Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lenin by John Haney

(Book Review)

Another book in the “World Leaders: Past and Present” series that I picked up from Oita Prefectural Library on my last trip into Oita city.

Lenin is to say the least, a very controversial figure. He’s also the arguably the most influential person in the 20th Century.

…In fact, we did argue about. Shortly before the turn of the century, Time magazine announced that they were going to choose the man of the 20th century, and, just for fun, the question was put out on the history students’ listserve at Calvin. Our musings didn't have any effect on the editorial process at Time magazine, but just for fun we debated it back and forth. Many of us, myself included, argued that if you had to pick one person who had the greatest influence on the events of the 20th Century, it would have to be Lenin. The revolution he engineered in Russia inspired communist Revolutions in China, Cuba, et cetera, until it went on to include half the world. And Lenin was also responsible for creating the Cold War which dominated most of the 20th Century. Plus, if you include the rise of fascism as partly a reaction against the communist revolutions, than you've got to throw in World War II, and all the baggage from that conflict.

The Calvin conservatives on the listserve were appalled by our choice, and enraged that a “thug” like Lenin who merely “inspired other groups of thugs” around the world could be considered person of the Century. They in turn nominated the standard conservative heroes like Winston Churchill, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, et cetera. Those of us who had chosen Lenin tried to explain to them that the “man of the Century” was supposed to be the most influential person, not necessarily the best person. They showed a remarkable inability to understand this concept, and the debate on the listserve went on for weeks.
Proof that Lenin still has the ability to inspire controversy even today.

[Who did Time magazine end-up choosing as “Man of the Century” you ask? Let’s make a game out of it. If you can’t remember, then take your best guess, and then click on this link here to see how well you predicted it.]

I’m far from an expert, but I have read a bit about Lenin over the years, and I’m always amazed at how I come away with a completely different picture of him each time. Sometimes he emerges as a brutal godless communist. Sometimes he comes across as a good guy whose ideas were all corrupted by Stalin. Even within the left, perspectives of Lenin seem to vary depending on whether the author is orthodox communist, Trotskyist, democratic socialist, or anarchist. When reading different analysis about Lenin, sometimes I’m not even sure if I’m reading about the same person.
Bork who, as far as I remember used to share my ambivalence about Lenin’s legacy, read up on it a bit when he was in his internship in Russia and came back fiercely anti Bolshevik and anti-Lenin. But you’d have to talk to him to get his perspective.

This book, while not extremely detailed, makes an effort to try and balance the facts out. I found it surprisingly fair considering it was written during the Reagan administration and is a young adult book that is clearly designed to adorn the shelves of school libraries.

The book very clearly explains who Lenin was and what his goals were. And it shows the many faults of both the Tsarist regime or the Kerensky government that preceded Lenin. However the book also portrays Lenin as a bit of a bully and autocrat even in the years before the Revolution. Lenin would engage in all sorts of questionable politicking and undemocratic practices to get his way within the party.

The book even quotes a section from historian Betram D. Wolfe who:
‘gives an account of a conversation between Akselrod and a member of the International Socialist Bureau—the Second International’s coordinating body—that captures the essence of the gulf that separated Lenin from all Social Democrats, excepting his own followers. The official asked: “Do you mean to say that all these splits and quarrels are the work of one man? But how can one man be so effective and so dangerous?” Akselrod replied: “Because there is not another man who for twenty-four hours of the day is taken up with the revolution, who has no other thoughts but thoughts of the revolution, and who, even in his sleep, dreams of nothing but revolution. Just try and handle such a fellow.”’

The book does not gloss over the political violence that Lenin and the Bolsheviks committed once they were in power. And yet at the same time it does try and put things in perspective. For example when writing about the Red Terror, the author states:

It is estimated that by October 1922, when it was replaced by the State Political Administration (GPU), the Cheka had killed approximately 140,000 people by execution, and another 140,000 while putting down uprisings.
“Many historians have analyzed the Red Terror in great detail while failing to deal with is corollary—the “White Terror”. Some perspective on this troubled issue may, perhaps, be gained from the following single fact: In Finland, which proclaimed independence from Russia in July 1917, White forces under Carl Gustaf Von Mannerheim, a former lieutenant-general in the Imperial Army, killed almost 100,000 workers, or roughly 25 percent of the entire Finnish Proletariat, in just two months—April and May—in 1918

At the end of the book I think the author does a good job of summing up the ambivalence surrounding Lenin’s legacy:
Many historians have claimed that Leninism and Stalinism were essentially the same or, at least, that Stalinism can be viewed as a logical development of Leninism. Whereas others, including many non-leftists, have rejected the idea. Lenin was undoubtedly one of the greatest leaders, most effective revolutionaries, and most powerful minds of his time. His ultimate aim was always the realization of a true producers’ democracy, an egalitarian socioeconomic order promising real social harmony. As he himself stressed repeatedly, the worldwide realization of the kind of society that was at the heart of his vision would mean an end to war and an end to the exploitation of man by man. Men have seized power for worse ends than this.”

Link of the Day
Too stupid to Google it yourself?

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