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.


Lenin’s dream

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 people could exploit others, how it was possible for those who did not work to exist

Lenin ‘Three Speeches Delivered in Red Square, May Day, 1919’ CW 29, 330 // Три речи на Красной площади 1 мая 1919 г. Хроникерские записи. LPSS 38, 325

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).

On the politics of art

When I wonder at the travesty of dumping whole libraries in Eastern Europe after 1989 (worse than the torching of the ancient Library of Alexandria), I remind myself that at least it means I can get them cheaply via second-hand bookshops. All the same, positions that were openly debated have been forgotten, needing reinvention as though they were new discoveries. For instance, here’s Stefan Morawski, from 1965, in a piece called ‘Lenin as a Literary Theorist’:

Absolute freedom of the artist is an illusory freedom. Artistic work is inevitably entangled in the ideological battle. Conscious choice is always better than unconscious commitment. And in our time, there is no possible choice that is more humanistic than alliance with the people struggling for a communist society. What that alliance will be like is another matter. It may be party writing in the sense of the public advocacy of communist ideas; but it may also be an approach to those ideas via categorical criticism of the capitalist system.

Developing these ideas of Lenin’s, we could also say that this alliance may appear in creative work that directly attacks the central problems of ideas of our times, but it may also take the form of active participation in the process of democratization of esthetic culture (e.g., in the sphere of architecture and the applied arts) . The alleged absolute independence of the artist is a fictional freedom; true freedom is every development and extension of esthetic values that are valuable from the point of view of the cultural needs of socialist society. Conscious commitment to the battle for socialism, with varying emotional coefficients and varying intellectual orientation, is always at the same time a battle for artistic de-alienation.

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.

2 Thessalonians: The Difference between Lenin and Conservatives

What is the difference between Lenin and conservatives? The key – believe it or not – lies in the interpretation of a biblical verse, 2 Thessalonians 3: 10:

He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

Let us see how they interpret the text. In a speech from 1999, one Tony Abbott (a forgotten Australian politician) opines, ‘Disincentives to work have been recognised at least since the time of St Paul (who said that those who did not work should not eat)’. The speech itself concerned unemployment and the work-for-the-dole programme. For Abbott, of course, those who do not work are those who are at the bottom of the social heap, the unemployed, the riff-raff, the no-hopers. For conservatives like Abbott, they really don’t want to work and must therefore be given incentives to do so, such as cut their benefits or get them to engage in government-designated slave labour, euphemistically called ‘work-for-the-dole’. By contrast, the owners of capital, the multi-billionaires, work hardest of all, for otherwise how would they have become rich?

As for Lenin, it is precisely the rich capitalists, as well as the bourgeoisie who do no work, for they rely upon the labour of others for their obscene profits. During the famine of 1918, brought about not through a shortage of grain but through the destruction of the transport network by the First World War and the White Armies, Lenin addressed a crowd of workers in Petrograd as follows:

The bourgeoisie are disrupting the fixed prices, they are profiteering in grain, they are making a hundred, two hundred and more rubles’ profit on every pood of grain; they are disrupting the grain monopoly and the proper distribution of grain by resorting to bribery and corruption and by deliberately supporting everything tending to destroy the power of the workers, which is endeavouring to put into effect the prime, basic and root principle of socialism: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’. ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’ – every toiler understands that. Every worker, every poor and even middle peasant, everybody who has suffered need in his lifetime, everybody who has ever lived by his own labour, is in agreement with this. Nine-tenths of the population of Russia are in agreement with this truth. In this simple, elementary and perfectly obvious truth lies the basis of socialism, the indefeasible source of its strength, the indestructible pledge of its final victory (Collected Works, volume 27, pp. 391-2).

It looks like this biblical text may well be a shibboleth between reactionary and revolutionary approaches to the Bible.

As an afterword: this slogan was plastered throughout cities, towns and villages during the dire situation of the ‘civil’ war (1917-23). The Metropolitan Vvedensky, a left-leaning priest and a leader of the Renovationist Church that sought to work with the communists, comments on this slogan in a debate with Anatoly Lunacharsky:

When you say you are for the principle of work, I remind you of the slogan, ‘he who does not work shall not eat’. I have seen this in a number of different cities on revolutionary posters. I am just upset that there was no reference to the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Thessalonians, from where the slogan is taken.

How to think, talk and write

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

How would a German socialist revolution unfold?

In some respects nothing has changed:

History would lead to it in the peaceful, calm, smooth and precise manner of a German express train pulling into a station. A sedate conductor would open the carriage door and announce: “Social Revolution Station! Alle aussteigen! (All change!)”

Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 119