Volume 30 of Lenin’s Collected Works: what a read it has been so far! At one level, it is an extraordinary narrative that draws you in, giving you the proverbial never-ending book. At another level, it has blown away many caricatures and preconceptions concerning Lenin. One would have to be the sectarian Lenin, brooking no rival and eliminating them at the slightest provocation. Not at all, Lenin struggles between what I call ecumenism and sectarianism, voicing now one, now the other position – so I will need to call on a complex dialectic to deal with it all.
However, the best find of late is the lice. Lice!? Not on me, mind you.
Let me set the scene. It is late 1919, two years after the revolution. The place has faced six years of perpetual war, first in WWI and then in the ‘civil’ war. Of course it wasn’t ‘civil’ at all: the British, French, Americans, Canadians, Japanese et al thought they could topple the fledgling and weakened communist republic. They failed, so they sent arms, money, supplies and troops to old guard generals in the north, south, east and west – Kolchak, Yudenich, Denikin, Churchill et al (Churchill predicted he would have Moscow by Christmas of 1918). The lesson: any socialist state that wants to delink from the global capitalist system will be attacked, brutally and consistently, dubbed ‘terrorist’, a threat to civilisation, un-democratic, dictatorial and so on and on. It will also need to make sure it is well protected – the necessary evil of what is called ‘war communism’.
But defeat the lot of them the Soviets did. So by the end of the 1919, they can finally turn to reconstruction. Three key issues have been dogging them: food, since the blockade had attempted to starve the Russians; fuel, since the same enemies had grabbed the coalfields and tried to freeze them to death. Pecisely on these issues does the question of the transition from old to new turn: how do you construct a completely different system of production, distribution and consumption in the midst of the old system.
But what about the lice? They are the third key issue for the tension between old and new. Here is Lenin at the seventh congress of Soviets in December 1919:
Comrades, we must concentrate everything on this problem. Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice! (Collected Works, Vol. 30, p. 228)
Why lice? Easy: they spread typhus. Typhus was sweeping through a hungry, cold but increasingly victorious Red Army and population. The outcome is now history, albeit less known than it should: socialism did defeat the lice, or at least those lice.
No wonder Lenin could proclaim, ‘it really is a miracle!’