Marx was the first to criticize capitalism in a concerted way, but Lenin was the first to topple it. In the Tsarist snow, he planted the seed of socialism, and it grew into the enormous Eastern bloc; a canopy over a third of humanity that plunged some into eternal darkness, but many into the light of a new dawn. Now that the Berlin wall is down, Lenin’s foundation stones are quickly rooted up. As in the time of Stalin, a new Lenin cult has emerged, this time; Lenin the anti-hero, the terrorphile. But this was only one of many Lenins; there was the dreamer of State and Revolution, the strategist of Imperialism, and the leader of What is to Be Done? Lenin, like all of us, was in constant struggle against both the world and himself, to see his ideals realized. And his struggle can inform our own, if only to show the significance of every life in the great ballot of history; every life is a vote; a vote for what the future will be, and what humanity will become. Bogged down as we are with the mundane, we must never forget, that even a titan of the twentieth century wrestled with problems to the very end; never quite becoming the man he wished to be, but in so trying, realizing himself in death as a fighter for the freedom of all humanity.

Lenin’s boyhood home was marked, above all else, by a sense of solidarity. This was encouraged, first and foremostly, by the paternal heads of the household, Ilya and Maria Ulyanov. The two married for love, defying social convention by having a man of lower rank marry a woman of higher birth. The children, doted on each other devotedly, and became helpful young adults in the provincial town of Simbrisk. Special attention was paid to little Lenin – ‘Volodya’ in the affectionate Russian tense – as he displayed intellectual talents early on. By age five, he could read and write, and no doubt this fact has been used by Soviet dogmatists to read in a Goethian genius into the life of Lenin. But equally, postmodern sophists have used Lenin’s penchant for disassembling dolls to ‘examine’ them from the inside to read in a heartless Mr.Hyde into the character of young Volodya. In truth, Lenin was by all accounts a sensitive and caring child. Who loved to sings songs at the piano with his mother, and banned student tunes in the quiet woods with his father. Who read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by candlelight at night, and played Union solider against the Southern slavers in the great games of imagination that color youth bright.

Lenin was much more a Cherneysky’s Rakmetov than a Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov. He supported S.G. Nechayev, the nihilist revolutionary terrorist in spirit, but not in strategy. Both the liberal tradition of charitable moralism and the nihilist terrorism that had taken his brother Alexander’s life, were innane to the methodical and discerning Lenin. Alexander was executed after participated in a botched plot to assassinate the Tsar, and went to the gallows without requesting pardon, despite his mother’s pleas. At about this time, Lenin’s father died as well, throwing the family into dissarray. While Lenin the young man was moved to stoic tears by his brother’s sacrifice, he did not see a viable means to achieving justice with his brother’s stratagem. It was only through constant study of both the technical works of Marx, Engels, Darwin et al. and the literary-artistic productions of Checkov, Cherneysky and others, as well as active participation in illegal discussion circles like the one at Klasson’s ‘salon’ – where he met Nadezhda Krupskaya, his future wife and life partner – that he came upon a new revolutionary ethic to replace the ethical commitment to Tsarism that gradualist liberals clung to in their sentimental desperation.

This revolutionary ethic would be put to the test when, in 1895, Lenin was arrested – along with Krupskaya – for involvement in the illegal League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. Fourteen months of solitary and three years of Siberian exile awaited him. Soviet historiographers typically tell of the river Lena in Siberia, from which Lenin is supposed to have crafted his alias, Lenin. But the true origins of the alias are unknown, and it is unlikely that Lenin was ‘hardened’ into a heartless revolutionary by the harshness of the tundra. As his sister Anna notes, Lenin was a ‘sober boy’ from a young age. He loathed gossip and posturing above all else, and was mentally and physically prepared for his sentence. Humour and an abiding conviction in the righteousness of his course saw him through. He read, exercised, and dreamed in solitary confinement. He even called his departure ‘premature’ in one of his letters, exclaiming that he’d not yet gathered enough materials form the municipal library for his planned economic works.

In exile, Lenin took up the task of organizing the social-democratic (yes, Lenin was a social-democrat, though the term was interchangeable with Marxist at the time) factions around a journal that would become the famed Iskra (Spark). He was delighted when Nadeyzhda joined him in Shushenkoye after receiving permission to change the destination of her exile. The couple read, worked, and entertained themselves. They translated Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s The History of Trade Unionism together, and sang revolutionary songs by the fireside. Nadezhda was famously sloppy with housework, but Lenin wouldn’t have it any other way. His affection for her was deep and permanent, like that he extended to all he held in high esteem. This stoic passion has often been misread as disinterested aloofness by Lenin biographers, but by all accounts the stocky little man was charismatic. His charm lay precisely in the synthesis of tenderness and courage he embodied. The result of affection unbounded, the same spark that coloured the eyes of Che, who said ‘the most important trait of a true revolutionary is love’.

