April 2020, Week 4


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 		 [ A look back on the key revolutionary more frequently worshiped
on the left than read, Alis Lenin biography includes his last years
observation that "we knew nothing," insisting that the revolution had
to be renewed lest it wither and die.] [https://portside.org/] 




 Lindsey German 
 April 21, 2020

	* [https://portside.org/node/22723/printable/print]

 _ A look back on the key revolutionary more frequently worshiped on
the left than read, Ali's Lenin biography includes his last years'
observation that "we knew nothing," insisting that the revolution had
to be renewed lest it wither and die. _ 

 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Socialist Party (Ireland) 


Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution
By Tariq Ali
Verso; 384 pages
April 25, 2017
Paperback:  $17.95 ($12.56 - 30% off with free ebook)
Hardback:   $26.95 ($10.78 - 60% off with free ebook)
E-book:     $ 9.99
ISBN 9781786631114  --  781786631107  --  9781786631138


Verso Books
Written to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian
revolution, Tariq Ali's book also speaks to those of us involved in
contemporary politics here in Britain. A new politics has been
unleashed with the electoral advances of Jeremy Corbyn and widespread
revulsion at the consequences of neoliberalism, epitomised most
strongly by the Grenfell Tower disaster. This era is opening up a new
interest in political discussion, and with it a real thirst to know
how the left can achieve its aims against the vested interests of the
few, aims which cannot be achieved through parliamentary legislation
but will require the systematic transformation of society.

In this debate, people will return to past experiences of
working-class history, including the Russian revolution - which
changed the history of the twentieth century - and to the ideas of the
Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. In doing so they will hopefully
see past the distortions on both right and left which have so obscured
and sometimes vilified that history, and see the incredibly brave,
prescient and committed politics which made Russia the powerhouse of

Tariq Ali's book is a powerful tool for those wanting to understand
the real Lenin and therefore the real politics behind those
revolutionaries who fought so hard but ultimately failed in their
goal. One obvious problem for any socialist writing about Lenin and
the Russian revolution is that so much has been done before. As Tariq
Ali notes, there are two really outstanding contemporary accounts,
from Trotsky and Sukhanov, [i] as well as a number of major
biographies (here I would recommend Harding, Cliff and Krausz) [ii] 

Tariq here solves the problem of how to make a new contribution by
looking at Lenin's life and thought through a series of themes - the
dilemmas of Lenin's life, including terrorism, war, empire, love and
revolution. This means that the revolution itself runs like a thread
through the book, as well as getting its own chapters. The book is
kind of chronological, but not entirely, and does not limit itself to
the period of Lenin's life. This makes it a stimulating read and one
which comes up with a few surprises. In particular, the sections on
women/love and on military strategy I found absolutely fascinating.

The book starts with a great defence of Lenin and October, in which
the author identifies totally with the aims and politics, argues how
important it is to mark this anniversary with a rediscovery of its
true history and a recommitment to this sort of socialism. He argues
that Lenin's role in the revolution was unique and that without him
October would not have happened. This point is not made to idolise
Lenin - the book is highly critical of the statues, the tomb, the
mummifying of Lenin's thought - but it is to say that Lenin had the
necessary combination of Marxist understanding, a grasp of the
centrality of the need for socialist instead of merely democratic
revolution, and the determination to argue tactics and strategy inside
the Bolshevik party and the wider working class.

Tsarist Russia was a school of radicalism and revolution going back
several generations. Famously, Lenin's older brother Alexander was
hanged in 1887 for an assassination attempt on the Tsar, while Lenin
was still at school. He was part of a generation sickened by the
society in which they lived. The sprawling Russian empire was based on
a huge class of peasant serfs, presided over by a sizeable landowning
aristocracy. There was no democracy and precious little freedom.
Successive attempts to modernise had made little progress. The East
was much more backward than the increasingly capitalist West of
Europe, but still felt the pressure of the spread of capitalist
production and markets.

This - plus the failing of the Russian empire in the Crimean war - led
to the reform of the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, mirroring the
beginning of the U.S. Civil war which led to the emancipation of the
slaves. In both cases the impetus for change lay in the expansion of
capitalist markets. The clash between the old ways of living, the
backwardness of Russian agriculture and society, and new capitalist
investment, was startling. It led, of course, in due time to the
creation of a revolutionary working class, but long before that the
great fissures in society which would eventually lead to revolution
were opening.

