Robert Henderson’s book on Lenin’s time in London allows for a detailed focus on Lenin in the context of his political debates, organisation and research, finds Alex Snowdon

Robert Henderson, The Spark That Lit the Revolution: Lenin in London and the Politics that Changed the World (I.B. Tauris 2020), 288pp.

Lenin lived most of his adult life, prior to the Russian Revolution, in political exile. Before returning to Russia in April 1917, at a time of revolutionary turmoil, he had been a Marxist for a quarter of a century. Although his politically formative years were spent inside Russia, he was then forced into operating from abroad for two decades of ceaseless political organising, researching and writing, geared above all else to building a Russian revolutionary socialist organisation (the Bolshevik faction and later the independent Bolshevik party).

In this experience of exile he was hardly unusual. The founders of the Marxist tradition, Marx and Engels, spent the rest of their lives in London after the end of the revolutionary ferment of 1848-9. For Russian revolutionaries of Lenin’s era, exile and prison were normal conditions under Tsarist authoritarianism. Many of those who spent time living in London, Lenin included, followed in Marx’s footsteps by gaining admission to the British Museum’s Reading Room, where Marx had researched Capital, after it opened in 1857.

Robert Henderson’s book is a story of revolutionary exile. One of its virtues is the way that it conveys elements of Lenin’s experience of exile specifically, but also through that concrete experience, what it has meant for many other revolutionaries to live in exile: the pseudonyms and secrecy, the regular state surveillance, the combination of isolation and new friendships, the animosities and alliances, the challenges of long-distance communications, the precarity and uncertainty. This is an insight into a kind of clandestine and underground political experience that is unfamiliar to those of us who are accustomed to relatively liberal conditions of modern parliamentary democracy.

Lenin’s London

It has a number of other notable virtues. It puts Lenin, who so often is caricatured, oversimplified, stripped from historical context, firmly back into real lived experience. It historicises him. It shows us a real version of Lenin, locating him both in a network of political activists (allies and comrades, yes, but also frequently disagreeing and debating) and in real places.

There is a wealth of geographical detail with a huge number of references to London locations and addresses in the early years of the twentieth century. It is easy to imagine the book providing the basis for a fascinating historical walking tour: Regent Square, Sidmouth Street, Holford Square and other sites where Lenin or his closest comrades lived, socialised and argued with each other at various times. Perhaps the book’s only regrettable omission is a map (it has, though, a wonderful set of illustrations as well as exemplary bibliography, notes and index).

The evocation of the London of Russian exiles and socialist organising of that era is one of the book’s other undoubted strengths. An early chapter brings to life the ‘Little Russia’ milieu of Russians abroad, living and meeting together in the east end of London: their community organisations and facilities, their comradeship and conflicts, their most prominent personalities. It also has some of the merits of a good spy novel, with plenty of intrigue and conspiratorial behaviour (both by revolutionaries and the spies observing them and infiltrating their ranks). Henderson makes extensive use of archive files that reveal the results of police surveillance by the British state and Russia’s own agents. There are some amusing or farcical moments along with the more serious instances.

The author is, in general, a good storyteller. As well as the espionage elements, there is the human interest of Lenin’s more intimate relationships. Henderson makes a lot of the compelling and overlooked character of Apollinariya Yakubova, with whom Lenin may have been intimately involved for a time. This can feel a little stretched at times, due to the inherently speculative nature of anything written about Yakubova and Lenin (there is so little we know for certain), but she is a fascinating individual, and her story is told with nuance and sympathy.

The material on Yakubova is a major part of what can be considered original in the book, though not the only element. As former curator of the Russian collections at the British Library, Henderson is extremely well-placed to dig out fresh material and offer us original sources. What is particularly significant is the information he has unearthed about what Lenin consulted in the British Museum’s literary collections, giving us a glimpse into Lenin’s intellectual work. Henderson is in my view too dismissive of Lenin’s philosophical work, but he does give a little insight into the London-based research that fed into Lenin’s 1908 work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The context of the philosophical debates and factional struggles, in which Lenin’s book was an intervention, could, however, be elucidated more carefully.

Most of Lenin’s time in exile was not, of course, spent in London. The focus here is therefore highly selective. It is firmly focused on Lenin’s six trips to London between 1902 and 1911, when he departed Britain for the final time. This imposes limitations in terms of providing an account of Lenin during that period – and, in truth, the publisher’s claims along the lines of it helping reveal the ‘roots of the Russian revolution’ are overdone – but the book benefits from geographical focus and narrative cohesion.

Henderson frankly admits, towards the end, that Lenin’s time in London left very little lasting influence on the city’s politics, even on its radical-left fringes (Lenin was overwhelmingly preoccupied with the Russian left and made few British contacts). The question of London’s impact on Lenin and his fellow revolutionary exiles is more interesting and complex, but even here any claims must be fairly modest. Lenin remained rather aloof even from the Russian emigrant community: his main preoccupations were always the small circles of his own associates, his intellectual labours and the tasks of building a Russian revolutionary organisation.

Political impact

The notion of Lenin’s time in London being the spark that lit the later revolution in Russia may be hyperbolic, but the subtitle’s reference to ‘the politics that changed the world’ is undeniably justified. It is the huge historic importance of the Russian Revolution that lends gravity to the matter of how Lenin spent his time in London.

When it comes to significant political consequences, there are three main aspects to consider. One is the role that Lenin and a number of close comrades, who were for a time based in London, had on the development of the Russian revolutionary left, in particular through their work on the newspaper Iskra (the ‘spark’ alluded to in the book’s title). There are interesting descriptions of key associates living and working together in London, Trotsky included, in 1902-03, working on producing issues of Iskra. This culminated in the famous and unexpected Bolshevik/Menshevik rift at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) in August 1903. This is not the book to refer to for a proper understanding of the politics, significance or long-term impact of the 1903 debates, but it adds some colour and background.

This leads on to the second reason: London was the location for three very important congresses of the RSDLP (in 1903, 1905 and 1907). The Fifth Congress, held in London in 1907, was especially important and rightly gets considerable attention from Henderson. Over three hundred delegates attended and the debates lasted nearly three weeks. The Bolsheviks largely got their way and Lenin personally played a very large role in the Congress. The relationship between this distinctively Russian event and its host city is evoked skilfully in the book.

Finally, there is the role the Reading Room, with a storehouse of material useful to Lenin’s research, played in his thinking and in his output as a writer. The major example of his philosophical research, which was part of a debate with other Bolshevik theorists, has already been mentioned, but Lenin also did extensive research into Russian economic and social development and into a range of other topics. This unrivalled source of knowledge was evidently one of Lenin’s major reasons for preferring London to a number of other options as a place of exile.

Overall, Henderson’s book is a very welcome contribution to understanding the role that time spent in London – editing Iskra, holding RSDLP Congresses, doing research, discussing and debating with each other – played in the intellectual and practical development of the Russian revolutionary left, especially that of Lenin and his closest comrades. It provides a vivid sense of place and a lot of the human context to a crucially important period in Lenin’s political life.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).