But charm alone, as we know, cannot make a revolution. Lenin’s efforts to unite the emigree social democratic factions in the lead up to the 1905 Revolution failed, and though he spoke (for the first time!) at mass rallies in Russia during the revolution, he fled back into exile once counterrevolutionary forces gained the upper hand. He would later recall the 1905 revolution as a test for 1917, one from which he learned much. First and foremostly, Lenin surmised that factional infighting was a fact of life on the left, successive party congresses of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party branded under the banner of ‘unification’ congresses, led to deeper schisms. From here on out, he would concentrate more on cultivating a tight-knit vanguard, over a broad front. This does not mean he became a terrorist. On the question of political violence, which was raised for the first time in and around 1905 within the party (a little late), Lenin was equivocal that workers had to be armed to defend themselves; as a defensive, rather than offensive strategy. Their numbers, organized and mobilized, would always be their chief weapon of attack.

The second emigration was harder than the first. Financially, the party was left with no more than 160 francs in its coffers, until well past 1910. Yet, Lenin was energetic in his efforts to help comrades where and whenever he possibly could. Especially one Inessa Armand, a musically talented comrade, who joined the emigree community in Paris circa 1909. She and Lenin bonded a platonic love that delved deep into romance on the pages of their letters, but was never consummated, for Lenin’s fear of destabilizing his life in the midst of revolutionary rupture. Nadyeshda knew all about them, and respected Lenin’s heart, however much it hurt her own. He had, after all, chosen her. And years after Lenin’s death, Nadyeshda continued supporting Inessa’s growing family financially, and looking after her health, as Lenin had done. She herself, being the recipient of Lenin’s doting care in their Siberian winters together, knew what a blessing it was to be so cherished by such a man, and would not keep it from another. The party debates on ‘free love’ that emerged in this period, testify to the complex charm of this menage a tois. It was not ugly, although there was angst and pain. In true revolutionary spirit, they found a beautiful synthesis1.

Inessa and Lenin settled separately (she in Moscow, he in St. Petersburg) upon arrival in Russia on the famous ‘sealed train’ to the Finland Station. Thousands of workers and soldiers greeted the leader of the Bolsheviks, who now became a ‘champion of the people’ proper. He was however, by no means the ‘champion of the people’ undisputed. Respected, saluted, Lenin was also debated against fiercely in the polemics of the time. Even in 1919, he was only a member of the Central Committee and Politburo. Only after his death, was the cult of Lenin erected. What came before was ‘popular legitimation’; a groundswell from below, pushing him up, rather than worship imposed from above. One can see why Lenin was chosen by the people. He was the right man for the job: with incredible stamina, organizational prowess, political flexibility, charisma, and incontrovertible commitment, he seemed a natural helmsman; both an anchor in and guide through the storm of revolution. Few others could have seen through such dramatic changes of line as the New Economic Policy (NEP), as few others could have won so deeply the people’s trust. Indeed, Lenin delivered. Against fearsome opposition, he pushed through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, securing peace with Germany, and withdrawal from the war.

And so, the war moved from the front to the hinterland; from the international, to the national stage as the first world war gave way to the Russian civil war; a furious second act to the birth of a new nation. In this time of insecurity three assasination attempts were made on Lenin, and none of them did he take seriously. That he did not have a personal guard can be seen as a product of the times; Lenin would have lost his political legitimacy if he took on such an individualist (by the standard of the times) precaution. But that he refused a stretcher after being shot in the neck by Dora Kaplan; walking up to his third floor flat, beseeching his comrades stay calm and composed, is quite another matter. In the winter of 1922, Lenin was partially paralyzed and could not work. He asked Stalin twice for poison, intending to end his life. Again, when he was shut out of politics towards the end of his life, he suffered despondency. Lenin was only living when he was making revolution. Severe his ability to do so, and he may as well be dead. As Marx was noted for his ‘singleness of purpose’, Lenin to posessed this quality, in equal, if not greater measure.

