1924 - Lenin's legacy

History offers us few examples of irreplaceable persons, but Lenin must unquestionably be counted among those few. Nothing could be more grotesque than the statement of The Times the other day, that he was "a rather commonplace man".

There was not anything, it is true, of extraordinary interest about his early life. In his youth he rebelled like many of his fellow nobles against the tyranny of Tsarism. He was an exile in Siberia and in Switzerland; he devoted himself to the study of Socialist economics and political methods, and to the more or less normal work of revolutionary organisation. But his mind was never commonplace and when his opportunity came in 1917 he seized it quickly and confidently. In an instant he was dominating his colleagues, and before long was dominating millions who had never before heard of him.

He picked up the broken pieces of Russia and moulded them with daring skill into a new and strange whole. He made mistakes, he committed crimes, and it still remains to be seen how much of his work will be permanent. But in his five years of masterful experiment, he impressed himself on every dispassionate and intelligent observer as incomparably the greatest figure thrown up by the War.

Lenin was, of course, a fanatic. He had the qualities, good and bad, that are generally found in the great fanatic. He was sincere and narrow, despising many things that most of us set store by - ease, display, religion, art, liberty. He was steeped in Marxian theory (but with a dash of Bakunin's thought) and he was set resolutely on applying his theory to men - or, to put it more accurately, on making men fit his theory.

Yet he was never the slave of the doctrine. He interpreted Marx as Marx would not have interpreted himself, so as to bring himself into violent conflict with "orthodox" champions like Kautsky. Moreover, idealist though he was, he was no romantic. His sense of realities told him how far he could safely go, or, if he had gone beyond the bounds of safety, how to draw back. He had patience as well as audacity. He was unscrupulous in the means he took to win his ends. Cunning, defiance, frankness, reasonableness were all weapons which he could handle as the occasion required. He was cold and ruthless, and sometimes, perhaps, he showed the wanton cruelty of the Oriental, though it is ludicrous to depict him as a monster with a natural love for the smell of blood. In the day of the "Red Terror", his influence - in so far as he exercised it, which was not far enough - was consistently on the side of clemency.

He was an arch-schemer, planning his way to his goal, but little diverted by the personal weaknesses that have so often proved stumbling blocks to revolutionary leaders. His chief weakness lay in his intolerance of those who disagreed with him or whom he did not understand - and they were many. Yet that weakness was also in one sense his strength, for it kept him firm in his purpose. His purpose in its entirety - a world revolution which should overthrow capitalism in every country - was only the stuff of a dream. But that part of the purpose, which consisted in regenerating Russia and making her the leader in revolutionary thought and the pattern of a developing Socialist state, was not unattainable.

Lenin's achievement, indeed, has stopped far short of his hopes, and much of what he has done will presently crumble. But he has laid foundations that will stand. He has pushed Russia out of the Middle Ages into the modern world. He has broken not merely the aristocrat and the landlord, but the systems in which their dominance was rooted. He has made the Russian people into a nation, with a new outlook on the world. It is a nation which as yet but dimly understands either itself or the world. But it knows that it has vigour and self-confidence and immense untapped resources, and we know that it is going to be greater among the Great Powers than the rotten empire out of which it has sprung.

This Russia, poverty-stricken but proud, weary but pugnacious, ignorant but learning fast, struggling to adjust itself to new opportunities, to strange forms of government and half-baked experiments in Socialism - this is Lenin's legacy.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery