The Real Vladimir Lenin

Ninety-nine years after the Russian Revolution, let’s free Lenin from distortions of all types.

Lenin and other Soviet leaders celebrate in Red Square on the second anniversary of the October Revolution.

The US elections might be center stage at the moment, but there’s an anniversary that should be of real note for the Left: that of the October Revolution. Ninety-nine years ago, Vladimir Lenin led his Bolshevik Party to state power in Russia, ushering in events that would change the shape of the twentieth century.

After years of trying to “change the world without taking power” and repudiating all aspects of Leninism, many on the Left have been rediscovering Lenin of late, due in no small part to the work of historian Lars Lih. Lih has spent years assailing Cold War warriors dead set on portraying Lenin as a monstrous precursor to Stalin. In this respect, there is much to commend in his 2011 biography Lenin, and other writings on the subject.

There’s reason to be skeptical of some of his scholarship, however.

There are two Lenins in Lih’s 2011 study. First, there is the esoteric Lenin. This Lenin, Lih writes,

. . . lived the intense but self-absorbed life of the party intellectual: engaging in endless polemic with factional opponents, preparing resolutions for party congresses . . . arguing about the proper interpretation of official party decisions . . . [writing] polemical books and articles, [launching] various campaigns against ‘organizational opportunism’, ‘liquidationism’, ‘recallism’ and similar heresies, seemingly without number . . .

This Lenin is only accessible to the activist few. He is the inessential, “squabbling” Lenin. Lih disparages him.

Then there is the exoteric Lenin. He is the essential Lenin, the “inspirational” Lenin. This Lenin

. . . had an inner political life that lifted him above the day to day skloki (squabbles) and factional clashes. This was the life of his heroic scenario through which he interpreted events. . . . The obsessive factional skloki of émigré life acquired meaning because Lenin saw himself as facilitating the emergence of the vast energies of the people.

Lenin wanted to inspire the activist to inspire the proletariat to inspire the narod [people] to rise up against the tsar, thus giving the whole world another inspiring example of how to carry out a people’s revolution.

Fortunately, this Lenin is accessible to all. Lih praises him to the skies.

But Lih’s exoteric Lenin is, for the most part, a myth. In fact, Lenin became a political leader of such magnitude precisely because of his capacity for logical argument and rational polemic — which was far from self-absorbed “squabbling,” as Lih patronizingly puts it.

Lenin’s literary connection to the broad masses was most often not direct. He wrote principally for activists — supporters and opponents alike. Those workers and intellectuals who accepted Lenin’s views then disseminated the Bolshevik leader’s carefully reasoned polemics to wider layers of the working class and beyond. Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher put it well:

Those who state the case for a faction or group usually involve themselves in more or less complicated argument and address the upper and medium layers of their movement, rather than the rank and file. . . . [Those] who win the cadres of a party for their more involved argument are likely to obtain the hearing of the rank and file as well; the cadres carry their argument, in simplified form, deeper down.

This case-stating Lenin was the real Lenin — the historical Lenin. He had little in common with the theatrical Lenin who, as Lih would have it, delivered hosannas to “heroic class leadership” in and out of season, perennially writing “angry polemics” against all the “philistines” and “skeptics” who “refused to lift themselves up to the grand vistas” of the heroic scenario.

In fact, Lenin strongly criticized those who dismiss political conflict as little more than unprincipled wrangling, accusing them of being unwilling or unable “to distinguish between the ‘conflict’ aspect of the struggle of ideas, of the struggle of trends, and that aspect of it which is a matter of principle.”

The historical, case-stating Lenin was not bogged down in mere squabbling, as Lih might suggest; rather, Lenin’s methodical approach to political argument — vastly different from many of his opponents — is what allowed him to become such an inspiring and motivational figure.