Did Lenin lose sight of life in his quest for revolution? Not in the way a contemporary ‘workaholic’ does. Lenin may have been committed to the revolution, but it was only ever a means to an end. He never lost sight of this. He threw himself into the work of erecting libraries and educational programs for the people. Like Ghandi, to use an odd analogy, he considered the ‘cultural development’ of a country’s lowest citizens, the ultimate measure of success. It was to free people from the tyranny of cynicism, cruelty and fear, that Lenin made revolution. And at each step he insisted on the greatest possible progress on this vital front. Power itself, was never Lenin’s muse. Rather, the music of his mother; the songs of his father; Nadyezhda’s sighs; the sweet sunshine of life, looked upon through tender and knowing eyes. The birthright of all humankind, denied it by a mere tool of it’s own creation – the capitalist system. How could such a man be hardened into stone? No, Lenin rejoiced in the new literature and music burgeoning in the streets; he laughed with the children at Christmas; he retained his passion for life until the very, very end; when cerebral hemorrhages divorced him from his agency in the realm where he chose to locate the essence of his life, politics.

It was a sad end to an altogether noble life. A dissonant chord marked it’s final movement as the revolution he’d fought so hard to realize, fell prey to nationalists, careerists, and counterrevolutionaries. He well knew his failure to save October from these crippling (if not lethal) blows. Nadyeshda comforted her partner with a benevolent lie the day before he died: ‘the resolution of the 13th party congress was passed unanimously’. Lenin knew, in all likelihood, that the sectarian splits he’d fought so bitterly against in his days of exile, were present en force. On the evening of January 21st 1924, Lenin’s lungs were paralyzed and he suffocated. The grief at this Jean Valjean of a man’s passing, was real and general. The jockeying for a place to shoulder Lenin’s casket, was no mere show for the cameras. Out of this grief would be erected the first official Lenin cult (not entirely malicious, but certainly not innocent). In time however, I’m quite certain the tears shed for Vladimir Ilyich that day will nourish a different seed; the seed of a revolutionary ethic far ahead of it’s time. Embodied by the man himself; tenderness tout court; a titanic compassion for humanity that will push aside all cynicism and sentimentality, brining a new day.

References

Krauz, T. (2015). Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography. Monthly Review Press.

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, Lenin was not reckless; Inessa was not bitter; and Nadyeshda was not  jealous, overall. On the whole, their mutual affection, transcended their personal desires; it was, by all accounts, a mature, unselfish love that blossomed among them. Never without pain, but deeper in pleasure for their titanic tenderness.

Justin Theodra is a master’s student at SOAS, University of London specializing in intellectual biography, political economy, and the life and work of Samir Amin. He runs the Lives on the Left and Songs of Revolution facebook pages.


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2 Comments

  1. Avatar alanjjohnstonealan johnstone says:

    Lenin’s concept of revolution has no relevance for socialist revolution in modern industrially advanced capitalism

    In 1917 the Bolsheviks did take power, and though they did so proclaiming that they were establishing socialism, they were prisoners of Russia’s backwardness and could do no more than develop capitalism, as Lenin had earlier advocated. However, the Bolsheviks did not relinquish power to a traditional capitalist government. Justifying their rule on the grounds that it was the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Bolsheviks have retained power, and over the years their leaders became a new ruling class, collectively controlling and thus in effect owning the means of production, and performing the same role as the private capitalists in the West. Thus, historically Leninism has been an ideology used in the building up of state capitalism in backward areas of the world. Its insistence on the need for hierarchical organisation and a revolutionary elite, and its denial of the possibility of the working class itself developing mass revolutionary consciousness, stamp it as belonging to the era of bourgeois revolutions.

  2. Justin Theodra’s comparison of Lenin with Gandhi is not an `odd analogy,’ as he states rather
    defensively. In fact, way back in 1932, a pupil of Gandhi’s, Nirmal Kumar Bose (who was later to become Gandhi’s secretary from 1945-47, and was to earn international fame as an anthropologist), wrote an article from jail, saying: “Lenin and Gandhi…resemble one another in their tireless pursuit of Truth, as well as in their great passion for the poor and the oppressed portion of humanity. Yet, in the matter of their inner convictions and attitudes, they differ as widely from one another as possible.” While explaining the differences, Bose paid a wonderful tribute to Lenin: “Lenin was like a mighty warrior who held aloft a great hope for mankind, while his soul was steeped in the dream of a millenium when no man would live in cruelty…It was because of the fatalist nature of this belief that Lenin could employ the most ruthless weapons of destruction in order to overcome the obstacles which came in the way.” Gandhi on the other hand, according to Bose: “…knows it is not his business to enquire if ever the millenium will come or not. All that he is called upon to do is to…fulfill the task for which he was appointed by God….Gandhi claims that he has discovered the secret whereby love can be employed to….free human life from the oppression……to love the oppressors of mankind as oneself, even when we are opposing them by militant non-cooperation…” (Nirmal Kumar Bose: `Studies in Gandhism.’ Calcutta. 1962)