Lenin and his biographers

The Non-Geometric Lenin:

Essays on the Development of the Bolshevik Party, 1910–1914


Lenin's Brother:

The Origins of the October Revolution


Lenin in Exile


A Revolutionary Life


A Biography

Forgotten Lives:

The Role of Lenin's Sisters in the Russian Revolution


The Practice and Theory of Revolution

VLADIMIR ILYICH Lenin remains an object of interest to people around the world even today. Many people have no clear conception, or no conception at all, of who this man was, but there are significant numbers who do. For some he remains an object of fear and hate, for others of passionate hope, for some of disappointment—with others defined by yet other categories. “Tell me what you think of Lenin,” writes historian Christopher Read, “and I will tell you who you are.” One of the most challenging and idiosyncratic political theorists of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt, commented in her 1963 reflection On Revolution that “it is perhaps noteworthy that Lenin, unlike Hitler and Stalin, has not yet found his definitive biographer, although he was not merely a ‘better’ but an incomparably simpler man; it may be because his role in twentieth-century history is so much more equivocal and difficult to understand.”1

The full-scale biographies emerging in the last half of the twentieth century were all problematica  Those produced in the Soviet Union presented a granite statue of greatness, used to justify the existing order: the icon had been wonderful in every way and correct about everything, and universally loved by all people except for those who were enemies of humanity. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, academic careerists switched to “catch up” with the worst of US works from an earlier era—Stefan Possony’s Lenin: The Compulsive Revolutionary and Robert Payne’s The Life and Death of Lenin bent on kicking Lenin as an evil genius, consistent with so much of Cold War anti-Communism. David Shub’s Lenin was the Cold War product of a former Menshevik opponent of Lenin’s—better than those just mentioned but with obvious biases and in different ways also serving the anti-Communist purposes of the time. Louis Fischer, an ex-leftist journalist, produced a critical but not hostile Life of Lenin that focused on his later years, after the 1917 Revolution, in the period when Fischer was a Russia correspondent for the US press. Adam Ulam’s work of popular scholarship The Bolsheviks, in which an account of Lenin’s life was embedded, described an authoritarian Lenin who had never really been a Marxist. 

Better than fussing with any or all of these would be to read three works, in the following order, by people with a surer grasp of who and what Lenin was: Leon Trotsky’s The Young Lenin, Nadezhda Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin, and Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle.

There are also nonbiographical works that focus on Lenin’s political thought: Alfred Meyer’s Leninism, a Cold War anti-Communist study, and two other works—Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin and Neil Harding’s Lenin’s Political Thought. Blending an intensive focus on Lenin’s political thought with a lightly drawn biography is the three-volume Lenin, by Tony Cliff. Utilizing Lenin’s Collected Works plus various scholarly articles and books, Cliff hoped to guide like-minded activists in their efforts to build the Socialist Workers Party in Britain.2

It is noteworthy that the post–Cold War collapse of communism has not meant the collapse of Lenin studies. With the dawn of the twenty-first century there have been at least six English-language studies of Lenin’s life and a proliferating number of examinations of various aspects of his ideas. The two most valuable syntheses are by Christopher Read and Lars Lih, and we can see why, first of all, by briefly surveying the others.

Bad man
Robert Service was the first out of the gate in 2000 with his 500-page Lenin: A Biography. Service was an experienced historian who knew Russian and had been able to gain entrance into newly opened archives—but there was more. In 1979 he had produced an important study entitled The Bolshevik Party in Revolution: A Study in Organizational Change, which dealt with the vitally important issue of how a genuinely revolutionary party of 1917 was transformed by the early 1920s into an increasingly less democratic and bureaucratized structure. It seemed a work by someone whose sympathies were on the left, especially leaning toward the Workers’ Opposition in the Bolshevik Party, perhaps too quick to make negative judgments of Lenin and sometimes even flippant in tone—but providing important information and ideas. In 1991 the initial edition of his succinct survey The Russian Revolution: 1900–1927 appeared, and despite a quibble one might have with details, it seemed a good and reliable summary. 

More complex, and more impressive, was his three-volume biography of Lenin that appeared between 1985 and 1995. The author became increasingly critical of his subject as the years went by, although by no means dismissive, and for anyone who had combed through Lenin’s writings, it was clear from these volumes that Service had also been there. Not inclined to quote, he provided extensive summaries, offering slants one might question but certainly corresponding to what Lenin had written, and connecting texts with historical contexts and critical-minded commentary that one felt merited attention. Also, when Robert W. Clark, the experienced and very capable biographer, died before finishing his own useful 500-page work entitled Lenin: A Biography, Service was the person called in to help prepare this informative and sympathetic account for final publication in 1988.

Lenin’s “vision of a future for mankind when all exploitation and oppression would disappear was sincere,” Service wrote in the conclusion of his third Lenin volume. “This surely is the central point of his life.” He added that Lenin and his comrades were also responsible for the authoritarian reality that took hold in Soviet Russia, but that masses of people around the world had responded to the hopeful vision Lenin represented in response “to the conditions of distress, social and political, in their own countries,” adding: “In most of these societies these conditions have not been improved in the years after Lenin’s death. Only a minority of the globe’s national economies have provided prosperity for most of their people.” Given this, he concluded, “it would be foolhardy” to predict that Lenin’s influence might not yet be felt in the future—although he clearly did not see this as cause for elation. In his 2000 biography he makes a similar point—but not quite: “It is not even impossible that his memory might again be invoked, not necessarily by card-carrying communists, in those many parts of the world where capitalism causes grievous social distress. Lenin is not quite dead, at least not yet.”3      

Service’s new biography seemed focused on helping to finish Lenin off. The propensity for flippant editorializing and personal denigration (buttressed by superficial references to evidence) was much more pronounced than in his three-volume work. The popularized condensation of the earlier volumes formed the backbone of the new book. Although much was made of new archival material, there was little revelatory material actually presented and nothing that explained the tone of unrelenting hostility by Service toward his subject. This disappointing book certainly failed to achieve the “balanced” scholarship promised in the introduction, but it said what many wanted to hear, and received accolades as “the most authoritative and well-rounded biography of Lenin yet written—and the one that is, in its quiet way, the most horrifying.” But for those who were actually familiar with the other biographies of Lenin, with the scholarship on the Russian Revolution, with the specifics of Marxist theory, and who—like the younger Service—felt that an oppressive and exploitative capitalism should be replaced by the democratic humanism at the heart of socialism, the praise seemed hollow.          

