Maxim Gorky 1920
Source: The Living Age, Volume XX, 1920;
First Published: The Moscow Communist International, July 1920;
Transcription\Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Soviet History Archive 2005. This work is completely free.
A DISCIPLE of the theory that the rôle which human personality plays in the progress of civilization is negligible, will scarcely agree with my view of Lenin, as a source of energy, without which the Russian revolution could not have assumed the form which it has assumed.
Once I compared Lenin provisionally with Peter the Great. Many laughed at my comparison, finding it exaggerated. But it was, really, only a provisional comparison; for I consider Lenin’s role as a social reformer for Russia of smaller significance than his importance as a world revolutionary. He is not only a man whose will has been chosen by history for the performance of the stupendous task of stirring up to the very bottom that variegated, clumsy, and indolent human ant-hill, known as Russia: his will is a tireless battering ram the blows of which shake to the very foundations of the monumentally upreared capitalistic states of the West, and the ugly, slavish heaps of the thousand-year old despotisms of the East.
I still think, as I thought two years ago, that, for Lenin, Russia is merely the material for an experiment on a universal, planetary scale. Formerly, this thought, pushed to the background by a feeling of pity for the Russian people, infuriated me. But as it becomes more and more apparent to me that the development of the Russian revolution, becoming broader and deeper all the time, is stirring up and organizing forces capable of shattering the foundations of the universal capitalistic order, I now feel that even if Russia is destined to serve as the object of such an experiment, it is utterly unjust to charge this against the one man, who is making every effort to transform the potential energy of the Russian working masses into active, kinetic energy.
It is right and just that each nation should receive its just deserts. A people which had become stagnant in an atmosphere of a monarchic order, inactive and lacking in will power, robbed of faith in itself, not sufficiently ‘bourgeois’ to be strong in resistance, yet not resolute enough to destroy in itself the beggarly, though deep rooted desire for ‘bourgeois’ well-being, such a people, by the logic of its uninspiring history, must, apparently, pass through all the dramas and the tragedies which inevitably befall passive races exposed to an epoch of a ferocious class war such as has its most dastardly expression in a monstrosity like the slaughter of 1914-18.
Of course, I am not attempting to compose a speech in defense or justification of Lenin. I do not need to do this; nor has he any need for it.
But I know Lenin somewhat, and when I hear ‘objectively thinking men’ blame him for the cruel civil war, the terror, and the other crimes which are being perpetrated in Russia, I recall Mr. Lloyd George, who in 1913-14 praised the Germans to the skies in speeches which he delivered to a party of English teachers about, to leave for excursions through Germany, and to German teachers visiting England; while at the same time he was sharpening the bayonets and filling the shells which were to tear Germans to pieces. All those ‘great men’: the shameless cynic, Clemenceau; ‘the naïve, romantic democrat,’ Woodrow Wilson; the Socialists, who voted war credits to pay for European slaughter; the scientists, who invented the poisonous gases and other dastardly things; the poets, who in 1914 cursed Germany, and in 1918, England — all that rot and rust of the disintegrating old order is what really dealt its death blow to the culture of Europe; and that is what now continues, with truly sadistic cruelty, to torture the body of Russia, prolonging her civil war, stifling her with blockade, killing off her children with cold and starvation.
Mistakes, if there is any need for speaking about them, are not crimes. Lenin’s mistakes are those of an honest man: there has never yet been in the world a single reformer who would have done his work without making mistakes. It is Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and others like them who act without making mistakes; for they act like real criminals, like professional murderers, when they doom a whole nation to cold and starvation, and prolong an entirely useless civil war — a civil war the more senseless because there are in Russia no forces, except the ‘Bolsheviki,’ capable of assuming authority, and inspiring the exhausted country with the energy necessary for productive work.
Returning now to Lenin, I must note that my personal sympathies toward him do not enter at all into my analysis. To me he is a man who, like any other person or event, is under my observation and cannot but interest me when I write of the life of my country.
