Lars Lih has explored the political and theoretical relationships between Lenin and Karl Kautsky.
[Click HERE for more by or about Lars Lih. For more discussion on Lenin, click HERE.]
Lars Lih interviewed by Dario Cankovic
October 2, 2013 -- The North Star, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by Dario Cankovic -- Lars T. Lih lives and works in Montreal, Quebec. He is an adjunct
professor of musicology at the Schulich School of Music, McGill
University and writes about Russian and socialist history on his own
time. His books include Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914-1921 (1990), Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done in Context (2006) and Lenin (2011), a biography. Links to his articles online can be found here.
You received a post-graduate degree from Oxford in 1971. You later
went back to academia and received a Ph.D. in political science from
Princeton in 1984. What were your master’s thesis and doctoral
dissertation on? How did you come to be interested in and work on
Russian and socialist history?
My thesis at Oxford, oddly enough, was on Lenin and Machiavelli. It
was called Machiavelli and Lenin: A Study in Political Technique. I’m
afraid to even go back and look at it now, because I was basing it on
essentially what the current view of Lenin was at the time. Then the
doctoral dissertation. I remember the moment well. I was walking down
the library and thinking to myself: You know, a topic that keeps popping
up all the time with the Russian Revolution is the politics of food
supply. The February Revolution, the October Revolution were preceded by a breakdown in the food supply. As were the New Economic Policy
(NEP) and the disturbances in Petrograd in early 1921.
I thought to
myself: Someone ought to examine this, just go through the whole thing
and examine the relation between revolution and food supply. Then my
next thought was: Why don’t I do that? So that was it. It was a moment
of inspiration, but it turned out to be a very good topic because it
grounded me in the tsarist period and went on to the
provisional-government period and ended with the Bolsheviks—three
different regimes. I had a much broader time frame to begin with but
then narrowed it down to the period of 1914-21, which is broad enough,
let me tell you and that became my first book.
At that time, when I was working on my dissertation, there was and
to a large extent still is, a prevalent of view of the Bolsheviks and war communism—what
I call the “hallucinatory model” of war communism—namely, that the
Bolsheviks thought they were on the verge of a leap into socialism and
that they weren’t aware, or were hardly aware, that the country was
breaking down. I mean, there are some amazing statements that people
made, major historians, on this topic.
This hallucinatory model of war
communism contrasted starkly with what I found in my research on the
politics of food supply in Russia from 1914 to 1921. So, essentially I
said: My food supply people are not maniacs, they’re not fools. You can
agree or disagree with them, but they were dealing with real problems
and trying to do their best. So what’s this clash between the
hallucinatory model and the picture emerging from my research all about?
That got me into my next subject of interest, which was war communism,
or what I prefer to call the myth of war communism and it got me to
look at what the Bolshevik view of things was during the war communism
period, from 1918 to 1921—basically the period of the civil war.
At that point also I made a fundamental move toward looking at a wide
range of Bolshevik sources and this, surprisingly enough, is a new
approach: going beyond Lenin to a wide range of other Bolshevik
spokespeople. I was just thinking the other day that probably no one living
has read as much Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev
as I have, taken together. I wrote a series of articles on this topic
that I’m going to try to collect together in a book, hopefully with the Historical Materialism series.
Currently these articles are scattered around in various journals, from
the mid-1990s to about a decade ago. The book will probably have the
title Deferred Dreams.
While I had a pretty solid view of what was going on in 1920, what
people were looking at, saying and thinking, I was curious: How does
this all fit into the big picture? Particularly, how does it fit into
Lenin and the stereotypes about Lenin? And I remember well that at some
point, I said to myself: One of these days, I’m going to have to write a
paragraph or so about What Is to Be Done?
(1902) just to sort of show how it fits into the historical context.
Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even make it a chapter of a book.
On the urging
on Sebastian Budgen and other people to really look at this topic, I
embarked on a full-scale study of What Is to Be Done? trying not
to narrow myself down to just Lenin but to look at the whole range of
things that were going on when he wrote that famous pamphlet. The first
thing I did with this project was to make a list of everything that
Lenin responded to in his book, everybody he was arguing against and
try to read them. And that was essentially my method of putting him in
context. And then, as you know, this project ballooned and turned into
this big thick book.
To illustrate my historiographical method, I used an analogy: socialist-realist painting contrasted with Where’s Waldo?