A newer contribution that appeared in 2010, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile, is premised, in part, on the intelligent insight that since most of Lenin’s life, from 1902 to 1917, was lived in exile, that period (more than the brief years of revolution and power, 1917–24) is the obvious focal point for a biographer who wants to understand the person Lenin was. The problem is that author Helen Rappaport felt she already “understood” the person Lenin was, and she despised him. Among her strengths is that she is fluent in Russian and has a feel for Russian culture (and consequently served as a consultant to playwright Tom Stoppard for his remarkable “Coasts of Utopia” trilogy on nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals), all of which was obviously helpful for someone who confessed that she is not a professional historian. And she does seem to have read a considerable amount in preparation for this book—which may be the meaning of the Shakespeare quote she offers at the beginning of Conspirator

POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.

Indeed, Rappaport is not particularly interested in the “words, words, words” of Marxist theory and revolutionary polemic that were at the center of Lenin’s life, nor is she particularly interested in the labor movement, the class struggle, the lives of workers, or the plight of the oppressed that were the focal point of all that he did. She is much more interested in the places that he lived in exile, many of which she has made a point of visiting. She also is interested in speculations that he spent a lot of time with prostitutes (with minimal evidence she concludes that he did) and contracted venereal disease (she spends significant time on this “probability”—as does Service, incidentally—based on inconclusive accounts and latter-day medical conjectures). But beyond that, Rappaport helps us see Lenin as a “narrow authoritarian,” who frothed at the mouth when speaking, who gloried in political manipulations, surrounding himself with yes-men and hatchet-men helping him rise to power, and was a man whose “mobile, malicious little eyes” revealed “something ruthless and predatory.”4 For those who want to loathe Lenin, this book is invaluable. For those wanting to get a firmer grasp on what happened in history, it isn’t.

Scholarly gems
Perhaps this is the place to discuss the work of Carter Elwood’s important and influential series of essays gathered in The Non-Geometric Lenin: Essays on the Development of the Bolshevik Party 1910–1914.5  This collection is a gem for any serious-minded scholar. Like Service and Rappaport, Elwood is hostile to what he understands as key aspects of Lenin’s politics, but unlike them, he is a meticulous researcher, not inclined to jump to conclusions, inclined to take very seriously the specifics of the workers’ and socialist movements in prerevolutionary Russia, time and again demonstrating a scholarly integrity that demands respect from anyone who cares about the history that Elwood is studying. In addition to this collection of essays, he has written three extremely valuable books—one on the underground activity of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, focusing on the Ukraine from 1907 to 1914, another on an agent-provocateur in the top leadership of the Bolsheviks, Roman Malinovsky, and finally a biography of an outstanding leading activist and feminist in the Bolshevik ranks, Inessa Armand.  (Armand is rumored to have had a fleeting affair with Lenin—in the biography Elwood says it’s not true, but in a new essay contained here he concludes that it is.6)  

Elwood is inclined to accept aspects of what Lars Lih has denounced as “the textbook version” of Lenin developed in the days of Cold War anti-Communism—that Lenin was inclined to be committed to an undemocratic, elitist, manipulative mode of functioning and organization-building. This influences much of the way that he interprets the evidence he presents—but he also presents a considerable amount of evidence that doesn’t fit neatly into this schema (with Bolshevik comrades over and over disagreeing with him, not taking his advice, outvoting him, not agreeing to print his articles, etc.). More than that, Elwood displays a genuine interest in the actual people he is writing about, including Lenin. The book of essays is divided into two sections, one primarily political (focused on Lenin’s efforts to build the Bolshevik Party), the other focused more on Lenin’s personality and daily life. The meaning of the book’s title—The Non-Geometric Lenin—highlights what Elwood sees as a “nonlinear” and more lifelike complexity in Lenin, with discontinuities between his political practice and his more complex human qualities (for which Elwood displays more sympathy).

Recent contributions by two other serious scholars also add to the human dimensions of this revolutionary figure. It is illuminating, as we try to understand the humanity of a historical figure such as Lenin in order to rescue him from being a statue, to be able to see him in relation to his parents and siblings, in the dynamic family context within which he grew up. There were three sisters and two brothers in Lenin’s life, and we are fortunate to have studies of the sisters and of the elder brother.  

In her fascinating book Forgotten Lives: The Role of Lenin’s Sisters in the Russian Revolution, Katy Turton complains of what she calls “the solar system myth,” characterizing many accounts (by Lenin worshippers and haters alike), picturing Lenin as “the sun in the planetary system in the Ulyanovs,” around which the others orbited in awe and adoration. In focusing on Anna, Olga (to whom Lenin was closest, and who died in 1890), and Maria Ulyanov, she portrays distinct personalities and independent lives. Highly educated and cultured, on their own terms they became—like so many of their generation—part of “the revolutionary community, in which women and men worked together, formed friendships and families, and campaigned to bring about the transformation of Russian society.” Anna was the older sister and became deeply involved in revolutionary activity in the mid-1880s (well in advance of the teenage Volodya, the future Lenin). Olga Ulyanova, a few years later when she and Volodya were in close contact and still getting their political bearings, wrote that “the aspiration towards truth and to the ideal is in people’s souls,” adding: “One must always believe in people, in the possibility of something better on earth, despite personal disappointment. . . . If one doesn’t believe in people, doesn’t love them, then what is one living for?” When she died, a classmate wrote to her own brother:

Oh Arsenii, if only you knew what sort of person Ulyanova was. How much hope was placed in her! It is safe to say that in Ulyanova Russia has lost an honest, tireless activist. . . . She was a person of brilliant mind, intellectual maturity, education, talent. . . . She read the best works on political economy and sociology.7

Philip Pomper, in Lenin’s Brother, tells the story of Alexander Ulyanov, born two years after his sister Anna, like her drawn into revolutionary activity, and swept up in arrest and execution in the late 1880s due to a revolutionary conspiracy to assassinate the tsar. Alexander’s own story is the focus of this study, and it had a powerful impact on the future of Lenin and his sisters, but particularly interesting for our purposes is information offered on Lenin’s childhood. Pomper, not sympathetic to what he tells us about Lenin’s mature political orientation, summarizes his own research on the little boy: “Volodya was the most outgoing and playful of the three older children—perhaps the most winning one to outsiders. In fact, one might speculate that he was psychologically the healthiest of the three, though this would be difficult to infer from Anna’s memoirs.” Anna described the psychological severity of her schoolmaster father on herself, Alexander, and the younger children, explaining:

Father was against “showering people with praise,” as he put it, considering it extremely harmful for people to have high opinions of themselves. Now, as I look back on our childhood, I think that it would have been better for us if this generally applied pedagogical line had been administered less strictly. It was fully correct only for Vladimir, whose vast self-confidence and constantly distinguished achievement in school called for a corrective. In no way affecting his accurate self-assessment, it undoubtedly reduced the arrogance, which children with outstanding abilities are prone to . . . and taught him, in spite of all the praise, to work diligently.

Pomper adds that Lenin was “physically the spitting image of his father,” and that “just beneath the surface of Ilya Nikolaevich’s severity, there was a streak of mischievous humor, a quality completely alien to his older son and characteristic of Volodya.”8

Hazards of scholarly balance
Of course, such scholarly gems may contribute to, but cannot substitute for, a more rounded and unified understanding of Lenin. This is attempted by two serious scholars reaching for a greater balance than that achieved by Service’s work (not to mention Rappaport’s)—Beryl Williams’s Lenin (2000) and James D. White’s Lenin: The Practice and Theory of Revolution (2001). In addition, each is packed with a considerable amount of information—both authors have obviously immersed themselves in both older sources and especially the more recent scholarship. In a sense, this is one of the reasons that both fail as durable biographical studies. 

What they tend to be “balancing” are the various works of scholarship, and one can learn much from that. But sometimes trying to balance the various scholarly studies, particularly at a certain moment in history, cannot actually provide the much desired “objectivity” that is the goal of many serious scholars. As the 1990s were fading into the early twenty-first century, it seemed clear to most scholars (including in the former Soviet Union) that communism had been “the road to nowhere” and that the entire effort had been an insupportable waste of time and life and resources, a fault that could be traced to the very moment of revolutionary conception. The prevailing moods and trends in academe in the 1990s were inclined to embrace the old “textbook” interpretation of Lenin—in some cases with even darker colors, in others with greater nuance, but most were also more inclined than ever to underscore a continuity with the brutality of Stalinism. The effort to “balance” such scholarship, however, gives us more secondhand judgments but less actual Lenin. This may be better than what Rappaport and even Service have produced, but it falls short of “the real stuff” that someone like Elwood seems more adept at getting at.

Their conclusions to some extent reflect the problem. Shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Williams notes, a public opinion poll under Gorbachev asked Soviet citizens who were the most important world figures of all ages. First was the modernizing tsar of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great. Second was Jesus. Third was Lenin. Here is what Williams does with this:

Like Christ he became for his people a martyr and a saint, whose teachings could not be challenged; like Peter his revolution was one of Westernization and modernization, often through barbaric methods. His experiment with human nature lasted 74 years. At the end of it, however, Russians and Russia, let alone the world, proved remarkably resistant to his vision of socialism.  The brave new world failed to materialize. In the long run, as Russians admitted under Gorbachev, the end did not justify the means.9

This is more consistent with the mood of Williams and those around her in the year 2000 than with what Lenin said (he never claimed to have established socialism, nor was he seeking to change human nature) or with the complexities of Soviet experience. But then consider White’s conclusion. He starts with the interesting comment by E. H. Carr that (in White’s paraphrase) “the Bolsheviks not only made a revolution, but analyzed and prepared the conditions in which it could be made.” He goes on to suggest that this is an illusion, that “first Lenin and then Stalin had made great efforts to create that impression,” and he concludes: “Before we can know whether a ‘self-conscious’ revolution of the kind Carr had in mind is at all possible, it is necessary to clear away the confusion that Lenin and his successors have created.”10 Aside from the linkage of Lenin and Stalin, at least as manipulators of the truth who created illusions about Bolsheviks’ strengths, White’s book ends with the “balanced” injunction that we must clear away Lenin’s thought before we can know whether a self-conscious revolution is actually possible. 

Taking Lenin seriously
The great strength of Christopher Read’s Lenin: A Revolutionary Life (2005) and Lars Lih’s Lenin (2011) is that they take Lenin seriously in ways that the others do not (with the partial exception of Elwood). They give serious attention to the proliferating array of interpretations and secondary sources, but they are determined to form their own judgments through a serious-minded engagement with primary sources.  First of all, they engage with what Lenin himself had to say, both in published sources and correspondence, and they read these in a critical-minded way—not hostile, but not assuming that Lenin’s words are the fount of Truth, and also not assuming that Lenin was simply lying and manipulating in order to advance his own dark (dictatorial, proto-Stalinist) designs.

It is interesting to take some time to unpack what it means to take Lenin seriously. Here are two statements that, taken together, often cause confusion:

Statement #1: Lenin wanted to achieve a society of the free and the equal, and he wanted to establish rule by the working class over society’s political and economic life. 