I see this man delivering a speech at a labor meeting. The words he uses are extremely simple; his speech is like wrought iron; his logic is like the blows of an axe. Yet in his severe diction I have never caught a word of crude demagoguery, nor the disgusting dandyism of the pretty phrase. He always speaks about the same thing: about the necessity of destroying at the very root the social inequality among men, and about the way in which this can be done. This ancient phrase sounds harsh and uncompromising on his lips. You always feel that he believes in it unflinchingly, and you feel that this faith of his is calm: it is the faith of a scientist, not of a metaphysician or a mystic. It seems to me that he is not interested at all in individual men: he thinks in terms of parties, masses, states. And in this respect he is possessed of a gift of prophecy, of an intuition that belongs only to a thinker and experimentor who is a genius. He has that fortunate clearness of thought, which is acquired only by hard and insistent labor.
A Frenchman once asked me:
‘Don't you think that Lenin is a guillotine, endowed with a mind?’
‘No, I would compare the work of his mind with the blows of a hammer, which possesses the power of sight, and which crushes only that which should have been destroyed long ago.’
To the average men of all countries Lenin must, indeed, seem like another Atilla, come to destroy the Rome of their well-being and prosperity, founded on slavery, blood, and robbery. But just as ancient Rome deserved its destruction, so the crimes of the world today justify and render necessary its destruction. This is, indeed, a historic necessity: no one and nothing will be able to prevent it.
And when voices are raised to protest against the destruction of the European civilization, and to assert the need of preserving it from the onslaught of the new Huns, such words have a meaning and a ring of sincerity only when pronounced by revolutionists. When spoken by the organizers and the abettors of the slaughter of 1914-18, they sound like despicable lies and hypocricy.
The process by which civilization develops, if by this we mean the conquests and achievements of art and science, and the incidental betterment of human character, surely cannot be delayed or stopped by the mere fact that, instead of tens of thousands of individuals who have sought to advance civilization hitherto, millions will hereafter share in its progress.
I see before me the grandiose picture of the earth, cut and polished into a gigantic emerald by the incessant labor of free men. All the men in this new earth are endowed with intelligence and wisdom and possess spontaneously a feeling of personal responsibility for by them and around them. Everywhere are cities, like gardens, enclosing magnificent edifices. Everywhere, the forces of nature, subjugated by man and organized by his mind, work for him. At last he is truly the master of the elements. His physical energy is no longer expended for hard, dirty, manual labor. It has become transformed into spiritual energy, whose whole might is directed to investigating those fundamental questions of being, over which the human mind has been puzzling since time immemorial, incapable of unraveling their mysteries because it was constantly weakened by the need of explaining and justifying the phenomena of the social struggle, because it was ever exhausted by the drama of accepting two incompatible principles, rendered inevitable in a world dominated by this struggle.
Ennobled in a technical way, endowed with sense and social meaning, human labor has, at last, become a joy and a pleasure. Human reason is at last free. The most precious of man’s possessions, his mind has become truly fearless. This is the world of my vision!
With Lenin, fearlessness of reason and the acuteness of political analysis are his chief attributes. The world has never before heard the language which is used to-day by his diplomacy. Let it be a language which jars cruelly on the tender ears of the diplomats in long-tail coats or Tuexdo suits. But it is the language of mortal truth. And truth demands a rude form until we learn to make it beautiful, as we have done with music, which is one of the beautiful truths created by us.
I do not believe that in the above I have attributed to Lenin truths which are foreign to him, or that I have enhaloed him with unreal romance. I cannot imagine him without the beautiful dream I have described, of the future happiness of all men, of bright and joyful human life. And the greater the man, the more daring is his dream.
Lenin is greater than any other of my contemporaries, and though his mind is usually busy with matters of policy, which a romanticist would term ‘narrowly practical,’ I have no doubt that in the rare moments of respite his militant thought projects itself into the beautiful future much further, and sees there much more than I can ever see.
