The Lies We Tell About Lenin

Lenin and the debates that shaped the Russian Revolution have been misunderstood by friends and foes alike.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 has long been an object lesson suitable for drawing edifying morals. Everyone looks at it in order to discover the great mistake — moral, political, ideological — that led to disaster.

Having discovered the mistake, we can feel secure that we would have avoided disaster and superior to all those who have not yet seen the error of their ways. The human reality of the revolution — the overpowering sense of being caught up in a whirlwind of events — is lost as we hurry to draw lessons and point fingers.

For some, the mistake behind the revolution is primarily moral. Lenin, for example, is painted as a fiend incarnate whose bottomless depravity is directly responsible for Russia’s downfall. We can call this the “Boris Karloff Lenin,” who rubs his hands in murderous glee: “Today, I think I’ll oppress the peasants!” I have the impression that something very close to the Boris Karloff Lenin has become the dominant image of the Russian revolution for the wide public, especially in the United States.

Others make a target of “Bolshevism,” defined as a species of recurring moral error. Bolsheviks are those who live by the corrupt code of “the end justifies the means” — something, of course, we the decent public would never do. We would never countenance using unacceptable means such as firebombing civilian populations or using torture, no matter how noble our political goal. Only uncouth fanatics do that.

There is also a certain sort of bien-pensant liberalism that uses Bolshevism to point out the dangers of having exalted political goals. Want to create a workers’ paradise? Watch out that the very nobility of the goal does not lead to terrible crimes. During the Russian Civil War, people were fighting over the most elementary, most unavoidable questions: who will rule the country? How can we put the country back together? Will Russia survive as a state?

Our liberal looks at all this turmoil and sermonizes: now, now, don’t get carried away with dreams of a perfect society! Be like us, with our safe, sane, and sober politics. Moderation, moderation in all things!

The Left is just as addicted to searching out the revolution’s fatal errors — only the Left prefers to put the blame on mistakes in ideological doctrine. A great many on the Left agree with the liberal/conservative view that the original sin of Bolshevism was Lenin’s revisionism in What Is To be Done? According to this view, Lenin didn’t trust the workers, so he turned Marx on his head, and created an elite conspiratorial party based on intellectuals. No wonder he hijacked the democratic program of the Russian Revolution.

An approach less obsessed with identifying and condemning errors will see that the significance of What Is To be Done? does not arise from any alleged ideological innovations. Lenin’s 1902 book is a summation of an idealized version of the logic of underground organization, a logical that had been worked out through empirical trial and error by a generation of anonymous activists during the 1890s. As such, Lenin’s basic model was accepted as a guide by the entire socialist underground in Russia. Coming into 1917, Bolshevism’s distinctiveness did not arise from party organization but rather from its reading of class forces in Russia.

The creation of the socialist underground was not Lenin’s doing — or rather, he made a contribution that was not insignificant but also not crucial. When the Russian state collapsed in 1917 — an event whose titanic consequences were not foreseen by any ideology — this underground provided one of the few forces able to create a new sovereign authority and a new state structure. The legal institutions of Tsarist Russia were mortally wounded by the collapse of Tsarism; in contrast, the illegal underground survived intact, possessed of a nationwide scope and plausible claims to mass support and legitimacy. The socialist underground was much more a product of Russian history than of ideological machinations.


So far I have looked at errors that purport to explain the failures of the revolution, but latter-day partisans of the October Revolution are also engaged in heresy-hunting. For them, the success of the revolution is explained by the rejection of ideological errors. The mainstream Trotskyist interpretation is built around a story of this type.

Back in the 1905–6 (the story goes), Leon Trotsky came up with his theory of permanent revolution and pronounced socialist revolution to be possible in backward Russia. Since his theory attacked the unimaginative dogmas of “Second International Marxism,” Trotsky was greeted with universal incomprehension.

Fortunately, just in time, Lenin saw the light and caught up with Trotsky in April 1917. Together the two great leaders rearmed the Bolshevik Party, thus making the glorious October Revolution possible.

There are number of difficulties with this canonical story, but here I will just point to one odd feature of this pro-October story: it has a pronounced anti-Bolshevik tinge. According to many writers in the Trotskyist tradition, the doctrine of Old Bolshevism was pernicious error that had to be rejected before revolutionary victory was possible. We are constantly reminded by writers in this tradition that the Bolsheviks themselves, taken as a whole, were a dull lot who stubbornly remained loyal to what they had been told yesterday, even when their brilliant and visionary leaders had moved on.

So pronounced is this anti-Bolshevik mood that some writers still have not forgiven me for saying something nice about Bolshevik underground activists. Don’t I realize that these activists were stodgy, hidebound komitetchiki who mistakenly refused to listen to the wisdom of émigré leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky?

In my view, however, this whole approach smacks too much of a “cult of personality” of certain revolutionary heroes. Even the pro-October Trotskyists are far from happy with the ultimate outcome of the revolution, and, as usual, look to doctrinal errors to explain the outcome. The European revolution that was supposed to act as a deus ex machina to save the Russian revolution didn’t happen, in large part because of the “fatalist,” “mechanical,” “determinist,” and just generally “pre-dialectical” Marxism of Karl Kautsky and other leaders of the Second International. In Russia, the outward and visible sign of the inward degeneration of the revolution was the doctrinal heresy of “socialism in one country.”

