In the week of the 150th anniversary of Lenin's birth, we repost Lindsey German's review of Tariq Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin
Tariq Ali, The Dilemmas of Lenin (Verso 2017), 384pp.
Written to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian revolution, Tariq Ali’s book also speaks to those of us involved in contemporary politics here in Britain. A new politics has been unleashed with the electoral advances of Jeremy Corbyn and widespread revulsion at the consequences of neoliberalism, epitomised most strongly by the Grenfell Tower disaster. This era is opening up a new interest in political discussion, and with it a real thirst to know how the left can achieve its aims against the vested interests of the few, aims which cannot be achieved through parliamentary legislation but will require the systematic transformation of society.
In this debate, people will return to past experiences of working-class history, including the Russian revolution - which changed the history of the twentieth century - and to the ideas of the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. In doing so they will hopefully see past the distortions on both right and left which have so obscured and sometimes vilified that history, and see the incredibly brave, prescient and committed politics which made Russia the powerhouse of revolution.
Tariq Ali’s book is a powerful tool for those wanting to understand the real Lenin and therefore the real politics behind those revolutionaries who fought so hard but ultimately failed in their goal. One obvious problem for any socialist writing about Lenin and the Russian revolution is that so much has been done before. As Tariq Ali notes, there are two really outstanding contemporary accounts, from Trotsky and Sukhanov,i as well as a number of major biographies (here I would recommend Harding, Cliff and Krausz).ii
Tariq here solves the problem of how to make a new contribution by looking at Lenin’s life and thought through a series of themes – the dilemmas of Lenin’s life, including terrorism, war, empire, love and revolution. This means that the revolution itself runs like a thread through the book, as well as getting its own chapters. The book is kind of chronological, but not entirely, and does not limit itself to the period of Lenin’s life. This makes it a stimulating read and one which comes up with a few surprises. In particular, the sections on women/love and on military strategy I found absolutely fascinating.
The book starts with a great defence of Lenin and October, in which the author identifies totally with the aims and politics, argues how important it is to mark this anniversary with a rediscovery of its true history and a recommitment to this sort of socialism. He argues that Lenin’s role in the revolution was unique and that without him October would not have happened. This point is not made to idolise Lenin - the book is highly critical of the statues, the tomb, the mummifying of Lenin’s thought - but it is to say that Lenin had the necessary combination of Marxist understanding, a grasp of the centrality of the need for socialist instead of merely democratic revolution, and the determination to argue tactics and strategy inside the Bolshevik party and the wider working class.
Tsarist Russia was a school of radicalism and revolution going back several generations. Famously, Lenin’s older brother Alexander was hanged in 1887 for an assassination attempt on the Tsar, while Lenin was still at school. He was part of a generation sickened by the society in which they lived. The sprawling Russian empire was based on a huge class of peasant serfs, presided over by a sizeable landowning aristocracy. There was no democracy and precious little freedom. Successive attempts to modernise had made little progress. The East was much more backward than the increasingly capitalist West of Europe, but still felt the pressure of the spread of capitalist production and markets.
This - plus the failing of the Russian empire in the Crimean war - led to the reform of the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, mirroring the beginning of the U.S. Civil war which led to the emancipation of the slaves. In both cases the impetus for change lay in the expansion of capitalist markets. The clash between the old ways of living, the backwardness of Russian agriculture and society, and new capitalist investment, was startling. It led, of course, in due time to the creation of a revolutionary working class, but long before that the great fissures in society which would eventually lead to revolution were opening.
Tariq describes some of the sentiment of the times in his surveys of Russian literature. He cites Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons– written at the time of Emancipation - as showing the clashes between older and younger generations, summed up in the character of the nihilist Bazarov. The idealism of this younger generation, and its despair at its own future and that of Russia, led it into forms of terrorism, later especially in the shape of the group Narodnya Volnya, or People’s Will.
Lenin’s experience of his brother’s execution and the difficulties faced by his family as a result, profoundly affected and politicised him. But while he always had sympathy for that generation, he rejected terrorism and turned to Marxism instead. His political activity led to years of exile and repression. These years were undoubtedly hard both personally and politically and required a number of difficult decisions and sharp breaks. Lenin is noted for his political intransigence and determination not to compromise, but he himself described the tension and enervation when engaged in a divided conference with splits in the Russian social democrats. Nonetheless, there were a number of points where he was prepared to argue and if necessary to split to win his position.
These included the famous Bolshevik-Menshevik split in London in 1903, but also one in 1914 where Lenin was distraught to find that his German comrade Karl Kautsky – known at the time as the Pope of Marxism – supported the war effort of Germany in what was clearly to Lenin an imperialist war. Isolated and almost alone internationally, the Bolsheviks maintained their opposition to war, an opposition which gradually spread to much of the working class of the belligerent countries, and which helped lead directly to the February revolution in 1917.
The split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, so puzzling to so many in 1903, became clearer when faced with the huge tests of war, imperialism and the nature of revolution itself. Lenin’s intervention in all these questions was key, as Tariq points out, but no more so than in the polemic over the nature of the revolution in which he found himself at the centre in 1917. Lenin arrived back in Petrograd in April 1917 and immediately launched an attack on his own party’s analysis and perspective for the revolution. The Bolsheviks accepted that, because of the economic backwardness and underdevelopment of Russian society, there could not be a socialist revolution there. Instead there could only be a democratic revolution which would turn Russia into a modern parliamentary democracy. Lenin rejected this view, considering that this ‘stage’ of development had already been passed through the combined and uneven nature of imperialist capitalism. He argued that only the working class allied with the poor peasantry could achieve the transformation needed.
