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By John Helmer, Moscow

What better occasion can there be for a fresh assessment of Vladimir Lenin than  the November day when the Russian Government claims to be celebrating the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612, although most Russians regard the date as the anniversary – the 101st this year – of the start of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

Tariq Ali, a prolific, veteran socialist based in London, has published a book entitled “The Dilemmas of Lenin”. The dilemmas Lenin solved a century ago are spelled out in Ali’s subtitle – terrorism, war, empire, love, revolution. Explicating Lenin’s solutions to those, Ali declares, is necessary to help “those who will come after: the gateway to the future can only be unlocked by the past.”

With one eye on the future and the other on the past, Ali has entirely missed the present. In his attempt to resuscitate Lenin, Ali has fixedly refused to consider Russia now, when the country faces as determined, armed and numerous an encirclement of hostile forces as threatened in Lenin’s time, or since. He has thus missed the particular combination of terrorism, imperial intervention, economic and propaganda war, and revolution which started inside the Russian federation in 1991, and continues in the Ukraine and Syria. Ali’s reason for this blindsidedness is that he has joined the Anglo-American forces in their hatred of Vladimir Putin. Putin, according to Ali, is to be condemned for his antagonism towards Lenin, and his embrace of Stalin.

Lenin repudiated the anti-regime terrorism of the pre-revolutionary period, not because he was in any doubt that political power depends on force, and can only be upturned (revolutionized) by armies, but because terrorism (Ali talking) “simply did not work. It was an inefficient substitute for mass action.  It concentrated on individuals while leaving the system intact.” Terrorists, in Lenin’s words of 1911,   were “liberals with bombs”, reinforcing the tsarist regime instead of toppling it.

Ali’s account of how the collapse of the Russian Army in World War I was a crucial precondition of the Bolshevik seizure of power isn’t new. Nor is Ali uncovering for the first time how luck, tactical innovations, commander performance,  and the Russian peasantry’s preference for the lesser evil in the countryside contributed to Lenin’s victory in the Civil War;  for fresher archive evidence than Ali has examined, read this.   Lenin’s modest retrospective assessment in 1922, following his 50th birthday, is quoted by Ali: “our Party may now find itself in a very dangerous position — the position of a man with a swollen head. It is a very stupid, shameful and ridiculous position. We know that the failure and decline of political parties have very often been preceded by a state of affairs in which a swollen head is possible.”  What party leader dares admit this in Russia (or Europe) today?

Lenin’s resolution of the dilemma of love – his heart for Inessa Armand, his head for Nadezhda  Krupskaya – reveals a discreet but clear record which no Russian political leader since, certainly none today,  has acknowledged. Lenin’s uninhibited progressiveness on woman’s emancipation, cooking, sex and nudity are also included among the dilemmas Ali reports he addressed without coyness.

Inessa Armand died of cholera on September 24, 1920. At her state funeral in Moscow,  Lenin walked alone in the cortege, behind an honour guard of Russian women. Ali quotes an eyewitness close to Lenin. “I never saw such a torment; I never saw any human being  so completely absorbed by sorrow, by the effort to keep it to himself…He seemed to have shrunk; his cap almost covered his face, his eyes drowned in tears held back with effort.”

Nor is Ali’s preference for Mikhail Tukhachevsky as a military strategist and field commander a novel one.   However, that Tukhachevsky was victimized, defamed, then murdered by Joseph Stalin in 1937 doesn’t add up to this judgement of Tukhachevsky above all other Russian commanders, victims as well as survivors of Stalin’s purges: “If any one man was responsible for the eventual field victory of the Red Army over the Wehrmacht, it was, without doubt, him.” Ali’s hypothetical is foolish – no one man was responsible.  For this review of the evidence on Georgy Zhukov and his influence on current Russian war-fighting doctrine, read this.

In explaining how Lenin’s rejection of Marxist theories of preparing revolution led him to practical action, military action, Ali indulges in clichés and tautologies. “In the last instance, the total complex  of the state is always determined by its coercive function. Without this understanding [on Lenin’s part], no revolution is possible. The [Bolshevik] revolution’s triumph over the [tsarist] state is a theme to which Lenin returned during his last years, as he prepared a mental balance sheet of it failures.”

If Lenin was as right about that as Ali concludes, Ali ought to be able to offer a Leninist explanation himself for the revolution which ended the Soviet Union and brought Boris Yeltsin to power between 1989 and 1993. Instead, according to Ali, “out-of-control military spending, foreign adventures in Ethiopia and Afghanistan, attempts to mimic US foreign policy, and a failure to deal with an obsolescence-racked[sic] economy finally brought the system to an end. Nobody in the leadership of the Communist Party or the army had foreseen such a rapid collapse. Lenin himself, as well as [Leon] Trotsky, [Ephraim] Sklyansky, Tukhachevsky and [Marshal Vasily] Blyukher would not have been totally surprised.”

