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Living, eating and dreaming revolution

The Soviet state was born in violence and shaped with merciless determination. Lenin played a central role in its creation.

A hundred years after he came to power, Lenin’s is a face that everyone recognises. We all have our impressions of the man: my own include a marble version by the coat racks in a Russian archive where I work in Moscow, and a lump of a statue on the square nearby. In Soviet times, almost all public buildings had a portrait of the leader on display, although when it came to private space a calendar with kittens was what most people preferred.

The Lenin portraits are becoming rarer now – they have been disappearing for almost 30 years – but if you happen to be near Red Square you can still drop in on the man himself. Inside his ugly mausoleum, Lenin is deader than the clumsiest urban bronze. His very suit is dowdy, as if cut for some unloved great-grandparent. The cult that put his statue into every small-town square in Russia has drained the last sparks of humanity. Ostensibly so reverent, it turned its hero into a wax doll. His lips no longer moved, of course, but Stalin reduced him to a prop, a grotesque ventriloquist’s puppet.

Intrigued by this historic conjuring trick, I resolved to find out about the real man. My search began on a spring afternoon in the old part of Zurich, Lenin’s final European home. When he left it, in April 1917, he ceased to be an illegal conspirator, another exiled Russian in scuffed boots and bat-like coat. Accompanied by his wife, his ex-lover and an assortment of supporters, he strode through Zurich Central Station and embarked on the most momentous rail journey in history, the ride that took him on to Russia and his future as the world’s first Soviet head of state. But he started out from a European city and he always saw the continent as his political home.

Another trick the Soviet ventriloquists pulled off was to turn Lenin into their exclusive property, a Russian figure towering above the outside world. The man would never have agreed. He revered Germany and German intellectuals; he admired Europe’s cultural and economic successes. He even learned his rhetoric by watching Sunday speakers in Hyde Park. Walking round Zurich, I could not forget that he was largely made in Europe, part of a pan-Continental socialist movement whose heyday ended with the First World War. Whatever happened later, he always saw his revolution as European, even global.

Lenin loved Switzerland: he liked the mountains and the bracing walks, and he did not mind about the food. As other parts of Europe shut their doors to foreigners, Switzerland became his haven, a place where he could work and talk. Above all, he enjoyed its libraries. His favourite, beside the medieval Predigerkirche, still looks as it did when he worked there. Although he lived five minutes’ walk away (in cramped and airless rooms above a sausage factory), it was here that he passed some of his happiest hours. He was sure to be waiting outside when the doors opened each morning, ­eager to claim his customary desk and line up his pre-sharpened arsenal of pencils.

That Zurich library was the place where, in 1916, Lenin completed his extended essay “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, a work that helped to justify his revolution the following year. The research for it was prodigious. In a few months, he read 148 books and 232 articles in English, French and German, including works by Aristotle and Hegel. In a different age, he might have lost himself in books; he would have made a formidable headmaster.

The Soviets exaggerated Lenin’s so-called genius, but he was certainly tenacious and quick. What he was missing was the gene for self-doubt and humility. The man’s arrogance left others panting in his wake. Years earlier, in his student days (when he was balding fast), friends used to joke among themselves that he had such a big brain that it was pushing his hair out.

The baldness became a defining feature, but what Lenin’s acquaintances in Zurich remembered was a small and energetic man: informal, quick to crack a joke. He was a good listener, too, which is surprising in a character more usually associated with dictatorship. When Russian exiles came to Switzerland he was always keen to question them, to know each secret of their lives and thoughts. He listened to Swiss workers, too, and took an interest in the minutiae of local industrial production. A new arrival might be made to perch on one of Lenin’s battered chairs and detail every aspect of his work. But everyone was also catechised about the revolution and the working class.

Lenin lived entirely for the cause he served and expected his followers to do the same. Whatever else helped him to power, that single-mindedness was critical. “Lenin is the only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation 24 hours a day,” a fellow exile wrote of him, “who has no thoughts but of revolution, and who even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution.”

The wartime debate among socialists in Europe is largely a forgotten one. Soviet propagandists ensured that Lenin would appear to dominate, as confident as any prophet with his eyes fixed on the way ahead. But the reality was more confused, and even Lenin sometimes worried that his destiny was falling behind schedule. Just days before the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, he told Swiss workers that he feared he might never live to see the revolution he was working for. At such times, he put his faith in the idea that life must constantly improve, accepting Marx’s view of History (with a capital H) in the same breath as Darwin’s natural selection or human technological progress. Capitalism was wrong, imperialism was worse, and therefore working people must eventually defeat both threats and liberate themselves. Lenin was never fatalistic – he was obsessed with action and leadership – but whenever the machinery of revolution stalled he was sustained by that logical certainty.

