SOVIET-ERA PUBLICATIONS have for long offered us a highly truncated picture of Vladimir Lenin. Besides those endless hagiographies, I remember reading one book that was slightly different for the age before the fall of the Berlin Wall: a copy of Lenin’s Comrades-in-Arms: Episodes from the Lives of Lenin’s Foreign Comrades-in-Arms and Contemporaries. In hindsight, that too offered only Lenin 101 and a bit more. It didn’t tell us about his long associations with ultra leftist radicals of the late 19th century who initially shaped his ideas; it didn’t talk about his disappointment with several European Marxists in the time of World War I. Such books were designed not to talk about his worries about the Soviet experiment, his concerns over the sweeping powers that commissars could exercise. Tome after tome had swept his love life under the carpet. Even the ones authored by non-Russians depicted him wrongly. For instance, books that carried interviews with Antonio Gramsci revealed nothing about the Italian leader’s commentaries on the Russian socialist structure or his views on the workers’ councils, or the Soviets, that continued to be overshadowed by the Communist Party as a centralised entity. Instead, Lenin was portrayed as someone excessively worried about regional issues in Italy, Gamsci’s country.
In short, none of the pro-Marxist books of the time—with the probable exception of the ones written by Leon Trotsky which were extremely difficult to get hold of back then—talked about the teething problems Lenin had to face as he forged ahead with the making of the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, you had books that railed against the Soviet Union and its patriarch, the man without whom, as Tariq Ali says, the October Revolution wouldn’t have happened. Cold War-inspired books were aplenty in the 1980s (some of them portrayed the whole revolution as a personal battle of Lenin against the Romanovs). A number of propaganda fiction books by the likes of Leon Uris existed, many of which fell in the genre of military literature—like Viktor Suvorov’s 1982 work, Inside the Soviet Army— and targeted Lenin for his allegedly extravagant and tyrannical ways. Later, following the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and after Lenin’s statues were brought down from across cities in the empire of which he had laid the foundation stone, stories began to appear of him being a German agent who was used by German grandees to weaken the Tsars. Rumours soon became indistinct from truth.
Perhaps the sole exception was a work by Moshe Lewin that came back to haunt us from the past: Lenin’s Last Struggle. Originally published in 1968, its newer editions brought to light a complex web of relations among key players of the October Revolution and Lenin’s fight against his declining health in the 1920s and his misgivings about his formidable protégé, Joseph Stalin, who was given to taking drastic measures as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Lewin, a farm worker and soldier who became a senior fellow of The Harriman Institute at Columbia University and later emeritus professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, had written about how Lenin gave enough and more ‘breathing space’ to Russia for the revolution and adapted new ways to fight his country’s isolation in the world.
Like Lewin, but perhaps more forcefully, UK-based historian and public intellectual Tariq Ali, who has been associated with the international leftist movement for over half a century and is familiar with its ups and down thanks to his globe-trotting, recaptures Lenin, who has always attracted interest but has not been clearly understood, through five themes: terrorism, which was a widely accepted form of waging war against the brutal Tsarist regime of his early years; World War I, which blew his mind when Marxists themselves got drawn into nationalist conceit; the empires within and without; his love life, which for him meant sharing a home with his wife and lover; and ultimately, the challenges that the Russian Revolution faced.
THE YEAR 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution, which Vladimir Putin of Russia wouldn’t want to celebrate for one obvious reason: that it would be a celebration of the mass movement that displaced the ruling elite. Lenin, for Putin, is therefore symbolic of his own potential downfall, unlike Stalin, who established an elite, which Yugoslav theorist and author Milovan Djilas called the ‘New Class’, comprising commissars and the party elite, among others. Ali notes in his introduction to The Dilemmas of Lenin that ‘one of the few who are above criticism these days is Stalin, largely because of the ‘Great Patriotic’ War and partially because his methods of rule are envied by many Russian nationalists today’.
True, Lenin was responsible for the original sin: bestowing the Communist party with ultimate power while capitulating on the promise of letting the ‘Soviets’, the decentralised bodies, rule the country. But then he was too well-versed in Karl Marx to make the mistake that the great German political philosopher had pointed out as the cause of the fall of the Paris Commune, a socialist government of 1871 that fell within months for lack of a centralised authority. Ali’s latest book argues how, while recovering from a stroke at the age of 52, Lenin was ‘enraged when he heard that Stalin... had visited Georgia and physically attacked the local Bolshevik leaders....’ Under his instructions, party stalwart Lev Kamenev was dispatched to Georgia to apologise, ‘with a personal letter from Lenin inviting the Georgians to complain to the party and informing them that he was preparing notes for them and a speech’. Knowing well that his strength was ebbing away, he demanded that Stalin be replaced with someone else because the Georgian ‘had concentrated too much authority in his hands’. We all know the story about how some of Lenin’s letters to the politburo from his deathbed went missing and how in many of his purges over the next decade and more, Stalin had Lenin’s close associates executed (and the Tsarist secret police Okhrana replaced with his own NKVD).
