Book Review from the August 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Lenin. By Lars T. Lih, Reaktion Books, 2011, £10.95.
This is a good biography of Lenin, who was born Vladimir Ulyanov in 1870, the son of a top Tsarist civil servant. Lih brings out well how until 1917 Lenin was essentially an anti-Tsarist Russian revolutionary with his own particular theory and strategy of how to overthrow the Tsarist regime and replace it with a democratic republic that was the aim of all 19th century Russian revolutionaries. At first many thought that the mass basis for the overthrow of Tsarism could be the peasantry. Then they turned to assassination (Lenin’s brother, Alexander, was executed in 1887 for his part in an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander III). After widespread strikes in the 1890s some turned to the factory proletariat as the mass basis and identified themselves as Marxist Social Democrats. One of these, from 1893, was Lenin.
As Marxists, the Social Democrats accepted that Russia, at least on its own, would have to pass through capitalism, which would create the material basis for socialism as well as preparing the working class to run society. Some argued that it was therefore best to leave the leadership of the popular, democratic (or “bourgeois”) revolution that would overthrow Tsarism to the bourgeoisie supported by the workers and peasants. Lenin disagreed. Lih describes him as holding to “the heroic scenario” of the factory proletariat leading the mass of the Russian people (who were mainly peasants) to overthrow Tsarism and establish a democratic republic. Lenin knew very well that socialism in Russia (alone) was out of the question.
As it turned out, the Tsarist regime collapsed of itself in March 1917 under the impact of WWI. Lih describes how Lenin now shifted his position and began to argue that, instead of a democratic republic and liberal capitalism, what could be established in Russia was a working class regime which could take some “steps to socialism” while awaiting a socialist revolution in the rest of Europe which he was convinced was imminent. It was on this basis that the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917.
The European socialist revolution that Lenin had gambled on failed to materialise (in reality it was never on the cards) and he found himself the head of the government of a country that was both economically and culturally backward. Lenin suffered a first stroke in May 1922 and was no longer at the centre of power until he died after a third stroke in January 1924. Lih detects, as others have done, in Lenin’s last articles written in 1923 doubts creeping into Lenin’s mind:
“The cultural deficit explained the failure of Lenin’s hopes for the Soviets, but it also posed a direct challenge to the legitimacy of socialist revolution in backward Russia. Lenin was confronted by this challenge in January 1923 when he read a memoir of the 1917 revolution written by the left-wing socialist Nikolai Sukhanov. In notes dictated soon afterwards Lenin admitted that socialist critics such as Sukhanov had correctly asserted that Russia was not ready for socialism. He responded to these familiar arguments with a flood of rhetorical questions (I count nine in two pages). Such questions are the rhetorical device of choice for those who are not quite sure of their position.”
It was to his credit that he did have doubts, even if it was psychologically impossible for him to admit that he had been wrong in 1917. There never was of course any prospect of the Bolsheviks giving up their control of political power. Maybe if Lenin had not died at the relatively young age of 53 the capitalism that inevitably developed there would not have been called “socialism” but the “state capitalism” Lenin knew it to be.