I bought this book less than a week ago planning to take it with me on vacation. But I “made a mistake” of reading the first chapter and was so captivated that I finished it in just several days.
Tariq Ali has not written a standard biography of Lenin. It is not a book that follows its subject every step of the way. He has not written a full intellectual biography either. “The dilemmas of Lenin” is something in-between: a book for the general audience that covers Lenin’s entire life but is organized thematically and discusses topics such as the rise of terrorism in Russia, the ideological reasons for the break-up of the Russian Social Democratic party, the collapse of the Second International (all topics that have been studied in extenso), but also the military strategy used by Trotsky, Frunze and Tukhachevsky during the Civil War (a chapter where Lenin does not appear at all), and ends with a very interesting discussion on the position of women before and during the revolution and on Communist attitudes towards sex (including Lenin’s love affair with Inessa Armand).
Who is a better person to write such a book than Tariq Ali, who (by his own telling, p. 34) at the age of seven recited by heart, at a meeting of left-wing intellectuals in Lahore, Pushkin’s poem celebrating one of the Decembrists’ heroines who decided to join her husband in Siberian exile; a person who spent his life being engaged in progressive politics in Britain and the US, and participating in a number of ideological disputes?
Ali brings another advantage too: a “Third World” outlook which is especially important for the understanding of the evolution of the Third International (under Lenin and afterwards). His point of view is radically different from that of Bill Warren (discussed here). While Warren criticizes Lenin for having fused the anti-capitalist struggle with anti-imperialism, to the detriment of working-class movements, Ali shows both how that was inevitable (after the failure of revolutions in Germany and Hungary) and desirable as it made Marxism attractive to many “Third World” workers, peasants and intellectuals and opened huge new vistas to the socialist movement. It may be even argued that it was that decision that made Communism a global movement, and probably lay the groundwork for the formation of strong nation-states in Asia (China, Vietnam) that were needed to regain national independence and to develop economically.
This is therefore a very different narrative of Lenin’s life from the more usual, Euro-centric narratives where the spread of Communist ideology to Asia (and the specific problems it had to overcome to appeal to the Muslim populations in the Central Asia and the Caucasus) get treated only parenthetically.
Even in the parts that are well-known, and have been much written about, Ali’s book is useful especially for the younger generation of readers because Ali does not shy away from pointing out to the shallowness of some contemporary historians like Volkogonov (a “vulgarian”, p. 151), Richard Pipes (“The Unknown Lenin” is “a horror movie version” of his earlier books; p. 337), and even to some extent Robert Service. They all, reflecting the post-1989 Zeitgeist, see Lenin as a blood-thirsting tyrant and the revolution as a coup. Ali (relying mostly on Sukhanov who wrote the only existent day-to-day chronology of the revolution) shows that while the last “strike”, the seizure of the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government, was (obviously) a bloodless “coup”, it simply crowned a long period of Bolshevik’s increasing popularity and thus control of the Soviets, both in Petrograd and equally importantly among the soldiers on the frontline. But that “coup”, conducted against the well-known opposition within the top Bolsheviks (Zinoviev and Kamenev), set the stage for what Ali sees as leading to a one-party, and ultimately one-man, dictatorship. The “coup” irrevocably separated Bolsheviks from even the left-wing Mensheviks, and while the first Soviet government was a coalition of Bolsheviks and left SRs, the SRs were dropped and banned after their opposition to the Brest-Litovsk peace agreement.
Thus, at the end of the book, Martov (perhaps with Trotsky, Lenin’s most trusted—or liked—collaborator—that is, when they were not at loggerheads) makes a sudden reappearance as a person whose views might have saved the revolution from its decadence under Stalin. Did Lenin recognize this? Ali makes perhaps too much of Lenin’s last article, severely critical of the bureaucratization of the party (but very timid in suggesting any real solutions to it), and of Lenin’s expressed desire to meet Martov and his grief at learning of Martov’s death (which preceded his own by nine months).
The reader is left thinking that—as all evidence, not only here, points out—there would have been no revolution without Lenin, but also that the methods that he in part chose, and those that were in part imposed on him by the Civil War and the Entente and US military interventions, destroyed all democratic potential of the revolution. And that on that last issue Martov (and many others) were right.
It is worth also pointing out to three excellent chapters on the role of women in Tsarist Russia, where, as Ali writes, they legally had almost as few rights as women in Saudi Arabia have now, but where they were extremely active in the political life (10 out of 28 members of the People’s Will Central Committee were women), in education, health and liberal professions. By many numerical indicators, “the self-liberation” of women had gone further in the Tsarist Russia than in Western Europe and America at the time. It was also politically much “deeper” than the suffragette movement. The “self-liberation” then took another big step forward with the Revolution. Women and men were legally equal, Church marriage was no longer legal, marriage only required a “registration” (and even that for many revolutionaries was too much because it legalized state involvement), homosexuality was decriminalized, children born out of “wedlock” were treated equally as those born in “registered” marriages—and even special trade unions for sex-workers were organized.
Reading this book on your vacation will make your life better and your mind broader.