Lars Lih’s recent biography of Lenin overturns textbook distortions and gets us back to the real Lenin that is needed for the movement, argues Alistair Stephens

Lars T. Lih, Lenin (Reaktion Books 2011), 235pp.

I went into a branch of the country’s largest (only?) major book chain recently. Looking at the shelves of books on Russia in the history section, I found two biographies of Lenin. One you will find in practically every large bookshop in the country, the best seller Lenin: A Biography (Pan 2010) by Robert Service. This is, of course, what could be referred to as a hatchet job; a ‘revisionist’ biography by a politically hostile author.

This is not a review of that book but of the other biography available in that branch, Lenin by Lars T. Lih. If you have heard of Lars Lih it is probably for his book Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context (Haymarket Books 2008), his lengthy but masterful examination of the eponymous pamphlet and its political and historical context. If that massive tome is like looking through a microscope at a single organism in its habitat, then Lenin is a like taking a telescope to scan across the broad landscape, smaller features blurring into the background as it passes.

A volume in the Critical Lives series, it is not so much a biography as a ‘biographical essay’ and that is how the author describes it. So rather than dig into the minutiae of Lenin’s life, Lih attempts to explain Lenin’s life work, his motivations, his driving ideas and even their connection between these and his emotional life. He certainly seems to have a firmer grasp of the interrelationship between ideas and action, conscious ideas and unconscious motivations, than do most biographies of Lenin. But then his biography is not an attempt to use Lenin as the means to advocate or denounce a particular set of contemporary political ideas or movements. Lih steers a course between a crude idealism (‘action X was a direct consequence of idea Y’), or crude instrumentalism (‘idea X was just a justification of emotion Y’) that tends to cloud so many other biographies of Lenin.

The book has a more polemical feel than Lenin Rediscovered, despite the more overtly combative introduction of the earlier work. Whereas Lenin Rediscovered hammers into the ground, with sheer weight of evidence, some of the historical positions it attacks, the thrust of this book is more holistic and interpretive. It depends much more on accepting a certain understanding of Lenin’s work, and having a mind open to understanding Lenin as a figure in history, rather than as the founder of a Leninist ‘tradition’. There is something to upset almost everyone in here.

He does give us the heads-up at the beginning that he is taking aim at what he sees as two major misrepresentations of Lenin. In one, a view propagated by enemies of Marxism, it seems ‘as if the whole vast drama of the Russian revolution and its tragic outcomes were caused by one man’s intolerance and cruelty’ (p.13). The other is produced by left currents which use Lenin as a cipher for the ‘Leninist’ ideologies that they, in fact, have themselves created.

Neither professional conspirator nor dictator to the class

Lih’s biography rests on a number of contentions which he developed at much greater length in Lenin Rediscovered. His first argument is that Lenin formed his basic political ideas quite early in his political career. Lih calls these the ‘heroic class leadership scenario’ (or variations thereon). This class leadership operates on two levels. On the first, the working class (and not the bourgeoisie as in the west) that would lead the narod (The People) in the struggle for freedom and democracy against the Tsarist autocracy and sweep away the remnants of feudalism. On the second, a militant minority of the working class would lead the class and teach it its historical mission to free society.

These basic ideas were acquired in a quite formulaic fashion during his time as student. It was not until he moved to the capital, St Petersburg, from the backwater of Kazan, where he had been practising as a country lawyer, that he found proof positive of his ideas. There he met and became active in the underground Social Democratic (as Marxists called themselves at the time) movement and its agitation in the great new factories which ringed the city. Lenin found there workers who were not only willing to talk to and work with revolutionary intellectuals around bread-and-butter workplace issues, but who also were willing to fight the autocracy.

His career as a praktik, an on-the-ground Social Democratic activist, was, like most, short, and he was arrested after little more than two years activity in December 1895. However he, and the other young Social Democratic activists who had expended so much energy in factory agitation, were vindicated when the following year the workers of the capital exploded into a mass strike which shook the autocracy and won substantial concessions. Though still small, the Russian working class had entered onto the stage of history.