His April Theses changed the whole nature of revolutionary politics between the two revolutions in February and October, as power shifted towards the soviets (councils of worker, peasant and soldier representatives) as opposed to the provisional government, and towards an overthrow of existing state power. The supposedly democratic government, faced with social crisis, could not deliver the most basic needs of Russian people. Instead, it was the Bolshevik slogan of ‘bread, peace and land’ that alone pointed to a way out of the crisis, and only the soviets could deliver it.
Lenin had a fight within his own party, and appealed to the most class-conscious workers and soldiers in order to win his ideas and to move towards insurrection. Tariq describes these few short months as the most democratic in Russian history. They led to a mass revolutionary consciousness among the working class and the establishment of soviet rule. The difficulties of that rule were immense from day one: the continuing war, poverty and food shortages, later famine, military attack by the imperialist powers, the inheritance of systematic oppression of national minorities (the Tsarist Empire had been known as the prison house of nations), divisions within the ranks of the left, and lack of modern infrastructure.
These were problems which would daunt most revolutionaries, yet the Bolsheviks and their allies faced them with courage and dedication. They achieved a huge amount in a relatively short time, but were overwhelmed most obviously by the failure of the revolution to spread to more advanced capitalist countries, which would have given Russia a breathing space. Lenin realised quite acutely what he was up against but, ill and with declining powers, had only a short time to try to make the revolution a success.
Perhaps one of the most rapid advances achieved by the revolution was the alteration of the positon of women. Russian society was notable for the generally appalling position of women – treated as chattels and subject to domestic violence among the peasantry, and also subject to gross levels of sexual harassment at work, from foremen and bosses, when they became workers in factories. At the same time, the left in Russia was also notable for the considerable number of women, often from relatively privileged backgrounds, who fought against the system, often in the most courageous way.
I recall visiting the Peter Paul prison fortress, now a museum, in St Petersburg, over twenty years ago and seeing the cells which held pictures of their various political prisoner inhabitants: Narodniks, Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. A very high number were women and they often suffered terrible treatment. The conjuncture of general high levels of sexism with the political awareness of these generations of political women led to an astonishingly radical set of demands after the revolution. These were informed by Marxist and socialist ideas, which had long argued for women’s equality and freedom. They included divorce on demand, marriage free from religious constraint, abortion, the end to laws stigmatising illegitimacy, and the socialising of many of the functions of housework and childcare. There was also the abolition of laws prohibiting sodomy.
These changes were often regarded as quite scandalous in western societies. Trotsky was asked in an interview after the revolution whether it was true that divorce could be obtained just for the asking in revolutionary Russia. He replied, is it true that there are countries where divorce cannot be gained just by asking? The Bolsheviks set up a special women’s department in 1919, headed initially by Lenin’s former lover, Inessa Armand, then by Alexandra Kollontai after Armand’s death. Tariq writes movingly about Lenin and Armand’s relationship, but links it to the wider questions about women’s liberation and freedom.
He makes the case that Lenin and Armand did have a passionate personal relationship (the hagiographic view of Lenin which was a part of Stalinist orthodoxy denied that any such relationship existed) and that he gave it up largely for political reasons. He obviously remained close to her for the rest of his life, and when recovering from an attempted assassination, he insisted she lived nearby with a direct phone line to him. Tariq quotes Angelica Balabanoff at Armand’s funeral as saying of Lenin, ‘I never saw any human being so completely absorbed by sorrow.’
His personal relationship was one of Lenin’s dilemmas. He was married to Nadezhda Krupskaya, who played a very important role in Bolshevik exile politics, and who according to this book suggested that he and Armand should live together. Many people face similar dilemmas in their personal lives, and resolve them in different ways. Tariq makes the point that politics was central to Lenin and that involved, in this case, a big personal sacrifice. But this was a dilemma on a much wider scale. Socialists tend to be in favour of free love, of rejecting the conventions of marriage and bourgeois morality, yet they also tend to recognise that there are many difficulties with following such ideas within a capitalist society. This became a big issue after the revolution, as ideas of free love and women’s liberation grew, and even here was not always easy to resolve, as demonstrated in Lenin’s comments about free love in a famous conversation with the German socialist Clara Zetkin.
It was and remains a dilemma because the aim of revolutionaries should be to create a society where love is not distorted by economic constraints, where people work collectively but where individual relationships are free from the strictures of capitalist society, where women have the right to genuine equality. This book is a valuable reminder of what we are fighting for, as well as what we are fighting against.
It is also a reminder that it is only when ordinary working people mobilise that they are able really to transform society. Real changes in how we live and work can only come through transformation from below. In the struggles and debates that we have ahead of us, this book is a valuable guide to some of the great struggles and debates of the past, through the eyes of a great revolutionary.
i Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution; Nikolai Nikolaevich Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution, 1917: A Personal Record.
Before you go...we need your help
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Tories fail, Starmer flails - weekly briefing
- The Ratline and The Good Germans - book review
- Trans rights, women’s rights and open debate – weekly briefing
- A world in crisis and G7 leaders aren't going to do anything to solve it
- Chanie Rosenberg 1922-2021
- The Cornish clearances are under way – weekly briefing
- Palestine: return of the resistance – weekly briefing