My trilogy last week about the Putin-Lenin gaffe stirred up quite a debate. Again I remind you to peruse Part I, Part II, and Part III of my trilogy. And also to review my post from yesterday, in which I gave you a pro-Lenin point of view, penned by blogger and history student Lyttenburgh.
Today I have for you a different point of view, penned by Ryan Ward, also a blogger, and also a history student.
Ryan is currently working as a teacher (English language for adults) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He is also a part-time Vietnamese language student and is in the process of applying for grad school in the International Affairs program. When it comes to history, Ryan’s biggest interests are Russian history, East Asian history (particularly the history of Korea and Vietnam) and Orthodox Church history. Ryan also blogs on current affairs at this link. Although he says he has not been blogging as much recently, as he is busy working on Grad school applications and writing a monograph on the origins of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War.
So. here, without further ado, is Ryan’s approach to this issue, and to this controversy.
This is Ryan speaking now:
The question before us is how Lenin should be seen from a nationalistic/patriotic point of view. Did Lenin place a “time bomb” under the Russian state, as Putin recently claimed, or did he “save” the Russian state? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle? Before starting in on this question, it’s important first of all to note how far it is from Lenin’s own concerns. Were Lenin to be resurrected and told that his main achievement had been to preserve the Russian state, he would be profoundly disappointed. All forms of nationalism were profoundly alien to Lenin’s thought. Although, in his writings on imperialism, Lenin seemed to make some room for a sort of nationalism, by speaking of national “self-determination”, this was intended solely in a negative sense. The point was not that “self-determination” was really good in itself, but that its contrary in the context of imperialism (the domination of some nations by others), was a something that communists should resist. Lenin’s goal was not the consolidation of the Russian nation, but the gradual marginalization of the concept of nationhood (a bourgeois concept) as such, as stated in his work The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, “The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in a categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle. (The Communist Party) values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletarians of all nations.” Lenin’s goal was not to save or consolidate the Russian state, but rather to use Russia as a springboard for worldwide revolution.
Indeed, not only did Lenin not aim to preserve a Russian state, he aimed to do away with states entirely. In Leninist thought, states always represent the power of one group (the rulers) over another (the ruled). This theme is most fully developed in Lenin’s work The State and Revolution, where Lenin writes (of the state of developed communism), “People will gradually become accustomed to observe the elementary rules of social life…without force, without compulsion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for compulsion which is called the state.” Again, it must be noted that Russia, as a nation-state (and certainly as a multinational empire) held no interest or significance for Lenin. The importance of Russia was purely instrumental.
It’s critical to keep this in mind when evaluating Lenin’s activities in the First World War. Lenin’s activity in this war was characterized by a complete lack of concern for the interests of the Russian state. In The Tasks of the Revolutionary Social Democrats in the European War, Lenin wrote, “From the point of view of the working class and the toiling masses of all the peoples of Russia, the lesser evil would be the defeat of the tsarist monarchy and its troops, which are oppressing Poland, the Ukraine and many other peoples of Russia.” Lenin’s (and the Bolsheviks’) stance was not merely an even-handed promotion of peace on all sides, but rather an explicit policy of working for the defeat of Russia. This is reflected in Bolshevik agitation, which from the very beginning of the war focused on demoralizing Russian soldiers and convincing them not to fight.
Furthermore, the Bolsheviks engaged in this agitation with the cooperation and financial assistance of the German government. German connivance in the transportation of Lenin back to Russia after the February revolution is well-known. However, what is less well-known is that this was hardly the beginning of the cooperation between the German government and the Bolsheviks. Indeed, as early as May 1915, Lenin met with Alexander Lazarevich Helphand, a wealthy businessman of socialist views [yalensis: Helphand is better known under his alias Parvus] who had ties to the German government. In addition to Helphand’s testimony, this meeting has been confirmed by numerous other sources. Following on this meeting, Helphand worked together with Lenin’s agent, Yakov Stanislavovich Fuerstenberg (aka Ganetsky), to set up an export firm in Scandinavia. The German government provided goods for export to Russia, which were then routed through the Helphand-Ganetsky firm for sale in Russia. As the Austro-Hungarian diplomat Grebing commented, “None of the money realized from the sale of these goods in Russia was, however, paid to the Germans, but was used to finance Lenin’s propaganda from the first day of the revolution.” In addition to Grebing’s testimony, the existence and activities of the Helphand-Ganetsky firm were also documented by French counter-intelligence. This was only one of the ways that the Bolsheviks were financed by the Germans. Speaking of this assistance in general, the German minister of foreign affairs wrote, “It was not until the Bolsheviks had received from us a steady flow of funds through various channels and under varying labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow base of their party.” By any traditional patriotic standards, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were foreign agents, guilty of outright treason.
