A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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.