Lenin though, in a complete reverse of the standard view of his attitude, saw this as a vindication of the capacities of the Russian working class, and rather than congratulating the party for causing the strike he wrote: ‘Strikes do not break out because socialist instigators come on the scene, but socialists come on the scene because strikes have started up, the struggle of capitalists against workers has started up’ (p.60).

The other lesson he drew was that if the Social Democrats were not to fail the new workers’ movement and its tremendous fight and spirit, they would have to do away with their previous ‘amateurism’ and learn to practice konspiratsia (the fine art of not getting caught). The underground praktiki would have to learn its study and perfect its ways as if they were skilled workers learning a trade; they would have to become revolutsionery po-professii (revolutionaries by trade).

The reader may recognise this argument from that work in which he tries to set out the lessons learned in the underground, What Is To Be Done? Substitute those Russian phrases with the usual (mis)translations ‘conspiracy’ and ‘professional revolutionary’ and you get something which looks rather more familiar, but which is also a substantial misrepresentation of his ideas.

This vision of Lenin is of course one that was recognised at the time, but was obscured later by what Lih calls the ‘worry about workers’ narrative which became a central feature of what he condemns as the ‘textbook interpretation’: the idea that fundamentally Lenin distrusted workers, that he thought that left to their own devices they would regress, falling back into narrow trade union consciousness (p.16). It was this ‘worry’ that supposedly drove him to build a narrow and elitist party of intellectuals. Lih contends that the opposite was the case. Lenin had boundless optimism in the abilities of the working class in struggle, and the practical activists, the praktiki, who were embedded in it. It was the intelligentsia that worried him, with their theoretical justifications for lack of faith in the working class and their amateurism in practice. It was they, without the discipline of the party, who might prove to be the weak link in the chain.

Lenin and the roles of workers and peasants

As Lih is at pains to point out, none of these ideas, that the working class could lead ‘the people’, that a minority of the working class would lead the class, or that the minority needed to be organised into a party, were original to Lenin. They were the commonsense of the European Social Democratic movement (Marxist at least in theory) at the time. He contends that what really set Lenin apart from so many other Russian Marxists was his limitless faith in the working class, and his belief that these ideas could also be applicable in Russia, despite the relatively small size of the working class and the backwardness of the country as a whole.

Lenin argued that in Russia it would be the working class and not the bourgeoisie or middle classes that would lead the Russian peasantry against the Tsar. He further believed that the high level of working class struggle made it possible to at least lay the basis of a mass workers’ party like those which existed in other European countries, in particular Germany. Later the German Social Democratic Party would be excoriated as the epitome of sclerotic reformism. It has largely been forgotten that at the time it was held up as the example for all others to follow, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the Second International, its chief theoretician, Karl Kautsky, nicknamed the ‘Pope of Marxism’.

Even Lenin knew that in the repressive conditions of Tsarist Russia it was not possible to build a mass party like the SPD with its many mass membership newspapers, clubs and other organisations. He did believe though that an organisation of revolutionaries could be built, connected to the mass of workers and their struggles, through innumerable threads, if the revolutionaries took konspiratsia seriously and strove to embed themselves in the class. And the greatest thread was to be the national underground newspaper Iskra.

One last idea which set Lenin apart was his belief that the peasantry, which still made up 80% of the Russian population, and was generally considered by Marxists to be an essentially conservative and passive mass, might be an active fighter for its own liberation. This was always of huge importance to him. He believed that the failure of the bourgeoisie to lead the peasants to overthrow semi-feudal bondage, and above all to satisfy their hunger for land, made them a revolutionary force with every interest in following the working class in a relentless struggle against the Tsarist regime. He also believed that once this had been achieved, the peasantry would not be an immovable block to the struggle for socialism, due to their internal differentiation, caused by the penetration of capitalism into the countryside.

Lenin expended considerable intellectual effort, and an awful lot of time on this ‘agrarian question’. Amongst his earliest works were such substantial studies as The Development of Capitalism in Russia and What ‘The Friends of the People’ are and How They Fight the Social Democrats and later The Agrarian Programme of Social Democracy in the First Russian Revolution. Little read now (the catchy titles probably don’t help) he considered them amongst his most important works. Little wonder, as in his world view without the peasants no revolution in Russia could succeed. Once again the Lenin Lih portrays is quite different form the peasant-hating, urban intellectual of myth.

