Review of “Lenin: A Biography”

I just finished Robert Service’s biography of Lenin. The “Marxism” of Lenin was not Marxist at all. Classical Marxism holds that capitalism must achieve a high level of industrialization before the workers can overturn the landlords and factory owners and collectivize the fruits of labor for the benefit of workers. Like Mao, Lenin retrofitted socialist revolution to the circumstances. Since Russia at the end of the Romanov dynasty was still a semi-feudal rural society, Lenin decided to dispense with Marx’s preconditions and asserted that Russia was ripe for socialist revolution. While he was certainly right that the people were ready to overthrow the Czar, Lenin had to destroy any attempts at a democratic successor government to ruthlessly impose single-party Bolshevism with himself and his cronies Trotsky and Stalin at the top. This meant that the masses had to be firmly and correctly guided by their Bolshevik overlords—guidance in this case implemented by summary execution of anyone resisting.

Lenin lived his life until his 40s in bourgeois comfort. He was raised in an upper middle class home (unlike Stalin and Trotsky, who were raised in working class families). His father was a school administrator who rose to a rank that entitled him to hereditary nobility. After his father died, his mother’s monthly pension checks supported Lenin wherever he lived. Only after his mother died did his dependency on his family end and he had to support himself. After he assumed leadership of the Bolshevik revolution, he had secretaries, a cook and a chauffeured limousine, all bourgeois affectations. Service describes him as something of a “spoilt child,” a description amply supported in his book.

Lenin posed as a leader of the masses: “Socialism is not brought into existence by commands from above. State-bureaucratism is alien to it; socialism that is living and creative is the creation of the popular masses themselves.” In fact, Lenin never really trusted the masses with government. He despised free, universal suffrage elections. The slogan “All power to the soviets,” which implied collective decision-making in a new socialist society, was a disguise for his real goal of all power to himself and his chosen Bolshevik comrades. Of course, Lenin never served in the military—fighting and dying were for others. He and his small cadre of elitists didn’t sully themselves with military discipline, killing and dying, just as they didn’t work in the factories or the farms or know anyone who did.

Like Marx before him, Lenin was a terrible prophet, predicting that Russia and Europe were at a point of imminent spontaneous socialist revolution. Russia did revolt to overthrow the Romanov monarchy, but it was less a socialist revolution than an anti-monarchist revolution.

Lenin was profoundly naïve about the fitness of Russia for Marxist revolution. He believed Russian industrialization was more advanced than it actually was because he knew almost nothing about European and American industry. While he claimed to speak on behalf of workers, the proletariat and the poor, he himself was none of these, didn’t live among them, and didn’t meet them in the places they lived and worked.

Lenin was a hypocrite: while he claimed that socialism would bring an end to The Great War, his real goal was a violent insurrection to impose socialism across Europe.

The picture Service paints is of Lenin as a barbaric despot, but one possessed of enormous energy and sense of purpose. Lenin was ruthless in his quest for personal power and his brow was never furrowed by doubt as to methods. Bolshevism in Russia was largely a creation of Lenin and but for Lenin would certainly have failed on several occasions between 1917 and 1922. Lenin’s achievements were based on a foundation of brilliant intellect, hard work, dogged commitment to his cause, focus, ruthlessness and a great deal of luck. Russia’s losses in WWI that led to the collapse of the Romanov monarchy created a leadership crisis that Lenin recognized and cannily exploited.

This is a long book (nearly 700 pages in the ebook version I read), but Service rarely flags, and often surprises. It is methodical with sources, many of which were hidden until after the USSR collapsed in 1991. There is some speculation, but it is clearly acknowledged as such and is rare. Mostly, Service relies on documented sources. I came to this book having read Ulam’s biography of Stalin and Richard Pipes’ “The Russian Revolution” many years ago, and more recently biographies of Marx and Mao. Service also has a biography of Trotsky, for which my appetite has been whetted. If you are curious about Russia of the 20th century, as well as Putin’s vision of a revanchist Soviet Union today, I recommend this book.