From the American Socialist Collection of Sol Dolinger

Face to face with a moral crisis brought on by
the growth of a super-state which often failed to respond
to his efforts to guide it, Lenin expressed his dismay in words
“the like of which had hardly ever been uttered by any ruler.”

Lenin’s Last Dilemma

By Isaac Deutscher

LENIN often invoked the examples of Cromwell and Robespierre; and he defined the role of the Bolshevik as that of a "modern Jacobin acting in close tough with the working class, as its revolutionary agent." Yet, unlike the Jacobin and the Puritan leaders, Lenin was not a moralist. He invoked Robespierre and Cromwell as men of action and masters of revolutionary strategy, not as ideologues. He recalled that even as leaders of bourgeois revolutions Robespierre and Cromwell were in conflict with the bourgeoisie, which did not understand the needs even of bourgeois society; and that they had to arouse the lower classes, the yeomanry, the artisans, and the urban plebs. From both the Puritan and the Jocobin experience Lenin also drew the lesson that it was in the nature of a revolution to overreach itself in order to perform its historic task- revolutionaries had, as a rule, to aim at what was in their time unattainable, in order to secure what was attainable.

Yet, while the Puritans and the Jacobins were in their consciences guided by moral absolutes, Cromwell by the “word of God,” and Robespierre by a metaphysical idea of virtue, Lenin refused to attribute absolute validity to any ethical principle or law. He accepted no supra-historic morality, no categorical imperative, whether religious or secular. As did Marx, he regarded men’s ethical ideas as part of their social consciousness, which often was a false conscious, reflecting and veiling, transfiguring and glorifying certain social needs, class interest, and requirements of authority.

It was therefore in a spirit of historical relativism that Lenin approached questions of morality. Yet it would be a mistake to confuse this with moral indifference. Lenin was a man of strong principles; and on his principles he acted with an extraordinary, selfless dedication, and with intense moral passion. It was, I think, Bukharin who first said that the Leninist philosophy of historic determinism had this in common with the Puritan doctrine of predestintion that, far from blunting, it sharpened the sense of personal moral responsibility.

Cromwell and Robespierre became revolutionaries when they were caught up by the current of actual revolution; neither of them had at the threshold of his career chosen to work for the overthrow of the established system of government. Lenin, on the contrary, deliberately entered the path of the revolutionary a full quarter of a century before 1917. Of the thirty years of his political activity, he exercised power in the course of only six years—for twenty four years he was an outlaw, an underground fighter, a political prisoner, and an exile. During those twenty-four years he expected no reward for his struggle other than moral satifaction. As late as January 1917 he said at a public meeting that he and men of his generation would probably not live to see the triumph of revoltion in Russia. What, then, gave him, a man of political genius and of extraordinary ability in many other fields, the moral strength to condemn himself to persection and penury in the service of a cause the triumph of which he did not even expect to see?

IT was the old dream of human freedom. He himself, the greatest realist among revolutionaries, used to say that it was impossible to be a revolutionaries, used to say that it was impossible to be a revolutionary without being a dreamer and without having a streak of romanticism. The enlargement of human freedom implied for him, in the first instance, the freeing of Russia from Czardom and from a way of life rooted in age-old serfdom. Ultimately it implied the liberation of society at large from the less obvious but not less real domination of man by man inherent in the prevalence of bourgeois property. He saw in the contradiction between the social character of modern production and the unsocial character of bourgeois property the chief source of that irrationalism which condemns modern society to recurrent crises and wars, and makes it impossible for mankind even to begin to master its own destiny. If, to Milton, Englishmen loyal to the King were not free men, and royalism was moral slavery, then to Lenin loyalty to the bourgeois society and its forms of property was also moral slavery. Only that action was moral to him which hastened the end of the bourgeois order and the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship; for he believed that only such a dictatorship could pave the way for a classless and stateless society.

Lenin was aware of the contradiction inherent in this attitude. His ideal was a society free from class domination and state authority; yet immediately he sought to establish the supremacy of a class, the working class, and to found a new state, the proletarian dictatorship. He sought to resolve this dilemma by insisting that, unlike other states, the proletarian dictatorship would have no needed of any oppressive government machine-it would not need any privileged bureaucracy which, as a rule, “is separated from the people elevated above it, and opposed to it.” In his State and Revolution, which he wrote on the eve of the Bolshevik seizure of power, he described the proletarian dictatorship as a sort of para-state, a state without standing army and police, a state constituted by “a people in arms,” not by a bureaucracy, a state progressively dissolving in society and working towards its own extinction.

