Paul Le Blanc, Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution (Pluto 2023), 272pp. Paul Le Blanc, Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution (Pluto 2023), 272pp.

Paul Le Blanc’s latest book, Lenin, is an engaging and accessible exploration of the development of Lenin’s thinking across the span of his life, finds Kevin Crane

Revisiting An Old Revolutionary

Biographies of Lenin are not something of which the world is short, but this is not least because takes on Lenin’s life and career are something that have been highly diverse and have evolved over time. As the centenary of the man’s death approaches, the ever affable and prolific Paul Le Blanc, perhaps the most productive writer on the contemporary American revolutionary left, gives us his most comprehensive take on the subject so far. Interestingly, in doing so, he does not claim to be making any sort of final word, as he puts it regarding his re-examination of Lenin all the way back in the 1980s:

‘…My understanding of Lenin, and that of many comrades [with the exception of his mentor] had been stilted. It was disconnected from the actual struggles of large numbers of past activists in very particular situations. In my continuing study of Lenin and his times, I have been struck by a complexity and richness in his thinking, and that of his comrades, that had eluded me in earlier decades. Yet the shocks never stop coming.’

Le Blanc has taken some care to pitch this book at audiences that may or may not be somewhat familiar with the broad details of Lenin’s life already, so prior knowledge shouldn’t really affect your ability to follow either the story or the arguments. It may be the case, however, that if you do have some familiarity, that there is at least some novelty – if not shocks – in the case Le Blanc makes.

Navigating Crises

The book follows a pretty conventional and chronological structure, not just for simplicity’s sake, but because it serves the case the author wants to make. We get Lenin’s young life and early political experiences, including some details that were new to me about his siblings. Of course, I knew, as many of you will, that before Lenin became politically active, his elder brother had been a member of a clandestine leftist group that was beginning the early struggle against the archaic, undemocratic empire of Russia in the late-nineteenth century, and was executed for it. I had never really had much of a grasp of Aleksandr Ulyanov’s own political thinking, though, which the book gives us. It’s not just there as a nice piece of history, Le Blanc uses the example – both positive and negative – that his elder brother set to show the beginning of a political journey that Lenin sets out upon.

Throughout these early stages of the book, Lenin realises that Russia is in acute state of crisis. It is a desperately backward, declining world power, whose social elite is struggling not just to keep the population under their control, but also to adapt themselves and their system in the rapidly changing capitalist world. Lenin sees that, as an opposition, the left is also struggling for its own correct response to those crises and sets about looking for solutions, soon rejecting the anti-modernist, agrarian-based politics his brother had associated with. He turned to a modernising Marxist politics which he saw as the future. This was not based on some masterplan beamed from nowhere into Lenin’s head, the author stresses, but based on the positive lessons that Lenin was picking up on from the international movement. Indeed, when he got involved in the setting up of Russia’s first socialist political party, he was still ardently arguing that this new organisation should be based on the positive experiences of the huge German Social Democratic Party, which he greatly admired, and was to continue citing as a positive model for many years.

Details like this can seem extremely strange in hindsight, particularly if you’ve had an introduction to the history of Lenin which focuses on his and his faction’s acrimonious condemnation of the German Social Democrats following their catastrophic support for the First World War and pitting working-class men against one another. This is absolutely what happened, but Le Blanc wants us to understand the development of Lenin’s thinking and the strategies he pursued in context: most critically that he was striving to apply revolutionary thinking to new situations.

Lenin becoming the leader of the first and only lasting revolution led by a socialist party in the era is, the narrative emphasises, not the result of a pre-existing and perfect vision of how to make that happen. It was the outcome of a long series of good calls in the face of novel emergencies. These included unexpected popular uprisings and bouts of heavy government repression. There were complex and intense debates about the nature of socialism and its approach to rival ideologies like liberalism, nationalism, and anarchism. The greatest of all, of course, was to be the Great War, but all along the way Le Blanc gives us a Lenin looking for solutions, not just handing them down.

Daring to Dream

The latter part of the book, logically, deals with Lenin after the revolution of 1917 and the final few years of his life before ill-health prevented him from seeing the subsequent direction of Russia. In Le Blanc’s take on this period, easily the most controversial aspect of any discussion of Lenin’s career, he poses the idea that leading a socialist party to carry out a revolution was one challenge, but running a socialist government was quite another, and that Lenin was still working towards solutions by the time he died.

Russia was still gripped by conflict post revolution, initially because the war was still on with Germany, but then subsequently, due to the rise of counter-revolutionary proto-fascist forces, and then ultimately discontented groups who were weary with the economic and political problems the revolution had not resolved. The singularity of the Russian revolution was an absolutely central problem: Lenin and his comrades had never imagined the transition to socialism as anything other than a worldwide transformation, which was thwarted by the defeats or compromises of socialists in other countries.

Some, perhaps many, of the arguments made here will be all new controversies in themselves, but I also think Le Blanc makes some really interesting observations about directions in which Lenin had considered taking the Russian socialist experiment. For example, a problem that he had wrestled with was that in the wake of the initial revolution, the new government was faced with complex questions about how to bring factories and other major areas of the economy into public ownership. Turning them over to workers who lacked the skills to run them presented serious problems, but then factory owners would often simply abscond or sabotage their own plant which forced the government to step in an introduce its own top-down management. In the last year of his life, Lenin, began to mull over long-term solutions to the problem of running workplaces, and began to revisit cooperatism. He had regarded it as utopian under the rule of capitalist governments, but with a socialist party exercising political power, he considered the model might be a practical possibility. This idea intrigues me, and it’s something Le Blanc’s written about interestingly before. Of course, we don’t get to see what might have come of it, but it’s a good example of one of Lenin’s own adages quoted in the book: ‘We should dream!’

A Lenin for Our Time?

Both in the introduction and conclusion to Lenin, Le Blanc lays out his hope that the version of Leninism that he’s proposing is one that will be relevant to socialists today, as we face before us a veritable Four Horsemen of war, economic misery, deadly disease, and ecological ruin. He wants us to think about how Lenin would have applied himself to these crises, as he did a century ago, knowing as we should now that solutions and right answers are not always obvious.

Like all Le Blanc’s books, the writing style is highly accessible, so I could wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for a starting point to Lenin as a revolutionary. The book wears its influences very openly, and it would provide one with plenty of ideas for further reading should you seek them. There might not necessarily be enough new here for everyone who’s more au fait with the basic outline of Lenin’s life but, that said, if you have enjoyed the author’s other work, you’ll like this too, particularly for some of those very specific details which get teased out.

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