Tariq Ali asks "Why Lenin?"


In The Dilemmas of Lenin Tariq Ali provides an insightful portrait of Lenin’s deepest preoccupations and underlines the clarity and vigour of his theoretical and political formulations. In this exclusive extract from the Introduction he explains that without Lenin there would not have been a socialist revolution in Russia in 1917.

Why Lenin? First, because this is the centenary year of Europe’s last great revolution. Unlike its predecessors, the 1917 October Revolution transformed world politics and, in the process, remade the twentieth century with a frontal assault on capitalism and its empires, accelerating decolonialization. Secondly, today’s dominant ideology and the power structures it defends are so hostile to the social and liberation struggles of the last century that a recovery of as much historical and political memory as is feasible becomes an act of resistance. In these bad times, even the anti-capitalism on offer is limited. It is apolitical and ahistorical. The aim of contemporary struggle should be not to repeat or mimic the past but to absorb the lessons, both negative and positive, that it offers. It is impossible to achieve this while ignoring the subject of this study. For a long time during the last century, those who honoured Lenin largely ignored him. They sanctified him, but rarely read his work. More often than not, and on every continent, Lenin was misinterpreted and misused for instrumentalist purposes by his own side: parties and sects large and tiny who claimed his mantle.

The Lenin cult, which he loathed even in its most incipient form, was a disaster for his thought. His texts, never intended or written as a catechism, were mummified, making it difficult to understand his political formation. This phenomenon must be situated at the confluence of two historical processes. Lenin was a product of Russian history and the European labour movement. Both posed questions of class and party, of agency and instrument. The synthesis developed by Lenin was thus determined by the intermingling of two very different currents that can be characterised, broadly speaking, as anarchism and Marxism. He played a crucial role in the triumph of the latter.

That is why, before moving on to discuss some specific problems confronted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, I will explain at length the history and prehistory of both currents. Without this excavation, it’s not easy to understand the dilemmas that confronted Lenin.

It takes imagination to misread Lenin and Trotsky or present them as liberals underneath the mask. Whatever one might think of them, the lucidity of their prose leaves little room for political misinterpretation. As Perry Anderson has recently reminded us, the fate of Gramsci, the third major thinker produced by the Communist tradition of the Third International, has been somewhat different and for specific reasons relating to his imprisonment by the Italian fascists.

First things first. Without Lenin there would have been no socialist revolution in 1917. Of this much we can be certain. Fresh studies of the events have only hardened this opinion. The faction and later the party that he painstakingly created from 1903 onward was simply not up to the task of fomenting revolution during the crucial months between February and October 1917, the freest period ever in Russian history. A large majority of its leadership, before Lenin’s return, was prepared to compromise on many key issues. The lesson here is that even a political party – specifically trained and educated for the single purpose of producing a revolution – can stumble, falter and fall at the critical moment.

This is where the Bolsheviks as a party were headed strategically and tactically before April 1917. No party can ever be right all the time. Nor can a political leader, not even one with the most exceptional qualities and strength of will. In this particular case, however, Lenin understood that if the moment were not seized, reaction would triumph once again. Events favoured him. He dragged a reluctant party leadership behind him by winning the support of grassroots Bolsheviks and, more importantly, soldiers completely alienated from the war. For the latter it was the slogans from frontline Bolshevik agitators that articulated what they themselves were thinking and whispering to each other in the trenches or as they participated in mass desertions. History handed Lenin a gift in the shape of the First World War. He grasped it with both hands and used it to craft an insurrection. It is revolutions that make history happen. Liberals of every sort, with rare exceptions, are found on the other side.

The First World War was Lenin’s initial dilemma. The person he admired the most and regarded as his mentor was the German socialist Karl Kautsky. It was the latter’s capitulation to the war fever in Germany that shook Lenin. He had thought that an understanding of Marx was sufficient inoculation against most intellectual plagues, especially that of enthusiasm for imperialist wars. He solved the problem by an angry public break with the German Socialist Party, agreeing with Rosa Luxemburg’s definition of it as ‘a stinking corpse’. This, alas, turned out not to be the case. This ‘corpse’ weighs heavily on German workers to this day.

The next dilemma he was to confront concerned the path to revolution. After February 1917 this was not an abstract question. Lenin opted for a socialist revolution, creating mayhem inside his own party. At one point he denounced the old Bolsheviks as ‘conservatives’ mired in a centrist marsh. He won them back only after they had realised that the Petrograd workers were politically ahead of them.

There have been long debates on the role of individuals in history. The eighteenth-century view that history was made by conscious individuals faced a strong challenge in the century that followed, and from many eminent pre-Marxist historians for whom no serious discussion of history was possible without analysing social and economic conditions. The view that social and material forces create the conditions in which individuals are transformed and act in a way that would be impossible in different circumstances was systematised by Marx and Engels and generally accepted for most of the twentieth century. This applies to individuals of all kinds: Napoleon and Bismarck as well as Lenin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro.

Had the English Revolution been delayed, Oliver Cromwell and his family would have crossed the Atlantic and settled in the dissenter stronghold of New England. Had the French Revolution not occurred, Bonaparte would have left France as he was planning to do and sought employment in the Russian Imperial Army. As Kropotkin wrote in his classic history of the French Revolution, a book that became part of the common heritage of the Russian revolutionary movement, context determined all:

That is why the French Revolution, like the English Revolution of the preceding century, happened at the moment when the middle classes, having drunk deep at the sources of current philosophy, became conscious of their rights, and conceived a new scheme of political organisation. Strong in their knowledge and eager for the task, they felt themselves quite capable of seizing the government by snatching it from a palace aristocracy which, by its incapacity, frivolity and debauchery, was bringing the kingdom to utter ruin. But the middle and educated classes could not have done anything alone, if, consequent on a complete chain of circumstances, the mass of the peasants had not also been stirred, and, by a series of constant insurrections lasting for four years, given to the dissatisfied among the middle classes the possibility of combating both King and Court, of upsetting old institutions and changing the political constitution of the kingdom.

Without the First World War and February 1917, Lenin would have died in exile, one of the many Russian revolutionaries destined to miss the fall of the autocracy. Trotsky could easily have become a Russian novelist in the classic tradition. Even when conditions favour revolutionary upheavals, however, there are rarely organisations capable of taking advantage of them. Failed insurrections, uprisings and revolutions litter the history of our world. Why did Spartacus lose? Why did Toussaint Louverture win? Each answer is embedded in the history of the epochs in which they lived. Likewise, Lenin.

It was the Iron Chancellor in newly created Germany who insisted on underplaying his own role, arguing the intelligent conservative position in an address to the North German Reichstag in 1869:

Gentlemen, we can neither ignore the history of the past nor create the future. I would like to warn you against the mistake that causes people to advance the hands of their clocks, thinking that thereby they are hastening the passage of time. My influence on the events I took advantage of is usually exaggerated; but it would never occur to anyone to demand that I should make history. I could not do that even in conjunction with you, although together, we could resist the whole world. We cannot make history: we must wait while it is being made. We will not make fruit ripen more quickly by subjecting it to the heat of a lamp; and if we pluck the fruit before it is ripe we will only prevent its growth and spoil it.

Bismarck’s heirs or, to be more precise, German artillery fire prematurely ripened the fruit in Russia. Lenin was confident that once the fruit trees of Germany and Russia had been grafted together, the rest of the continent, with the exception of Britain, would be rotten-ripe for revolution. Whatever else, he was not shy of making history, of compressing the experience of a decade into a single day. Events did not unfold quite as he had expected in the rest of Europe, but for contingent reasons rather than objective conditions.

This book is a contextualisation without which the history of the Russian Revolution is incomprehensible.

For instance, the terrorist phase of the nineteenth century, to which a sizeable section of the liberal intelligentsia were committed, came to an end when the leadership of the People’s Will voted unanimously for the only item on the agenda: to execute Alexander II without further delay. The execution was successfully carried out under the command of Sofiya Perovskaya; during the ensuing repression, the small groups that had survived were crushed. The impact of these events on all the Russian political parties that emerged during the first decade of the twentieth century should not be underestimated.

Wishful thinking on the part of liberal historians and ideologues has helped sustain the view that had it not been for the Bolshevik ‘aberration’, the course of Russian democracy would have flowed smoothly and fed into the Western European marsh. What democracy has ever flowed smoothly? This did not happen in 1991 any more than it would have in 1917. In reality, given the relationship of forces and the continuing war, the most likely eventuality would have been the rise to power of a hard-core military dictatorship through mass pogroms and large-scale repression, with Entente support designed to keep Russia in the war.

