Lenin: a revolution is a miracle

As I begin my central treatment of miracle in Lenin, Religion and Theology, I have a wealth of texts from which to draw, such as these:

After the 1905 revolution:

Revolutions are the locomotives of history, said Marx. Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by the narrow, philistine scale of gradual progress (1905, Collected Works, vol. 9, p. 113).

And then in the famous ‘Letters from Afar’ after the February Revolution of 1917, in which the tsar was overthrown:

The slogan, the “task of the day”, at this moment must be: Workers, you have performed miracles of proletarian heroism, the heroism of the people, in thecivil war against tsarism. You must perform miracles of organisation, organisation of the proletariat and of the whole people, to prepare the way for your victory in the second stage of the revolution (1917, Collected Works, vol. 23, pp. 306-7).

Comrade workers! You performed miracles of proletarian heroism yesterday in overthrowing the tsarist monarchy. In the more or less near future (perhaps even now, as these lines are being written) you will again have to perform the same miracles of heroism to overthrow the rule of the land lords and capitalists, who are waging the imperialist war. You will not achieve durable victory in this next “real” revolution if you do not perform miracles of proletarian organisation! (1917, Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 323).

After the October Revolution and in the face of almost insuperable difficulties:

It is indeed a miracle. Workers, who have suffered unprecedented torments of hunger, cold, economic ruin and devastation, are not only maintaining their cheerful spirit, their entire devotion to Soviet power, all the energy of self-sacrifice and heroism, but also, despite their lack of training and experience, are undertaking the burden of steering the ship of state! And this at a moment when the storm has reached the peak of its fury … The history of our proletarian revolution is full of such miracles (1919, Collected Works, vol. 13, pp. 72-3).

After two years of furious and vicious ‘civil’ war:

The question that primarily comes to mind is: how was it possible for such a miracle to have occurred, for Soviet power to have held out for two years in a backward, mined and war-weary country, in the face of the stubborn struggle waged against it first by German imperialism, which at that time was considered omnipotent, and then by Entente imperialism, which a year ago settled accounts with Germany, had no rivals and lorded it over all the countries on earth? From the point of view of a simple calculation of the forces involved, from the point of view of a military assessment of these forces, it really is a miracle (1919, Collected Works, vol. 19, p. 208).

When the Red Army was victorious after four years of foreign intervention, blockade and civil war:

Four years have enabled us to work a miracle without parallel, in that a starving, weak and half-ruined country has defeated its enemies – the mighty capitalist countries (1921, Collected Works, vol. 33, p. 117).

To make sure that no-one is excluded from the miraculous, even the water transport workers are capable of miracles in the subsequent task of economic reconstruction:

That is why, comrades, I will conclude my speech by expressing the hope and certainty that you will devote the greatest attention to the tasks of the forthcoming navigation season, and will make it your aim, and will stop at no sacrifice, to create real, iron, military discipline and to perform in the sphere of water transport miracles as great as those performed during the past two years by our Red Army (1920, Collected Works, vol. 30, p. 432).

Finally, the most comprehensive statement:

In certain respects, a revolution is a miracle. If we had been told in 1917 that we would hold out in three years of war against the whole world, that, as a result of the war, two million Russian landowners, capitalists and their children would find themselves abroad, and that we would turn out to be the victors, no one of us would have believed it. A miracle took place because the workers and peasants rose against the attack of the landowners and capitalists in such force that even powerful capitalism was in danger …  The defence of the workers’ and peasants’ power was achieved by a miracle, not a divine miracle – it was not something that fell from the skies – but a miracle in the sense that, no matter how oppressed, humiliated, ruined and exhausted the workers and peasants were, precisely because the revolution went along with the workers, it mustered very much more strength than any rich, enlightened and advanced state could have mustered (Collected Works, vol. 32, pp. 153-4, 1921).


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).

Lenin the unwitting prophet: Backward Europe and Advanced Asia

In a piece from the time of the communist international, called ‘Backward Europe and Advanced Asia’:

The comparison sounds like a paradox. Who does not know that Europe is advanced and Asia backward? But the words taken for this title contain a bitter truth.

In civilised and advanced Europe, with its highly developed machine industry, its rich, multiform culture and its constitutions, a point in history has been reached when the commanding bourgeoisie comes out in support of everything backward, moribund and medieval.

Collected Works, vol. 19, p. 99

On Lenin, lice, peasants and freedom: Arthur Ransome on the Russian Revolution

Some of the best materials on the Russian Revolution remain those works written at the time, especially those that capture the mood in a way that all-knowing historians pretend to do afterwards. Arthur Ransome’s two little books, Russia in 1919 and The Crisis in Russia, are great examples. He lived in Petrograd from 1903, so experienced much of it directly. He had access to the inner circles of Bolshevik leadership, attending meetings of the executive committee, interviewing the likes of Lenin, Zinoviev, Sverdlov and so on, and he was part of worker meetings and experienced every day life during the best and worst times.

Translator, folklorist, journalist, Ransome is listed in a Who’s Who at the time as a lover of ‘walking, smoking, fairy tales’. Even more: ‘It is, perhaps, his intimacy with the last named that enables him to distinguish between myth and fact and that makes his activity as an observer and recorder so valuable in a day of bewilderment and betrayal’.

A few snippets:

There was the feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution. There was the thing that distinguishes the creative from other artists, the living, vivifying expression of something hitherto hidden in the consciousness of humanity. If this book were to be an accurate record of my impressions, all the drudgery, gossip, quarrels, arguments, events and experiences it contains would have to be set against a background of that extraordinary vitality which obstinately persists in Moscow in these dark days of discomfort, disillusion, pestilence, starvation and unwanted war (Russia in 1919, p. vi-vii, in the midst of the ‘civil’ war, which included 160,000 troops from a dozen countries invading the USSR).

On the train to Moscow:

At last I tried to sleep, but the atmosphere of the carriage, of smoke, babies, stale clothes, and the peculiar smell of the Russian peasantry which no one who has known it can forget, made sleep impossible. But I travelled fairly comfortably, resolutely shutting my ears to the talk … and shifting from one bone to the another as each ached in turn from contact with the plank on which I lay (Russia in 1919, p. 10).

A discussion with Lenin:

More than ever, Lenin struck me as a happy man. Walking home from the Kremlin, I tried to think of any other man of his calibre who had a similar joyous temperament. I could think of none. This little, bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another, ready at any minute to give serious advice to any who interrupt him to ask for it, advice so well reasoned that it is to his followers far more compelling than any command, every one of his wrinkles is a wrinkle of laughter, not of worry. I think the reason must be that he is the first great leader who utterly discounts the value of his own personality. He is quite without personal ambition. More than that, he believes, as a Marxist, in the movement of the masses which, with or without him, would still move. His whole faith is in the elemental forces that move people, his faith in himself is merely his belief that he justly estimates the direction of those forces. He does not believe that any man could make or stop the revolution which he thinks is inevitable. If the Russian revolution fails, according to him, it fails only temporarily, and because of forces beyond any man’s control. He is consequently free with a freedom no other great man has ever had. It is not so much what he says that inspires confidence in him. It is this sensible freedom, this obvious detachment. With his philosophy he cannot for a moment believe that one man’s mistake might ruin it all. He is, for himself at any rate, the exponent, not the cause, of the events that will be for ever linked with his name (Russia in 1919, p. 56).

This little bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another, ready any minute to give serious advice to any who interrupt him to ask for it, advice so well reasoned that it is to his followers more compelling than any command, every one of his wrinkles is a wrinkle of laughter, not of worry.

Precautions against typhus:

The car seemed very clean, but, as an additional precaution, we began by rubbing turpentine on our necks and wrists and ankles for the discouragement of lice, now generally known as ‘Semashki’ from the name of Semashko, the Commissar of Public Health, who wages unceasing war for their destruction as the carriers of typhus germs. I rubbed the turpentine so energetically in to my neck that it burnt like a collar of fire, and for a long time I was unable to get to sleep (The Crisis in Russia, p. 26).

Trade unions:

When I was in Moscow in the spring of this year the Russian Trades Unions received a telegram from the Trades Union Congress at Amsterdam, a telegram which admirable illustrated the impossibility of separating judgement of the present position of the Unions from judgements of the Russian revolution as a whole. It encouraged the Unions ‘in their struggle’ and promised support in that struggle. The Communists immediately asked ‘What struggle? Against the capitalist system in Russia which does not exist? Or against capitalist systems outside Russia?’ (The Crisis in Russia, p. 36).

Did Lenin ever attend church?

Yes, and reasonably regularly while he and Nadya were living in London in 1902-3:

He visited eating houses and churches. In English churches the service is usually followed by a short lecture and a debate. Ilyich was particularly fond of those debates, because ordinary workers took part in them … Once we wandered into a socialist church. There are such churches in England. The socialist in charge was droning through the Bible, and then delivered a sermon to the effect that the exodus of the Jews from Egypt symbolized the exodus of the workers from the kingdom of capitalism to the kingdom of socialism. Everyone stood up and sang from a socialist hymn-book: ‘Lead us, O Lord, from the Kingdom of Capitalism to the Kingdom of Socialism’. We went to that church again afterwards – it was the Seven Sisters Church (Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, pp. 72-73).

But why in the world did Lenin and Krupskaya attend? There was no free meal, no free lodgings. It’s worth remembering that the reasons people attend church are as diverse as the number of people in the congregation. Not all present believe, not all are orthodox in any sense, not all are ardent. Yet, the relationship with these radical churches was not a passing affair, for when the fifth congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was seeking a safe exilic venue to meet in 1907, they were able to secure the Brotherhood Church in Southgate Road, Hackney, in London. That church, originating in 1887 under the influence of various streams such as Christian socialism, anarchism, pacifism, Quakers and Tolstoy, continues to exist today now as a community in Stapleton.

Anatoli Lunacharsky, poet of the revolution

Perhaps my favourite person in the Russian Revolution is Anatoli Lunarcharsky, known as the the ‘poet of the revolution’. Often more radical than Lenin, a sometime ‘God-Builder’ who wrote a two-volume work, Socialism and Religion, he was appointed the Commissar for Enlightenment in the new government. In his new program, Narkompros (Narodnyi Kommissariat Prosveschcheniya), he appointed all manner of poets, artists, writers, and the highest number of women in any of the major commissariats of the new state. A prolific writer of plays, essays and book-length works, he was widely regarded as the most educated and intelligent of all the education ministers in the world at the time. His work on Marxism, literature and art are still well worth a read, especially since they have largely been forgotten.

But why did Lenin appoint him and keep him on, despite all their differences? As Lenin put it to Viktor Shulgin:

I advise you also to be fond of him. He is drawn towards the future with his whole being. That is where there is such joy and laughter in him. And he is ready to give that joy and laughter to everyone.

Was the Russian Revolution a Success? Part 2

Last night I had a long discussion with a person who seemed quite intelligent, but still she trotted out the standard line concerning the Russian Revolution that has been propagated by Western media and exiled Russian bourgeois critics since about 1918 – now filled out with all manner of gory details of unmitigated disaster. The revolution was a palace coup undertaken by a small band of intellectuals, Lenin was a sectarian autocrat, Stalin a monster, Russia sank into a new age of barbarism, with massive famines, industrial chaos, rampant killings and decades of sheer terror for the people.

It is reasonably easy to attribute such a narrative to the ingrained ideological and economic fabric of the West’s own justification for existence, especially by those keen to defend a dodgy project. But it is less forgivable for those on the Left to do so. To be sure, the narrative on the Left it has its refinements. I am reading Lenin Reloaded, a collection that seeks to offer a corrective to the perception of Lenin as an autocratic and doctrinaire thug bent on power. But then you get the standard ‘Fall narrative’: at some point the revolution lost its way, retreating first under a disillusioned Lenin in his last years, then completely waylaid by a paranoid Stalin, and then cementing the place of an autocratic new ruling class under Brezhnev.

The problem is that such a Fall narrative has difficulty dealing with some developments during the USSR. To begin with, as Norman Davies argues in his recent Europe at War, 1939-1945,  a key reason why the USSR under Stalin’s leadership won the Second World War was the reorganisation of economic and social life under communism. Leave aside the fact (which I have mentioned before) that he brilliantly led the war effort and drew together the best generals and strategists of the War – Zhukov, Chief of Staff Alexander Vasilevsky, and Chief of Operations Aleksei Antonov, all men of penetrating intelligence, exceptional abilities, and extraordinary character, and all encouraged to be dynamic and innovative, to argue, debate and counsel Stalin himself. Aside from that, the USSR underwent what Davies calls a ‘miraculous’ economic recovery in the midst of the war and after Hitler attacked in a mode of unprecedented viciousness and extermination. Such a recovery was possible only under the reorganisation brought by a communist system.

Further, as George Hallam pointed out in a comment to my earlier post on the Russian Revolution, biometric analysis of data from the time shows that children began to grow taller and weigh more. This is a telltale sign of increased nutrition, more physical activity and healthier lives.

Closely related to this development was kukharka: mass education for women and men. As Robert Allen shows in a recent study (From Farm to Factory, 2003), before the revolution Russia had the same demographic pattern as, for example, India – a high death rate and a higher birth rate. However, the USSR did not have the same population explosion. Why? It had nothing to do with the ‘civil’ war, Second World War or even the famines that came as a result. It was due to the massive increase in education and opportunity for women, who were instrumental in reducing the birth rate at the same time that children became healthier. A crucial factor was the communist feminist movement. If education had been restricted to men and the economic reorganisation had proceeded more slowly, the USSR’s population would have exploded, with dire economic consequences.

A final factor was the more open attitude to sexuality, which makes the West look like a breathless latecomer to the party. That’s the topic for another post, but these developments make the narrative of unmitigated disaster look decidedly untenable.

Was the Russian Revolution a success? Part 1

After seven decades of unrelenting polemic against the USSR and the communist states of Eastern Europe – they were dictatorships, autocratic, undemocratic, brain-washed their people, callously allowed famines to decimate the people, consigned people to grinding poverty, imprisoned all and sundry and threatened the world with nuclear war – a new phase in the narrative emerged after 1989: communism in Eastern Europe and Russia has failed. The most astounding feature of this narrative is how vast numbers on the Left swallowed this story. All communism did was enable the rapid industrialisation of Russia and the Eastern Europe, they said. Or, it was not ‘true’ communism; or, if only Trotsky had outsmarted Stalin; or, Lenin and Stalin et al were merely new incarnations of the tsar; or, Lenin et al were no different from Hitler and the fascists; or, how can you expect communism to succeed in backward countries? (that one from an increasingly wayward and haughty Terry Eagleton); or, simply because communism came to an end, it was obviously a failure in those parts of the world.

Difficult it might be to push back against such an ingrained narrative (especially by bourgeois cynics and the fashionable left for whom the revolution is yet to come), but let’s see if we can do so.

To begin with, the Russian Revolution was the first successful communist revolution. With a mixture of extraordinary planning, unbridled optimism, sheer guts and good deal of luck, the communists succeeded in overthrowing the provisional government set up after the February Revolution of 1917. As Alain Badiou (to his rare credit) points out, that act inspired a century of revolutions. Lenin became the most read author of the first half of the 20th century, and revolutions won through in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam and so on. They were the defining feature of the 20th century.

Further, the fact the communists were able to weather attacks from all sides in the so-called ‘civil’ war – USA, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Japan et al supported Kolchak, Denikin, Yudenich, Wrangel and others as they attacked in wave upon wave from all directions. At times the new RSFSR was a rump of its final extent, losing the Ukraine, the whole east, Belarus and much more. Any other army would have given in, but the new Red Army (built almost from scratch after the mass and undisciplined demobilisation of the Russian Army in the later years of the First World War). How did they manage? We can gain an insight by looking at Stalin during World War II. Stalin? Yes, Stalin has emerged in research as the key figure who won the war. How did he do so? Under immense threat from Hitler’s attack, he drew together the most creative and independent strategists and let them get to work. Meanwhile, he inspired people to draw on the deep social, culture and economic resources of communist restructuring, moved whole industries east and out of harm’s way and dug deep to repel the bulk of Hitler’s armies. Let me put it this way: Stalin saved the world for Jews, gypsies, gays and communists – all subject to Hitler’s exterminations.

What about ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’? Wasn’t the USSR a one-party state that allowed no opposition? In that respect, it was no different from any western state, which had variations on one pro-capitalist party. There was one huge difference, however: the Russian Revolution went past the arrested development of the bourgeois revolution, pushing through to a full communist revolution. What about dissidents and the Gulag? In any other country the act of plotting to overthrow the state is called high treason. But for some reason the capitalist world called them ‘dissidents’ in the USSR.

Still, what about ‘democracy’? I have little time for bourgeois parliamentary democracy, with its formal freedom in which you can choose variations on the same pro-capitalist party. Instead, Lenin and the Bolsheviks enacted an absolute freedom, the freedom to choose what type of state you want. And in the new Soviets, a far more radical form of democracy developed. The old bourgeoisie and aristocracy did not get a look in (as they shouldn’t), for this was a democracy characterised by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even some fellow socialists were horrified. Karl Kautsky, of the German Social-Democratic Party, who had once been immeasurably influential on Lenin, was eventually seduced by bourgeois democracy into thinking socialist aims could be achieved in the formal freedom of the ballot box. Lenin saw through it and denounced Kautsky as a renegade.

Economics? Wasn’t the USSR a basket case by 1989? Didn’t people have to line up in queues for the odd loaf of bread, as the standard propaganda image would have us believe? I have little add here from my earlier post, which shows that, by and large, more than two decades of capitalism since 1989 have been disastrous for these places.

But didn’t the USSR finally fail in 1989, since it came to an end? Given the immense pressures from the capitalist world, the construction of the Cold War by the USA, the continued economic sanctions and drain on vital resources, it is a surprise that the USSR lasted as long as it did. Lenin and all those following dreamed of peace that would allow the building of communism. In the absence of that peace, their achievement was stupendous.

But probably the biggest success of the USSR and other communist states in Eastern Europe is that they gave us a sustained example of how difficult it is to construct communism after the revolution, how devilishly complex such a process is. To be sure, they made plenty of mistakes, only to learn from them and try something else. Until then, revolutionaries had dreamed, romanticised, formulated ideal blueprints, as they tend still to do today (especially in the West). Here was a moment when a revolution succeeded and communist construction began. As Jean-Jacques Lecercle put it, the USSR gave the capitalist world the biggest fright it ever had. I would add: at least until China.

What was Lenin’s favourite outdoor activity?

What were Lenin’s favourite outdoor activities? Addressing crowds of workers and peasants? Chasing down whiteguard counter-revolutionaries? Not even close. What about ice-skating (at which he was very proficient), hunting (at which he was completely hopeless), or swimming? Getting closer. But the answer would have to be either long-distance hiking … or cycling.

