Tony Cliff

Lenin 3 – Revolution Besieged


When on the morrow of the October insurrection Lenin calmly declared, ‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order’, he had behind him a quarter of a century of prison, exile, clandestine work and emigration, organizing, educating and leading a party of persecuted revolutionaries, very far from state power. Lenin now had before him five years as leader of the party, in charge of a revolutionary government and the head of a newly established Communist International.

In the long hard years of political work behind him Lenin had been sustained by a great dream – of a new socialist order. For twenty-five years he worked relentlessly towards a goal which seemed far more remote than it actually proved to be; as late as February 1917 he still did not believe that the revolution would come in his lifetime. After their dramatic ascent from obscurity to the summit of power, Lenin and the Bolsheviks faced a host of new, difficult tasks. They had to administer the state of a gigantic, backward country, whose economy was in ruins and which was under attack by ‘fourteen armies’. The Bolsheviks had to create a workers’ and peasants’ army from scratch, and lead it against domestic and foreign armies far better equipped.

On coming to power the party had to change its mode of operation radically from agitating and organizing against a state, to administering a state and leading the workers in doing so. Lenin and the other Bolsheviks never doubted the crucial role of the proletariat in the revolution and its ability to rule, even though it was a class with no experience of power, no standing in society, and no wealth or culture to speak of. The Bolsheviks had great confidence in the creative abilities of the awakened working class. Relying on the iron discipline of the party, forged over many hard years of struggle, and the courage and heroism of the proletariat, Lenin unhesitatingly grasped the helm of the state.

Another new, heavy burden fell on Lenin’s shoulders – that of leading the newly founded Communist International. The Russian revolution had massive reverberations abroad. From tiny groups of revolutionary marxists, mass communist parties emerged in a number of countries. It was an extremely arduous task to educate and train the young, inexperienced parties.

The present work is the first of two volumes which span the period between Lenin’s rise to power and his death. Of necessity its canvas has to be much broader than the previous two: Lenin’s triple role as leader of the party, the government and of the International has to be documented and analysed.

The relationship between Lenin’s biography and the history of the working class is an ever-changing one. In Volume One I tried to show how Lenin influenced the party and the party influenced the proletariat, as well as how the proletariat created the party and the party shaped Lenin. The political biography of Lenin meshed in with the political history of the working class. The fusion of Lenin’s activities with those of the party and the class reached its climax in the revolution of 1917, the subject of Volume Two. If in Volume One the strands of biography and of history did not harmonize completely it was because Lenin had to work his way towards implanting the party in the class, remoulding the party and himself in the struggle to change the working class and transform society. In 1917 the fusion of the biographical and the historical was complete, so that it seems as if Lenin merged completely with the party and the proletariat. He acquired his strength and greatness in 1917 from the strength and greatness of the workers.

In this third volume, the relationship between the biographical and the historical changes again. Following the October revolution, the grim reality of Russian backwardness and peasant conservatism, combined with the tardiness of the international revolution, led to an increasing impotence and inability of the Bolsheviks to shape reality. It was as if the march of events pushed Lenin to the periphery of social life. The biographical element appears very marginal compared with the historical. The weakness of Lenin and his party in the face of overwhelming forces makes this period of his life a tragic one; nevertheless, the sacrifices which he, the party and the proletariat made during this period were not made in vain.

Throughout the Promethean struggle Lenin never wavered in his conviction that the future belonged to Bolshevism. The relatively small proletariat of Russia, in the most difficult circumstances, provided a glimpse of what the international working class can achieve in its fight for freedom, for workers’ power.

In the last few years of Lenin’s life, the optimistic, heroic elements intertwine inextricably with the tragic : his grasp of the helm of state, party and International becomes weaker and weaker. Consequently, in this as well as the next volume the crucial dialectic of the biographical and historical elements causes the latter almost to obliterate the former.

Writing the present and succeeding volumes was extremely difficult, not only because of the conflict between the breadth of the subject – Russia in the international arena, the party, the state and the Communist International – but even more because it is hard to describe an historical tragedy intertwined with personal agony without descending to a pathos foreign to the subject of the book.

For dates before 1 (14) February 1918 I give two dates, the first according to the Julian or ‘Old Style’ calendar, the second (in parentheses) according to the Gregorian calendar, known as the ‘West European’ or ‘New Style’. The Old Style was abolished and the New Style introduced in Russia on 1 (14) February 1918. For events occurring later only the Gregorian calendar applies.


Tony Cliff
London, July 1977

Last updated on 19.9.2012