Lih structures his book around the concluding paragraph of Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What Is to Be Done? There, Lenin issued a clarion call:

When the advanced representatives of [the working] class assimilate the ideas of scientific socialism and the idea of the historical role of the Russian worker — when these ideas receive a broad dissemination — when durable organizations are created among the workers that transform the present, uncoordinated economic war of the workers into a purposive class struggle, — then the Russian worker, elevated to the head of all democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism and lead the RUSSIAN PROLETARIAT (side by side with the proletariat of ALL COUNTRIES) by the direct road of open political struggle to THE VICTORIOUS COMMUNIST REVOLUTION. (Lih’s translation)

Lih derives from Lenin’s call to action a “heroic scenario” in three acts: Act I is the story of the creation of a “durable organization,” the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), between 1894–1904; Act II is the struggle to overthrow Tsarism between 1904–1914; and Act III narrates Lenin’s drive for the worldwide victory of communist revolution between 1914–1924.

But in each act, Lih’s exoteric Lenin is of little use — or worse, an impediment — to understanding the historical Lenin. The concrete particulars of the historical Lenin — his investigations, polemics, strategies — can neither be derived from, nor seized by, the abstract generalities of Lih’s theatrical figure.

Act I

According to Lih, the “opening act of Lenin’s world-historical drama” takes place between 1894-1904. While in Siberian exile in the late 1890s, Lenin (ostensibly) developed an “ambitious plan” to unite the various trends, factions, and groups in Russian social democracy into a single organization based on a common program.

Shortly after his release, Lenin moved to Europe and, with future Menshevik leaders Julius Martov and Pavel Akselrod, launched Iskra in December 1900 to publicize the plan. In 1902, Lenin wrote his famous What Is to Be Done? detailing what the Iskrists wanted to accomplish and how they wanted to accomplish it.

According to Lih, What Is to Be Done? became an instant hit among Russian socialists because it glorified the role of the praktiki the empire’s rank-and-file activists. In his pamphlet, Lenin celebrated the praktiki as the salt of the earth, leaders capable of inspiring the people to overthrow the Tsar, to fight for freedom and democracy, to storm heaven.

The What Is to Be Done? “basic theme of leadership, as embodied by an inspired agitator or propagandist spreading the word and raising consciousness, was one that excited many people,” Lih explains. And more to the point, “Lenin’s vision of party organization was not his personal innovation, but rather a systematization of methods collectively worked out by a whole generation of social-democratic praktiki.”

According to Lih, the “heroic scenario” described in What Is to Be Done? “provided the activists with a romantic self-image of leaders who were capable of inspiring boundless confidence.” Lenin became an “idol” to them.

Iskra’s intense, two-year campaign to convene a reasonably representative assembly of Russian social democrats elected by the praktiki came to fruition in August 1903, when the Second Congress met first in Brussels and then in London. At the Congress, however, Lenin’s visionary plan — suddenly and against all odds — spectacularly fell apart.

Lenin’s “plan hit a completely unexpected snag at the very moment of its fulfillment” writes Lih. “Ugly mutual recriminations” flew; “personal animosities” flared; “organizational jockeying for position” distracted the attention of many; “dense” and “tangled” issues divided the delegates.

By the end of 1903, the once dominant party leader going into the Second Congress had been “completely isolated, his leadership role apparently finished.

How could this have happened? Specifically, how could so many praktiki have turned their backs on their idol? How could the fulfillment of Lenin’s grand plan — “the systematization of methods collectively worked out by a whole generation of Russian praktiki,” no less — coincide with the political downfall of the grand planner?

According to Lih:

As always, a cold-eyed look at reality will reveal the yawning gap between the actual konspiratsiia underground and its heroic self-inscription into Lenin’s narrative [of heroic leadership]. . . . Yet his dream, far-fetched as it may have been, was a historical reality because people believed in it.

But this sort of reasoning is perilous and difficult to justify. On the one hand, Lih is at pains to assert that Lenin’s breathtaking vision faithfully reflected the realities of the Russian social democracy, and that he understood the innermost needs, wants, dispositions, and aspirations of rank-and-file activists like no other.

On the other hand, once these activists elect their representatives to the Second Congress, many then act in a manner wholly contrary to Lenin’s image of them, raising doubts about the “historical reality” of a “far-fetched” dream these praktiki apparently did not believe in.

