Vladimir Lenin addressing crowds of revolutionary workers and soldiers (uploaded 18/10/2017)
Vladimir Lenin addressing crowds of revolutionary workers and soldiers (uploaded 18/10/2017)

This year’s centenary of Vladimir Lenin’s death has already inevitably seen the publication of books seeking to distort his political legacy. He and Leon Trotsky are still the two historical figures most hated and feared by the capitalist ruling class because it was their political understanding and party-building methods that ensured the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism in the 1917 Russian revolution. Here we are reprinting an abridged review by Peter Taaffe of historian Christopher Read’s biography of Lenin that first appeared in Socialism Today in issue No.93 July-August 2005, outlining the real relevance of Lenin’s ideas and practice for the struggle for socialism internationally.

This book is not exactly in the same genre as recent ‘monumental’ histories by ‘modern’ historians like Richard Pipes or Orlando Figes, seeking to destroy the real lessons of the Russian revolution and of the great figures involved in what was the greatest social overturn in history. It is much more subtle but, in some ways, more deadly in distorting the real lessons of Lenin’s life, his role in the construction of the Bolshevik party and, as leader with Trotsky, of the October revolution.

The author at least appears to have examined Lenin’s collected works. The book is therefore full of many excellent quotes which explain Lenin’s ideas at each stage in his development and that of the working-class movement of Russia. But even when Read makes a correct point about Lenin’s ideas, it is usually quickly followed by a disclaimer. In general, he condemns Lenin with faint praise.

This work is peppered with descriptions of Lenin as a “dictator”, he is “brutal” at the “expense of individuals”, he preferred to “stop at nothing” and demanded “personal loyalty”. Read claims that Lenin was “psychologically balanced” up to 1903 but, by implication, not after that, a period which encompassed three revolutions – 1905 and the two revolutions of 1917 – in which he played a decisive role.

Trotsky, whose ideas, alongside Lenin’s, correctly foreshadowed the course of the Russian revolution, is not included in this book, even in comparison to the development of Lenin’s ideas. Instead, Read dismisses Trotsky’s unfinished Young Lenin as a “hagiography” (biography of a saint) and as “propaganda”. On the contrary, Trotsky’s small booklet is a masterly analysis in rooting the development of the revolutionary Lenin in the material conditions of Russia and the personal and political influences which shaped this powerful figure, whose talents, as Trotsky pointed out, were evident even as early as 1893.

The accounts by the author on Lenin’s and his partner, Nadezhda Krupskaya’s, experiences are interesting in the light they cast on both Lenin’s ideas and the working-class movement at the time. For instance, when in London in the early 20th century, he says about the British working class: “Socialism is simply oozing from them. The speaker [a Labour leader] talks rot, and a worker gets up and immediately, taking the bull by the horns, himself lays bare the essence of capitalist society”. Not a great deal has changed in more than 100 years in Britain given the attitude of the Labour leaders today!

At the same time, the author is wrong in picturing Lenin as a hair-splitter in arguing that “the closer the opponent” to Lenin’s position, the more “vigorous the polemic”. Lenin had a serious attitude towards theory and perspectives, as all genuine Marxists have. Unfortunately, the author of this book does not. This attitude is shown by his treatment of Lenin’s ideas on the question of how to build a revolutionary party in Russia to prepare for the coming Russian revolution.

Inevitably, Lenin’s one-sided, and therefore wrong, statement in What Is to Be Done? about the theory of socialism emanating from the socialist intellectuals, is adduced as an indication of his alleged ‘elitism’. However, the author does at least admit that this incorrect idea was drawn from the writings of Karl Kautsky, who argued that the idea that “socialist consciousness appears to be necessary and a direct result of the proletarian class struggle” is “absolutely untrue”. Contrary to what Kautsky argued, socialist ideas existed before the development of the scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Their great historical merit was to base themselves on the highest level of thought at the time – British political economy, German philosophy (in particular, dialectics) and French socialism – and use these to further the struggles of the working class. They generalised the experience of the working class, summing this up in perspectives and a programme.

Revolutionary party

Similarly, Lenin’s ideas on the party and of democratic centralism, subjected to malicious distortions and attacks at the time and since, were vindicated in the Russian revolution. No other party has carried through a successful socialist revolution. Democratic centralism simply means full democratic discussion but, once conclusions are arrived at, the implementation of these decisions by the whole party. It did not, and does not, signify ‘dictatorship’ of the party or the leaders over the working class or the ranks of the party. Inevitably, under conditions of a struggle against a dictatorship – the tsarist monarchy – centralism was vital. Even the author concedes that Lenin’s Thoughts on How to Operate under Tsarist Conditions are no more than common sense. He then writes, however, that the “culture of centralisation and secrecy inculcated by autocratic conditions became a habit which could not be shaken off, even when the conditions no longer prevailed”.

Yet Read does not mention, as Trotsky does in his unfinished biography of Stalin, that the very same Lenin who supported democratic centralism and, at one stage, a more tightly-knit party, also vehemently denounced those of his followers, “committee men and women”, who used this to try to exclude workers from involvement and the management of the party. Moreover, as soon as the floodgates of revolution were opened in 1905, again as Read concedes, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party grew enormously, with tens of thousands of workers entering its ranks, with the predominance of a high degree of democracy taking precedence over the ‘centralism’ of the underground.

Isolated quotes from Lenin’s writings are used to justify the accusation that Lenin adopted a ‘top down’ approach. In the specific conditions which existed in the struggle against the dictatorship, inevitably, the construction of a party begins from a ‘top’, in the sense of the most combative elements organising together and then seeking to win the support of the more conscious, politically developed sections of the working class. However, any socialist party worthy of its name, and certainly a Marxist party, would be dead in the water if it remained ‘at the top’ and stayed there. A party may begin from the ‘top’ but in the course of its construction it is the bottom, the ranks, politically conscious and active, who control the party at each level. This was Lenin and Trotsky’s idea, not the caricature which is, unfortunately, still presented in this book.

Permanent revolution

When it comes to the tasks of the revolution – in the first instance, the 1905 revolution – and the different approaches adopted by different trends within the Russian workers’ movement, the author is at sea. There is, for instance, not a single mention of Trotsky’s ideas on the tasks of the Russian revolution: his famous Theory of the Permanent Revolution, which correctly foreshadowed the victory of the working class in alliance with the poor peasants in October 1917. Read correctly concludes that all trends agreed that the Russian revolution was “bourgeois” in character. What the Russian Marxists meant by this was that the capitalist democratic revolution remained to be completed in Russia. The tasks of this revolution were a thoroughgoing land reform, the development of an internal market and the basis for developing large-scale industry and a modern economy, the solution of the national question, democratic freedom, and freedom from the stranglehold of imperialism.

The Mensheviks (meaning ‘minority’) believed that, because of the character of this revolution – capitalist in essence and character – the working class should give support to the liberal capitalists in opposition to Tsarism. Lenin formulated the idea of the “democratic dictatorship of the working class and the peasantry”. This arose from his analysis that the Russian capitalists, who historically came too late onto the scene, were tied to the perpetuation of feudal and semi-feudal land relations, feared the working class and, therefore, were incapable of carrying through the tasks of their own revolution. Only an alliance of the working class and the peasantry could carry through this task and, in so doing, provide the spark for the socialist revolution internationally, particularly in Europe. This in turn would come to the aid of the Russian working class and, in time, put the question of socialism on the agenda. As to who would predominate in this alliance, the working class or the peasantry, this was left open. It was an ‘algebraic formula’, and only events would answer which class would lead.

Trotsky fundamentally agreed with Lenin that the Russian capitalists could not carry through the capitalist democratic revolution and only the working class and peasantry, in alliance, could complete this revolution. But he pointed to the inconsistency in Lenin’s formula on the “democratic dictatorship of the working class and the peasantry”. He posed much more definitely who could wield the power within this alliance, concluding that only the working class could do so. The intermediary classes, including the peasantry, throughout history have never played a really independent role because of their heterogeneity. Divided into different layers, the upper layers of the peasantry tend to merge with the capitalists, and the poor peasants sink into the ranks of the working class. But, once having come to power, would the working class simply carry through the capitalist democratic revolution? No, concluded Trotsky, it would begin the process of introducing socialist tasks in Russia, which could provide the spark for the world revolution.

It was this theory which correctly foreshadowed the Russian revolution of October 1917. Moreover, Lenin himself – as Read concedes in the quotes that he uses – came to the same fundamental conclusion as Trotsky in his famous April Theses of 1917 and, later, in arguing against the ‘Old Bolsheviks’, such as Josef Stalin, Leon Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, who did not want to mobilise the working class to take power.

Dealing with the 1917 revolutions, the author carries many valuable quotes of Lenin, which correspond with Trotsky’s perspectives of the permanent revolution. Lenin wrote that the Russian revolution is “the prologue to the world socialist revolution, a step toward it”. (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 23, p371) A page later, Lenin declares: “The German proletariat is the most trustworthy, the most reliable ally of the Russian and the world proletarian revolution”. (Farewell Letter to the Swiss Workers, written even before Lenin set foot on Russian soil in April 1917)

In relation to his previous formula, Lenin baldly declared in his April Theses: “The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry has already become a reality (in a certain form and to a certain extent)… The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies – there you have the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ already accomplished in reality. This formula is already antiquated”. He went on: “Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have worked out differently”. Lenin’s ‘algebraic formula’ had been filled with a ‘negative content’.

