New York Review of
Volume 48, Number 17 · November 1, 2001
and the 'Radiant Future'
by Martin Malia
questions concerning Lenin:
- To what extent does
history depend on "great men"?
- Was the October
Revolution Lenin led genuinely Marxist?
- Was Stalin his true
How do Malia and Service answer these questions?
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.
the West, Neil Harding casts him as a Marxist who consistently based his decisions on ideology.
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.
- 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
- 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
Career as a Professional
Was the October
Revolution Lenin led genuinely Marxist?
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
- 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.
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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
questions concerning Lenin:
what extent does history depend on "great men"?
the October Revolution he led genuinely Marxist?
Stalin his true heir?