In Zurich, I was struck by the absurdity of it. The mere idea of progress was becoming obsolete in 1917. For evidence, you need do nothing more than stroll from Lenin’s quarters to the Cabaret Voltaire, which still stands on the bottom corner of his street. When he was living up the hill, this was the home of Dada, the wartime movement that rejected order, reason and virtuous self-improvement. Even as Lenin was proclaiming Soviet power, there was something quaint, even old-fashioned, in the idea that human beings could perfect their world.

However innovative early Soviet culture proved, attracting artists from across the world, I suspect that at its heart there was a measure of nostalgia. The First World War blew great holes in the dream of human perfectibility. Soviet fantasies were attractive precisely because they offered to patch those up, to make things better, get us all back on our feet.

But revolutions need more than beautiful ideas. The Soviet state was born in violence and shaped with merciless determination. Lenin played a central role in its creation. In some ways its eventual character – anarchic provincialism cropped and stretched to fit a template as unkind as the mythical Procrustean bed – remains the best guide to the inner workings of the man. He was ever labouring, crushing himself as well as history to fit a shape. But no biographer is satisfied with that. Yearning to look beyond the politics, each seeks to turn the leader into someone like ourselves.

***

His sex life is a favoured starting point, but the reality of that was dull. Lenin met his future wife when he was 24 and remained with her (more or less) until he died. Nadezhda Krupskaya was serious, loyal and committed; she made a perfect consort for this gifted and difficult man. The only other woman in the case was a well-to-do mother-of-four, Inessa Armand, with whom Lenin had a brief physical affair. Instead of engaging in torrid rows with his wife, however, Armand befriended her. The pair would sit and mend the leader’s clothes. They also shared the burdens of their man’s unending party work: the ­letter-writing and accounts, the maintenance of international contacts. Lenin was an exile and a socialist, but somehow he missed out on all the absinthe and late-night cigarettes.

It bears repeating that Lenin’s priorities were exclusively political. He chose his friends for their commitment and broke with almost all of them on points of principle. He was the first to suffer from his own relentless discipline, giving up pleasures such as chess and music because they distracted him. Even the hiking that he loved was designed to maintain his fitness for the day when revolution came.

Abjuring sentimental pacifism, he carved out a position on the far left of the European anti-war socialist movement, enjoining the working class to turn its weapons on the rich. His message was bloodthirsty even by wartime standards, but his tenacity got him noticed. In April 1917, when officials at the German foreign ministry were looking for someone to destabilise the Russian empire and destroy its capacity to fight, Lenin’s was the name that topped the list. It was the German government that got him home and German gold that helped finance his subsequent campaign.

In Russia’s capital, Petrograd, the revolution was already two months old. Lenin was not the first exile to come home to brass bands and popular applause. A few weeks previously, the Georgian socialist Irakli Tsereteli had arrived from Siberia and immediately assumed a prominent role in the directly elected Petrograd soviet. Three days before Lenin, the grand old man of Russian Marxism, Georgy Plekhanov, had arrived at the Finland Station to a hero’s welcome. The crowds turned out for other liberated exiles, too, including the well-known Bolshevik Lev Kamenev and a louche young man called Joseph Stalin. In the chaos of springtime Petrograd, each made some impact on the revolutionary cause, but none had the volcanic force of Lenin. He stepped off the train from Finland, after eight days of relentless tension, at 11.10pm on Easter Monday. His feet had barely touched the ground before he began his first great speech. His words were shocking, electric and terrifying.

Lenin’s secret was simple: he would give shape to Petrograd’s inchoate disappointment, bringing new focus to the people’s anger, fear and hope. But that first night his audience thought he was mad. He dismissed any thought that democratic Russia had been coping splendidly without him. This went against the grain for some; at the point when he returned, the revolutionary government was moving towards agreement on the conduct of the war, a painful process that involved calming the fears of Russia’s allies (Britain and France) and indicating how liberties should not be taken by its enemies (Germany and ­Austria-Hungary). In thrashing out this policy, Petrograd’s ill-assorted leadership had begun to coalesce: the businessmen with monocles, the professors and lawyers, the writers and the whey-faced former exiles of the left. There were dissenters on all sides, including left-wing members of Lenin’s faction, but the majority saw merit, even hope, in fragile unity. In his first breath in Petrograd, Lenin savaged the lot of them.

He told his listeners that workers had no interest in the capitalists’ war. The people should be armed, but their opponents were the bourgeoisie – the landowners and businessmen – not German proletarians. Lenin also insisted that his party should stop co-operating with the representatives of the old bourgeoisie, the men in suits who still sat in the government. Only the soviets, he said, could speak and act for workers as the next stage of the revolution dawned.

Within three months this clarity, which looked insane on that first night, became his party’s greatest strength. But Lenin’s very popularity turned him into a political target. In July 1917, accused of treason in connection with that fabled German gold, he fled to Finland in fear for his life.

