Beyond the Cold War version of Lenin


LARS LIH’S groundbreaking 2006 exhumation of the debate that took place in Russia around Lenin’s book What is to Be Done? (Lenin Rediscovered: What is To Be Done? In Context, republished by Haymarket in 2009) is indispensable reading for those who want to move beyond what Lih calls the erroneous “textbook” interpretation of Lenin, which portrays him as an elitist whose mistrust of the working class led him to favor the creation of a small, tight-knit party of the intelligentsia to lead the working- class to socialism. 

That was a long book with a single, laser-like focus. His new biography of Lenin is a short book with a broad focus; and while Lih’s eye catches many interesting episodes and details of Lenin’s life, his panoramic vision is not as penetrating as his microscopic one.

As a short introduction to Lenin, it is no doubt better than most. Like his previous book, Lenin sets aside the textbook interpretation and avoids the predictable stereotypes of most Lenin biographies. He debunks, for example, the idea that Lenin favored the conspiratorial approach to politics associated with the Russian terrorist tradition:

“The conspiratorial revolutionary of the earlier populist underground was meant to replace a mass SPD-like party, deemed impossible under Russian conditions,” notes Lih. “In contrast, the professional revolutionary of the konspiratsiia underground [Lenin’s conception—pd] was supposed to make something resembling a mass SDP-like party possible, even under Russian conditions.”

Indeed, the thread running through the book is that Lenin was committed (and here Lih quotes Lenin’s widow, Krupskaya) to “the grand idea of Marx: the idea that the working class is the advanced detachment of all the laborers and that all the laboring masses, all the oppressed, will follow it: this is its strength and the pledge of its victory.” This “heroic” scenario, as Lih describes it, can be found at every stage of Lenin’s life, and it is the guiding theme of Lih’s biographical treatment of Lenin. This is what makes Lih’s short book worth reading.

By the same token, in emphasizing Lenin’s consistency, he misses some of what made Lenin a great Marxist politician.

The influence of the leading theoretician of German Marxism, Karl Kautsky, on Lenin’s ideas is heavily emphasized, as it should be. But from Lih you might assume that Russian Marxism’s founder, George Plekhanov, had almost no influence on Lenin at all. He is barely mentioned in the book. Yet it was from Plekhanov that Lenin drew the idea of the central role of the Russian working class in the struggle to topple the autocracy, and who provided Lenin with the framework for his early polemics with Russian populism. Yet strangely, Lih insists that Kautsky “has as good a title as anyone to be called the father of Russian Social Democracy.” Likewise, Trotsky, who from 1917 on became one of Lenin’s most important collaborators, is almost completely absent from the book.

There are other serious omissions. For example, there is no explanation of Lenin’s dispute with the “Economists,” no explanation of the 1903 split in Russian social democracy between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, no discussion of Lenin’s ideas on the national question, and no discussion of his important tactical disputes (over the question of participation in the Duma, his arguments in Left Wing Communism over participation in parliament and trade unions, and so on) that Lenin fought so fiercely throughout his political life. Perhaps most strange, there is very little in Lih’s biography about Lenin’s internationalism—his conception of the Russian revolution as the first stage of an international revolution, without which the Russian revolution could not be completed. In line with this omission, there is little or nothing on Lenin’s role in the building and guidance of the Third (Communist) International. 

And finally, there is nothing in the book about Lenin’s last struggle in the months before his death against the rising bureaucracy, over the mistreatment of Russia’s national minorities, or his attempted bloc with Trotsky against Stalin.

Naturally, such a short biography cannot deal with every aspect of someone’s life, especially one as full and rich as Lenin’s. But key turning points in Lenin’s political career should be dealt with in more than a paragraph if it is to serve adequately as an introductory biography.

A missing thread throughout the book is Lenin’s adaptable approach to organizational forms and his tactical genius. This, I think, is because Lih operates on the idea that since Lenin’s life was guided by one unchanging idea, the “heroic scenario” centered on working-class leadership in the popular revolution, he never really shifted his views on anything. 

If past historians have painted a picture of a Lenin who opportunistically adapted his views to fit changing circumstances, Lih has painted a Lenin who was inflexibly firm in his theory and equally inflexible when it came to organizational and tactical questions. Yet there is no doubt that Lenin argued one thing at certain moments, and when conditions changed, argued something else. This ability to adapt to changing circumstances in order to achieve his central goal—the building of a party of Russian workers capable of leading the people in the overthrow of Tsarism—was one of the most important aspects of Lenin’s Marxism.

Moreover, Lenin not only changed his mind about tactics; he changed his mind on theoretical and political questions. Lih devotes only one paragraph, for example, to Lenin’s momentous shift away from Second International reformism (and Kautsky’s Marxism) when he wrote State and Revolution in 1917, in which he breaks decisively from his previously held view (shared by almost all revolutionaries) that the bourgeois state apparatus would be seized rather than smashed. (He writes only one single paragraph on the topic.) Lenin formulated the ideas put forth in that pamphlet just before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, yet Lih tells us that Lenin in 1917 “still adhered to the same world view” as the one he held in 1914.

The book is worth reading, but should be accompanied by others, such as Paul LeBlanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, or Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party to round out the picture.


Issue #73

September 2010

From Reform to Rebellion

Image and reality in the Bolivia of Evo Morales
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