Saturday, October 3, 2009
Lenin: Superhero of the Left
In the 1960s Russia published in English translation a beautiful compendium of Lenin written portraits by famous contemporaries and a few later admirers. Lenin in Profile: World Writers and Artists on Lenin is a work of propaganda and hagiography and yet helps modern readers to get a better sense of the man’s place in global history than almost any other book. Balanced criticism of historical figures is extremely valuable.
However, unbalanced praise can be illuminating too. We know of course that Stalin and Trotsky battled mightily over Lenin’s legacy. But the rest of the world took note of Lenin too. This book contains dozens and dozens of fond reminiscences of Lenin from every corner of the Earth, with names like Gorky, Tolstoy (the socialist author), Reed, and Neruda. However one-sided, the book highlights many of Lenin’s personal strengths, and these include intelligence, persistence, single-mindedness, internationalism, charisma, etc.
A professor of mine once said that in the old days one either grew up with heroes on the right or heroes on the left. In America, a hero on the left was hard to find, but F.D.R. or perhaps Eugene Debs are stand-ins. In Europe, and certainly in the developing world, you knew who was on your side if you thought the status quo was somehow worse than what was likely to replace it in the event of a political cataclysm. You knew that Lenin had opposed World War I, nationalism, anti-Semitism, inequality, exploitation, etc.
The fact that Lenin died early helped to keep his reputation in tact with those on the Left. Stalin could be blamed for everything. Many scholars have helped to erode this book’s positive portrayal of Lenin. I’m thinking of Lesley Chamberlain’s brilliant book about the role Lenin personally played in exiling his leading opponents in the Russian intelligentsia. Lenin was certainly no democrat, and the title of authoritarian seems to rest easily on his head in light of his many decisions. Stalin’s rise can even be attributed to Lenin, who chose him as a lieutenant even if he criticized him in the final year of his life.
But wonders if it’s fair to lay the results of history at the foot of somebody who couldn't have foreseen how a lack of democracy would eventually lead to unprecedented brutality and suffering. Hell, we don’t even blame lovable Harry S. Truman for a decision he actually made to obliterate two Japanese cities with nuclear bombs.