“That is Lenin. Look at the self-willed, stubborn head. A real Russian peasant’s head with a few faintly Asiatic lines. That man will try to overturn mountains. Perhaps he will be crushed by them. But he will never yield.” The German socialist Rosa Luxembourg offered this brief character assessment of Vladimir Lenin in 1907, ten years before he led his Bolshevik party to history’s first Communist revolution. No historian today would admit openly to organizing their work around anything so horribly unfashionable as the Great Man theory of historical change – a method hunted to extinction around the turn of the 20th century as insights from the new sociology and its emphasis on social context filtered into historical practice. But if the taboo against the theory is honored more in the breach than in the observance, it’s because it sometimes feels practical to understand a single human subject as towering as this as a prime mover in history, molding it through force of will.
Lenin must qualify as one such subject. As Victor Sebestyen remarks in Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror, history can be made on battlefields as well as in committee meetings beneath the light of a single lamp. Lenin’s life satisfies both clauses. He was also a prolific journalist, editor, publisher, and writer of trenchant if rather wooden works of political and Marxist theory. All the more challenging for a biographer, then, to chronicle his life and work.
On personality, Sebestyen fares well. His sketch of Lenin’s habits of mind, attitude, quirks, and his closest personal relationships gives complete satisfaction. The younger Lenin was academically precocious and a chess prodigy with an ostentatious practice of playing simultaneous matches against multiple opponents and winning. By late adolescence the triple shock arising from the death of his father from a brain haemorrhage when Lenin was just 16, then the execution of his older brother for his role in an attempt on the life of Alexander III when Lenin was 17, and finally the fatal illness suffered by his beloved sister Olga was a turning point and he seemed, in Sebestyen’s judgment, to lose a measure of the cheerfulness that characterized him in his youth. Still only 22 but now increasingly radicalized, potentially on the same path as his brother, and feeling pressure from his mother to pursue a respectable career, Lenin completed a four-year law degree in 12 months and graduated at the top of his class. But his hatred of lawyers ensured that his law career would be almost comically brief: “One must rule the advocate with an iron hand and keep him in a state of siege,” he told a comrade awaiting trial, “for this intellectual scum often plays dirty.” He was becoming the “highly disciplined, tightly contained man people would come to know as Lenin.”
Sebestyen furnishes the reader with many more biographical details worth pausing over. One such conspicuous fact is that for the duration of his adult life his closest and most sustained relationships were with women; his mother until 1916, his two sisters, both of whom worked alongside him in revolutionary politics, his long-term mistress, Inessa, and above all, Nadya, his wife and companion of three decades. Before and after 1917 he ensured intelligent and capable women were appointed to key positions of authority. “Lenin had more progressive and advanced views about the role of women than most of his male contemporaries in the revolutionary movement,” he writes, adding the requisite caveat, “though it is true that this does not set the bar particularly high.”
The book’s subtitle indicates penetration into darker quarters and Sebestyen fares unevenly in navigating them. For one thing, there’s an asymmetry in his approach to Lenin’s written work. Sebestyen’s archival research reveals a compelling portrait of his inner life. But his treatment of some of Lenin’s most significant books and their possible role in shaping the events of the period, or how they reflect on Lenin himself, are slight by comparison. And to say that many such works are “unintelligible” today is not the same as saying they are useless for the purpose of historical analysis.
Take Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (written in mid-1916 and published in 1917) and The State and Revolution (1917). In his introduction Sebestyen writes: “[Lenin] matters now not because of his flawed, bloody, and murderously misguided answers, but because he was asking the same questions as we are today about similar problems.” Terms like “global elite” and “the one per cent” encountered in 2018 are subconsciously or unknowingly used in a Leninst way. There’s a stirring but all too brief (two paragraph) discussion on Imperialism, somewhat wedged into a later chapter, that only begins to pursue the resonances of these arresting points. In Imperialism, as Sebestyen points out, Lenin dilates on how the free market described by Marx has evolved into a new type of capitalism whereby “production is concentrated in vast syndicates and trusts which aim at monopoly control.” Abetted by banking oligarchies, enormous multinational companies “freeze out other competition to forestall independent technological innovation.” Sebestyen remarks that in recent years these points were made as much on the left as on the right, especially with respect to banking conglomerates and big tech. He’s right, and it’s too bad the promise of this intriguing line of inquiry feels largely unfulfilled, sparse, and abridged.
Sebestyen does not spare the reader Lenin’s misguided answers and deploying the term “master of terror” could not be more unequivocal. Our post-truth era has other less flattering echoes of Lenin in his capriciousness — the abusive language he used against political opponents, and his willingness to lie to meet an objective — but one also senses an impatience in Sebestyen, a haste for putting him in the dock wherever possible.
So for example he believes Lenin would never brook opposition and had no intention of ever surrendering power having worked so tirelessly to grab it. That may be true. It’s also true that Lenin’s opinions on free speech, elections, and democracy wavered in 1916 and 1917, and include passages in The State and Revolution (1917) where he identifies representative “working bodies” as key to a higher form of democracy. Such statements for Sebestyen seem to suggest opportunism, guile, or strategic dishonesty on Lenin’s part. So he’s not allowed to be merely or sincerely wrong, or to have struggled and failed to adequately address these matters while also trying to deal with the practical and theoretical challenges of carrying out a revolution – he must have been both wrong as well as cynically and calculatingly wrong, a rube blinded by utopian dreams as well as a trickster figure.
As an undergraduate I had a Russian history professor who was asked why anyone would consider as possibly true the proposition that Lenin, if he’d lived and outlasted Stalin, would have democratized the Soviet Union. His answer was simply “maybe, because Lenin said he would”. Sebestyen’s answer is different but equally clear: “The worst of his evils was to have left a man like Stalin in a position to lead Russia after him. That was a historical crime.” Lenin’s life, his relatively short tenure in power, and the subsequent path taken by the Soviet Union will always be a rich if sombre source of speculation in the history of possibility. Sebestyen’s humane biography brings additional clarity to the matter.