Lenin the dictator?

One of the standard, ‘textbook’ positions on Lenin is that he was a dictatorial centrist, suspicious of workers, keeping them out of the core of the Social-Democratic party, favouring intellectuals and so on. From where does this image come? You will find it in Menshevik literature of the time, as well as the work of Trotsky, Kautsky and above all Rosa Luxemburg. In her ‘Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy‘, a full-blooded reply to Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, she writes:

Ultracentralist tendency … the Central Committee is the only active nucleus in the party and all the remaining organisations are merely its tools for implementation … absolute blind submission of the individual organs of the party to their central authority … mechanical submission of the party’s militants to their central authority … a central authority that alone thinks, acts and decides for everyone … the lack of will and thought in a mass of flesh with many arms and legs moving mechanically to the baton … zombie-like obedience … absolute power and authority of a negative kind … sterile spirit of the night watchman … strict despotic centralism … the strait-jacket of a bureaucratic centralism that reduces the militant workers to a docile intrument of the committee … an all-knowing and ubiquitous Central Committee.

Given Luxemburg’s authority in some circles, this description has been taken as both the gospel truth and prophecy of what was to come. But is it true? For Lars Lih, it is ‘baseless nonsense’ and a collection of ‘fantasies’ (Lenin Rediscovered, pp. 529 and 551). Why? Luzemburg cites no texts in her argument, hasn’t done her homework and actually read anything, and has responded to Menshevik urgings in the bitter polemic after the Second Congress when the Bolshevik-Menshevik split first arose. However, a close look at the documents of the time (most of them in the Collected Works) reveals a Lenin who was exceedingly optimistic about worker involvement in the party, a decentralised program that even some Bolsheviks thought too much, and a democratic push that respected the collective decisions of the congresses. It turns out that the Mensheviks – a majority who consciously took on the name of the ‘minority’ first, since it signified in their mind a progressive position – were the centralists, wanting rank-and-file adherence to the intellectual core and disdaining the collective decisions of the congresses.


Anti-futurism, diplomacy and grog: Lenin’s management style

I have one more night of reading Lenin, the last section of volume 45, which is full of telegrams and telephone conversations as Lenin rapidly worked himself to death in the new Soviet state.

First, in response to Lunacharsky’s championing of futurism, Lenin writes:

Comrade Pokrovsky:

Again and again, I request you to help us fight futurism, etc

Could you find some reliable anti-futurists?

CW 45: 139.

On the best form of diplomacy in relation to the British:

I think we should make a strict application of the ‘eye for an eye’ rule to British representatives. Pedantically: treat them just as badly and a little worse.

CW 45: 289.

On shit:

The fact is that our Party suffers terribly from the abominable shit of our administrative apparatus.

CW 45: 143.

And grog – in relation to my discussion of ‘spiritual booze’:

Comrade Kiselyov, Chairman of the Narrow C.P.C.

I wrote you concerning A. P. Smirnov’s memo that I resolutely object to any waste of potatoes on making alcohol, and said that alcohol could and should be made of peat.

Take all measures to accelerate in every way the starting of the experimental plant to make alcohol from peat— the former Givartovsky yeast plant in Moscow.

I strongly object to Smirnov’s proposal that we should pay the peasants in alcohol for their potatoes. If Smirnov insists, let him take the matter to the C.C.

CW 45, p. 324.

Boots, macaroni, new year and kind words: the other side of Lenin

Snippets from volume 44 of the Collected Works.

On boots, from a telegram during the ‘civil’ war in 1919:

Yevestky, Chief of Supplies, Southern Front

During July you were sent a considerable quantity of uniforms and footwear.

Despite this, in all the armies on the Southern Front some units are without boots or clothing.

On pain of being held personally answerable, I order you to take vigorous measures to immediately distribute what has been received among the needy units.

Collected Works, vol. 44, p. 274.

On macaroni, during the same war, now in 1920:

Comrade Basin,

Please convey my thanks to the 30th Regiment of Red Communards of the Turkestan Front for the macaroni and flour, which I have handed over to the children of the city of Moscow.

Collected Works, vol. 44, p. 374

A new year wish:

January 1, 1919

Greetings and New Year salutations to the Communist group. With all my heart I wish that in the new year we shall all commit fewer stupidities than in the old and that the building up of Soviet power, to which the comrades of the Commissariat for Internal Affairs in particular are devoting their labours, will be carried to a successful conclusion.

And some kind words:

I would dearly love to say a lot of kind words to you to make things easier for you.

Collected Works, vol. 43, p. 602.

I should like, if only in a letter, to grip your hand hard, very hard, to express my love and the love of us all for Vera Mikhailovna.

Collected Works, vol. 4, p. 150.

How to deal with bad presses

Comrade Krestinsky,

I think the persons responsible for this waste of expensive paper and printing facilities should be prosecuted, fired, and arrested.

Collected Works, vol 44, p. 426.

Note: the book in question was a pamphlet, called On the Construction of a Special State Paper Mill, published on behalf of Goznak (the Administration of Factories for the Issue of Banknotes). The pamphlet was printed on high-grade paper and its 36 pages had 11 insets on art paper.

Lenin’s marriage advice

In light of the severe travel restrictions imposed on Russian socialists, one of the many women in their number, Sophia Ravich, hit upon a novel plan: marry a Swiss citizen. In reply, Lenin writes in 1917:

Your marriage plan sounds very reasonable to me, and I shall stand (in the C.C.) for 100 frs. being issued to you: 50 frs. in the fist of a lawyer and 50 frs. to a “convenient old man” for marrying you!

No, really!! To have the right of entry both into Germany and into Russia!

Collected Works, vol 43, p. 622

Lenin’s medical advice: sun, sleep and milk

Advice given to a certain Fyodor Nikitich Samoilov, in 1914:

Now – quiet, sunshine, sleep, food. Take care of all this. Do they give you enough to eat?

You should drink more milk. Do you?

You should weigh yourself once a week and make a note of it each time.

You should go and see a local doctor at least once in 10 days, so that he can check the progress of your cure. Have you the doctor’s address? If you haven’t, write to me and I shall find it out for you.

The main thing is sleep (how many hours do you sleep?), sun and food, especially milk.

Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 43, pp. 387-8