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My hot take – Lenin was bad
We should not venerate tyrants, of Left or Right
I’ve always had a soft spot for Henry IV, the Lancastrian king whose overthrow of his cousin Richard II set the stage for a century of conflict in England. For all his faults, King Henry did have one personal quality which marks him up in my book – his hatred of lawyers.
So much did he dislike them that in 1404 the king had expressly prohibited any lawyers from sitting in Parliament on the grounds that they were stirrers of troubles and only interested in themselves. The result was the so-called ‘Unlearned Parliament’ or ‘Parliament of Dunces’ of October that year, composed only of people who knew nothing about law. Sensible policies for a happier Britain.
Not everyone would support such a utopia, however. After Boris Johnson had told Keir Starmer ‘you’re a lawyer, not a leader’, Labour frontbencher Emily Thornberry (whose father was also a lawyer) hit back: ‘On Lawyers and Leaders #PMQs:- I think it's pretty cool to be in the company of the lawyers Obama, Mandela, Blair, Ghandi, Clinton, Roosevelt, Lenin and Lincoln. And better that than to be remembered as the leader who needed a lawyer! #PartyGate’
The keen-eyed among you might notice that one of these people is rather unlike the others.
Vladimir Lenin, like Tony Blair, was a former resident of Thornberry’s Islington South and Finsbury constituency, working on the revolutionary paper The Spark while living in Clerkenwell Green. Finsbury Council actually made a bust of the man during the Second World War to show their solidarity with our great allies. (You know, that war which the Soviets helped start alongside the Nazis.)
Lenin’s bust was then for many years on display at Islington Town Hall, the north London borough being at the forefront of ‘loony left’ local government politics in the ‘70s and ‘80s when many councils were full of Trotskyites. Today it’s confined to a museum, but the inexplicable ability of the Soviet Union’s founder to escape historical judgment is one of the great curiosities of history.
Richard Pipes recalled in his book Communism a scene where Left Socialist Revolutionary politician Isaac Steinberg was attending a meeting of the Council of People’s Commissars in February 1918. Lenin had presented the draft of a decree, ‘The Socialist Fatherland in Danger!’, which called for execution without trial ‘on the spot’ for a broad and vague group of ‘enemy agents, speculators, burglars, hooligans, counter-revolutionary agitators, [and] German spies’.
Steinberg, a moral man who later left the USSR and tried to rescue Jews from occupied Europe, objected on the grounds that it contained a ‘cruel threat… with far-reaching terroristic potentialities’. He recalled: ‘Lenin resented my opposition in the name of revolutionary justice. So I call out in exasperation, “Then why do we bother with a Commissariat of Justice? Let’s call it frankly the Commissariat for Social Extermination and be done with it!” Lenin’s face suddenly brightened and he replied, “Well put… that’s exactly what it should be… but we can’t say that.”’
So I have a hot take – Lenin was bad. Not just bad, but a monster. Indeed, all the bad things we associate with Stalin were mainly Lenin’s doing.
The scion of minor gentry, the founder of the USSR was an extraordinarily heartless man. When famine struck the Volga region in 1891-2, he ‘alone among the local intelligentsia opposed humanitarian assistance to the starving peasants, on the grounds that the famine was progressive because it destroyed the old peasant economy and paved the way for socialism,’ Pipes writes.
‘Nor was his revolutionary ardour inspired by a vision of a more just future. It was grounded in anger and driven by a craving for revenge. [Peter] Struve, who collaborated with him in the 1890s, wrote many years later that the principle feature of Lenin’s personality was hatred.’
Take his August 1918 directive, which contains the passage: ‘The kulaks are the most beastly, the coarsest, the most savage exploiters…. These bloodsuckers have waxed rich during the war on the people’s want… These spiders have grown fat at the expense of peasants, impoverished by the war, of hungry workers. These leeches have drunk the blood of toilers, growing the richer the more the worker starved in the cities and factories. These vampires have gathered and continue to gather in their hands the lands of the landlords, enslaving, time and again, the poor peasants. Merciless war against their kulaks! Death to them.’
I’m pretty sure that Nelson Mandela never said anything like that.
That same month Lenin wrote: ‘Hang (hang without fail, so the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers…. Designate hostages – as per yesterday’s telegram. Do it in such a way that for hundreds of versts [kilometres] around the people will see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucker kulaks.’
On 30 August that year Lenin survived being shot by socialist revolutionary Fanny Kaplan (he shared with Mussolini the distinction of having escaped assassination attempts by women, although Mussolini’s would-be assassin was incredibly unlucky.) Afterwards, Lenin ordered the Cheka to carry out ‘merciless mass terror’ – the start of the red terror that Stalin would take to new lengths.
Orlando Figes wrote in A People’s Tragedy how ‘In his private life Lenin was the epitome of the heartless squire whom his government would one day destroy’. In 1891 he even sued peasant neighbours for causing damage to his estate, and he condemned in his writing ‘gentry capitalism’ while living off the profits from his land. Today he’d be one of those enthusiastic NIMBYs who parades a Black Lives Matter sign on his lawn and blocks any new house being built within 10 miles of him.
