Reflecting on Old Reflections: Lenin and the Russian Revolution

23/11/2019

Earlier this year, I read Lenin and the Russian Revolution by Christopher Hill, which was a rather old and small book that is very much an introduction to the revolution and to Lenin himself. At the time I also wrote a couple of pieces on my thoughts about it, thoughts which, with further reading and understanding, are worth revisiting in an exercise of revision. While the general thrust of each of the pieces is still solid, my view of Lenin has changed drastically – for the worse.

I admit I was quite proud of the two pieces I wrote about Hill’s short book. The concepts of nationalism, imperialism, and revolution (within the scope of the posts) were fun to explore, and I have referred to the ideas and analyses I wrote a number of times since. But there is one part that, over time, I have come to completely change my opinion of – and that is more the history side regarding Lenin and his butchering of the Russian Revolution. So, sorry for any fans of Leninist and Bolsheviki Marxism, Lenin was a dick.

Even then I wasn’t the greatest fan of Lenin, based off the information in that book. Many of the things he did after the Revolution, which we are mostly told was the October Revolution (which, as a sidenote, was actually in November by the current calendar), were questionable, and not what he had preached leading up to it. Even so, the idea that Lenin was a revolutionary who stuck to his ideas, just that he had too many circumstances preventing anything from taking shape, was what I had gathered from it. My opinion of Lenin was neutral, but his vision was worth looking at.

Fast forward to, I think, around June, when I got around to reading a little more about Lenin from Noam Chomsky’s view, and recently reading The ABC of Anarchism by Alexander Berkman. Chomsky and Berkman both painted a very different picture as to what Lenin had been doing throughout 1917 and beyond and the repercussions of his rise to power. In my earlier piece, I had written that it was after Lenin’s death in 1923 that the Revolution was commandeered and eventually led to the vicious regime that was Stalinism.

In fact, the real Revolution took place between the February Revolution (against the Tsar) and the October Revolution, supposedly against the Provisional Government to introduce “communism”. Berkman says that the Russian people were too “simple” to understand the need for political rights and constitutions. Why bother dealing with politics when the people themselves can just do what they need to do? They wanted peace from the World War, land to live and work in freely, and bread to survive – not laws and rights on paper to give it to them.

Soldiers left the front lines and returned home, and the workers and farmers simply took the land, factories, and other places of industry and work as their own. They formed unions and other associations on their own terms, carrying out the true will of the masses, not those who tried making laws or keeping Russia involved in the War. The government, according to Berkman, never fully understood just how strong the revolutionary spirit was at the time, which ultimately led to their downfall later on. Which brings us back to Lenin.

Throughout 1917, the Bolsheviks did become extremely popular. They were a powerful force being led by Lenin, calling for many of the things the people were asking for. When October came around, Lenin installed his “dictatorship of the proletariat”, supposedly the way workers were to gain their freedom and dissolve the State as well as the tiny bourgeois elements in the region. It was, in fact, a dictatorship of Lenin.

Many of Lenin’s “beliefs” during the revolutionary period were actually shaped by the popular movements and the anarchists. What Lenin’s end goal really was, however, was complete State power – an enforced “communism” controlled by him and his party, the Bolsheviks. The people had to made to adopt communism, which led, obviously, to a system that can hardly be considered communism at all – at least, not in the way many intended it. Everything was dictated by the State, resulting in harsher oppression against the people than what they had under the Tsar.

Chomsky said we ought to refer to the October Revolution as a coup instigated by Lenin to gain power. At the time I saw that talk, I was surprised, having not known much more than what was described in Hill’s book. Having considered why Hill’s account of the Revolution’s downfall was so mild, it is rather simple to understand. His focus in the book was Lenin – what Lenin did, wrote, and thought. Chomsky points out that Lenin’s work (which I haven’t had a chance to read but should) changes character in 1917 to, as described above, match with popular sentiment.

Lenin commandeered many of the ideas that others proposed to increase him own popularity. He was an opportunist that took advantage of the Revolution for his own purposes, and once he had achieved control as a dictator, he very quickly began to crush everything opposed to Bolshevik rule – including the anarchists, or simply anyone who did not agree with State power and rule. Berkman quotes a friend of his who said, “They [the Bolsheviki] are not against the big stick; they only want to be on the right end of it.”

Hill, centring on Lenin in as few pages as there were, did not (in my memory) mention the anarchist movements or any of those whose ideas Lenin stole from. From the perspective of Lenin, of course “reforms” and what was called “war communism” was justifiable – because he was accountable to no one, while everyone else was dictated to by him. Of course he perceived the Revolution as something that didn’t quite work, because he knowingly thwarted it by inserting the Bolsheviki as the dominant and only power in Russia.

So yes, Lenin was in no way a true revolutionary – he was a dictator. Which obviously did not do good things for the words socialism and communism, as we see many “right-wing” commentators saying. A notable one is Jordan Peterson, who points to Lenin and Stalin as the ultimate evil, as the reality of Marxism and leftist thought and consequences. While Peterson may know his history regarding the brutality of Lenin and Stalin, he and many others, along with their audiences, clearly do not understand what socialism, communism, or anarchism meant to the masses at the time. State power, especially in anarchist circles, is most certainly seen as an antagonistic entity. That’s not even to say the State can’t have a place in some respects, but if the State power is a dictatorship or a single party without opposition, then it must be opposed.

Perterson and his lot don’t consider that and swing the other way, dismissing socialism and the rest as failed – they can’t see the world without the State, without hierarchies or authority. As a result, they have some misconceptions about certain ideas, even if they are technically correct in their opposition to Lenin.

So, regarding my previous pieces: no, I will not be taking them down or editing them in any way – I’ve even linked to them here. I’m not going to hide what I wrote previously, because at the time it is what I thought and believed. I want this site to not only be a collection of my writing, but a roadmap of my growing knowledge and understanding. I am more than happy to be wrong, or to consider things in a different light. There are, no doubt, a number of contradictions or hypocrisies one could find if they scoured the site for long enough.

It’s been little over a year since I began writing here, which technically isn’t too long overall. But when you consider the fact that I look at me from yesterday and think he was an ignorant fool, that is hundreds of days spent trying to further my knowledge and understanding at least in some way each waking moment. As I learn more, of course some of my older pieces will seem contradictory, incomplete, or half-arsed.

My relatively neutral stance on Lenin is one such change. At the time, based on the information I had on hand, the two posts I had were good, and even now there are still some things I agree with Lenin on. Ironically, one of them is Lenin’s note that imperialist nations cannot truly become socialist or free because they themselves are the oppressors. Using his own logic here, Russia could never become truly socialist or free because the Bolsheviks were violent oppressors. Lenin was right – his own deeds prove it.

Overall, however, my opinion of him isn’t one of neutrality and “well, at least he tried”, it’s one of contempt. Knowing more about what he actually did in 1917 and beyond, he certainly did try, and succeeded brilliantly – to the detriment of Russia and liberty. There is also the chance my opinion may change again, or become more nuanced, should I read more about him in the future.

The lessons to learn here are:

  • Always read and learn more.
  • Reflect on your past work, including past reflections for bonus points.
  • Lenin was an arsehole dictator, the Communist Party was an oppressive State authority, but those who believe in true liberty oppose that entirely.

 

Referenced pieces:

Part one, on Lenin and the concept of revolution, is HERE.

Part two, discussing nationalism and imperialism, can be read HERE.

 

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