You can imagine a scene in some socialist-realist painting, where, say,
Mao is shaking hands with Stalin and there’s a big field and no one
else there, just the two heroes with the wind blowing their overcoats.
This is analogous to one historiographical model that many people use.
This is how many people write about socialist history, with this
exclusive focus on the succession of prominent figures: from Karl Marx to
maybe Karl Kautsky to Lenin, to whoever hero you have next, Trotsky or
Stalin, whatever. In contrast, what I want to do is the Where’s Waldo?
method. This is where you have a huge picture and if you look closely
you can find Lenin, but there are tons of other people and I wanted to
fill in all the people, all the detail. So that’s what I was doing in Lenin Rediscovered. Then I wrote the shorter Lenin. I first wrote the big book on the small, restricted topic of What Is to Be Done? in context and then wrote a little book on a big topic, namely Lenin’s whole life.
I’m very lucky to have a real audience who read me and challenge me,
who like some things and don’t like others and who will call me on
it—and I’ve been reacting and interacting with this audience. For
example, in Lenin Rediscovered, one of the things I talk about is the relation of Lenin to Kautsky.
While I’m far from the first to bring up the link between the two, I’ve
emphasised it in a more radical fashion, emphasised how much Lenin got
from Kautsky and owed to him. And so people challenged that, as they
should have, because the book was restricted to a short period,
essentially from 1900 to about 1903-04. My critics said: Well, we all
know that later on Lenin turned against Kautsky and as he went on,
Lenin rejected everything Kautsky stood for and rethought Marxism. So I
had to take these criticisms into account.
So in what sense did Lenin break with Kautsky? There are two ways he
could have done it. The first way, which is now the standard view on the left, is that Lenin rejected everything Kautsky stood for, rethought
everything and came up with something new. The second way is that Lenin
thought Kautsky betrayed his own principles, that Kautsky is a renegade
(which is, of course, the title of Lenin’s pamphlet against Kautsky, although that in itself doesn’t prove anything, though it’s an indication). I call these, respectively, the scales-fell-from-my-eyes model (that’s when you realise that your hero worship of this person, of his outlook, was incorrect) and the renegade model.
This actually turned out to be a fairly straightforward question.
Thanks to the index provided by the Soviet editors of Lenin’s collected
works, I could easily track down references by Lenin after 1914 to
Kautsky’s work published before then. And it turns out that, first of
all, there’s a ton of references—that’s the first very interesting
thing. Lenin continued to be obsessed with Kautsky almost to the end. In
fact, “Our Revolution”,
one of his last articles, essentially a deathbed article, has a remark
about Kautsky. And the second discovery is that Lenin’s comments
overwhelmingly say that Kautsky was great when he was a Marxist—too bad
he’s not doing the same thing now! Lenin almost obsessively blasted
Kautsky-today, but you can count on the fingers of one hand any negative
references to Kautsky-when-he-was-a-Marxist. I’ve put a database of all
those references I’ve culled online.
While Lenin Rediscovered focused primarily on the relation
between Lenin and Kautsky in the early years, before 1903–4, in
responding to my critics I became interested in the relation between the
two figures after this period. I see their relation as an amazing
story, really. Because Kautsky never had a bigger fan than Lenin. No one
else was a Kautsky fan in the same intense way and Lenin stayed that
way until the end of his life. One reason for this is that Kautsky
greatly influenced Lenin’s views, or, in any event, endowed them with
authority. I’m not saying that Lenin learned everything he knew and
thought from Kautsky—of course not, but he certainly felt validated by
Kautsky. He said so. As I discuss in Lenin Rediscovered, one
area in which Kautsky influenced or vindicated Lenin’s view was on the
question of what revolutionary social democracy is and what the party
is—basic ideas that Lenin never changed his views on and that in fact
never become controversial until much later.
The second way Kautsky influenced Lenin was with respect to what I call “Bolshevism proper”,
which is the scenario Bolshevism had for the upcoming Russian
Revolution, their views on the issue of the peasants and their
commitment to a thoroughgoing democratic revolution that would clear the
way toward rapid progress. And it turns out that Kautsky (and Rosa
Luxemburg) was a mentor here also. The recent book Witnesses to Permanent Revolution
has a highly influential Kautsky article from 1906 on this subject,
titled “The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution and Its Prospects”.
Both Lenin and Trotsky loved the piece and claimed Kautsky’s as their
own views. These are very valuable resources for understanding the
relation between Lenin and Kautsky, between Russian social democracy and
German social democracy.