Instead of seeking some further explanation to reconcile the disparity between Lenin’s theory and practice — between expectation and results — Lih simply claims inconsistency between the two — a “yawning gap” between the dream and the reality.  A real “cold-eyed look at reality,” however, can begin to resolve this paradox — whereas Lih’s heroic scenario can only create it.

Lih demonstrates that, at the turn of the twentieth century, all Russian social democrats “were trying to find their way to achieve central coordination.” Though they were organized into many groups and tendencies, everyone was striving for this goal.

However, Lih adds to “erect a national party authority you needed relatively homogenous local committees – but to obtain homogenous committees, you needed a common party authority” recognized by all committees, groups, and tendencies.

It was a “vicious circle.” How to escape from it? “Here’s how,” Lih writes:

Begin with the creation of an all-Russian political newspaper [Iskra]. . . . At first this paper would admittedly be the product of a self-appointed and unauthorized group. . . . This paper would then make an appeal to the local committees to become integral partners in [Iskra’s] creation . . . thus for the first time, the committees would be working together on a national project.

But this only finesses the problem. Lih gets caught up in another vicious circle here because he basically assumes everyone will get behind the self-appointed, unelected Iskrists.

In Lih’s rendering, all groups and tendencies other than Iskra appear not to have political and organizational views of their own. Ostensibly overawed by Iskra’s technical prowess, on which Lih dwells, they fall in line politically with Iskra’s plan for uniting all organizations, working harmoniously on a national project.

This is hard to credit. These groups had views of their own. In fact, they pushed against Iskra, refusing to modestly defer to one unelected group and refusing to authorize the uncontested dissemination of Iskra‘s views across Russia. And because they had a backbone of their own, they compelled Lenin to write What Is to Be Done?

Iskra’s plan, of course, presupposed that there was an indisputable desire for unity among all Russian social democrats, whatever group they were in. The success of its project was premised on this overriding desire — without it, without a minimum of good faith on everybody’s part, the project was pointless. By reiterating this indisputable point, however, Lih obscures what was in dispute.

In Lih’s account, there is little sense of the acute struggle that arose at this time over what kind of political and organizational unity best suited the needs of Russian social democracy. But this political struggle was the essential characteristic of this period, around which everything else was predicated. What Is to Be Done? was its polemical centerpiece.

What Is to Be Done?, therefore, was not what Lih would have us believe: a technical manual about how to build an underground organization whose members are trained in the fine art of eluding the police as they go about spreading the good news of socialism among the workers. Nor was it a hymnal to the heroic qualities of the rank-and-file social democrat, although Lenin did pay fulsome tribute to their selflessness, their devotion to a common cause, and their willingness to fight for a better world. Instead, What is to be Done? was a forceful critique of Rabochee Delo, one the other groups striving for unity among social democrats.

Lenin devoted a great many pages of his pamphlet to an analysis of this “economist” tendency in Russian social democracy, which, he thought, was a local manifestation of a much broader revisionist trend in international social-democratic thinking whose chief ideological spokesperson was Eduard Bernstein, a prominent German social democrat who advocated a reformist path for the workers’ movement.

No other individual matter commanded Lenin’s attention as much as this trend. But one would never know it from reading Lih. Incredibly, he never even mentions Rabochee Delo in this context.

Instead, Lih seizes on the peripheral, cloak-and-dagger aspects of What Is to Be Done?, largely reducing the realization of Iskra’s project to an internally apolitical, technical process — a “cat-and-mouse game of false passports, double-bottomed suitcases, secret printing presses and roving emissaries that often ended in confusion and despair.”

Lih’s misconceptions notwithstanding, Lenin was not a schoolmaster inspiring impressionable workers with heroic paeans, but a social democrat addressing other social democrats — workers and intellectuals alike — on matters of urgent mutual concern.

Lenin had to argue for Iskra’s position because the Iskrists did not yet voice the common aspirations of Russian social democrats. Until they could do so, Lenin’s partisans would represent but one trend, among others, in Russian social democracy.

Only a duly constituted and democratically elected Congress of Russian social democrats could empower the Iskrists to speak and act for all social democrats in Russia. At the Second Congress, the assembled delegates reached agreement on some issues but not on others, and new issues arose for the first time, generating fresh discussion — hence the acute debates and divisions that characterized the meeting.

But Lih ignores all this — apparently, it belongs to the esoteric, inaccessible, squabbling Lenin.

Act II

After the Second Congress, the economist tendency Lenin had decried became Menshevism. The Mensheviks looked to the liberal bourgeoisie, organized in the Kadet Party, to guide the bourgeois-democratic revolution against the Tsar, with the RSDLP following the Kadets’ lead at a respectful distance.

In contrast, Lenin stuck to the orthodox Iskrist view that only the RSDLP-led “heroic working class” — not a liberal-bourgeois opposition, paralyzed by fear of revolution — could put itself at the head of “all democratic elements” of Russian society to overthrow Tsarism.

This constituted the “essence of Bolshevism” in the decade between 1904 and 1914, according to Lih — and rightly so. However, in Lih’s view, the “only way” the proletariat could “play its destined leadership role” was “through the institution of the konspiratsiia underground.”

This is far too categorical.

The 1905 Revolution compelled the Tsar to legalize many formerly illegal working-class institutions and activities, trade unions above all. The underground konspiratsiia party was no longer the only way the working class could organize its struggle for freedom and democracy. Lih’s overly abstract and static conception of Bolshevism’s essence fails to capture the novel problems facing the RSDLP in the post-revolutionary period.

The critical question of the relationship between the legal, aboveground activities of Russian social democrats, and their illegal, underground activities now appeared for the first time, a question which social-democratic parties in the West did not have to face, and to which the Erfurt Program (1891) — the lodestar of all social-democratic parties — gave no answer, since Erfurtianism presupposed the legality of working-class political activity.

The Fourth Congress of the RSDLP, held in Stockholm in 1906, was forced to take up this unique issue and decide what to do.

Intriguingly, at this juncture a majority of the delegates at the Fourth Congress chose to follow the Mensheviks, not the Bolsheviks. Lih offers no explanation for this development, instead limiting himself to the offhanded, belittling remark that these “seesaws” in social-democratic opinion did not matter much.

After lengthy debates, the delegates rejected resolutions submitted by the Bolsheviks — which emphasized the need to keep the underground apparatus of the RSDLP intact as long as Tsarism remained in power.

The majority instead adopted resolutions submitted by the Mensheviks, which discounted the importance of that apparatus in the new, post-1905 era of Duma constitutionalism — during which the Mensheviks hoped the Russian social-democratic labor movement would fully Europeanize itself, becoming legal and open just like its Western European counterparts.

Lih’s unifying heroic scenario cannot explain the divergent reactions of Russian social democrats to the appearance of the Duma — which, as a parliamentary form, represented yet another legal institution through which revolutionaries might spread their message.

The Mensheviks had heralded the parliamentary assembly as the first step toward a European-style constitutional state, simultaneously laying the basis for Russian social democrats to adopt fully the politics and organizational methods of the German Social Democratic Party — about which Karl Kautsky had written at great length in The Class Struggle, his 1892 conspectus on the Erfurt Program.

Indeed, many Mensheviks, the real Erfurtians of Russian social democracy, had advocated participation in elections to the Duma as soon as the Tsar announced his intention to establish it, in his October Manifesto of 1905.

In contrast, all Bolsheviks at first followed Lenin’s lead and called for boycotting elections to this institution, hoping to stop the Tsar from convening it in the first place — this tactic being part of a broader, extraparliamentary strategy to overthrow the autocracy itself in favor of a democratic republic and genuine Europeanization.

The electoral boycott failed, the Tsar was not overthrown, and the Duma became a reality in 1906.  At this point, Lenin changed his mind and called for participation,  aligning himself with the Mensheviks on this question — though not sharing the Mensheviks’ assessment of the political significance of such participation.

But the Bolsheviks eventually split over the issue. Some left Bolsheviks stuck to the boycott tactic, parting ways with Lenin.

Again, Lih has little of consequence to say about Lenin’s interventions in these wide-ranging and intricate discussions over revolutionary strategy and tactics under Russian conditions. Like Lenin’s participation in the Second Congress, these interventions too belong to Lih’s esoteric Lenin, not to the theatrical Lenin he valorizes.

Lih substitutes any serious analysis of Lenin’s position in these political clashes, instead retelling a contemporary joke — “police officers escorting a Menshevik and a Bolshevik to prison” could go “off for a drink,” leaving both scofflaws unsupervised because a “Menshevik and a Bolshevik would invariably spend the whole time arguing with each other” instead of making a dash for freedom.

Like the two police officers, Lih is not interested in, and does not care to report, what the two social democrats were arguing about.

Finally, and most critically, the 1905 Revolution itself substantially rewrote the second Act of Lih’s scenario as well — by falsifying Lenin’s view that the RSDLP alone could channel the workers’ movement to overthrow Tsarism.

The reverse turned out to be the case.

The workers’ movement created the St. Petersburg Soviet through which the RSDLP had to channel its activities.

The soviet, a non-party organ, represented the working class as a whole, regardless of political tendency. It was democratically elected. Since all workers recognized its authority, no party could lead the working class to victory unless it had the authority of the soviet behind it. The party could not do it all.

No social democrat at the time recognized in the soviet the harbinger of a new state, a workers’ state.  Lenin would first do so only in his draft of State and Revolution, written on the eve of the 1917 revolution.

Lih adamantly refuses to recognize the pathbreaking significance of that cardinal text, along with the fresh realities it sought to grasp.


The chasm between the real Lenin and the theatrical Lenin is even wider in the third act, whose central scene is the revolution of 1917.

As described in his famous April Theses, Lenin now called for a proletarian-socialist — not bourgeois-democratic — revolution, a sea-change in perspectives.

In keeping with his fixed conception of Bolshevism’s “logic,” however, Lih does everything in his power to deny there was any fundamental change in Lenin’s strategic orientation.

Prior to 1917, apart from Leon Trotsky, social democrats everywhere held the view that the coming upheaval in Russia could only take the form of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, because the material premises for socialist revolution were absent.

The proletariat constituted but a small minority in Russia whereas the peasantry, scattered across millions of family-sized farms, formed the vast majority — and had no interest in the collective, planned organization of production.

Only the development of capitalism could transform peasants into workers, simultaneously creating the material, practical basis for both socialist revolution and for socialism. But the growth of capitalism itself was arduously slow. The coming revolutionary reconfiguration of class and property relations would fast-track its expansion.

Economically, the bourgeois-democratic revolution would sweep away the remnants of Russia’s feudal order — above all, the Tsarist state — and, by giving land to the peasants, allow production (in agriculture especially) to switch from a slow, “Prussian tempo” to a fast-moving “American” one.

If this bourgeois revolution could fully realize its democratic potential, the ideal form of the capitalist state would be a republic. The workers’ movement would then take full advantage of freedom of press, assembly, and speech — characteristic features of the republican form of the capitalist state — to develop freely, along western European lines.

With these key bourgeois-democratic tasks solved, Russian social democracy would then press on and fight for socialism, just like its counterparts in Germany, France, and other advanced capitalist countries.

That was one way of looking at things.

But Trotsky outlined a different view in 1906, claiming that the coming democratic revolution in Russia could only win as a proletarian-socialist movement.

The working class was to take power and, with the support of the peasantry, carry out bourgeois-democratic tasks – peasant expropriation of the landed gentry — simultaneously with socialist tasks — worker expropriation of the capitalists.

In Trotsky’s account, there is no non-revolutionary transitional period, however brief, between the bourgeois-democratic and the proletarian-socialist phases of the revolution.

The victory of socialist revolution in Russia, Trotsky thought, would inspire workers abroad to do the same. And the success of the revolution in Russia would depend on successful proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist west in the very near future.

At first, no one but Trotsky had this view — which he termed the theory of permanent revolution. But he was vindicated in 1917 by Lenin’s April Theses, which were soon adopted as the Bolshevik perspective.