This book doesn’t talk much about Lenin’s friendship with Stalin which was crucial for the rise of the latter—nor about how Stalin used his devious ways to fetch funds for the party before the revolution. Maybe Ali didn’t want to dwell too much on what has already been extensively covered by Stalin scholars. Notably, Ali puts the spotlight on other crucial friendships and relationships of Lenin and on some forgotten heroes. Ali also highlights how Lenin’s last writing had been hidden from the Russian people for several decades and how Lenin had expressed his deep anguish early on about the ‘degree of bureaucratism’ within the party and the government after he was entrusted with the task of ruling the country. Ali has done extensive research on how Lenin alone was behind the insurrection in October that followed the February Revolution that led to the formation of a provisional government later backed by the Mensheviks. The likes of Kamenev and Zinoviev had opposed his plans. But Lenin, having arrived in Petrograd’s Finland Station, in a sealed train that had a safe journey thanks to German intelligence and authorities, had no doubt whatsoever what he wanted to do. He presented before his hesitant comrades what was later called the April Theses, which called for handing over the government to the Soviets. It was Lenin’s single-minded pursuit that led to the July uprising and later the October Revolution. Several Bolsheviks, including Stalin, had vacillated over toppling the government and reasserting a radical line against the Mensheviks. Ali’s book narrates in detail how Lenin presided over arguably the most epoch-making event of the last century and the creation of the first communist state that led to an alignment of forces across the globe.
Ali’s depth of analysis comes across in all chapters. He has expressed his gratitude to the likes of Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn and Susan Watkins for discussions on the subjects he handles in the book. Naturally, the author puts Lenin in a historical perspective, comparing him with England’s 17th-century leader Oliver Cromwell and Maximilien Robespierre of the French Revolution. Here goes Ali’s stellar historical analysis: ‘The difference between these revolutions [with the English and French] lay in the following: whereas events pushed Cromwell and Robespierre forward, in Russia it was Lenin who consciously used events—in his case the disintegration of the Russian autocracy as a result of the First World War—to push the workers and soldiers in Petrograd and Moscow to a successful insurrection.’
The author goes on, ‘Both Cromwell and Robespierre embraced the revolution once they were confronted by its actuality. It would have taken place even without them. Lenin had begun working for a revolution twenty-five years before 1917.’ Clearly, Lenin had pursued his goal in exile, in jail and elsewhere without realising that he would himself lead the world’s first communist revolution. But he had a keen sense of how opportunities could be created and taken advantage of. Ali links Lenin’s perseverance and shrewdness to incidents in his youth—from the days after his elder brother Sasha’s 1887 execution over charges of plotting to assassinate Alexander III, the Tsar of the time— through the man’s period in prison and exile to his time as a ruler who would experiment with restricted privatisation in Russia to tackle an economic crunch.
The Dilemmas of Lenin also lays bare his early and lasting associations—with Julius Martov who later became a Menshevik though he continued to be in constant touch with Lenin. Martov had influenced Lenin tremendously in his young days: it was Martov who taught Lenin the importance of ‘practice’— of distributing pamphlets and familiarising workers with politics and the party before bringing them under the fold of unions. Ali also explores the nature of the early Marxist movement in Europe and the Russians who were part of it: Georgi Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Paul Lafargue and Wilhelm Liebknecht among them. Lenin had established ties with them besides those like Karl Kausky. Ali’s book also delves into the influence of Russian literature on Lenin’s political thinking, an area that the author had touched upon in some of his articles as well. Indeed, Lenin’s popular work, What Is to Be Done?, a political pamphlet published in 1902, borrowed its title from Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky’s eponymous—and somewhat lousy—novel. Though criticised by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, it was Chernyshevsky’s work that influenced Lenin before he came under the spell of Marx. This book also covers his life with his women: Nadya Krupskaya, his wife, and Inessa Armand, his girlfriend.
As Lenin was veering towards the revolutionary path, in Europe, socialists had come together in various forms and set up organisations to push the cause of the working classes. The First International had already collapsed following bitter rivalry between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian revolutionary and anarchist. The Second International was active around then, and Lenin would work towards spreading its influence. He would get influenced in turn, as he weighed in on the international labour movement. It was dissolved just before the October Revolution, after differences cropped up between leaders of different nationalities. Ali explains, with anecdotes, how the labour movement shaped Lenin. He states, ‘Lenin’s sober analysis, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, written two years into the war, remains a foundational text for understanding the First World War.’ Lenin would also take the lead in creating Comintern, also known as the Third International, in 1919. He hoped that civil wars across countries would be an opportunity for the working classes to capture power. It is a dream one of his commanders, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, would have achieved had it not been for the subordination of Stalin and a few Red Army officers who, out of jealousy, didn’t cooperate with him. Meanwhile, Von Seeckt, architect of the Reichswehr (German military organisation) in post-World War I Germany, expected in July 1920 that the Russians would reach Germany to trigger a domestic revolution. ‘Lesser commissars had been executed for lesser misdemeanours. Stalin escaped without any official reprimand for the effective sabotage of a major military operation,’ writes Ali. Stalin had the brilliant Tukhachevsky executed in the mid-1930s.
Ali, who says that Lenin is one of the most misunderstood leaders in history, weaves with rich anecdotes the life of a man who changed history like nobody else did in the 20th century. A hundred years after he came to power, it is worth rediscovering the leader whose biggest obsessions were Latin, chess and music, who didn’t want to be mummified, and was set against the Lenin Cult.