Monday, November 06, 2006

The formation of Lenin.

Among the themes of Christopher Read's interesting biography of Lenin is the extent to which the Russian populists influenced Lenin's outlook. It is highly speculative as perforce it must be, but is useful nonetheless. In standard Cold War history, Lenin is either a wuthering aristocrat hypocratically standing upon his rights as a landowner while bigging up the workers, or the self-effacing son of a progressive educator who was an instinctive marxist revolutionary from the second of his conception (where, embodying Slavonic, Tatonic, Jewish, Muslim and various European lineages, he emerged from the womb a birthday internationalist). Both of these are wrong, and no synthesis is possible. Lenin is, as Read writes, a construct, something that emerged from the youthful Vladimir Ulyanov out of the execution of his brother, Alexander (whereupon Liberals refused to drive his mother to the funeral, for all their hypocritical chatter), and the death of his father, Nikolai, and the death by typhoid of his sister, Olga. Also from his encounter with petit-bourgeois democratic literature such as that of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, which advocated revolutionary asceticism, and whose hero sought to emulate the toughness of the sailors of the Volga. Chernyshevsky's book, 'What Is to Be Done?', which Lenin read several times over, continues a tradition of heroic idealisation in which great individuals are moulded in trials by fire, in which torture is an involuntary course of self-help, precisely as in The Count of Monte Cristo and similar literature (right into the late 20th Century when Travis Bickle fancies training himself in this fashion, and into the 21st, when V emerges from scorching flames as a superhuman angel of death).

Read is not reductionist about this: he acknowledges the social conditions which produced Lenin, but these social conditions impact in a very personal fashion. It doesn't get any more personal than executing your brother while you're studying for your law exams. Read's thesis is that Lenin was formed as both a continuation and rejection of Russian populism: Lenin opposed the strategy of individual terrorism, did not trust the peasants as far as the populists did, looked to the working class as the agency of revolutionary change and generally situated himself in the social democratic movement; and yet, he respected the older populist leaders and inherited the techniques of conspiracy and underground cells. He also had a decidedly political slant, opposed to the crude 'economism' of some marxists - surely also a legacy of populism as well as a reaction to the unified power of Church and State. Some superficially argue that his advocacy of a vanguard draws from the populist tradition, but in fact in 'What is to be Done' he was still aping Karl Kautsky, the Amid of European social democracy, while in later incarnations his vanguard was as far from a professionalised elite as you can imagine a party being. Yet the legacy is there, and the tactic of conspiratorial cells was one most suited to the circumstances of Russian autocracy.

Maxim Gorky's anecdote about Lenin being unable to listen to Beethoven's Appassionata for fear he would be inclined pat the heads of opponents instead of beating them, cited by Read, is appealing, but I don't believe Gorky. Not only because, in the history of the Russian Revolution I think Gorky was one of the most appallingly elitist characters, but rather because it seems contrived. It has the sense of a legend. More likely is that Lenin, a child of a middle class family well-schooled in watercolours and music, got bored with Beethoven and turned off the gramophone one day, with a sardonic explanation. But the anecdote is widely bruited because it fits a certain conception: Lenin, tragically repressing his humanity, forcing himself into the mould of a ruthless revolutionary, sacrificing himself for a greater cause; or Lenin, coldly exterminating that within him that rebelled against his extermination of others.

Lenin was formed, and reformed, through life, and literature, and political struggle. If you choose the heuristic of a 'Volodya' character transforming himself into the 'Lenin' character, then it bears restating a few times that Lenin was never the same person or the same revolutionary; that Lenin insisted above all else that he shouldn't be simply imitated; that non-Russians should not, in one metaphor, speak Russian (or follow his texts as if they were recipe books for insurgency in other words); that he had changed his mind before and would change it again; that he refused his own premature immortalisation, and tried at the last moment to stop the already seriously diminished Bolshevik party falling into the hands of a Russian chauvanist and centraliser named Stalin. Read's post-Cold War revisionist biography does, fortunately, emphasise all of this.