Here, in this conception, and in its conflict with the realities of the Russian revolution, was the source of the one truly great end rushing moral crisis Lenin ever knew—the crisis at the end of his life. He had often to face grave dilemmas, to submit his views to the test of experience, to revise them, to retrace his steps, to acknowledged defeat, and—what was more difficult- to admit error; he knew moments of hesitation, anguish, and even of nervous breakdown, for to the actual Lenin, not the Lenin of the Soviet iconography, nothing human was alien. He suffered the most severe nervous strain whenever he had to confront old friends as political enemies. Never till the end of his life did he overcome the pain that his breach with Martov, the leader of the Mensheviks, had caused him. He was profoundly shaken by the behavior of the leaders of the Socialist International 1914, at the outbreak of the first World War, when he decided to brand them as “traitors to socialism.” yet at none of these and other important political turns did he experience anything like a moral crisis.

LET me give you two further illustrations: in 1917 he had pledged himself to convoke and uphold the Constituent Assembly. Early in 1918 he convoked it and dispersed it. Yet he had no qualms about that act. His loyalty was to the October revolution and the Soviets; and when the Constituent Assembly took up an attitude of irreconcilable opposition to both, it was in a mood of almost humorous equanimity that he ordered its dispersal. In 1917, too, he had pledge himself and his party to fight for world revolution and even to wage a revolutionary war against Hohenzollern Germany. But early in 1918, at Brest Litovsk, he came to terms with the Kaiser’s government, and signed with it a “shameful” peace, as he himself put it. Yet he did not feel that he had broken his pledge: he was convinced that by concluding that peace he had secured a respite for the Russian revolution, and that for the time being this was the only service he could render to world revolution.

In this and in some other situations he held that réculer pour mieux sauter was a sound maxim. He saw nothing dishonorable in the behavior of a revolutionary who retreats from his position before overwhelming enemy forces, provided that the revolutionary acknow1edges the retreat as a retreat and does not misrepresent it as an advance. This, incidentally, was one of the important differences between Lenin and Stalin; and it is a moral difference, the difference between truthfulness and prestige-ridden, bureaucratic mendacity. It was precisely when he had to bow to expediency, and to act “opportunistically” that Lenin was more than usually anxious to preserve in his party the sense of its direction—a clear awareness of the goal for which it was striving. He had brought up his party in an enthusiasm as ardent and a discipline as severe as were the enthusiasm and the discipline of Cromwell’s soldiers. But he was also on guard against the excess of enthusiasm which had more than once led revolutionary parties to quixotry and defeat.

Guided by this astringent realism, Lenin was then for five years engaged in building the Soviet state, The administrative machine he created had little in common with the idea1 model of it he had drawn in State and Revolution. A powerful army and an awe-inspiring political police came into being. The new administration reabsorbed much of the old Czarist bureaucracy. Far from merging with a “people in arms,” the new state, like the old, was “separated from the people and elevated above it.” At the head of the state stood the party’s Old Guard, Lenin’s Bolshevik Saints. The single-party system took shape. What was to have been a mere para-state was in fact a super-state.

Lenin could not have been unaware of all this. Yet for about five years he had, or appeared to have, a calm conscience, no doubt because he felt that he had retreated from his position under the overwhelming pressure of circumstances. Revolutionary Russia could not survive without a strong and centralized state. A “people in arms” could not defend her against the White Armies and foreign intervention—a severely disciplined and centralized army was needed for that. The Cheka, the new political police, he held, was indispensable for the suppression of counter- revolution, It was impossible to overcome the devastation, chaos, and social disintegration consequent upon civil war by the methods of a workers’ democracy, The working class itself was dispersed, exhausted, apathetic, or demoralized. The nation could not regenerate itself by itself—“from below”; and Lenin saw that a strong hand was needed to guide it from above, through a painful transition era of unpredictable duration. This conviction gave him what appeared to be an unshakable moral self-confidence in his course of action.

