The Lenin behind the distortions

The Dilemmas of Lenin:

Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution

This important work on Lenin’s life and times, and his revolutionary thought and practice, produced by a major figure on the international Left, is what some might term “a literary event.” Tariq Ali’s vibrant contribution in this anniversary year of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution engages the reader with a restless, critical intelligence coming to grips with intersections of history, culture, and politics. 

One is reminded of Edmund Wilson’s 1940 classic To the Finland Station, in which the great literary critic employed similarly wide-ranging sensibilities and knowledge to tell his readers about the people and ideas shaping the history of socialism and the Russian Revolution. One difference is that Ali focuses on the central figure of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—known globally by his revolutionary pseudonym “Lenin.” Another is that this author’s life (in contrast to Wilson’s) has included experience in the revolutionary movement as a militant activist. This gives him an intimate feel for much in the story he tells. A third difference is that we are presented with a dramatic narrative covering the whole of Lenin’s life, particularly what happened after 1917. Finally, it is offered from a different moment in history—not in the midst of Stalin’s bureaucratic tyranny, but decades after Communism’s collapse.

It is striking that this major contribution to Lenin studies seems to studiously ignore so much recent work. There is not even a breath or a shrug—at least not explicitly—regarding major offerings from Lars Lih, August Nimtz, Alan Shandro, Antonio Negri, Tamás Krausz, John Riddell, or Eric Blanc. Ali seems content to make good use of what existed before this array of authors carried out their own extensive research. The result is still extremely rich—but might have been richer yet had he engaged with more of the complexities and controversies within Russian social democracy to which Lenin was so central (Lih, Blanc), the interplay in Lenin’s thought between political philosophy, economics, and practical strategy (Shandro, Krausz, Negri), Lenin’s remarkably intensive involvement with election campaigns (Nimtz), and his role in the first four congresses of the Communist International (Riddell).

The book that Ali did choose to write, however, is incredibly fine in multiple ways. His contextualizing methodology can be off-putting, at first, with fits and starts of discursion on multiple streams of Russian labor history, literature, anarchism, international revolutionary movements, etc. But always, or almost always, the seeming tangent flows directly into the experience, thought, and political practice of Lenin, yielding a multifaceted sense of this great revolutionary (and very interesting person) that is missing from so many other accounts. 

An additional strength is that—unlike so many of the standard and still-influential interpretations emanating from the Cold War era—Ali has immersed himself in a serious reading and consideration of what Lenin actually wrote. Time after time, we are treated to discussions of Lenin’s ideas that are not a rehash of someone else’s interpretation (or misinterpretation), but instead draw from how the revolutionary himself explained what he was thinking. 


Ali joins other serious scholars in debunking the slanderous portrait of Lenin as an inhumane elitist and mass-murdering totalitarian fanatic. The Dilemmas of Lenin amply demonstrates that the Bolshevik leader, the organization he led, and the struggle he spearheaded were—with an uncompromising revolutionary seriousness—radically democratic and humanistic in their goals, in their sensibilities, and in their mode of functioning (within the constraints of tsarist repression, of course, as was the case with all revolutionaries in Russia). Ali does not deny that these qualities were overwhelmed by the horrific multiple crises of 1918–1921, but he sees this for what it was: emergency measures gone wrong and made permanent, a tragic development central to the “dilemmas of Lenin.” 

Ali also has no time for the fiction that Lenin distrusted the working class. Some have alleged that “real workers” wanted only improved conditions under capitalism to be won by trade unions, and that the Bolshevik leader was therefore intent upon establishing a dictatorship of revolutionary intellectuals pushing the workers forward to socialism. As Antonio Gramsci would later famously explain, the actuality of Leninism (the “Leninism” of Lenin) saw all people as intellectuals-in-the-making. It was a method of developing working-class intellectuals as a democratic-collective Modern Prince. “Conscious” working-class activists would build a revolutionary workers’ movement. Such a movement would engage in trade unionism and reform struggles, at the same time helping spread socialist consciousness. It would be capable of winning political power (“winning the battle of democracy,” as Marx and Engels had put it) and establishing the cooperative commonwealth of socialism. 

Then there is the music question. Ali puts it well, with an interesting flourish:

Lenin once told Maxim Gorky in Capri that to become a revolutionary he had to give up three vices: chess, Latin, and music. His famous remark, which had to do with not being able to listen to Beethoven’s Pathétique because it made him “soft,” is usually distorted through decontextualization and was sometimes taken literally by many a bourgeois philistine. In fact, Lenin never stopped listening to music, as was known to his entire circle. [Inessa] Armand herself was a gifted pianist and often played for him. Lenin could sing well and surprised Volsky in Geneva when, climbing a mountain, they came across a vista so stunning that they stopped to observe it in silence. Suddenly Lenin burst into song, a poem by Nekrasov extolling nature, which surprised the party even more.

Lars Lih has been particularly adept in emphasizing and documenting (from primary Russian-language sources) precisely such points in recent years, thereby generating widespread and well-deserved appreciation. What The Dilemmas of Lenin demonstrates—making the same points from long-available English-language sources—is that there is no good excuse for the grotesque yet all-too-common distortions of Lenin in English-speaking countries. It further helps to clear the decks for a serious consideration not only of the actual history of the Russian Revolution but also of what Lenin has to offer to humane and democratic-minded people who in our own time are inclined to struggle for a better world. 

At the same time, without mentioning Lih by name, there is an obvious point of sharp contention between him and Ali regarding Lih’s iconoclastic interpretation of the elemental continuity between Lenin and most of the Bolshevik leadership in early 1917, after the popular overthrow of the monarchy. Trotsky was one of the most prominent chroniclers of a rift that opened up in 1917 around Lenin’s “April Theses”—with many leading comrades recoiling from Lenin’s notion that the Provisional Government should be overthrown in favor of “all power to the soviets” and a proletarian-socialist revolution. As Ali restates the standard version: “Most of the leaders at home were heading towards a reconciliation with the Mensheviks [socialists who had favored a worker-capitalist alliance in the democratic revolution]. And poor old Molotov was sacked as editor of Pravda by Kamenev and Stalin for being too rash and radical.” It took Lenin—coming back from abroad with a clearer sense of the “big picture” and of the need to move decisively forward—to rally a Bolshevik majority to get the “old Bolshevik” leaders (particularly the overly-accommodating Lev Kamenev) in line with what must be done. 

Lih has argued, over the past decade, that Kamenev was more right than wrong in this debate, that the debate itself has been overblown, that it was Lenin (who had gone overboard to some extent) who had to be pulled back to the traditional Bolshevik orientation that he himself had formulated in arguments for a worker-peasant alliance to make the democratic revolution, to be followed later by the socialist triumph. This “old Bolshevik” orientation was, Lih asserts, most adequate for the new revolutionary tasks, as Kamenev aptly pointed out at the time, and which (suggests Lih) Lenin finally conceded. But Ali is simply not having it: “Some revisionist academic is bound, sooner or later, to come up with a new version, ‘proving,’ via carefully selected documents that actually there was no real division at all and the party was on the same track as Lenin, who simply had to be corrected on one or two issues, and so forth.”

He goes on to assert that the internal conflict generated by Lenin’s April Theses “was erased from later official histories and, more surprisingly, from Krupskaya’s memoir.” This last point (more a throw-away line than an essential element in Ali’s argument) is, however, simply not accurate. Krupskaya’s account in Reminiscences of Lenin is succinct and to the point:

Lenin expounded his views as to what had to be done in a number of theses. In these theses he weighed the situation, and clearly set forth the aims that had to be striven for and the ways that had to be followed to attain them. The comrades were somewhat taken aback for the moment. Many of them thought that Ilyich was presenting the case in much too blunt a manner, and that it was too early yet to speak of a socialist revolution.

She notes that Lenin’s theses were published in the Bolshevik paper Pravda, followed by a polemic from Kamenev “in which he dissociated himself from these theses. Kamenev’s article stated that they were the expression of Lenin’s personal views, which neither Pravda nor the Bureau of the Central Committee shared. It was not these theses of Lenin’s that the Bolshevik delegates had accepted, but those of the Central Committee Bureau, Kamenev alleged.” She concludes: “A struggle started within the Bolshevik organization. It did not last long.” The party reoriented along the lines of the April Theses. All of which actually gives credence to the interpretation Ali champions.

