Lenin’s political and intellectual biography

Lenin’s biography – both intellectual and political – is, as is well known, a site of ideological struggle. We may delineate at least six less and more persuasive approaches to Lenin’s intellectual-political biography.

1. Lenin was not really a Marxist at all, deriving all of his thought and political perceptions from Chernyshevsky. This position has been argued by Nikolai Valentinov, who was at one time sympathetic but then broke with Lenin(Valentinov 1969 [1954]; 1968 [1953]: 64-76) and in part by Agursky in a curious study (Agursky 1987: 71-80). The latter stretches the material well out of shape to suggest that used Marxism as a cover for Russian (revolutionary) nationalism, while Valentinov attempts to stress Lenin’s ignorance of Marx and that all of Lenin’s ideas came from Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (Chernyshevsky 1989 [1863]). This novel, written in prison, tells the story of a small group of men and women who attempt to create new forms of communal living and work in the midst of tsarist Russia, with all the trails and limits posed by that situation. That this novel was massively influential for the Russian Left is well known, that Lenin read it avidly when he was a young man is also clear, but that he borrowed all of his ideas from it is far-fetched indeed.

2. A more common position is that Lenin was primarily a practical operator, shunning theory, either leaving it to others (Plekhanov) or happy to remain thoroughly unoriginal. Yet he was full of political instinct, able to pinpoint crucial political moments (Wilson 1972: 390; Donald 1993; Zinoviev 1973 [1923]: 44-5; Plamenatz 1975 [1954]: 221, 248)?[1] The problem with this position is that it makes little sense of the repeated insistence by Lenin on the importance of theory (throughout his works (all 45 volumes!)).

3. So we find the obverse position: Lenin was thoroughly impractical, unable to read a situation properly. Instead, he was theoretical and abstract. Although not a common view, put forward by the unaffiliated socialist Sukhanov (Sukhanov 1955 [1922]: 290-2),[2] it has a nice twist: for Lenin was brilliant, persuasive and ended up being invariably correct.

4. A fourth position has been held by a consistent minority from Lenin’s wife, Nadhezda Krupskaya, to the recent work of Lars Lih (Krupskaya 1960 [1930]; Tucker 1987: 39; Lih 2011).[3] This position argues that Lenin was thoroughly consistent and faithful to Marx throughout his life, operating with a grand socialist narrative that moved from the merger of the working class with intellectuals, to the revolution and then to the glorious construction of communism. The problem with this position is not only that it must end with a narrative of disappointment, for Lenin found after the revolution that events did not turn out as expected, but also that it must smooth over the many times Lenin took an unexpected direction.

5. So we find a fifth and very common position, namely, that Lenin was an unprincipled opportunist, a politician of compromise, confused even and throwing aside his convictions whenever needed and moving far from Marxism. In short, he was a politician but no philosopher (Service 1985-95, 2000; Lichtheim 1961: 325-51; Pearson 1975; Plamenatz 1947: 85; Lincoln 1986: 426-53; Agursky 1987: 71-80)[4] Although the proponents of this position do recognise the many shifts in Lenin’s political-intellectual biography, they are usually very unsympathetic to Lenin, arguing that he merely used Marxism as a convenient tool to achieve power, as an abstract means to legitimate all manner of inconsistent political positions, and was perfectly willing to discard it when needed or alter it beyond recognition. This position may be traced back to Menshevik opposition to Lenin in the early 1900s, which was taken up by Luxemburg and Kautsky (without actually reading much Lenin). From there it made its way into Western scholarship.

6. In light of all these possibilities, as well as a thorough reading of all Lenin’s works, the best approach is that Lenin was a principled and theoretically motivated opportunist. This position recognises the many shifts in Lenin’s political and intellectual development, while also identifying a consistent theoretical core. In this light, Lenin constantly reworked his (dialectical) Marxist heritage, burrowing ever deeper into its theoretical nature, in order to make sense of and intervene in ever-changing conjunctures. Those who have taken this position include Neil Harding in his Lenin’s Political Thought, Georg Lukács’s brief but excellent Lenin, Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks Come to Power, a brilliant study by Kouvelakis and even by the first Commissar for Enlightenment after the revolution, Anatoly Lunacharsky (Harding 1996: 5-6; Rabinowitch 2004 [1976]: 168-78; Lukács 1970 [1924]; Lunacharsky 1967; Kouvelakis 2007; Michael-Matsas 2007; Anderson 1995, 2007).

Obviously, the political stakes of such biographical disagreements are high, for they reflect varying perspectives on the Russian Revolution itself, for which ‘Lenin’ then stands as a slogan.


Agursky, Mikhail. 1987. The Third Rome: National Bolshevism in the USSR. Boulder: Westview.

Anderson, Kevin. 1995. Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

———. 2007. The Rediscovery and Persistence of the Dialectic in Philosophy and World Politics. In Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth. edited by S. Budgen, S. Kouvelakis and S. Žižek. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 120-47.

Chamberlin, William Henry. 1987 [1935]. The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, Volume 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chernyshevsky, Nikolai. 1989 [1863]. What Is To Be Done? Translated by M. R. Katz. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Donald, Moira. 1993. Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists, 1900-1924. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Harding, Neil. 1996. Leninism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kouvelakis, Stathis. 2007. Lenin as Reader of Hegel: Hypothesis for a Reading of Lenin’s Notebooks on Hegel’s The Science of Logic. In Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth. edited by S. Budgen, S. Kouvelakis and S. Žižek. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 164-204.

Krupskaya, Nadezhda. 1960 [1930]. Reminiscences of Lenin. New York: International Publishers.

Lichtheim, George. 1961. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lih, Lars T. 2011. Lenin. London: Reaktion Books.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. 1986. Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution 1914-1918. New York: Simon and Schuster.

———. 1989. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Lukács, Georg. 1970 [1924]. Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought. London: NLB.

Lunacharsky, Anatoly Vasilyevich. 1967. Revolutionary Silhouettes. New York: Hill and Wang.

Michael-Matsas, Davas. 2007. Lenin and the Path of Dialectics. In Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth. edited by S. Budgen, S. Kouvelakis and S. Žižek. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 101-19.

Pearson, Michael. 1975. The Sealed Train. New York: G.P. Putnam’s sons.

Plamenatz, John. 1947. What is Communism? London: National News-Letter.

———. 1975 [1954]. German Marxism and Russian Communism. Westport: Greenwood.

Rabinowitch, Alexander. 2004 [1976]. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. Chicago: Haymarket.

Service, Robert. 1985-95. Lenin: A Political Life. 3 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

———. 2000. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sukhanov, Nikolai Nikolayevich. 1955 [1922]. The Russian Revolution 1917. Translated by J. Carmichael. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tucker, Robert. 1987. Political Culture and Leadership in Soviet Russia: From Lenin to Gorbachev. New York: Norton.

Valentinov, Nikolai. 1968 [1953]. Encounters with Lenin. Translated by P. Rosta and B. Pearce. London: Oxford University Press.

———. 1969 [1954]. The Early Years of Lenin. Translated by R. H. W. Theen. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wilson, Edmund. 1972. To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. London: Macmillan.

Zinoviev, Grigorii. 1973 [1923]. History of the Bolshevik Party – A Popular Outline. Translated by R. Chappell. London: New Park.

[1] Plamenatz is a complex case, since he argues that Lenin was an unprincipled opportunist, but that he was also a deluded opportunist who thought he was faithful to Marx while making crucial additions that distorted Marxism (Plamenatz 1975 [1954]: 222), or that he was confused and abandoned Marx when it suited him (Plamenatz 1947: 85), or that Lenin and Russian Marxism were consistently faithful to Marx (Plamenatz
1947: 83).

[2] Although Krupskaya generally adheres to the ‘consistent narrative’ position (number 4), she does note on occasion Lenin’s sheer impracticality. When the news of February 1917 broke, Lenin stayed up all night dreaming up impossible plans to get back home, such as flying a plane over to Russia or obtaining a Swedish passport even though they spoke no Swedish (Krupskaya 1960 [1930]: 337).

[3] Chamberlin offers a minor variation in an unsympathetic biographical sketch, suggesting Lenin was utterly consistent from a class perspective, but that he was not original or intelligent (Chamberlin 1987 [1935]: 134-5).

[4] Pearson bases Lenin’s opportunism on the unfounded assumption (first propounded by conservatives and liberals in Russia in 1917) that the German government, at the direction of the Kaiser, bankrolled the October Revolution. While Agursky also buys into a version of the ‘German gold’ myth (Agursky 1987: 141-57), he twists the position of unprincipled opportunism to argue that Lenin was not really a Marxist at all (position #1). Lincoln’s work is simply dreadful, full of petty bourgeois American moralising (Lincoln 1986, 1989).

6 thoughts on “Lenin’s political and intellectual biography

  1. The materialism book is a pretty bad effort and I know if only one person who has dared to defend it. But in a longer perspective it is a bit of an anomaly, part of a dubious tactical bid to negate Bogdanov’s rising influence on the left. If that was all we had, then I would agree completely, but thankfully we don’t.

    But hey, what better way to spend your holiday than reading lenin…

  2. I would have been with Luna and Bogdanov, but my sense is we would lost the revolution with them …

    There’s a real tension in Lenin’s practice (reflected throughout his texts) between adherence to the party line and vigorous open debate. He was all in favour of both and promoted them both. So the standard western image of him being an inflexible dogmatist really doesn’t hold up. The situation in 1921 operates in two ways: singularity of mind was needed in order to close down the ‘civil’ war (and political party wants a focused rank and file), but do you think that his statement had any real effect? After all, they were Russian communists. It’s clear from the documents that statements like this (and they don’t merely come from 1921) brought in a howl of protest and fostered more disagreement.

  3. A very useful summary of the various positions on Lenin. Mine is a centrist one, lying between 4 and 6 (and I don’t mean 5).

    As for the 1921 “ban” on factions, I agree as to its effectiveness, during Lenin’s lifetime. Yet, the man with the moustache disagreed. He wanted to make it more effective, to put it mildly.

    PS: You should make a correction in the bibliography. While you mention “Lenin’s Political Thought” by Neil Harding in the text, in the bibliography you cite “Leninism” a different book by the same author.
    And finally, may I recommend another book also and that is “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin” by Hal Draper. Since Marx’s views on the DOTP subject interested Lenin extremely, it is useful to confront the arguments presented in that book which concern the evolution of the term DOTP from Marx to the Russian Marxist movement.

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