New York Review of Books
Volume 48, Number 17 · November 1, 2001


Lenin and the 'Radiant Future'
by Martin Malia


Basic Historical questions concerning Lenin:

  • To what extent does history depend on "great men"?
  • Was the October Revolution Lenin led genuinely Marxist?
  • Was Stalin his true heir?


How do Malia and Service answer these questions?



  • In the former Soviet Union, Lenin was presented as a genius who devised the "correct" solution to every problem involved in achieving and consolidating Soviet power.
  • In the West, Neil Harding casts him as a Marxist who consistently based his decisions on ideology.
  • Richard Pipes sees him as a cynic for whom ideology is only a cloak for the pursuit of power for its own sake.
  • Robert Service seeks to reconstruct Lenin's motives historically, decision by decision, as the settings of his action changed.

Personal Background:

  • b. 1870, Lenin had an elite education that afforded social mobility to all who passed through it.
  • Lenin's father became director of schools in Simbirsk province on the Volga, thereby "making it" to the rank of hereditary noble.
  • The Ulyanov family owned a landed estate inherited by Lenin's mother, and the revenue from its peasant tenants financed his revolutionary career. Lenin would become a licensed lawyer, but he never held a job in his life.
  • As a student Lenin was caught up in the radical fervor prevalent in university settings after the Emancipation: his personal hero was Chernyshevsky, the radical socialist who wrote What Is to be Done? while in prison in the 1860’s.
  • His older brother Alexander joined the terrorist organization The People’s Will which succeeded in assassinating the Tsar in 1881.  A new plot against his successor, Alexander III was discovered in 1887, and Alexander was captured and executed.
  • Service’s conclusion: Lenin's life mission arose not out of compassion for the "people"—he scarcely knew them at the time, or indeed in later life-- but from the injury done him and his kind, the bearers of "enlightenment" to a benighted nation.
  • Cushioning the Ulyanovs' clash with tsarism, however, was a landed estate inherited by Lenin's mother; and the revenue from its peasant tenants went to finance his revolutionary career. Lenin, though a self-trained, licensed lawyer, never held a job in his life.
  • Without the lifelong care of a group of devoted females (his mother, Krupskaya, his secretary-wife, and Inessa Armand, his French lover), Lenin could never have lived full-time for revolution. And they took very good care of him.
  • Lenin was subject to depression and nervous exhaustion. Whenever physical danger threatened, he decamped so hastily that his comrades were embarrassed.

Career as a Professional Revolutionary:

Was the October Revolution Lenin led genuinely Marxist?

  • The general expectation of the Russian intelligentsia after 1900 was that revolution would occur in the near future. Liberals among the landed gentry, professionals, and businessmen as well as radicals of all stripes agreed that change was coming. Lenin'e plan was the most radical of all.
  • In What Is to Be Done? (1902), Lenin differed with Marx by arguing that the economic struggle of the workers could "generate only a trade-union consciousness" directed toward the reform of existing society. To make this struggle genuinely socialist, therefore, a "vanguard party" of full-time "professionals" must bring to the proletariat, "from without," a "revolutionary consciousness" aiming for a totally new society. And such a leap of consciousness requires the "profound scientific knowledge... born in the heads" of Marxists from the "bourgeois intelligentsia".
  • Critics charge that this ideology is not Marxist but rather truly inspired by the terrorist aims of the People's Will of the 1870s and 1880s.
  • Service argues, though, that Lenin's Marxist purity can only be judged within the context of the ideological argument during the1890's in Russia.
    • Following the Great Reforms of the 1860s, most radicals had embraced narodnichestvo, or populism, whose adherents believed that a democratic Russia could be founded on the model of the peasant commune. Convinced that this institution made the peasants natural socialists, they expected that the perceived "injustice" of the Emancipation settlement of 1861 would produce a rural insurrection. When this did not occur, they resorted to conspiratorial terrorism to provoke an uprising.
    • Menshevik Georgi Plekhanov. After the failure of the People's Will, Plekhanov argued that the peasantry was a backward, not a revolutionary, class, and that Russia could not be forced by elite action to skip the logical phases of historical development. Russia had to progress through its bourgeois phase (and industrialize) before a socialist revolution led by the workers would be possible.
    • Lenin in the 1890’s was enthused that Russia had finally embraced capitalism and begun to industrialize. He displayed a thoroughly Marxist detestation of the "idiocy of rural life," and hence he ardently supported a capitalist road for Russia as the necessary prelude to socialism—a course of action that was anathema to populists. [After the revolution, under Stalin, these commitments were translated as requiring Bolshevik crash industrialization and forced collectivization of the peasantry—policies inconceivable if the populists had won in 1917.]
    • Marx himself had never viewed his system as a dogma yielding a single orthodoxy (he once famously declared, "I am not a Marxist"). Rather, he expected his system to evolve "dialectically" as historical conditions changed.
    • Lenin’s Marxist credentials are evident in his dedication to theory, to the abstract reasoning which Marx used to predict the inevitability of socialist change and justify revolution: "Without theory, there can be no revolutionary movement."
    • The Social Democratic condemnation of Lenin’s Marxist credentials was an attempt to rescue Marx from the dictatorial direction in which Russia veered after the October Revolution. Western propagandists like Pipes portrayed Bolshevism as nothing more than the traditional Russian autocracy painted red. Both ‘Marxist purists’ and ‘Western liberal critics’ of Lenin  rely on two key arguments. The first is that Russia in 1917 was not "ready" for socialism since it had not yet passed through its capitalist phase. The second is that Lenin had simply decked out the Russian conspiratorial tradition, itself the mirror image of tsarist autocracy, with Marxist language in order to satisfy his lust for power.
  • Malia's answer: Regarding the argument that Lenin was really a terrorist and not a Marxist, critics argue that Lenin was closer to his forbears Aleksandr Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin who had called for a socialist revolution led by the peasants and a new society based on the traditional peasant commune. Lenin did rely on the peasants for support during the Civil War. Even so, Marx himself had become so impressed by the vitality of Russian radicalism that in the 1860s he learned Russian in order to read Chernyshevsky. He especially admired the People's Will: after the failure of the Paris Commune of 1871, Russian radicalism represented for him the only hope for igniting revolution throughout Europe.
    • The nub of the problem of Lenin's fidelity to Marx concerns the driving impulse of Marxism: it is a metaphysical, even millenarian, vision of human destiny, which predicts that the end of "prehistory" would culminate in the abolition of human alienation in a classless, stateless society. Fifty years after the Manifesto, Marx's Marxism encountered its moment of truth; for by then it had become apparent that the "logic" of advanced capitalism does not generate revolutionary proletarian "consciousness." So Marxists had to choose. In semi-constitutional Germany, Edouard Bernstein's "revisionists" followed the actual logic of industrial society into advocating parliamentary reformism. In autocratic Russia, on the other hand, Lenin's Bolsheviks compensated for Social Democracy's dwindling red consciousness by incarnating the specter of communism in their "party of a new type."
    • Marx never advocated a vanguard party; he always held that proletarian emancipation must be the task of the workers themselves. Yet he also believed that as these workers matured, they would necessarily arrive at his own views. Thus Marx’s idea served as the germ of Lenin's later idea of "substitutionism"—that is, of the elite vanguard acting for the workers.
    • What Is to Be Done?, then, should not be read as a "universal practical blueprint" for world communism. It was a product of circumstance directed to the specific task of organizing a Marxist party for the forthcoming Russian revolution.
    • Lenin's insistence on centralization split the movement between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The schism not only ended his alliance with Russia's most talented Marxists, Plekhanov, Trotsky, and Yuli Martov, but it also made his faction the real minority until late 1917. Then, in 1908, he broke with a new group of associates, the brilliant but mercurial "God-builders" Aleksandr Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky. Only in 1912 could he form an organization all his own, but only with the second-string team of Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Josif Stalin, and the police agent Roman Malinovsky.
    • Until 1917 Lenin was "a theorist and rhetorician of revolution more than a leader." He played no role in the Revolution of 1905.
    • DuringWorld War I Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism which predicted that the conflagration of war would cause international capitalism to break at its "weakest link," ie. Russia. Until 1917, Lenin was an apparatchik of revolutionary conspiracy more than a politician.