The Russian revolution unfolded over nine months from February to October and this book, on the whole, states Lenin’s attitude well. However, even when Read accurately quotes Lenin, he cannot resist stating his own quite fallacious interpretations of what Lenin was driving at. For instance, the brilliant analysis of the state contained in Lenin’s State and Revolution – written in the heat of the revolution itself – is viewed as “anarchist”, and Lenin’s call for revolution is “Blanquism” (an armed uprising by a minority).

Soviet power

Of the democratic demands in State and Revolution, Read declares that the principles therein were never implemented fully and, in fact, the Soviet Union established a “tyrannous, permanent, unresponsive bureaucratic elite of Party and state officials, many of whom were paid high salaries”, thereby implying there was no fundamental difference between Lenin’s regime and that of Stalin later. The Russian revolution took place through the soviets, elected bodies of workers and poor peasants. Where “high salaries” were paid it was not to representatives of the working class, either in the state or the party, but to specialists. There were clear limits to these salaries, laid down by Lenin, of no more than four to one of the average wage of a worker.

Moreover, the author contradicts this argument when, a few pages earlier, he writes of Lenin’s arrival in Russia on April 1917: “At the ages of 47 [Lenin], and 48 [Krupskaya] they did not have so much as a flat to call their own and had no possessions to speak of beyond the clothes they had frequently packed in their suitcases in their travels around Europe. They did not own a stick of furniture or anything of value… They were also completely uninterested in the acquisition of wealth and goods”. The same applied to all the leaders of the Bolsheviks and the ranks of the party as a whole.

Like many before him, and no doubt in the future as well, the author, in the well-worn tradition of abstract and wooden academia, which cannot envisage the real living movement of the workers in a revolution, concludes that the Russian revolution was a “coup”. Yet even when he makes this point he is forced to concede: “Many delegates were Bolsheviks and a majority appear to have been mandated to support soviet power before they left their home areas, that is before the Bolshevik operation: 612 out of a total of 670 delegates were mandated to end the alliance with the bourgeoisie and only 55 to continue it. Holding to their mandate the majority supported the Bolsheviks and many, but by no means all, declared themselves to be ‘Bolshevik’, around 390 being the accepted figure”. He then adds the ridiculous caveat: “However, there is some difficulty in identifying just what being a Bolshevik meant. Many identified with the Bolsheviks mainly, probably only, because the Bolsheviks supported soviet power”.

Precisely! The masses had transferred their hopes firstly from the provisional government to the Mensheviks and right-wing Social Revolutionaries but found that these parties were not prepared to break with the landlords and capitalists. They then enthusiastically welcomed the Bolsheviks’ slogan of ‘All power to the soviets!’ Moreover, they placed their hopes in the party which fought most energetically for this idea and was prepared to implement it. To the academic, which Christopher Read is, the revolution means two sides consciously line up against one another, with one clearly declaring, ‘For revolution’, and the other, ‘Against’.

A revolution and the revolutionary process are much more complicated than this. A condition for revolution is when the masses declare or feel that ‘we cannot live like this any longer’. They test out different political formations over time, only to discard them when they find them inadequate for the tasks in hand. This is the process that developed in the nine months between February and October 1917, until finally the masses concluded that only the Bolsheviks were prepared to go to the end in concluding the war and granting ‘bread and freedom’.

The masses were confirmed in their belief that the Bolsheviks were the only ones who were prepared to take the power on behalf of the working class, give the land to the peasants, bread to the starving working class and a democratic peace. This is why they supported them. Read, for instance, writes: “The Third Congress showed the Bolsheviks tightening their grip on power with 441 out of the 707 delegates at the first session”. He tries to suggest that the Bolsheviks established a one-party regime right from the beginning, which is a travesty. In fact, the working class were generous, excessively generous, in freeing the right-wing General Kaledin, for instance, after the seizure of power. He subsequently organised a counter-revolutionary force to butcher and massacre workers.

Democratic deficit?

None of the parties who professed to accept democracy were illegalised by the Bolsheviks in the first instance. Only the semi-fascist Black Hundreds met this fate. But when the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries took up arms, resorting to the methods of civil war, the Bolsheviks suppressed them and their press. Read ‘tut-tuts’ at this but what does he think happened in other civil wars? Cromwell and the Parliamentarians did not permit the royalists in the English civil war to operate behind their lines. The North in the US civil war did not permit the slave owners to agitate and organise in their area. Why should the Russian workers have acted any differently when it was a question of the fate of the revolution and, therefore, their fate and their families’ futures at stake?