Astonishingly, Lih doesn’t even mention permanent revolution or refer to Trotsky’s authorship of the theory. Nor does Lih fully endorse the term “bourgeois-democratic revolution.”  Instead, he repeatedly uses a substitute expression — “democratic revolution do kontsa,” or democratic revolution to the end.

This term fails to specify which democratic revolution is to be carried out “to the end”: the socialist or the bourgeois? And that is why Lih uses it.

Lih smudges the concepts of bourgeois and socialist revolutions together, relying on an imprecise formulation that obscures the differences between the two. But Russian social democrats well understood the difference long before 1917.

Lenin highlighted the two different “tasks” facing the international working class movement in Several Theses, written in October 1915:

The task confronting the proletariat of Russia is the consummation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe. The latter task now stands very close to the former, yet it remains a special and second task, for it is a question of the different classes which are collaborating with the proletariat of Russia. In the former task, it is the petty-bourgeois peasantry of Russia who are collaborating; in the latter, it is the proletariat of other countries.

Lenin’s April Theses later merged the two tasks in a superior synthesis — something Lih seems unable to grasp. Instead, Lih distorts both the April Theses and the Several Theses (arbitrarily retitled by Lih as the October Theses, so that they can fit with his idiosyncratic interpretation of overriding continuity in Lenin’s thinking during this period.

Everyone has regarded Lenin’s Theses as the “expression of a major shift in Lenin’s outlook,” Lih writes. But this “traditional” and universally held view is wrong, because “identifying what is new in these theses is quite difficult.”

Lih boldly declares that the April Theses of 1917 might just as well be called the “October Theses of 1915” — according to Lih, there is an essential unity between the two documents.

Lih argues that four elements appear in both documents — “militant opposition to a government of revolutionary chauvinists intent on continuing the war”; “all power to the soviets”; “winning over the peasants by advocating immediate land seizures”;  and “diplomacy bent on changing the imperialist war into a civil war.”

But Lih fails to see that it’s in the wider political context that the April Theses acquire their historically specific meaning and larger political significance.

In 1915, there was no government of “revolutionary chauvinists” in Russia determined to continue the war. Instead, there was a war-waging autocracy that Lenin thought must be overthrown. But in 1917, the Provisional Government was undoubtedly “chauvinist” – yet its policies were made not by “revolutionaries” but by determined opponents of revolution, the Kadets. Lenin thought this government must be overthrown — not militantly opposed.

What was to be  “militantly opposed” — but, crucially, not overthrown — were the policies of the soviet, where the “revolutionary chauvinists” (the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries) were in the majority and bent on continuing the war.

“All power to the soviets” does not appear in Lenin’s 1915 text (a clear-cut mistake on Lih’s part), and Lenin attributes no special significance to the soviet, devoting but one line to it. But in 1917, Lenin wrote a whole book about this world-historical political form, State and Revolution, published in 1918.

Lih trashes this book without ceremony. It “strikingly lacks the tang” of 1917 Russia, is “pitched at an abstract level of socialist revolution in general and consists mainly of angry polemics about the meaning of various passages from Marx and Engels.” (emphasis added).

In other words it is the esoteric Lenin again, the obsessive squabbler who Lih insists we should disregard.

In 1915, Lenin advocated peasants immediately seizing the gentry’s land as part of a more general demand for the nationalization of all land — peasant and gentry — by a bourgeois-democratic state. But by April 1917, he advocated the same by a workers’ state.

By October 1917, he reluctantly came around to the idea of the peasants seizing the gentry’s land and distributing it among themselves — then the Bolsheviks jettisoned their nationalization platform in favor of the Socialist Revolutionary one: all land to the peasants.

In 1915, there could be no diplomacy to transform the imperialist war into a civil war, since only states can engage in diplomacy. Lenin could not make state policy since he had no state.

He could only make party policy to transform the imperialist war into a civil war. And that could happen only through revolution, not diplomacy.

That event took place in October 1917, when the Bolsheviks placed all power in the hands of the soviet — because the Bolsheviks had, by this time, won a majority over the Mensheviks in the workers’ councils, on the basis of a key plank of the Bolshevik platform: all power to the soviets! Only then could the soviet state play a role in promoting an anti-imperialist peace. In Lenin’s view, the reappearance of the soviet form in all the urban centers of Russia in 1917 decisively shattered the bourgeois limitations of the democratic revolution.