Once there, he pondered the bleak news from Petrograd. The war was going badly for Russia. The tsar might no longer be in charge, but nothing else in the army had changed for the better. As the summer wore on, desertions ran to tens of thousands and regimental discipline collapsed. Meanwhile, the pressure on production workers, especially those in the armaments and transport industries, grew ever more intolerable, while prices rose and food supplies remained erratic. Strikes once again left factories at a standstill, but the left-liberal government had no convincing answers. Even some socialists, in so far as they remained committed to defensive war, appeared to share responsibility for the mounting hardship, rage and fear. Only one party stood out from the rest, the one that had been calling for an end to fighting all along, the one that promised workers their time had come.

***

Lenin had won that argument, but he remained cautious. State power in a tormented Russia was a prize few cared to win. From July to early September, the leader urged compromise and creative delay. But something changed in mid-September. In his borrowed Finnish dacha, Lenin may have heard that the provisional government was at last considering peace talks with Germany, a development that might eliminate his party’s obvious political edge. Drawing on ideas that he had explored back in Zurich, he may have thought the time was right for a European revolution that Russia had a duty to lead. Whatever the reason, he started calling for an armed uprising. His letters even outlined the strategic moves. Once again, his followers were horrified. As he had done when he reshaped his party’s policy in April, Lenin faced the task of convincing them.

It was a job that called for all his bullet-proof self-confidence. With the government cracking down on dissent, even the journey back to Petrograd was risky. Disguised in a wig, Lenin arrived in such secrecy that he surprised his own lieutenants. Two weeks before his celebrated coup, he was a beardless refugee, hammering a suburban table as his comrades sat and stared. But the speeches that he gave that October were among the best he ever made. He did not view his revolution as a local matter, nor merely as a power-grab. In Zurich, he had come to see his country as the weakest link in the chain of global imperialism, the link whose rupture would begin the liberation of the world. If lost, this moment might not come again. As he put it to a midnight meeting in a borrowed room way out of town: “History will not forgive us if we do not take power now!”

This is the Lenin everybody knows, the one in all the portraits. He strides towards the future or he rages at the crowd, but everything he does is right and he can be relied upon to know the way ahead.

In fact, the coup in late October that overthrew Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government was a disputed affair: to the end, some of Lenin’s comrades urged a democratic deal and power-sharing. Then came the details, practical and gritty, which Lenin trusted to a group of stalwarts working round the clock. He provided the leadership – he never seemed to tire in those first critical weeks – but he relied on Leon Trotsky and his armed detachments of Petrograd workers, on members of the Baltic fleet, on his Latvian guards. In the provinces, where his revolution encountered early resistance, the comrades clung on through sheer energy. The Bolsheviks’ hour might have come, but none of Russia’s problems had been solved.

It took arrogance to hold the line throughout the civil war. As Russia tore itself apart, Lenin proved as obstinate as he was merciless. He could order the deaths of tens of thousands – terror became a propaganda tool – and he encouraged class-based hate without compunction. Yet all this was his duty, not some sadistic rampage. Tight-lipped and sober, always with a pen to hand, he never ventured to appear in military uniform. He took no joy in bloodshed, never witnessed executions. There was no white horse for this man to ride, nor did he tour the front lines of his own long war. As flies swarmed on the corpses in the streets and other people’s libraries were burned for fuel, he worked an 18-hour day and never grudged the paperwork.

His authority was legendary. At his new office in Moscow in the Kremlin, Lenin was the ultimate arbiter, the indispensable voice of the future. There was no proper challenger. But that was also his final problem, because it meant there could never be an heir. However loftily he towered over politics, the private Lenin knew that he had failed. He had seized power for the world, but even Europe let him down. In Germany and then Italy and central Europe, the spark of revolution flickered briefly and died. Soviet Russia was becalmed in a sea of hostile capitalist powers, unable to proceed with its global communist mission. Lenin died in January 1924. His revolution had not brought about the future he had planned for it.

At the end of my journey, the biggest surprise is not the monstrosity of Lenin’s vision (we are all familiar with that) but the sentimental clutter in which he lived. His apartment in a respectable part of Petrograd, where he spent three months in the spring of 1917, returning every night from late-running meetings at the headquarters of his party’s paper, Pravda, does not reflect futurism or the glories of a communist new world – the rooms could have been designed for characters out of Dickens. Every cushion and pillowcase is edged with fancy needlework, each surface crowded with knick-knacks. Lenin may have changed the course of history, but his imagination stopped at beaded lampshades and a matching shaving set. The effect is suffocating, yet it was this gentility for which so many died.

Imprisoned in a sanitorium by his final stroke, Lenin must have pictured these old rooms, revisiting the wooden clock, the copper bath, his mother’s framed studio photograph. That embalmed corpse is very dead; the horror is all here.

Catherine Merridale is the author of “Lenin on the Train” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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