Of course, many shrewd and essential insights into the Russian Revolution come from the Trotskyist tradition. Yet I cannot help feeling that writers in this tradition are often more interested in their doctrinal abstractions than in the human reality of the Russian Revolution as experienced by those who lived through it.

One key debate about the Russian Revolution has always been: was Russia ready for socialist revolution, or for only a “bourgeois revolution”? The Bolsheviks maintained the former, the Mensheviks the latter position. Who was right, and who was wrong in the debate? If the Mensheviks were right, then the October Revolution was a mistake. If the Bolsheviks were right, then Menshevism must be rejected as counter-revolutionary error.

This approach is correct about one thing: the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks did resort to Marxist concepts such as these in their 1917 polemics. Yet doctrinal arguments of this kind were far from the heart of the matter. Indeed, they were essentially add-ons, attempts to give doctrinal legitimacy to positions based on empirical readings of Russia in 1917. The real question facing the socialist parties was this: could the crisis engulfing Russian society be solved by cooperation with educated society, or did a solution require a new sovereign authority based exclusively on the narod, the workers and the peasants?

Translated into the Russian terms that were central to debates in 1917, the question was: could and should a new vlast be based on soglashenie? Vlast means “sovereign authority” or “power,” as in “Soviet power.” Soglashenie is often translated “compromise” or “conciliation,” but the word implies something stronger: working together on the basis of some sort of pact or agreement. The essential clash in 1917 between Menshevik and Bolshevik on questions like this was not doctrinal, but empirical. Furthermore, we cannot say that one side was wrong and the other right. Each side combined insight and wishful thinking. Let me set out the Menshevik/Bolshevik clash in 1917, using the terms vlast and soglashenie to remind us that we are dealing with Russian empirical realities, and also trying to put the doctrinal dispute in its proper subordinate position.

Menshevik: Some sort of soglashenie with educated society is necessary, and therefore a suitable “bourgeois” partner for this soglashenie can be found (and besides, Russian faces a “bourgeois revolution” and therefore we must tolerate the “bourgeois” Provisional Government).

Bolshevik: Soglashenie with educated society is impossible, and therefore the Russian proletariat is ready to take on the responsibilities of the revolutionary (and besides, Russia is ready to take “steps towards socialism”).

In either case, we start, not with doctrinal insight or error, but with a strongly felt and essentially correct empirical view of Russian society in 1917. The Mensheviks realized that, on the one hand, a modern society could not do without educated specialists and professionals, and, on the other hand, the Russian proletariat was not organized or “purposive” enough to exercise the vlast in isolation nor was the Russian peasantry a secure base for a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The Bolsheviks realized that, despite appearances, elite educated society would never work enthusiastically to accomplish “the goals of the revolution” (even when defined in strictly “democratic” terms) and that in fact educated society would eventually turn against the revolution and work for some sort of “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” — that is, some kind of alliance of liberal politicians and soldiers, or, in Russian terms, Kadets (the liberal Constitutional Democrats) and Kornilov (the general who led an abortive coup attempt in 1917).

For both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, a correct empirical view leads to a factual assertion that is based more on wishful thinking than on the realities. The Mensheviks have to insist that a suitable partner can be found in bourgeois society for carrying out the revolution’s goals (or, at least, that educated society can be bullied into cooperation by “pressure from below”). The situation is too horrible to contemplate if this is not the case.

The Bolsheviks have to insist that vast complicated policies of social transformation and crisis management can be carried out almost painlessly if only the proletariat asserts its class power. The situation is too horrible to contemplate if this is not the case.

In each case, there is a parenthetical add-on that tries to give the legitimacy of Marxist doctrine to an empirically chosen strategy. But in fact, the Mensheviks did not choose their strategy because of doctrinal labels such as “bourgeois revolution,” but rather the reverse: they insisted Russia faced a bourgeois revolution because they didn’t want to dispense with the “bourgeoise” — that is, with educated and trained specialists (or spetsy, as the Bolsheviks later called them when they realized how much they needed them). And the Bolsheviks did not choose their strategy because they first convinced themselves for doctrinal reasons that a socialist revolution was possible in Russia, but rather the reverse: they claimed that immediate “steps towards socialism” were possible because they felt the proletariat had to take power.

Later observers have tended to make these rhetorical gestures towards doctrinal legitimacy the heart of the matter. In fact, in 1917, the attitude toward soglashenie with educated society was the heart of the matter. Essentially, there were only two choices for the socialists: for or against soglashenie. Menshevik and Bolshevik are just the names for these two choices. But the tragedy of Russia in 1917 was that soglashenie was both necessary and impossible. The situation was in fact horrible — too horrible to look straight in the face, too horrible to contemplate.

In this reading, the Russian Revolution is not a matter of making or avoiding mistakes, but a tragedy without an acceptable solution (that’s what tragedy is).

But one more thing needs to be said about the clash between Menshevik and Bolshevik. Each side was a compound of error and insight. But in the case of the Mensheviks, this combination resulted in paralysis. In the case of the Bolsheviks, the combination led them to be up and doing. Just for this reason, the future, for good or ill, belonged to the Bolsheviks.

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