THEN, as if suddenly, his self-confidence broke down. The process of state building was already well advanced, and he himself was nearing the end of his active life, when he was seized by acute doubt, apprehension, and alarm. He realized that he had gone too far, and that the new machine of power was turning into a mockery of his principles. He felt alienated from the state of his own making. At a party congress, in April 1922, the last congress he attended, he strikingly expressed this sense of alienation. He said that often he had the uncanny sensation which a driver has when he suddenly becomes aware that his vehicle is not moving in the direction in which he steers it. “Powerful forces,” he declared, “diverted the Soviet state from its ’proper road.’” He first threw out this remark as if casually, in an aside; but the feeling behind it then took hold of him until it gripped him completely. He was already ill and suffered from spells of sclerotic paralysis; but his mind still worked with relentless clarity. In the intervals between attacks of illness, he struggled desperately to make the vehicle of the state move “in the right direction.” Again and again he failed. He was puzzled by his failures. He brooded over the reasons. He began to succumb to a sense of guilt, and, finally, he found himself in the throes of his moral crisis, a crisis which was all the more cruel because it aggravated his mortal illness and was aggravated by it.

He asked himself what it was that was transforming the Workers’ Republic into an oppressive bureaucratic state. He surveyed repeatedly the familiar basic factors of the situation: the isolation of the revolution; the poverty, the ruin, and the backwardness of Russia; the anarchic individualism of the peasantry; the weakness and demoralization of the working class; and so on.

But something else now also struck him with great force. As he watched his colleagues, followers, and disciples—those revolutionaries turned rulers—their behavior and methods of government reminded him more and more of the behavior and the methods of the old Czarist bureaucracy. He thought of those instances in history when one nation conquered another but then the defeated nation, if it represented a higher civilization, imposed its own way of life and its own culture on the conquerors, defeating them spiritually. Something similar, he concluded, can happen in the struggle between social classes: defeated Czardom was in fact imposing its own standards and methods on his own party. It was galling for him to have to make this admission, but he made it: Czardom was spiritually conquering the Bolsheviks, because the Bolsheviks were less civilized than even the Tsar’s bureaucracy had been.

HAVING gained this deep and ruthless insight into what was happening, he watched his followers and disciples with growing dismay. More and more often he thought of thedzierzhymordas of old Russia, the gendarmes, the leaders of the old police state, the oppressors of national minorities, and so on. Were they not sitting now, as if resurrected, in the Bolshevik Politburo? In this mood he wrote his last will, in which he said that Stalin had already gathered too much power in his hands, and that the party would be well advised to remove him from the office of its General Secretary. At this time, towards the end of 1922, Stalin was sponsoring a new constitution which deprived the national minorities of many of the rights hitherto guaranteed to them, and which, in a sense, re-established the “one and indivisible” Russia of old by giving almost unlimited powers to the central government in Moscow. At the same time both Stalin and Dzerzhinsky, the head of the political police, were engaged in a brutal suppression of oppositions in Georgia and in the Ukraine.

On his sick bed, while he was struggling with his paralysis, Lenin decided to speak up and denounce the dzierzhymorda, the big brutish bully, who was in the name of revolution and socialism, reviving the old oppression. But Lenin did not absolve himself from responsibility; he was now a prey to remorse, which was extinguishing the feeble flame of life left in him but which also aroused him and gave him strength for an extraordinary act. He decided not merely to denounce Stalin and Dzerzhinsky but to make a confession of his own guilt.

On December 30, 1922, cheating his doctors and nurses, he began to dictate notes on Soviet policy towards the small nations, notes intended as a message to the next party congress. “I am, it seems, strongly guilty before the workers of Russia”: these were his opening words, words the like of which had hardly ever been uttered by any ruler, words which Stalin subsequently suppressed and which Russia was to read for the first time only after thirty-three years, after the Twentieth Congress. Lenin felt guilty before the working class of his country because, so he said. he had not acted with sufficient determination and early enough against Stalin and Dzerzhinsky, against their Great Russian chauvinism, against the suppression of the rights of the small nations, and against the new oppression, in Russia, of the weak and the strong. He now saw, he continued, in what “swamp” of oppression the Bolshevik Party had landed: Russia was ruled once again by the old Czarist administration to which the Bolsheviks “had given only a Soviet veneer”; and once again the national minorities “were exposed to the irruption of that truly Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist who is essentially a scoundrel and an oppressor as is the typical Russian bureaucrat.”

For thirty-three years this message was to be concealed from the Soviet people. Yet I think that in these words: “I am, it seems, strongly guilty before the workers of Russia”—in his ability to utter such words—lay an essential part of Lenin’s moral greatness.

This article by Isaac Deutscher, biographer of Stalin and Trotsky whose analyses of Soviet affairs appear in many periodicals around the globe, was first presented as a talk on the British Broadcasting Company’s famed Third Program.

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