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Lenin's lasting legacy
Lenin: A biography by Robert Service. Published by Macmillan, and reviewed by MARK WAINWRIGHT
I HALF expected this new biography about Lenin to be in the new tradition, such as in the critical and unbiased manner of Francis Wheen's superb work on Karl Marx. Well everyone makes a mistake occasionally!
What is good about the book is that Service uses access to newly released documents in Moscow to confirm Lenin's last campaign fought from his deathbed was for the removal of Stalin as the general secretary of the Party. As a consequence Service admits that the Bolsheviks led by Lenin had not set out to establish a dictatorship, which later followed under Stalin.
Service also asks: "Is Lenin really done for?... [because] when surveys of Russian public opinion are undertaken he measures among the most popular rulers in history".
You could safely say the book lacks balance. It is full of quotes like "he (Lenin) displayed a virtual lust for violence" or "he was a cheerful repressor", or "his indifference to the scale of common suffering was colossal".
The very last paragraph concludes: "Lenin was unexpected. At the very least his extraordinary life proves the need for everyone to be vigilant. Not many historical personages have achieved this effect. Let thanks be given".
His lack of balance is illustrated in a number of respects. As the example below show this undermines his claim to an 'objective' historian's approach. Or could it be he shows a certain inclination to believe things without actually checking it? I lean to the second explanation.
For example he says: "(Lenin) would not even condone the formation of famine relief bodies in order to use them for the spreading of revolutionary propaganda".
Yet if you read the collection of writings, Lenin on Britain, at the beginning you will find two letters to the then Labour leader Ramsay Macdonald from Lenin thanking him for the donations to the Famine Relief Committee!
Another example was over the military offensive by Kerensky's provisional government in June 1917, during the First World War. Service writes: "After initial success the Russian forces were held up by a spirited defence".
That's it. What he omits is that 58,000 Russian troops killed were during this offensive and that the mass armed uprisings in Russia known as the July Days developed as a result. Neither does he mention that the Bolsheviks led by Lenin - a party Service implies was purely determined on seizure of power -actually held these movements back. The Bolsheviks waited until they had won a majority of the working class and poorest peasants before assuming power in October 1917.
More seriously, Service claims that Trotsky personally supervised the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion in 1920. Trotsky certainly was in favour of ending the revolt but he didn't supervise it at all; he was not there.
Service says that people "tend to overlook the fragility of the regime, chaos and confusion was the norm". He makes the nearly comical point that Lenin's car was stopped on at least three occasions by armed youth in Moscow in 1918/1919; in fact he was nearly killed by Red Guards who refused to believe it was him.
The distinction is important because you need to be reminded that the regime was holding on for dear life. In the very harsh conditions of civil war and no political reinforcements from successful revolution abroad, the regime survived and consolidated itself, albeit on a grotesquely deformed basis, that lasted for almost three-quarters of a century.
Maybe what irritates Robert Service most is that despite the crimes and repression of the Stalinist bureaucracy, that went on to rule in Lenin's name but which violated every Marxist principle Lenin had stood for, he still cannot explain the long-standing and inspirational effect of Lenin and his ideas.
In The Socialist 26 May 2000: