How to end a letter: Lenin vs Stalin

Lenin of the acerbic pen certainly knew how to end a letter, but has he met his match with Stalin?

Here’s Lenin:

I cannot share your regret at not having met. After your tricks and your conniving attitude, I do not wish to have anything to do with you except in a purely official way, and only in writing.

And Stalin’s epistolary conclusion:

One must possess the effrontery of an ignoramus and the self-complacency of a narrow-minded equilibrist to turn things upside-down so discourteously as you do … I think the time has come to stop corresponding with you.

Perhaps it is worth pointing out that the letters were not written to one another.

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What is the proper role of reform?

One might expect that Lenin would opt clearly for revolution over against reform, for an abolition of the current system over against tinkering with it in order to make life more bearable. A selective reading of Lenin’s texts can give this impression. Reform is thereby described as a “tinkering with washbasins” (characteristic of the Zemstvos), that is, introducing reliable water supply, electric trains, lighting, and other “developments” that do not threaten the foundations of the “existing social system” (CW 10: 189; LPSS 12: 263). Such reform may therefore be seen as a response by the bourgeoisie to the strength of the working class, attempting to steer the workers away from revolution by emphasizing reform. Even more, reformism is “bourgeois deception of the workers,” who will always remain wage-slaves as long as capital dominates: “The liberal bourgeoisie grant reforms with one hand, and with the other always take them back, reduce them to nought, use them to enslave the workers, to divide them into separate groups and perpetuate wage-slavery” (CW 19: 372; LPSS 24: 1). In other words, reform is a bourgeois weapon designed to weaken the working class. Yet, should the foundations of the system be threatened, when the proletariat begins its own onslaught of that system, all the various dimensions of “tinkering with washbasins” will be abolished before we can slip out a fart.

It follows that those socialists who see the prime task at hand to be reform miss the elephant in the room, for they wish to alleviate the conditions under which they work and do not realize that the problem lies in those conditions themselves (CW 5: 387; LPSS 6: 42; CW 10: 378–80; LPSS 13: 62–64). As Lenin observes in relation to debates, especially with the Mensheviks, over voting in the Duma elections, the danger is not whether some conservative party or other will win the elections, by fair means or foul, but in the very elections themselves: the danger “is manifested not in the voting, but in the definition of the conditions of voting” (CW 11: 459; LPSS 14: 277–78). One should never rest with what is given, but work to change that given. And the reason is that by fighting on the ground chosen by the enemy, reformists strengthen the power of their enemy.

What, then, is the function of reform? Is it to be dismissed entirely as a bourgeois deception and as a socialist compromise with the status quo? Contrary to initial impressions, Lenin does see a clear role for reform. In a daring formulation that is based on revolutionary experience, he argues that the opposition of revolution and reform is itself false. One cannot have either one or the other; instead, the condition for reform is revolution itself. Without any revolutionary agitation, reform would simply not exist: “either revolutionary class struggle, of which reforms are always a by-product … or no reforms at all” (CW 23: 213; LPSS 30: 282). In this light, reforms may be understood as temporary reconciliation with a partial victory or even failure in which the old system has been shaken but has not yet collapsed (CW 11: 30-31; LPSS 13: 221). More importantly, reform becomes a central feature of revolutionary agitation, a means of raising the consciousness of workers and peasants, a way of both alleviating conditions in the intermediate period and of pointing out that those conditions are the problem. In this way, workers will see through the false promises of reformism and utilize reforms to strengthen their class struggle. Or, to put it simply, as Lenin recommends to public speakers and the Social-Democratic Duma representatives, “five minutes of every half-hour speech are devoted to reforms and twenty-five minutes to the coming revolution” (CW 23: 159; LPSS 30: 221).

Lenin the Nudist

A lesser known aspect of the Russian Revolution is the flourishing of … nudism. After the revolution, the famous actress, Ida Rubenstein, played naked on stage. The poet Goldschmidt would appear naked on the streets. A movement called ‘Down with shame’ would walk the streets in Soviet cities, catch trams, go about their daily lives wearing nothing but a red sash over their shoulders. A White Army newspaper joked in 1919 that the price of suits must have skyrocketed, since so many people were going around naked. At international nudist conferences in the 1920s, the Soviet delegates far outnumbered those from other countries. Over the summers, rivers, beaches and lakes witnessed millions of old people, children, families, singles in the prime of their life gathered to play games, picnic or enjoy the sun – all naked.

How did it begin? It appears that during his long exile before the Revolution, Lenin visited a nudist beach in Austria and was favourably impressed. It was not so much the naked bodies everywhere, but the emphasis on healthy living. Given that Lenin was – as many noted – a muscular man with a love of outdoor activities, nudism was a natural extension of that passion. Soon enough both he and Krupskaya were regularly tossing their clothes in a corner and diving into the nearest river, lake or sea completely starkers. I’m not sure whether they also hiked and rode their bicycles naked (ice-skating might be a little tricky), but in this light one of Lenin’s favoured phrases, ‘tearing off the fig-leaf’, takes on a whole new meaning.

As do regular observations in the letters concerning swimming. For instance, Krupskaya writes about their stay at Pornic in France in the summer of 1910, ‘He went sea-bathing a lot, cycled a good deal – he loved the sea and the sea breezes – chatted gaily with the Kostitsins on everything under the sun’. Of course, one can enjoy the breeze much more when naked, even while chatting away with all and sundry. It mattered not where they were, for they would swim naked – in Longjumeau or in Pornic on the French coast, or in Stjernsund in Sweden, or in swimming pools in Munich, or in Poronino or in the Vistula River in Krakow. Nor were they alone, for other Bolsheviks were also given to stripping down whenever possible, among them Anatoly Lunacharsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Alexander Bogdanov.