The Revolution of 1905 to the First World War

Lenin’s political practice for much of the rest of his life was to be informed by these basic assumptions which made up what Lih calls ‘the heroic class leadership scenario’. Lenin did not have to wait long for it to be tested. In 1905 the country exploded into revolutionary turmoil. Mass strikes by workers paralysed the state and the countryside was swept by waves of peasant unrest.

Lenin saw his ‘heroic scenario’ played out on the stage of history, each of the contending social forces playing the roles that he had assumed they would. The working class not only did not limit their demands to the economic, or even just the political, but in struggle wove them together into a mighty force for change. While the countryside was marked by peasant rebellions, they were unable to act with any unity of purpose. Uprisings and disturbances burst into life, but were then extinguished by bloody military repression, one by one, each isolated from the others. The liberal bourgeoisie, though at first supportive of the movement against the Tsar, fell back into support for the autocracy, as the movement from below grew and began to make its own demands on the bourgeoisie.

Though the revolution eventually ran out of steam and succumbed to repression by a revived Tsarist state, for the Russian Social Democrats it was a turning point. The two amorphous factions into which they had divided in 1903, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, gained their political form through these upheavals. For the Mensheviks the revolutionary movement had gone too far. The working class had frightened the liberal bourgeoisie, who should have led the revolution, and had broken up the revolutionary alliance. There must be no more repeats of the general strike of October or the Moscow uprising of December. The Mensheviks argued that Russia was not ready for such a revolution.

In contrast, the Bolsheviks solidified around Lenin and his ‘heroic scenario of proletarian leadership’ in the struggle against Tsarism. For them the revolution had not gone far enough. Its bloody finale in the Moscow Rising of December 1905, a glorious episode in the history of the movement, was to be celebrated. They had to keep the faith in the working class and organise its most militant fighters into a party so as to ensure that next time they would take the revolution to the end. And keep the faith they would have to. The years that followed the failed revolution were grim ones, at least until the workers’ struggle revived in 1912, but the heroic scenario would see Lenin and his Bolsheviks through not only the years of reaction but also through the greater trial of the World War.

When the First World War broke out in 1914 the Social Democratic parties (with a few notable exceptions, first among them being the Bolsheviks) rushed to support their own governments. All previous protestations of international working class solidarity were quickly forgotten. Lenin was not alone in his shock and disorientation caused by the betrayal. Yet his essential optimism and immense faith in the working class meant that he was the first to recover his balance. When he did, he reacted with ‘ferocious anger’. He was never the most fluent or elegant writer, even if his output was prodigious. Compared with Trotsky’s literary rapier, Lenin seems to deploy a mighty war hammer, but he did have a skill for invective. And now he would give it full vent.

A particular target was Karl Kautsky. Lih contends that he had been a seminal influence on the young Lenin, and on the rest of Russian Social Democracy. It was precisely the betrayal of the ideas, which for them were foundational, that made it all so much worse, and which Lenin felt so keenly: ‘I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone … With his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy’ (p.127). The emotional intensity of Lenin’s reaction to Kautsky is so different from the familiar image of the cold, impersonal machine-politician just driven by political calculation. His beef with ‘the Rengade Kautsky’ was personal. Lenin’s vendetta against him was to perplex many as the war had already in reality marginalised Kautsky. As Lih puts it ‘Lenin hated Kautsky because he loved his books’ (p.128).

However the heroic scenario which had been his guiding light since the 1890s (his essential and undying optimism) allowed Lenin to hold his course. Whereas others despaired at the shipwreck of the international socialist movement, he saw opportunity and a chance to clear the Augean stables: ‘The European war has done much good to international socialism in that it has disclosed the whole extent of the rottenness, vileness, and meanness in opportunism, and thereby has given a wonderful stimulus for purging the workers’ movement of the dung which has accumulated during the decades of the peaceful epoch’ (p.126).

