Tony Cliff

Not by politics alone: the other Lenin

(October 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 63, Mid-October 1973, pp. 29–30.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Not by politics alone: the other Lenin
Edited by Tamara Deutscher
George Allen and Unwin, £3.95.

This book is a valiant effort to describe the other traits and activities of Lenin besides his political ones. However, the effort was bound to fail.

It is true that the objective historical processes are realised through people, including what we may call great men. And the specific personal traits of these men are of quite large significance – they may well hasten or retard historical development. The personal does play a significant role in the mechanism of the historical process. Alas, in the case of Lenin these personal traits fitted so well as to practically keep out of sight of any of his activities, thoughts or feelings that were not purely political. He was so single-minded, so extremely utilitarian, that he hardly ever looked at himself.

Lunacharsky, writing his Revolutionary Silhouettes while Lenin was still alive, wrote the following, contrasting Trotsky with Lenin:

‘Trotsky treasures his historical role, and would probably be ready to make any personal sacrifice, not excluding the greatest sacrifice of all – that of his life – in order to go down in human memory surrounded by the aureole of a genuine revolutionary leader. His ambition has the same characteristic ...’

As against this:

‘Lenin is not in the least ambitious ... I do not believe that Lenin ever steps back and looks at himself, never even thinks what posterity will say about him. He simply gets on with the job.’

Because Lenin hardly ever looked in the mirror, there is very little evidence – except for the very short references in Krupskaya’s memoirs – for his feelings and passions. Except for Lenin’s letters to his close friend Inessa Armand (and they seem to be censored by the Stalinist authorities) into which now and again crept a particularly soft note, all his letters are most business-like, practically formal communiques. It is characteristic that in all his letters there is hardly a description of his environment. At most his letters give a brief summing up of everyday activities. It was practically the same whether he described life in prison, in Siberia, Paris, Geneva or London. When members of his family complained that he did not write from Siberia, Krupskaya wrote: ‘Volodya is quite unable to write about the ordinary side of life.’ Lenin was completely engulfed in his work.

His personal relations were always dependent on his political alignment. He was ready to ‘fall in love’ with a new collaborator, but nearly always after a long acquaintance he would discern elements of weakness in him which called the attachment. Also his attitude towards one and the same person changed radically depending on whether at the same time he was on Lenin’s side or against him. In such ‘falling in love’ and out of it, there was no fickleness. The reason why one often finds in Lenin’s writing startling contradictions in his comments on one and the same person is that the basic rule predominated all his life: the needs of the struggle and nothing else.

And as Lenin ‘considered himself ignorant in matters of art and literature’ one cannot make very much of his attitudes to these either. In face of all the above difficulties, the effort to deal with ‘The Other Lenin’, however valiant, and however fine the introductory essay by Tamara Deutscher, was bound to fail. And this is really a pity!

Last updated on 1.9.2013