TO the uninitiated, the sight of a motley bunch of around three dozen odd foreigners — men, women and children — piling on to a train in Zurich might not have appeared extraordinary. But there was a crowd on the platform.
Some of them were well-wishers. Others felt the passengers headed to the German border were effectively criminals. Europe was in the throes of an unprecedentedly bitter war that had already cost millions of lives. And these passengers were mainly Russians whose passage through Germany was being facilitated by the authorities in Berlin.
Someone within the train waved a red banner from one of the windows as the train pulled out. The key passenger was a man little known outside strictly socialist circles in Europe.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov had vociferously opposed the war ever since it broke out, accurately perceiving it as essentially an imperialist conflagration between powers competing for colonial conquest. He was bitterly disappointed when all too many components of the Second International, the main European repository of Marxism, responded to the conflict with retrograde patriotic zeal.
The man best known even then as Lenin was not only disinclined to make the same mistake, but saw the potential for “revolutionary defeatism” — in other words, exploiting military setbacks to spark a transformation of society.
News of the February Revolution in 1917 had struck Lenin as a thunderbolt. After the events of 1905, he hated the idea of being away from his homeland once more during a transformational upsurge. What’s more, the relatively liberal successor regime that had replaced the tsar was determined to persist with the war, in which Russia was allied with Britain and France against the Germans.
‘Land, peace and bread’ were what the Russians aspired to.
A former comrade called Alexander Helphand, once known to his radical associates as Parvus, had established himself as a wheeling-dealing capitalist in Germany, and by 1917 had been striving for a couple of years with the Berlin authorities to facilitate Lenin’s return home as a means of thwarting the Russian war effort.
Lenin did not want to have anything to do with Parvus anymore, but he was desperate to get to the Russian capital, Petrograd (previously, as now, known as St Petersburg, but named Leningrad after Ulyanov’s premature demise). He did not have too many qualms about supping with the devil to achieve his objective, not least because he was convinced, correctly, that Germany would anyhow lose the war — and, what’s more, that the kaiser would be overthrown by a proletarian revolution.
Although the kaiser was indeed unseated by an uprising following the armistice in November 1918, a socialist revolution was ultimately thwarted, with its leading lights, Rosa Luxemburg and Wilhelm Liebknecht, slain early in the following year. An alternative outcome in Germany may well indeed have transformed the future of Europe — and would almost certainly not have led to the re-run of the world war that transpired two decades hence.
Just before leaving Zurich, Lenin had declared at a meeting that the prospects of socialism in Russia were dim for the time being. After all, according to Marxist orthodoxy, bourgeois rule and capitalist development were an essential precondition to a dictatorship of the proletariat. But during the tedious journey that took him and his comrades through Germany, Sweden and Finland, Lenin changed his mind.
His April Theses, published almost immediately upon his arrival in Petrograd 100 years ago last Sunday — to a surprisingly tumultuous welcome from representatives of soldiers and workers — argued that the circumstances were ripe for the bourgeois phase to be transcended. “All power to the soviets” (in which the Bolsheviks at that point constituted a tiny minority) was the key slogan, alongside “land, peace and bread” — everything that the bulk of Russians aspired to at that moment in history.
Many of his comrades among the intelligentsia, including most Bolsheviks, thought Lenin was deranged, or at least had spent too long in exile to be sufficiently familiar with the prevailing conditions. But if the Bolshevik leadership — not least Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, two of Lenin’s closest allies abroad, as well as Josef Stalin, at the time a relative nonentity — disagreed, many among the party’s rank-and-file proletariat membership shared his impatience.
Whatever one may think in retrospect of the latter event, most historians agree that February would not have led to October but for Lenin’s presence at the coalface. It could be argued, although many would disagree, that he kept his head while others were losing theirs and blaming it on him. Sure, it’s broadly circumstances rather than individuals that make history. But there are times when someone has got to seize the moment — and, in anglophone parlance, be a bit more bolshie than everyone else.
Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2017