Tariq describes some of the sentiment of the times in his surveys of
Russian literature. He cites Turgenev's Fathers and Sons- written at
the time of Emancipation - as showing the clashes between older and
younger generations, summed up in the character of the nihilist
Bazarov. The idealism of this younger generation, and its despair at
its own future and that of Russia, led it into forms of terrorism,
later especially in the shape of the group Narodnya Volnya, or
People's Will.

Lenin's experience of his brother's execution and the difficulties
faced by his family as a result, profoundly affected and politicised
him. But while he always had sympathy for that generation, he rejected
terrorism and turned to Marxism instead. His political activity led to
years of exile and repression. These years were undoubtedly hard both
personally and politically and required a number of difficult
decisions and sharp breaks. Lenin is noted for his political
intransigence and determination not to compromise, but he himself
described the tension and enervation when engaged in a divided
conference with splits in the Russian social democrats. Nonetheless,
there were a number of points where he was prepared to argue and if
necessary to split to win his position.

These included the famous Bolshevik-Menshevik split in London in 1903,
but also one in 1914 where Lenin was distraught to find that his
German comrade Karl Kautsky - known at the time as the Pope of Marxism
- supported the war effort of Germany in what was clearly to Lenin an
imperialist war. Isolated and almost alone internationally, the
Bolsheviks maintained their opposition to war, an opposition which
gradually spread to much of the working class of the belligerent
countries, and which helped lead directly to the February revolution
in 1917.

The split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, so puzzling to so many in
1903, became clearer when faced with the huge tests of war,
imperialism and the nature of revolution itself. Lenin's intervention
in all these questions was key, as Tariq points out, but no more so
than in the polemic over the nature of the revolution in which he
found himself at the centre in 1917. Lenin arrived back in Petrograd
in April 1917 and immediately launched an attack on his own party's
analysis and perspective for the revolution. The Bolsheviks accepted
that, because of the economic backwardness and underdevelopment of
Russian society, there could not be a socialist revolution there.
Instead there could only be a democratic revolution which would turn
Russia into a modern parliamentary democracy. Lenin rejected this
view, considering that this `stage' of development had already been
passed through the combined and uneven nature of imperialist
capitalism. He argued that only the working class allied with the poor
peasantry could achieve the transformation needed.

His April Theses changed the whole nature of revolutionary politics
between the two revolutions in February and October, as power shifted
towards the soviets (councils of worker, peasant and soldier
representatives) as opposed to the provisional government, and towards
an overthrow of existing state power. The supposedly democratic
government, faced with social crisis, could not deliver the most basic
needs of Russian people. Instead, it was the Bolshevik slogan of
`bread, peace and land' that alone pointed to a way out of the crisis,
and only the soviets could deliver it.

Lenin had a fight within his own party, and appealed to the most
class-conscious workers and soldiers in order to win his ideas and to
move towards insurrection. Tariq describes these few short months as
the most democratic in Russian history. They led to a mass
revolutionary consciousness among the working class and the
establishment of soviet rule. The difficulties of that rule were
immense from day one: the continuing war, poverty and food shortages,
later famine, military attack by the imperialist powers, the
inheritance of systematic oppression of national minorities (the
Tsarist Empire had been known as the prison house of nations),
divisions within the ranks of the left, and lack of modern

These were problems which would daunt most revolutionaries, yet the
Bolsheviks and their allies faced them with courage and dedication.
They achieved a huge amount in a relatively short time, but were
overwhelmed most obviously by the failure of the revolution to spread
to more advanced capitalist countries, which would have given Russia a
breathing space. Lenin realised quite acutely what he was up against
but, ill and with declining powers, had only a short time to try to
make the revolution a success.

Perhaps one of the most rapid advances achieved by the revolution was
the alteration of the positon of women. Russian society was notable
for the generally appalling position of women - treated as chattels
and subject to domestic violence among the peasantry, and also subject
to gross levels of sexual harassment at work, from foremen and bosses,
when they became workers in factories. At the same time, the left in
Russia was also notable for the considerable number of women, often
from relatively privileged backgrounds, who fought against the system,
often in the most courageous way.

