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Talking about Lenin

Could you introduce yourself to the readers here at Vulpes Libris?

My name is James Ryan, I have recently completed a PhD in History at University College Cork on the topic of Lenin and violence, and currently lecture in the School of History at UCC.

Welcome, James.  First of all, a basic but important question: why should we read Lenin?  What does he hold for us, citizens of another time and place?

Why should we read Lenin? The most obvious answer seems to me to be that he was one of the most significant and influential political figures of modern history, and therefore his ideas should be interesting if nothing else. On the other hand, the system that he established – what became known as the Soviet Union – has collapsed and no longer poses a threat to liberal capitalism, so he might not seem all that relevant any more.

However, as the man who was most singularly important in the establishment of the state that has posed the greatest threat to liberalism, and considering that the capitalist system is going through a general crisis at present, Lenin might be or might become a source of inspiration for those seeking an alternative. For a number of left-wing intellectuals, including Slavoj Zizek, there is a need to ‘reload’ Lenin, that is, not to return to Lenin’s works for guidance but to capture his generally uncompromising, partisan spirit and apply it to the twenty-first century.  When publications advocating this appear, it is pertinent to look at Lenin’s uncompromising revolutionism and, depending on one’s own politics, sift what is potentially positive from what was arguably catastrophic in its consequences.

For me, Lenin is a fascinating figure for study, whose ideas are highly stimulating (regardless of whether or not one agrees with them), and who attempted in Russia to implement such an enormous project of social engineering. His ideas can be characterised as a ‘secular theology’; he was basically aiming for the creation of a paradise on earth and a new, renovated humanity. He has been bracketed alongside Stalin and Hitler, forming a triumvirate of brutal despots (see Robert Gellately’s 2007 book), but he was certainly very different to Hitler, less so to Stalin. However, it should be noted that he was an historical character, acting in a very different time to ours in many respects.

“Lenin and violence” is a phrase that isn’t often heard here on VL (the absence of Lenin is my fault, as I tend to talk about Trotsky rather more).  Could you give us some more detail about the research behind that intriguing phrase?

Sure, it’s a rather vague phrase and the short version of describing what my research looks at. Basically, my research has examined Lenin’s thinking on violence, in its various forms, throughout his political career, including his ‘practice’ of violence as leader of the early Soviet state. The purpose of my research has been twofold: to provide a comprehensive study of Lenin and violence, and to assess how important ideology was when explaining the use of violence by the early Soviet state.

Your last point is particularly interesting to me; it chimes with a question that keeps arising in my own research.  I often think that the early Soviet government found itself in a state of emergency; decisions which subsequently became enshrined in ideology were taken rapidly and under duress.

That’s exactly right, but the important thing is what you have just said – ‘decisions which subsequently became enshrined in ideology’. Too often when reading Soviet history we get the impression that ideology works through a simple cause-and-effect relationship, whereby ideas lead of necessity to certain decisions. In fact, ideologies work in considerably more complex ways and I think that a really interesting aspect of this is how ideologies accommodate real-life events, sometimes making a virtue out of necessity.

Take for example the Bolsheviks’ economic policies during the first three years of so of their rule, what later came to be known as ‘War Communism’. These were the forcible confiscation of grain from the peasants; the abolition and absolute prohibition of a market in grain; the gradual implementation of universal ‘labour conscription’, whereby everbody would be put to useful work; and the nationalisation of industries, even small and medium industries.

Some historians believe that because the Bolsheviks were opposed to market policies and capitalist relations, War Communism was the essence of their economic ideas. In fact, just before the October Revolution, Lenin explicitly wrote that small industries would not be nationalised, and the process of nationalising all industries was a response to particular circumstances. The restriction and abolition of the grain market had been implemented by the Tsarist and Provisional Governments in Russia to cope with the desperate problem of food-supply during the First World War – the Bolsheviks extended previously existing policies in that regard.

However, War Communist policies became enshrined in the ruling ideology itself. Lenin wrote of the absolute prohibition of the grain market as a matter of first principles, and justified the dispatch of armed units into the countryside to secure food from the peasant ‘speculators’ holding onto their grain as the ‘last decisive struggle’ with the bourgeoisie and the revolution’s enemies.

With the end of the Civil War though, and facing economic collapse, the Bolsheviks did not abandon War Communism but in fact only then tried to fully implement certain aspects of it, such as labour conscription whereby workers not fulfilling their labour obligations could potentially be sent to internment camps. Trotsky (see ‘Terrorism and Communism’, 1920) was centrally involved in this (as I’m sure you know!) as was Nikolai Bukharin (see esp. the fascinating ‘Economics of the Transformation Period’, 1920) – who was the main opponent of Stalin’s abandonment of the New Economic Policy at the end of the 1920s. In other words, before the abandonment of War Communism in 1921 in favour of more liberal economic policies (the NEP), the Bolshevik leadership had considered the policies of War Communism – the product of a mixture of ideology and necessity – as the means to achieve a socialist (not yet communist) society and could only come round to abandoning these policies with extreme difficulty. Stalin was well aware of the desire amongst many low and middle ranking Communist Party members in the late 1920s to abandon NEP and resume the assault on capital.

You’re expressing something that I have for a long time suspected: that many historians put the cart before the horse when it comes to ideologies and their relationship to action.  What do you think might be behind this tendency to treat ideology as a fixed value?

I think it’s a misunderstanding of what ideology is. ‘Ideology’ is a difficult concept to get one’s head around.  I’m still struggling with it. For much of the last century, ideologies were seen as closed systems of relatively doctrinaire beliefs. Then with advancements in social sciences in the 1960s and especially 1970s, ideologies began to be studied for their discursive qualities – the languages through which they were communicated – and seen to be more socially and politically pervasive.

In the study of Soviet politics, the disparities between the official Soviet ideology and the questionable extent to which this had become truly socialised and accepted by the population, as well as a privileged guide to how the country was governed, actually prompted some scholars to abandon ideology and look at the ‘political culture’ of the Soviet Union and its Russian cultural precedents. Now, historians of the Soviet Union have a more complex understanding of ideology. Marxism-Leninism, the official Soviet ideology, was not an abstract set of ideas but was born of and developed through concrete historical conditions, bearing some of the hallmarks of the absolutist political culture of autocratic Tsarist Russia, and it developed over time.

Can you recommend any particularly useful works about Lenin for those who want to get to know him better, and to build their own relationship to the man and his ideology?

I think Christopher Read has written a very good, balanced introductory biography of Lenin, published by Routledge in 2005. Robert Service’s one-volume biography, published by PAN Macmillan in 2000, is a really enjoyable read that brings the personal, as opposed to merely political, Lenin alive. The best study of Lenin’s ideas is Neil Harding, ‘Lenin’s Political Thought’, published in two volumes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in a single huge volume in 1981. For readers interested in a contemporary left-wing approach to Lenin, I would suggest ‘Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth’, edited by Sebastian Budgen, Slavoj Zizek et al., published by Duke University Press in 2007.

Finally – we always ask this of our interviewees – tell us about five favourite books.  They don’t have to be about Lenin!

I really like Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of life in the Gulag, ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, and it’s short. On the other hand, I really like Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, but it’s enormous. Dostoevsky is another favourite author, ‘Crime and Punishment’ comes to mind. From time to time, I do read something not Russia-related, and found Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ engrossing. Lastly, Kazuo Ishiguro’s poignant ‘The Remains of the Day’, accompanied by the film.

Many thanks, James, for introducing Lenin to us today.

The July Days are coming!  Here on Vulpes Libris we’re going to be talking about Trotsky for a whole week, with some very exciting guest writers.  Further details to come soon.

