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‘Wherever you go in the Soviet Union today you meet Lenin


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‘Wherever you go in the Soviet Union today you meet Lenin. You can meet him literally by joining the long queue which, winter and summer, moves slowly across Moscow's Red Square to file past his mummified body, which lies in a glass coffin in a mausoleum of red granite. It is from this mausoleum that the Soviet leadership takes the salute on national holidays. It is in front of this mausoleum that you can see the only everyday piece of military ceremonial in Russia. Every hour, on the hour, a new guard goose-steps out of the Kremlin to relieve the sentries at the doors of Lenin's tomb.

But Lenin's image follows you everywhere. Enormous wood or canvass cut-outs stare down from the sides of houses. His statue stands in countless squares, in the foyer of countless buildings. His portrait hangs in countless offices and shops. His bust adorns countless niches, bookcases, desks. Every building where he spoke, worked, ate or slept carries a plaque. His office in the Kremlin is preserved exactly as it was. There is a whole museum devoted to his knick-knacks. The very chair that he sat on in some foreign library has been taken to the Soviet Union and put on display. His name is incorporated into that of buildings, institutions, streets, cities, honours and even geographical formations. A scholar in Moscow might leave the university in the morning, take a bus down Lenin Avenue to the centre of town to work in the Lenin Library (the equivalent of the British Library). After lunch, he might take the Lenin underground railway to the Lenin Stadium to watch a football match againstLeningrad. Then, he could stroll home through the Lenin Hills.

Some thirty-four cities, towns and villages have been given his name: Leningrad, Leninakan, Leninabad, Leninopol, Leninskii, Lenino... In addition, just for a bit of variety, a handful more have taken his real surname: Ulyanovsk, Ulyanovo, Ulyanovka and so on. There is even a Mount Lenin in the Pamirs: the highest peak, of course. Every Soviet town or village has its Lenin Square, street or avenue. Soviet youth join the All-Union Lenin Communist Union of Youth. Their elders aspire to the Order of Lenin.

A power station in central Moscow carries the words 'Communism is soviet power plus the electrification of all Russia', for Lenin's words, as well as his image, are used to decorate Soviet buildings inside and out. Libraries, schools, offices, museums, theatres, even dance halls carry appropriate quotations culled from the fifty-five volumes of Lenin's (almost) complete works. Every Soviet monograph on whatever subject has an obligatory first chapter relating it to Leninism. To write this chapter, or to find an apt quotation for your wall, you would visit the Lenin corner in any Soviet bookshop. Here too, as well as buying books by or about Lenin, you can supplement the official display with any amount of personal Leniniana: badges, posters, portraits, slides or postcards. Unlike other books, Lenin's works are never out of print. Unlike any other Soviet commodity, Leniniana is never scarce. But then, there is never a queue at the Lenin corner, either.

'Lenin is always with us', proclaims one of the more common slogans. You smile wryly, thinking of the clutter all around you. But there is more to it than that. There is also the echo of Big Brother and of Christ. Perhaps surprisingly, the latter is the more important, and the language and imagery of Christianity pervade the cult of Lenin. 'Christ be with you!' is answered by 'Lenin is with us!', 'faith in God' by 'faithful to Lenin', 'Christ is risen!' by 'Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will always live!' For it is hoped that Lenin should be seen as the new Messiah, the real one, the one for whom those who rejected Christ were hoping, the one whose kingdom is of this world, who promises to the poor, the oppressed and the humiliated freedom now. The materialist, practical revolutionary has become a god.

To millions all over the world, this is how he seems. For Lenin is the only permanent revolutionary hero. Trotsky, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara may come in or out of fashion, but Lenin remains constant, and constant, too, to all of them. Revolutionaries of all tendencies attack each other, as well as capitalism, in the name of Lenin. What is it about him that has proved so attractive?’


hat is the significance of Lenin in Russian History?


Vladimir Ilich (or Volodya) Ulyanov was born on April 22nd, 1870, in Simbirsk, on the Volga, the second son of a provincial inspector of schools. He was an intelligent and studious child, who impressed his headmaster, F. M. Kerensky, the father of the man Lenin was to overthrow in October, 1917. In 1887, Volodya Ulyanov was abruptly introduced to Russian politics when his elder brother, Alexander, was hanged for an attempt on the Tsar's life. That autumn, thanks to an intervention on his behalf by F. M. Kerensky, Volodya went to Kazan University to study law. However, as the brother of a known revolutionary, he was under surveillance and was soon arrested and expelled. He was unable to return to that or to any other university, although he was eventually allowed to take his final examination at the University of St. Petersburg. By 1891 he had moved to St. Petersburg and become an active member of the clandestine Marxist movement. Volodya Ulyanov had become Lenin.

