How they saw Lenin

May 18, 2017

Paul Le Blanc, the author of numerous books, including Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and Left Americana: The Radical Heart of U.S. History, surveys accounts and profiles of the Russian revolutionary leader from through the years, in an article based on a planned talk for an upcoming conference in Budapest.

THE FIELD of global Lenin Studies has been nurtured by the growth of crises and struggles in our own time.

Amid the workings of globalization and the crises that are reflected in the rise of right-wing populism in much of the world, widespread debates and activism create a demand for the kind of work being done at this conference--as those who are scholars and those who are activists seek to retrieve the actualities of what happened in history and wrestle with the lessons to be learned.

But what I am calling "Lenin Studies" can, of course, be traced back almost a century.

Restricting ourselves simply to what was produced in the United States, left-wing eyewitnesses to the Bolshevik Revolution--John Reed, Louise Bryant, Bessie Beatty, and Albert Rhys Williams--produced the first serious accounts of Lenin and his ideas between 1917 and 1919, and one of the founders of U.S. Communism, Louis Fraina (later known as Lewis Corey), produced an initial collection of writings by Lenin and Trotsky in 1918, with John Reed's close friend, Max Eastman, offering interesting attempts at theoretical elaboration soon after.

Vladimir Lenin addresses a congress of the Communist International
Vladimir Lenin addresses a congress of the Communist International (George Sheklin | Wikimedia Commons)

I want to start with fragments from these early writers, then survey contributions from better known figures from the early Communist movement, and then survey perspectives of mostly non-Marxist and in some cases anti-Communist scholars, journalists and others. Such a survey can also give us a sense of how one might evaluate the man, his ideas and his significance.

IN HIS classic book Ten Days That Shook the World, John Reed described Lenin in the midst of the swirl of the Russian Revolution: "A short, stocky figure, with a big head set down in his shoulders, bald and bulging....Dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers much too long for him. Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been."

Reed added that he was "a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colorless, humorless, uncompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncrasies--but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms, of analyzing a concrete situation. And combined with shrewdness, the greatest intellectual audacity."

Louise Bryant's impressions in Six Red Months in Russia were similar. "Lenin is sheer intellect--he is absorbed, cold, unattractive, impatient at interruption," she wrote in 1918. But, she added, "at the same time he appeals to the peasants with pamphlets that are marvels of simplicity."

Bessie Beatty, in her book The Red Heart of Russia, saw no less intellect and simplicity, but also described more color and animation in her 1918 description of Lenin speaking to the Executive of the Workers' Council (or soviet): "At first he spoke quietly, but before long his hands had come out of his pockets. These, and his big brown eyes alternately snapping and smiling, and his eyebrows humorously expressive, all vigorously emphasized his phrases."

Max Eastman's recollections of Lenin's address to the 1922 Fourth Congress of the Communist International capture some of these qualities. As Eastman wrote in Love and Revolution: My Journey Through an Epoch:

I do not know how to define the nature of his power, except to say that he is a granite mountain of sincerity. His gestures are extraordinary in their variety and grace, but otherwise he is not distinguished-looking. He is a little bit funny-looking, perhaps, with his wide small eyes and broad nose and black-painted brows under a great bald head. I could almost think he was "made up" to look funny.

But if a man ever walked across my vision that I would trust to the edge of doom, that is Lenin....It was not oratory exactly...but something above and beyond that....He is simple in his heart like a peasant who knows proverbs, but in his mind subtle and mighty. And this you feel while he is talking. You feel that he is all there for you--you are receiving the whole of the man.

The sincerity is emphasized also in the 1919 volume Lenin: The Man and His Work by Albert Rhys Williams, who suggested that "one of the secrets of Lenin's power is his terrible sincerity." He continued:

This stamp of sincerity is on all his public utterances. Lenin is lacking in the usual outfit of the statesman-politician--bluff, glittering verbiage and success-psychology. One felt that he could not fool others even if he desired to. And for the same reasons that he could not fool himself: His scientific attitude of mind, his passion for the facts.

IN HIS dense compilation of writings by Lenin and Trotsky The Proletarian Revolution in Russia, the pioneering young Communist Louis Fraina naturally stresses theory and activism, telling us that "the epoch of Marx developed the theory of socialism, the epoch of Lenin is developing its practice," adding that "this is precisely the great fact in Russia--the fact of socialism and the revolutionary proletariat in action."

Max Eastman, in his 1926 volume Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution, reaches for this quality when he describes Lenin's rejection of "people who talk revolution and like to think about it, but do not 'mean business'"--that is, "people who talked revolution but did not intend to produce it" (which is how he saw his Menshevik opponents). Eastman also singled out Lenin's rejection of "immature revolutionary minds, who judge ideas and policies as an expression of the revolutionary motive and emotion, rather than as a means of achieving the revolution."