The third way Kautsky influenced Lenin and this is perhaps the most
surprising, is that even after 1914, Lenin’s view of the world—by which I
mean his view of the global situation, not just “the world” in a vague
sense—came mainly from Kautsky. Even when he was berating Kautsky, Lenin
was still operating with the ideas of the earlier Kautsky. Lenin was
saying things about, as I call
it, “the interactive global revolutionary scenario”, which are the
ideas about socialist revolution in Europe, democratic revolutions
elsewhere, national revolutions, imperialist war, all these factors with
which Lenin operated afterward, these all came from Kautsky. I learned
this from Lenin, because he says it himself, he told me what Kautsky
books to read and I read them and I agree with Lenin about where he
got his ideas on this vast subject.
While looking at all these references to Kautsky by Lenin, I came
across my next interest. In March 1917, Lenin had just heard about the
Russian Revolution, had written some articles—the famous letters from afar—and then he read a Kautsky article. We know he read it and we know he reacted to it, because he sketched out an idea in a little piece that has a few lines about Kautsky’s article and the Kautsky quote he used was striking. It said,
roughly: What’s most necessary for the Russian workers is democracy and
socialism. It turns out that this is the first time, according to my
detective work, that Lenin uses this idea of “steps toward socialism”. This is where Lenin makes an innovation, not before or after—that is, not in the April Theses per
se. There is at least a coincidence in time here and my view is that
Kautsky was a catalyst for Lenin’s ideas. And I use that word catalyst to mean that Kautsky’s ideas were not exactly Lenin’s ideas, but what he said just got Lenin thinking and led him to come up with this sort of scenario.
Anyway, while researching that, I became intrigued by the whole story about March/April and the April Theses—the stories
of the old Bolsheviks who are allegedly floundering or even going along
with the Mensheviks; they weren’t revolutionary, they wanted to keep
the provisional government in power, but Lenin came back and rearmed the
party with Trotsky’s permanent revolution and if it hadn’t been for
that, they wouldn’t have even tried to overthrow the provisional
government and so on.
My main interest right now is overthrowing this story. It’s what I
call “putting Bolshevism back in the Bolshevik revolution”. Stalin and
Kamenev are in some sense my heroes for the purpose of this story,
because I am rehabilitating them—well, at least rehabilitating what they
were doing in March 1917! One reason people aren’t critical of this
whole story is the understandable desire to make Stalin in particular
look bad. The Trotskyists, the post-Soviet anti-Stalin people in the
1950s and, of course, the Western academics—whatever else separates
these different groups, they all have a common motive to not
examine this story very critically. And Kamenev—he kind of gets left
out, no one cares about Kamenev. So, I’m rethinking this story: looking
at and rethinking a small thing, but a small thing with enormous
implications for a larger thing.
That’s where I am now. You can see that over the long haul, I sort of
moved from step to step, so there’s continuity in my work. I’ve been
very lucky, since I’ve published my first Lenin book, to be in a larger
community that cares about these questions. I’ve been responding to
criticism from this community. Even when I can’t agree with the
criticism, I feel it’s important to respond, to give a good answer,
especially because I myself learn so much while doing it.
Between your work at Oxford and Princeton, you worked in the office of US House of Representatives member Ronald V. Dellums of California, a self-described socialist; former member of the Democratic Socialist Organising Committee (DSOC), founded by Michael Harrington; and later a vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America
(DSA). How did that political involvement shape your academic
interests? How would you characterise your own politics? And what, if
any, relation is there between your politics and your scholarly work?
That’s a good question and I’m not sure if a have a good answer for
it, because I often ask myself the same question. During the Dellums
time, I learned a lot about practical politics, just observing. I wasn’t
high in the organisation or anything. It was a small office. But it was
a very dramatic time, 1970-71 to 1977, with Watergate, the end of the
war, a whole lot of things.
My own politics—well, I don’t spend too much time thinking about
them, because I’m too busy thinking about the early 20th century,
you know, so I just characterise my views as vaguely left. Which I think
is OK, because that means I’m sort of automatically not partisan and I
think that’s good for everybody. It’s good for me as I also want to
keep one foot in the academic community and one foot in the activist
community. What connects me to the academic community is that I am
really interested in the Bolsheviks as part of Russian history,
which is not the main focus of the activists. But the activists have got
me interested in the larger question of the communist movement, the
relation to Marxism, so I’ve had to broaden myself considerably. In
particular, I’ve had to learn a lot about European social democracy,
European socialism and the Second International.
