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Book Review: 'Lenin Life and Legacy'

Come to bury not to praise

'Lenin: Life and Legacy', by Dmitri Volkogonov (Harper Collins 1994. £25.)

The author of this 500-page book is a high-level Soviet Army officer who from the mid- 80s held the post of Director of the Institute of Military History and in August 1991 became Defence Adviser to President Yeltsin. Initially trained as a philosopher and historian, he researched and wrote a biography of Stalin in 1985 which found some disfavour in the military hierarchy, reinforced in early 1991 by his "un-Soviet" views in a history of World War Two.

Despite his education and clear critical intelligence. Volkogonov accepted Lenin and Leninism as the pure foundation of the Russian Soviet State which had somehow become sullied and debased in its later progression to the horrors of Stalinism. As he writes:

    "For twenty-five years after the Twentieth Congress (1956) the Russian people asked themselves where Stalin had acquired the cruelty which he inflicted on his fellow countrymen. None of us—the present author included—could begin to imagine that the father of domestic Russian terrorism, merciless and totalitarian, was Lenin."

With the breakdown of the Soviet monolith in 1990 and its release from the Communist Party stranglehold, immense quantities of previously secret historical archive material became available for researchers. This has enabled authors like Volkogonov to produce more detailed and more fully documented biographies and other historical accounts than has been possible for the past seventy- five years. The result in this case is a devastatingly solid indictment of Lenin and Leninism.

With a wealth of detail the author describes the chilling and almost unbelievable fanaticism with which Lenin drove himself and his colleagues, firstly to seize state power and then to retain it at all costs. He traces the sources of this obsession with power and its unfettered and brutal use to three main factors. The execution of Lenin's elder brother, implicated in a political assassination plot, the influence of 19th century Russian revolutionary terrorist writers, and Lenin's totally lopsided grasp of Marxism from which he retained only those few aspects which appealed to him. Nothing of Marx's humanity nor of his writings on the future intellectual freedom of men and women; nothing except violence, force, and yet more force, including outright terror if that could serve a purpose. With this background firmly established. Volkogonov goes on to show how all the horrific and well-known features of the Stalinist period had their origins in Lenin; the fact that Stalin was personally vindictive whereas Lenin’s cruelties arose as impersonal expediencies is here irrelevant.

Two other interesting and informative sections of the book deal with Bolshevik finances in the early days and with the "sanctification" of Lenin after his death. Many potentially embarrassing records dealing with German financial support during the First World War were of course destroyed. but the author has collected sufficient evidence to give a clear picture of the very substantial support the German government gave the Bolsheviks to help them take Russia out of the war, thus freeing troops which could be switched to the western front. The Bolsheviks naturally did all they could to conceal this German link.

The second item, the mummification of Lenin's body and the parallel ossification and crystallisation of his thoughts and methods, forms a quite fascinating chapter. The painstaking trouble and enormous expense devoted over decades to the preservation of Lenin’s body in a “viewable condition" are positively mind-boggling in their mediaeval stupidity, except of course when viewed from the standpoint of the cynical hierarchy who manipulated the whole charade to maintain their political dominance.

For almost seventy years after his death the preservation of Leninism was the accepted and necessary mainstay of all who clambered to positions of power; and the careful use of selected phrases from his writings or speeches was the common tactic adopted to dethrone opponents or to entangle those accused of anti-Soviet activity in the endless treason trials of the 30s and 40s. It is ironic that in the very society which proclaimed that its Marxist theory was not a dogma but a living, flexible, "dialectical" guide to action, in reality the power elite set Leninism in concrete for the greater part of this century and defended its rigour with a devotion of which a mediaeval churchman could have been proud.

All this will, of course, come as little surprise to socialists who have from the outset recognised that Lenin’s 1917 Revolution, as an attempt to impose socialism by dictatorship and coercion, was doomed to fail. Utopia, unlike Mao’s political power, did not materialise from the muzzle of a gun. despite all Lenin’s cold-blooded steely determination and his party’s control and use of every weapon of coercion. Volkogonov does not indulge in any political theorising, but his book provides powerful support for the view that the building of a socialist society will be possible when the majority of the workers understand and desire such a change. All the guidance by 'revolutionary vanguard' parties with 'infallible' leaders like Lenin at their head can never be a substitute for a self-reliant working class.

Lenin: Life and Legacy should help those still blinded by the Soviet myth to follow the disturbing path of intellectual awakening already trodden by the author himself. In his own words :”As a former Stalinist who has made the painful transition to a total rejection of Bolshevik totalitarianism, I confess that Leninism was the last bastion to fall in my mind".

Cyril Oldfield