He adds that Lenin "stressed the necessity of staying with the working class personally, no matter how far they wandered from the path of communism, and yet remaining intellectually distinct from them, and loyal at all times to the extreme program of scientific revolution" (or what Lenin would have called revolutionary Marxism). At the same time, Eastman emphasizes the vibrancy Lenin's vision of "the peasants and the oppressed colonial peoples as 'allies' of the working class in its struggle."

Eastman focuses particularly on what many have emphasized--the revolutionary party. Drawing from Lenin's 1920 work Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder and then from the 1902 classic What Is To Be Done?, Eastman notes that "a proletarian revolutionary party is not worthy of the name, [Lenin] said, until it has united leaders [and the working] class masses into a single uninterrupted whole" on the basis of "revolutionary ideas."

Eastman continues: "He demanded that socialists should go among the masses of the people and give expression to their natural protests and discontent. He demanded that they should become 'veritable tribunes of the people' organizing an 'all-popular indictment' of the existing regime." His description is Lenin's party is particularly interesting:

It is an organization of a kind which never existed before. It combines certain essential features of a political party, a professional association, a consecrated order, an army, a scientific society--and yet it is in no sense a sect. Instead of cherishing in its membership a sectarian psychology, it cherishes a certain relation to the predominant class forces of society as Marx defined them. And this relation was determined by Lenin, and progressively readjusted by him, with a subtlety of which Marx never dreamed.

ASPECTS OF Lenin's contributions to the early Communist International provided a consistent revolutionary edge which powerfully influenced many--as we have seen--including such foundational figures in "Western Marxism" as Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci, who have added their own distinctive and brilliant touches to Lenin Studies in, for example, History and Class Consciousness and The Modern Prince.

Among early Soviet Marxists we can find contending interpretations among such leading figures as Gregory Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky--and, in some ways the most influential, Joseph Stalin.

After Lenin's death, Stalin advanced a rigid variant of "Leninism" which diverged from Lenin's more open and democratic approach (explicated, for example, by Lenin's widow N. K. Krupskaya). In Joseph Stalin's influential 1924 classic, The Foundations of Leninism, we are told that "Leninism is Marxism in the era of imperialism and the proletarian revolution"--suggesting that if you wish to be a genuine Marxist, you cannot question but only embrace Lenin's ideas.

This totalistic formulation is worth contrasting with the quite different formulations of other prominent comrades of Lenin: Nikolai Bukharin, Gregory Zinoviev, Leon Trotsky, and Lev Kamenev (each of whom would eventually be executed by the Stalin dictatorship).

In his valuable biography of Stalin, Robert C. Tucker indicates that Bukharin and Zinoviev refer to Leninism as Lenin's retrieval of Marx's revolutionary orientation or his application of Marx's ideas to Russian realities. Trotsky goes so far as to warn that--as Tucker paraphrases it--"a dogmatization of Lenin was contrary to the essentially non-doctrinaire, innovative and critical-minded spirit of Leninism."

This corresponds to a point made by Lev Kamenev, the first editor of Lenin's Collected Works, that Lenin did not and could not have written any so-called "textbook of Leninism"--that "nothing would be more foreign to Lenin in his work than any tendency to catechism"--because, as Kamenev insisted, each of Lenin's writings "is permeated through and through with the anxieties and lessons of a particular historical situation...written under great pressure and...concerned with a given situation.

"This is why," Kamenev concluded, "we can only approach the real science of Lenin through a consideration of his complete works in the light of contemporary events."

IN CONTRAST to all this, Stalin's "Leninism is Marxism" formulation presents Lenin's thought as the One True Marxism that could not be questioned. His 1924 booklet provides a condensed systematization that was "catechistic in style and authoritarian in tone," as Tucker aptly notes.

Nadezhda Krupskaya's essential text, Reminiscences of Lenin, follows the approach indicated by Kamenev--presenting the approach and ideas and practices actually developed by Lenin in the course of his life as a revolutionary activist, engaged in the struggle to end all oppression and exploitation through the revolutionary struggle of the working class for democracy and socialism.

"The role of democracy in the struggle for socialism could not be ignored," she emphasized. "By 1915-1916, Vladimir Ilyich had gone deep into the question of democracy, which he examined in the light of socialist construction." She added:

The building up of socialism is not merely a matter of economic construction. Economics is only the foundation of socialist construction, its basis and premise; the crux of socialist construction lies in reconstructing the whole social fabric anew, rebuilding it on the basis of socialist revolutionary democratism.

Among the Lenin quotes with which she illustrated her point was this one: "Socialism is impossible without democracy in two respects: 1. The proletariat cannot carry out a socialist revolution unless it is prepared for it by a struggle for democracy; and 2. Victorious socialism cannot maintain its victory and bring humanity to the time when the state will wither away unless democracy is fully achieved."

