A historian looks at the crucial cult of the Soviet Union
Leninists then and now. The current friendship of China and Russia is reminiscent of the early 1950s images. Both countries preserve the model of the state initiated by Lenin
Lenin’s works have been printed in 125 languages and 653 copies. Leniniana, meaning all the literature about Lenin, is impossible to count. Yet, it is worth noting that almost all of it had as its object of analysis or propaganda not a real historic figure, but a mythologized and canonized Leader. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the flow of the worthless apologetic works stopped. But works on Lenin continued to appear. These are most often viewed from a predetermined perspective, positive or negative.
The figure of Lenin is fading gradually in the Russian public opinion. This year’s survey by Levada Center discovered the top five historic actors that are the most popular among the Russians. These included Joseph Stalin with 38%, Vladimir Putin with 34%, Alexandr Pushkin with 34%, Vladimir Lenin with 32% and Peter I with 29%. In a similar survey of 2012, Lenin and Peter I were second and third with 37% while Stalin was leading with 42%.
The index of popularity on which Levada’s assessments are based is not worth much as it allows people like Putin on the top. Even if the real weight of a historic figure should be assessed by his influence on the history of humans regardless of whether that influence was negative or positive.
It is impossible to evaluate Lenin’s figure in a short text. This article, however, provides individual details, small at first glance, that can help one shape that evaluation.
The future leader inherited diverse national traditions. The authors of multiple pseudoresearches on him now tend to play on this fact. Lenin’s paternal great-grandfather, Vasiliy Ulianov, had been a serf released under a pledge to pay a sort of tax. He bought himself out of serfdom long before the respective law was abolished. Lenin’s grandfather, in a late marriage to the daughter of a Christianized Kalmykian, had two sons. His father went to the Kazan University and became a state councilor, an equivalent of the general, and got a hereditary noble title.
On Lenin’s maternal side, his great-grandfather was a wealthy Jewish merchant who got married to a Swedish woman. His grandfather graduated from the St. Petersburg Medical Surgical Academy and got baptized to marry later a German. He obtained a hereditary nobleman title in 1847 and bought the village of Kukushkino with the serfs in Kazan Gubernia. His wife had five girls, including Lenin’s future mother Maria. After his wife had died, Lenin’s grandfather entered into a civil marriage with her sister Katerina von Essen who had no children of her own.
Lenin spoke French and English thanks to his education reinforced by his long stay in the respective language environments. But his mother tongue in his childhood years was German. Foreign researchers of Lenin’s genealogy discovered that his family along the German line included Hitler’s field marshal Walter Model, Lieutenant General Hasso von Manteuffel, a commander of the tank division SS Großdeutschland, and German President Richard von Weissäcker. With representatives of various groups in his family, Lenin never missed a chance to mention his hereditary noble title in his correspondence with the Tsar’s officials.
In the first years of his underground activity, Lenin used many pseudonyms. The N. Lenin one emerged in December 1901 and became his second last name.
In July 1903, a convention of Russian social-democrats opened in Brussels where Lenin and his long-time ally Julius Martov had sharp disagreements. When the delegates of the Bund (the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia intending to become a newly created party, in vain) left the convention, the supporters of Lenin prevailed in terms of numbers and rushed to call themselves bolsheviks.
A VIP passenger
Unlike Leon Trotsky who, after the 1905 Bloody Sunday Massacre immediately got to St. Petersburg, Lenin had not arrived at the revolution-engulfed Russia until November 1905. He settled down in Kuokkala, a town in Finland 60km from the then Russian capital that was good because there was no police surveillance there. The defeat of the revolution sent Lenin into migration again. World War I caught him in Poronino, a summer house town near Krakow. The police arrested him in the nearest prison in the town of Nowy Targ. The door of the prison cell was opened thanks to the protection from Victor Adler, the leader of Austrian social-democrats. When asked whether he firmly believed that Ulianov (Lenin) was the enemy of the statist government by then Minister of the Interior, Adler responded: “Oh, yes, stauncher than Your Excellency!”. Lenin, however, left the Austro-Hungarian Empire and settled down in Switzerland.
When a new revolution kicked off in Russia, the emigrants in Switzerland faced a problem of how to get to their country. Lenin was not going for a bypass sea trip. On the one hand, he was afraid of German submarines. On the other hand, he believed that the Entente Powers would try to prevent the leaders of socialist parties from getting into Russia as they would undermine the army. Therefore, he decided to organize the trip from Switzerland to Russia by rail through Germany. The position of the Central Powers in these issues would understandably be opposite to that of the Allies. The formalities of the Russian emigrants’ trip through Germany in a sealed train were agreed with the assistance of the German social-democrats. Wilhelm II personally saw to make sure that no difficulties would arise. The German military leadership proved ready to let the emigrants pass through the Germany army units on the frontline, were they denied entrance to Sweden.
