Writing about Lenin is a crowded field and inevitably controversial. This reflects the extraordinary role played by Lenin himself in the only socialist revolution thus far in the history of capitalism. Hated and demonised by Cold War historians, distorted and buried under the Stalinist rewriting of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, all writers who attempt to present what Lenin actually wrote, said and did are most welcome.
Tariq Ali is one such writer, with the added bonus that he defends October 1917 as a mass revolution, and more broadly the revolutionary tradition. There is a wealth of historical knowledge on display throughout the book, including perceptive comments occasioned by Tariq Ali’s own visits to Russia. That said, it is not clear what he is aiming for in writing the book or who the audience is.
The book is neither a handbook for activists, like Tony Cliff’s four volumes on Lenin, nor a clear presentation of Lenin’s ideas as in Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered. Thus the reader should not expect the insight into historical context which Cliff provides nor the forensic presentation of Lenin’s ideas in polemics with others which Lih achieves. The historical sweep of much of the book leads to generalisations and judgements that often remain unsubstantiated.
There is interesting detail scattered throughout, for example in the chapter Aftermath that draws out the role of US President Wilson in funding the key White generals who tried to defeat the revolution militarily.
Ali also has sharp words to say about the wasted potential for solidarity from Austrian workers because of the capitulation of social democrat leader Otto Bauer to national chauvinism and his abandonment of a revolutionary perspective.
The book is built around five themes or dilemmas that often overlap in historical time. This can make contextualisation difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the trajectory of the Russian Revolution and debates in the revolutionary movement.
The section on women spends a disproportionate amount of space on the personal relationship between Inessa Armand and Lenin, something contested by historians (Ali is probably right about it), but which was surely a personal and not a political dilemma. At the same time, Ali fails to mention that Inessa Armand was the director of the Zhenotdel, the women’s department set up by the revolutionary government.
More seriously, Tariq Ali blames conservatism after 1930 for the re-establishment of traditional women’s roles rather than the undermining of the revolution through the Civil War followed by the counter-revolution under Stalin. He does not mention the government propaganda campaign for motherhood, the severe restrictions on access to abortion in 1936, culminating in the banning of coeducational schools in 1943 and the introduction of heavy penalties for divorce in 1944.
This reveals one of the weaknesses of the book: Ali does not really communicate the absolute commitment to working class self-emancipation that motivated Lenin throughout his life; nor his profound belief that workers had to lead the struggle against all kinds of oppression and that the vanguard workers’ party had to be a tribune of the oppressed.
Only someone who misses that central pillar in Lenin’s thought can put the Chinese Revolution in 1949 on a par with October 1917.