In December, 1900, Lenin and another Social-Democrat, Julius Martov (see right), began to publish a clandestine newspaper Iskra (The Spark) which put forward their new ideas for social-democratic action: a combination of the creation of an elitist party and of the drawing of the masses into political activity by agitation. The Lenin-Martov alliance lasted barely two-and-a-half years. In August, 1903, at the Second Congress of the Russian Social- Democratic Labour Party, they fell out over the precise nature of the party. It was a measure of Lenin's skill as a politician that, although he lost the important vote, he managed to win for his group the psychologically better name of Bolsheviks (majority) because of their victory on a more minor matter. Martov's group had to accept the lesser title of Mensheviks (minority).

Lenin's main contribution to the movement is normally thought to be the revolutionary party: the party of a special type, as it came to be known. There had been conspiratorial parties in Russia before Lenin, but these had been terrorist organisations, like the People's Will , to which his brother Alexander had belonged. Lenin rejected individual terror. His reasons for a conspiratorial party sprang from his belief that, although the working class must eventually overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist society, it was so enslaved by capitalism as to be incapable of understanding its historic task of its own accord. Revolutionary consciousness had to be brought to the working class from without, by a party of revolutionaries who, by their study of history and involvement in the struggles of the working class, would force the latter to raise its sights above its immediate 'trade union' demands. The party had to be conspiratorial because, as soon as the state understood its objectives, it would try to destroy it. It had to be composed of professional revolutionaries who, released from the need to earn their daily bread, would have the leisure to develop revolutionary theory and engage in revolutionary practice. The central leadership would make its policies known to the party by means of its newspaper. The professional revolutionaries at lower levels were to conduct local work in accordance with national policy.

To this, and especially after the revolution of 1905, Lenin added another idea. He believed the main problem in Russia to be the destruction of the feudal monarchy, as the bourgeoisie did not yet have power. However, he also believed that the bourgeoisie would always prefer compromise to revolution, and would be only too pleased to come to terms with the autocracy, as they had done in October, 1905 when they had accepted the constitutional monarchy. The peasantry, on the other hand, could never be reconciled to even a limited monarchy, because the survival of the monarchy in any form would entail the survival of the landowning nobility. The peasantry saw the land owned by the nobility as the main obstacle to their own wealth, and would only be satisfied with the complete destruction of the nobility, and the re-distribution of their land. However, left to themselves, the peasants would not bring about socialism. Thus the peasant war would have to be linked to and directed by a revolution of the working class. This concept was known as the hegemony of the proletariat. Its adoption meant that, while other social democrats expected the working class to play a subordinate role in the future bourgeois revolution, Lenin expected it to lead the bourgeois revolution, even against the bourgeoisie itself.

Lenin's ideal party, which was to lead all this, was to be democratic as well as centralist. Central policies were to be determined by democratically elected congresses, which would also elect the central committee, whose job it was to see that these policies were implemented between congresses. Lower level committees were similarly to be subject to regular re-election. This democratic element was part of the party's mythology, and party leaders had at least to appear to abide by it. However, before we even examine how it operated in practice, we should note that it runs contrary to the ideas basic to Lenin's thought. He argued that, in an oppressive society, decisions based on mere numbers must inevitably be wrong. This led to his concept of the revolutionary party and to that of the hegemony of the proletariat. Why should this argument break down inside the revolutionary party itself, since its members would be of all levels of ability and experience? It must be wrong for an experienced and tested leader to accede to a decision he believes to be mistaken, merely because a greater number of inexperienced members advocate it.

In practice, Lenin never accepted a majority decision with which he did not agree. He would try to reconvene a congress, preferably with a different composition from the one that had gone against him. He would use all his considerable political skills to divide the majority, or disqualify part of it. If these measures failed, he would split and start a new party, as he did in the Menshevik/ Bolshevik split of 1903. In time, he became adept at using the threat to do this as a way of averting an unfavourable decision, as he did after the revolution of October, 1917, when he threatened the Petersburg Committee of the Bolshevik Party: 'If you want a split, go ahead. If you get the majority, take the power in the Central Executive Committee and carry on. But we will go to the sailors'.

In fact, very little in Lenin's party worked out according to his theories, partly because of the conditions they were devised to overcome. Police infiltration was constant and successful. Indeed, at one stage before the First World War, the party inside Russia was virtually run by the police, whose members included the leader of the Bolshevik Deputies to the State Duma (the parliament granted after the 1905 revolution), the editor of Pravda, and the man in charge of the distribution of illegal material from abroad. Police infiltration led to frequent arrests. This led to the abandonment of democratic procedures as 'too dangerous', and committees were renewed by co-option. As the police had infiltrated the party to the very highest levels, however, co-opted committees were arrested as frequently as elected ones. For long periods of time, therefore, even such major centres of Bolshevik activity as Moscow and St. Petersburg were devoid of Bolshevik leadership. Paradoxically, this was to prove extremely beneficial to the party in the long run. During the years 1906-17, there developed a smaII, tough and self-reliant body of revolutionary workers. These qualities, which were to prove so valuable in 1917, were developed as the result of the party's absence rather than of its presence.

The émigré leaders were constantly disputing with one another. Lenin, Plekhanov, Trotsky, Martov and Bogdanov were now allied and now opposed to one another. Emigre newspapers proliferated, as did émigré centres. On the eve of the First World War, no fewer than eleven different émigré groups, in Paris, Geneva, Vienna, New York and Cracow competed for the leadership of the Russia Social-Democratic Labour Party. All attempts by the leaders of the Second International to unite them failed.

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Trotsky in 1897


hese émigré groups depended for their credibility on their ability to prove that they had a following inside Russia. All suspected the others of falsifying the extent of this support. The party's illegal operation in Russia made this only too easy: for who could say if a man claiming to represent 100 revolutionaries in Kiev really did represent so many, or thirty, or ten, or just himself. The only people who really knew were the police, who manipulated the disputes to what they believed to be their


The First Edition Of Iskra (The Spark)

advantage. One result of this was that the underground party members in Russia developed a hearty contempt for the émigré 'leaders', a contempt which they expressed at all the congresses and conferences to which they were summoned. On the whole, they ignored the splits and disputes abroad. In Russia, Menshevik, Bolshevik, Party-Menshevik and Vperedist, insofar as any of them affected these labels, worked amicably together. From 1912 onwards, Lenin was constantly in conflict with the party leaders in Russia. The position of the latter was much strengthened by the publication of their own legal daily paper, Pravda , which was much more influential than any illegal émigré paper could hope to be. Pravda sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected Lenin's writings.

Thus the party that developed inside Russia up to 1917, the party that modern revolutionists believe they are emulating, bore little resemblance to the party of Lenin's theoretical writings. This did not matter very much. When the monarchy fell in February, 1917, it was not brought down by Lenin's party, or by any party, but by a spontaneous series of food-riots and strikes, which coincided with a mutiny in the Petrograd garrison. The Bolsheviks were not exceptional when, on February 23rd (March 8th by our calendar), they tried to prevent a strike in sympathy with International Women's Day: a strike that was to culminate in revolution. Nor were they any different from other revolutionary parties when, on February 26th, believing things had gone far enough, many of them wanted to call for a return to work. The next day the garrison mutinied, four days later the Tsar had abdicated.

The most striking feature of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 was the creation of soviets , or workers' councils (Russian 'soviet': council). These were non-party bodies, elected by workers (and in 1917 by soldiers) at their place of work. The first soviet was elected in May, 1905 in the cotton town of Ivanovo-Voznesensk. The movement spread, to reach its peak in October, 1905 with the creation of the St. Petersburg Soviet, which was led by Mensheviks. In February, 1917, the initiative for the elections to the Petrograd Soviet was again taken by Mensheviks, and the soviet was dominated by them and by Socialist-Revolutionaries. The non-party origin of the soviets and their domination by his rivals made Lenin wary of them.

Immediately after the February Revolution the Bolshevik Party was weak and internally divided. Its greatest handicap came from the one element of Lenin's thought that it had absorbed: contempt for all spontaneous, non-party organisations. This meant that there was no clear Bolshevik policy towards the soviets. Also, different groups of party members were moving towards the Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries or Anarchists, all of whom did have more or less clear views about the soviets. The Bolshevik Party was on the verge of a split, perhaps of disappearing entirely. No leader in Petrograd had the authority or political skill to hold the party together. It was at this point that Lenin revealed his strength as a politician by making the decision that was to change him from one of the émigré leaders to the leader of the party and founder of the Soviet Union.

