The Legacy of Vladimir Lenin

An interview with
Tariq Ali

One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin's ideas on democracy, terrorism, and revolution still matter.

Writer, filmmaker, and journalist Tariq Ali’s new book The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution, came out last month, in the centenary year of the Russian Revolution — and in April, exactly one hundred years since Lenin’s April Theses, the call to arms after the successful February Revolution which brought down the czar but didn’t bring the soviets to power.

Tariq’s book brings out an unknown Lenin, one who loved Latin literature and classical music, who was profoundly influenced by the political convulsions of the time that intimately affected his own family.

History sees Lenin as a ruthless dictator, so it may be surprising to hear about his commitment to democracy. In this interview with Jacobin Radio’s Suzi Weissman, Ali unravels the myths and slanders about Lenin’s role in history, helps us assess Lenin’s ideas and actions, and asks what relevance they have for today.

This transcript has been edited; you can listen to the episode here, and subscribe to Jacobin Radio on iTunes, Stitcher, and Blubrry


SW

In your new book, you give us a Lenin that we haven’t normally seen: his love of literature and Latin, and chess, and the impact of his brother’s death.

TA

These are the things people don’t talk about, and for a variety of reasons. One reason is what the Soviet leadership did to Lenin after he died. This was a decision taken by the Politburo to mummify him, to display his body in public, to transform him into a Byzantine saint. It’s very much a tradition of the Orthodox Church. Even though some people on the Politburo were not in favor of it, they couldn’t fight it because it would have seemed very sectarian.

Lenin’s widow, Nadia Krupskaya, and his two sisters, pleaded with the leadership and said, “He would have hated it. He loathed all this sort of deification. Please bury him underneath the Kremlin walls where other leaders and activists have been buried. Do not do this to him.”

But they did do this to him, and it was a clever move. They could use Lenin, especially in the Stalin years — rebuild him as someone he wasn’t, forge photographs with him.

Stalin in particular did this. He of course met Lenin quite a lot at Politburo meetings, but to show that they were friends, a lot of photography was faked. Fake paintings were done to show that there’s a total continuity between Lenin, his thought, and what existed in the Soviet Union in the thirties.

Two different groups of people believed or believe this. One was the Stalinist leadership in Russia, and the second was the West.

In this, they had an unholy alliance. The Stalinists said, “What we are doing is a continuation of the work of comrade Lenin,” and what the West and its leaders and ideologues said was “Yes, Lenin is the basis of what is going on in the Soviet Union now.” These two giant state and ideological apparatuses combined to make people forget the real Lenin.

Underneath it all, there lay a very different political leader and theoretician.

SW

The first time I went to the Soviet Union, I was surprised to see the long lines to go to the tomb. I thought then that it will take posterity to sort out Lenin. Has enough time passed that we can bring out this unfamiliar Lenin?

TA

There’s a great deal of hostility, of course, within the mainstream, but the viciousness is gone because the Soviet Union doesn’t exist. I was, frankly speaking, very delighted but also quite surprised that the New York Times asked me to do an op-ed on Lenin. I effectively defended my views as written in the book, and it was published without a murmur.

I hope that this indicates that serious attention is going to be paid to his thought and some of his key writings. The “April Theses,” where he dramatically changes his point of view on what is needed; State and Revolution, where he says, “What we need is a version of the Paris Communes.”

One of the key things in the Paris Commune was elections from below on every single level, so much so that the great French painter Gustave Courbet organized the artists in every quarter in Paris, who elected delegates, who were in charge of deciding how Paris was to look. It was a totally democratic process. This is the model Lenin wanted.

Some people after his death said that, “The Civil War was awful, but even during the Civil War, we had certain freedoms which reminded us of the Paris Commune. There was a sense of equality. Anyone could say what they wanted within the ranks of the army and the party. We could argue with the commissars, etc.”

That whole experience was wiped out by the Stalin dictatorship, and it created this opinion that it all originated with Lenin. The old, old debate — was there total continuity between Lenin and what came after, or none at all? You can’t say either. I think there were elements of continuity. We can’t deny that, but usually about decisions taken during emergency situations.

The most moving thing was going through his last writings, when he’s in a rage. He’s been crippled by a stroke. He’s looking suddenly at a distance, because he’s no longer allowed by doctors to attend governmental meetings or party meetings. He looks at what they’ve accomplished, and he says, “Oh my God, this is not going well.”

His big argument in State and Revolution is that a socialist republic has to destroy all the remnants of czarism, its bureaucracy, and the great Russian chauvinism. He says, “It seems to me sometimes that even though we won the revolution, the old czarist bureaucracy is still in power, and infecting Bolshevik apparatchiks and leaders with what it used to be like.”

This shocks him, so he is preparing a set of sharp documents to try and change this, changing the structure of the Politburo, giving more power to the Control Commission, saying that Stalin should be removed as general secretary of the party, saying what has gone wrong and why.

This is what we, many of us, have been saying for years. Socialism, given where it happened and took place, is always an approximation. You can’t say, “This is socialism.” You are striving towards it. Lenin writes this very quickly.

SW

In your book, you describe when the old anarchist, Prince Kropotkin, met Lenin when he returned to the then-Soviet Union. The anarchists were about to be banned, but he came to Moscow and met with him in May 1919 and complained about bureaucracy. Lenin answered, “We’re always against officialdom everywhere.”

TA

He was quite found of Kropotkin, and he was quite fond of some of the anarchist militants and activists. How could he not be? They had dominated Russian politics for the whole of the nineteenth century.

It wasn’t Marxism that was dominant. It was anarchism. This was the ideology the young people liked. These were the ideas of Kropotkin and Bakunin, which they adopted and which led them to a form of anarcho-terrorism because they said, “There’s nothing left for us to do.”

In some of Karl Marx’s correspondence with Russians like Chernyshevsky, and of course in his talks with Bakunin, he says that, “I am of course completely opposed to terrorism in general, because it’s a distraction from building mass movements and parties, winning over the majority of the working class. But in the Russian case,” says Marx, “there is an argument, since everything is blocked. When young people say, ‘The only way to unblock it is to blow up the oppressors,’ I understand that. You can’t build a strategy around it, but I do understand that.”

Quite a lot of the women who became active at that time were middle-class women, very well-educated, or in the case of Sophia Perovskaya — who blew up one of the czars — she was actually the daughter of the governor-general of Petersburg. These senior bureaucrats actually knew where the czar went, when he went, where he walked, so she organized everything. She was the main organizer, and of course she was hanged for it — the first woman to be hanged by the czarist autocracy.

Lenin knew this. He grew up in it. His brother had mistakenly got involved with a tiny anarchist group when anarchism itself was collapsing. He only wrote the leaflets, and the prosecutor in the court said to him, “Aleksandr Ulyanov, we know what you have done.” Lenin’s brother said, “Yes, you know that I have written the leaflets, but I take full responsibility for the entire action.” There was a nobility there. He didn’t need to do that, and had he not done that, he might well have been given the prison sentence.

Lenin, growing up in this milieu, knew it all, and one of the first things he did was go and see a lot of these anarchists and old anarchist militants. Krupskaya writes quite coyly in Memories of Lenin, “We never went through a town when Vladimir Ilyich did not say okay, I now must go and see A, B, C, D, E, because they’re still alive.” These were always old anarchist militants, so this habit remained with him.

SW

The earlier tactics that Lenin later turned against — the tactic of using terror — sparked a conversation worldwide. Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood here in the United States weighed in, and talked about how direct action is okay, but it has to be by the workers’ movement.

TA

True.

SW

This is the position that Lenin of course adopted later on as well. Why did the Paris Commune mean so much to him?

TA

The Paris Commune essentially arose out of the defeat suffered by the French ruling class at the hands of the Prussians and the Germans, like many other revolutions in history. Napoleon III made a huge error in provoking a conflict with the Germans, and Bismarck and gang were waiting. After this defeat inflicted on the French army, they fled to Versailles.

The Parisians, the workers especially, and the artisans and the intellectuals, said, “We don’t accept this surrender, and let us liberate Paris, and hold it, and fight the Prussians. We don’t want to be occupied either by Napoleon or the Prussians.”

Here you see echoes of Lenin’s position during World War I: We’re not going to support either side. We first saw glimmers of that in the Paris Commune, and they took over. They defeated the reactionary armies gathered in Versailles, and you had the first big outbreak of what we can only call workers’ and popular democracy.

Not all Commune participants were workers. There were many citizens involved who were small artisans in little workshops, artists, writers. Rimbaud, for example, wrote a poem describing going through the Paris Commune, which is incredibly moving.

