Book Reviews: ‘Lenin the Dictator – An Intimate Portrait’, ‘October – The Story of the Russian Revolution’, & ‘Battling the Gods – Atheism in the Ancient World’

Lenin the Democrat?

‘Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait’. By Victor Sebestyen. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2017)

Lars T. Lih in his 800 page 2009 work Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context argues that Lenin ‘must be thought of as a Russian Social Democrat because his fundamental project was to help build a party in Russia that was as much like Western social-democratic parties as conditions allowed – and where conditions did not allow, to change them to the revolutionary overthrow of the Tsar.’ Victor Sebestyen’s new book is the antidote to this.

Sebestyen observes that Lenin’s first published work was a bitter attack on the Populists, and Lih admits that What Is to Be Done? though ‘enshrined … as the founding document of Bolshevism’ ‘was written to score off some very specific opponents’. Sebestyen comments that Lenin’s style of argument ‘was nearly always domineering, abusive, combative and often downright vicious’. He battered opponents into submission with the deliberate use of violent language which he acknowledged was ‘calculated to evoke hatred, aversion, contempt … not to convince, not to correct the mistakes of the opponent, but to destroy him, to wipe him and his organisation off the face of the earth.’ ‘Those who disagreed with [Lenin] were ‘scoundrels’, ‘philistines’, ‘cretins’, ‘filthy scum’, ‘whores’, ‘class traitors’, ‘silly old maids’, ‘windbags’ (one of his favourite epithets found frequently in his writings) and ‘blockheads’. In modern Leninist parlance this could be criticised as ‘sectarianism’.

Sebestyen claims that ‘after looking over Lenin’s [1903 resolution on party membership criteria, Martov] told him ‘but that’s dictatorship you’re proposing’. Lenin replied ‘yes, there’s no other way.’’ ‘Without doubt Lenin was the main cause of the bitterness. … He was constantly on the offensive, cajoling, hectoring and abusing delegates.’ ‘When Lenin at this time referred to the ‘enemy’ he meant his old friend Martov and the Mensheviks – ‘when you see a stinking heap you don’t have to touch it to know what it is. Your nose tells you it’s shit and you pass by.’’

Although Lenin ‘never wore anything resembling a military uniform as so many dictators favoured’ he did argue that ‘those who do not prepare for armed uprising must be ruthlessly cast out … to the ranks of the enemies as traitors or cowards.’ And he once rebuked ‘how can you make a revolution without firing squads?’

Once in power Lenin censored the press and threatened to close down opposition newspapers. He ruled by decree setting up the Cheka secret police. The Soviet became a rubber stamp body and remained so.

Social Democrats fundamentally support free elections. Lenin did not and demonstrated this as soon as he was in a position to do so. The Bolsheviks failed to win a majority in the January 1918 elections to Russia’s first freely elected parliament, the Constituent Assembly ‘which made a nonsense of the claim they were supported by the masses’. ‘Lenin fired the neutral electoral commissioners… a 1918 demonstration for ‘All Power to the Assembly’ was fired upon by Red Guards.’ Thereafter Lenin then gave the orders to dissolve the Assembly.

Actions, as always, speak louder than words.



A Whiff of Cliff

‘October: The Story of the Russian Revolution’. By China Mieville,(Verso, 2017)

This is the latest book by China Mieville, a founding editor of Salvage magazine and an award-winning author.

It is structured with a chapter for each month and covers a lot of ground. However October is the last narrative chapter so it feels like a long time coming. The writing is exciting and events proceed with a lively pace. Insofar as a book of some 300 pages can manage there is much detail on what happened – but little room is left for analysis of why.

For example, ‘Lenin was referring to his supporters as hard, and his opponents as soft, and the distinction will generally remain glossed in such terms … though this is not to deny the substantial range and evolution of opinions on each side.’ Analysis also occasionally tends towards the binary ‘hard’, ‘soft’, ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘legal Marxists’, etc.

He writes of Lenin that ‘to his enemies he is a cold mass-murdering monster, to his worshippers a god-like genius, to his comrades and friends – a shy quick-laughing lover of children and cats.’

