Generations of historians have distorted the facts about Russian revolutionary Lenin
June 2, 2011
NEVER IN history has there been such a deliberately misunderstood and misrepresented historical figure as Lenin. It is extremely difficult to disentangle myth from reality because the Russian revolutionary was deified in the East and systematically vilified in the West.
In Russia, following his death in 1924 and up until 1991 and the collapse of the ex-USSR, something called “Leninism” was converted into a state religion to justify policies that Lenin would never have countenanced when he was alive.
His own introduction to his work State and Revolution describes how after the death of revolutionaries, “attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons.” The Stalinist bureaucracy turned Lenin into just such a harmless icon. Lenin was quite literally mummified, his embalmed body displayed in a mausoleum in Red Square–something that would have horrified Lenin had he known about it.
Consolidating his power at the head of a burgeoning state bureaucracy following Lenin’s death, Stalin promulgated a new “Leninism” whose main tenet–“socialism in one country”–was diametrically opposed to the internationalism of Lenin, and indeed, of the entire Marxist tradition. Lenin’s writings became a kind of holy text that could be quoted–of course, completely out of context–to justify anything the bureaucracy did. If Lenin was presented as the all-knowing, infallible father of the USSR, Stalin was presented as Lenin’s rightful heir, picking up where Lenin left off.
But if in Stalin’s Russia, Lenin became a kind of demigod, in the West, he has been presented as a devil, an elitist Machiavellian who manipulated the masses for whom he had contempt–a man who adapted his theories to fit whatever sinister plot he was engaging in to advance toward his goal of absolute power.
Contradictorily, he is presented as a man who was obsessed with doctrinal purity, and at the same time, someone who merely used Marxist texts to justify his practical twists and turns after the fact.
Yet even a casual look at his voluminous writings would quickly show that Lenin’s approach to politics was always to take the time to develop a question theoretically and investigate it as thoroughly as possible, in order provide a solid framework for determining policy. And Lenin was always willing to reevaluate a position if real-life developments proved it inadequate.
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THOUGH AS a youth, Lenin was, like all Russian radicals of his era, first attracted to Populism, he became a Marxist, again like others of his era, through a systematic criticism of populism.
This doesn’t, however, prevent the majority of Western historians of the Russian Revolution from claiming that Lenin drew his organizational inspiration from a populist of the 1860s and 70s, Peter Tkachev, who advocated terror by small groups of revolutionaries to shake the foundation of the tsar’s power.
One example of these claims, from Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924, will suffice:
Populists like Tkachev argued that to wait indefinitely for a social revolution, and in the meantime to condemn all forms of revolt and terrorism by its elite vanguard, was to run the risk of allowing the Tsarist order to stabilize itself through the advance of capitalism. Only by seizing power first and establishing a revolutionary dictatorship was it possible to secure the necessary political conditions for the transition to socialism. This idea also had its followers in the Social Democratic Party: it became the guiding principle of Lenin’s theory of revolution.
According to Figes, Lenin “owed more to Tkachev than any other single Russian theorist.”
This fantasy is repeated by countless historians, and yet has no relationship to the facts. Lenin’s Marxism was developed in a sharp polemic with the Russian populist tradition. While his writings are full of admiration for the populists–in particular, their heroism and self-sacrifice in fighting Tsarism when no social force yet appeared capable of taking it on–he rejected every major tenet of populism, including individual terrorism.
Many statements such as this, written in 1902, can be found throughout Lenin’s writings:
[T]he Socialist-Revolutionaries, by including terrorism in their program and advocating it in its present-day form as a means of political struggle, are thereby doing the most serious harm to the movement, destroying the indissoluble ties between socialist work and the mass of the revolutionary class.
No verbal assurances and vows can disprove the unquestionable fact that present-day terrorism…is not connected in any way with work among the masses, for the masses, or together with the masses; that the organization of terroristic acts by the Party distracts our very scanty organizational forces from their difficult and by no means completed task of organizing a revolutionary workers’ party; that in practice the terrorism of the Socialist-Revolutionaries is nothing else than single combat, a method that has been wholly condemned by the experience of history.
Any honest look at Lenin’s life would quickly put to rest the notion that he wanted an impatient elite to seize power and impose socialism over the masses.
One could point to Lenin’s argument in What is To Be Done that party democracy was impossible in conditions of illegality, but indispensable when conditions became freer and more open. Or to Lenin’s insistence before 1917 that since workers were a minority within a Russian society that consisted mostly of peasants, a workers’ state would be impossible. Or to Lenin’s repetitive emphasis on the working class’s capacity for consciousness and self-rule. Or to his insistence, after the February Revolution in 1917 that the bourgeois provisional government could not be overthrown and replaced by soviet power until the Bolsheviks had achieved majority support in the soviets (the Russian word for the workers’ and soldiers’ councils).
Yet according to Cold War historians, the Bolshevik Party’s victory in 1917 was due to “the party’s Machiavellian leaders, centralized organization, disciplined membership and manipulation of the masses,” to quote Stephen F. Cohen, a critic of the right-wing historians.
Cohen points out that later scholars “discovered a diverse leadership, decentralized and fractious organization, unruly rank-and-file and ideological interaction between Bolshevik thinking and the spontaneous radicalization of popular opinion.” Yet the Cold War view remains the mainstream view.
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WHAT EMERGES from the hundreds of these studies is a picture of Lenin as an individual with extraordinary, almost superhuman powers, bent on his own absolute power. Take the description of Lenin in Robert Payne’s The Life and Death of Lenin–Lenin, writes Payne, was like a “medieval autocrat” who “hammered and bent Marx to his own will.”
Compare this negative appraisal with that of children’s book author Arthur Ransome, who spent time in Russia between 1919 and 1920:
More than ever, Lenin struck me as a happy man. Walking home from the Kremlin, I tried to think of any other man of his caliber who had a similar joyous temperament. I could think of none. This little, bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another, ready any minute to give serious advice to anyone who interrupts him to ask for it, advice so well reasoned that it is to his followers far more compelling than any command…
I think the reason must be that he is the first great leader who utterly discounts the value of his own personality. He is quite without personal ambition. More than that, he believes, as a Marxist, in the movement of the masses, which, with or without him, would still move. His whole faith is in the elemental forces that move people; his faith in himself is merely his belief that he justly estimates the direction of these forces.
These estimations of Lenin–Payne’s versus Ransome’s–are so at odds as to be startling. Clearly both cannot be true.
The most apparently damning criticism of Lenin lies in the outcome of the Russian Revolution–that it produced not a flowering workers’ democracy, but a monolithic, single-party bureaucratic state. A red line is drawn from statements, drawn out of context from early in Lenin’s life, to the emergence of Stalin’s autocratic rule, as if they are part of a single, unbroken narrative.
To accept this, one must conveniently leave out telling facts, such as Lenin’s efforts shortly before his death to bloc with Trotsky, combat the rising bureaucracy and force the removal of Stalin from power.
“Leninist doctrine,” writes historian Moshe Lewin, “did not originally envisage a monolithic state, nor even a strictly monolithic party; the dictatorship of the Party overthe proletariat was never part of Lenin’s plans, it was the completely unforeseen culmination of a series of unforeseen circumstances.”