Service's Lenin: a disservice to history

Issue 

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

@detail = Lenin: A Biography
By Robert Service
Papermac, 2001
561 pp, $33 (pb)

Vladimir Lenin has too often been the much-abused meat in the biographical sandwich, mangled and distorted between the turgid adulation of Stalinist hacks and the demonic horror show of conservatives. Robert Service, an Oxford University professor of history claiming allegiance to neither camp, is the latest to tackle a biography of the famous revolutionary.

Born in 1870, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov ("Lenin" became his pseudonym 30 years later) was an "energetic, brilliant and charming", but mischievous, youngster in a family dedicated to the ideals of progress and science providing these stopped short of a challenge to Tsarist autocracy in Russia. Lenin crossed this boundary, however, when his much admired brother, Aleksandr, was hanged in 1887 for his involvement in a failed plot to assassinate the Tsar, and Lenin turned an "instinctive but unfocused sympathy with the ideas of his brother" into revolutionary activism.

Expelled from university for participation in a student demonstration, Lenin completed his political education in the underground revolutionary cells of Russia. He made the theoretical transition to Marxism, the practical switch from discussion circles to agitation amongst industrial workers, and became a leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The Tsarist secret police perked up and Lenin was to spend 24 of his 30 politically active years in frustrating exile.

Lenin contributed his fair share to the polemical excesses of exiled revolutionaries and reformists (the writer and Bolshevik sympathiser, Maxim Gorky, disliked Lenin's "hooligan tone") but he won respect as the leader of the Bolsheviks in Russia.

Following the fall of the Tsarist monarchy in the February Revolution of 1917, Lenin brought the exiled Bolsheviks back to Petrograd to finish the job.

Although initially thought by many prominent Bolsheviks to be "unhinged" for advocating the overthrow of the new liberal capitalist government by the popular organs of power, the soviets, Lenin eventually won mass support for the militant Bolshevik party which he had turned from the clandestine and highly centralised party he had created (how could it be otherwise in a police state?) to a democratic, mass party. Only the Bolsheviks could deliver peace (to the war-weary army), land (to the peasants) and bread (to the working class).

The almost bloodless insurrection which ushered in the October Revolution made Lenin "dizzy" with joy. His life's work had borne fruit but the pests and diseases of counter-revolution and economic collapse attacked within months. Imperialist and ex-Tsarist armies combined with the crisis in food supplies, transport and production of a war-ruined economy to threaten the Revolution's very survival.

Lenin tacked with each gust of pressure to ensure that the October Revolution did not capsize. The price paid was a string of reluctant survival measures — a political police, press censorship, restrictions on party and soviet democracy, signing an "obscene" peace with Germany, capitalist production-line methods in the factories, the subordination of consumer needs to economic reconstruction, the introduction of petty-bourgeois capitalism into the agrarian economy, the suppression of a military rebellion at the Kronstadt naval base.

As the cavalry of European revolution failed to materialise, Lenin feared that the temporary "bureaucratic distortions" caused by the revolution's forced reliance upon administrative officials from the old regime would develop into permanent degeneration through the corruption of party leaders and cadres working in the bureaucrat-infested Soviet state machine.

Plagued by cerebral arteriosclerosis (which killed him in 1924), Lenin urged reform of party and state, and the removal of Stalin from the powerful post of party general secretary. Stalin's rat cunning in political manoeuvring, however, defied Lenin's last struggle and the dictatorship of the party bureaucracy marched on.

Not that it would have made much difference, Service believes, whether Stalin or Trotsky, or Lenin, were leader because they were all cut from the same Marxist "template" and the result would have been an "ultra-authoritarian system of rule" which was "inherent in Bolshevism from its inception". As with history, there is no such thing as value-free biography and Service's biography of Lenin is an ideological weapon in the conservative crusade against socialist revolution.

Service tests Lenin's political DNA and it positively screams "authoritarian". In childhood as in politics, says Service, Lenin was "boisterous and demanding" and "used to getting his way", resorting to fits of anger if thwarted.

