Friday, June 2, 2017

Tarqi Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin

For more than a decade I’ve been reading about the Russian Revolution, but, with some element of irony, I have to confess that I have seldom read many modern Marxist accounts of the event.  This deficiency was somewhat remedied by my recent encounter with Tariq Ali’s new book, The Dilemmas of Lenin, which approaches the Revolution and Lenin’s biography from an unapologetically Marxist point of view.  Ali’s book provided me with an excellent framework for judging the Russian revolutionary tradition on its own terms.  Ali’s Lenin almost always makes the right decisions about politics.  According to Ali, Lenin was rightly appalled both by colonial rapaciousness and the First World War and therefore made a series of decisions to make no compromises in the struggle to take power from both autocratic and liberal Russia.  On a human level, Ali’s Lenin is extremely sympathetic.  While he may well have been polemical, his style of politics was born of personal pain (i.e., the execution of his older brother) and rendered necessary the brutality of the system he opposed. 
            The downside of Ali’s description of Lenin is that it never completely leaves behind the hagiographic Soviet tradition he pretends to reject.  For Ali thinks Lenin was right on almost every theoretical and tactical decision he ever made.  To be sure, Lenin was a strategist of undeniable genius.  Lenin created the conditions for the victory of the Bolsheviks in fratricidal socialist conflict.   He helped to turn Russian radicals away from individual acts of terror and toward organized resistance to autocracy.  He pushed the Bolsheviks to successfully seize power in October.  He correctly realized that the Brest-Litovsk Treaty would guarantee the survival of the Revolution. He worked with Trotsky and others to organize the Bolsheviks for civil war.  He used the NEP interlude to give the Soviet economy some breathing space.  And he even seems to have made some relatively prescient predictions about Stalin and Soviet bureaucracy at the end of his life.  In terms of theory, Ali thinks Lenin also deserves praise. Ali thinks Lenin made valuable contributions to Marxist Theory, especially in terms of strengthening Hobson’s argument about the links between colonialism and capitalism.  
            Ali’s take on Lenin is extremely persuasive.  His well-informed, readable book will help overturn many stereotypes about the man that are driven more by the results of Stalinism than by Lenin’s real personal characteristics.  While Lenin’s political decisions may have had disastrous consequences for Russia, this does not necessarily mean that Lenin wasn’t a richly human figure.  Contrary to many historical accounts, Lenin loved at least one woman deeply (i.e., his mistress), listened to music, read poetry (he preferred Pushkin to Mayakovski), empathized with the suffering of others, maintained lasting friendships, and sometimes admitted wrongdoing.  Ali’s book also helps non-Marxists acknowledge that Lenin’s October Revolution wasn’t a coup d’etat as it is frequently portrayed.  Although the Bolshevik takeover wasn’t democratic, Bolsheviks had a great deal of concentrated support in Russia’s largest two cities, and their party appealed to Russian workers for a variety of very good reasons, including their support for immediate peace with the Central Powers.
            To sum up, Ali’s book helped me to see Lenin as so many of his supporters must have seen him, not as a brutal sectarian but as a practical man who wanted to be sure a revolution finally actually succeeded in both taking and maintaining power.  Indeed, even some of Lenin's most controversial decisions may make more sense when the socialist alternatives are examined in more detail.  Most importantly, if most European socialists were actively supporting nationalist governments at war, what obligation did a convinced Marxist have to include them in their counsels? Could any reasonable socialist have expected a communist government to be worse for people than the previous regimes had been?  Lenin was also naturally concerned that the Russian Revolution would succumb to counterrevolution just as the Paris Commune had done.  For this reason, a socialist might be forgiven for going to extraordinary measures to defend whatever revolutionary advances had been made.  In any event, Ali's book places Lenin firmly within a long radical tradition, and places his decisions within a global context.  For better or worse, the third Russian Revolution of the twentieth century was the first successful socialist revolution in the world.
             Ali doesn’t deal directly with Stalinism at all, and implies that only the Civil War led the Bolshevik Party to jettison civil rights and healthy intra-party debates.  Unconvincingly, Ali seems to think that if only Trotsky had bested Stalin after Lenin’s death, all might have been well in Soviet politics.  (What is more, he make the unconvincing traditional Marxist argument that fascism is merely liberal capitalism seeking to defend itself from communism).  Although Lenin the man may be partly forgiven for not anticipating that Soviet terror could or would actually exceed liberal European bellicosity, his milieu’s disastrous disregard for democratic and liberal civil rights traditions deserves extended comment. 

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