On April 16, 1917 (April 3 under the Julian calendar), Lenin arrived in Petrograd. Ever since, his life had been intertwined with the life-changing developments that boiled in the revolution-engulfed country. Lenin’s intellect, tactic and strategic skills played the crucial role in these developments.
Masking a dictatorship
The essence of the concept of the communist revolution developed by Lenin can be outlined in two sentences. Firstly, a party dictatorship aimed at the communist revolution, i.e. the party of the bolsheviks, was to be established in the country under the guise of the dictatorship of proletariat. Secondly, the communist revolution had to be carried out through reforms imposed by the dictatorial government.
Similarly to his predecessors in the Russian revolutionary movement, Lenin did not wish to use exotic methods of conspiracy and individual terror to gain state power. His party had to come to power on the wave of the revolution and mask its dictatorship as that of the proletarianized masses. Leaning on the proletariat was a natural thing for the party that based its platform on the need to liquidate private ownership of property. Only those who were losing nothing in the revolution because they had nothing could become its allies.
The Russian Empire was more than half a century behind its European neighbors in terms of the revolution. For this reason, the objective development of market relations pushed the masses of people oppressed by the tsarism (jointly with the bourgeoisie) to the forefront of the revolution, not the bourgeoisie that had the support of the imperial leadership. This pre-determined the organizational weakness of all political parties involved, including the bolsheviks. They could not put the activity of the soviets (“people’s councils”), the self-organized entities of the insurgent masses, into some framework. Both Lenin, and the top tsarist officials whose task was to prevent a revolution were taking this into consideration. In an early 1913 letter to writer Maxim Gorky, Lenin noted: “A war between Austria and Russia would be very useful for the revolution (in the entire Eastern Europe), but it is unlikely that Franz Joseph and Nikolasha could do us such a pleasure.” Meanwhile, former Interior Minister Piotr Durnovo warned Nicholas II in February 1914 about the danger of war with Germany. If the war failed militarily for Russia, it would lead to social turbulence, Durnovo assumed: “Russia will be thrown into endless anarchy the outcome of which is impossible to imagine.”
When the revolution started, the bolsheviks did not join the camp of the revolutionary democracy. In a directive for the party fellows returning from emigration, Lenin formulated his tactics in a few words: full no-confidence to the Provisional Government, no closer ties with other parties and arming the proletariat. He did not rely on a possibility of peaceful transfer of power to the bolsheviks. As early as April 1917, the units of Red Guards bolsheviks started appearing in Petrograd, Moscow, Odesa, Kharkiv and other big cities. Soon after Lenin returned from emigration, Provisional Government leader Alexander Kerensky expressed willingness to meet with him to establish cooperation. The bolshevik leader declined the meeting.
We have now come to a seemingly strange question: was Lenin a communist?
It is possible to state only two undeniable facts. One is that he created a party based on the foundations of “democratic centralism”, i.e. full subordination of the lower ranks to the upper. In the hands of the leaders, such party was a useful tool of getting and keeping power. The second fact is that he had invented an own formula for establishing political power back in 1905, when the soviets of workers’ deputies first emerged, that was an equivalent to autocracy in terms of the fullness of power it gave. This formula had three key aspects:
— maximum support to the soviets in taking over state power;
— squeezing rival political parties out of the soviets to make sure that they are only comprised of the bolsheviks and the sympathetic non-aligned deputies;
— preserve organizational independence of the soviets without merging them with the party of the bolsheviks.
The mainstream development of the humanity went through the transformation of the traditional state headed by the monarch as the bearer of sovereign power into a constitutional monarchy or a democratic republic where the holder of sovereign power was society. In crises, grassroots power could come to the surface that would be able to establish total control of societies. That was how fascism emerged, followed by national-socialism later. In Russia, the first replacement to come on the historic arena was the bolshevism based on Lenin’s formula of power wrapped in the guise of communism.
Why did bolshevism gain this deceptive guise of communism? Why did Lenin use the revolutionary Marxism of the Manifesto of the Communist Party era (1847) as an ideological wrap for his formula of power?
In their Manifesto, the young revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called for the establishment of proletariat dictatorship and giving the means of production expropriated from private owners into the hands of the people.
These calls were doomed to fail from day one: unstructured human communities, such as classes, societies and peoples, were unable to exercise dictatorship or own means of production, unlike the structured entities, such as parties, states and so on. The “scientific communism” of the founders of Marxism was as utopic as the earlier communist doctrines.
Lenin’s actions leave an impression that he understood the utopian nature of “revolutionary Marxism”. Yet, he declared commitment to it in words. Meanwhile, he labeled pragmatic Western European social-democrats who stopped referring to themselves as communists after the 1848-1849 revolutions yet remained Marxists as revisionists and defectors.
Ways of expropriation
From day one, Lenin’s formula of power had nothing communistic about it. But disguising it as a commune-state (as per Lenin’s own phrasing) helped to provide ideological justification to the expropriation of society by the state, i.e. to supplement political dictatorship with economic dictatorship. The concept of proletariat dictatorship and community ownership as in the Manifesto went from utopia to reality as the formula of power invented by Lenin combined an unstructured community (society) with a structured one (party).
