.—but the “logic” linking them in an eschatological progression is an a priori, philosophical one. The result is a fundamental duality in Marxism between determinism and voluntarism. On the one hand, the system offers a “logic” of history leading inevitably to socialism; and on the other, it posits the equally certain emergence of a revolutionary proletarian consciousness under the pressure of that logic.

But fifty years after the Manifesto, Marx’s Marxism encountered its moment of truth; for by then it had become apparent that the “logic” of advanced capitalism does not generate revolutionary proletarian “consciousness.” So Marxists had to choose. In semi-constitutional Germany, Edouard Bernstein’s “revisionists” followed the actual logic of industrial society into parliamentary reformism. In autocratic Russia, on the other hand, Lenin’s Bolsheviks compensated for Social Democracy’s dwindling red consciousness by incarnating the specter of communism in their “party of a new type.” And between the two, the chief ideologue of Germanic Central Europe, Kautsky, clung to the formal trappings of “orthodoxy,” now curiously characterized as “revolutionary waiting.” He thereby defined that scholastic Marxism in whose name Lenin would eventually be read out of true European socialism. When, however, did the impeccably orthodox ever produce a socialist revolution?

True, Marx never advocated a vanguard party; he always held that proletarian emancipation must be the task of the workers themselves. Yet he also believed that as these workers matured, they would necessarily arrive at his own views. Thus the germ of Lenin’s later idea of “substitutionism”—that is, of the vanguard acting for the workers—is transparent in the Communist Manifesto itself: “We Communists… have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.” So it has been plausibly argued that Lenin simply gave this natural vanguard the organization to do its appointed job.

How then did Lenin pilot this vanguard to October 1917? Service accurately portrays him as consistently, indeed fanatically, committed to two core beliefs: hatred of Russian autocracy and national backwardness on the one hand, and, on the other, faith that Marx’s science showed the path to socialism for Russia and the world. Yet, since that science must be used “creatively,” these core convictions were compatible with maximum tactical flexibility. It was with this pragmatic fanaticism, rather than by grandiose planning, that he improvised his way to October.

What Is to Be Done?, then, should not be read as a “universal practical blueprint” for world communism. It was a product of circumstance, directed to the specific task of organizing a Marxist party for the forthcoming Russian revolution. Even so, its ideas, as well as Lenin’s political practice, were hardly as effective for party-building as is usually claimed.

At the Party’s founding congress, in 1903, Lenin’s insistence on centralization split the movement between “majoritarians” and “minoritarians”—i.e., Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The schism not only ended his alliance with Russia’s most talented Marxists, Plekhanov, Trotsky, and Yuli Martov; it made his faction the real minority until late 1917. Then, in 1908, he broke with a new group of associates, the brilliant but mercurial “God-builders” Aleksandr Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky. Only in 1912 could he form an organization all his own, but with the second-string team of Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Josif Stalin, and the police agent Roman Malinovsky. As of 1914, Lenin’s party newspaper, Pravda, had a print run of only 40,000; and the Tsar’s police easily closed down both newspaper and party on the outbreak of war—hardly the monolithic juggernaut often described.

In reality, until 1917 Lenin was, as Service writes, “a theorist and rhetorician of revolution more than a leader.” He played no role in the Revolution of 1905, his only contribution being a pamphlet that attempted to discard, at least in part, the inhibiting two-stage theory of revolution in favor of a future “revolutionary alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry.” And during World War I, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism put forward further theoretical speculation, this time about the conflagration causing international capitalism to break at its “weakest link,” Russia. Until 1917, Lenin was an apparatchik of revolutionary conspiracy more than a politician. Since fear of arrest kept him from returning home, he worked on the unrealistic assumption that he could direct activity in Russia by letters from Switzerland—a tenuous linkage to the troops that was to reinforce his penchant for top-down command.

Then, in February 1917, tsarism’s unexpected collapse offered him his chance at power. On his return to Petrograd in April, he cast aside the two-stage revolution entirely in favor of igniting a European conflagration by an immediate seizure of power in Russia. His amended slogan was “All power to the soviets,” the grass-roots worker and soldier “councils” that proliferated after February. In tracing Lenin’s path to October, Service again argues against the view that he had a master plan. Lenin proceeded, he writes, by “testing the waters…constantly on the look-out for any weaknesses” of the Provisional Government.

And, once again, his judgment was erratic. As has been said, he left Petrograd just as the semi-insurrection called the July Days was breaking out; that botched action almost destroyed the Bolshevik organization and sent Lenin himself into hiding in semi-autonomous Finland. He was again wrong in September when, from Helsinki, he bombarded the party’s Central Committee with appeals for immediate insurrection, a timing that would have spelled disaster. But the Central Committee prudently turned him down; and when it did accede to his urgings, in late October, it ignored his instructions for a party coup; it followed instead Trotsky’s plan for seizing power in the name of the soviets.

Yet raw power was not Lenin’s aim in October; he wanted power for a purpose—to precipitate the Marxist millennium. So in his Finnish refuge he worked at his last major tract, State and Revolution, in which he outlined his vision of Russia’s future. The new order would begin as an iron-fisted “dictatorship of the proletariat” expropriating the former exploiting classes. But it would soon mature into a “commune state” in which ordinary citizens would manage all society’s affairs through the purest direct democracy. Too often dismissed as a quasi-anarchist aberration in Lenin’s career, this treatise was viewed by its author as his masterpiece. Its proposals, of course, were never applied; but the illusion of a “radiant future” that it projected would be as necessary as coercion to keeping Lenin’s vanguard in power for seventy-four years.

