Saturday, January 2, 2010
Volkogonov on Lenin
Volkogonov’s Lenin has many similarities with the Lenin of Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, and others. Volkogonov’s Lenin is one-dimensional (he doesn't read Russian classics and thinks Chernechevsky makes for great literature), hypocritical, undemocratic, unpatriotic, ruthless, and interested in power for its own sake. While this Lenin was a true genius—especially in terms of his persuasiveness, willpower and dogged determination, and tactical flexibility—and accomplished more in his brief tenure in power than any other modern politician has accomplished in a lifetime, he was thoroughly amoral if not immoral.
Volkogonov isn’t exactly breaking new ground by listing the crimes and misdemeanors of V.I. Lenin. Yet it’s worth repeating some of the author’s chief complaints against the man. Volkogonov blames Lenin for attacking religion, instituting grain requisitions, ending press freedom, destroying the very notion of private property (and burning property-related papers to hinder counter-revolution), exiling opponents, normalizing executions (although his own brother had been executed under the Old Regime),creating a surveillance state, and implementing a philosophy of terror against political and so-called “class enemies.”
The author’s contempt for Lenin is limitless. According to Volkogonov, Lenin failed by any definition of good or ethical statecraft. He ended “bourgeois democracy” but also dealt a death blow to any meaningful definition of “worker democracy” insofar as he placed a very tiny minority of the Party above all trade union activity or worker control of factory life. Lenin also created the climate of inordinate secrecy that surrounded the Soviet Party elite. Everything became a state secret. Citizens weren’t permitted to know anything about the political or economic system, but even seemingly banal facts and figures were put off limit to the public or press, such as they were. Moreover, Lenin purposefully kept details about the emerging nomeklatura’s perks and privileges secret from the prying eyes of the Party at large.
Where Volkogonov’s critique of Lenin differs most from those of Westerners, is the outrage he reserves for Lenin’s commitment to international revolution. Ever the nationalist, Volkogonov blames Lenin for secretly sending large amounts of capital out of the country to support foreign communist parties. While this seems to be an inherent component of early (and late) Bolshevik ideology, Volkogonov reminds his readers that Lenin supported global revolution while ignoring the poverty and starvation that were gripping his country during War Communism.
Again and again, the author portrays a political leader who sacrifices ordinary people in order to create a distant utopia. Of course, Lenin had fairly limited contact with actual workers or peasants; no matter, he was prepared to authorize any moral outrage in the service of his personal conception of the workers’ needs. Volkogonov makes one other interesting critique of Lenin. He argues that Lenin arbitrarily ended the old tsarist administrative system that had been routed in provinces or oblasts rather than countries. The ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union was the result of this extreme hubris. Under the Tsars, allegiance within the Russian Empire often transcended nationality. Under Leninism, the nationalities were only bound together by extreme forms of coercion and centralization. When the Party collapsed, the Soviet Union necessarily did so too.