The Soviet Russia saw the dictatorship of the Communist Party leaders establish itself under the guise of the proletariat dictatorship. These leaders also established essentially private ownership of the means of production and natural resources, presenting it as community ownership.
Shortly upon his arrival in Petrograd, Lenin formulated the April Theses, the platform of the Bolsheviks. The document outlined the party’s actions to take over the power: Bolshevik social-democrats had to rename their party into the Communist Party, pass a new platform that would be communist in essence, build a “commune state” and establish a new Communist International.
The Bolsheviks had their own slogans in the revolution. Yet they realized, albeit not immediately, that they had to borrow the slogans of the soldiers’ and workers’ soviets as the most influential political player. “We recognize no separate peace with the German capitalists and are not entering any talks,” Lenin declared at the I All-Russian Congress of Soviets in June 1917. He had been promoting the slogan “Let’s turn the imperialistic war into civil war” from the very beginning of the world war. At the end of August, however, he took over the people’s demand to stop the war immediately.
When the party of SRs (Socialist Revolutionary Party) included the demand of the peasants for equal distribution of farmland in June 1917, it faced sharp criticism of the Bolsheviks. The latter wanted to preserve large manufacturing in the countryside shaped as soviet community farms based on the confiscated landlord assets. In August, however, the Bolsheviks expropriated the “Land to the peasants” slogan of the SRs, and initially the peasants. The councils of soldier deputies were comprised primarily of peasants, the workers were mostly employed at defense facilities. The tsarism had collected the peasant masses, always dispersed thanks to their working conditions, into military units, gave them weapons and taught them to use it. For the first time in history, peasants in soldiers’ uniforms became the most influential power in the revolution.
“Factories to workers”, a popular slogan among the workers, was supported by the Bolsheviks from day one. But the latter interpreted it differently. The workers’ deputies demanded that the factories were transferred into collective ownership of the staff. After Lenin came to power, he declared the following: “It is a huge distortion of the foundations of soviet power and full rejection of socialism to directly or indirectly legitimize the ownership of specific production by the workers of a respective factory or respective profession.”
Using the soviet slogans, the party of the Bolsheviks overturned the government of Alexander Kerensky and established its dictatorship. The Russian Revolution ended with the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly.
Paternalism and genocide
The type of the commune state invented by Lenin was radically different from totalitarian states of other types. A commune state could be described as double or triple totalitarian. With its three hierarchies of power – party, soviet and cheka – it penetrated the people’s mass and de facto merged with society. Being inside the society, the Lenin-Stalin state could organize any “all-people” movements it wanted: from collective farms to Stakhanov movements and many others.
The availability of the organizationally separated Communist Party and soviet verticals of power (the auxiliary cheka vertical was a material embodiment of the leaders’ dictatorship) helped the Kremlin solve a huge national issue to benefit its interest. The leaders were initially building the occupied Ukraine as an independent state, then as an allied state with the constitutional right to leave the Soviet Union. However, it had no powers of its own along the Communist Party lines and was trapped in the supercentralized multinational commune state like an insect in amber.
Before the socio-economic transformations under the misleading communist slogans began, Lenin set the following task for the soviet authorities: “Everyone should have bread, everyone should walk in durable shoes and non-ragged clothes, and everyone should live at a warm place.” Like a dual-faced Janus, the government was showing the society its complementary faces: repressions in case of resistance (up to genocide) and attractive paternalism.
The majority of Soviet people did not view the backbone of the commune-state entrenched into society as something alien. The society remained a living organism and affected the functioning of the state apparatus. All the more that the apparatus was comprised of the staff coming from the grassroots masses. A huge amount of facts prove that the Soviet government was taking care of the people, the committed officials working in their offices. Yet, a no less hug amount of facts show the aggressive face the government sometimes turned towards the people. The leaders that enslaved the people with their “new type” party could be doing anything they pleased with the country.
Lenin’s cause alive?
It seemed that the collapse of the Soviet Union and market reforms in China were the end of the states referred to as communist. But the rejection of the communist ideology did not affect the political essence of Russia or China. This once again proves the secondary role of the communist doctrine which the “new type” party merged with the state used to add economic dictatorship to its political dictatorship.
In today’s world, the euroatlantic civilization is opposed by the Islamic world founded by Muhammad. It is far weaker in terms of technological and economic development but it has the demographic weapons: the ability to increase its population quickly through the oppressed position of women. However, it seems that a bigger threat to the planet’s leading civilization comes from the countries that have different historic traditions and similar societies deprived of sovereignty, Russia and China. Having the second most powerful nuclear arsenal that is not controlled by society, both of these states are being constructed following Lenin’s formula of power. Therefore, Lenin’s cause is alive and will be alive for many years to come.