Commentary Magazine

Was Lenin Necessary?

It is a hundred years since Communism became a practical aim, and nearly fifty years since the October revolution in Russia claimed to be putting that aim into practice. Now, the end of Khrushchev's rule has served to underline the distance which separates us from the Russian revolution and from Lenin. The men who have, for the time being, taken over are too young even to remember the revolution. A younger generation still will before long be standing on the threshold of power. In the developed Western world, including the Soviet Union, Communism seems already to have begun declining—thus setting Lenin's version of Marx in its proper perspective, as a ruthless and wasteful method of rapidly industrializing backward countries. This, then, is a good moment to stand back and reassess the historical Lenin, and to detach him from the mythological figure whom Soviet leaders, for reasons of practical politics, seek to project on the world in an effort to salvage their own legitimacy. Fortunately, the materials for such a reassessment are now at hand. Three biographies of Lenin have recently appeared, together with an English translation of a most illuminating volume of memoirs which was first published a few years ago.1 Along with Bertram Wolfe's and David Shub's fine pioneer works, both of which appeared in 1948, and the invaluable articles and memoirs of the late N. V. Volsky (Valentinov), these new books provide the serious reader with a fair body of evidence on which to base a careful judgment of Lenin's real stature.

There seem to me to be at least three reasons why the time has come—for those of us who are free to do so—to attempt this reassessment of the man who more than any other has affected the course of world history since the end of the First World War. In the first place, the enormous fascination which Lenin exercised over intellectuals everywhere after 1918, even over his political opponents, no longer obtains. Lenin in the 20's symbolized many things to many people. He was the artificer of a new society which still held out the hope that, when once the birth pangs were over, it would justify itself by its justice and virtue. He was the man who had led a successful and popular socialist revolution which, unlike all previous revolutions, had not ended up in a new form of bourgeois domination. Above all, he was the hard, logical, ruthless master of scientific political surgery who did not fall or falter before the traditional enemies of sloth, sentimentality, and romantic illusion. It was pre-eminently in this guise that he fascinated the Russian intellectuals, friends and foes alike. Ever since Chernyshevsky's Rakhmetov and Turgenev's Bazarov in the early 1860's had stirred the imagination of the Russian radicals, they had been unconsciously waiting, as for the Messiah, for just such a figure as Lenin. (The most perspicacious of the radicals of the 60's, Pisarev, had understood that even the sympathies of the Westernizing liberal Turgenev lay with Bazarov, and not with the old order which Bazarov was dedicated to deny.) Small wonder, then, that so many of the radicals should have been slow to reject Lenin, however much his actions may have repelled them. Do the ends justify the means? Angelica Balabanoff, a rare exception among that generation of revolutionaries, had no doubts at all on this issue—she was among the first of Lenin's one-time supporters to reject him after the Revolution, precisely because she did not believe that socialism could be brought about by the kind of means that Lenin never scrupled to employ. (She was not, of course, the very first to do so: Rosa Luxemburg had preceded her and earlier still there had been Martov, who broke with Lenin on precisely this issue at the Second Congress of the Russian party in 1903—though none of the three most recent biographers of Lenin seems to be alive to this fact.)

The second reason why the time is ripe for a reassessment of Lenin is the progress which has been made during the past two decades in the study of the history of the Russian revolutionary movement. Even before the advent of the Soviet school of falsification, the early Bolsheviks had succeeded to a considerable extent in projecting their own, quite inaccurate, version of the Party's role in the revolution to the outside world. Many myths of Bolshevik hagiography were—and some still are—enshrined as facts in historical works produced outside of Russia, until they were for the most part dislodged by the patient researches of a handful of scholars (who took the momentous step of going back to the sources, instead of repeating what their predecessors had written). Professor Stefan Possony's new book is very much in this category. Opinions may legitimately differ as to whether his final judgment on Lenin is really all that should be recorded of him: “In retrospect, the best that can be said about V. I. Lenin is that, had he recovered [from his last illness] he would have been purged by J. V. Stalin.” But there can be no doubt that Possony's researches into hitherto unexplored police archives are of great value in illuminating the lesser known sides of Lenin's clandestine activities. Indeed, one would now have to be either very naive or politically blind not to accept the fact that Lenin was totally ruthless in his political methods, ready to accept help from any source whatever when it served his purpose, and completely uninhibited by ties of friendship or ordinary standards of morality. He was quite open about all this in private conversation, and he apparently really believed that the nature of the means was immaterial so long as they advanced his revolutionary objectives. The other side of the coin was that he could not be swayed by personal vanity or by considerations of material benefit to himself. What motivated him throughout his active life was an unshakeable conviction that he was right, that everyone who disagreed with him was wrong, and that therefore his own continuation in power was essential to the cause. But if one accepts these facts about Lenin's character, as I think every honest historian now must, one is still left with the problem of determining Lenin's stature in its proper historical perspective.