But again Lih disagrees.  What was “crucial to Lenin’s whole view of the Russian revolution” was instead “class conflict within the peasantry.”

This is a gross violation of historical perspective. The so-called class-conflict within the peasantry only became an important element of Lenin’s strategic thinking when civil war broke out in June 1918 — not in his overall conception of the Russian Revolution in April 1917.

Socialism in One Country?

Lenin never abandoned the basic perspectives and essential arguments underlying the permanent revolution. They remained central to his worldview to the end.

These views are even foundational to Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920) the most important work on communist politics Lenin published in the post-1917 period. But Lih pays no attention to this work.

Lih also fails to report much of value about Lenin’s interventions in the first four Congresses of the Third International, in 1919, 1920, 1921 and 1922. Presumably, the great international debates over revolutionary strategy are just so many more examples of pointless bickering and heresy hunting that can be safely ignored — Lih’s essential Lenin can be understood without them.

In the spring and fall of 1922 Lenin suffered debilitating strokes. He never fully recovered.

Declining health throughout much of 1923 prevented him from joining the rest of the Bolshevik leadership in following revolutionary developments in Germany that year to prepare for a potential German October — in line with every Bolshevik’s idea that ultimate salvation could only come from abroad, through international socialist revolution.

Lenin’s agonizingly long death-spiral cut him off from world affairs for the last eighteen months of his life. Lih takes full advantage of Lenin’s crippling illness to project onto Lenin a new scenario that went “beyond” Kautsky.

On the basis of Lenin’s last articles — dictated to his secretaries in 1923, well after he was no longer at the helm of the party or the state, deprived of clear speech and legible writing — Lih contends that

Lenin needed something like a miracle, so he again evoked the spirit of What is to be Done? a book in which he boasted that an ordinary, underground activist, even in isolation could achieve miracles if he embodied the spirit of inspired and inspiring leadership.

Lenin ostensibly made an “adjustment” as Lih puts it, to the “lifelong scenario” Lih attributes to Lenin when the Bolsheviks adopted the 1921 New Economic Policy (NEP) in response to peasant uprisings and working-class protests against War Communism.

All Second International Marxists, Trotsky included, had taken for granted that material premises for building socialism in Russia were absent. After the October Revolution they were still absent. The peasantry was still in the majority, the workers still in the minority — the latter in favor of socialism, the former not. How to begin building socialism in Russia when its property relations, in agriculture especially, stood squarely in the way?

Lih points out that Lenin never thought force could be used to transform peasants into workers. “There is nothing more stupid than the very idea of violence in the area of property relations of the middle peasantry” Lenin declared emphatically in 1920.

This was a “fundamental contrast with Stalin” Lih writes. Indeed it was — and it is to Lih’s credit that he at least brings out sharply this basic truth. Lenin was not — and could not become — Stalin. But what, short of force, could be done then?

Lih lists a whole series of material measures Lenin thought could win peasants over to socialist construction, centrally, relying on the “transformative power of socialist industry” to satisfy the material needs of the peasantry and thus pave the way for a “socialist transformation of the countryside,” a transition encapsulated by Lenin’s famous slogan: “Communism is soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” (In contrast, it could be said that Stalinism is ‘electrification of the whole country minus soviet power.’)

However, Lih overlooks that Lenin explicitly warned against exhortatory speeches about the benefits of socialism — arguing, “as long as our countryside lacks the material basis for communism, it will be, I should say, harmful, in fact, I should say, fatal” to “immediately propagate purely and strictly communist ideas in the countryside.”

Yet, this warning notwithstanding, Lih’s last chapter, “Beyond the Textbook a la Kautsky,” is precisely about crafting a new, exhortatory scenario that can apparently substitute for this “material basis,” or act independently of it, or perhaps even create it — because it builds on the allegedly can-do, miracle-producing spirit of What is to be Done?

Lih now brings “cultural” tasks to the forefront of Lenin’s concerns instead of seeing cultural development, as Lenin did, as being predicated on an ongoing process of economic development — transforming peasant household production into modern, socialized production based on advanced technology.

