Book Review from the November 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait'. By Victor Sebestyen. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2017)
Lars T. Lih in his 800 page 2009 work Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context argues that Lenin ‘must be thought of as a Russian Social Democrat because his fundamental project was to help build a party in Russia that was as much like Western social-democratic parties as conditions allowed – and where conditions did not allow, to change them to the revolutionary overthrow of the Tsar.’ Victor Sebestyen’s new book is the antidote to this.
Sebestyen observes that Lenin’s first published work was a bitter attack on the Populists, and Lih admits that What Is to Be Done? though ‘enshrined … as the founding document of Bolshevism’ ‘was written to score off some very specific opponents’. Sebestyen comments that Lenin’s style of argument ‘was nearly always domineering, abusive, combative and often downright vicious’. He battered opponents into submission with the deliberate use of violent language which he acknowledged was ‘calculated to evoke hatred, aversion, contempt … not to convince, not to correct the mistakes of the opponent, but to destroy him, to wipe him and his organisation off the face of the earth.’ ‘Those who disagreed with [Lenin] were ‘scoundrels’, ‘philistines’, ‘cretins’, ‘filthy scum’, ‘whores’, ‘class traitors’, ‘silly old maids’, ‘windbags’ (one of his favourite epithets found frequently in his writings) and ‘blockheads’. In modern Leninist parlance this could be criticised as ‘sectarianism’.
Sebestyen claims that ‘after looking over Lenin’s [1903 resolution on party membership criteria, Martov] told him ‘but that’s dictatorship you’re proposing’. Lenin replied ‘yes, there’s no other way.’’ ‘Without doubt Lenin was the main cause of the bitterness. … He was constantly on the offensive, cajoling, hectoring and abusing delegates.’ ‘When Lenin at this time referred to the ‘enemy’ he meant his old friend Martov and the Mensheviks – ‘when you see a stinking heap you don’t have to touch it to know what it is. Your nose tells you it's shit and you pass by.’’
Although Lenin ‘never wore anything resembling a military uniform as so many dictators favoured’ he did argue that ‘those who do not prepare for armed uprising must be ruthlessly cast out … to the ranks of the enemies as traitors or cowards.’ And he once rebuked ‘how can you make a revolution without firing squads?’
Once in power Lenin censored the press and threatened to close down opposition newspapers. He ruled by decree setting up the Cheka secret police. The Soviet became a rubber stamp body and remained so.
Social Democrats fundamentally support free elections. Lenin did not and demonstrated this as soon as he was in a position to do so. The Bolsheviks failed to win a majority in the January 1918 elections to Russia’s first freely elected parliament, the Constituent Assembly ‘which made a nonsense of the claim they were supported by the masses’. ‘Lenin fired the neutral electoral commissioners… a 1918 demonstration for ‘All Power to the Assembly’ was fired upon by Red Guards.’ Thereafter Lenin then gave the orders to dissolve the Assembly.
Actions, as always, speak louder than words.