After his return to Russia in 1917, Lenin bemoaned the fact that people still gathered in summer and swam in costumes, so he asked why they couldn’t do so without clothes: ‘We have much work to do for new forms of life, simplified and free’, he observed.

Why? As one of those early communist nudists observed, ‘In nudity class distinctions disappear. Workers, peasants, office workers are suddenly just people’. An image of a classless society, perhaps.

Lenin addressing a nudist convention in the Kremlin.

Lenin’s approach to writing

Marx, for one, would pace up and down the room. Paul Lafargue notes that Marx would rest by doing so, while Henry Hyndman observes: ‘Marx had a habit when at all interested in the discussion of walking actively up and down the room, as if he were pacing the deck of a schooner for exercise’. Engels had the same habit. Imagine the scene, especially after Engels managed to escape the ‘huckstering’ of the family firm in Manchester: Marx would pace in one direction, puffing on a cigarette, Engels would pace parallel to Marx but in the opposite direction, puffing on a pipe, while both would engage in animated discussion.

As for Lenin, Krupskaya notes: ‘When writing, he would usually pace swiftly up and down the room, whispering what he was going to write’. Then he would leap into the seat at his desk and rapidly write down what he had just whispered to himself. 45 volumes of Collected Worksthat’s a lot of whispering.

Lenin’s utopian moment

Our grandchildren will examine the documents and other relics of the epoch of the capitalist system with amazement. It will be difficult for them to picture to themselves how the trade in articles of primary necessity could remain in private hands, how factories could belong to individuals, how some men could exploit others, how it was possible for those who did not work to exist.

Lenin, Collected Works, volume 29, p. 330

The Lenin Letter Template

At last, the full version of the Lenin letter template, using only phrases and sentences from the man’s own letters:

Dear …,

I am writing under the fresh impression of your letter, which I have just read. Although you have resented my previous missives, I shall try to be mild and kind.

I know of no task more fatiguing, more thankless and more disgusting than to have to wade through this filth. Yet your senseless twaddle is so exasperating that I am unable to suppress the desire to state my opinion frankly.

You propose that we should [fill in proposal here, such as:] collaborate with magniloquent liberal windbags, that we should philander with reaction. Strictly speaking, this proposal is too ludicrous to merit serious consideration, the product of either a charlatan or an absolute blockhead. The only answer can be a bitter laugh. You may couch it in pompous, high-blown phrases, but it is really befouled and spattered with shit. All your talk about freedom and democracy is sheer claptrap, parrot phrases, the product of mean-spirited boors, and your education, culture, and enlightenment are only a species of thoroughgoing prostitution. It is a ridiculous and puerile attempt to be clever.

You either cannot think logically, or you are a liberal hypocrite, wriggling like the devil at mass. May I make one suggestion, as difficult as it may seem: scrape off all this green mould of intellectualist opportunism.

Yours,

P.S. I cannot share your regret at not having met. After your tricks and your conniving attitude, I do not wish to have anything to do with you except in a purely official way, and only in writing.

Cecil Rhodes: Colonialism as a way to forestall social revolution

In 1895 Cecil Rhodes opined as follows:

I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘bread! bread!’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…. My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.

(quoted by Lenin, Collected Works, volume 21, pp. 256-7)

Lenin in Russian folktales

Concerning the veneration of Lenin, it is clear that the wave of popular veneration was both spontaneous and widespread. The government realised what was going on and thought ‘what do we do?’ Publish them at least, and then try to channel them in useful directions. Here’s one, from Orenburg:

The tsar was informed by one of his leading generals that there was someone, ‘of unknown rank, without a passport, who goes by the name of Lenin’. This person was threatening to entice the tsar’s soldiers to his side with one word, and then grind into ashes the commanders, generals, officers, even the tsar himself, and throw them into the wind. The tsar grew afraid and decided to do anything he could to prevent Lenin saying the word. So he made contact with Lenin, offering to divide the country in half. Lenin agreed to the proposal, but with one condition: the tsar must take the ‘white’ half, that is, the generals and officers and wealthy people, while Lenin would take the ‘black’ half, the workers, peasants and soldiers. The tsar couldn’t believe his good fortune in keeping all that mattered to him, so he quickly agreed. But to his dismay, he realised soon enough that Lenin had tricked him. His officers had no soldiers to lead, the rich people had no workers, the tsar had no people to make the country run. So the white part under the tsar went to war with Lenin’s black part, in order to win the latter back. But the white was unable to survive for long. So it was that Lenin took the country away from the tsar.

Revolution teaches

Apart from the revolution being a miracle, Lenin also describes it as a teacher:

A bad doctrine is splendidly rectified by a good revolution.

Life goes its own way, revolution teaches, taking in hand and shaking up the most inveterate pedants.

Experience in the struggle enlightens more rapidly and more profoundly than years of propaganda under other circumstances.

In a revolutionary epoch like the present, all theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the Party are most ruthlessly criticised by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity.

Revolution is a good teacher. It forces back on to the revolutionary track those who are continually going astray either from weakness of character or weakness of intellect.

Collected Works, Vol. 9, pp. 202, 203, 351-2, Vol. 10, p. 310, Vol. 12, p. 115.