Statement #2: What ended up being established in the Soviet Union, particularly under Stalin, was one of the worst dictatorships in human history. 

Read and Lih understand the truth of both statements. Unlike so many, they do not assume that Lenin was talking about freedom and democracy and workers’ control simply in order to establish a brutal dictatorship. Nor do they appear to believe that democracy and socialism are foolish illusions. In this sense, for example, they take Lenin seriously. It then remains to be seen how Lenin’s words actually played out in practice, and also how one might explain why things turned out so differently from what Lenin said he was reaching for. 

In other ways, too, they show a respect for Lenin’s ideas by taking the time to see what they are, placing them in context, seeing what others of the time were saying, and trying to understand how things played out. More than this, they are inclined to see Lenin neither as a demon nor a saint, but as the interesting and remarkable person that he was. They look at his life, relationships, and everyday activities in a manner consistent with the rich material gathered in Elwood’s Non-Geometric Lenin.

In the scholarly apparatus of each book it is clear that Lih and Read think highly of each other’s contributions. At the same time, the two biographies, while sharing much common ground and similarities of approach, are different in significant ways. 

There is an oblique quality to Lih’s book—focusing on key moments in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement in which Lenin was centrally involved, and often focusing on the impressions and ideas of others in order to contextualize and to zero in on what Lenin was thinking and doing. At the same time, the overall result tends to be a rounded and insightful presentation of Lenin’s life and politics. Read, on the other hand, is almost always focused directly on Lenin’s life and ideas, adding context in generous amounts at appropriate points. As he tells us, his key primary source is Lenin’s Collected Works (including, importantly, his correspondence), supplemented by a generous and critical-minded use of Krupskaya’s Reminiscences (plus reference to other, less friendly memoirs by former Bolsheviks Nikolai Valentinov and Angelica Balabanoff, as well as the outstanding book-length chronology by Gerda and Hermann Weber, Lenin: Life and Works), and only then the scholarship of others. 

Read sees Lenin as seeking to create a democratic upsurge for socialist revolution, led by the working class in alliance with the peasantry. The problem begins when the Bolshevik Revolution, as a radical-democratic insurgency, is successful in 1917. Then all hell breaks loose, and amid the violence and chaos of counterrevolutionary assault and economic collapse the radical-democratic scenario that had been central to Lenin’s Bolshevism falls apart. We then see Lenin and his comrades scramble as best they can to hold things together. In the process, something very different takes shape than what had been projected in the revolutionary upsurge of 1917. A brutality and authoritarianism crystallizes as part of the new order, and this creates preconditions for what will become known as Stalinism.

Problems of a revolutionary life
Of course, no book is perfect, and in Read’s book there are simple factual errors that are worth noting.   

  • One of the errors may simply be an unintentional bit of unclear writing. On page 67, Read talks about the German revisionist Eduard Bernstein putting forward the notion that instead of resorting to a revolutionary overturn, socialists could just gradually reform the problems of capitalism out of existence. Then he eases into a discussion of Lenin’s Menshevik opponents on page 68, but it is simply not the case that a majority of the Mensheviks were adherents of Bernstein’s reformism. Like Lenin, they were inclined to line up with the “orthodox” Marxism of Karl Kautsky. 
  • On page 92, again referring to the Mensheviks, Read has Lenin referring to them as “liquidationists” because they favored a less centralized party than Lenin, but that was absolutely not the meaning of the term for Lenin or anyone else. Liquidators were that current among the Mensheviks after 1906 who wanted to abandon illegal underground work in tsarist Russia.  
  • On page 114, in an uncharacteristically fuzzy discussion of Lenin’s ideas on national self-determination, Read mistakenly asserts that for Rosa Luxemburg “Polish independence was a goal in itself” when, as a revolutionary antinationalist, she in fact opposed the struggle for an independent Poland (while Lenin, an advocate of self-determination for oppressed nationalities, supported it).  
  • On page 164 it is stated that Trotsky made an attack “on Lenin’s concept of the Party and associated ‘democratic centralism.’” While the young Trotsky more than once attacked Lenin’s ideas on party organization, he never attacked “democratic centralism” (the notion of freedom of discussion, unity in action), a term first introduced by the Mensheviks, then embraced by the Bolsheviks. Later it was turned into something entirely different in the Stalinized Communist movement, and in the studies of Cold War academics, but that is another matter. 
  • On page 167 it is suggested that the nineteenth-century French revolutionary Auguste Blanqui was an anarchist, but he wasn’t.
  • On page 239, we are told “Lenin had been uncompromising from the first with any attempt to allow [religious] believers to join the Party.” This is not true. In his 1905 article “Religion and Socialism,” while he calls religion “the opium of the people,” he also indicates that “we [do] not forbid Christians and other believers in God to join our party.” 

These errors, the sort that crop up in almost any book dealing with complex themes ranging over a significant swath of history, are not central to Read’s narrative and analysis. Much more important is the way he defines “Leninism.” Although plausibly suggesting that Lenin was partly shaped by the Russian traditions of revolutionary populism (and, perhaps less plausibly, by elements of Bakunin’s anarchist thought), Read is very much of the opinion that Lenin’s thought was thoroughly grounded in the principles of revolutionary Marxism, with its belief in the possibility and need for working-class revolution and its socialist goal envisioning a radical democracy and society of the free and the equal.  And yet Read wrestles, as we all must wrestle, with a disturbing truth: “From our perspective of examining Lenin’s life, perhaps the most extraordinary and ironic feature is that, while he retained such ultra-democratic ideas in his head, Lenin presided in practice over the emergence of one of the most intrusive bureaucratic state structures the world had ever seen.”11

Read believes that the answer to the riddle, in part, can be found in a fatal flaw at the very heart of Leninism. In addition to the “ultra-democratic” perspectives of Marxism that he acknowledges were central to Lenin’s theoretical orientation, Read believes another element was no less essential to Leninism, something that hardened in him amidst his early Siberian exile, adding an “extra steel” that was indispensable to “Lenin’s own distinctive revolutionary theory and practice.” He therefore became the truly “Leninist” Lenin only when “his manipulativeness and dogmatism were in full flow.”12  

Amid the balanced discussion of Lenin’s personality, his serious-minded engagement with Lenin’s Marxism, his thoughtful discussion of positive and reasonable qualities of what Lenin thought and said and did, there is this darker element that Read sees as essential for understanding who Lenin was and how he impacted history. In taking this analytical turn, he employs a more sophisticated variant of the old “textbook” version of the undemocratic Lenin that Lars Lih has done so much to demolish. 