Mieville also uses the translation ‘Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP)’, rather than the more common ‘Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP)’. Surely it wouldn’t be to do with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that Mieville left in 2013, would it? The SWP were founded by Tony Cliff, who wrote a three volume biography of Lenin. In Mieville’s further reading he mentions this and calls the works by E. H. Carr and I. Deutscher as ‘magisterial’ and Trotsky as ‘towering, vivid, historically vital’. Orlando Figes’ work is credited but described as ‘unconvincing tragedianism for some lost liberal alternative.’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 by Figes, first published in 1996 is award-winning, nearly a thousand pages and acts as a counter to Mieville’s book.

An interpretation too generous to Lenin is given to the 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik dispute over membership criteria and Trotsky is more lauded than not, as ‘hard to love but impossible not to admire. He is at once charismatic and abrasive, brilliant and persuasive and divisive and difficult.’ Whereas Stalin is described as ‘the butcher, key architect of a grotesque and crushing despotic state.’ Surely Lenin was the key architect of this, with Trotsky as the butcher?

Some interpretations come over as Cliffite; ‘[Bolshevik activists] were more concerned to focus on the masses in the streets.’ and ‘[Moscow crowds in February 1917] were shouting ‘Down with the Tsar!’’ It’s worth pointing out the ‘streets’ and their ‘demonstrations’ were a violent liability for the working-class (often involving getting shot at), ‘anger’ and ‘rage’ often meant mob rule, and the ‘masses’ were neither socialist nor even supportive of the Bolsheviks for the most part. Decisions, such as the coup itself, were taken among small groups of Bolsheviks with support from the military seizing various centres of power to carry it out.

Mieville concludes ‘October is still ground zero for arguments about fundamental radical social change. Its degradation was not a given.’ By this he means degradation from the early Bolshevik party. But there was no substantive degradation. The early Bolshevik party before October was already degraded. October didn’t of itself lead to Stalin – Lenin and the underpinning ideology of Bolshevism did.



Long Time No Gods

‘Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World’. By Tim Whitmarsh, (Faber & Faber £9.99)

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed not in god but in gods, and lots of them. There were gods of music, air, war, wine, love, the sea, and so on. But not everyone accepted the standard faith in gods, and there were advocates of atheism, discussed in this informative volume. There are many problems in interpreting the sources and coping with the chance nature of which texts have survived, but there clearly were people who not only questioned the existence of gods but indeed denied that they existed at all.

The gods of the Greeks had lots of human weaknesses, such as being sometimes stupid and certainly not omnipotent. They actually lived in this world, even if it was high up on a mountain, and those worshipped varied from place to place. There were no sacred texts, and priests just carried out sacrifices rather than making spiritual pronouncements. In the sixth century, Xenophanes pointed out that believers were just projecting human physical and behavioural characteristics onto the gods.

The classical period (fifth and fourth centuries BCE) saw many objections to blaming gods for human actions, and some saw human action as free from divine intervention. Protagoras (born in the early fifth century) said he could not be sure the gods existed at all, and Diagoras (who lived later in that century) may have been ‘the first person in history to self-identify in a positive way as an atheist’. This was the period when Athens rose to power, and heterodox religious beliefs came to be seen as a threat to the state’s foundations. The charges against Socrates may have included not recognising the city’s gods, though the sources are not clear on this.

In the Hellenistic era (fourth to first centuries BCE) there was religious worship of rulers such as Alexander. Then under the Roman Empire (from the first century BCE) there was claimed to be a divine mandate for Roman rule. A significant atheist ‘movement’ existed in the pre-christian Empire, and there were different gods worshipped in different locations. But in the fourth century CE Constantine provided financial support for christianity, and in 380 an imperial decree established it as the official imperial religion, which all subjects had to follow. Heresy now became treated as a crime against the state, and believing in a god other than the christian one was counted as atheism. Monotheism was far less tolerant than polytheism had been.

It is sometimes argued that atheism is a development of the last few centuries, but Whitmarsh shows that it is older than christianity or islam, and of a similar age to judaism. From a historical point of view, ‘what is anomalous is the global dominance of monotheistic religions and the resultant inability to acknowledge the existence of disbelievers.’


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