11 comments on “Talking about Lenin

  1. Jackie
    May 11, 2010

    Very interesting interview. I like how Mr. Ryan is objective, even though it’s a topic dear to his heart. He spoke in such clear & understandable terms about a complex person & time period.It’s disturbing to think how emergency measures become permanent measures in a society/government and not just in the USSR. It’s as if the fall back plan becomes the only plan and I wonder how many countries would have very different outcomes had this not been the case?
    I commend him for his favorite books, excellent choices there. And I’m thinking of looking up one or 2 of the Lenin bios in the future, as my interest has really been piqued, now. Thanks, Kirsty & Mr. Ryan for an engaging post!

  2. Moira
    May 11, 2010

    I’m intrigued by this ‘paradise on earth’ analogy … Call me a dreadful old cynic, but world-weary common sense tells you that you’re never likely achieve that if human beings are involved. They send everything pear-shaped. The best you can generally hope for from us is enlightened self-interest. Wasn’t he being a bit naive?

  3. Moira
    May 11, 2010

    Sorry – where are my manners? I forgot to say “Fascinating piece, and thank you very much!”

  4. Melrose
    May 11, 2010

    I know this isn’t about the article as such, but I wanted to comment on the photograph of Lenin. It is very striking, with the dark shading of the lower half of one side of his face, fading into lighter shading, and contrasting with the almost luminous quality of the other side. (With the sharp outline of half the moustache and the dark shading, and his tie, you can almost see a sickle as well!)

  5. David
    May 12, 2010

    I am sorry, but I truly do not know what to make of this piece. I have read it a number of times and there is much of it I don’t comprehend, iit is almost as if the belief is that he did what he did because he had to.
    I feel that an historian is not the right person to try and understand what he and why he did it. A Psychiatrist maybe would have a better chance of understanding what he and why he did it.

    Add to this the slightly irrational feeling that James Ryan to some extent actually admires the man and I am left with a feeling very uncomfortable about the who thing. The Man was a evil monster and as with most of this type there is little or no point in trying to judge their beliefs and actions by normal civilised standards.

    His body is still preservered for display and is treated regularly to keep it looking fresh which makes me feel even more uncomfortable.

  6. clom
    May 12, 2010

    excellent, illuminating stuff.

    Moira, to what extent do you think that “The best you can generally hope for from us is enlightened self-interest” represents your own aspirations for humanity? Or is it a creation of our rulers in order to temper expectations of what is “realistic”.

  7. James Ryan
    May 12, 2010

    I’m glad that this piece has generated some discussion and debate. One of the great things about discussing a figure such as Lenin is that opinions of him vary so dramatically. I think that Moira is absolutely right and not cynical at all! The interesting thing about the Marxian (and not just Leninist) vision though was of a restructured humanity, whereby a different type of human being would come into being, akin to the ideal species. There would be some ‘riff-raff’ about but these would be dealt with pretty easily by the majority. It was the Marxian delusion that changes in the economic, material ‘base’ of society would result in enormous comparative changes in individual and social ideas, the ‘superstructure’. To an extent Marx was right – our ideas are modified with changes in economic production, technology advancements etc., but we are fundamentally flawed beings! Marx believed that the potentialities of the future could not be judged by the present state of human culture but by what human culture and human beings would become with advanced socialist, then communist, modes of production and relationships. There is a fascinating and oft-quoted statement by Trotsky about this idea of the ‘new communist man(sic!)’ that Kirsty might be able to find for us and post.

    Regarding David’s post, this is not the first time that I have been mistaken for a Lenin sympathiser! I am not, it’s just that I don’t see him as an evil monster and some people only want figures such as Lenin and Stalin (we’ll leave Hitler out of this!) to appear as such. Much of what Lenin wrote makes perfect sense, and his revulsion at the meaningless bloodletting of the First World War I absolutely admire, though not his solution – more bloodletting. There are much more important questions to be asked of history. For me, Lenin is very much cut down to human size and this is because I have spent a number of years reading his writings and speeches from the time he was a young man in his early 20, and looking at the times he lived in. That is what historians do, and why we really are best placed to assess historical figures. My reply to you is simple: you have made Lenin overly important. Lenin was one man ruling a state of over 100 million people, leading a party of thousands. To psychoanalyse him might be interesting but ultimately historically not very relevant. What matters is why his party and state agents were agreed on certain measures, and why their revolution was popularly supported at least initially.