In Lenin Rediscovered, you argue that, “Lenin’s perspective
fit squarely within the mainstream of the socialist movement of his
time.” How does that movement differ from self-described Leninist groups
today? What lessons, if any, can activists today learn from Second
International social democracy?
The techniques, the practices, our whole way of looking at things are
closer to the Second International than we realise. This continuity
became clear to me by reading the book Demonstration Culture.
The author, Kevin J. Callahan, focuses on a specific topic of
international congresses and so forth, but he brings out that the very
word demonstration, meaning a mass rally or something similar, is
from this period and it was an invention more or less of the socialist
left. And then all the things—the idea of the party press, petitions,
protests, placards and banners, more or less the things that the left
does, day in and day out—they were worked out and given a rationale by
the Second International’s basic self-understanding, which said: We have
a goal and so the point is to connect what’s going on around you to
this larger goal. (I’ve written a review of the Callahan book that will
appear in the next issue of the International Newsletter of Communist Studies, where I make these points in more detail.)
Paradoxically, the Third International became the preserver and
extender of this “demonstration culture”. At the end of the First World
War, this whole culture might have just faded. And as far as the
official Social-Democratic parties are concerned, it more or less did
fade away. I’d have to do more research on what happens to post–WW II
social democracy in respect to this demonstration culture, but the Third
International and the Communist parties and regimes certainly continued
it. It’s very important. It gives one a sense of one’s past, to see
these techniques that are incredibly resilient. They’re still around.
Maybe social media will change them fundamentally, but I have a feeling
they will just modify them.
That’s interesting, because in the traditional narrative, there’s
this radical break between the Second and the Third Internationals. How
did the Third International think of itself as breaking from the Second
International? Because, in the traditional narrative, the break was much
more fundamental than the process you were just talking about, that is,
the communists accusing the social democrats of betraying the goals of
the movement and portraying themselves as the ones who were keeping true
to them. According to the traditional narrative, the communists went on
to rethink the basic goals of the movement.
Right, well—let’s start off by saying that it’d be a good thing to
examine exactly what the people in the Third International were saying
or doing about their own relationship to the Second International. We
have our story, a narrative about what they said, our narrative about
their narrative, as it were. And I have a feeling that this is not the
case, that our narrative about their narrative, our stories about their
story, are mistaken. One reason is, for example, Kautsky: none of these
people who were actually there disavowed their admiration for pre-war
Kautsky. They weren’t ashamed that in the past they had been very
admiring. I may seem to have Kautsky on the brain here, but it fits into
A couple of examples. At the very beginning of the second volume of
Stalin’s complete works, he has an essay where he defends the Kautsky
article from 1906 that I mentioned earlier, the one that Lenin and
Trotsky liked so much. At the beginning of Stalin’s piece, he says: We
all regard Kautsky as a great authority, an “outstanding theoretician”, a
“thorough and thoughtful investigator of tactical problems” and as
someone whose views on Russian questions are very important. And
he publishes this in his works during the Stalin era. There’s no
editorial note saying Kautsky was a traitor. Stalin is not ashamed that
he thought Kautsky was great—in fact, he genuinely seems proud that the
Bolsheviks back then were in some sense endorsed by Kautsky. The same is
true of Kamenev, who writes in 1910, in some polemic with Martov, the
Menshevik leader: “It’s pleasant to be on the bench of the accused
sitting next to Kautsky” since Martov was criticising both the
Bolsheviks and Kautsky. And again Kamenev republishes this in the early
1920s and still thinks it’s a point of pride.
So it seems that the way we now think of the Second International,
the way we use this term “Second International Marxism”—which was
invented by people like Karl Korsch and György Lukács—is
different from how the Bolsheviks themselves thought about it. In fact,
I don’t think that that the Bolsheviks themselves thought in terms of
“Second International Marxism”—to them, it was just Marxism. As they saw
it, before the war there was social democracy, which has two wings: the
revolutionary wing and the revisionist or opportunist wing, or the left
wing and right wing, or the radical wing and the moderate wing. There
are various ways of putting it. The revolutionary wing thought of itself
as “the vanguard of the vanguard”, and I steal that phrase from Alexander Bogdanov.
This idea of the revolutionary wing of socialist democracy as “the
vanguard of the vanguard” gives you an idea of what revolutionaries
thought before the war. They thought that when the revolution came, they
were going to get everyone over on their side. So that’s why the
revolutionaries—while very suspicious of opportunists—didn’t mind
working with them. The heroes of revolutionary socialists were people
like Jules Guesde, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Alexander Parvus. Those were the international icons of revolutionary social democracy.
After 1914, revolutionaries said: Well, we didn’t realise how far the
opportunist rot had gone. The opportunists have won and we must
abandon the ship to the opportunist rats. So revolutionaries did reject
the Second International as corrupt from within, but using the same
categories, using the same analysis as they had before. It just turned
out that revolutionary social democracy was weaker than they thought but
itself was fine.
Why was Kautsky is denounced, even by Lenin, as a “renegade”,
given that he broke off from the German Social Democratic Party
(SPD)—along with Rosa Luxemburg and others—to form the Independent Social
Democratic Party (USPD), which was opposed to the war?
Well, about Kautsky and his further fate in this narrative: In 1914,
he is regarded as a renegade, as someone who did not live up to his own
oft-stated principles. There’s a third idea that I haven’t brought up
yet, this idea of a centre wing of social democracy, in between the left
and right. You’ve got to be careful with that idea because some people
interpret Kautsky as a centrist all along, but this was an idea that
only started making sense around 1910, when I think the split between
the opportunists and the revolutionaries started getting wider. There
are two possible reactions to this growing split: One is to mend it, try
to keep on going together. The other is to realise that this split is
happening and embrace it.
So according to Lenin’s analysis: Kautsky,
while still being ideologically on the side of the revolutionaries,
wants to get along with the opportunists. That’s what Lenin means by kautskianstvo. He obsessively denounces kautskianstvo,
which I define as a sort of verbiage to cover up things for the sake of
unity. It wasn’t so much what Kautsky was saying itself, at least for
the most part, that was bad—the reason Lenin thought Kautsky’s current
writings were so destructive was that they seemed intended to make
things easier for the opportunists. What Lenin wanted was a clean break,
a new International, to get rid of the opportunists. He regarded them
as traitors and insisted that revolutionaries couldn’t and shouldn’t
work with them.
What do you make of this whole narrative that exists today within
“Leninism” about Lenin’s introducing a “party of the new type” against
the supposed “Kautskyite” view of the party as a “party of the whole
Both those phrases are invented. That is to say, they were never used
by Kautsky and Lenin themselves, as far as I can tell. I cannot find
Lenin saying “party of the new type”. In my opinion, what he wanted was a
party of the old type, but purified, really living up to its own
announced standards. If you read some of what he writes, that’s the
impression you’ll get—or at least that’s the impression I get. He wanted
the ideal Second International. It’s not a rejection of the Second
International. Or rather, he wanted the ideal revolutionary wing of the Second International.
As for the “party of the whole class”, I still don’t know exactly
where that comes from or who started that meme. It’s not in Kautsky. I
can’t find it. No one ever says, “Look where Kautsky says this”, so I
think that’s just something that started somehow. I haven’t pinned down
who started it or who first said, “Kautsky believes in a party of the
Maybe it comes from some of the rhetoric around 1903-4, from a debate
between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks—between Lenin and Martov—about
the membership rule in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. They argue this at the Second Congress. It was one of the things they split over: about what membership
was. They’re very close, the two alternative rules offered by Lenin and
Martov, but Lenin’s rule was more restrictive in the sense of defining a
member of the organisation as someone committed to an agreed-upon common cause, whereas Martov’s rule was you can get sympathisers in; it wasn’t like getting “the whole class”, but it was looser.
At that point, Lenin was saying about Martov’s rule: If you follow
your logic to the end, we would get a party that includes everybody, our
message would be diluted, we wouldn’t be a vanguard, you will ruin the
whole party and so forth. Martov did the same thing to Lenin: If we
follow your logic to the end, we will have a narrow, conspiratorial
organisation. I read an article by Trotsky, from around 1907 that
explained to uncomprehending outsiders how these sorts of Social
Democratic polemics worked: You would take the other position and push
the logic to the very end, try to show the absurdity of your opponent’s
views. Trotsky gives very good advice to historians when he says: “It’s
very dangerous to take those descriptions [from party debates] as
accurate statements of someone’s outlook.”
