From International Socialism (1st series), No.78, May 1975, pp.28-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Lenin’s Last Struggle
Pluto Press, 90p
PLUTO PRESS have performed a small service to the Marxist movement in publishing this paperback edition of Moshe Lewin’s fine study of Lenin’s last year of active political engagement.
Drawing on material that has only relatively recently become available in Russia, Lewin documents the way in which Lenin, desperately ill, sometimes able to engage in political activity for no more than a few minutes a day, turned all his energies towards combating the processes of degeneration of the Russian Revolution.
Isolated by the defeats of the workers’ revolutionary movements in Western Europe, the Russian revolutionary government found itself more and more operating in a void. Under the combined pressure of its own isolation, of the economic and cultural backwardness of Russian society, and of the dreadful strain of the civil war, the working class that made the October Revolution was dissipated, demoralised, fragmented. Into the void, created by the withering away of the working class as a political force, the Bolshevik government had, perforce, to step. For a Marxist the situation was agonisingly difficult: somehow the revolutionary fort must be held, while help from the working class abroad was mobilised. After the defeat of the early hopes of immediate spreading of the revolution, as the wave of workers’ movements in Europe receded from 1919, the situation became even more serious.
In the circumstances of a precarious, narrowly-based dictatorship in Russia, the dying Lenin tried to grapple with the new problems, problems for whose solution there was no precedents, no guidelines in the work of earlier revolutionaries. Lenin never succeeded, as Lewin shows, in fully theorising the new situation. In particular, he came to no theoretical conclusions as to the character and origins of the new, and ever more dangerous, state bureaucracy in Russia. But, characteristically, he devoted his main political energies to fighting the phenomenon.
Central to the problem, as it presented itself to Lenin, was the ‘Georgian affair’. Stalin, and his henchmen Ordzhonikidze, Molotov and others, were intent on pushing ahead with the centralisation of Russian government, in the process over-riding the national susceptibilities of the Georgian communists, bullying and threatening to win their way. Lenin at first did not comprehend fully what was going on, but when he did he threw himself into activity on behalf of the rights of the Georgians – putting into effect the principals he had enunciated on the national question during the war. The course of the dispute, which Lenin followed from his sick-bed with feverish interest, in which he intervened with memoranda, demands for information, attempts to create a faction against Stalin, exposed to his eyes with shocking clarity the extent to which the Russian revolution had progressed in its degeneration. His proposals, when the situation was clear, were characteristically blunt: Stalin must be sacked, ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ mercilessly attacked, the entire state administration reformed.
In the event, those (like Trotsky) whom Lenin sought to win as allies in his struggle against his own party bureaucracy prevaricated. Stalin, whom Lenin had correctly seen as personally embodying the central dangers to the revolution, remained in office, and presided over the extermination of every element of the spirit of the 1917 revolution, using the body and name of Lenin as an obscene symbol of his policies.
Two criticisms of the book seem in order. The first relates to the translation, whose pedestrian air does not serve Moshe Lewin at all well. The second is more substantive: Lewin pays no attention to the international aspect of the problems he so ably discusses. The creation of the Third International was a necessary and vital part of the October revolution. Its failure is, after all, the key to the defeat of the revolution, and Lewin does not mention it. In his sensitive final chapter, he asks what might have happened had Lenin lived, arguing (correctly, I’m sure) that Lenin would have resisted many of the ‘excesses’ of the Stalinist regime. It is also, however, certain that Lenin would have campaigned fiercely against the nonsense of ‘socialism in one country’, and very likely would have turned his energies (who knows – perhaps to good effect) to giving theoretical and practical assistance to the German Communist Party in the revolutionary possibilities of 1923. In this perspective, history might indeed have been very much different had Lenin not died when he did.
Nonetheless, this is a book to be read and treasured.
Last updated: 2.3.2008