Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924) -- who became known globally by his underground pseudonym, Lenin -- is presented in this succinct yet substantial work of scholarship as a genuine revolutionary, in stark contrast to the cold-blooded totalitarian monster that has become all-too-common in accounts from both the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. A student of the fine, honest "sovietologist" Robert C. Tucker (whose two-volume unfinished biography on Stalin has yet to be surpassed -- Stalin as Revolutionary 1879-1929: A Study in History and Personality (Acls History E-Book Project Reprint Series) and Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941), Lars Lih made a major step in shattering myths about Lenin in his massive earlier work, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context (Historical Materialism Book Series). He continues that good work in this readable and informative biography.
Common themes in much anti-Lenin scholarship (ranging from Adam Ulam and Alfred Meyer to Richard Pipes and Robert Service) are: Lenin distrusted the capacity of the working class to be truly revolutionary; he consequently veered away from Marxist orthodoxy in order to develop a "vanguard party" dominated by intellecutals such as himself in order to accomplish the revolutionary task; he was so utterly fanatical that he refused to tolerate any and all disagreement, and even turned away from music because he feared it would make him too "soft." Lenin's inhumanity, according to such acocunts, was manifest from his early callous rejection of efforts to help starving peasants during the famine of 1891-92 down through to his unrelentingly authoritarian violence utilized to force the intractable Russian masses to live up to his utopian ideals after the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Lih's well-documented account demonstrates the mythological character of these and other well-worn assertions. Steeped in Marxist thought, in fact "in love" with Marx's writings, Lenin maintained throughout his life the belief in a "heroic working class" that would inevitably prove itself capable of leading (in alliance with Russia's peasant majority) both a democratic revolution to overthrow the absolute monarchy of Tsar Nicholas II and a subsequent socialist revolution (in alliance with workers of other lands) that would bring to birth a society in which (to use Marx's words) the working class would "win the battle of democracy," leading to a socialist or communist future that would be "an association in which the free development of each would be the condition for the free development of all." The revolutionary party that Lenin helped create (the Bolsheviks) was fundmanetally democratic, evolving through sharp debates and disagreements, sometimes even splits (though sometimes unifications), a collectivity of activists in which Lenin was more than once over-ruled but within which he earned considerable authority. Far from developing a blueprint for an authoritarian order, Lenin's "blueprints" (such as they were) projected a workers' and peasants' republic of democratic councils (soviets) which would, increasingly, replace what he and other Marxists perceived as the economic dictatorship of capitalism with the economic democracy of socialism. Of course, things did not turn out that way.
In this fine and richly-textured book, Lenin is placed securely in context: the context of European and Russian history, the context of the broader socialist movement (a truly mass phenomenon before World War I), the context of truly heroic workers' struggles and of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (and later the Communist Party) that contained a number of other experienced and strong-minded individuals. We are given a sense of the qualities that enabled this human being to have the impact that he did in such contexts. An iron will is combined with a brilliant intellect, with a profoundly realistic and practical theoretical and organizational bent, yet also with a desire to learn from others and -- by no means inconsequentially -- a capacity for charm and humor, and for genuine kindness.
At the same time, there definitely was a quality akin to arrogance, if we are to believe Lih's account, and at times an inclination to see a highly complex reality through the distorting lens of his revolutionary assumptions and his faith that the "heroic working class" could and would overcome all obstacles. Lih shows us that this perspective could not survive the escalation of problems and horrific crises that beset the revolutionary regime after 1917. A brutalizing civil war, combined with foreign invasions and economic blockades, and exaccerbated by terrible mistakes of the revolutionaries themselves, swept away the autonomy of revolutionary soviets and quickly evaporated the once-potent energy of "workers' democracy". In order to survive and create order amid the chaos, Lenin and his comrades implemented emergency policies and improvisations that closed down civil liberties, gave a political monopoly to the Communist Party, and generated the hot-house development of a bureaucratic order. The rescue from this dilemma that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had expected from workers' revolutions in other countries, and for which they had begun building the Communist International in 1919, failed to materialize. Modifying his expectations while engaging in initial problem-solving efforts, Lenin never abandoned the fundamental ideas and ideals that had animated him. But he was soon devastated by a series of catastrophic strokes, which ended his political activity by 1922-23 and brought death soon after.
Lih's biography of Lenin is a substantial contribution for those who would like to understand important aspects of recent history, and perhaps to gain some understanding as well of current and future possibilities. It would make sense, while engaging with Lenin's life and times, to engage also with some of his writings, a comprehensive survey (and introductory essay complementing Lih's findings) which can be found in a recent volume entitled Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings (Get Political).