At any rate, neither Kautsky nor Martov—no social democrat would
every say that the party should be a party of “the whole class”,
whatever that is supposed to mean. I think I read something by Pham Binh the other day in which he said this kind of eloquently: that “the RSDLP’s daily activities were geared solely towards guiding
all forms of class struggle”. There were tons of other things going on
in the working class outside of the social-democratic movement and of
course everyone was aware of this elementary fact. Social Democrats had
their message and they were indeed convinced that eventually the
whole class would accept it—Lenin as well as anyone else. So this
“party of a new type”–vs.–“party of the whole class” way of framing
things is just not useful for talking about these differences within
You’ve recently also written two articles (here and here) on that interesting phrase “democratic centralism”. Could you speak to that?
Again, it’s a historical question that does have real implications
for today. First of all, Lenin didn’t use that phrase often. It wasn’t
an essential term. He used it in only two specifically defined periods.
One was in the period right after the revolution of 1905, when there
were more or less free institutions in Russia, freer than at any time
before or since. The other period was after the revolution of 1917, when
the Bolsheviks were in power and had to deal with those problems. The
term democratic centralism was used only in these two specific
periods, as far as I can make out and it meant really different things
at different times.
Back in 1905-07, it meant democratic centralism and after the 1917 revolution, it meant democratic centralism. And therefore, I deduce from these two data that it was never used as a phrase to say something essential about Bolshevism.
After writing that article—just by serendipity or because I’ve had my
antennas up—I’ve come across two more references that will really nail
this issue down. The most striking is something Zinoviev said in 1923,
where he’s talking about the need for more democracy within the party.
The way he frames it verbally is to insist on the need for “worker
democracy” (rabochaia demokratiia). He admits that at the moment
in Russia, there were too many orders from on high, not enough free
discussion from below, for a healthy life within the party. Right now,
according to Zinoviev, the party was built on the principle of
“democratic centralism”, and this was inevitable, given the low cultural
level of many party members. In other words, he seems actually rather
apologetic about the need to rely so much on “democratic centralism”.
This surprised even me, especially because it is sometimes said that it was Zinoviev, not Lenin, who created democratic centralism
as a theory and defended it. Well, he didn’t want democratic centralism
either, although he did say it was necessary for the time being. So,
for the Bolsheviks, democratic centralism was not at all the essence of
Bolshevism; in fact, it was an enforced compromise, something forced on
them by circumstances.
Switching gears, in addition to your work on the Russian
Revolution and Lenin biography, you’ve researched the presentation of
political and social myths in opera and melodrama. In your 2011 Lenin,
you emphasise Lenin’s romanticism and view of the working class as a
heroic agent of revolutionary transformation—“heroic” in the sense of
mythic, romantic, as if the revolution was, in Lenin’s mind, something
akin to the climax of an opera. Could you elaborate on this and perhaps
discuss the role of romanticism and heroism in revolutions and whether
revolutionary romanticism is necessary or worth recapturing in our
“postmodern”, ironic, anti-romantic culture?
I think this all ties together in my work. I look at this material
and try to find the narratives. I don’t want this to be misinterpreted,
but I treat these revolutionary texts to some degree in the same way
people treat literary texts. That is to say, I look for the patterns,
try to find the narratives, because people think politically in terms of
narratives and act on them. If you want to get to the heart of things
in politics, narratives have to be looked at.
I should say that I also feel that another thing that comes from my
literary interests is a sense of looking at words carefully, looking at
how people use words, at the time, in context and being critical about
vocabulary. This is what some of my critics call “arid textual
analysis”. I suppose I do indulge in that—in fact, I really enjoy close
reading—but I think something valuable comes out of it.
I’ve done this in Lenin’s case. This is where I think my Ph.D. adviser, Robert Tucker,
set me on the right path. He was the one who emphasised this romantic
view in Lenin. I can see why people would sceptically say, “Lenin, a
romantic?” Because pick up any of his writings and he is always getting
angry, quoting his opponents with indignation and sort of permanently
saying “You can’t say that! Because of this, this and that!” He comes
off as a permanently irritated polemicist.
But if you look for the
romanticism, you find it and once you find it, you start seeing that
it’s all over the place. It’s what attracted people to him. If he were
always the crabbed polemicist, people would run the other way—and many
people did exactly that anyway and you can hardly blame them. But he
did have a romantic side, a heroic vision and even people who didn’t
like him could relate, could understand that. And I think the most
perceptive critics of him at the time realised this romantic side of
him. For them, it was exactly why Lenin was so destructive. I just read
something last night by a guy, Wladimir Woytinsky—he was a Bolshevik but
left the party in early 1917. In a striking phrase, talking about
Lenin, who’s just returned, he said something like this: Lenin managed
to latch on to the secret dreams of his audience; he tapped into their
sense of who they wanted to be. To understand the Lenin phenomenon, you
have to understand this.
Instead of opera, there’s another genre, melodrama,
which I find to be a more accurate analogy of the narrative structure
in revolutionary texts. As a matter of fact, I’ve written an essay that
was published in a book on Russian melodrama titled Imitations of Life.
In that essay, I looked at the Stalin period. I’m mainly interested in
the Lenin period, but I have written stuff about later developments. I
looked first at socialist realist plays, then show trials as show trials, in the strict sense of the word. I looked at Pravda at the same time that these trials are going on and realised that Pravda had
court transcripts that read as if they were play scripts. So the trial
was a play, a scripted play, as we all know. But if it was a scripted
play, what are the literary tools that would be helpful to understanding
these show trials?
I should also say I’ve looked up Lenin and melodrama. Anatoly Lunacharsky—the
Bolshevik commissar of enlightenment, in other words, the minister of
education—had an approving view of melodrama. And melodrama was an
extremely popular genre, stage genre, of the 19th century,
absolutely basic, especially for popular audiences. There’s a reference
memoirs about Lenin going to see a melodrama in Paris, I think. He
enjoyed it and also enjoyed that it was a politically charged one (it
was, if I remember, about some sailor who was falsely accused).
What about today and the modern part of the question? I’ll ask you a
question. When I look back at this period—when you could say that there
was a mass movement, a Marxist mass movement that was genuinely
alive—what was it that was alive? It was a sense of a world-historical
mission, that the proletariat was “the Chosen People”—this metaphor was
made many a time, that this group of people was going to bring the world
to a final goal.
So that’s what I’m wondering: Is this sense of a
world-historic mission alive today, even among the left? This is what
I’m asking you: is there a genuine sense of this group having a mission
and a real sense that it is going to happen? That was the baby that thel eft has thrown out, keeping the bathwater, which is very useful—Marx’s
analysis of this, class analysis of all this stuff. The bathwater is
great! But the baby seems dead or gone. Does this sense of
world-historical mission exist and must it exist in order for the left
to be anything like what it was? And is there a way of making it happen
if it doesn’t exist? You can’t artificially insist that people believe
in a mission like this—or even make yourself do it, if the belief isn’t
One way of looking at this is that social democracy was a
synthesis—the “merger formula”, I call it and I talk about this formula
a great deal in Lenin Rediscovered—of socialism and the labour
movement. Which means, to put it another way: a union of the protests,
with the action aimed at right-now improvements, along with the Big
Goal, the final end. Not only was this union a good thing but it was
actually happening. And, by the way, that’s another thing about
Bolshevism, pre-war Bolshevism: they weren’t arguing that it would be a
good thing if the proletariat led the peasants. They’re saying, “It’s
happening. Hegemony is a fact.” Which accounts for their optimism.
And it also accounts for what often appears as the scarcity of real
optimism today. In any event, this hypothesis of the synthesis of
socialism and the labour movement was falling apart, or to be more
agnostic about it, undergoing strain starting after 1905 with the German
Social-Democratic Party and then with the war and so forth. We usually look at this
degeneration as a series of betrayals, mistakes and finding the right
thing. But if you look at it objectively, with the view that the
synthesis just wasn’t there, it just wasn’t happening, then it is sort
of a playing out of something inevitable.
This is a more useful way of
looking at it: There’s a split between the labour movement and socialism.
The social democrats—post-war social democrats, what we would now call
“social democracy”—reacted to this tension by giving up and accepting
that the union of the labour movement and socialism was not going to
happen. The communists maintained their belief in this merger. They
didn’t choose the workers' movement by itself or socialism by itself.
Synthesis was still a goal. There was still the idea that you can unite
current tasks and the Big Task. But this belief of the communists has
been something like a tire slowly going flat. And at a certain point,
the belief just isn’t there anymore.
So that’s what I see with the communists in the Soviet Union, it’s just that one day they woke up and
realised that even the last little shreds of belief were going.
Nowadays, of course, there’s still plenty of enthusiasm, plenty of
imaginative thinking, so—can that synthesis be brought back? That’s the
challenge. Where these people were strong is that they didn’t just say
“I want to believe in this”—they really did believe it, because
they could see facts on the ground that led them to think it was