This understanding of "Leninism" was of little use to a rising bureaucratic dictatorship headed by Stalin that--out of the isolation and erosion of the Russian Revolution--sought a dogmatic ideology to help reinforce its own increasingly unquestioned power as it ruthlessly sought to modernize backward Russia.

The Stalinist evaluation of Krupskaya has been helpfully clarified by one of Stalin's closest associates, V. M. Molotov, who concluded that "she turned out to be a bad communist," and that "in the last analysis, no one understood Leninism better than Stalin."

One might conclude that even Lenin didn't understand it as well as Stalin, and that he himself might have turned out to be a bad communist had he lived long enough.

IF WE turn our attention to significant studies by prominent anti-Communists, we can also find divergent perspectives.

There is an early study, called The Man Lenin, by the relatively sophisticated journalist Isaac Don Levine from 1924. Several passages from this knowledgeable critic suggest multiple dimensions worth considering:

A dictator without arrogance, without any personal ambition, a ruler who shunned honors, Lenin was perhaps the first great leader in history who had no mania for glory, for authority, for pomp. His quest for power was not an egoistic passion but a duty imposed upon him by his faith, and he used it not to further his own selfish ends, but to promote his ideas....

Bicycling, amateur photography, chess, skating, swimming, hunting, and finally cats and children were Lenin's favorite amusements....He derived genuine pleasure from associating with children and entertaining them....He was not swayed by eloquence. He did not trust beautiful speech. He disdained theatrical gestures or all-inclusive adjectives....

His mentality...may have been extraordinarily agile and pliant as to methods, his erudition may have been vast and his capacity to back up his contentions brilliant, his character may have been such as to readily acknowledge tactical mistakes and defeats, but these he never would have ascribed to the possible invalidity of his great idea [that is, Marxism and socialism].

The extraordinary phenomenon about Lenin is that he combined this unshakeable, almost fanatic, faith with a total absence of personal ambition, arrogance or pride. Unselfish and irreproachable in his character, of a retiring disposition, almost ascetic in his habits, extremely modest and gentle in his direct contact with people, although peremptory and derisive in his treatment of political enemies, Lenin could be daring and provocative in his policies, inflexible in the execution of his principles...

In stark contrast to such a multi-faceted characterization is this one-dimensional portrait in evil provided in the hostile biography of 1964 Lenin: The Compulsive Revolutionary, authored by conservative Austrian émigré Stefan T. Possony: "Self-righteous, rude, demanding, ruthless, despotic, formalistic, bureaucratic, disciplined, cunning, intolerant, stubborn, one-sided, suspicious, distant, asocial, cold-blooded, ambitious, purposive, vindictive, spiteful, a grudgeholder, a coward who was able to face danger only when he deemed it unavoidable--Lenin was a complete law unto himself and he was entirely serene about it."

Despite its claims of objectivity, it seems to me that the more recent biography of Lenin by Robert Service tilts much more in the direction of Possony's monochromatic denunciation than toward the balance offered by Levine.

THE COLD War era saw similar contrasts in how Lenin was portrayed.

Evolving from the 1948 critical equilibrium of his anti-Leninist classic Three Who Made a Revolution, the deepening bitterness of ex-Communist and U.S. State Department employee Bertram D. Wolfe resulted in an increasingly villainous portrait of Lenin. By the 1960s, Lenin was the cynical "architect of totalitarianism" about whom it could be said that humanity would have been far better off had he never been born.

In contrast is the judgment of E.H. Carr, who wrote of Lenin: "For his own generation he stood out head and shoulders from his contemporaries by the length and devotion of his service to the [socialist] cause, by the clarity and forcefulness of his ideas, and by his practical leadership in the critical moments of 1917."

Carr went on to add: "Only when the new regime had taken over did Lenin rise to his full stature as administrator, head of government, organizer and supreme political tactician."

On this last point, political philosopher Hannah Arendt added a critical note in her 1950 study Origins of Totalitarianism. "There is no doubt that Lenin suffered his greatest defeat when, at the outbreak of the civil war, the supreme power that he had originally planned to concentrate in the Soviets [the democratic councils of workers and peasants] definitely passed into the hands of the party bureaucracy."

She went on to add that "even this development, tragic as it was for the course of the revolution, would not necessarily have led to totalitarianism." That was brought on--she and others have emphasized--by the Stalin regime's murderously implemented "revolution from above" whose rapid industrialization and forced collectivization of land culminated in escalating repressions, cultural regimentation, bloody purges and massively expanding forced labor camps.

