Any book that rejects the received wisdom that Lenin was intolerant, cruel and tyrannical, thus laying the basis for the inevitable rise of Stalinism, is to be welcomed. As such, Lars T Lih’s concise biography of Lenin is a useful addition.
When the actuality of revolution is playing out across our TV screens, there is a strong case to be made for looking again at Lenin. Not only did his life span the momentous events of the Russian Revolution, from the toppling of the Tsar to the October Revolution which placed the complete social transformation of society on the agenda, but he was consistently active in the revolutionary process.
Lih consciously rejects the “standard textbook interpretation” of Lenin. For example, he explains that What is to be Done is not early evidence of Lenin’s elitism. It was not a “worry about workers” or a distrust of their ability to support revolutionary ideas that required an organisation of hardened professional revolutionaries, but rather the conditions of illegality that existed in Tsarist Russia.
Underground organisation was required in order to elude the police, not in order for revolutionaries to cut themselves off from the mass of workers. It was the means by which it could continue its existence and thus maintain contact with the workers by preserving the “threads” connecting the organisation to a wider community.
In this defence of What is to be Done Lih builds on his much more substantial work Lenin Rediscovered – although it’s worth noting that his analysis in both does open up a debate about how far Lenin was following Kautsky and the model of the SPD in Germany.
Lih is emphatic that a clear break exists between Lenin and Stalin, especially in their attitude towards the peasants. He contrasts Stalin’s “massive use of violence in 1930-34 to impose upon the peasantry a radical change of production methods” with Lenin’s method of persuading the peasants by “genuine examples of the genuine advantages of collective farms organised in genuinely voluntary fashion”. There is much that could be written about the break between Lenin and Stalin. But to refute the straight line theory between Lenin and Stalin is an extremely helpful starting point.
Similarly, placing Lenin’s writings and the terror in the context of the material and objective conditions following the revolution is another useful contribution.
Where this book is less helpful is in its main theme. Lih refers to Lenin’s “heroic scenario” to understand his writings and actions. Rather than as a cold blooded pragmatist Lenin is portrayed more as a romantic figure inspired by this lifelong scenario.
However, it is hard to know exactly what Lih means by Lenin’s heroic scenario. At the beginning he identifies a key theme as being “heroic class leadership”. This takes place on two levels: the Russian proletariat’s leadership of the whole Russian people and leadership within the class itself by activists.
But the scenario becomes formulaic and often reads like a predetermined framework from which Lenin never deviates. Lih asserts that Lenin mapped it out around 1893-94 and that it essentially remained unchanged until 1919-1920. This was the point when apparently Lenin finally recognised that things had not gone according to plan and started to make adjustments to his scenario.
Different classes such as workers and peasants are merely “assigned a role in Lenin’s scenario” or “play their parts”. This gives the impression that Lenin had everything planned in advance and subsequent events corresponded to this.
This is given further weight by his treatment of the 1917 Revolution. Lih devotes only ten pages out of over 200 to the events of that momentous year. Rather than analysing the twists and turns of the revolution it appears that events played out automatically.
The decisive role of Lenin and the Bolsheviks at key junctures is not even alluded to.
And Lih dismisses some of Lenin’s most important writings during that year. Rather than seeing Lenin’s April Theses as a major shift, written after analysing a changed situation and crucial for redirecting the Bolshevik Party towards socialist revolution, Lih sees it in continuity with Lenin’s previous thought.
And State and Revolution, a major work, is dismissed on the grounds that it “strikingly lacks the tang of Russia during the revolution”.
Lenin did believe in leadership. But he didn’t see this as a top-down, one-way process based on abstract ideas or adhering to a rigid scenario. He was constantly engaging with workers, listening and learning from them. This was vital to help determine the right course of action. His writings are a guide to action, often polemical, assessing new situations in order to judge the way forward.
Throughout his life Lenin was guided by a belief in the capabilities of the masses, in the idea that ordinary people could transform society through their own actions.
Lenin is published by Reaktion Books, £10.95
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