He and Nadya (Nadezhda Krupskaya) would go for long, long walks in the Swiss mountains, on the Siberian steppes, in the countryside around Krakow, Paris, Munich or Copenhagen. But they would also cycle:

In letters to his mother, sisters and brothers, written by either Lenin or Krupskaya, we find constant references to cycling (all references from Collected Works, volume 37). It soon became a primary mode of transport for everyday life, relaxation and holidays. In exile from Russia, Lenin first notices bicycles in Munich: ‘The traffic in the streets here’, he writes to his mother 1901, ‘is far less than in an equally large Russian city; this is because the electric trams and bicycles are completely ousting cabs’ (p. 332). However, it would take another few years before he and Nadya actually got on some bicycles, first on holiday in Stjernsund, Sweden, where they were soon ‘leading a holiday life – bathing in the sea, cycling’ (p. 369), and then more regularly in Geneva, which seems to have been very congenial for a novice cyclist. In addition to his notorious cold bath or shower at 6 am, Lenin now refers regularly to cycling in his letters (p. 387).

By 1908 they were planning a move to Paris, and by now the bicycles were important enough to contemplate taking with them: ‘We are going to find out what to do with the bicycles. It is a pity to leave them behind; they are excellent things for holidays and pleasure trips’ (p. 397). But Paris was not Geneva, especially in terms of traffic. Soon after arriving, Lenin writes to his sister:

Dear Manyasha,

I have received your postcard – merci for the news. As far as the bicycle is concerned I thought I should soon receive the money, but matters have dragged on. I have a suit pending and hope to win it. I was riding from Juvisy when a motorcar ran into me and smashed my bicycle (I managed to jump off). People helped me take the number and acted as witnesses. I have found out who the owner of the car is (a viscount, the devil take him!) and now I have taken him to court (through a lawyer). I should not be riding now, anyway, it is too cold (although it’s a good winter, wonderful for walks)’ (p. 447).

By the end of the month (January 1910) the case had gone in his favour and he was back on the bike: ‘The weather is fine and I intend to start cycling again since I have won the case and should get my money from the owner soon’ (p. 452-3; see also p. 450). All the same, he continued to curse Parisian traffic: ‘I have often thought of the danger of accidents when I have been riding my bicycle through the centre of Paris, where the traffic is simply hellish’ (p. 452).

Yet now Lenin was hooked, a committed cyclist who would get out whenever he could – as did Nadya. Not being city people, they preferred places on the edge of town and close by the country. Later that year, he writes to his sister Anna: ‘I have been cycling for some time and I often go for rides in the country around Paris, especially as we live quite near the fortifications, i.e., near the city boundary’ (p. 458). They would send postcards from cycling tours, such as this one from June, 2010:

Mother dearest,

Greetings to you, Anyuta and Mitya from our Sunday excursion. Nadya and I are cycling. Meudon Forest is a good place and close by, 45 minutes from Paris. I have received and answered Anyuta’s letter. A big hug from myself and Nadya.

V. U. (p. 460).

In fact, like any good cyclist Lenin grew impatient for spring, when he could get out his bike and start riding again. As he writes to his mother: ‘It seems that we are having an early spring here this year. Some days ago I again went cycling in the woods – the fruit trees in the orchards are all covered in white, “as though bathed in milk”, and such a wonderful perfume – a really delightful spring! It is a pity I cycled alone; Nadya has caught cold, has lost her voice and has to stay at home’ (p. 475). On such rides he would encounter storms, weariness, exhilaration … and flat tires, that universal moment of the cyclist. Nadya narrates from Krakow in March 1914: ‘Volodya went for quite a long ride on his bicycle but had a burst tyre’ (p. 515). And he could sometimes overdo it, as Nadya puts it in a letter to his mother: ‘It is very beautiful here [in Poronin, Poland]. Fortunately you cannot do a lot of cycling, because Volodya used to abuse that amusement and overtire himself’ (p. 498).

In other words, the leader of the most successful communist revolution was a committed cyclist, pedalling as often and as far as he was able. An image of a typical day for Lenin is provided in this description by Nadya from their time at the socialist commune in Longjumeau, France, in 1911:

Volodya is making good use of the summer. He does his work out in the open, rides his bicycle a lot, goes bathing and is altogether pleased with country life. This week we have been cycling our heads off. We made three excursions of 70 to 75 kilometres each, and have explored three forests – it was fine. Volodya is extremely fond of excursions that begin at six or seven in the morning and last until late at night (p. 610).