Review of Lenin: A Biography by Robert Service

Lenin: A Biography
By Robert Service
Papermac (Macmillan), London £12 (Special Indian Price £7.20), Pages 494

One of the first actions that symbolically marked the demise of socialism in the former USSR was the bringing down of the statues and pictures of Lenin.

The irony, in the first place, was that the state that he more than anyone else was responsible for bringing into existence had iconized one of the most iconoclastic figures in the pantheon of human history. Lenin himself would have approved the demolition of his statues, though not of much else that accompanied it in 1991.

Robert Service, author of the book under review, is no Leninist, indeed, he has little sympathy for the kind of politics that Lenin espoused. Yet he has written a fairly readable biography though he does not entirely succeed in convincing the reader about why Lenin’s “extraordinary life and career prove the need for everyone to be vigilant”. Much of what is contained in the book indicates otherwise.

It must be said to the biographer’s credit that he places his subject to the scrutiny of facts and therefore avoids the extreme conclusions of other authors who have written about the Russian Revolution in general and Lenin in particular. In the last one-decade these include Dmitri Volkogonov, Edvard Radzinsky, Orlando Figes and Richard Pipes.That Service manages to do a doublethink (to borrow a phrase from Orwell’s otherwise flawed “1984”), is another matter.

To this reviewer whose early introduction was to the hagiographies on Lenin churned out by Soviet publishers, the recent researches have tended to be more in the nature of additions of some facts or in the de-mythologization of others.

The qualitatively new dimensions have been few: the impact of Russian agrarian extremists in addition to Marx on Lenin’s thought and his many edicts and decisions during and after the Civil War that can be considered to be the genesis of the later totalitarian state. In the book under review there is new light on Lenin’s exchange of letters with those close to him, particularly Nadya Krupuskaya and Inessa Armand.

Beyond these points, even Service has little to add and there is a reason that despite his attempts to highlight the negative aspects of Lenin, he inaugurates the book with the sentence: “Lenin was an extraordinary man”.

With the proverbial wisdom of hindsight, the first point need not really have surprised us. After all, there was substantial material to indicate the violent program of the agrarian socialists and their impact on Russian revolutionaries. Dostovesky’s “The Demons” and particularly Joseph Conrad’s near- prophetic “Under Western Eyes” had underlined these streams of Russian revolutionary thought much earlier.

Regarding Lenin’s role in setting up the later Stalinist State, it needs to be read cautiously. While it is hard to imagine that the Soviet State would have been fundamentally different if Lenin had lived longer or if the leadership had passed on to someone else other than Stalin, it is also incorrect to see Stalinism as being a direct and legitimate continuation of Leninism.

Lenin was, as Service rightly points out, capable of reversing his decisions in the light of new developments- he often took an isolationist position but then used all his force to carry the rest of the Bolsheviks along with him. This was not the case with Stalin, who preferred the somewhat more “convenient” option of physically eliminating his rivals.

If Lenin resorted to polemical pamphleteer- ism for the dissemination of his ideas, Stalin paved the way for simplistic sloganeer-ism masquerading as profound truths. This was carried to its logical culmination in the Red books in Maoist China that pioneered the “communism for dummies” trend, if you will.

Besides, by reversing the early 1920s economic policies, Stalin deviated grievously. Though it may be conjectural to state this, it is possible that the ex- USSR might have developed those policies at an earlier stage that China adopted in the 1970s. As Roy Medvedev has forcefully argued in his recent book “Post- Soviet Russia: A Journey through the Yeltsin years”, a pragmatic symbiosis of market features would have been a historically judicious choice compared to the barrack socialism that finally evolved.

The author recounts information about Lenin’s pedigree, including Mongol and Jewish ancestry. The family background of Lenin was generally ignored in the official biographies about Lenin and therefore the chapters on Lenin’s childhood and early upbringing make for interesting reading, if only for their novelty. Even Louis Fischer’s “Lenin: A Life” focused more on his later years.

The author also touches some of the important works like the “April Thesis” and “The State and Revolution”- attributing these generally to Lenin’s whims or wily scheming. Though one expects that he would have discussed these more seriously in his previously published 3-volume work on Lenin’s political thought, it is necessary not to underestimate his theoretical writings and to throw out the baby with the bath water.

A number of principles still carry a lot of weight, one of them being Lenin’s critique of Narodism. In India, for example Narodism in the form of Gandhism and neo- Narodism in the writings of third- world theorists like Ashish Nandy and Vandana Shiva has been a much stronger current than in the Russia. In this regard, one still needs to “go back to Lenin” to use a cliché popularized by Soviet writers. As the early 21st century comes to resemble more and more the early 20th century, this need may become all the more relevant as does a much more critical attitude.

Then there are certain aspects that Service either does not expend himself fully on, or does not touch at all.

For example, he points out that despite all his faults, Lenin was the acknowledged leader among both the Bolsheviks as well as his closest adversaries, the Mensheviks. If Plekanov was respected, Martov loved but still it was Lenin that the people followed, there must have been some reasons. Many of the other leading revolutionaries were extremely educated and forceful personalities in themselves. Despite that, why was there such universal agreement regarding Lenin? Service answers this with a thundering silence.

An aspect of Lenin’s personality that has recently been highlighted by Volkogonov and Radzinsky as well as Service needs attention. This is the supreme importance that Lenin attached to his personal security. While Volkogonov terms this “cowardice”, Service does not go so far, but even he does not attempt to provide an explanation.

The reason may be partly psychological and partly borne out of conviction on Lenin’s part. In his seminal work “What is to be Done?” Lenin had indicated that the working class cannot accomplish revolution by itself and there is need for an intelligentsia that grows outside the working class that develops theory and injects class- consciousness into the working class.

Tsarist Russia on the other hand was powerful enough to silence the rebellious intelligentsia. It must be remembered that Nikolai Chernesvesky’s literary and philosophical works were written only in his early years. Once he returned from his incarceration, he became completely silent. His mental faculties had been ruined. Lenin must have been fearful of a similar fate befalling him- his brother Alexander’s execution would have been a gory reminder too.

An aspect that needs attention from Lenin’s biographers and scholars of the Russian Revolution is a more judicious treatment of the personalities that he was associated with. In Service’s account, these personages appear and disappear like passing silhouettes except for Krupuskaya, Inessa Armand and Stalin. This leaves one not only with numerous loose ends but also does not help to adequately compare Lenin with some of the other leading figures in the Russian Social Democratic movement.

This is specially true of the important Menshevik theoreticians Yuli Martov, Pavel Axelrod and Alexander Bogdanov (whom Service considers to be Lenin’s intellectual superior and with whom Lenin engaged in polemics in “Empirio- Criticism and Materialism”), not to mention Trotsky , Stalin and Bukharin.

The last three at least have had their share of biographers (Isaac Deutscher for Trotsky and Stalin, Stephen Cohen for Bukharin). It is the leading Mensheviks who have been ignored by historians.

As for Lenin, the current biographer does not achieve what Deutscher accomplished for Trotsky. The need and the long wait for a definitive biography of Vladmir Illyich Lenin are not yet over.

19 December, 2001
Published: The Tribune, Chandigarh 13 Jan 2002

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