This is the appearance of evidence without the real thing. Ali’s Lenin was much more up to the task than Ali. Lenin would not have missed the transformation of terrorism, “liberals with bombs”, by the US military, the Turks, Saudis, and NATO allies into ground forces for wars of regime change in the Middle East, and around Russia’s frontiers from the Caucasus, through Maidan Square, to the  Baltic coast. The war against terrorism which has engaged the Russian military for the past thirty years is recognizably an anti-imperialist war in Lenin’s terminology, but Ali can’t bring himself to say so. He thus joins the claque of Lenin-haters in the Russian and American media though Ali, echoing Trotsky and Lenin, calls them the “pimps of the bourgeoisie”.

Ali mentions Putin in passing just twice. Once to refer to his refusal to condone Church-led homophobia, and once to quote his refusal to mark the centenary celebration of the Revolution last year with state ceremonies. Ali also implies that Putin endorses the memory of Stalin “largely because of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and partially because his methods of rule are envied by many Russian nationalists today.” These are mistakes. Ali admits he hasn’t been in Russia since 1986, “one of my last visits to old, pre-oligarch Moscow.”

In December 2016 Putin said in his annual address to the Federal Assembly (right): “Next year, 2017, will mark the 100th anniversary of the February and October revolutions. This is a good moment for looking back on the causes and nature of these revolutions in Russia. Not just historians and scholars should do this; Russian society in general needs an objective, honest and deep-reaching analysis of these events. This is our common history and we need to treat it with respect. This is something that the outstanding Russian and Soviet philosopher Alexei Losev wrote about. ‘We know the thorny road our country has travelled,’he wrote. ‘We know the long and tiring years of struggle, want and suffering, but for our homeland’s sons, this is all their native, inalienable heritage.’”

“I am sure that the vast majority of our people have precisely this attitude towards their homeland, and we need history’s lessons primarily for reconciliation and for strengthening the social, political and civil concord that we have managed to achieve. It is unacceptable to drag the grudges, anger and bitterness of the past into our life today, and in pursuit of one’s own political and other interests to speculate on tragedies that concerned practically every family in Russia, no matter what side of the barricades our forebears were on. Let’s remember that we are a single people, a united people, and we have only one Russia.”

Subsequent opinion polls, carried out in 2017 and 2018 by the independent Levada agency, revealed that national sentiment has been growing more favourable towards Lenin with time; 56% positive to 22% negative in April 2017. A year later, in another nationwide Levada survey, roughly the same percentage reported positive sentiment towards Stalin, while the negative sentiment was 44%. In other words, Lenin out-polls Stalin. But Ali’s interpretation is that of the US state media which reported the last Stalin poll as indicating a more or less stable positive rating, but a declining negative rating.


Key: blue=admiration+ respect+ sympathy; green=indifference; red=dislike+fear+disgust; yellow=unformed opinion.
Source: https://www.levada.ru/

It’s also clear that during 2017 Putin and his Kremlin re-election team wanted to avoid the polarization of voters which the Lenin and Stalin issues aroused. Putin said as much publicly. In June he told an American film-maker that Stalin was a “complex figure”, and that he was against “excessive demonization” if that was intended to revive anti-Russian sentiments of the German or American type. “As for his demonization, in English history there was such a figure as Cromwell. He was a bloody man. He came [to power] on a wave of revolutionary transformations, he turned into a dictator and tyrant. His monuments still stand everywhere in the UK. Napoleon is also memorialized. He did what?  He came to power on a wave of revolution and not only restored monarchy, but declared himself Emperor and led France to national catastrophe, to complete defeat. There are more enough such characters, such situations in world history.”

As for attacking Russia by attacking Stalin, “to show that today’s Russia bears some birthmarks of Stalinism — we all carry some birthmarks. So what? [Russia] has changed fundamentally. Of course, in the minds of some, that [birthmark] remains. But this does not mean that we should forget all the horrors of Stalinism associated with concentration camps and the destruction of millions of our compatriots.”

Everyone, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said, “including the president, has the right to have a relationship to the role of this or that personality in the history.” Peskov was defending  Putin after he criticized Lenin for backing the multi-state Soviet Union to allow the members states the right to opt in and out.  That, Putin told a group of scientists, had “laid an atomic bomb under the building which is called Russia, and then it exploded [in 1991].” Putin has also criticized the decision of Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders in March 1918 to sign the Brest-Litovsk treaty ending Russia’s war with Germany.

In parallel, Putin has objected to Church and other public demands for dismantling the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square, and burying Lenin. “Lenin was put in the Mausoleum – how is that different from the relics of saints for the Orthodox”, he said in 2012. In August 2017, he told Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party, “while I’m sitting here, there will be no barbarity on Red Square. ”  By barbarity Putin meant reburial. His rationale was political, not ideological or religious. “As for reburials and other issues of this kind, you know, I think we need to approach this very carefully so as not to take any steps that would divide our society. It is necessary, on the contrary, to rally [the society].  That’s the most important thing.”

In October 1918, as the US landed troops in Russia to try to overthrow Lenin’s government in Moscow, Lenin wrote President Woodrow Wilson in a text Ali quotes. Lenin thanked Wilson for reviving “the Russian counterrevolution that had already become a corpse.”  Is it conceivable for the Kremlin to pursue such a line, even a tweet,  today?  And what does the answer signify for the Kremlin’s prospects for surviving such US intervention today?

Ali’s book reveals he hasn’t the faintest clue. He is not interested in Russia today, nor its future, but in socialism somewhere else and quite a long time later.

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