The February Revolution produced a weak government that was incapable of dealing with the crisis and committed to the war. There were only two forces that could have lled the vacuum: the Bolsheviks, after they received a vigorous reeducation course from Lenin, and Generals Kornilov, Denikin, Kolchak and Wrangel and Wrangel’s cohort, who led the Whites during the civil war that followed the revolution.

When there is no revolutionary party or one that has been defeated and decapitated, it is reaction rather than reform that triumphs. This pattern has remained constant from Cavaignac and Louis Napoleon to Groener, Noske, Mussolini and Hitler, from Suharto to Pinochet and in the work of virtually every American president.

Why would Russia have taken a different course had there not been a revolution or if the Red Army had lost the civil war? Liberal and conservative historians often belittle the events of October 1917 as a ‘coup’. This was not the case. True, the urban proletariat on which the revolution based itself was a minority of the population, dominated by a peasantry that dotted the large rural hinterlands of the country and that supported the Bolshevik decrees on land ownership immediately after October. Without this growing support among the poor peasants, the Bolsheviks could not have won the civil war. Lenin’s dictum that the strategic majority needed for success must have a decisive preponderance of force in the decisive place at the decisive time had a relatively restricted meaning in Russia.

It was only after the Bolsheviks won majorities in the soviets that they set the date for the insurrection. Lenin can be denounced for basing himself exclusively on the workers, but here he was following the instructions of the founding elders of the movement, Marx and Engels. This was also the reason he dissolved the Constituent Assembly in November 1917. Here the Bolsheviks argued that the soviets were a higher form of democracy and that they were not going to waste time debating the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) in a chamber that had been overtaken by revolution. The Bolshevik vote in these elections, however, did signify huge support in the towns. Out of a total of 37.5 million votes cast, 16 million (mainly in the rural areas) voted for the SRs, 10 million (mainly in the urban areas) for the Bolsheviks and 1.3 million (of which 570,000 were in the Caucasus) for the Mensheviks.

Revolutionary periods invariably encompass a huge fluctuation of political consciousness that can never be registered accurately by any referendum. The fact that the garrisons in Petrograd and Moscow came over so rapidly to the Bolsheviks’ side related to the acceleration of disasters on the front. The peasants in uniform, politically radicalised by the war, simply did not wish to fight any longer for a regime that was not interested in them, their families, their welfare or the conditions in which they fought. Lenin’s pithy slogan embodying the Bolshevik transitional programme – ‘Land, Peace and Bread’ – was brilliant (as even his many enemies were forced to acknowledge). Behind each word lay a set of ideas encompassing Bolshevik strategy.

No revolutionary vanguard party can ever triumph on its own. This is why those addicted to the word ‘coup’ have little understanding of revolution. Whether we ever see one again (a different matter and a different discussion), proletarian revolution as conceived by Marx and Lenin is a gigantic awakening of the millions of exploited, who believe in their own capacity to emancipate themselves.

Fractures in the state, divisions in the ruling class and indecision on the part of the intermediate classes pave the way for dual power, which, in Russia, led to the creation of new institutions and later, in China, Vietnam and Cuba, rested on revolutionary armies with varying class compositions that were locked in battle against their respective state machines.

In the Russian case, Lenin spelt this out with customary clarity a few weeks before the October Revolution:

To be successful, insurrection must rely, not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon an advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning-point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. These three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism. Once these conditions exist, however, to refuse to treat insurrection as an art is a betrayal of Marxism and the revolution.

After the debacle of the July Days, when the masses had attempted to lead the party during an unripe situation, the Bolshevik press was banned, some of its leaders imprisoned and Lenin exiled to Finland. It was from there that he sent the most urgent political letters in revolutionary history, pleading, explaining, arguing that July was a temporary setback, that the masses would rise again and the party must be prepared. He pointed out, accurately, that it was Marx who ‘had summed up the lessons of all revolutions in respect to armed uprisings in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known: de l’audace, de l’audace, toujours de l’audace.’ In a more truculent mood he would provoke Menshevik and Bolshevik critics by quoting Napoleon: ‘First engage, then see.’

Two key members of the Bolshevik Central Committee – Kamenev and Zinoviev – were not convinced and strongly opposed the insurrection, publishing its date in Gorky’s newspaper. In fact it was hardly a secret that the Bolsheviks were planning a revolution. Lenin had said as much when he arrived at the Finland Station. His rage when the Bolshevik versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the Central Committee revealed the date of the planned insurrection is understandable – the element of surprise being crucial in all wars, including social and political conflicts – but in the end, it didn’t matter at all. The insurrection still took place, proving that a ruling class in total disarray is helpless against masses that are raring to move forward, even when its members know the date of the revolution.

Why is insurrection an art? Because an armed uprising against the capitalist state or occupying imperialist armies has to be choreographed with precision, especially during its final stages. The armed workers’ militias and soldiers have to be coherently led in order to achieve victory. The final decision was left to the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet, which was chaired by New Bolshevik Leon Trotsky and had a Bolshevik majority. And the victory, too, was reported to the Soviet, then in session at Smolny, Petrograd.

Every upheaval has its own peculiarities, but there are broad similarities between revolutions as well. The three great revolutions in European history all went through two distinct phases, each taking a more radical turn in the second and final act. Colonel Thomas Pride’s purge of the House of Commons on 6 December 1648 was the precursor to the trial and execution of Charles Stuart, the key dividing line in the English Revolution that made further compromise impossible. The Jacobin ascent to power in the French Assembly (or descent, given where they sat) in 1793 played a similar role in accelerating the revolutionary process, with the public execution of Louis Capet and Marie Antoinette in October of that year. Lenin’s April Theses paved the way for the revolution in October 1917.

The difference between these revolutions lay in the following: whereas events pushed Cromwell and Robespierre forward, in Russia it was Lenin who consciously used events – in his case, the disintegration of the Russian autocracy as a result of the First World War – to push the workers and soldiers in Petrograd and Moscow toward a successful insurrection. When Lenin invoked Cromwell and Robespierre, it was not for ideological reasons – the Puritans were guided by the ‘word of God’, the Jacobins by metaphysical virtue – but because both were master strategists. Both were leaders of bourgeois revolutions, and both had their own differences with their respective moneyed classes. And, more importantly, both had to arouse the yeomanry, artisan classes, plebeians and sans-culottes in order to move forward. Like them, Lenin understood that to secure what was attainable, one had to aim at the unattainable, to storm paradise, to climb to the summit of an unconquered mountain.

Each of the three revolutions was confronted with the need to create brand-new armies to fight civil wars and defend the revolutionary state. Promotion in these armies was on the basis of merit rather than class. The New Model Army of the English Revolution was moulded by the patrician General Fairfax; it came into its own, however, when the aristocracy was shunted to one side and Essex, Manchester and Waller were replaced by second sons, yeomen and so forth. Colonel Pride, who emptied the den that was the House of Commons of corruption and class privilege, was the son of a brewer. To these examples one could add the return of a group of exiles from New England, who came back to strengthen both the Ironsides and the revolution. Cromwell was clear on what was needed: ‘I had rather a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman, and is nothing else.’ Fleetwood, Okey, Lambert, Widmerpool, Harrison, Disborough, Ireton, Rainsborough, Goff, Whaley and Joyce all fit the bill.

A century or so later the French revolutionary army was built on a similar pattern. Its most capable generals were plucked from the ranks or from the streets and rapidly promoted to replace the military nobility. In 1789, some of the most famous and highly regarded officers of the revolutionary and later the Napoleonic armies were in lowly positions. Davout, Desaix, Marmont and MacDonald were subalterns; Bernadotte (who later refounded the Swedish monarchy) was a sergeant-major; Hoche, Marceau, Lefebre, Pichegru, Ney, Masséna, Murat and Soult were non-commissioned officers; Augereau was a fencing master; Lannes was a dyer; Gouvion Saint-Cyr was an actor; Jourdan was a peddler; Bessières was a barber; Brune was a compositor; Joubert and Junot were law students; Kléber was an architect; Marrier did not see any military service until the revolution.

It was the same with the Red Army created after the revolution and welded into a fighting force by Leon Trotsky, one of the few examples in history of a militarised intellectual. His famous appeal for the creation of a Red cavalry (‘Proletarians to Horse’) indicated the composition of the new army. In fact, the problem was a lack of officers experienced in basic military technique; a number of tsarist officers were press-ganged into service under the watchful eyes of political commissars (the equivalent of Agitators in the New Model Army). One of them, serving in the imperial army, was an autodidact and a military leader of genius whose story, long forgotten, requires a brief retelling, not least because Lenin and Trotsky regarded him as a vital third arm, necessary to continue politics by other means. This was Mikhail Tukhachevsky. His role in the civil war showcased his astonishing military capacities.

The difference between Lenin and his revolutionary predecessors lay in this: both Cromwell and Robespierre embraced the revolution once they were confronted by its actuality. It would have taken place even without them. Lenin had begun working for a revolution twenty-five years before 1917. For twenty-four of those years he had worked underground, in prison, in exile. He had done so without imagining that he would see one in his lifetime. In January 1917, still in exile, he confessed to a Swiss audience that he and the generation to which he belonged might never witness success. They were fighting for the future. Milton had declared that Englishmen loyal to the king were not free men, that royalism was a form of moral slavery. For Lenin it was the same, with regard to believers in capitalism, empires and the autocracy. A much bigger enemy than the English monarchy had to be confronted and defeated globally. He, if not his party, was fully prepared for what needed to be done, in keeping with his view that at all times one must ‘aussprechen, was ist’: speak of what is and avoid transforming wishful thinking into the truth. A hard-headed revolutionary realism, Lenin argued throughout his political life, was crucial in times of victory, defeat and transition. It is this clear-sightedness that explains many of the decisions he made during his lifetime. He never grasped the enormity of his own contribution as a theoretician, but the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács did so. In an emotionally charged essay written just weeks after Lenin’s death in 1924, he described him ‘in a world historical sense [as] the only theoretician equal to Marx yet produced by the struggle for the liberation of the proletariat.’

Lenin was decisive not only in ensuring the success of the revolution against a majority of the Central Committee, but also in safeguarding the infant republic by making all necessary concessions to the Germans at Brest-Litovsk that would have seriously truncated revolutionary Russia. Once again he was in a minority on the Central Committee. Once again he fought back. His opponents within and outside the party accused him of betrayal. He admitted it was a ‘shameful’ peace, but was convinced that it was necessary to secure a respite for the revolution. The left faction, that included Bukharin and Kollontai, demanded a revolutionary war against Germany; Trotsky argued for masterly inactivity that he described as ‘neither war nor peace’; Lenin supported accepting the territorial demands of the kaiser. It would only be a temporary retreat, as the German Reich would soon be overthrown by the German workers. In any event, it would be impossible to fight the German armies and Russian reaction at the same time. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a necessary expedient. The German high command was already extremely annoyed by the fact that the Bolshevik delegation was led by uppity Jews who, on arrival, had authorised the distribution of subversive leaflets urging German soldiers to mutiny. Once again history refused to completely contradict Lenin. Germany lost the war and came close to a revolution, but never went beyond getting rid of its monarchy.

For five critical years from 1917 to 1922, Lenin had remained at the helm of the state. War Communism had been necessary to win the civil war. No mean achievement. The White armies had dissolved but the decline in revolutionary fervor was only too visible. The setbacks in Hungary, Poland and Germany were accompanied by the temporary restabilisation of capitalism in 1921. The March Uprising in central Germany that year was a disastrous, desperate and irresponsible last-ditch effort by Zinoviev and Béla Kun to arouse the German masses. Carried out with the imprimatur of the Communist International, it completely misjudged the situation and undermined the already weak German Communist Party. The frontiers of the Soviet state were now settled. The revolution in Europe had receded. The cream of the Russian working class was either dead or exhausted. Revolutionary politics was at its lowest ebb.

This necessitated a new plan. The result was the New Economic Policy (NEP), a state-invigilated reentry of small-scale capitalism. NEP was conceived as a transitional measure to revive the economy, at which it succeeded, improving food supplies and distribution networks. But while NEP was taking effect, the country was hit by a series of natural disasters, including droughts, sand blizzards and an invasion of locusts in the southern provinces. Famine struck, affecting the lives of millions. With it grew the black market, squalid as ever, but, for the moment, untouchable. Many workers fled to their villages. The proletariat had dispersed. The revolutionary dictatorship was now truly functioning in a vacuum. This fact made the character and capacities of individual leaders much more important than institutions like the party and the soviet. The Bolsheviks, at this point, resembled the Jacobins. Slowly the social and economic situation improved, but by that time the party that had created a revolution resembled a bureaucracy more with each passing day. Some felt that there was no alternative. Not Lenin.

