Lenin 150 (Samizdat) is a welcome collection of articles and pieces on Lenin by authors from around the world which asserts the importance of his political legacy, finds Chris Bambery

Lenin 150 (Samizdat), ed. Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn, and trans. Patrick Anderson, photography Johann Salazar (Daraja Press 2020), 2nd edition, 342pp.

This book came as an unexpected delight. A delight because here is a volume of essays examining the relevance of Lenin today in general and, on occasion, in the specifics of the country where the writer is based. A delight because Lenin has been largely missing from the social movements which have swept the globe over the last two decades, meaning all too often after their meteoric rise and then fall, they leave little behind in way of organisation. The need for which is under constant discussion here.

The fact that it appeared during the current pandemic also reminds us that capitalism is taking humanity and our planet on the road to hell. We have to get off and create an alternative.

Finally, it was a delightful read because it brings together authors from China, South Africa, South America, North America, India, Europe and Kyrgyzstan. Authors bring an appreciation of Lenin and his relevance to the situation they face in, say China or Kyrgyzstan, which was truly fascinating and for me fresh. Of course as a collection of essays it is, like the curate’s egg, good in parts.

Kyrgyzstan is a thread running through the book because it features regularly statues of Lenin which still stand there, unlike in other Soviet republics. But this is not cultish because the Kyrgyz contributors are very clear about the problems the state faces. The photos themselves, taken by Johann Salazar, are excellent and the statues themselves have not been allowed to decay.

Internationalism within nations

The book kicks off with an essay by Trotsky dedicated to Lenin on his fiftieth birthday in 1920. An essay I wasn’t familiar with. In it Trotsky states this:

‘Lenin’s internationalism needs no recommendation. But at the same time Lenin himself is profoundly national. His roots are deep in modern Russian history, he draws it up into himself, gives it its highest expression, and precisely in this way attains the highest levels of international action and world influence.

‘At first glance the characterization of Lenin as a “national” figure may seem surprising, but, in essence, this follows as a matter of course. To be able to lead such a revolution, without parallel in the history of peoples, as Russia is now living through, it is obviously necessary to have an indissoluble, organic bond with the main forces of the people’s life, a bond which springs from the deepest roots.

‘Lenin personifies the Russian proletariat, a young class, which politically is scarcely older than Lenin himself, but a class which is profoundly national, for recapitulated in it is the entire past development of Russia, in it lies Russia’s entire future, with it the Russian nation rises or falls. Freedom from routine and banality, freedom from imposture and convention, resoluteness of thought, audacity in action – an audacity which never turns into foolhardiness – this is what characterizes the Russian working class, and with it also Lenin.’

That combination of internationalism – exemplified by Lenin’s opposition to the First World War and his support for the right to self-determination (including that of the Soviet Republics) – and his positioning himself very firmly within the nation state where he hopes to topple capitalism and then to build Soviet power, is important and it is something many of the authors attempt to grapple with.

Vashna Jagarnath, a South African Pan-African socialist, lays out the conditions in which the working class of that country must battle, pointing out:

‘Over the past twenty years, despite the arrival of the democratic dispensation of 1994, the ever present threat of state violence continues unabated. Currently, a mere three thousand five-hundred South Africans own more of the country’s wealth than the bottom thirty-two million. Hunger and poverty are prevalent, with over seventy percent of the population suffering food insecurity. Seventy-two percent of the land still remains in the hands of nine percent of the population. According to World Bank statistics on income inequality, South Africa is ranked as the most unequal country in the world’ (pp.53-4).

She points out that the South African working class is today bigger than that in Russia in 1917 and must assert its power.

Self-determination and liberation

Georgy Mamedov is a Kyrgyz communist and LGBT activist (LGBT rights are under attack in Kyrgyzstan). He draws attention to Lenin’s last fight, with Stalin in particular, over the suppression of national rights in Georgia. Lenin had fought to ensure the dominant nationality ruled the Caucasian Republics and that the national language took precedence over Russian.

What Mamedov does is to take Lenin’s support for self-determination and apply it to the fight for liberation today, quoting the British Gay Left Collective’s 1977 manifesto, a document which I remember well and its re-discovery is welcome. You might not agree with all of what Mamedov argues but it is well worth engaging with.

Matthieu Renault picks up on Lenin’s support for national rights within the Soviet Union and his dispute with Stalin, which led to his testimony calling for Stalin’s removal as General Secretary of the Communist Party. In 1921 Lenin urged that ‘the Muslim poor should be treated with care and prudence with a number of concessions.’ He locates his support for national rights within the needs of the world revolution:

‘It is terribly important for all our Weltpolitik to win the confidence of the natives; to win it over and over again; to prove that we are not imperialists, that we shall not tolerate any deviation in that direction. This is a world-wide question, and that is no exaggeration. There you must be especially strict. It will have an effect on India and the East; it is no joke, it calls for exceptional caution’ (p.198).

Lenin’s concept that the world revolution required twin blows; from the west that of the working class and from the east that of national liberation struggles, is addressed by the Chinese Marxist Wang Hui in a fascinating and challenging essay. In 1925 Karl Radek recalled that in 1916 Lenin stressed to exiled Bolsheviks in Switzerland that they had to look to uniting the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Radek wrote that his audience regarded it as an ‘idiot’s impossible dream’.

Wan Hui points out that the Chinese Communists were urged to make a united front with the bourgeois nationalists of the Kuomintang but to maintain their independence. However, in the mid-1920s the Russian leadership urged the dropping of the second part of that formula, with deadly results for the Chinese revolution. The essay goes on to examine Mao’s theory of people’s war, having earlier quoted Trotsky. That might seem strange but we need to be aware there are many Marxists in China who relate to Mao but are open to discussion.

There is much I cannot address in this review, for instance Jodi Dean’s excellent essay, ‘Lenin’s Desire: Reminiscences of Lenin and the Desire of the Comrade’. Michael Neocosmos and Ronald Grigor Suny address Lenin’s fight against the growing bureaucratisation of party and state, as exemplified by Stalin. So Suny argues:

‘While dressing in the garb of Leninism and justifying his revisions of Bolshevism in the language of the founders, Stalin revised, suppressed, and even reversed much of the legacy of Lenin. Internationalism turned into nationalism; the promotion of non-Russians was steadily replaced by overlays of Russification; the smychka [alliance] between the workers and peasants was buried in the ferocity of collectivisation; radical transformation of the family and the liberation of women ended with the reassertion of the most conservative “family values”. And one by one, almost all of Lenin’s closest associates fell victim to the self-proclaimed keeper of the Leninist flame’ (p.256).

Rather than Lenin leading to Stalin, Suny argues that there is ‘a whole river of blood’ between them. And that is an important starting point in rescuing Lenin for a new generation.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.