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Lenin at the Finland Station


n the eve of the First World War, Lenin had come close to being expelled from the Second International for refusing to co-operate with any attempt to reunite the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, of which the Bolsheviks were one faction. The onset of war had enabled him to escape this, and to attack the leaders of the International for voting for war credits, thereby reneging on the decisions of the International. However, it had also cut him off from Russia. Now an enemy alien in Austria, he had to leave Cracow on the Russo-Austrian border, whence he had been trying to influence party affairs in Russia, and go to neutral Switzerland. From there, his only link with Russia was by post via Stockholm, and depended greatly on the goodwill on his contacts there. He was also short of money and depended on the goodwill of social-democrats with funds to publish his views. In the event, he quarrelled with Bukharin and Shlyapnikov, who were his contacts in Stockholm, and with Pyatakov andRadek, who had the power to prevent him from publishing. By the winter of 1916, Lenin was isolated in the émigré movement and cut off from the party in Russia. These circumstances probably prompted the oft quoted remark, made in January, 1917, six weeks before the February Revolution, that 'we of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of the coming revolution'.

In an effort to overcome this isolation, Lenin was forced to consider the ideas of Bukharin, Radek and co. This led him to a radical change in his own views. He came to accept Bukharin's idea, which he had previously condemned as 'anarchist', that the capitalist state must be destroyed and replaced by a new, decentralised system. This shift of views made it possible for him later to incorporate the soviets into his thought.

When he learnt of the fall of the Russian monarchy, Lenin tried to find a way to go back to Russia. The route via France and Britain proved closed to him, as the British and French Governments refused him a visa at the request of the new Russian Provisional Government. The only other route lay via Germany, with which Russia was at war. Lenin and a number of other émigrés from various parties began indirect negotiations with the Germans, with the Swiss socialists acting as intermediaries. These negotiations dragged on, as the Germans were unwilling to offer the kind of terms the emigres needed to be sure of not compromising their political standing on their return to Russia.

It was at this point that Lenin learnt just how serious was the state of affairs inside the Bolshevik Party in Russia. He immediately decided to risk prosecution, possibly even execution for treason (and Milyukov, leader of the Kadets and the new Foreign Minister, had made a public announcement that any emigres returning via Germany would be tried for treason), in order to return and save the party. With a group of Bolsheviks, he left Switzerland for Russia via Germany in the famous 'sealed wagon'.

Lenin reached Finland Station in Petrograd on Easter Monday, April 3rd, 1917. His first speech, delivered to the Petrograd party leadership immediately after his arrival, caused a sensation. No one, not even the extreme left of the Bolshevik Party, had expected him to call for support of the soviets, a policy that seemed contrary to all his previous thought. However, it was this policy, first announced in his April Theses , which enabled him to pull the party together. It immediately won him support among the party's rank and file. After some initial resistance, it also won him the support of the party's leadership. For it was both a very practical policy, and one which made the Bolshevik Party quite distinct from all others. It soon became clear that it was a policy that was popular in the country as a whole, since the mass of the population regarded the soviets as their own creation. This gave the Bolsheviks the support that allowed them to take power in October, not in their own name, but in the name of 'All Power to the Soviets'.

Doubt must remain over Lenin's sincerity in his support for soviet power. He did make the necessary theoretical shifts in the course of his dispute with Bukharin (see left), at a time when he had no idea of the imminence of the Russian Revolution, let alone of the role that soviets would play in it. Indeed, he remained ignorant of the latter until his return to Russia in April. However, the conversion was both opportune and short-lived. By July, 1917, after the Petrograd Soviet had supported the Provisional Government's dispersal of an armed demonstration calling for soviet power, he wanted to drop the slogan 'All Power to the Soviets', since soviet power would mean power for people with the wrong policies. This view was once again consistent with the mainstream of his thought: he only wanted soviet power if this meant Bolshevik power. Again, in September, 1917, Lenin wanted the party to take power, and had to be restrained by Trotsky, who argued that they must wait for the Congress of Soviets, as they would only get popular support if they were seen to take power for the soviets. That Trotsky was right can be inferred from the protests, like these uttered in the Kronstadt Soviet, once the nature of Bolshevik power had become clear: 'we did not take power in order to give it to a party', and 'soviet power is not the power of this or that party'.

Indeed, we may doubt whether there has ever been soviet power in the Soviet Union. Lenin's Government was not the Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets, in whose name he had taken power, nor the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, the body that had supposedly directed the seizure of power, but a body called the Council of People's Commissars. This body's position in relation to the soviets was unclear, but it functioned in relation to the old ministries very much as the Tsar's Council of Ministers had done, even retaining the old ministries and their personnel up to the highest level. Thus, although the language of the Revolution spoke of the smashing of the old state and its replacement with a new one, in practice it was the new state that was discarded, and the old one refurbished.

When the Civil War ended in 1921, Lenin was able to deal with the critics of his interpretation of soviet power. Vocal anti-leadership factions had developed inside the Bolshevik Party. Support for the Mensheviks had revived among the industrial workers. There was considerable peasant unrest. Separatist movements had developed among the non-Russian peoples of the former empire. The peasants were conciliated with the introduction of 'controlled capitalism', in what was called the New Economic Policy, but all the other critics were dealt with summarily. In March, 1921, factions were banned inside the Bolshevik Party by its Tenth Congress, during which the delegates took time off to participate in the armed quelling of the revolt of the Kronstadt naval base. The Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary parties were suppressed. Ten prominent Mensheviks were allowed to go into exile in the West, but the leaders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party were subjected to a show trial and condemned to death. The ordinary members of both parties were sent to prison and to Siberia.

The nationalist movements also received short shrift. Yet it was in the suppression of one of these, in Stalin's native Georgia, that the final ambiguity in Lenin's life can be found. Stalin and Ordzhonikidze, both Georgians, were particularly ruthless in their dealings with Georgia. This crisis coincided with the strokes that removed Lenin from active public life. From his sick-bed, he dictated his political 'testament', a document of Delphic equivocation, but in which one can divine the beginnings of doubt about the functioning of the system he had created and about the man he had promoted so consistently within it: Joseph Stalin.

Lenin's heritage is ambiguous. He is associated with a particular kind of revolutionary party, yet he was never able to build such a party. He is associated with the smashing of the bourgeois state and the establishment of soviet power, when in fact he took over the old state and smashed soviet power. He is associated with the rule of the masses, a concept of which he disapproved. His Russia is contrasted with Stalin's, as a kind of Merrie Communism, to which all look back with regret; yet he promoted Stalin when others saw him as merely a 'grey blob', and the features usually associated with Stalin's rule were already present in Lenin's day, even if on a smaller scale. The arbitrary powers of the secret police date from 1918, when they were allowed to execute people without even taking them to court. The first Soviet concentration camp was opened in 1918 for people whose loyalty to the regime was doubtful . Lenin wrote the order. The words 'concentration camp' and 'doubtful' are his. The mass arrests of former revolutionaries began with the round-up of Right Socialist-Revolutionaries in 1918. One of the first victims of party control of literature was Nikolai Gumilev, shot for his poetry in August, 1921. The first of the big show- trials was that of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries in 1922.



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Further Reading:

There is no good biography of Lenin, but different aspects of his life are covered by: Allan K. Wildman, The Making of a Workers' Revolution (Chicago, 1967); N. Valentinov, Encounters with Lenin (London, 1968); L. Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy (London, 1955); and ibid., The Communist Party of the Soviet Union , second edition (London, 1970); R.V. Daniels, Red October  (London, 1968); and ibid., The Conscience  of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia (Cambridge, Mass., 1960); T.H. Rigby, Lenin's Government (Cambridge, 1979); M. Lewin, Lenin's Last Struggle (London, 1968).       
t is not for this that Lenin is revered. Nor is it for the vast body of his writing, which is too turgid and too concerned with obscure debates with long-forgotten rivals to be palatable to more than a very small minority even of those who profess Leninism. No, Lenin is remembered for a myth: that of the outcast who dedicated himself to the oppressed masses, and who overthrew tyranny to give power to the powerless. This myth is strong enough for the Soviet Government to use it as a mandate for power at home, and as a very effective instrument of foreign policy throughout the world. It is to this end that it selects quotations from Lenin's writings and incidents from his life to build the cult of Lenin. For the myth is close enough to reality to be plausible. Its appeal is strong enough to those who, for whatever reason, wish to be rid of their own rulers to disregard as 'unimportant', 'necessary' or 'Russian' the horrific results of Lenin's revolution (and these were known to many, long before Solzhenitsyn published his Gulag Archipelago ), Lenin's influence is, therefore, much less the result of what he did than of what people believed and hoped that he had d one. The influence of this Lenin, the imaginary one, is probably all the stronger for that.

Lenin in death – Mausoleum



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