It is also a measure of his optimism that when the great betrayal happened, Lenin, previously the little known leader of a divided party on the edge of Europe, had no qualms about assuming the leadership of the anti-war socialists who from across Europe met in the Swiss town of Zimmerwald in 1915. Even his seeming isolation as the leader of the far left of the Zimmerwaldists, and his policy of trying to end the imperialist war by fomenting revolution a home, gave him no cause for concern: ‘the Dutch plus ourselves plus the Left Germans plus zero – but that does not matter it will not be zero afterwards, it will be everybody’ (p.129).

And we are still only half way through the book. There is still the 1917 revolution and the civil war to come, and there is still one more big assault on the textbook version to come. It is Lih’s contention that rather than breaking with Marxist orthodoxy in 1917 (a common interpretation of the development in his politics and another element of the textbook version), he was still operating in the same conceptual framework as he had been since the 1890s. It was only in 1919, when it started to dawn on him that things were not really turning out as he had expected, that he seriously started to re-examine the basis of his political ideas. But if you want to know how, you will have to read the book.

Lenin as he really was

There are many poor biographies of Lenin and few good ones. This is most definitely one of the good ones. It is accessibly written and structured, and while to get the most out of it, a certain degree of knowledge of Lenin’s life and role in history would probably be beneficial, nonetheless, if you knew virtually nothing about Lenin, there are many worse places to start than this.

It is not a standard biography of Lenin but a critical examination of his life and work. In some ways it feels slightly disorienting at points as the usual landmarks of his life seem either to be missing or hidden. However these landmarks tend to be conventionalized and to sustain certain established narratives of his life, which in themselves in turn generally serve contemporary political ideologies. Periodisation in history is always political, and it sometimes sets up great barriers to understanding.

A case in point is the 1903 congress, the first (but confusingly known to history as the Second) congress of the Russian Social Democrats, at which they split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. This is normally portrayed as a great drama in which great political actors face off over rival conceptions of the party. The Mensheviks supposedly favoured an open, democratic mass party on the western European model, against Lenin and his Bolsheviks, who desired a conspiratorial, hierarchical elite party. This common representation of the Congress bears little relation to the reality of what actually happened, nor does it explain the subsequent development of the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties. Whereas the Congress receives a whole chapter to itself in Robert Service’s biography, Lih covers it in two paragraphs concluding that ‘the divisive issues are dense and tangled, combining personal animosities, organisational jockeying for position and genuine difference in revolutionary tactics’ (p.81).

The decision to ignore the conventional ways of looking at Lenin is indicative of the radical take that Lih has on his life. It is unashamedly a revisionist biography (which would put Lih in the vanguard of a third wave of Russian historical revisionism, the first coming from the left, the second from the right), and long may it continue if this is going to be the tone and quality of the output. Previous movements in Lenin biography and Russian historiography in general have been defined by the political movements which stem from a revolution which, though subsequently defeated, changed and shaped world history in the twentieth century. Stalinism sought to ossify Lenin’s ideas, and as Lih puts it in his introduction, to build an ‘intellectual mausoleum comparable to the corporeal mausoleum that still stands in Moscow’ (p.7). They twisted and misrepresented his ideas to provide an intellectual cover for a regime that was an undemocratic, exploitative tyranny; the polar opposite of everything for which he stood. Stalinism abroad, though at least part of real movements of working class resistance, in following the Soviet interpretation got Lenin wrong at many fundamental levels. Later waves of leftists in the West tried to rescue Lenin from Stalinism, for the revolutionary tradition that he actually stood in, but often their work was still shaped by the very narrative they were contesting.

This book contains many insights and a number of statements that some modern day Leninists would find controversial, even shocking. It is also a work that is very useful to contemporary revolutionaries. (Though if you are interested in the political tradition which Counterfire is part of then Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin would be another). This book is a very serious contribution to our understanding of Lenin, his political ideas and his revolutionary practice.

Our rulers still hate Lenin as much as they ever did, and will continue to slander him. Yet at least with the passing of the ‘short twentieth century’ and the intellectual influence of Stalinism, we can again start to look at Lenin as he really was.

Alistair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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