Ian Birchall   |   ETOL Main Page

Ian Birchall



From Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 1, 2005.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jean-Jacques Marie
Balland, Paris 2004, pp. 504, Є25

TO write the biography of Lenin today is no easy task. To the intrinsic difficulties of the task are added the problems of the post-Stalinist era, in which Lenin has been abandoned by most of his erstwhile friends, but become a chosen target for those who wish to use the collapse of Stalinism to vilify the whole revolutionary tradition.

Jean-Jacques Marie is well placed to take on the task. Author of a monumental study of Stalin (reviewed in Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 3), he is an established scholar of Russian history and a long-standing activist in the Trotskyist movement. His new study of Lenin offers a wealth of information that will be of interest to all those concerned to study the strengths and weaknesses of Bolshevism free from the myths which have so often distorted it. Yet he has only been partially successful.

The main attraction of biography for readers is the way that it studies the interplay of public and private. But there is little private here – Lenin was a peculiarly single-minded individual, lacking the broad cultural perspectives to be found in the writings of Marx, Engels or Trotsky. Many years ago, Tamara Deutscher published a little book (Not by Politics Alone, Allen & Unwin, 1973) subtitled The Other Lenin. Unfortunately the book revealed quite clearly that there was no other Lenin. The revolution was his life. As Marie points out, he had comrades, but not friends. (p. 33)

The brief affair with Inessa Armand is related, though it seems to have been singularly uneventful. Politics intervened here, tragically. When she was taken ill in 1920, Lenin had her sent off to a sanatorium in an area which his officials assured him was safe. In fact cholera was rampant, and poor Armand died of her cure. (pp. 342–3) Doubtless this reinforced Lenin in his zeal against ‘Communist lying’ which preoccupied his last years. Lenin was apparently also capable of mildly sexist mother-in-law jokes: ‘The worst punishment for a bigamist is having two mothers-in-law.’ (p. 58)

Most interestingly, Marie claims that Lenin regretted the fact that he had no children (p. 15), and that in 1912 he attempted to adopt Zinoviev’s son. Zinoviev refused (p. 139). The child was later killed by Stalin; Marie speculates that if the boy had been Lenin’s adoptive son, Stalin might have spared him. But the point should be noted by those ultra-Bolsheviks who argue that committed revolutionaries should not be parents.

Lenin’s appreciation of aesthetic matters was also limited. In 1921, when he was, very reluctantly, having his portrait painted, Lenin commented that art had a certain propaganda value, but when that was exhausted, ‘we shall abolish it as useless’. (p. 388) Marie stresses that he was joking. But it does cast some doubt on the value of compiling collections such as Lenin on Literature and Art.

But Marie’s main aim is a more polemical one, to challenge the ‘dark or rosy legends’ (p. 13) that have accreted around Lenin’s name. Even before Stalinism turned Lenin into a quasi-religious figure whose thought could not be studied critically, Zinoviev had already begun to develop the Lenin cult.

Marie gives many examples of Stalinist falsification. Thus a Russian biography of Lenin tells us that at the January 1912 conference ‘the overwhelming majority of delegates were workers’. In fact there were just 14 full delegates, two of whom were agents provocateurs. (p. 133) Lenin is said to have always been suspicious of the police agent Malinowski, who was a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee. Actually Lenin was rather more gullible than some of his comrades. (p. 134)

Trotskyist myths are also challenged. For obvious reasons, Trotskyists, on the defensive against Stalinism, have always played down to the point of non-existence the differences between Lenin and Trotsky after 1917. As Marie shows, there was in fact considerable friction between the two men.

But Marie also defends Lenin against the virulent attacks of such as Stéphane Courtois, Solzhenitsyn and Volkogonov who seek to make Lenin responsible for the worst excesses of Stalinism, and therefore to show the revolutionary project as evil and dangerous from its very inception. Thus he takes up, and decisively dismisses, the old, old story that Lenin was a paid agent of the Germans when he travelled in the sealed train. (pp. 175–8).

In particular, he challenges the way in which Lenin’s critics, using quotations out of context, seek to depict him as a bloodthirsty brute. As he has little difficulty in demonstrating, the worst brutality was on the side of the Bolsheviks’ opponents. In the bitter conditions of civil war, there was no alternative to the utmost ruthlessness.

But he also points out that Lenin was prone to the use of exaggerated language. Often his demands that people be shot were pure rhetoric; nobody in fact was executed. Lenin often faced a situation when all too many officials were inert or soft, and he was driven to the most frightful exhortations in order to try to get some action out of them. (pp. 269, 320)

A Lenin stripped of myths is clearly a much more interesting figure. After all, if he never made any mistakes, it’s not very easy to learn from him. (‘Don’t invade Poland’ is quite a good motto for any future revolutionary leader.) Rather than the evil conspirator or the serene ‘great leader’, Marie shows us a Lenin who, in 1917 and after, was often unsure of where he was going, and had constantly to revise his perspectives. Since this is the situation most of us are in most of the time, it makes it easier to see Lenin as a ‘companion in struggle’ rather than as a Great Teacher.

