Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Reading :: Lenin

Lenin: A Biography
By Robert Service

I read this thick (494pp. without notes) biography as part of my quest to better understand the Russian milieu in which activity theory developed. Service has also written biographies of Stalin and Trotsky; the latter was pilloried for multiple errors. The Amazon reviews for the Lenin book are generally positive, but some complain that the book is too full of trivia, speculates too much, and doesn't do enough context-setting to understand Lenin's decisions well; it reduces him to a megalomaniac.

My reading was not so harsh. The book certainly has flaws, but I found a lot to like in it. Some of the details were amusing—for instance, as a baby, young Vladimir "as a baby had short, weak legs and a large head. He kept falling over, apparently because he was top heavy" (p.32). At 10, his favorite book was Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery classic Uncle Tom's Cabin (p.43), which deeply impressed him (although later in life, he apparently could not see the parallel to the forced labor camps the Cheka would later set up). As a teen, he became infatuated with Chernyshevski's socialist novel What is to be Done? (p.65), which later furnished the title for one of his own books.

Service notes that Lenin's brother Alexander Ulyanov, as a university student in St. Petersburg, became involved in a plot against the czar and was hanged. This event was a turning point for the family: their climb into the nobility was reversed, their place in society was worsened, and the children had trouble finding their own places at universities. Lenin himself only made it through part of a semester at the University of Kazan before being implicated in demonstrations and expelled. (He later stood for exams after self-study and passed with high marks.)

Through the biography, we follow Lenin as he joins the socialists, gets arrested, is sent to exile in Siberia, marries an activist (in what Service implies is a marriage of convenience), leaves the country, and begins publishing his works.
Through Marx and Engels he 'knew' that the future would bring about a final and wonderful stage in world history. His life had purpose. Lenin clung to a rock of attitudes and assumptions, and on it he was able to construct almost any notions about politics and economics he wanted. Overtly he claimed that Marxism had a readily identifiable logic that permitted development of one single policy for any given situation. But this was pretence. What he really assumed by this was that his own version of Marxism was the sole authentic one. (p.237)
As Service tells it, Lenin was sure not that he was on the right side of history, but that history was on his side. Both in exile and after the Revolution, he was an inveterate splitter, inciting schisms within the Party; when people across the aisle disagreed with him on minor matters, he vilified them as being no better than capitalists and imperialists.

He was also indefatigable. For instance, when things went bad for the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution, he had to flee to the countryside and live with Zinoviev in a wooden hut in a hayfield. There, he resumed his work on Marxist political theory, The State and Revolution, which would eventually be published after the October Revolution.

One continual theme in Lenin's books and speeches was that the world was on the brink of a socialist revolution, and indeed one would have to happen if the Soviet experiment were to survive (cf. pp.315-316, 396). But this belief was not shared by others in the Bolshevik leadership, such as Kamanev and Zinoviev (p.304).

The way Service tells it, Lenin was inconsistent in his philosophy and arguments, an inveterate splitter, an absolutist, someone who was animated by hatred of the aristocracy even though he was accustomed to the benefits of being near it. Lenin lived out the end of his life, Service says, being shut out of Party leadership; the Party even considered printing up dummy issues of the party newspaper with Lenin's contributions so he wouldn't know that these contributions were not accepted (p.472). But the cult of Lenin was strong enough that, once he passed away, Stalin swiftly positioned himself as its high priest.

Should you read this book? I found it helpful, but I agree with the Amazon commenters who complain about its sometimes narrow focus. Still, if you're looking for an introductory biography, check it out.

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