Granted, it is true that, in the period of the Provisional Government, the Mensheviks and SR’s also contributed to the disintegration of the Russian front line, especially through the promulgation of Order #1 by the Petrograd Soviet. However, it’s hardly accurate to suggest that this means that the Mensheviks and SR’s, rather than the Bolsheviks, undermined the military effort. In this period, the Bolsheviks were continuing and accelerating their defeatist propaganda. Additionally, although they were not a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, the Bolsheviks were present there, and therefore share the responsibility for its actions. At the same time, and whatever his private reservations about the Soviet, Lenin continued to use the slogan, “All power to the soviets,” reinforcing the authority of the very body that was undermining morale at the front. The role of the Petrograd Soviet in undermining morale at the front in no way limits the responsibility of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Rather, it is another instance of this responsibility.
Nor is it accurate, despite all the damage done by the Bolsheviks and others, to suggest that the Russian line collapsed before the October Revolution. Although Kerensky’s summer offensive failed badly, and led to the loss of Galicia, the line stabilized at the Galician border. The Austro-Hungarian army was in even worse disarray than was the Russian army, and the Germans could not afford to commit the troops to push the counter-offensive further. In the North, the Germans took Riga, which was a significant victory, but the Russian 12th army had vacated the city before the German attack, which meant that there remained an intact Russian formation between the Germans and Petrograd, which was still 300 miles away, hardly a negligible distance in the conditions of the First World War. It is also inaccurate to suggest that the line finally did stabilize when the Bolsheviks opened negotiation with the Germans. Although the Bolsheviks made the incredibly naïve claim that the negotiations would result in a peace “without annexations or indemnities,” the Germans were, for obvious reasons, not interested in any such peace. The “stabilization” of the line was a temporary respite, after which the Germans advanced completely unopposed. The Bolshevik peace talks resulted in nothing except Russia’s surrender.
Finally moving on to the question of “anarchy”, this can be resolved with one simple question. Did the formation of organized militant groups (as opposed to scattered and disorganized peasant bands) precede or follow the October revolution? The situation in which Russia was divided by a myriad of different armed groups was not a situation that the Bolsheviks inherited, but one that they themselves created by setting the precedent that political decisions would be made by armed force. This was hardly a surprise. In opposing the October revolution, Plekhanov, Zasulich and Deich wrote, in the “Open Letter to the Petrograd Workers,” “The revolution is the greatest historical disaster, it will provoke a civil war which in the end will force it to retreat far from the conquests of February 1917.” This is indeed precisely what happened. Nor was it a surprise to Lenin himself. Rather, it was his explicit goal. As early as 1914, Lenin wrote in a letter to Shlyapnikov, “…the least evil now and at once would be the defeat of tsarism in the war. For tsarism is a hundred times worse than kaiserism…(Our focus should be on) turning the national war into a civil war.” By launching a coup, with no democratic legitimacy, the Bolsheviks fatally undermined the principles of political legitimacy, opening the door to anarchy and civil war. As the SR leader Boris Savinkov noted, “The Russian people do not want Lenin, Trotsky and Dzerzhinsky, not merely because the Bolsheviks mobilize them, shoot them, take their grain, and are ruining Russia. The Russian people do not want them for the simple reason that…nobody elected them.” By their complete contempt for democracy, the Bolsheviks left no way to resolve political conflict except civil war. This was not an accident, but rather Lenin’s long-standing plan.
Lenin was a complete failure according to his own criteria. No state of affairs remotely like the one described in The State and Revolution ever came to pass in the Soviet Union or anywhere else. Nor did any “world revolution” ever take place. In his longer-term predictions, Lenin was wrong on every count. 100 years after his revolution, no one talks anymore about “proletarian internationalism” or the withering away of the state. Rather than ushering in a new historical epoch, Lenin’s revolution merely introduced a new, and unusually bloody, regime in the former lands of the Russian empire. A century later, that regime has vanished without a trace, and Russia is led by a man who takes his inspiration from the Whites rather than the Reds. In the face of this failure, it is perhaps natural to try to salvage Lenin’s reputation as a great state-builder in the Imperial Russian tradition. However, this recasting simply does not fit the facts of Lenin’s life. Rather than building the Russian state and “saving” it from threats, Lenin himself and his Bolshevik followers were the single greatest threat to the health of the state. From the beginning of the war, they set out with the explicit aim of ensuring that Russia would lose. To this end, they engaged in German-funded propaganda activities that thoroughly demoralized both the soldiers and the civilians on the home front. After the February Revolution, the Bolsheviks supported the Petrograd Soviet, which was making it impossible for the Provisional Government to govern the country or conduct the war effort effectively. Finally, by launching a coup in complete disregard of democratic legitimacy, the Bolsheviks plunged Russia into civil war, famine, and economic weakness that would take decades to repair. Lenin was undoubtedly a “great man” in the sense that, by virtue of his talent, strength of will and personal charisma, he had an impact on history matched by few other figures of the twentieth century. However, an “impact” can be positive or negative. From the perspective of the Russian state, Lenin was an unmitigated disaster.