The last dilemma he was to confront was also the most difficult. Felled by a stroke, he was ordered to rest both physically and politically and forced to step back from overseeing and guiding the daily life of the new state. Lenin was a bad patient. He refused to stop reading the newspapers or thinking about politics. While attending what would be his last party congress in April 1922, he felt alienated from the direction the state was taking. He accepted his share of responsibility and, while recognising the role of material causes in setting the party on this path, he was shaken by how far along it the party had gone and concerned with the subjective factor, namely the party and its leadership. ‘Powerful forces’, he wrote, ‘had diverted the Soviet state from its “proper road”’. Lenin’s last writings were a courageous attempt to make the party change course. He thought of historical examples of a nation’s defeat when the vanquished had managed to impose their culture on the victors, defeating them in spirit. He felt that the old tsarist bureaucracy had managed to conquer his colleagues, who had easily adopted the old methods of governance, if not the cultural practices, of their past oppressors. Yes, he did write about all of this, as I detail in the concluding chapters of this book. And he apologised: ‘I am, it seems, strongly guilty before the workers of Russia.’ It was almost as if he had been rereading Engels’s essay ‘The Peasant War in Germany’:

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost.

Lenin, of course, never represented the ‘alien class’. But some of his colleagues did and, as Lenin was only too aware, other observations made by Engels were apposite. Some of Lenin’s last writings were hidden from the Russian people for thirty-three years. And those who revealed them were incapable of implementing the prescriptions. Lenin had seen what had happened to the Party when it was confronted with the task of running a country. He was mortified by the degree of bureaucratisation that had taken place. Before the revolution he had been strongly criticised by Rosa Luxemburg and intemperately so by Leon Trotsky over his conception of the Party as a heavily centralised, clandestine organisation. He had defended himself ably and without resorting to Marx, though he obviously was familiar with this passage from Capital:

In all kinds of work where there is cooperation of many individuals, the connection and the unity of the process are necessarily represented in a will which commands and in functions, which, as for the leader of an orchestra are not concerned with partial efforts, but the collective activity.

In his famous addendum to What Is to Be Done? Lenin had utilised the image of an orchestra to illustrate how to organise the party from a central apparatus:  

In order that the centre can not only advise, convince and debate with the orchestra – as has been the case till now – but really to direct it, we need detailed information: who is playing which violin and where? What instrument is being mastered and has been mastered and where? Who is playing a false note (when the music starts to grate on the ear) – and where and why? Whom to relocate to where and how in order to correct the dissonance?

What this concept assumes is a strong will but also an interplay of equality, democracy and authority inside the party and, by extension, in society as a whole. This is why Lenin believed that a revolution in Germany was so vital and that, had it been successful, it would have helped the Soviet Republic move forward much more easily both economically and politically. As for the ability of a party to work in clandestinity, this was important not just for Russia, but for the Communist-led resistance movements in France, Italy, China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia throughout the Second World War as well. The leaders and parties in these last three countries went on to make revolutions.

In one of his last injunctions, Lenin insisted that if one was defeated politically through a combination of one’s own mistakes and circumstances, one must learn from the defeat in order to understand why it had occurred and then start one’s work again. Socialism was an approximation and was not born fully formed; therefore socialists must openly admit their mistakes. Without this, they would never progress. Neither Khrushchev nor Gorbachev had the vision or the capacity to start again. Had Lenin lived another five years, the country and the party would have moved forward differently. The New Economic Policy would have been dismantled with greater care, and the brutal leap to industrialisation might not have transpired. Nor would Lenin have killed off the bulk of Old Bolsheviks on the Central Committee and the country as a whole. To what extent and with what degree of success he would have implemented change will always remain a subject for debate.

Putin’s Russia will not be marking the centenary in either February or October. ‘These dates are not in our calendar,’ Putin said to a leading Indian newspaper publisher and editor. Other Russians, including some of Putin’s opponents, do not even accept that there was a ‘Russian’ Revolution. It was, according to them, all the work of the Jews. One of the few who are above criticism these days is Stalin, largely because of the ‘Great Patriotic’ War and partially because his methods of rule are envied by many Russian nationalists today. Mummifying Lenin and his ideas was a lasting ‘achievement’ of the Stalin period. Time, then, to bury Lenin’s body and revive some of his ideas. Future generations in Russia might realise that Lenin still has a bit more to offer than Prince Stolypin.

In The Dilemmas of Lenin, Ali provides an insightful portrait of Lenin’s deepest preoccupations and underlines the clarity and vigour of his theoretical and political formulations. He concludes with an affecting account of Lenin’s last two years, when he realized that “we knew nothing” and insisted that the revolution had to be renewed lest it wither and die.

See all our Russian Revolution reading here.

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