One of the hardest things for me to accept as I read Orlando Figes’ Revolutionary Russian 1891-1991 is the demolition of what I had come to believe was practical socialism. I recall from my militant student days that true socialists did not look to Stalinist Russia, as he had moved away from true Marxism (so they could distance themselves from the Purges, I wonder now?) but to Lenin, the revolutionary mastermind who took Marxist theory and gave it a practical basis. Having now read and considered Figes’ analysis of the man and his motives, I’m starting to think that Lenin was as much as socialist as Stalin was, which is to say, he wasn’t one at all. So why is he held up as a true hero of socialism?
This has a lot to do with the Cult of Lenin that started after a failed assassination attempt in 1921 when he was shot a number of times by a disgruntled peasant. In the years between then and his death in 1924, Lenin suffered a series of strokes, each leaving him increasingly debilitated, allowing Stalin to gradually step in and take control and promote Lenin as the Father of the Soviet Union. Which, up to a point, he was. This was built upon after Lenin’s death, when he was embalmed and entombed in the Kremlin, allowing him to be viewed as a Soviet saint, without which nothing would have been achieved. I await details of any miracles to be attributed to him, just in case.
But Lenin the man was only really interested in power, and the only way he was going to attain that was by overthrowing the Duma in a revolution, which is what occurred in October 1917 (the Tsar was probably already dead by then). Lenin also knew that once he had attained power, his next aim was to keep it, and any means justified that end. Little is discussed in modern socialist circles about the Russian Civil War and the Red Terror, but this was Lenin ensuring that he kept his power by making the people subject to the absolute rule of the state, and no price was too high to pay. It is estimated that as many people died during this period as did during Stalin’s purges – yet Stalin is villainized whereas Lenin is not.
Both Lenin and Trotsky recognised that terror was a vital part of maintaining power, and through the creation of the Cheka (the political police) they ensured that villagers were terrorised and all dissenters were tortured and/or imprisoned and/or killed. It was essential to their plan for the state to take complete control over its citizens’ lives. Moreover, I think there is a debate to be had about the nature of the Marxist revolution in Russia (see my previous post on this point); while the workers in large industrial areas had at least the nominal support of the state, the peasant farmers did not and it is easy to think that they were largely victimised and criminalised by the Revolutionary Parties (and especially the Cheka). This may be because, by and large, more rural areas ignored the diktats emanating from Moscow and carried on with their existing political structures, simply changing the names – until Stalin introduced collectivisation and forced them to take notice.
To be honest, I feel hoodwinked by the socialist parties of my youth. Lenin wasn’t the great socialist hero I was led to believe he was at all – if anything, he was as tyrannical as any dictator of a third world banana republic. And after a lifetime of believing in something, to have it shattered quite so thoroughly is going to take a little getting used to. I still believe in principles of social justice, but I’m no longer sure I’m a socialist. And that stings.