One could argue that Lih and others are correct in pushing back against a dismissive attitude toward Kamenev and other Bolshevik veterans—but Ali makes it clear that his primary concern is to reject any academic revival of minimizing the gulf that separates Lenin from one very particular “old Bolshevik”—Joseph Stalin. In the same breath that he deplores “revisionist academics,” Ali castigates Stephen Kotkin’s new biography of Stalin for claiming, “that Lenin’s last testament (which, among other things, denounced Stalin’s ‘rudeness’ and authoritarianism) was forged by his widow and secretariat staff!” (He goes on to refer readers to Tony Wood’s more detailed critique of Kotkin in New Left Review 95, September–October 2015.) 

Dilemmas of Lenin argues that the greatest dilemma of all involved what was done by Stalin in the name of Lenin—starting with the worshipful mummification of the Bolshevik leader’s body. “The revolutionary was being transformed into a Byzantine saint,” Ali notes. “Having mummified Lenin, within a few years the committeemen and their leader would mummify his ideas as well.” He offers this telling quote from Lenin’s The State and Revolution on the desecration of revolutionaries by those falsely claiming to carry on their work: “After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”

Ali is insistent that genuine Leninism must be seen as the opposite of Stalinism. As Georg Lukács once put it, under Stalin “Leninism, in which the spirit of Marx lived, was converted into its diametrical opposite,” and the ideological perversion “systematically built by Stalin and his apparatus, [must] be torn to pieces.” Ali couldn’t agree more—convinced that activists of today and tomorrow need Lenin’s living ideas: “And all one can hope is that, by the time his body is finally buried, some of his ideas, especially those related to the primacy of politics, imperialism, self-determination and the commune-state, are revived.”


The debunking of myths, however, is quite subordinate to the central quality of the book, which might be defined as an illuminating convergence of great themes. One need not accept all of Ali’s interpretations to be stimulated, informed, and enriched by what he has done. Titles of the five major sections in which the book’s sixteen chapters are organized suggest what is in store for the fortunate reader—“Terrorism and Utopia,” “Internationalism,” “Socialism,” “Empires and War,” “1917–20: States and Revolutions,” “The Question of Women,” “The Last Fight Let Us Face.”

Within this expansive literary canvass, there is much to stir one’s thinking. In exploring anarchist and social-revolutionary violence prevalent in late nineteenth-century Russia (a tradition which fatally attracted Lenin’s older brother), Ali interestingly considers similarities and differences with the suicide bombers of today’s religious fundamentalists. He goes on to suggest what he sees as a creative interplay in Lenin’s own conceptualizations, between the anarchist tradition and the perspectives of Marxism. This comes out particularly in the intimate 1918 conversation between a very respectful Lenin and a very critical, aged anarchist theorist Peter Kropotkin, with the two agreeing that there are too many mistakes and too much bureaucracy in the Bolshevik regime, and both embracing the goal of a stateless socialism. But Lenin explains: “We do not need individual terroristic attempts and the anarchists should have understood long ago. Only with the masses, through the masses. . . . All other methods, including those of the anarchists, have been relegated to the limbo of history.” 

Ali goes on to indicate the beguiling grandeur of the mass socialist movement animated by Marxist theory, created in Germany through the efforts of August Bebel and Karl Kautsky—while also chronicling Lenin’s shock and horror over the moral and political collapse of this imposing edifice when the imperialist global war exploded in 1914. Those who have read eyewitness accounts by John Reed, Albert Rhys Williams, and Leon Trotsky will find little that is new regarding the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution itself, yet Ali’s good use of non-Marxist sources (such as Dominic Lieven’s The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution) certainly strengthens what he has to say. In his sustained attention to the Russian civil war, Lenin seems to fade into the background—yet one is fascinated by Ali’s discussion of methodological conflicts between imperious Red Army commander Leon Trotsky and a defender of “proletarian” military methods (Stalin), as well as the perspectives of Red Army General Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky—all enhanced by use of John Ericson’s 1962 study The Soviet High Command: A Military-Political History, 1918–1941