I recall visiting the Peter Paul prison fortress, now a museum, in St
Petersburg, over twenty years ago and seeing the cells which held
pictures of their various political prisoner inhabitants: Narodniks,
Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. A very high number
were women and they often suffered terrible treatment. The conjuncture
of general high levels of sexism with the political awareness of these
generations of political women led to an astonishingly radical set of
demands after the revolution. These were informed by Marxist and
socialist ideas, which had long argued for women's equality and
freedom. They included divorce on demand, marriage free from religious
constraint, abortion, the end to laws stigmatising illegitimacy, and
the socialising of many of the functions of housework and childcare.
There was also the abolition of laws prohibiting sodomy.

These changes were often regarded as quite scandalous in western
societies. Trotsky was asked in an interview after the revolution
whether it was true that divorce could be obtained just for the asking
in revolutionary Russia. He replied, is it true that there are
countries where divorce cannot be gained just by asking? The
Bolsheviks set up a special women's department in 1919, headed
initially by Lenin's former lover, Inessa Armand, then by Alexandra
Kollontai after Armand's death. Tariq writes movingly about Lenin and
Armand's relationship, but links it to the wider questions about
women's liberation and freedom.

He makes the case that Lenin and Armand did have a passionate personal
relationship (the hagiographic view of Lenin which was a part of
Stalinist orthodoxy denied that any such relationship existed) and
that he gave it up largely for political reasons. He obviously
remained close to her for the rest of his life, and when recovering
from an attempted assassination, he insisted she lived nearby with a
direct phone line to him. Tariq quotes Angelica Balabanoff at Armand's
funeral as saying of Lenin, `I never saw any human being so completely
absorbed by sorrow.'

His personal relationship was one of Lenin's dilemmas. He was married
to Nadezhda Krupskaya, who played a very important role in Bolshevik
exile politics, and who according to this book suggested that he and
Armand should live together. Many people face similar dilemmas in
their personal lives, and resolve them in different ways. Tariq makes
the point that politics was central to Lenin and that involved, in
this case, a big personal sacrifice. But this was a dilemma on a much
wider scale. Socialists tend to be in favour of free love, of
rejecting the conventions of marriage and bourgeois morality, yet they
also tend to recognise that there are many difficulties with following
such ideas within a capitalist society. This became a big issue after
the revolution, as ideas of free love and women's liberation grew, and
even here was not always easy to resolve, as demonstrated in Lenin's
comments about free love in a famous conversation with the German
socialist Clara Zetkin.

It was and remains a dilemma because the aim of revolutionaries should
be to create a society where love is not distorted by economic
constraints, where people work collectively but where individual
relationships are free from the strictures of capitalist society,
where women have the right to genuine equality. This book is a
valuable reminder of what we are fighting for, as well as what we are
fighting against.

It is also a reminder that it is only when ordinary working people
mobilise that they are able really to transform society. Real changes
in how we live and work can only come through transformation from
below. In the struggles and debates that we have ahead of us, this
book is a valuable guide to some of the great struggles and debates of
the past, through the eyes of a great revolutionary.

i Leon Trotsky, _The History of the Russian Revolution_; Nikolai
Nikolaevich Sukhanov, _The Russian Revolution, 1917: A Personal

ii Neil Harding, Lenin's Political Thought (1977 and 1981); Tony
Cliff, Lenin; Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual
Biography (Monthly Review Press 2015).

_Book author TARIQ ALI is a British political activist, writer,
journalist, historian, filmmaker, and public intellectual.A member of
the editorial committee of the New Left Review and Sin Permiso, he
contributes to T [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Guardian]he
Guardian, CounterPunch, the London Review of Books.and other
venues.He is also  the author of many books, including Can Pakistan
Survive? The Death of a State (1983), Clash of Fundamentalisms:
Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002), Conversations with Edward
Said (2005), Pirates Of The Caribbean: Axis Of Hope (2006), The
Obama Syndrome (2010),[3]
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tariq_Ali#cite_note-BCL1-3] and The
Extreme Centre: A Warning (2015)._

_[Essayist LINDSEY GERMAN is national convenor of Britain's  Stop
the War Coalition, one of that nation's largest mass movements and a
key organizer of the U.K.'s 's largest war-protest demonstration to
date..Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’,
‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’
(with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of

	* [https://portside.org/node/22723/printable/print]







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