Many scholars (Moshe Lewin and Teodor Shanin notably) have expressed reservations about whether Lenin and the Bolsheviks correctly grasped the political economy of peasant smallholding, noting that this precapitalist form of economy posed serious, possibly insuperable barriers to uncoerced economic advance, to building socialism collectively. Lih, however, chooses not to pursue this line of inquiry.

Instead, and in keeping with Lih’s notion of the activist-as-miracle-worker, the main way forward in Russia — toward a democratic socialism free of bureaucracy and privilege — was through “mass education for the narod,” workers and peasants alike.

This task was “handed to the party, acting from above.” “Improving the material position of the schoolteacher” by making a “real shift in budgetary priorities toward education” was the first, small step toward this distant goal.

The party could lead the people to the promised land — a task all the more easily accomplished “if the party could use the state to eliminate all rivals and to monopolize channels of communication” to spread the socialist gospel. It would apparently be a benign “educational dictatorship” over the people and for the people — but not by the people.

This scenario went “beyond Kautsky” according to Lih.  And it certainly did. In fact, in a central respect, the scenario Lih attributes to Lenin is a throwback to the scenario of the pre-Marxist, utopian socialists.

Utopian socialism is just what Russian revolutionaries believed in before the emergence of the working-class movement in Russia in the last decade of the nineteenth century. They too thought revolutionaries could educate “the people” (meaning the peasantry) to achieve a socialist self-transformation of their way of life despite their material conditions.

This is what Lenin’s older brother, Alexander, believed in. He mounted the scaffold for his heroism in 1887, when the Tsar decreed his execution by hanging for participating in an assassination plot.

Lenin fought against many things in his life. One of them was utopian socialism — and its belief in miracles. But still Lih is confident that Lenin in the last months of his paralyzed life ultimately called on the “spirit of class leadership to accomplish one more round of miracles.”

Lih does not call Lenin a utopian socialist straight out. But he allows the reader to draw the conclusion that he was.

In the end, it would appear that Lenin was a provincial, illusion-laden man of his times, irrelevant to our times and our world; an unrealistic dreamer who believed in miracles.

According to Lih, this unrealistic dreamer took a “dangerous step” beyond Kautsky and Second International Marxism in 1917 when — throwing realpolitik to the wind — Lenin recklessly “went beyond Old Bolshevism’s strategy of democratic revolution in alliance with the whole peasantry” in favor of socialist revolution.

What is this if not an admission that the permanent revolution theory adopted in the April Theses by Lenin did break with Old Bolshevism’s conception of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, did break with Kautskyism? But this is the least of it.

Lih’s reproof of Lenin for contravening Second International Marxist orthodoxy is simply yet another repetition of the now century-old argument espoused by the Mensheviks and Kautsky — Russia was not ready for socialism and therefore not ready for socialist revolution.

For Lih, Kautskyism is the nec plus ultra of Marxism. To transgress its limits is to court great danger.

Lih’s biography is a poor introduction to Lenin’s thinking – but is an excellent introduction to what Lih thinks about Lenin.

Rediscovering Lenin

Lih’s readers on the left are, on the whole, favorably predisposed toward Lenin — and well they should be. Consequently, Lih’s outwardly favorable view of Lenin is readily accepted by the Left today.

In sharp contrast, no such favorable predisposition existed among Lenin’s readers in Lenin’s day — at least not for much of his life.

All the more reason for Lenin to deploy involved and complex political arguments, buttressed by consequent social analysis, to defend his standpoint. These arguments constitute the bulk of Lenin’s Collected Works. Lenin had to win his readers over to his views and, once won, keep them from being won over to his opponents’ views.

In either case, Lenin had to explain the substance and meaning of these disagreements.

With few exceptions, despite his commendable work to assail Cold War caricatures of Lenin, Lih looks right through those explanations.

“Praise me less and understand me more. That is the most appropriate epitaph for Lenin’s tombstone (should the man ever be buried) – and a suitable epigram for Lih’s study of Lenin.