“The problems began to arise,” Read tells us, “when the culture of centralization and secrecy inculcated by autocratic conditions became a habit which could not be shaken off even when the conditions no longer prevailed.” The Bolshevik/Menshevik split as the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party revealed “a new side of Lenin, the ruthless, stop-at-nothing side. He had not hesitated to split the movement though he does not appear to have foreseen the development coming.” In building Bolshevism he sought “a personally loyal instrument which, he hoped, would never let him down,” and so he was determined to build a “party in his own, self-made likeness.”13

Another contributing factor was Lenin’s notion that “no one but Lenin had ever really understood Marxism,” and his loyalty to Marxism necessarily meant “his failure to accept opposition.” He could not be patient in allowing reality to teach comrades the validity of his own Marxist understanding—“Leninism was Marxism in a hurry.” In fact, his great weakness was inseparable from his great strength: “the energy and power of his intellectual creativity . . . was the feature that attracted his supporters and repelled his enemies.”14  

Theoretical rigidities apparently begat organizational rigidities. Read tells us that between 1902 and 1904 Lenin’s “notion of the vanguard, elite party was becoming increasingly divisive” and that “as time went by Lenin was carving out a more and more radical and solitary path.” Lenin was continually engaged, according to Read (with no clear documentation) in “purging his party of heretics,” and he could not be stopped from continuing “his favorite pastime, splitting an ever smaller party.” Read gets carried away with such formulations: “To see his beloved Party adopting what he considered suicidal principles of broad membership was too much for him to accept.” Such an orientation actually eroded his Marxist convictions regarding the role of the working class—for him there were recurrent “ambiguities about the revolutionary potential of the Russian working class,” causing him more than once to fret over “working-class backwardness.” Reaching for a link between Lenin’s allegedly undemocratic notions in the prerevolutionary period and the postrevolutionary Communist dictatorship, Read even suggests that “arguably . . . the elite began the Revolution in 1917, not the masses” (though this flies in the face of much evidence and even the thrust of Read’s own account). Perhaps, perhaps the Bolsheviks actually meant to establish “a one-party dictatorship” in 1917.15  

This “textbook” distortion of Lenin and his politics is contradicted—and (it seems to me) refuted—by material in such well-documented studies as Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered and my own Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, and it stands as the most serious defect in Read’s work, at certain points seeming to bend it out of shape. There is ample evidence that Lenin was far more open, proved able to tolerate and endure disagreement from his comrades, and, if anything, was supremely confident in what Lih calls a “heroic” conception of the workers’ inherent revolutionary potential. Rather than governing over his own shrinking organizational kingdom, Lenin coordinated a party-building orientation that ultimately resulted in the impressive growth, vitality, and class-struggle relevance of the Bolsheviks. And as has been widely documented (including in material that Read himself presents to us), the 1917 Revolution was essentially “ultra-democratic,” not authoritarian. 

As indicated, the defect in Read’s interpretation is contradicted by evidence that Read himself presents. He is compelled more than once in this biography to puzzle over Lenin’s “un-Lenin-like” behavior. In a “stunning” letter to Plekhanov in October 1905, he wrote: “We are in agreement with you over nine-tenths of the questions of theory and tactics, and to quarrel over one-tenth is not worthwhile.” Read comments that Lenin’s “new sense of urgency over reconciliation” between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks was clear as was its motivation” amid the revolutionary opportunities of the 1905 upsurge. Nor was this a one-time fluke. “The years were filled with intense squabbles with three opponents—Trotsky, Bogdanov, and the Mensheviks,” Read tells us. “Time after time Lenin announced a complete break with one or another of the groups, only, bewilderingly, to hold out hopes of unity shortly thereafter.” He also notes that the Bolsheviks, absolutely committed to a government based on the democratic councils of workers and other popular forces in 1917, were on record as wanting to share power, in the soviets, with others committed to such a soviet government.16

Plausible arguments can be made, given his humanity and the historical record, that Lenin was sometimes supremely overconfident (or arrogant), sometimes intolerant, sometimes inclined to indulge in polemical overkill, sometimes naïvely shortsighted, sometimes afflicted with blind spots that could have dire consequences. Such qualities were not the whole of Lenin, nor are they essential to the body of theory that can be associated with the actual “Leninism” of Lenin. Nonetheless, given the complexity of the historical process, and Lenin’s centrality to aspects of it, one could argue that Lenin’s shortcomings (no less than his strengths) were a factor in problems that emerged in the Russian revolutionary experience. What Read does not successfully demonstrate, however, is that these shortcomings were as consistent and potent as he suggests. There were too many countervailing tendencies (in the Russian revolutionary movement, in Lenin himself, etc.) for that to be so.

Revolutionary tragedy
Good historian that he is, Read provides sufficient evidence for an alternative explanation as to how the Russian Revolution “went wrong,” one that even factors in Lenin’s actual shortcomings. As Read notes, in the four-year period following the 1917 Revolution, there was “a series of three strategies pursued by Lenin”: first, the establishment of what could be called a “Commune-state” (combined with a mixed economy that would gradually transition from capitalism to socialism); second, the severe policies of “war communism” that combined an authoritarian one-party dictatorship with the rapid (and damaging) nationalization of the economy; and third, a New Economic Policy that maintained one-party rule but shifted back to the utilization of market relations to build up the economy. What is key for us—though Read often seems to forget it—is that up to 1918 Lenin’s ideal, his first choice, was the commune-state.