February- October 1917:

  • Lenin had no master plan to achieve power; rather he and his Bolshevik central committee colleagues improvised within the contingencies which arose during that fateful year.
  • On his return to Petrograd in April, he cast aside the two-stage revolution theory entirely in favor of igniting a European conflagration by an immediate seizure of power in Russia. His amended slogan was "All power to the soviets," and grass-roots worker and soldier "councils" proliferated throughout Russia after the February Revolution.
  • July Days: the botched action which almost destroyed the Bolshevik organization and sent Lenin himself into hiding in semi-autonomous Finland.
  • In October, the Bolshevik central committee ignored his instructions for a party coup; it followed instead Trotsky's plan for seizing power in the name of the soviets.
  • In State and Revolution, Lenin outlined his vision of Russia's ‘radiant future.’ The new order would begin as an iron-fisted 'dictatorship of the proletariat' expropriating the former exploiting classes. But it would soon mature into a 'commune state' in which ordinary citizens would manage all society's affairs through the purest direct democracy.
  • Lenin’s contribution to the seizure of power? A militant, hard-left organization, however rudimentary, was necessary to stage the October coup, but the fragile "duality of power" between the Provisional Government and grass-roots soviets could only unravel until the country hit bottom, thereby creating a void into which a determined organization could easily step.

War Communism:

  • The premise that the Russian Revolution would set off a European one turned out to be false, and the world's first proletarian dictatorship found itself barely afloat in a sea of peasants, so between 1918 and 1921 they undertook to create a Communist order in Russia alone.
  • Lenin succeeded splendidly in holding and consolidating Bolshevik power. He suppressed all rival parties, socialist no less than "bourgeois."
  • "Class warfare in the villages" failed to feed the cities, so the job was done through forced grain requisitions.
  • When "War Communism" led to disaster and famine during the Civil War, in 1921 it was disavowed and described as the product of the Civil War emergency.
  • Lenin’s conception of "class struggle" meant violence and terror in practice: this ideological fanaticism produced the disaster of War Communism, eventually setting off both worker and peasant revolts. And it was these revolts that forced Lenin to retreat to the quasi "capitalist" New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921, which allowed a partial market economy.
  • In foreign affairs, Lenin temporarily subordinated the goal of world revolution to the preservation of Soviet power by making a costly separate peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in 1918 (only to lunge at Europe in 1920 with an invasion of Poland that ended in fiasco)
  • Lenin improvised an unprecedented political system, the Party-state, in which the formal "Soviet" government was controlled by a parallel Communist apparatus.
  • In the 1930s, of course, Stalin finally made the Bolshevik gamble stick by institutionalizing War Communism in his Five-Year Plans.

Basic Historical questions concerning Lenin:

  • To what extent does history depend on "great men"?
  • Was the October Revolution he led genuinely Marxist?
  • Was Stalin his true heir?