The first aim of Lenin’s whole life is the good of the whole of mankind, and it is inevitable that he should see in the dim distances of ages the end and the termination of that mighty process, the beginning of which he so courageously and so ascetically serves with the whole power of his will. He is an idealist, if by that word one understands the unification of all ideas in the one idea of universal good. His personal, private life is such that were he to live at a time when religious ideas were dominant, he would have been considered a saint.
I know that reading this, the common man will be enraged, many of the comrades will smile, and Lenin himself will burst out laughing. ‘A saint’ is, indeed, a strong and paradoxical word to apply to a man, for whom ‘there is nothing sacred,’ as that ancient ‘God-man,’ former revolutionist, Chaikovsky, said about him. Is it not too much to call Lenin a saint, when the well educated and cultured leader of the British conservatives, Lord Churchill, calls him ‘the most ferocious and disgusting of men? ’
But the honorable Lord will scarcely deny that church saintliness seldom excludes severity and cruelty, as is amply attested by the bloody fights which took place among the Fathers of the Church at universal conclaves, by the Holy Inquisition, and by other episodes in religious history. On the other hand, the domain of civil activity has always produced more truly saintly people, if by saintliness we understand honest and fearless service in the interests of the people, of liberty, and truth.
A severe realist, a clever politician, Lenin gradually becomes a legendary figure. And that is good.
From the remotest villages of India, traversing hundreds of miles of mountains and forests, constantly risking their lives, the Hindoos, tortured by the age-long oppression of British officials, come to Kabul, to the Russian Mission, to ask, ‘Who is Lenin?’
At the other end of the world, the Norwegian workmen say to their indifferent Russian comrades:
‘There is Lenin, a truly honest fellow. No man like him has ever lived on the earth.’
And I say that this, too, is good. Most men must believe first, in order to begin to act. It takes too long to wait until they begin to think and to understand, and in the meantime the evil genius of capitalism crushes them more and more with poverty, alcoholism, exhaustion.
Perhaps it is necessary to note that Lenin is not incapable of friendship, and of all the other qualities which are human. One feels almost embarrassed at having to mention this; but the bourgeoisie of the whole world is terribly frightened, and Lord Churchill, whenever he looks toward the East, becomes excited to a physically injurious degree. I am myself a kindly man, and I feel impelled to set at ease these terrified enemies of the leader of Bolshevism, seized as they are with this universal panic.
Lenin sometimes places too high a valuation upon the good qualities of other people, through which they privately benefit much more than the cause they represent. But his negative valuation of individuals has scarcely ever failed to be justified; and his judgment is almost always borne out by the actions of men whom he judged even before seeing their work. This may be taken as a proof of the fact that men of bad qualities are always more numerous than men of good qualities.
At times one can see in this harsh political leader flashes of almost feminine gentleness and kindness to others, and I am sure that the terror costs him many sufferings, which he succeeds in concealing skillfully. It is impossible and inconceivable that men, destined by history to perform the great contradiction of killing some for the freedom of others, should not feel the pains and the sufferings which nearly exhaust the soul. I know several pairs of eyes in which this burning pain has become fixed forever, for their whole life. All killing is organically revolting for me; but these men are martyrs, and my conscience would never permit me to condemn them.
Of course, of Lenin personally much more can be said than has been said here. But I am held back by this man’s own modesty. I know that he will laugh when reading even these few lines; for he will consider them exaggerated, unnecessary, and ludicrous. Let him laugh, he does it so well. But I hope that many people will read these lines not without benefit for themselves. In these lines I am describing the man who has had the fearless courage to start a European social revolution — and that in a country where eighty-five per cent of the people are peasants who want nothing more than to be self-satisfied, comfortable, contented bourgeoisie. This fearlessness has been counted by many sheer madness. I was one who began his career of promoting revolution by singing the glory of the madly brave. Yet there was a moment when my natural pity for the people of Russia made me consider this madness as almost a crime. But now I see that this people can suffer patiently much better than it can work conscientiously and honestly. So again I sing the glory of the sacred madness of the brave.
And of them, Vladimir Lenin is the first and the maddest.