As Maxim Gorky put it: ‘Lenin is a “leader” and a Russian nobleman, not without certain psychological traits of this extinct class, and therefore he considers himself justified in performing with the Russian people a cruel experiment which is doomed to failure.’
The heartlessness is reflected in Lenin’s prose style in What is to Be Done? which Figes states ‘had a barking, military rhythm, a manic violence and decisiveness, with cumulative cadences of action or abuse, and opponents lumped together by synecdoche’.
Lenin himself said: ‘I can’t listen to music too often. It makes me want to say kind, stupid things, and pat the heads of people… But now you have to beat them on the head, beat them without mercy.’
There was no ‘private Lenin’, Figes wrote: ‘The Mensheviks joked that it was impossible to compete with a man, such as Lenin, who thought about revolution for twenty-four hours every day.’ He was all ideas, and ultimately all his ideas led in one direction – violence. In his December 1917 pamphlet How to Organise Competition? Lenin called for a ‘war to the death against the rich, the idlers and the parasites’. Each town and village should develop means of ‘cleansing the Russian land of all vermin, of scoundrel fleas, the bedbug rich and so on. In one place they will put into prison a dozen rich men, a dozen scoundrels, half a dozen workers who shirk on the job… In another place they will be put to cleaning latrines. In a third they will be given yellow tickets [such as prostitutes were given] after a term in prison, so that everyone knows they are harmful and can keep an eye on them. In a fourth one out of every ten idlers will be shot. The more variety the better… for only practice can devise the best methods of struggle.’
Again, I can’t be certain but I’m pretty sure Gandhi never used these sorts of words.
The terror state was not Stalin’s creation, but Lenin’s. Under him the Cheka was created and grew to employ 250,000 individuals; the organisation was responsible for untold deaths from murder and neglect, and indeed may have killed more people than died in the entire civil war.
Lenin also indulged in all the minor crimes with which communist regimes have always become riddled, including nepotism and cronyism. His sister Anna Ulyanova was put in charge of child welfare and her husband Mark Elizarov was made People’s Commissar of Railways. Early in 1918 Lenin had backed a special restaurant for Bolsheviks because ‘the workers will understand the necessity of it’. There soon developed a two-tier society in which party members received ‘higher salaries and special rations, subsidised housing in apartments and hotels, access to exclusive shops and hospitals, private dachas, chauffeured cars, first-class railway travel and holidays abroad, not to mention countless other privileges once reserved for the tsarist elite’.
Lenin’s lack of humanity or individual pity was almost his guiding spirit, for as Gorky put it, ‘the working class is for a Lenin what ore is for a metalworker’. Indeed, in October 1919 he made a secret visit to the laboratory of scientist Ivan Pavlov (of salivating dogs fame) ‘to find out if his work on the conditional reflexes of the brain might help the Bolsheviks control human behaviour’. He said ‘I want the masses of Russia to follow a Communistic pattern of thinking and reacting. There was too much individualism in the Russia of the past. Communism does not tolerate individualistic tendencies. They are harmful. They interfere with our plans. We must abolish individualism.’
Pavlov was shocked and asked if he wanted to do to humans what he had done for dogs, having them standardised. ‘Exactly. Man can be corrected. Man can be made what we want him to be.’
There is almost nothing good to be said of this particular man, except perhaps that by the end of his life he may have realised that it wasn’t working. By now he had been incapacitated by three strokes, and was under the personal control of Stalin, who directed his doctors and secretaries and refused Lenin’s appeals to be given poison because he was more useful alive.
Lenin had always despised Russians – a common attribute of many Russian revolutionaries – and in his last writings ‘was haunted by Russia’s cultural backwardness. It was as if he acknowledged, perhaps only to himself, that the Mensheviks had been right, that Russia was not ready for socialism since its masses lacked the education to take the place of the bourgeoise, and that the attempt to speed up this process through the intervention of the state was bound to end up in tyranny.’
Oh well, at least he tried. His heart was in the right place – and that’s why he’s still lauded.
I don’t object that the Left’s extremes are not as stigmatised as the Right’s. Nazism was far worse than communism, and it’s not even close. Even if the actual death toll from Lenin’s ideology is enormous, intention matters; killing 1,000 people with a famine because they are unfortunate bystanders in your hair-brained scheme to make paradise on earth is far less of a crime than deliberately shooting or gassing 1,000 people because you regard them as sub-human. But it’s still a terrible thing to do.
Lenin still appeals because he was an ‘eternal student’, part of that group of over-educated, middle-class intellectuals who grew up resentful of liberal parents, alienated from any religious or cultural tradition and despising their fellow countrymen. That, rather than being a lawyer, explains his continual appeal to some in the Labour Party.
Still, maybe Henry IV did have a point.