This means that Lenin’s initial intention was far from setting up a dictatorship of the Russian Communist Party (the new name adopted by the Bolsheviks early in 1918). As Read points out, the revolution had been led by the Bolsheviks, but also involved were anarchists, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, and even some Mensheviks, as well as many nonparty workers who were active in the soviets, factory committees, unions, and workers’ militias. This corresponded with what Lenin projected in The State and Revolution and other writings of 1917. The model of the Paris Commune of 1871 indicated what the postinsurrectionary transition was supposed to look like. Read notes that “Lenin called for ‘abolition of the police, army and bureaucracy,’ that is, the smashing of the existing state machine.” It was to be replaced by the democratic soviets and the workers’ militias. “The people would be armed and therefore they could not be forced into submission by armed external agencies,” is how he explains Lenin’s perspective. “Bureaucratic and judicial functions would also be democratized by enforcing a regular rotation of administrative tasks in which the whole population would participate.” Read adds that “all ‘political’ functions could . . . be reduced to accounting and control within the grasp of the average, literate intelligence.”17

Read makes clear that Lenin did not believe socialism was possible in Russia unless it was aided by world revolution. Even before the Bolshevik Revolution he was emphasizing the point, and as late as 1922 he was still emphasizing it:

1917: “Russia is a peasant country, one of the most backward of European countries. Socialism cannot triumph there directly and immediately. But the peasant character of the country . . . may make our revolution the prologue to the world socialist revolution, a step toward it.” 

1922: “We have always urged and reiterated the elementary truth—that the joint efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are needed for the victory of socialism.”18

Read’s accusation, at least in this section of his book, is not that Lenin is a manipulative authoritarian, but that his actual revolutionary-democratic vision is incredibly naïve and unrealistic. He also suggests that Lenin and his comrades concealed from the masses the Bolsheviks’ ultimate goals.  “Mass support came to the Bolsheviks as the only significant agents of what the masses wanted—peace, bread, land and all power to the soviets,” he asserts. “It was emphatically not a conversion to Bolshevik values and to the dreams embodied in The April Theses and The State and Revolution.”19 Yet in all fairness, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, while making “peace, bread, land” and “all power to the soviets” their central slogans, were also very clear about the ultimate goals—world revolution and socialism globally as well as in Russia. Consider Lenin’s very public appeal the morning after the seizure of power:

Comrades, workers, soldiers, peasants and all working people! Take all power into the hands of your soviets. . . . Gradually, with the consent and approval of the majority of the peasants, in keeping with their practical experience and that of the workers, we shall go forward firmly and unswervingly to the victory of socialism—a victory that will be sealed by the advanced workers of the many civilized countries, bring the peoples lasting peace and liberate them from all oppression and exploitation.20  

In Lenin’s 1917–18 scenario, then, class-conscious workers and their steadfast allies among the poor peasants establish a revolutionary-democratic commune-state that inspires workers’ revolutions throughout the world, setting the stage for the development of a global socialist order of the free and the equal. But “almost from the very first day of the October Revolution,” according to Read, “Lenin’s hopes and expectations for it began to collapse.”21 There was, of course, the horrific and destructive First World War, still raging when the Bolsheviks took power, combined with a horrific civil war that arose after 1917, nurtured and funded by a number of powerful capitalist governments that also sent in their own troops and orchestrated a debilitating economic blockade. Although there was a wave of revolutionary upsurges in countries around the world, none resulted in the hoped-for working-class socialist triumph, so the new Soviet Republic remained fatally isolated. What’s more, the administrative experience and cultural level of the overwhelming majority of ordinary Russian workers and peasants proved woefully insufficient for sustaining the libertarian commune-state envisioned by Lenin and his comrades. The result was chaos, economic and social disintegration, and the dramatic erosion of the vibrant popular upsurge that had given life to the democratic councils, the soviets, which caused the newly named Communist Party, itself ill-prepared for overwhelming tasks of governance and administration under such dire circumstances, to try to step into the breach.

The other two strategies—“war communism” (1918–21) and the New Economic Policy (1921–28)—followed. A key feature of both involved replacing the shattered hopes for soviet democracy and the “commune-state” with an emergency one-party dictatorship, buttressed by desperate violence and authoritarian justifications (the “red terror”). As Read comments, “one could argue that the cost of survival was the stifling of the revolution,” although he also emphasizes that “from 1920 onwards the resort to terror was much reduced and disappeared from Lenin’s mainstream discourses and practices.”22  Lenin and his comrades bear considerable responsibility for these developments, as Read shows us, going on to offer challenging insights on the dynamics that would help make the “temporary” bureaucratic dictatorship increasingly powerful and durable. 

Although the Communist dictatorship seemed relatively benign through much of the 1920s, of course, under Stalin’s steady hand it turned immense and increasingly stifling, yet also voracious and murderous, as the 1920s gave way to the 1930s. Read by no means equates Lenin with Stalin, and he acknowledges the well-documented facts of “Lenin’s last struggle” against the embryonic beginnings of Stalinism, but his partial adherence to the “textbook” interpretation of Lenin encourages him, in the next breath, to suggest a different way of seeing things, stressing (far more strongly than the evidence will allow) that in some ways Stalin could be seen as Lenin’s legitimate heir, even though he also denies that “Stalinism was the one and only potential outcome of Leninism.” Read insists that the best in Lenin scholarship allows for the revolutionary’s humanity—“a more realistic, balance, rounded, human portrayal of Lenin.”23  He himself has done much, regardless of differences one might have with his interpretation, to clear the path for a such scholarship.  