How indispensable was Lenin’s personal leadership to putting his party there in the first place? Although Service does not address this question explicitly, an answer of “yes and no” is clear from his account. The answer is “yes” in the sense that a militant, hard-left organization, however rudimentary, was necessary to stage the October coup, and Lenin had in fact built that organization and infused it with insurrectionary will. The answer is “no” in the sense that after the February Revolution, the fragile “duality of power” between the Provisional Government and grass-roots soviets could only unravel until the country hit bottom, thereby creating a void into which a determined organization could easily step. And there were enough other all-out revolutionaries available to improvise such a vanguard if Lenin had not already built it himself.

So at age forty-seven Lenin attained state power. And once there, his pragmatic fanaticism became increasingly “creative,” since his reading of Marx’s science had proved to be drastically defective. The premise that the Russian Revolution would set off a European one turned out to be false, and the world’s first proletarian dictatorship found itself barely afloat in a sea of peasants. Nonetheless, as a workers’ party the Bolsheviks had to pursue a “proletarian” policy anyway; and so between 1918 and 1921 they undertook to create a Communist order in Russia alone. All industry and commerce were nationalized, and there was talk at least of economic planning. Once “class warfare in the villages” failed to feed the cities, the job was done through forced grain requisitions. Only when “War Communism” led to disaster and famine, in 1921, was it disavowed as the product of the Civil War emergency. But private property and the market remained anathema to the Bolsheviks even as they were temporarily forced to adjourn further implementation of their creed.

Despite this defeat, Lenin, who had never managed anything in his life except an émigré newspaper, proved to be a very effective, if unorthodox, head of government. In the face of great difficulties, he succeeded splendidly in holding and consolidating Bolshevik power. He suppressed all rival parties, socialist no less than “bourgeois.” He temporarily subordinated world revolution to preserving Soviet power through the costly separate peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in 1918 (only to lunge at Europe in 1920 with an invasion of Poland that ended in fiasco). He improvised an unprecedented political system, the Party-state, in which the formal “Soviet” government was controlled by a parallel Communist apparatus. Though still dogmatic in his Marxism, and ever ready to castigate in print such “renegades” as Kautsky, he was no longer obsessed with “splitting” off his own fractious comrades in order to consolidate the Party. Instead, he persuaded and cajoled them into following his lead.

Toward all others, however, he used the wonderfully elastic Marxist category of “class struggle”—which in practice meant violence and terror. The following item cited by Service from 1918 is characteristic:

Comrades! The insurrection of five kulak districts should be pitilessly suppressed….

  1. Hang (and make sure that the hanging takes place in full view of the people) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
  2. Publish their names.
  3. Seize all their grain [from them].
  4. Designate hostages…. Do it in such a fashion that for hundreds of kilometres around the people might see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucking kulaks.

It was precisely such ideological fanaticism that produced the disaster of War Communism, eventually setting off both worker and peasant revolts. And it was these revolts that forced Lenin to retreat to the quasi “capitalist” New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921, which allowed a partial market economy. Service rightly emphasizes how reluctant Lenin and the Party were to take this “Menshevik” course. Even so, the belief will no doubt endure that the NEP was Lenin’s real choice for socialism.

But this is hardly plausible. The next year a stroke removed him from active politics, and he never saw the NEP’s full implications. Only in the mid-1920s did it become clear that a partially free market for peasant grain threatened the Party’s monopoly of political power—a power it had been his life’s mission to build. All the same, as he dwindled away, a victim of arterial sclerosis and paralysis, he was vaguely aware that something had gone very wrong with his great October gamble.

In the 1930s, of course, Stalin finally made that gamble stick by institutionalizing War Communism in his Five-Year Plans. Still, hope for the ever-deferred “radiant future” seemingly promised by October has always generated pressure to rescue Lenin from his successor’s totalitarian clutches. The historiography of the Soviet Union is thus uniquely rich in counter-factual speculations; and the first of these is: if Lenin had lived, then something better would surely have emerged. But the real issue in judging the legacy of October is not Lenin the man; it is Leninism the system—a system, moreover, created to achieve Marx’s utopia of a marketless, propertyless society.

On Stalin’s credentials as an appropriate heir of this system, Service is sensible:

Lenin’s ideas on violence, dictatorship, terror, centralism, hierarchy and leadership were integral to Stalin’s thinking. Furthermore, Lenin had bequeathed the terroristic instrumentalities to his successor: the Cheka, the forced-labor camps, the one-party state, the mono-ideological mass media, the legalized administrative arbitrariness, the prohibition of free and popular elections, the ban on internal party dissent.

And with these means, Stalin was indeed able to build socialism as integral noncapitalism.

Yet nothing now remains of his and Lenin’s work: the Party, the plan, the police are all on the ash heap of history. Ilya Zbarsky’s book, Lenin’s Embalmers, hence provides a fitting epilogue to the Bolshevik story. On the founder’s death, in 1924, his comrades, fearful of a future without the leader who had brought them power and glory, wished to keep him with them always. Zbarsky’s father was among the embalmers; and in the 1930s his son joined him in the scientific institute monitoring the corpse. The two thus entered the Soviet elite, and the son’s memoirs give us the curious vignette of Stalinism viewed from inside Lenin’s tomb. The Zbarskys, moreover, did their work very well indeed. In Moscow bookstores it is now impossible to find a copy of What Is to Be Done? (or of the Communist Manifesto, for that matter). The only immortality that the author of October still enjoys is as a balsamed mummy in a mausoleum.

This Issue

November 1, 2001