A review of Lars Lih's Lenin

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Lars Lih’s remarkable, reliable, deliciously readable new biography — Lenin — is part of a larger phenomenon. Lenin, the founder of modern Communism, seems to be coming back: his name and ideas are seeping in from the cracks and crevices of academe; his concepts and insights are echoing in the left-corners of our intellectual life; the sly fox is insinuating himself via the subversive tendrils of avant-garde culture. Such things never happen in a vacuum. What masses of people are experiencing, feeling, and thinking today gives recent Lenin-influenced works a growing resonance, and so they may find a greater “market” than previously has been the case. We are beset by a modest yet growing Lenin revival. Who knows where it will lead?


Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov is presented in this succinct yet substantial work of scholarship as a genuine revolutionary, not the cold-blooded totalitarian monster that has become all-too-common in accounts from both the Cold War and post–Cold War eras.

Lih is rather odd — an independent scholar who migrated from Washington State to Princeton to Montreal, who sometimes sings and performs in amateur Gilbert and Sullivan productions and iconoclastically labors to turn the old field of “Soviet studies” upside-down. A student of the honest and craftsman-like “Sovietologist” Robert C. Tucker (whose two-volume unfinished biography on Stalin has yet to be surpassed), he shattered myths about Lenin in his massive earlier volume, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context, and he continues that good work in this informative biography.

The “textbook” themes in anti-Lenin scholarship (ranging from Adam Ulam and Alfred Meyer to Richard Pipes and Robert Service) go like this: Lenin distrusted the capacity of the working class to be truly revolutionary; he consequently veered away from Marxist orthodoxy in order to develop a “vanguard party” dominated by intellectuals such as himself in order to accomplish the revolutionary task; he was so utterly fanatical that he refused to tolerate any and all disagreement, and even turned away from music because he feared it would make him too “soft.” Lenin’s inhumanity, according to such accounts, was manifest from his early callous rejection of efforts to help starving peasants during the famine of 1891–2 down through to his unrelentingly authoritarian violence utilized to force the intractable Russian masses to live up to his utopian ideals after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Lih’s well-documented account demonstrates the mythological character of these and other well-worn assertions. Steeped in Marxist thought, in fact “in love” with Marx’s writings, as Lih puts it, Lenin maintained a belief in a “heroic working class” that would inevitably prove itself capable of leading — in alliance with Russia’s peasant majority — both a democratic revolution to overthrow the absolute monarchy of Tsar Nicholas II and a subsequent socialist revolution (linking up with workers of other lands) that would bring to birth a society in which, to use Marx’s words, the working class would “win the battle of democracy,” leading to a socialist or communist future that would be “an association in which the free development of each would be the condition for the free development of all.”

The revolutionary party that Lenin helped create (the Bolsheviks) was fundamentally democratic, evolving through sharp debates and disagreements, splits and unifications, a collectivity of activists in which Lenin was more than once over-ruled but within which he earned considerable authority. Far from developing a blueprint for an authoritarian order, Lenin’s “blueprints” (such as they were) projected a workers’ and peasants’ republic of democratic councils (soviets) which would, increasingly, replace what he and other Marxists perceived as the economic dictatorship of capitalism with the economic democracy of socialism. Of course, things did not turn out that way.

In this fine and richly-textured book, graced with a number of splendid and appropriate illustrations, Lenin is placed securely in context: the context of European and Russian history, the context of the broader socialist movement (a truly mass phenomenon before World War I), the context of truly heroic workers’ struggles and of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (and later the Communist Party) that contained a number of other experienced and strong-minded individuals. We are given a sense of the qualities that enabled this human being to have the impact that he did in such contexts. An iron will is combined with a brilliant intellect, with a profoundly realistic and practical theoretical and organizational bent, yet also with a desire to learn from others and — by no means inconsequentially — a capacity for charm and humor, and for genuine kindness.

