Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book Review: Lih's Biography of Lenin

I just finished reading Lars Lih's short biography of Lenin. I'm ashamed to admit that it is the first complete biography of Lenin I've ever read. Mr. Lih's book is well-written and nicely researched. I understand that Mr. Lih has an atypical and tendentious view of Lenin. Indeed, he may have tried too hard to fit the facts into his storyline, though I certainly can't judge that. It all sounds a little too pat.

Born in 1870, Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov morphed into V. I. Lenin only after his death. In fleeing from the tsar in 1900 he borrowed a passport from a man named "Lenin," which our hero turned into the pseudonym, N. Lenin. Legend has it that N stood for Nikolai. He acquired his birth initials only post mortem.

Three people had a profound effect on Lenin's life. The first was his father, Ilya, a teacher who became an organizer of village schools to educate the peasants. This the tsar viewed as subversive.

Lenin's elder brother, Alexander, was involved in a failed plot to assassinate the tsar, for which he was hanged. As much as anything, Lenin was motivated by revenge for his brother's death. More importantly, he resolved not to make his brother's mistake. He disavowed terrorism as a revolutionary method, and indeed, mostly disowned violence.

Finally, Lenin had a life-long, love/hate relationship with Karl Kautsky, the great popularizer and propagandist of Marxism, and a founder of the German Social-Democratic Party. It was pure love until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, after which it turned into hatred as Kautsky supported Germany's war efforts. Lenin remained resolutely internationalist.

The Leninist perspective was already sketched out in 1894. Mr. Lih calls it the heroic scenario, which Lenin laid out in one, long, banner sentence in an illegal publication entitled Friends of the People. I'll describe it in my own words here:

The beneficiaries of Lenin's heroism were to be the narod, perhaps best translated as the German Volk. The English word, people, does not convey the spiritual significance, though perhaps if you substitute in the American People as politicians do, you'll get closer. Mr. Lih uses the Russian term exclusively.

This Leninist emphasis on das Volk is ignored by my Trotskyist friends, perhaps in part because it doesn't translate easily into English. But more, it reveals the uncomfortable relationship between Leninism and fascism. While it's an overstatement to equate them, there is no doubt that Lenin and Mussolini were political cousins.

Lenin opposed the Russian entry into the Great War, not because he opposed Russian nationalism, but indeed the opposite. He thought the Russian bourgeoisie were betraying the Russian narod.

The agents of the heroic scenario were the Russian proletariat. It was the workers who actually had the power to overthrow capitalism, a power the peasants did not have. Their concentration in the big cities, along with their thumb on the means of production gave them unexcelled political leverage.

The implementation of the heroic scenario depended on the Leninist Party, though of course Lenin didn't know it by that name. The term he used were the praktiki, who were members of the Social-Democratic underground. These class-conscious workers were the communications link between workers in different cities and factories, and also with a class of intellectuals (including Lenin) who lived abroad and could communicate freely. Lenin's paper, Iskra, that he edited up to the 1905 revolution, was smuggled into Russia, and provided news to praktiki across Russia about what they were all doing.

The first order of business in the heroic scenario was to overthrow the tsar and establish a bourgeois democracy. Then it would no longer be necessary to operate underground, and the praktiki could organize for socialism directly. In this first step the peasants would be close allies. The second step--the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, would split the kulaks from the rest of the peasants, and impose a greater responsibility on the proletariat. After that the narod would all live happily ever after.

So what could go wrong? Surprisingly little, actually. Lenin's durable support from the praktiki meant he could not be dismissed from the emigre political scene, this despite his rabid sectarianism. Especially after 1914 his rhetoric against fellow emigres as opportunists waxed vitriolic. During a conference in Bern, he led a something known as the Left Zimmerwald Opposition, a short-lived organization that could rival the Spartacist League.

Lenin assumed that there would be an extended time between the bourgeois revolution and the subsequent proletarian, socialist revolution. When he returned to Russia in March, 1917, he realized this would not be the case. He seized the opportunity to take state power during the infamous October revolution. Mr. Lih devotes very little space to the October events, probably because they've been covered in great detail elsewhere.

And this is where the heroic scenario ends. Lenin had no blueprint for what would happen after the socialist revolution. He was like the dog who caught the car. He simply assumed that socialism was a superior form of economic organization than capitalism. Today, of course, we know that is not true, but Lenin can probably be excused for not realizing that. Accordingly, especially during the period of war communism (1918-1919), Lenin rather uncharacteristically resorts to force. During that time he thought that simply liquidating the class enemy would be sufficient to solve all problems--since, after all, the class enemy was probably the only problem.

But by 1920 it was obvious even to Lenin that murdering his way out of economic difficulty was not going to work. Of course he could never admit to either himself or anybody else that socialism failed. Still, some backtracking seemed necessary. Instead of liquidating the kulaks, he tried to engage them in production. And instead of pure socialism, he turned to the New Economic Policy, subsequently imitated by socialist countries from Romania to Cuba to Venezuela.

Lenin's political career ended in 1923 with a stroke, and he died in 1924. Trotsky's name appears in Lih's book, but not prominently. Trotsky was late to the Bolshevik Party, and thus not an important part of Lenin's life. He was probably more important to the survival of the revolutionary state. Stalin's name also appears, and Lih reports that Lenin consulted closely with Stalin in the writing of his Last Testament. Stalin, of course, did not share Lenin's distaste for violence.

So what of Lenin's legacy? His success depended crucially on his longstanding connection to the praktiki, who eventually became his foot soldiers. In this he had an edge over the intellectual emigres who had lost connection with Russia. Further, Lenin's attitude toward open political work and underground organizations meant that the praktiki were still on the ground in October, 1917, rather than cooling their heels in jail or in Siberia. Similarly, his opposition to terrorism served him in good stead.

Beyond that, Lenin's success looks to be pure luck. His small army of praktiki succeeded only because the Russian state was devastated by World War. Much to Lenin's surprise and dismay, similar organizations were not successful in western Europe. Indeed, Lenin's success has not been duplicated anywhere else in the world. In no place has a small, vanguard praktiki party taken state power. So it seems to be a once-off deal unique to Russian history.

The Lenin Mr. Lih describes was a very smart man who single-mindedly devoted his entire life to his heroic scenario. His success depended on that determination, along with a huge amount of luck. Obviously, Lenin played a crucial role in 20th Century Russian history. But I think his significance for the rest of the world is minor. His contemporary, Teddy Roosevelt, is probably of comparable importance. Lenin's lessons for world politics, never important, have faded into irrelevance.

I agree with Louis Proyect's conclusion, summarized by the title of his article, Goodbye Lenin.

Further Reading:

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