Separating Lenin from those she saw as the actual totalitarians, Arendt commented in her 1963 reflection On Revolution that "it is perhaps noteworthy that Lenin, unlike Hitler and Stalin, has not yet found his definitive biographer, although he was not merely a 'better' but an incomparably simpler man; it may be because his role in 20th century history is so much more equivocal and difficult to understand."

In his 1962 study Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan made a similar distinction in discussing the contrasting leadership qualities of Lenin and Stalin. Lenin, he observed, "was spared that whole great burden of personal insecurity which rested so heavily on Stalin. He never had to doubt his hold on the respect and admiration of his colleagues. He could rule them through the love they bore him, whereas Stalin was obliged to rule them through their fears."

With the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union, it became fashionable in some circles to adopt the approach of Stefan Possony, to conflate Lenin with Stalin. Even some radicals agree with liberals who quote conservatives who assure us that Lenin was a monster.

For example, liberal author David Remnick explains, in his contribution to the Time/CBS News People of the Century series, that Lenin held a "view of man as modeling clay and sought to create a new model of human nature and behavior through social engineering of the most radical kind."

Remnick goes on to quote conservative Richard Pipes that "Bolshevism was the most audacious attempt in history to subject the entire life of a country to a master plan. It sought to sweep aside as useless rubbish the wisdom that mankind had accumulated over millennia."

In fact, it can be documented that this was alien to Lenin's outlook. He did not seek to sweep aside as useless rubbish the accumulated cultural acquisitions of centuries--instead, he sought to make these available to everyone, along with education, health care, housing, food and equal rights, as well as the political and economic democracy of socialism.

BECAUSE THOUSANDS of people died in the brutal civil war following the Russian Revolution, Lenin and his comrades have also been characterized as "mass murderers."

By the same logic, any head of state or general during a war can be characterized as a mass murderer--certainly, such as case can be made (in some cases has been made) against King George III, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Queen Victoria, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and many more.

If the many millions of deaths related to the policies of such people makes them mass murderers, then Lenin certainly qualifies as one as well, but I would argue that such sweeping use of the term "mass murderer" blurs rather then clarifies the complex realities.

This hardly means that one should be uncritical of all policies associated with any of these figures. In his massive work The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions, Arno J. Mayer sees the murderous violence of the powerful anti-Bolsheviks as a no-less-essential element in the equation as that of Lenin and his comrades. Mayer comments that Bolsheviks "were unprepared for the enormity of the crisis" of the civil war, "caught unawares by its Furies, which they were not alone to quicken."

In this, he is repeating an earlier insight expressed in the 1930s by Boris Souvarine that "Bolshevism could not escape the psychosis of systematized murder. At the end of the Civil War it was soaked in it. Its principles, practice, institutions and customs had been turned into new channels by the weight of the calamities it had endured." He emphasizes the key point that this "was its misfortune rather than its fault."

A serious approach to such questions can also be found in the scholarship of such different scholars as the relatively conservative George Leggett, in his 1981 study The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police, and the openly left-wing Samuel Farber, in his 1990 study Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy. Both document aspects of Lenin's perspectives and policies after the Bolsheviks' coming to power that are problematical from the standpoint of democracy and human rights.

Other serious scholars have been able to acknowledge such problematical issues related to Lenin's life and politics while amply demonstrating that there was far more to Lenin than this alone. These include Marcel Liebman, Neil Harding, Christopher Read and particularly Lars Lih--all of whom have focused considerable attention on what Lenin actually said and wrote.

AS NOTED in a number of my own writings in recent years, I believe pride of place in this recent turn in Lenin Studies goes to Lars Lih, with his internationally acclaimed study Rediscovering Lenin, as well as his more recent short biography of Lenin.

In advancing our understanding of Lenin's perspectives, Lih has given special emphasis to the contention (in contrast to what many have argued) that Lenin's Marxism was consistent with that of such central figures in pre-First World War European Social Democracy as Karl Kautsky.

While some have turned this important insight into an argument that the so-called "Leninism" of Lenin is a myth, recent studies associated with diverse individuals--such as Antonio Negri, Tamás Krausz, Alan Shandro and August Nimtz--have given attention to a distinctive political methodology that in significant ways (if not in all ways) distinguishes Lenin's approach to Marxism from that of such theorists as Kautsky.

The result seems to be at least a partial swing back to earlier conceptions--related to the perceptions of John Reed and his friends, the post-Revolution rolsheviks, such figures in the Communist International as Lukács and Gramsci, and others.

Yet given our present social-political context, continuing contributions and controversies within Lenin Studies should remain vibrant for some time to come. In one of the most recent and stimulating contributions, The Dilemmas of Lenin, Tariq Ali has expressed the matter quite well, so I will give him the last word:

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.

This article is an expansion of a forthcoming Historical Materialism article titled "Lenin Studies: Method and Organization."

Further Reading

From the archives