Ali also considers the centrality of what Marx once called “the feminine ferment” in the development of the revolutionary movement—from the revolutionary Russian terrorists Sofia Perovskaya and Vera Figner, to the decisive contributions in Germany and internationally of Marxist-feminist Clara Zetkin, culminating in the work and ideas of such key figures as Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand in the early Soviet Republic. And he gives attention to what Moshe Lewin once termed “Lenin’s last struggle” against what would blossom into the bureaucratic and murderous tyranny that has been tagged as “Stalinism.”


In any labor of this scope it is inevitable that inaccuracies creep in. There are minor errors in this fine book, but also several significant ones that are in no way essential to the flow or thrust of Ali’s account. They can easily be combed out of future editions. Two crop up in chapter 15 (entitled “Till the Bitter End”), dealing with the incredibly difficult years immediately following the October Revolution. These years of foreign invasion, devastating economic blockade, and brutal civil war came to be known as the period of “war communism.” 

In this period—under the pressure of events—the economy was much too rapidly nationalized and subjected to the extreme efforts of centralized planning. This contributed to multiple problems, given the extreme damage to which the economy had already been subjected, combined with the historic backwardness of the Russian economy, and with the considerable lack of experience that the workers had in regard to overseeing the functioning of a complex economy. There were mounting bottlenecks and breakdowns, as well as accelerating resentments, particularly among workers and peasants who had originally been supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution. Many were incensed over bureaucratic malfunctioning and related authoritarian bullying. 

The result was an accumulation of angry strikes by workers and desperate peasant rebellions, and the full-scale uprising of early 1921 in what had been a Bolshevik stronghold, the Kronstadt naval base outside of “Red Petrograd.” The uprising was ruthlessly put down by the Bolshevik regime—but at the same time, Lenin and others pushed forward a dramatic shift in the regime’s overall economic program. This came to be known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), which lasted from 1921 to 1928. The NEP involved a move back in the direction of capitalism, pulling away from extreme economic centralization, encouraging the widespread use of market mechanisms, allowing the flourishing of private enterprise throughout much of Soviet Russia. The shift eased some extreme problems that had been causing discontent, got the economy moving again, contributed to increases in both production and productivity, and helped meet many human needs while generating economic surpluses. Also generated were growing inequality, corruption, and—ultimately—new contradictions and sources of discontent.  

These are elements that Ali presents in “Till the Bitter End,” but there is an unfortunate garbling of details, giving the impression that the NEP was implemented beginning in 1920 and that the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 was partly in reaction against its negative aspects. But the yet-to-be proclaimed NEP could not be a target of the Kronstadt rebels—war communism and the authoritarian policies connected with it were the actual targets. Much of what Ali writes on these pages is good, but in a future edition it will be necessary to get the chronology right.

The other significant error has to do with the Workers’ Opposition; a dissident faction in the Russian Communist Party led by the veteran worker-Bolshevik Alexander Shlyapnikov and Bolshevik-feminist Alexandra Kollontai. Against the authoritarian and bureaucratic policies of war communism, Shlyapnikov, Kollontai, and co-thinkers within the party were arguing for implementation of the original ideals that had animated the October Revolution (not to mention Lenin’s own “April Theses” and his 1917 book The State and Revolution). The Workers’ Opposition had garnered considerable support through 1920, although it was decisively defeated in March 1921 at the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party. At the same congress, the NEP was proclaimed, along with a presumably “temporary” prohibition of factions. Ali incorrectly says it was here that Lenin unsuccessfully proposed the expulsion of the Workers’ Opposition. The expulsion of Shlyapnikov was actually proposed (and rejected) several months later, in August 1921, the occasion being Shlyapnikov’s open attack on the NEP—presumably violating the resolution against factions. Again, basic dynamics of the situation are captured despite a (repairable) misplacement of details.