Thus Marie shows that Lenin briefly advocated an insurrection in August 1917, before recognising that it would have been a disastrous folly. (p. 192) Or later, although it was Lenin who persuaded the party to accept the New Economic Policy, he was actually a late convert to the idea – in fact, in Marie’s view he should have advocated it much earlier. (p. 373)

A comrade recently put to me the argument that although Lenin was adept at changing his mind when confronted with changed circumstances, often quite rightly, he failed to make any self-criticism of his earlier positions, and thus made it harder for future generations to learn from him. There is some truth in this, but I suspect the basic reason is that Lenin never dreamed that his writings would be turned into scripture by his self-appointed followers.

Marie reveals the contradictions in Lenin’s view of religion. Before 1905, he was particularly keen for the party to work among members of religious sects, believing they provided a fruitful area of activity (pp. 81, 87). But a few years later he broke the agreement that the party press should be philosophically neutral in order to attack the ‘God builders’. In 1921, he intervened to prevent the slogan ‘Denounce religion as a lie’ being used on May Day. (p. 383) Pravda warned comrades not to offend the feelings of religious believers – something that might be noted by the veil-snatching wing of the French left. Yet at the same time he was helping to organise the expropriation of church property. (pp. 404–6) In short there is no ‘Leninist line’ on the question of religion; the argument remains open.

Marie’s work is thus a useful contribution to the development of a genuinely critical approach to Lenin and Bolshevism. Unfortunately, the book has also a number of weaknesses.

Firstly – and this may be the fault of the publisher rather than of Marie himself – it is distinctly unhelpful to anyone who wants to pursue his arguments and discoveries. There is no bibliography; references are given to the fifth Russian edition of the Works, often with no indication of the particular work or letter being cited, making it virtually impossible for non-Russian speakers to check out the arguments. The absence of an index makes it difficult to trace the many minor figures who flit in and out of the narrative; yet a grasp of the evolution of such individuals is vital to an understanding of how Lenin related to his party, his periphery and his opponents.

More seriously, the balance of the material presented is often questionable. It is understandable that Marie is anxious to present new material rather than tell the more familiar bits of the story. But while Lenin was a master of small-group manoeuvres, the real lessons come from the times when he interacted with the mass movement. Thus it is unfortunate that Marie devotes only two or three pages to the daily Pravda of 1912, with much more emphasis on petty disputes than on the experience of mass agitation. (pp. 138–41)

Similarly the account of 1905 is disappointing. The main point Marie makes here is that Lenin made a number of mistakes – delay in returning to Russia, wrongly estimating the rôle of the soviets, seeking unity with the Mensheviks – and that he learned to do better in 1917. (pp. 117–18) Doubtless true, but there is much more positive that could be said, in particular Lenin’s revision of his view of the nature and tasks of the revolutionary party.

Indeed, the account of events after 1917 is unremittingly gloomy. Marie describes in powerful detail the savagery of the civil war, famine, disease and corruption, and the relentless growth of bureaucracy, so that even before Lenin’s last illness his party was being taken over by young members who would prepare the way for Stalinism. In 1920, even the highest food ration was less than it was to be in Stalin’s gulag. (p. 350) Marie even goes so far as to claim that 1917 never actually smashed the state, and that the old state apparatus fused with the new Soviet state. (p. 296)

All this is doubtless true. These were grim years. But the other side of the picture scarcely makes an appearance. The soviets, erratic and short-lived as they were, did leave a vision of democracy that went far beyond that of the parliamentary pigsty. Legal reforms, notably in the area of the family and women’s rights, made a real change. The expansion of education and the new cultural initiatives transformed the lives of thousands. Despite the bungling and triumphalism of Comintern functionaries, the revolution did offer millions of workers throughout the world a new hope. Marie’s picture contrasts sharply with that to be found, say, in the writings of Victor Serge. The suffering and the corruption are all there in Serge, but so too is a powerful sense that despite everything, the whole enterprise was supremely worthwhile.

Indeed, Marie seems positively reluctant to draw political lessons. (There is an interesting, if hypercritical, account of Marie’s book in relation to the politics of his organisation, the Parti des travailleurs, at http://socialisme.free.fr/cps15_lenine.htm, the website of the followers of Stéphane Just, expelled from Pierre Lambert’s PCI in 1984.) Tony Cliff’s Lenin has been criticised for always drawing contemporary lessons from his account of Lenin. But for Cliff the past was always a tool for making the future. Marie has produced an important work of scholarship, but it is only raw material for the biography of Lenin that we need.

Ian Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 21 May 2021