Humanity and revolution
“Oliver Cromwell insisted that his portrait should include ‘warts and all,’” comments Lars Lih. “Post-Soviet studies of Lenin often seem to be based on a methodology of ‘nothing but warts.’” Like Carter Elwood and Christopher Read, he also has pushed past relentless negativity, and has also, more than most, emphasized the necessity of engaging with the political ideas that animated this twentieth-century revolutionary.24

Lih’s remarkable, reliable, deliciously readable new biography Lenin stands as the best of the twenty-first century biographies. We are presented with a succinct yet substantial work of scholarship that clearly presents the life of a genuine revolutionary, in stark contrast to the cold-blooded totalitarian monster that recent political fashions have dictated as the appropriate way of seeing Lenin. Lih shattered myths about Lenin in his massive earlier volume, Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context, and he continues that good work in this informative biography.

We are presented here with someone steeped in Marxist thought, in fact “in love” with Marx’s writings (as Lih nicely puts it), maintaining throughout his life the belief in a “heroic working class.” To advance this scenario, Lenin labored to develop a revolutionary party around the program of the majority faction (the Bolsheviks), which he led. Fundamentally democratic, evolving through sharp debates and disagreements, sometimes even splits (though sometimes unifications), the Leninist organization Lih reveals is a collectivity of activists in which Lenin was more than once overruled but within which he earned considerable authority. Far from developing a blueprint for an authoritarian order, Lenin’s “blueprints” (such as they were) projected a workers’ and peasants’ republic of democratic councils (soviets) that would, increasingly, replace what he and other Marxists perceived as the economic dictatorship of capitalism with the economic democracy of socialism. Of course, things did not turn out that way.

This richly textured book, graced with a number of splendid and appropriate illustrations, places Lenin securely in context: the context of European and Russian history, the context of the broader socialist movement (a truly mass phenomenon before World War I), the context of truly heroic workers’ struggles and of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (and later the Communist Party) that contained a number of other experienced and strong-minded individuals. We are given a sense of the qualities that enabled this human being to have the impact that he did in such contexts. An iron will is combined with a brilliant intellect, with a profoundly realistic and practical theoretical and organizational bent, yet also with a desire to learn from others and—by no means inconsequentially—a capacity for charm and humor, and for genuine kindness. At the same time, Lih’s perceives an overly confident inclination to see a highly complex reality through the distorting lens of Lenin’s revolutionary assumptions and his faith that the “heroic working class” could and would overcome all obstacles. 

This perspective could not survive the escalation of problems and horrific crises that beset the revolutionary regime after 1917, Lih insists. True enough, but one wonders if Lih is absolutely on target in concluding that Lenin’s revolutionary orientation was “far from realistic.” Lenin is likened to the biblical Noah, confidently building his revolutionary ark as the floodwaters of political, social, and economic catastrophe rose higher and higher. “As it turned out, the ark was leaky because it was built on unsound assumptions, the voyage involved more suffering than anyone had bargained for, and the ark ended up far from where its builder planned.”25

It is difficult to judge Lenin’s purported lack of realism due to Lih’s surprising failure (given the contrary emphasis in much of his work) to give adequate attention to the primary theoretical works produced by this revolutionary who, as Lih himself emphasizes, took theory so seriously. “I am still completely ‘in love’ with Marx and Engels,” Lenin confessed to Inessa Armand in 1917, “and I can’t stand to hear them abused. No, really—they are the genuine article.”26 Lenin is presented as being in the mainstream of the pro-democracy, pro-worker Marxism prevalent in the world socialist movement of his time. This was the Socialist International to which socialist parties around the world, including Lenin’s own, were affiliated before World War I tore it apart. Its Marxism embraces the rich contributions of Karl Kautsky up to 1910, as well as those of Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, David Riazanov, Leon Trotsky, and others. Lenin’s distinctive interpretations and analyses were developed very much in the midst of what Lih has termed “the best of Second International Marxism.” The thoughtful Russian literary critic D. S. Mirsky once commented, in his interesting old biography of Lenin, “Leninism is not identical with the sum of Lenin’s outlook. The Marxist precedes in him the creator of Leninism, and the vindication and reestablishment of genuine Marxism was one of the principal tasks in life.”27

Lih would certainly agree with this. It may be, however, that it is his dogged emphasis on Lenin’s affinity to Second International Marxism that contributes to this volume’s greatest limitation: how little it offers on distinctive aspects of Lenin’s Marxism. This especially comes through in the very light treatment accorded to Lenin’s involvement in the deliberations and development of the Communist International. This is especially serious, as Lenin’s revolutionary internationalism was the key for him in terms of how to move beyond the excruciating dilemmas coming out of World War I and posed by Soviet Russia’s postrevolutionary isolation.

Lih’s failure to engage adequately with aspects of Lenin’s thought may also help explain why (as is the case with Read) Lih seems not to take seriously what Moshe Lewin called “Lenin’s last struggle” against the beginnings of what would later be called “Stalinism.” He is not inclined to acquiesce, however, to Christopher Read’s “detection” of embryonic Stalinism in Leninist precedents. Lih stresses exactly the opposite, especially in regard to “the peasant question.” The fact remains that the question of revolutionary internationalism is a key to what drove some of Lenin’s closest comrades into opposition to the Stalinist machine, but it receives rather short shrift in this volume. Valuable as Lih’s biography is, it seems that Lenin, as Arendt put it years ago, has “not yet found his definitive biographer.” 

Yet Lih’s book deserves, and will probably find, a significant readership. In the midst of proliferating waves of capitalist crisis, growing numbers of people may also be “falling in love” with the ideas of Marx and Engels, and may conclude that Lenin is “the genuine article” as well. A world in which more and more of the population finds itself proletarianized and oppressed will tend to generate people who may be attracted to the kind of Leninist thinking that Lars Lih describes:

The party inspires the workers with a sense of their great mission to lead the narod [the oppressed people], and the proletariat then carries out this mission by inspiring the narod to join the workers in their crusade to overthrow tsarism, thereby opening up the road that ultimately leads to socialism—this is Lenin’s scenario.28  

Both Lih and Read sense that the study of Lenin is of more than simply historic interest. “The influence of, and interest in, one of the most important figures in the twentieth century is far from exhausted,” Read tells us at the end of his own study. “Lenin’s future may hold as many surprises as his past.”29

Introductory readings on Lenin

AMID THE welter of Lenin studies, there are several works and sites that are of special value for revolutionary socialists. The following are especially recommended.

