Saturday, 31 October 2015

Reconstructing Lenin: an intellectual biography

I hope that ‘Reconstructing Lenin’ by Tamas Krausz becomes established as a major reference in writing and discussion about Lenin and the Bolsheviks: not simply in academic circles, but (more importantly) among modern-day revolutionary activists. It deserves to become an integral part of the study of Lenin, Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution – a growing and sizeable field of study since the end of the Cold War - due to the author’s excellent political judgement, the wealth of relevant contextual material and the way if illuminates the coherence and continuity in Lenin’s political thought over time (and its relationship to Lenin and his comrades’ political actions).
It is a very substantial book, a work of exceptional scholarship accurately subtitled ‘an intellectual biography’ because the focus is largely on Lenin’s ideas and their development. To call it ‘exhaustively researched’ is an understatement: its ‘Notes’ contain well over 1000 references, drawing on an extraordinarily wide range of sources.

Originally written in Hungarian, the English translation will hopefully influence discussion about its subject in the English-speaking world. This translation, by Balint Bethlenfalvy with Mario Fenyo, is published by US-based left-wing publishers Monthly Review Press.

The author, Tamas Krausz, is a professor of Russian history in Budapest. He is long established as a leading Marxist intellectual in Hungary. The earliest reference to his own writing on Lenin that I spotted in the bibliography was from 1980, so this book has had a long gestation (it is described as ‘four decades in the making’ on the back cover).
The author’s location in a former Eastern Bloc state means he is acutely conscious of the massive and violent distortion done to Lenin’s ideas, reputation and legacy by Stalinism. He is determined to uncover the real Lenin, via close attention to Lenin’s own writings and a sensitive project of re-discovering the intellectual, political and social world that shaped him.
This is not, it should be noted, an introduction to Lenin, the Bolsheviks, or the times in which they lived. A certain amount of familiarity with the field is generally assumed, while much of the language is reasonably specialised. It is nonetheless accessible and readable, and I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to explore the field in some depth.

Although the focus is primarily on Lenin’s intellectual and political development, the opening (and long) chapter is biographical, from Lenin’s family background through his entire life. I thought this was excellent – genuinely insightful even for those of us familiar with Lenin and his life story, rooting the man in his time and place. It includes some fascinating, less well-known, details while recapitulating the essentials, giving a vivid sense of Lenin’s compelling personality as well as tracing the events of his life and how they intersected with wider political and social contexts.
It’s also worth noting here that two extensive appendices complement the main text perfectly. One of them is an extremely thorough series of brief biographical details of scores of socialists, political figures and so on relevant to a biography of Lenin. The other is a detailed time line of events between the revolutionary year of 1917 and Lenin’s death in 1924.Both of these are useful resources.

An innovative and coherent thinker

The book has three particular themes which should be flagged up. Firstly, Krausz is keen to root Lenin firmly in the Marxist tradition while grasping the intellectual contributions that made him innovative. He demonstrates, unanswerably, that Lenin made important contributions to the Marxist tradition – a necessary antidote to those who treat him as a purely pragmatic figure. But these contributions are nonetheless rooted in Marxism – Krausz explicitly rejects any suggestion that Lenin originated a new ism that is separate from Marxism, or one that constitutes a variation on Marxism.
Different chapters examine different important contributions – roughly chronologically, though there is inevitably much overlap. These include Lenin’s work on Russian capitalist development, imperialism, the national question, the state and revolution, and the relationship between struggles for democracy and struggles for socialism. Lenin made original contributions that form a vital part of the inheritance of classical Marxism and help us understand history and both understand and change the world we live in.

Secondly, Krausz makes a powerful case for Lenin’s intellectual and political coherence. This is not to underestimate his tactical or organisational flexibility – these are well documented. But his flexibility in practice was deeply rooted in a coherent and consistent worldview and set of ideas.
This is a vital antidote to the idea that Lenin was an opportunistic politician, twisting and turning to suit immediate practical interests with no intellectual compass. Even after 1917, when he repeatedly faced incredibly difficult obstacles as leader of a besieged and fledgling workers’ state, there was a coherent political worldview shaping his responses (whatever political expediency was, admittedly, required).

This, again, does not mean ignoring how Lenin’s ideas developed and evolved. There is no suggestion that he arrived fully formed, so to speak. Quite the opposite: the development of his ideas is traced in close relationship to the history of the society in which he lived. He is rooted historically by Krausz.
There is also a strong sense of interplay between Lenin’s thinking and that of other Marxists: he was ‘first among equals’, the leading figure in a talented and intellectually vibrant generation of radical socialists. There’s a lively sense of the many debates between Lenin and others, and the significance of these debates. It’s also clear that political experiences – above all the 1905 revolution – influenced the direction of Lenin’s thinking.

