2017 is going to see many revised versions of the October Revolution. Some prejudices need to be countermanded even before they are uttered. Lenin’s reputation is overshadowed by, and confused with, Stalin’s.
Lenin was another man entirely. His ideals were tempered by caution, calculation and good sense. Events led him to a revolution he saved from excess, until the tragedy of his early death.
Forget about cuckoo clocks. Zurich in the early Twentieth Century could claim to be the intellectual and cultural centre of the world. Relativity and Depth Psychology were proposed and developed there.
Perhaps it was its central position, or its political neutrality, that made Zurich the resting place and meeting point of exiles in the First World War. In the CafÃ© OdÃ©on, James Joyce often took coffee. It was a place where he could meet and talk in the several languages he knew. He did not speak Russian but one of his acquaintances spoke English, having lived in London. Yes, James Joyce knew Lenin, not too well but well enough to speak with him occasionally. From the CafÃ© OdÃ©on, Lenin would go home to the 1 Spiegelgasse, a narrow passage in the old quarter.
No 14 had opened as the Cabaret Voltaire the month, February 1916, he arrived in Zurich. It is thought that both Lenin and Jung attended. The Cabaret Voltaire was not grand, although its reputation became large. It was one of those small spaces, often in attics or basements, where artistic experiments take place before audiences of a few dozen enthusiasts. They are present at the birth of new work or a new movement. In the case of DADA, it was both. Iconoclastic movements like DADA are shocking to their contemporaries. It is only later that experimental forms are absorbed into the fabric of acceptance. The modern world, in cultural terms, burst onto the world burning with indignation tempered by passionate idealism, and always with a style that caught the iridescence, the energy, and the technical innovation of the Twentieth Century. Edison thought he was developing technologies. He was laying the groundwork for revolution.
‘Communism,’ Lenin was to remark, ‘is Socialism plus electricity.’
History was being written with lightning. And yet, that was not how Lenin saw things at the time. At the dawn of 1917, Lenin was telling students at the Zurich Polytechnic, Einstein’s alma mater, that there would be no revolution in his lifetime. He was 46, and preparing to leave for a new life in the United States, having earned a modest living writing for American newspapers.
Life had been precarious for Lenin. A model pupil at high school (commended by the principal, Mr Kerensky) Lenin attended university. That was a very promising beginning. Events in his native Russia radicalised him and hardened his heart but did not cloud his head. Had he been British, he might have sought work with The Manchester Guardian or the LSE or, failing those options, the WEA perhaps. He very likely would have sought election to parliament.
Something like those possibilities actually could have happened. Lenin’s radical politics exiled him from his native land for years. He began a life of wandering. In exile, he stayed with Gorky in Capri, helping out in the sweet shop below. Like Marx before him, Lenin found London congenial. He could read English but not speak it well. Trotsky suggested he attend a church near the City Road.
‘The sermons are interesting,’ Trotsky said, ‘and it will help improve your English.’ [For Lenin, faith was a purely private matter that society ought to tolerate without political interference].
In the political world, the Bolshevik Party was founded at an acrimonious meeting in Charlotte Street. [Incidentally, the Special Branch officer hiding in a cupboard knew no Russian]. The chances of any accession to power by this collection of ragged idealists were limited indeed.
Lenin did not expect to lead a revolution in his native Russia. He did not think Russia was prepared for revolution. He was quite certain that it first needed to establish civic institutions through a bourgeois democratic process. A measure of capitalism would be necessary also to energise the emerging industrial economy of a nation not long out of serfdom. If the revolution were to occur anywhere, it was not to be Russia.
Lenin’s conception of revolution, therefore, was not a storming of the palace by the mob. It was an evolutionary leap, a natural phase in the developing narrative of human history. Revolution in his eyes was a change of heart rather than a seizure of power. It was one of the determinants of history, which is never static but continually changing with the enlarging of human hopes.
The Nineteenth Century had been a struggle between property and ability. The Twentieth Century was to see the emergence of ability as the dynamic of society. Or so it was to be hoped. The evolutionary leap had begun already in terms in culture. Lenin himself was witness to that. In years to come, perhaps in France or Germany or Great Britain an emerging revolutionary consciousness would transform not one society but all society. Of course it was going to take time. The conditions had to be right.
The failings of the old order had to be generally accepted before the new possibilities could establish themselves and so begin the transformation.
The arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station is one of history’s great set pieces. It was not, however, Lenin’s intention to seize power. The Bolsheviks at that time called themselves Social Democrats. Communism was a distant trajectory. But events were acquiring a momentum. Reluctantly, Lenin agreed to the plan to move history forward in one audacious gesture. The Bolsheviks had the overwhelming support of industrial workers in Russia but had yet to persuade the rural masses. Lenin himself took some persuading before he could agree to the decisive course – with all its dangers – that became known as the October Revolution.
To call it a coup d’Ã©tat is to diminish it as an event in history of world-changing significance. Without any popular support at all, the Bolsheviks would have had no legitimacy. As it was, they had the extraordinary feeling of moving with the current of events that are enacted by human beings yet which feel beyond individual human will. Had Lenin refused, chaos would have decided the matter. A war far more horrendous than the actual conflict, could have had but one acceptable resolution – a Bolshevik government. The Bolsheviks alone had the organisation to resist the vortex of forces competing for power. It was not ideal, but it was historically necessary. Any notion that Lenin, acting as a dictator, prevented the formation of a Western liberal democracy is mere fancy.
The conflict that ensued was as brutal as civil wars are. Not every action by local Soviets had the approval of, or even the knowledge of, the Kremlin. It is very wrong to suppose that Lenin had absolute control. The Bolsheviks were taking collective control. The Bolsheviks did not initiate the revolutionary situation. They inherited the desperate crisis they alone were able to resolve. Peace with Germany was negotiated only by the surrender of vast industrial territory. Another front opened when British imperial forces invaded with the full intention of restoring the Czarist autocracy. The remarkable point is that peace, when it came, was so successful.
This was largely due to Lenin’s pragmatism. In a situation far from ideal, idealist solutions would not work. There was much sustained opposition, but Lenin argued for a degree of private enterprise. It was more efficient for farmers to bring their produce directly to market than to deliver it to a communal warehouse for later distribution. CafÃ©s and small shops opened, bringing not only good things but also a sense of cultural liberation. The New Economic Programme was popular even if it was not ideal socialism. Nor was it corporate capitalism. It was the age-old mercantile exchange of goods and services. Ideologues were angry, but Lenin insisted that it was not to be a temporary measure. Communism was for a future not yet on the horizon. In the meantime, economic life engendered a sense of well-being that was enriching not so much individuals as the whole of social experience.
In society generally, there were many experiments. The revolutionary spirit produced a dynamic culture encouraged by the outstanding minister of education, Lunarcharsky. Film, literature, art and architecture flourished with national and international talents from Eisenstein to Le Corbusier.
But it must never be forgotten that Lenin could not dictate the terms the revolution was to take.
There always was vociferous and sustained opposition to the policies he proposed. The negotiated peace with Germany and the New Economic Programme were initiatives that Lenin pursued against formidable opposition. His power was limited. He was a revolutionary. The revolution could succeed only by consent.
The revolution had to be international in character to succeed. Revolutionary governments in Bavaria and Hungary suggested that the revolution was indeed to be continental. Communist Parties were established not only in the Soviet Union but everywhere. The revolution was attracting the emerging leaders of Western culture. This would continue. The revolutionary ideal became the natural home of generous minds. Art, Science, Literature, the life of Culture and Ideas were touched, not entirely of course but at vital points, by this ideal.
There was, however, a problem. Lenin always advocated a disciplined approach. Perhaps too much so. He loathed extreme leftists. He loathed moderate Socialists. Although he encouraged debate on the nature of the revolution, he loathed factionalism within the governing party. Unity was strength. But unity is one single point of view. Community is an agreement towards a common purpose. The difference is crucial. The orthodoxy emerged wherein the Communist International alone was the locus of revolution. Socialists outside of the Comintern were to be mistrusted and excluded. This was Lenin’s greatest error of judgement, one that an unconscionable mediocrity could exploit in his pursuit of power. And because the devil could, the devil most surely did.
Although Lenin warned against Stalin, he was too weak now, physically, to ensure Stalin’s removal. It was left to Trotsky, who simply didn’t have the merciless guile for the task. In the civil war, Trotsky had learned to be ruthless, and had learned how terrible a thing it is to turn the guns on comrades. It may have saved Trotsky’s skin to be exiled. But for the world it was a momentous sacrifice.
Collectivisation overturned all sense of experiment, liberation and hope. It was Lenin’s fear realised, a dictatorship of bureaucratic nationalism mouthing the slogans of international peace and social optimism while mirroring the arrogant and cruel moralities of empire and industrial mass society.
History, in its early drafts, is written in the camp of victory. It is a given now among identikit Western commentators to blame Lenin for starting it all. No-one now echoes Churchill’s judgement that the premature death of Lenin was the greatest tragedy ever to befall Russia in its long history. One might add the tragedy was not confined to Russia.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall