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

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.