  8. David
    May 13, 2010

    Jack, I did not say that you where a Lenin sympathiser, I said the piece gave me a slightly irrational feeling that to some extent you admired the man.

    There is no doubt that he was a well educated man even finishing his law degree after he had been expelled from university for his radical views, these had been fostered by radical thinkers and the execution of his brother who was also a revolutionary.

    The fact that he became a proffesional revolutionary and his subsequent trip to siberia where he met his undoubtedly completed the radicalisation . Fifteen years in Western Europe seems have done little to diminish his fervour as he ended up leading the Bolsheviks.

    What happened when he return to Russia in 1917 where he eventually led the October Revolution followed by three years of civil effectively shaped the country for next 72 years. It was in this period that he lost his humanity and the evil monsterous nature of his personality came out with a total disregard for his fellow countrymen mercilessly cursing those who opposed him.

    It is not me that has made Lenin overly important it is the party of thousands and the state of 100million that he ruled put him on tha level. It is always the case that strong decisive leadership will always have the backing of people who have been down trodden and disenfranchised.

    I do not believe that people suddenly become evil it is inherent in their personalities and is alwat bubbling just below the surface. At the age of 47 at the start ov the October, he knew exacly what he was doing and where he was going and that those people we got in the way would have to be dealt with, though not directly by him.

    Just because he wrote the right words in his youth and made the right speches doesn’t detract from the action that were taken by him or in his name. You don’t judge a teenage criminal by the way he was when he was a todler.

    One final thought, I assume like me you have travelled to Russia. I went around the very early days of glasnost mid eightiies, It was one of those trips I will never forget, not only because of the poverty, the lack of food in shops, but the overwhelming feeling that even then the people were disenfranchised, frightened to talk to us westerners. If you did manage to get them relaxed you discovered that they had exactly same fear of Nuclear war drip fed to then by their government, THere weapons were not for pre

  9. clom
    May 13, 2010

    David, I don’t doubt your sincerity on this matter but I do find some of your statements questionable.

    to what extent is Lenin responsible for the actions taken by people “in his name” (from the gist of your argument, after his death)?

    and to what extent does this demonstrate the evil inherent in him as a person?

    do you see history as a linear series of events which are shaped by the acts of select individuals?

    to what extent do you think the period preceding the October revolution influenced the subsequent 72 years of Russian history?

    to what extent did the officer class of every european nation in the period 1914-1918 show any regard or mercy for the young men they sent to die? does that make all of them evil? and off limits for historical scrutiny?

    if you want my opinion, the personalisation of history is a significant impediment to our understanding of the world we have now. the notion that history can be formed into a consumable product on which we can pin our colours is about as meaningful as believing that wearing a “Team Katie” or “Team Andre” t-shirt offers a meaningful insight into our internal moral compass?

  10. Melrose
    May 13, 2010

    To my mind, an evil act would be annilating thousands of civilians in Nagasaki/Hiroshima, by the only country that has used nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t you agree, David? No-one seems to be calling the US president at that time an evil monster, but it was an evil act…

  11. James Ryan
    May 13, 2010

    Clom has summed up my thoughts. Though living standards in Russian cities (not really in the country as a whole) have increased significantly over the last ten or twelve years, and I have only been travelling to Russia since 2006, post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s was a horrible, dystopian place to be. Soviet reality was certainly at variance with Lenin’s vision and official ideology, there were food shortages and lengthy queues, but at least everybody had a certain amount of security.

    I’m interested in what you mean by ‘evil’? Is this defined by deeds or by thoughts, or both? Do you think that all advocates and practitioners of terror are evil?

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This entry was posted on May 11, 2010 by in Entries by Kirsty, Non-fiction: history, Russian Series, Special Features and tagged , , , , , .

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