At the same time, there definitely was a quality akin to arrogance, if we are to believe Lih’s account, and at times an inclination to see a highly complex reality through the distorting lens of his revolutionary assumptions and his faith that the “heroic working class” could and would overcome all obstacles. Lih shows us that this perspective could not survive the escalation of problems and horrific crises that beset the revolutionary regime after 1917. A brutalizing civil war, combined with foreign invasions and economic blockades, and exacerbated by terrible mistakes of the revolutionaries themselves, swept away the autonomy of revolutionary soviets and quickly evaporated the once-potent energy of “workers’ democracy.” In order to survive and create order amid the chaos, Lenin and his comrades implemented emergency policies and improvisations that closed down civil liberties, gave a political monopoly to the Communist Party, and generated the hot-house development of a bureaucratic order. The rescue from this dilemma, Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed, would be workers’ revolutions in other countries, to be facilitated by member parties of the new Communist International, but the revolutions failed to materialize. Modifying his expectations while engaging in initial problem-solving efforts, Lenin never abandoned the fundamental ideas and ideals that had animated him. But he was soon devastated by a series of catastrophic strokes, which ended his political activity by 1922–3 and brought death soon after.

Perhaps the biggest problem that Lenin himself would have with this biography is that it is written not by a revolutionary, but by someone who is sympathetic to revolutionaries such as Lenin but can end the book with the conclusion that Lenin’s revolutionary scenario was “far from realistic.” Lenin is likened to the Biblical Noah, confidently building his revolutionary ark as the flood waters of political, social and economic catastrophe rose higher and higher. “As it turned out, the ark was leaky because it was built on unsound assumptions, the voyage involved more suffering than anyone had bargained for, and the ark ended up far from where its builder planned.”


Despite the author’s disinclination to revolution, Lih’s biography of Lenin is a substantial contribution for those who would like to understand important aspects of recent history, and perhaps to gain some understanding as well of current and future possibilities. It would make sense, while engaging with Lenin’s life and times, to engage also with some of his writings, a comprehensive survey of which can be found in a recent volume published in the “Get Political” series of Pluto Press, entitled Revolution, Democracy, Socialism (complete with an introductory essay by the present author which complements Lih’s findings).

In Lenin’s writings one sees the breadth and coherence of his thinking in his emphasis on the need for socialist and working-class support to struggles of all who suffer oppression, and in his way of integrating reform struggles with revolutionary strategy. His insistence on working-class political independence, and on the need for working-class supremacy (or hegemony), if democratic and reform struggles are to triumph, is matched by his approach to social alliances (such as the worker-peasant alliance) as a key aspect of the revolutionary struggle. We also find his development of the united front tactic, in which diverse political forces can work together for common goals, without revolutionary organizations undermining their ability to pose effective alternatives to the capitalist status quo.

Lenin’s profound analyses of capitalist development, and of imperialism and of nationalism utilize and expand upon Marx’s own studies. His vibrantly revolutionary internationalist orientation embraces the laborers and oppressed peoples of the entire world. Especially dramatic is his understanding of the manner in which democratic struggles flow into socialist revolution. Challenging commonplace perspectives in the socialist movement of his time, Lenin analyzes the nature of the state in history, with a conceptualization of triumphant working-class struggles generating a deepening and expanding democracy that would ultimately cause the state (as a repressive institution separate from and above the people) to wither away.

What one finds in Lenin’s writings, Lih appropriately explains, is the best that one can find in the Marxism of the Second International, the Socialist International to which socialist parties around the world, including Lenin’s own, were affiliated before World War I tore it apart. This embraces the rich contributions of Karl Kautsky up to 1910, as well as those of Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, David Riazanov, Leon Trotsky, and others. One might add that Lenin’s representing the “best of Second International Marxism” actually adds up to a close correspondence between Lenin’s thought and that of Karl Marx.