The fact remains that The Dilemmas of Lenin presents an incredibly powerful, panoramic, and insightful study of the central revolutionary figure of the twentieth century. The book’s qualities converge to make this figure not the animated statue that dominated the official biographies from the 1930s through the 1970s of the Soviet era, but someone intensely human. This comes through especially in the ways Ali handles Lenin’s relationships with Julius Martov and Inessa Armand.

For five years—1898 to 1903—Lenin and Martov were “close comrades and friends,” and for each the familiar Russian pronoun ty was how they addressed each other. With shared commitment to building a centralized Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, “the early collaboration between young Lenin and young Martov was exemplary,” Ali writes. “They worked well together on Iskra and both Lenin and numerous others admired the fierce moral tone in Martov’s articles denouncing various aspects of the autocracy.” Slowly but surely, however, nuances of difference began to pull them in different directions. While Martov initially felt “it was Lenin’s personality, his bossy style, his refusal to compromise, his supreme belief that he was right, rather than any major political issue, that was responsible for the drift,” Lenin increasingly suspected the opposite. After the organizational split of 1903, they became leaders of rival factions, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. 

As Ali notes, factional battles inside the same party can wreck old friendships in “a moment’s rashness and uncertainty.” Lenin never ceased to lament the loss of this intimate friend turned Menshevik adversary, always hopeful when their factions seemed to draw closer politically. He was deeply concerned for the Menshevik leader’s health when Martov contracted tuberculosis in the early 1920s. Ali plausibly suggests that Lenin regretted the loss of the relationship particularly as the dilemmas of the early Soviet republic sharpened. As he himself was entering his final illness, he ruefully commented to Krupskaya: “They say Martov’s dying too.” After Martov died, a sometimes delirious Lenin—as he descended toward his own death—found it difficult to accept that his old friend was finally gone, demanding that a meeting be arranged.

There has been controversy over Lenin’s relationship with Inessa Armand. “In fact, the only reason for the mystery was Lenin’s secretiveness on all matters personal,” according to Ali, “and the hagiographers who transformed him, after death, into a Byzantine saint, holy, infallible, pure and only designed to be worshiped. This is the tragedy of the global Lenin cult.” He notes two very informative biographies of the remarkable Armand. One by Michael Pearson agrees with the widely held belief that she and Lenin were lovers. The other, an earlier and even more detailed study by the outstanding historian Ralph Carter Elwood, emphatically disagrees. Actually—based on additional information—Elwood reversed his judgment in an essay written a decade after his biography, documenting the love between the two revolutionaries. 

The Dilemmas of Lenin comments that for Armand’s family “her affair with Lenin was not a secret. Nor was it for a close circle of Lenin’s comrades in exile,” including Nadezhda Krupskaya. “Philistine biographers who write that there could have been no affair because [Armand] and Krupskaya remained friends do so in order to transfer their own values onto the Bolsheviks,” Ali writes. “Krupskaya, Kollontai, Zetkin, [Angelica] Balabanova and probably [Rosa] Luxemburg knew of Lenin’s ‘infatuation.’” An eyewitness seeing Lenin at Armand’s 1920 funeral after her death from typhus recalled: “He seemed to have shrunk; his cap almost covered his face, his eyes drowned in tears held back with effort.”

What strikes this reviewer as a serious gap in The Dilemmas of Lenin—somewhat diminishing both the portrait of Lenin and discussion of the Lenin-Armand relationship, is Ali’s failure to engage more seriously with the person who was Nadezhda Krupskaya and with the quality of the relationship that she had with Lenin. One is struck by the transitions in her appearance, of course: from the intelligent and determined countenance of an attractive young idealist whom the young Lenin married, to the knowledgeable, determined, seasoned revolutionary of later years, whose “looks” had been altered not simply by age but also by illness, a thyroid affliction sometimes known as Grave’s disease. Yet also, in various photographs of Krupskaya and Lenin together, as well as in her memoirs, the bond between them is clearly evident. Indeed, her Reminiscences of Lenin is an invaluable source on Lenin’s life and thought. In his 1935 diary (before Krupskaya’s forced public capitulation in the face of the horrific late 1930s purge trials), Trotsky commented—rightly—that she had “consistently and firmly refused to act against her conscience,” despite immense Stalinist pressures. It is unfortunate that Ali’s probing intelligence did not go further down this particular pathway.

Comrades and leadership

There are many more pathways that The Dilemmas of Lenin also doesn’t go down. One longs for an application of Ali’s sensibilities to the amazing polymath Alexander Bogdanov—physician, economist, philosopher, and science fiction writer—who was at first co-leader with Lenin of the Bolshevik faction. After the colossal tactical rupture of 1907–11, Bogdanov consistently denounced Lenin’s shift from armed struggle to “reformist” electoral and trade union efforts, and Lenin’s payback included scathing denunciations of “ultra-leftism” and the philosophical demolition job of Materialism and Empiro-Criticism

Also attracted to Bogdanov’s influential left-Bolshevik faction was the brilliant culture critic Anatoly Lunacharsky, whose serious-minded engagement with religion (capably explored in recent work by Roland Boer) enraged Lenin, and whose enthusiasm for avant-garde innovations in art ruffled his more traditionalist sensibilities. Nonetheless, Lenin respected and generally supported Lunacharsky’s broad-minded, cutting-edge policies after 1917 in the Bolshevik regime’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. 

Another edgy intellectual, but from the younger generation, was Nikolai Bukharin (also influenced by Bogdanov), whose relationship with Lenin seems to have fluctuated from tumultuous rebellion to loyal devotion, and who dynamically drew from, sometimes sharply conflicted with, yet also impacted upon Lenin’s own perceptions (feeding into The State and Revolution). 

There were, of course, other Bolsheviks who’d had no connection with the Bogdanov faction because they had been aligned with Lenin all along. Two deserve special attention. One was the under-appreciated yet capable underground organizer who became an experienced publicist and editor, the sophisticated and congenial Lev Kamenev. Some have argued that Kamenev could be too congenial—crossing swords with Lenin over what he perceived as the Bolshevik leader’s penchant for uncompromising intransigence. Yet few had greater appreciation or affection for Lenin than this savvy “right-hand” man. The other intimate co-worker of Lenin—less secure and therefore sometimes more haughty than Kamenev—was Gregory Zinoviev, whose classic History of the Bolshevik Party shows him to be an outstanding and knowledgeable Marxist educator. He could also be a brilliant orator, although his record as an organizer and administrator (particularly when heading the Communist International) seems quite checkered. Nonetheless, at a decisive moment (the proposed October Revolution) he sharply and openly challenged his mentor. There are obvious and significant complexities in the relationships of both men with Lenin that merit more serious examination than is typically offered. 

We are fortunate that two major other figures have themselves offered rich and multifaceted accounts of their relationship with Lenin which illuminate various qualities and complexities of his personality—the great writer Maxim Gorky (yet another who had been close to Bogdanov), whose feelings about Lenin’s politics fluctuated wildly over the years, as well as the fiercely polemical opponent-turned-intimate co-leader of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky. Here too, there is much material of which Ali seems to have made minimal use.

The relationship that Lenin had with all these comrades and others goes well beyond the purview of “the personal”—because, in this case as in so many others, the personal is political. The qualities of Lenin as an incredibly effective revolutionary leader are intimately bound up with the kinds of relationships that he sustained (or in certain cases was unable to sustain) with such a diverse array of talented and energetic personalities.

Tariq Ali’s quite substantial contribution should not be faulted for not offering such extended explorations of Lenin’s many important relationships. These belong, rather, in the yet-to-be-written full-scale biography of Lenin. Isaac Deutscher—whose massive and pathbreaking life of Trotsky impacted all subsequent thinking and scholarship—died as he was just starting to write the Lenin biography that has long been needed. A valuable contribution of Ali’s new work (which makes no pretense of attempting to “complete” Deutscher’s project) is that it points the way to work yet to be done. 

More than this, The Dilemmas of Lenin helps attentive readers comprehend something of what happened in history, the realities of our time, and how the future could unfold if we approach it with understanding and commitment.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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