IN a year marking the centenary of the outbreak of a landmark European conflict that profoundly shaped the 20th century, the specific causes and wide-ranging consequences of what was once commonly known as the Great War will no doubt be closely examined and hotly debated.
Events in the Middle East are perhaps the most obvious instance of how great-power machinations during the course of that war — eg the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and the following year’s Balfour Declaration — continue to influence current affairs.
For much of the 20th century, it was deemed uncontroversial to consider the two Russian revolutions of 1917, particularly the second one, as the most consequential outcome of the war in world-historical terms.
The February revolution overthrew a feudal tsarist order that had withstood challenges from below for at least a dozen years. The October revolution sought decisively to bury the past for good, and was facilitated in part by the fact that interim regime persisted with the folly of a war in which the poorly equipped Russian army, allied with Britain and France, faced massive losses against the Germans.
The man whose single-minded determination was crucial to the Bolshevik project died 90 years ago this week, barely six years after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd. “Even in the camp of his enemies,” noted the writer Maxim Gorky, “there are some who honestly admit: in Lenin the world has lost the man ‘who embodied genius more strikingly than all the great men of his day’.”
A prominent figure in this camp, the future British prime minister Winston Churchill, is credited with the intriguing observation that if Lenin’s birth was Russia’s worst misfortune, his death was its second worst.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, to give Lenin his proper name, was in many ways an unlikely candidate for elevation to supreme power in the Russian realm. A fierce combatant at the intellectual level, his struggle was mainly conducted in European exile. Even among the émigré intelligentsia, he was a divisive figure. His thesis that Russia could effectively skip the bourgeois-democratic phase taken for granted in Marxist circles and transition from a largely feudal economy to a socialist one was viewed with scepticism even by some close comrades.
With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, it is of course easy to dismiss the experiment that Lenin initiated as a monstrous failure. It’s equally easy to overlook the fact that Lenin and many of his peers were convinced that the success of their project was contingent on similar revolutionary outbreaks elsewhere in Europe. And, while such outbreaks did indeed occur in the aftermath of the First World War, they were sooner or later crushed by the forces of the existing order.
It is impossible to say exactly how the trajectory of the Soviet Union — established in 1922, after a destructive civil war in which many Western powers intervened on the side of the anti-Bolshevik White Army — would have varied had Lenin remained at its helm for longer. But there would no doubt have been significant differences.
The Leninist concept of a heavily centralised vanguard party has been thoroughly derided, sometimes with good cause, but even the Communist Party would have been a rather different beast had it not been reduced to an intellectually impotent vehicle for one-man rule, as it was under Josef Stalin, who ensured he was the only member of Lenin’s central committee left alive by 1940.
It has become commonplace to conflate Leninism with Stalinism, and while the case for continuity is simple to make, it is open to challenge at several levels. Innumerable statues of Lenin have been toppled since 1989, most recently amid the unrest in Ukraine, but reports of their demise almost never mention the fact that the personality cult around Lenin was strictly a posthumous phenomenon that served the purpose of Stalin and his successors.
It is particularly potently exemplified by the pride of place still occupied in Moscow’s Red Square by the granite mausoleum containing Lenin’s mummified corpse, a travesty his widow failed to prevent in the face of Stalin’s insistence. The Lenin who left an abiding imprint on world history, for better or for worse, deserves to be rescued from a resting place he never chose and would probably have abhorred.
A few years ago, the restless European intellectual Slavoj Zizek made a similar point when he noted: “To repeat Lenin … is to accept that … his particular solution failed, even failed monstrously, but that there was a utopian spark in it worth saving … One has to distinguish between what Lenin effectively did and the field of possibilities that he opened up … To repeat Lenin is to repeat not what Lenin did, but what he failed to do, his missed opportunities.”
There is certainly scope in that evaluation for, if nothing else, a fruitful debate.