Review of 'A Rebel's Guide to Lenin', Ian Birchall, Bookmarks £2
The process by which Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power began 100 years ago this year with the first Russian Revolution of 1905. The revolution transformed the tiny Bolshevik Party into an organisation of tens of thousands and ensured it would play a key role in the events of 1917. When it comes to assessing Lenin's role, the view on the right (and among some socialists) is that his rule was a prelude to the horrors under Stalin. And many on the left, while rejecting Stalinism, subscribe to a caricature of Lenin that presents him literally as a 'man of iron', who dealt ruthlessly with political opponents of all hues.
This accessible mini-biography by Ian Birchall rejects these simplicities and presents a much more rounded account. In particular it rescues Lenin from attempts to portray him as some sort of narrow zealot, who wouldn't have anything to do with anyone who disagreed with him. On the contrary, Lenin understood that individuals were important. Many anarchists and syndicalists supported the revolution and he was keen to win them over. Birchall recounts how Lenin spent hours in discussions with anarchists like Emma Goldman. And he constantly stressed the need for patient explanation and 'comradely persuasion' when it came to gaining support for Bolshevik positions.
But this isn't to say that Lenin was somehow 'soft'. Although he was flexible, and able to respond to changing circumstances, he was single-minded about the need for organisation. This single-mindedness, as well as the fact that he was dealing with specific situations, explains why he's so easily quoted out of context. However, as Birchall explains, 'the challenge for revolutionaries is not to predict social explosions, but to find ways of responding to new situations'. This was what Lenin did, and one of the strengths of this book is that it not only contains some great quotes, but their context is always made clear.
The upheavals in Russia would have happened without Lenin. In fact they did, with strikes and mutinies in response to war and a drive for land and freedom among the peasants. As Birchall points out, Lenin's genius was to see how these various movements could be brought together into a single force capable of transforming society. His main legacy was a revolutionary socialist party that, while organising a significant minority of workers, managed to win the support of a majority of that class for revolution to end capitalist rule in Russia. Without the Bolsheviks, it is highly unlikely that a coalition of workers, soldiers and peasants would have taken power in 1917.
Lenin understood that, because the capitalists are organised, our side must respond in kind. In July 1917 he wrote State and Revolution. ('If you only ever read one book by Lenin, this is the one', says Birchall, and he's right!) Here he argued against those who identified socialism with state ownership. The state can't be used to transform society because it isn't a neutral instrument, he said. At its core are 'bodies of armed men' who don't owe their loyalty to governments, whether Labour or Conservative, but to an (unelected) ruling class. In this, Lenin followed Marx, who pointed out that 'the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.' We only have to look at the contemporary actions of governments - Blair's New Labour comes immediately to mind - in promoting and strengthening capitalism to see how this remains true today.
In dealing with the question of the state, Lenin went to the heart of what socialism is, writes Birchall. Centrally, he argued that, while socialists can and should use state institutions like parliament as a platform, they would have to dismantle the capitalist state and replace it with one of their own. This was connected to his understanding that only those who are exploited and oppressed can be counted on to fight for change. Only under 'workers' power' could society be reorganised and wealth redistributed. This 'workers' state' would vanish once the old class divisions had disappeared forever. Or, as Lenin put it, 'so long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.' This is as good a statement of revolutionary socialist ideals as any I've ever read.
Today neo-liberalism and war are prompting a new generation to rediscover socialist ideas. Lenin was one of the first socialists to see that in order for a new world to be born free of exploitation and oppression, the most politically conscious workers had to be organised in a party with the central aim of fomenting revolution against the capitalist class. As Ian points out, that understanding is as urgent today as it was a century ago. This book is an excellent introduction to Lenin's life and work, and it shows why an understanding of his ideas remains vital for all rebels.