Although Service claims to reject the stock right-wing view of Lenin as a "coldly calculating, cynical manipulator, sly, ruthless, interested only in power for its own sake", he proceeds to paint his biographical canvas with nothing but these garish brushstrokes. Lenin "eliminated concern for ethics" and "justified dictatorship and terror". His manipulative political methods gave the Bolshevik party a "gangsterish aspect". Lenin was a "power-hungry politician" who was "indifferent to human suffering" and "lusted" after violence and repression with "cruel delight". Just how this Lenin differs from the authoritarian psychopath of right-wing fantasy is less than entirely clear.

Demonising Lenin, as bourgeois historians do, is no better than idealising him, as the Stalinist cult of Lenin does. In Service's hands, Lenin's flaws, real and invented, are ominous signs of Marxist authoritarianism. No personal or political sledging is spared against Lenin's Bolshevik Russia. Service asserts, for example, that compassion and "indulgence to political opponents" were "wholly absent" under Lenin. Yet it was the newly victorious Bolsheviks who let the Tsarist cadets and generals go free on the mere promise of not taking up arms (a promise promptly broken) and it was Lenin who frequently intervened to quell the repressive excesses of workers and the Soviet political police, the Cheka, during the Civil War.

Service also maintains that the Bolshevik Party was never democratic, yet there were dozens of major debates inside the party up until Lenin's death, for example debates over the peace treaty with Germany, the limited capitalism of the New Economic Policy, and the "trade union question", where Trotsky's proposal to make the unions an arm of the state was opposed by Lenin because the "workers' state" had serious "bureaucratic distortions" against which the workers needed their independent self-defence organisations. Such debates were signs of a vigorous democratic culture within the party.

Of course, Lenin made mistakes, such as attempting to export revolution by pursuing the invading Polish armies into Poland (a mistake he admitted), and he set an extremely perilous course by pushing through the banning of factions in the Bolshevik party in 1921. The crucial point, however, is that such decisions were the result of a revolution under siege. Objective circumstances can not be wished away.

Although Service is forced to concede that Stalin "altered drastically" Lenin's political regime, he nevertheless asserts that the "basic edifice" of totalitarianism had been built by Lenin from a Marxist "blueprint" — the "foundations, load-bearing walls and roof" of coercion, ideological monopoly and ethical nihilism were already in place. This blithely ignores the counterposed political aims of Lenin and Stalin. Lenin's policies aimed to defend the revolution and the Bolshevik party. Stalin's terror had to destroy both to protect the interests of a privilege-seeking bureaucratic elite.

Service's Lenin is a caricature, magnifying those elements (such as Lenin's verbal vehemence) which bolster Service's political prejudices, whilst failing to capture what fundamentally motivated Lenin — his fierce antagonism to capitalist exploitation. When Service breezily argues that Lenin "enjoyed letting himself loose on the ancien regime" of tsars, landlords and priests because they had treated the family of Lenin (an "hereditary nobleman", no less) as pariahs, Lenin's dedication to working-class liberation is reduced to the politics of social envy!

Although Service acknowledges Lenin's most important historical legacy — that "revolutions do not simply happen. They have to be made" — he nevertheless disapproves of the active agent, the revolutionary party that organises mass struggles up to the taking of power by the working majority from the tiny capitalist elite. Service objects that such a party is a threat to "freedom", "democracy", "social fairness" and "justice" for which Lenin had nothing but "contempt". Service is typical of the kind of liberal Lenin had in mind when he wrote that "its natural for a liberal to talk generally about 'democracy' [yet] a Marxist will never forget to pose the question: 'for which class?'" (the "free press" under capitalism, for example, is "free" only for those who can afford to buy one).

The establishment historical bias of Service's book on Lenin might make sense in terms of "liberal" (i.e., capitalist) values but it makes for rotten politics, poor history and bad biography.