Lenin: Criticals Lives by Lars Lih, (Reaktion Books 2012)

Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context (Haymarket Books 2008) is known for contextualizing and detailing the meaning of What Is To Be Done? in long term context.  Lin is also contextualizing Lenin here, in terms of his relationship to Kautsky, his development of a heroic theory of revolution, and the exact nature of the party.  In such a brief book, this remains largely a intellectual biography that takes a thematic birds eye view into the meaning of Lenin’s ideas and the origins of his motivations.

While this is a polemical text, Lih seems to want to critical but largely supportive view of Lenin, particularly his relationship to Karl Kautsky, particularly prior to 1914, and the effects of the fall out in the context of the Russian civil war could have led to some political mistakes, but Leninism  as such was not created by Lenin explicitly.  Lih is aiming at a balance between a apologia and an contextualization, both cutting against right-wing historiography on Lenin and left currents use of Lenin as a cipher for centralization and destructive revolutionary impulses. Lih is critical of Lenin, particularly Lenin’s inability to completely deal with actual development of peasants, particularly after the civil war.

Lih does a good job of pointing out that Lenin was not a simple dictator or professional conspirator. Lih argues, convincingly, that Lenin actually formed the base of his ideology relatively early in his career, that the relationship of the proletariat to the narod (the People) was paramount in Lenin’s various “heroic class leadership scenarios.” He also points out that development for peasants and their relationship to the proletariat was key to him thought.  Lih argues somewhat convincing that Lenin believed in basic democratization and relative freedom, only suspending in the civil wars that occurred later and he was frustrated with the inability to continue democratization after the primary civil wars were over.

Much of the book is devoted to sketching out Lenin’s relationship to the Kautsky, the revolution of 1905, and the first world war as crucial to the thoughts of Lenin’s early life.  Lih also effectively demonstrates that most of Lenin’s heroic narrative was based in Marx or Engels or Kautsky’s expansion of the two. This undoes a lot of the interpretations by from Adam Ulam to Robert Service that Lenin’s “vanguardism” as totally a response to the failure of classical Marxism and was a totally cynical poly.

There are a few weaknesses in the book: Lenin’s break with Plekhanov is not covered in significant detail although it would be crucial to his development nor Lenin’s use of conspiratorial means to sure up party finances in caucuses (which helped propel Stalin to importance), and the exactly failure of Lenin to figure out how to predict the role of the peasants after the revolution going from phase to phase.  Furthermore, there is the mild implication that Lenin not fully regained his bearings after the break with Kautsky and trying to forge head with a different set of principles.  This latter bit isn’t so much a problem, but does seem to be a interpretative heuristic that one should be aware.

Overall, this is an excellent, if brief, corrective to a lot of the historiography and psychologization of Bolshevik development and of Lenin’s ideological commitments.  Clearly organized, brief, and interesting, one interested in the Russian revolution or the history of Marxism should deal with this book.

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