Then the Paris Commune electrified everyone by saying, “We’re going to elect our own representatives from below,” because democracy did not exist at that time anywhere. Germany was probably the most advanced, but here too, a powerful emergency law had been put into motion to try and keep the Social Democrats at a distance. This democracy from below excited everyone, and these representatives went to the local assembly and their All-Paris Assembly and made their voices heard.

The Vienna Consensus in 1815was not too dissimilar to the Washington Consensus of the 1990s, where they said, “We must make sure that wherever revolution rises, wherever opposition forces develop, they are crushed immediately. We can’t take these risks.”

Then 1848 erupted with revolutions and demands for national self-determination all over Europe, and then you had the outbreak of the Paris Commune. This was very close to the hearts and the minds of revolutionaries all over the world. The message went out as far as the Philippines: “Look what’s happening in Paris. Look what’s said or what they’re doing.”

From 1871 onwards, you began to see the development of a current which was proto-Marxist. Marx supported the Commune completely, but felt that a huge number of tactical mistakes had been committed due to inexperience which could have been stopped. Those people who try and differentiate Lenin from Marx will find that actually what Marx said on the Paris Commune was very similar to what Lenin was going to say later.

The other thing about Lenin and the state that was created in 1917 is that all the Western alliance — the Entente powers, the United States — consisted of the people who would run American intelligence for years to come. John Foster Dulles and Alan Dulles as twenty-somethings were present at that meeting to decide how to defeat the Russian Revolution. Britain was involved. Other European powers were involved. Twenty-two armies backed by the big powers of the Western alliance were trying to defeat the Russians. That left a very deep mark on that revolution.

You need an understanding of politics. Lenin, his generation, and Marx: these were political people. They understood that without politics, nothing could move forward. Lenin was of course in this sense a genius, as even his enemies acknowledged. Absolutely crystal clear, not painting defeats as victories, but saying that victories were possible if we did A, B, and C.

SW

The February Revolution was spontaneous, with workers pouring into the street. They overthrew the czar, but because there was vacillation, the soviets did not proclaim their power, and instead a weak provisional government came into power. It was a very free time, but on the other hand, the revolution was not yet finished. What happened when Lenin came back from exile and landed at the Finland Station?

TA

When Lenin got there, the soviets were just being assembled. Some existed. Not all over the country, but in all the main centers, this was the model. There was no parliament. The Duma was not respected at all, and because of the experience of 1905 — a dress rehearsal for the revolution, as Lenin called it — when soviets first sprang up spontaneously and none of the parties were strong in them. They were genuinely spontaneous and liberatory. Many people realized that this should be the model of democracy — a soviet democracy — which had a very different meaning to what was later ascribed to it.

When Lenin arrives, he’s greeted by an official delegation from the soviet, led by the liberal and moderate parties, and effectively Chkheidze, a right Menshevik, says, “We welcome you back, comrade Lenin, on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet, but we urge you to understand that this is a very broad revolution and that you must unite with everyone else to take the movement forward.” Lenin shakes hands with him indifferently, and then moves forward to address the workers’ and soldiers’ delegates waiting. He says, “We have to make a revolution, and this revolution has to be a socialist revolution. We have to end the war, and the chance to go after land, peace, and bread.”

This is one of Lenin’s old bitty slogans. Underneath each word, land, peace, and bread, there is an iron pillar, which is Bolshevik tactical and strategic policy. That’s what these pillars encompass, and these are very popular slogans.

The officials moan. They think, “God, nothing changes. The guy is still the same. He hasn’t changed,” because some of the Bolsheviks gave them to understand that we were all together now, and nothing much was going to happen. Lenin understood that if this moment is lost, there will be no revolution, because these jokers who were in power refused to take Russia out of the war, which was a hugely popular demand. They couldn’t or didn’t have the power to transform the social situation.

SW

It’s here that Victor Serge says that Lenin was a revolutionist at the time of revolution, and that defines a leader. He knew the moment, could see what it held, and grasp it and move forward with it.

TA

Exactly. Lenin drafted the “April Theses.” One shouldn’t mystify these too much. He liked writing in the form of theses. They were condensed. They were very clear. There were no extra words in them, just mapping out and pointing what needed to be done. Lenin said that the proletariat has to take power.

Orthodoxy says that all we are permitted to have at this moment is a bourgeois democratic revolution. That means we ourselves shouldn’t participate in it because we’re against the bourgeoisie. Let them do the revolution, and we will wait, and when they’ve accomplished it and developed it, then we will come out and make a different socialist revolution. Lenin said, “This is complete and utter nonsense.”

As the weeks pass, two things are obvious. Lenin’s views are extremely popular in the factories, not just the Putilov factories but quite a large number of other subsidiary factories that surround Petrograd. They are very popular with the women, working-class women and women confined to the home. Making sure that people in his own party understand that, he first wins over the Bolshevik rank and file.

The working class is ahead of the party, then the rank and file is ahead of the party leadership, and then Lenin finally stands up and tells the party leaders, “Okay, what are we going to do?” By this time, most of them have agreed that the April Theses have to be adopted, though when Lenin first came in, they said, “Lenin has gone mad. What’s going on?”

Importantly, the adoption of the “April Theses” opens the door for Trotsky and his small group of extremely gifted intellectuals, who’ve been arguing along these lines themselves for many years, to now come in and join the Bolshevik Party — thus strengthening the intellectual culture of the Bolsheviks, which was not at its highest level.

SW

Let’s talk from April to October and the excitement of the revolution.

TA

There are ups and downs. At one point in July 1917, the workers — or the most militant section of the workers, unorganized by any party but quite a lot of them were Bolshevik sympathizers — decide that, “Enough is enough, and we’ve got to take power now.” Lenin, of course knowing the situation extremely well by now, is convinced that this is premature, because they still don’t have a majority in the key soviets, and tries to stop it. But once the workers come out, the Bolsheviks go out with them. There’s no question of staying at home, no question of passivity, and this is crushed.

Then you have a counterrevolutionary response. Trotsky’s arrested. Other Bolshevik leaders are picked up. Lenin is forced by his own party to go into exile, so disguised as a railwayman and wearing a wig (in which he looks very cool, by the way).

He crosses the border, and from there he carries on pummeling the leadership, saying, “This is a temporary setback. Nothing fundamental has changed.” By September, as the front is totally disintegrating, there are mutinies, there are large-scale desertions, and the peasants in uniform are coming home — and very vulnerable to Bolshevik agitation. It is this Bolshevik agitation politics, that wins them over.

It becomes very difficult for Kornilov and the right-wing generals to rely on their own soldiers to carry out massacres. When Kornilov’s troops are marching towards Petrograd to try and bump off everyone and take power Pinochet-style, Bolshevik agitators go out and say, “Look, do you know why you are being brought into Petrograd? You’re being brought in to crush your fellow workers, to help crush other soldiers.” The army begins to drain away.

By this time, Lenin is back in Moscow, secret meetings of the leadership take place, and they decide, “This is the day, the seventh of November, when we are going to actually take power.”

People say this was a conspiracy, but this was the most openly proclaimed revolution in world history. There was no secret. When Lenin was even in the minority, someone said to him in the Petrograd soviet, “People talk of taking power. Is there any party in this assembly that is prepared to take power now?” This short, bald man raises his hand, is recognized, gets up, and says, “The Bolsheviks are ready to take power now.” There’s laughter and merriment and jokes.

By the end of September, something key happens. The Bolsheviks have a majority in the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets of Moscow and Petrograd. When Lenin learns that this has happened and the situation has changed, then he decides, “Okay, the time is right,” and they plan the takeover, which happens without any violence at all.

One footnote here. The great Menshevik historian N. N. Sukhanov, who has written one of the best histories of the revolution — quite critical of Lenin in some ways but a wonderful history — says that he rang up his wife to tell her he’d be a bit late, and his wife said, “I’d rather you didn’t come home tonight. There are lots of people staying. Stay in the office tonight.” The next day, Sukhanov finds out that the reason he was chucked out is that the Bolshevik Central Committee was meeting at his house to make the decision to launch the insurrection.

SW

Trotsky once said not just that revolutions are the mad inspiration of history, but that a revolution is a fight for the army, and the side that gets the army wins. Whole garrisons were supporting the Bolsheviks, but the revolution was fairly peaceful.

TA

Completely. There were very few casualties. Eisenstein’s film October exaggerated the affair. He felt he had to make a movie of it, but it was a relatively calm affair. There was great joy in the streets.

SW

What is the legacy of the revolution?

TA

Socialism plus democracy. This was a socialist revolution made before its time, isolated in Europe through massacres in Germany of the German leaders of the working class, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebnecht, etc. All the Bolsheviks agreed that if they were isolated, there would be trouble. Of course, there was trouble — both internally and with external powers, and the rise of fascism in Germany.

Had the revolution taken place in Germany, in the 1920s, the whole history of Europe would have been different.