His analysis of the constituent assembly in January 1918 is merely a regurgitation of the quite false propaganda by dozens of capitalist writers that the Bolsheviks demonstrated a “democratic deficit” in forcibly dissolving this body. Even Read is forced to concede that the delegates to the constituent assembly from the peasant areas in particular, who had voted for the right-wing Social Revolutionaries, had done so largely before the October revolution. In action, the mass of the peasants supported the Bolsheviks’ confiscation of the land of the landlords.

This lack of understanding, not to mention the childishness of this analysis, is summed up when the author says that if only Alexander Kerensky had implemented the demands of the peasants, for land in particular, the Bolsheviks would not have had any chance to take power! The essence of the situation, however, was that Kerensky, the Mensheviks as a whole, and the right-wing Social Revolutionaries, let alone the Cadets (the traditional liberal bourgeois party), were tied to the maintenance of the status quo, the perpetuation of the unequal land relations and the continuation of the war. To have implemented land for the peasants would have been to deny the very essence of Kerensky’s political position, which was an attempt to establish a liberal capitalist democracy without challenging one of the fundamental aspects of the autocracy, the feudal and semi-feudal land relations, for fear of upsetting the capitalists who were tied by a thousand threads to the maintenance of this situation.

In the latter part of the book, Read deals with the situation following the seizure of power. He quite correctly says that, at one stage in mid-1919, the revolution was confined to just ten percent of Russian territory. The forces of counter-revolution allied with the 21 armies of imperialism threatened to drown the revolution in blood. Why is it then that the working class, despite the paucity of armaments, defeated these forces and consolidated the revolution? Read says the international appeal of the revolution was “marginal”. This is despite the well-documented evidence that the armies of imperialism were not so much militarily defeated but disintegrated under the international appeal of the Bolsheviks and the working class. British workers stopped Churchill from intervening in Poland by preventing the sailing of the Jolly George from London with arms for the Polish and Russian counter-revolutionaries. The French fleet in the Black Sea mutinied, which compelled France to withdraw. Many other examples could be given.

Ridiculously, the author claims the Bolsheviks believed in world revolution on the narrow basis that “it should take place because it should”. The basis for a world revolution was rooted in the blind alley of the capitalist system on a world scale, signified by the first world war. Lenin’s prognosis, and that of Trotsky, had been completely borne out by the revolution in Russia but also by the revolutionary explosions in Germany, Hungary and Italy, vindicating the Russian revolution as the ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’. The failure of this revolutionary wave was due to the lack of parties and leaders similar to the Bolsheviks, in Western Europe in particular, and the fact that the social-democratic leaders betrayed the revolution, and murdered the leaders of the working class, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany.

Revolution betrayed

The latter part of the book takes up an analysis of the situation following the isolation of the Russian revolution. Much is made of the period of ‘war communism’ immediately after the revolution. This was essentially a time when, because of the paucity of resources in a ‘besieged fortress’, a policy of rationing was carried through. But, as Trotsky pointed out, this period also engendered a misguided attitude that Russia could move towards socialism on the basis of an equitable distribution of goods and salaries, as well as solidarity, etc. The isolation of the revolution, together with the destruction of the flower of the proletariat in the civil war, engendered, as Trotsky brilliantly analysed in Revolution Betrayed, the beginning of conservative bureaucratic traits at the top of the Russian Communist Party, particularly after the death of Lenin but evident even before, as personified by the rise of Stalin.

The regime of Lenin and Trotsky was a million miles removed from what emerged later under Stalinism. Lenin declared that although there were “bureaucratic ulcers” between 1917 and 1923, Russia was nevertheless a relatively healthy workers’ state. The regime of Lenin and Trotsky, compared to that of Stalin, was like sores on the body, compared to a malignant cancerous growth that ultimately destroys the body as a whole.

Interestingly, Read does not, as some ultra-right historians have done in the recent past, link Lenin’s “purges” of the Bolshevik party after the revolution to Stalin’s monstrous purges of the 1930s, which were a “one-sided civil war” against the remnants of the Bolshevik party itself. In fact, he compares Lenin’s approach to that of bourgeois parties. Under Lenin, “the idea of the purge was to throw out those who were unworthy of party membership [careerists, toadies, would-be bureaucrats – PT]”. This was “common practice… whether it was the British Cabinet, a gentleman’s club or a political party”.

There are many other issues in this book we could dispute but, in a way, the key things are the conclusions of the author. The central plank of his argument is that the Bolshevik party before the revolution did not “lead the masses to Bolshevik conceptions of socialism and revolution. That task only began seriously after 25 October”. Yet, as soon as Lenin placed a foot on Russian soil in April 1917, he greeted the masses at the Finland Station with the words: “You are the advanced detachment of the coming world socialist revolution”. The idea that socialism, both in Russia and worldwide, was the only answer penetrated deeply and widely into the consciousness of the working class in Russia before the October overturn. This runs as a thread through Trotsky’s monumental book, History of the Russian Revolution.

Lenin & Stalin

Another ‘serious’ criticism of Lenin by the author is that he tried to “treat the business of government to some extent like the running of a seminar”. This fits in with one of the themes of this book, that Lenin was a ‘professor’, with little connection to the working class, who made only occasional forays into its ranks. On the contrary, Lenin and Trotsky, both in their outlook and in their conditions of existence and lifestyles, were saturated in a working-class outlook and milieu. They learnt from and generalised the moods of the working class in the form of slogans and perspectives.

As Trotsky remarked, Lenin had developed the uncanny ability to pick up “on the wing” the moods of the working class by some chance remark or comment, and was able to generalise this at each stage of the revolution. It was this quality that allowed the Bolsheviks and their leadership to correctly foresee and understand the rhythm of the Russian revolution and to come forward with those ideas which could advance the movement at each stage. This also allowed them to protect the forces of the working class when the counter-revolution attempted to strike back, following the ‘July days’, and then once more connect with the broad masses of the working class and the poor peasants in the Russian revolution, the greatest single event in human history.

Incredibly, the author has Lenin believing that the New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced in 1921, was a “dynamic system leading Russia ineluctably to socialism”. On the contrary, the NEP, involving concessions to the peasants and to capitalist elements, was forced on Lenin and the Russian revolution as a necessary compromise at a certain stage. Lenin and Trotsky well understood that without the world revolution coming to their assistance this policy could engender forces bitterly opposed to the revolution looking for a return to capitalism. The author then says: “After his death, the party Right, led by Bukharin and Rykov, struggled to preserve NEP because they perceived it as Lenin’s last testament. The more vociferous and impatient party Left [?!] turned back to the policies of 1918 and 1919. The victory of the latter group, with Stalin at its head, shaped the revolution for the rest of its life”.

This is an incredible statement from somebody who has not understood either the process of revolution or the bureaucratic counter-revolution led by Stalin. Nikolae Bukharin and Alexei Rykov did represent the Right but Stalin in no way represented the genuine ‘Left’ of the Bolsheviks. This was headed by Trotsky and the Left Opposition who opposed the conservative officialdom which gathered around Stalin. Stalin initially occupied a ‘centre’ position, with the elements of bureaucratic Bonapartism evident even in the first period. He supported Bukharin and the Right against the Left Opposition but then took fright at the growth of the capitalist elements arising from the NEP. The ‘leftist’ slogans subsequently used to combat the Right were borrowed by Stalin almost in total from the Left Opposition.

But these slogans, the five-year plan, the development of electricity through the Dnepr river dam construction project, etc, were applied in a bureaucratic fashion. In particular, forced collectivisation was a monstrous mistake and crime which resulted in civil war in the countryside against the peasants, particularly the rich peasants, the kulaks. Read even has Lenin “choosing” in some circumstances to take a “Stalinist path”. Despite his disclaimer, this is no different to those who argue that Stalinism arose out of ‘Leninism’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In order to consolidate the bureaucratic caste around him and the system of Stalinism, Stalin had to murder the last remnants of the Bolshevik party in the purge prior to the 1930s. In other words, a river of blood exists between the genuine Lenin and the ideas of Leninism, and those of Stalinism. This book has many useful quotes from Lenin’s collected works which, even in their attenuated form, speak against the conclusions of the author. Overall, however, it does not do justice to the evolution of Lenin and his ideas, and particularly the ‘mature’ Lenin in the 1905 revolution and the two revolutions of 1917. Scandalously, Trotsky does not even have a ‘walk-on’ part in this account.

This book is part of the Routledge historical biographies which, we are informed on the jacket, are “readable and academically credible”, bringing “important historical figures to life for students and general historical readers alike”. Unfortunately, we cannot agree with this conclusion. Not only Pipes and Figes but now this book will do nothing to bring the real Lenin before the new generation in an objective fashion. We do not believe in hagiographies but in objective accounts of historical figures, which can then allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. This work, although useful in many respects, does not fulfil these criteria.