This leads to the third, and, I think, the most important reason for a re-examination of the traditional image of Lenin at this particular time. The most widely accepted part of the traditional story, the part not usually challenged even by critics of Lenin and of Bolshevism, maintains that his leadership and victory in 1917 were historical necessities. The chaos, the war, the inexperience and irresoluteness of the Provisional Government, the weakness of the Socialist Revolutionaries, the progressive emaciation of the Menshevik doctrine—all these and many more factors can be adduced in support of the argument that some such solution as Lenin's was unavoidable. None of the recent biographers, to be sure, accepts this assumption in so many words, but neither does any of them really get beyond showing the extent to which Lenin's ruthless determination was responsible for his victory. Of this, of course, there can be little doubt—the very novelty of his revolutionary technique in itself confounded his opponents. But I think that if one is to get a proper sense of Lenin's true stature in history, one has to go further and ask what would have happened had there been no Lenin. The answer, obviously, is that there would have been no Bolshevik revolution. Even Trotsky admitted as much, though a more recent Marxist historian, Isaac Deutscher, has taken him severely to task for surrendering to such an un-Marxist view of history. But would Russia, or indeed the cause of socialism in Russia, have been worse off? I wonder. Certainly there would have been a period of chaos and ignominious defeat by the Germans; but was there not also chaos enough—and the disaster of Brest-Litovsk—under Lenin's leadership? And then? The Allied victory over Germany would have rescued Russia, Lenin or no Lenin. A long period of further chaos, inefficiency, political confusion would have followed; but would that have been worse than Stalin's regime? Furthermore, had there been no Lenin, two factors might have operated to permit the eventual emergence of some kind of democratic regime, under which the Russians could have used their natural talents to spur the process of industrialization inaugurated by Witte in the 1890's. For without Lenin on the scene, the chances of agreement between the different parties, groups, and classes would have been infinitely greater—Lenin's main energies were indeed devoted to preventing such agreement. And without Bolshevism (and its direct heir, Stalinism) there would have been every possibility of financial support for the industrial development of a nascently democratic Russia from the other countries of Europe and from the United States.

Without Lenin, however, would there not have been a counter-revolution? I am not aware of any evidence that counter-revolution, in the true sense of a restoration of the monarchy and the landlords, was ever much more than a convenient bogy. The monarchy had lost virtually all support within days after its collapse. The defeat of Kornilov owed nothing to the Bolsheviks, and everything to the common soldiers of the army, who hated their officers and were generally revolutionary rather than specifically Bolshevik. If a civil war had ensued even without a Bolshevik seizure of power (and it is far from certain that one would have), the White side would have foundered, as it in fact did founder, on the determination of the peasants not to see the landlords back again.

Speculations such as these are the kind of “might have beens” which incur Mr. E. H. Carr's contemptuous strictures as useless parlor games. Yet if one fails to raise such speculations, one tends to be hypnotized into accepting (as, of course, Mr. Carr accepts) Lenin's victory as predestined, inevitable, and even desirable. Given the character of Lenin and the shortcomings of his opponents, the victory really was “inevitable,” but recognizing that does not get us very far. The question that must be asked is what did this “compulsive revolutionary” achieve for his country that could not have been better achieved without him? Khrushchev, who claimed to be restoring Leninism, jettisoned some of the most violent features of Stalinism, and made Soviet life more tolerable by tempering doctrine with occasional flashes of common sense. It may be that his successors will increase the dose of sense and still further reduce the doctrine; perhaps they will even make inroads on Leninism in the interests of material welfare and progress. Perhaps state capitalism will some day flourish in the USSR without the corruption, the inefficiency, the injustice, and the inequality which characterize it at present. Will this constitute a justification of Lenin's obsessive conviction in 1917 that only his particular type of regime would do?


No one can dispute Lenin's genius as a revolutionary. But revolution is not an end in itself (though for much of his life Lenin behaved as if he believed it was; in 1917 his motto, borrowed from Napoleon, was: on s'engage et puis on voit) . Thus, if we are to assess Lenin's place as the architect of his country's future, we must also assess his capacity for statesmanship. As events turned out—and as so many of Lenin's opponents had predicted—there was little scope for statesmanship at first. All energies had to be devoted to rescuing Russia from the catastrophic mess into which the country was plunged by the attempt to introduce extreme socialism all at once, and to the overriding problems which faced a small, increasingly unpopular minority determined to preserve its monopoly of power. There was, however, a chance for true statesmanship at the end of the civil war, when, if only Lenin had been willing to surmount his dogmatic insistence on keeping power exclusively in the hands of his own party, he might have been able to unite all the socialist and radical parties in the work of reconstruction. This he failed to do. The measures adopted at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, designed as they were to strengthen the hold of the Communist party machine over the country and over its own dissidents, created the apparatus which Stalin took over and used for his own terrible ends. One cannot escape the conclusion that a greater statesman would have foreseen the consequences of such a policy, and would not have sacrificed all to doctrine, or to obsession with power, as Lenin did in 1921.

And yet perhaps Lenin did finally sense something of his tragic failure as a statesman. The last period of his life, the years 1922 and 1923, when he was struck down by the disease which was to prove fatal, can still only be discerned in dim outline. It is no fault of his latest biographers that they have not been able to throw much new light on these enigmatic last years. A full picture will only become possible if the Soviet archives are ever opened, or if some new change in the country's political line requires the publication of more of the documents which surely still survive, buried deep in the party's most secret vaults.

The little that we do know is enough to indicate that the dying man, incapable of more than sporadic activity (and, of course, obstructed, snubbed, ignored, and side-stepped by the hatchet-men contending for the succession), was engaged in rethinking his whole position. Much has been made, for political reasons, of Lenin's so-called Testament with its criticism of Stalin and its suggestions for reforming the state and party apparatus. The importance of both seems to me to have been much exaggerated. Lenin perceived some of the inordinate personal ambition of Stalin, but he did not, so far as we know, ever realize that the nature of the whole system he himself had created was such as to make it virtually certain that any man in the position of top secretary of the party could assume dictatorship of the country. As for the reforms, the game of reshuffling the pieces has now been going on for forty-seven years, to the clear benefit neither of democracy nor administrative efficiency. What Lenin did not see, or at any rate did not say, was that the vice of the system which he had set up lay precisely in the fact that an autocratic party, itself autocratically run, would be responsible to no one and controlled by no one. But here a caveat must be entered. Had Lenin ever said or written anything so subversive of the whole basis of past and present party rule, there can be little doubt that no effort would have been spared by his successors to erase all trace of such views. Even Lenin's somewhat crazy suggestion for a super-inspectorate composed entirely of proletarian saints was in his lifetime very nearly kept out of Pravda by his admiring disciples. The enigma of Lenin's last years persists, and is likely to for some time.

This question—did Lenin ever see where the real vice of his system lay?—seems to me much more intriguing than the question of whether he was poisoned by Stalin. Both Mr. Payne and Mr. Fischer devote some space to this problem; the former thinks he was poisoned, the latter thinks he was not. The evidence seems pretty slender at best; in any case, whether helped along by Stalin or not, Lenin could not long have survived the illness of which he died. The last inner thoughts of the man still present the more fascinating problem.

We get a glimpse of these thoughts in some of his last writings, especially “On Co-operation.” Here, at long last, is Lenin's virtual recognition that by attempting a revolution in a country which had not yet attained the necessary social development, he had stood Marxist theory on its head. Now, argues Lenin, with power firmly in the hands of the “proletariat” (by which he meant, as always, the party), a long period of class peace is needed for the peasants to attain the social consciousness required for socialism. NEP was the practical embodiment of his view. Who can tell whether—but for Stalin's boundless ambition and insane power-lust—NEP might not have become the foundation for a more normal course of political and economic development?

But so far as Lenin himself was concerned, his moment of political wisdom had come too late. We can only do our best to judge him in the light of what he achieved and failed to achieve. I attempted to do this some ten years ago. Since then both praise and denigration of him have poured forth, along with the more sober and balanced assessment of his latest biographers, but I see no reason to alter my judgment. He was the greatest revolutionary of all times—but he was not a statesman. And revolution without statesmanship to guide its aftermath can bring nothing but disaster to those who are fated to live through that aftermath.


1 Impressions of Lenin, by Angelica Balabanoff, Introduction by Bertram D. Wolfe, University of Michigan Press, 152 pp., $5.00; The Life of Lenin, by Louis Fischer, Harper & Row, 703 pp., $10.00; The Life and Death of Lenin, by Robert Payne, Simon & Schuster, 672 pp., $8.50; and Lenin: The Compulsive Revolutionary, by Stefan T. Possony, Regnery, 418 pp., $7.95.

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