Unlike Lenin, however, the other outstanding representatives of Second International Marxism mentioned above favored, from 1904 until World War I, organizational unity between the more militant Bolsheviks and the more moderate Mensheviks (along with the myriad of other currents in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party). By 1912, Lenin was splitting that organization in order to establish a coherent and consistent revolutionary party. “The organization question” is often what people think of when Lenin’s name comes up. For example, according to James P. Cannon (an early founder of both US Communism and US Trotskyism): “The greatest contribution to the arsenal of Marxism since the death of Engels in 1895 was Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party as the organizer and director of the proletarian revolution.”

Yet this seems to be contradicted by the findings of Lenin Rediscovered and Lih’s new biography, which place Lenin’s political and organizational conceptualizations squarely within the “best of Second International Marxism” — which was also embraced by his Menshevik adversary, Julius Martov (who was once his best friend). If Lenin and the non-Bolsheviks of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party all were seeking to replicate the German Social Democracy within Russian conditions, however, how can we explain the fact that they were not able to achieve organizational unity? The German Social Democrats had certainly proved capable of containing revolutionary Marxists and non-revolutionary reformists.

Building a Revolutionary Party

In building a Russian party, Lenin followed not only what he believed (and what Kautsky claimed) was the revolutionary example of what pre-1914 German Social Democracy represented. He also followed Marx and Engels, who emphasized in the Communist Manifesto that Communists are the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class movement seeking to push forward all the others — because they are the most theoretically clear element within the working class, with a definite understanding of “the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

The question remains: what distinguished Lenin from Kautsky and the Mensheviks? Given what we know, it would seem that Lenin and the Bolsheviks, unlike their Menshevik comrades and ultimately unlike Kautsky, were prepared to follow the implications of the revolutionary Marxist orientation through to the end. It is not the case that Kautsky or the Mensheviks somehow “forgot” the Marxist ideas that Lenin and his comrades “remembered.” But they compromised.1

The Mensheviks adhered to the dogma that Russia could now only go through a democratic-capitalist transformation, that a working-class socialist revolution would not be on the agenda until many years later. They consequently became committed to a worker-capitalist alliance, which naturally created pressures forcing them to compromise the class-struggle elements of Marxism. For Kautsky, by 1910, it became clear that he would become marginalized within the increasingly bureaucratic-conservative German Social Democratic movement unless he subtly but increasingly diluted his seemingly unequivocal commitment to revolutionary Marxism. By 1914, when the German Social Democracy supported the imperialist war policies of the Kaiser’s government, and in 1917 in the face of the Bolshevik Revolution, Kautsky became utterly compromised. What is distinctive about Lenin’s Bolsheviks is that they did not compromise, they doggedly followed through to the end the implications of the revolutionary Marxist orientation — expressed in What Is To Be Done?, The State and Revolution, Left-Wing Communism, and so much else in Lenin’s writings.

Lih refutes the view that Lenin broke from Marxism to create a “party of a new type,” yet his actually was a different kind of party than the one Kautsky belonged to and that the Mensheviks sought to build. In a similar vein, Lih does not examine with sufficient seriousness important differences that arose within the Bolshevik current itself, in 1905 and even more in the period 1907-1910 when Bolsheviks around Lenin split from Bolsheviks around his one-time lieutenant Alexander Bogdanov.

The writings of Lenin, and the accounts of several people on the scene in 1905 — including Lenin’s comrade and companion, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and also Solomon Schwarz, a Bolshevik agitator (who later became a Menshevik), both of whom tell much the same story — indicate that Lenin and some of his comrades wanted to open up the Bolshevik organization to much more involvement by workers in practical functioning and decision-making. This is not a story that Lih chooses to tell in his Lenin biography, it being cut from the same cloth as the “textbook” distortions of What Is To Be Done? in his opinion, expressed in a recently-published polemic.2

It is worth pursuing the matter further, because it sheds light on the actual dynamics of building a revolutionary party, which at key points remain unnecessarily vague in Lih’s account. Krupskaya offers a generalization about what is called in one of the translations of her memoirs the “committee-men” and in another the “Komitetchiks” and in Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered the “praktiki” — organizers and functionaries with some intellectual skills, operating in clandestine revolutionary committees, overseeing the practical work that was essential for the functioning of the Party, particularly in the labor movement, in the anti-Tsarist underground. Krupskaya puts it this way:

“The “Komitetchik” was usually a fairly self-assured person, who realized what great influence the work of the committees had over the masses; he generally did not recognize any inner-Party democracy whatever. “This democratism only leads us into falling into the hands of the authorities; we are already quite well enough connected with the movement,” the Komitetchiks would say. And inwardly, these committee members always rather despised “the people abroad,” who, they considered, just grew fat and organized intrigues. “They ought to be sent to work under Russian conditions” was their verdict. In period 1904–5 these members of the committees bore tremendous responsibilities on their shoulders, but many of them experienced the utmost difficulty in adapting themselves to the conditions of increasing opportunities for legal work, and to methods of open struggle.”3

Lenin and other Bolsheviks initiated a sharp debate with their “committee-man” comrades in favor of greater organizational openness, and especially in favor of a dramatic increase of insurgent workers in the Bolshevik committees. The committee-men, feeling that their routines were working just fine, were quite resistant. The issue was not whether or not the basic ideas in What Is To Be Done? were correct — both sides agreed on those ideas — but on how to understand and apply the ideas in the dramatically changed context of the 1905 upsurge.

Lih’s polemic is mistaken in characterizing Krupskaya’s remarks as being “hostile” to the Bolshevik activists on the ground in Russia, the praktiki, nor does accepting what Lenin and Krupskaya thought in 1905 amount to adopting a variant of the hostile “textbook” critique of What Is To Be Done?. There is nothing anti-Bolshevik about raising and debating tactical and organizational differences, and Lenin is not the only Bolshevik to have taken the positions that he took in 1905 — although he and his co-thinkers were voted down at the Bolshevik conference where they did so. Bolshevism continued to evolve, however, and it evolved very much in the direction Lenin was arguing for. That happens in a healthy, democratic-activist organization. Debates culminate in decisions which are carried out, tested in practice, and then revised as necessary. It is possible to trace continuities between these internal tensions and debates of 1905 and a far more severe dispute three years later in which Bolsheviks aligned with Lenin ultimately broke from a “hard” Bolshevik current around Bogdanov. Krupskaya, a Lenin “loyalist” if ever there was one, saw Lenin’s position in this dispute as consistent with what he argued in 1905: “making good use of every legal possibility, of forging ahead and rallying the masses.”4

For Lenin and his co-thinkers, there was a need for the creation of a revolutionary workers’ party, guided by a serious-minded utilization of socialist theory and scientific analysis, drawing increasing numbers of working people into a highly conscious struggle against all forms of oppression, and this could not be expected to arise easily or spontaneously. It had to be created through the most persistent, serious, consistent efforts of revolutionary socialists. The working class would not automatically become a force for socialist revolution, but it could develop into such a force with the assistance of a serious revolutionary workers’ party. Such a party — making past lessons, the most advanced social theory, and a broad social vision accessible to increasing numbers of workers — would be a vital component in the self-education and self-organization of the working class, helping to develop spontaneous working-class impulses toward democracy and socialism into a cohesive, well-organized, and powerful social force.

As “practical politics” sag in countries throughout the world, with the economic downturn teetering on the edge of a global depression, popular hopes are likely to give way to radical disappointments. The classical Leninist question “what is to be done?” is being asked with increasing urgency. Perhaps all of this Lenin stuff has a future as well as a past.


  1. This and the next paragraph are “borrowed” from my article “Lenin’s Marxism,” Platypus Review. It responds to an accusation in a “Symposium on Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered.”
  2. Lih mentions Schwarz but avoids serious engagement with what he writes. It is, nonetheless, an important source — Solomon M. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).
  3. N. K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, Volume 1, translated by Eric Verney (New York: International Publishers, 1930), 137–138.
  4. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, translated by Bernard Isaacs (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 167.