The Red Machiavelli

<i>Lenin: a biography</i> by Robert Service (Macmillan, &pound;25, 561pp)
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The Independent Culture

The course of history is never predictable, but a pattern is discernible. Sometimes several years pass like a day, but they are usually followed by a day that is the equivalent of a decade. On such a day, a revolutionary leader is offered the possibility of shaping a century. Lenin was such a leader, and his success dominated the 20th century.

The course of history is never predictable, but a pattern is discernible. Sometimes several years pass like a day, but they are usually followed by a day that is the equivalent of a decade. On such a day, a revolutionary leader is offered the possibility of shaping a century. Lenin was such a leader, and his success dominated the 20th century.

The Bolshevik triumph in Russia in 1917 created a state and an army which was decisive in saving Europe from the "Thousand Year Reich". It inspired revolutionary victories in Beijing, Hanoi and Havana. Its very existence speeded up the granting of universal adult franchise, full employment policies, and a welfare state in most of western Europe. It was fear of the Russian Revolution that accelerated reforms there, and with the New Deal in the US.

The English Commonwealth (1649-60) had lasted 11 years; the French Revolution (1789-1815) survived 26; the Soviet Union (1917-92) managed three-quarters of a century. Cromwell, Robespierre and Lenin continue to fascinate historians. In Lenin's case, as this latest biography informs us, he remains in surveys of Russian opinion "among the most popular rulers of history".

This view is not shared by historians still fighting the Cold War. Service disagrees with Richard Pipes's portrayal of Lenin "as merely a psychopath to whom ideas barely mattered and whose fundamental motivation was to dominate and kill". In these times, one must be grateful for small mercies.

There have been so many histories of the Russian Revolution and biographies of Lenin that one wonders whether it is not too soon for a new one. Even if we disregard virtually everything published on him in the Soviet Union or in the new Russia, a number of western works have said it all. David Shub's Lenin (1965) remains one of the most useful biographies. Neil Harding's magisterial account of Lenin's thought was a very fine piece of scholarship.

So there is little in this book that is actually new. Lenin's exchange of letters with his lover, Inessa Armand, were published in Encounter in the late Fifties. It is well-known that Lenin's widow, Krupskaya, strongly opposed embalming and putting his dead body on display. The ruthless side of the Bolshevik leader was hardly a secret. The most prescient critique of Lenin's style and methods was contained in Trotsky's 1904 pamphlet, "Our Political Tasks": "Lenin's methods lead to this: the party organisation at first substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally a single 'dictator' substitutes himself for the Central Committee."

Stalin proved the truth of this assertion, but the structures that permitted him to had been established a long time ago. Service uses existing information and newly-released archives to reach the conclusion that Lenin "cheated on his wife, he exploited his mother and sisters, he was maudlin about his health, he relished terror and had no plausible notion about how... [the Soviet Union] would be able to give it up. He was still cruder in his telegrams and letters than in his books."

Here Lenin's crudeness encourages his biographer to mimic him. For one major reason for the Terror was the real fear of counter-revolution. The Entente powers intervened to help Generals Denikin and Wrangel restore the old regime. At one stage, there were 22 foreign armies on Russian soil trying to get rid of the Bolsheviks. They failed, but the experience of "war communism" was, alas, formative. And Lenin, with his colleagues, were intellectuals who took history seriously. They were haunted by the French Revolution, and the experience of Thermidor, and determined it must not be repeated in their country.

Once the German Revolution had failed, the Bolsheviks were isolated. They banned all other Soviet parties and the Menshevik leaders were sent into exile. It was a fatal decision. Once other parties are disallowed it is only a small step to bar dissent inside your own ranks. This was the crucible in which the Stalinist dictatorship was created.

In reality, as Service admits, Lenin took seriously Machiavelli's lesson that the true innovators are those who change their strategy and adapt it to the new terrain, not those who become victims of their own dogma. He did not always carry his party and was sometimes a minority of one. He won them round by his strength of intellect. Stalin could only rule by making sure nobody remembered the old tradition of sharp debates inside the party. He did this by physically exterminating the bulk of Lenin's Central Committee.

This biography is not the last we shall read of Lenin. Perhaps, later this century, a new generation of Russian historians who have grown up under Putin will look back on the 20th century, and draw conclusion which will surprise us all.

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