The scope of Lenin’s writings, and of their revolutionary-democratic quality, is presented in V. I. Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, edited with an introduction by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008). The substantial introduction provides a brief biography, discussion of the historical context of these texts, and a survey of the controversies in interpreting Lenin’s life and ideas. A PowerPoint slideshow designed to accompany this volume can be accessed at Pluto Press’s “Get Political” Web site: http://getpoliticalnow.com/political-lives/.

Lars Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion, 2011) is certainly the best brief biography of Lenin, but the following three works, taken together, provide a more rounded political survey:  Leon Trotsky, The Young Lenin (New York: Doubleday, 1972), N. K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1970), and Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005). Trotsky worked closely with Lenin, and Krupskaya was his loyal and knowledgeable companion—both conversant in and sharing Lenin’s revolutionary perspectives. Lewin, a highly respected latter-day scholar, provides a richly documented account of Lenin’s last days of political activity, in which he struggled against the authoritarian destructiveness represented by Stalin.

Lenin’s perspectives on organization have generally been recognized as an essential aspect of his contribution to revolutionary Marxism. A rich set of essays on this—written by Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman, and Leon Trotsky—can be found in the slim volume Party and Class (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003). Ernest Mandel’s classic essay, “The Leninist Theory of Organization,” in the Marxist Internet Archive is also relevant. A more detailed examination is provided in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1993). 

One of the best ways to make sense of Lenin is to see him in relation to the 1917 Russian Revolution in which he played so central a role. A brilliant and very readable eyewitness account was provided by the US radical journalist John Reed in Ten Days That Shook the World (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).  On a broader canvass, with more detail, is the work of one of Reed’s revolutionary Russian contemporaries, Victor Serge, The Year One of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013).

Profound differences between Lenin and Stalin, dealt with in some of the materials mentioned above, are insightfully distilled from twenty years of lived political experience in Victor Serge, From Lenin to Stalin (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2000), and in Leon Trotsky’s “Stalinism and Bolshevism” on the Marxist Internet Archive. E. H. Carr presents a similar picture in more scholarly form, summarizing his fourteen-volume History of Soviet Russia in the succinct volume entitled The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin, 1917–1929 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), as does Moshe Lewin’s magisterial The Soviet Century (London: Verso, 2005).

  1. Christopher Read, Lenin: A Revolutionary Life (London/New York: Routledge, 2005), 284; Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 65.
  2. Cliff’s biography sparked some debate that can be found online at Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/665.
  3. Robert Service, Lenin: A Political Life (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1995), 3: 323; Robert Service, Lenin: A Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 493.
  4. Helen Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (New York: Basic Books, 2010), ix, 217–18, 219, 221, 306, 355.
  5. Carter Elwood, The Non-Geometric Lenin: Essays on the Development of the Bolshevik Party 1910–1914 (London/New York: Anthem Press, 2011).
  6. This new point, along with much else, is challenged in a fine and appreciative review by Lars Lih, “The Non-Geometric Elwood,” Canadian Slavonic Papers/Revue canadienne des slavistes 54, nos. 1–2 (MarchJune/mars–juin, 2012): 45–73.
  7. Katy Turton, Forgotten Lives: The Role of Lenin’s Sisters in the Russian Revolution, 1864–1937 (London/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 2, 4, 19–23, 26, 27.
  8. Philip Pomper, Lenin’s Brother: The Origins of the October Revolution (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 205, 206, 207.
  9. Beryl Williams, Lenin (Harlow, UK: Longman, 2000), 205–6.
  10. James D. White, Lenin: The Practice and Theory of Revolution (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2001), 202.
  11. Read, Lenin, 171.
  12. Ibid., 29.  Something akin to this notion emerged in the later writings of one of the most important witnesses of and participants in history we are studying, Victor Serge (who does not, for this reason, simply reject the Bolshevik-Leninist ideals to which he committed much of his life). See, for example, the new and restored edition of his rich and illuminating Memoirs of a Revolutionary (New York: New York Review of Books, 2012), 155–58, and one of his last articles, “The Socialist Imperative,” Partisan Review 15, no. 5 (September–October, 1947).  Also see Susan Weissman, Victor Serge: The Course Is Set on Hope (London: Verso, 2001), 47–49, 267–77.
  13. Read, Lenin, 59, 61, 62, 63.
  14. Ibid., 128, 207, 234.
  15. Ibid., 66, 73, 146, 148, 87, 190.
  16. Ibid., 78, 93, 190–91.
  17. Ibid., 148, 168, 169.     
  18. Ibid., 146, 225.
  19. Ibid., 174.
  20. V. I. Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, Selected Writings, edited by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 279–280.
  21. Read, 208.
  22. Ibid., 200, 251.
  23. Ibid., 291, 288.
  24. Lars Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion, 2011), 13.
  25. Ibid., 203, 205.
  26. Ibid., 13.
  27. D. S. Mirsky, Lenin (London: Holme Press, 1931), 192; Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin’s Marxism,” Platypus Review, May 2011, http://platypus1917.org/2011/05/05/lenin... Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party; David Riazanov, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, An Introduction to Their Lives and Work (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974); August H. Nimtz, Jr., Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000). August Nimtz, in a critical review of Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered, “A Return to Lenin—But Without Marx and Engels?,” Science & Society, October 2009, argues that Lenin’s primary inspiration was Marx, not Kautsky. The seeming distance between Nimtz and Lih narrowed as their agreement on the primacy of Marx (not Kautsky) for Lenin became clear, and with their agreement Lenin continued to respect the pre-1910 Kautsky. 
  28. Lih, 13, 15.
  29. Read, Lenin, 291.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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