So Lenin made important political and theoretical contributions to Marxism which analysed a changing world: a world in which capitalism was spreading globally, while its European and north American core was evolving into a constellation of competing imperialist states, with the nation state increasingly intertwined with the capitalist economy. Capitalist development was uneven, with Russia characterised by a complex mix of new industrial methods and traditional (but evolving) agriculture. Classes were being re-shaped: the industrial working class was growing in many countries, but the peasantry was changing too.
Consequently, the prospects for revolution were changing too – new thinking was needed on the potential role of different classes in the revolutionary process, and on the nature and scope of revolution. Lenin’s analysis evolved over time and through debate with other Marxists, but nonetheless formed a coherent worldview that was consistent with the Marxist tradition.

Ideas into action

The third central theme in Krausz’s account concerns the relationship between ideas and action. Lenin was a revolutionary political leader. He didn’t simply develop analysis of the world; that analysis was, profoundly and throughout his adult life, geared towards changing the world. Krausz notes that Marx’s famous thesis – ‘the philosophers have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it’ – has never been more acutely relevant than in the case of Lenin. A single-minded commitment to building an organisation capable of playing a decisive role in historical change dominated Lenin’s life up to 1917.
Krausz carefully traces the relationship between theory and practice, between Lenin’s ideas and the project of social transformation. He provides the big picture here, but also a multitude of specific tactical debates and decisions. He makes an interesting comment, for example, about how all the various factional disputes in the Russian revolutionary movement (over many years) had a strategic or tactical dimension. They were often influenced by theoretical issues, but there was only ever really a serious dispute if there were tactical implications (there were no splits over purely philosophical debates).

Krausz is attentive to the different aspects of debates and to what was going on at key turning points, e.g. the 1905 revolution, the ‘April Theses’ in April 1917, on the eve of insurrection in October 1917, etc. He expresses the theoretical underpinnings without reducing everything to them; concrete tactical disagreements can only be understood with attention to the concrete situation.
Lenin’s practical achievements – incomparable in the history of Marxism – were threefold: he had the leading role in building a revolutionary party in Russia before 1917, he was the principal leader in the ‘second revolution’ of 1917, i.e. that which led to the overthrow of the entire political and social order in October, and he was subsequently the head of government in a fledgling Russian workers’ state for several years (this last one remains a unique role in the history of revolutionary socialism). He was therefore, in turn, party builder, revolutionary leader and statesman.

Krausz is good at illustrating the continuity in Lenin’s personality, political qualities and ideas through all these periods, while also focusing on the distinctiveness of each context. The period of building revolutionary organisation, at varying stages from the 1890s until 1917, was the bulk of Lenin’s political life, and it proves especially fascinating in terms of potential implications for activists today. 
In addition to these central themes, ‘Reconstructing Lenin’ is a goldmine of details – biographical, political and historical. Although Lenin is at the centre throughout, it brings various other political figures of the time (Plekhanov, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bogdanov and many more) into focus, showing how they influenced Lenin or how he debated with them. It in some senses serves as a collective biography of the Bolsheviks, a compelling study of a revolutionary organisation that evolved enormously in changing circumstances.

I have just three very small criticisms. Firstly, although Krausz is brutally honest about the enormous problems faced after October 1917 - and indeed the mistakes he believes were made by Lenin and his government during this period - he refers very little to the actual positive achievements of revolutionary Russia (which were considerable). This makes his sketching of the context of Russia in the several years following the October Revolution a little unbalanced.

Secondly, I think he underestimates the possibilities for successful revolution in a number of European countries, especially Germany, during the same period, appearing to be rather mechanical and deterministic about the apparently near-inevitable failure of the European movements. Thirdly, I think he is guilty of somewhat understating Trotsky's achievements and stature as a political leader and thinker - not drastically so, but this is a minor problem of emphasis for me.
These minor points should not distract, however, from the larger achievement. Crucially, the question of how ideas interacted with efforts to change the world is a thread running through the whole book. The issue of what lessons revolutionary socialist activists can learn for today is not my main focus in this short appreciation, but the book provides a solid historical basis for that project.
Note: I recommend Chris Nineham's Counterfire review of the book.


No comments:

Post a Comment