Like everything else in nature, Lenin was born, has developed, has grown. When Vladimir Ilyitch once observed me glancing through a collection of his articles, written in the year 1903, which had just been published, a sly smile crossed his face, and he remarked with a laugh:
“It is very interesting to read what stupid fellows we were! But I do not here intend to compare the shape of Lenin’s skull at the age of 10, 20 or 30 with the skull of that man who presided over the sessions of the Central Committee of the Party or the Council of Peoples’ Commissars. Here it is not a question of Lenin as leader, but as a living human being. P. B. Axelrod, one of the fathers of Menshevism, who hates Lenin from the bottom of his soul—Axelrod’s case is an excellent example of how love can change to hate—related, in one of the philippics with which he sought to convince me of the harmfulness of Bolshevism in general and of Lenin in particular, how Lenin went abroad for the first-time, and how he went walking and bathing with him. “I felt at that time,” said Axelrod, “that here was a man who would become the leader of the Russian Revolution. Not only was he an educated Marxist—there were many of these—but he knew what he wanted to do and how it was to be done. There was something of the smell of Russian earth about him.” Pavel Borisovitch Axelrod is a bad politician, he does not smell of the earth. He is one who reasons at home in his own study, and the whole tragedy of his life consists of the fact that at a time when there was no labour movement in Russia, he thought out the lines upon which such a labour movement should develop, and when it developed on different lines, he was frightfully offended, and to-day he continues to roar with rage at the disobedient child. But people often observe in others that which is lacking in themselves, and Axelrod’s words with regard to Lenin grasp with unsurpassable acuteness precisely those characteristics which make Lenin a leader.
It is impossible to be a leader of the working class without knowing the whole history of the class. The leaders of the labour movement must know the history of the labour movement; without this knowledge there can be no leader, just as nowadays there can he no great general who could be victorious with the least expenditure of force unless he knew the history of strategy. The history of strategy is not a collection of recipes as to how to win a war, for a situation once described never repeats itself. But the mind of the general becomes practised in strategy by its express study; this study renders him elastic in war, permits him to observe the dangers and possibilities which the empirically trained general cannot see. The history of the labour movement does not tell us what to do, but it makes it possible to compare our position with situations which have already been experienced by our class, so that in various decisive moments we are enabled to see our path clearly, and to recognise approaching danger.
But we cannot get to know the history of the labour movement properly without being thoroughly acquainted with the history of capitalism, with its mechanism in all its economic and political phenomena. Lenin knows the history of capitalism as do but few of Marx’s pupils. It is no mere knowledge of the written word—here Comrade Riazanov could give him five points start—but he has thought out Marx’s theory as no one else has done. Let us, for instance, take the small pamphlet which he wrote at the time of our conflict with the trade union movement; in it he calls Bukharin a syndicalist, an eclectic, and a great sinner in numerous other respects. This polemical pamphlet contains a few lines devoted to the differences between dialectics and eclectics, lines which are not cited in any collection of articles on historical materialism, but which say more about it than whole chapters from much longer books. Lenin has independently grasped and thought out the theory of historical materialism as no one else has been able to do, for the reason that he has studied it with the same object in view by which Marx was actuated when creating the theory.
Lenin entered the movement as the embodiment of the Will to Revolution, and he studied Marxism, the evolution of capitalism, and the evolution of Socialism, from the point of view of their revolutionary significance. Plekhanov was a revolutionist too, but he was not possessed by the Will to Revolution, and despite his great importance as a teacher of the Russian Revolution, he could only teach its algebra and not its arithmetic. Herein lies the point of transition from Lenin the theorist to Lenin the politician. Lenin combined Marxism with the general working class strategy, but at the same time he applied it concretely to that strategic task involving the fate of the Russian working class. It may be said that at the Army Staff Academy he studied not only Clausewitz, Moltke, and their like, but he studied at the same time, as no one else in Russia, the territory of the future Russian proletarian war. Herein lies the whole of Lenin’s genius it his utmost intensity of intimate contact with his field of activity. I must take some other opportunity of debating why so great a mind as that of Rosa Luxemburg was not capable of understanding the correctness of Lenin’s principles on the origin of Bolshevism; I can only outline the fact. Rosa Luxemburg did not grasp concretely the economic and political difference between the fighting conditions of the Russian proletariat and those of the proletariat of Western Europe. Therefore she inclined to Menshevism in the year 1904. Menshevism, regarded historically, was the policy of the petty bourgeois intelligentzia, and of those strata of the proletariat most closely related to the petty bourgeoisie. Regarded methodologically, Menshevism was an attempt at transferring the tactics of the West European labour movement to Russia. If we read an article by Axelrod or Martov on the independence of development in the working class, “which has to learn to stand on its own feet,” it appears exceedingly plausible and striking to anyone who has grown up in the Western European labour movement. I remember very well that when I became acquainted with Russian social democratic polemics during the first revolution, but was not yet familiar with concrete Russian actuality, I could not comprehend how anybody could deny such elementary truths. This magnificent plan lacked nothing except the pre-requisites for the application of its tactics, and to-day it is historically proved that all the speeches delivered by the Mensheviki on the “independence of the labour movement” were in reality only speeches on the necessity of the Russian labour movement subordinating itself to the Russian bourgeoisie.
To-day it is most interesting to read the controversy on the famous first paragraph of the Party Statutes, the paragraph which led to the split of the Social Democratic Party into Bolsheviki and Mensheviki. At that time Lenin’s demand, that only the members of illegal organisations were to be counted as party members, appeared highly sectarian. But what was the real point in question? Lenin sought to prevent the confused ideas of certain intellectuals from determining the policy of the labour party. Before the first revolution, any malcontent of a physician or lawyer who happened to have read Marx styled himself a social democrat, although at bottom he was only a Liberal. Even when they entered an illegal organisation, even when they had broken with their petty bourgeois way of living, history shows many intellectuals to have remained Liberals at the bottom of their souls. But the limitation of the Party to such persons as were willing to face the dangers of belonging to an illegal organisation had undoubtedly the advantage of lessening the danger of bourgeois ascendancy in the labour party, and permitted the revolutionary ray emanating from the working class to penetrate the party organisations, however much filled with intellectual elements, But in order to be able to grasp this, in order to be even prepared to split the Party on this account, it was necessary to be as closely bound up with Russian realities as was Lenin, in his capacity of Russian Marxist and Russian revolutionist. And if this was not fully clear to many a good Marxist in the years 1903 and 1904, it became clear enough from the moment when Axelrod began to mix up the class struggle of the proletariat against the Russian bourgeoisie with the famous agrarian campaign, that is, with the appearance of workers at liberal banquets for the double purpose of: getting to know the bourgeoisie, and of becoming filled with hate against the capitalist class, which, as is well known, had never seen the working class except at the banquet; moreover, the capitalists were to be thus educated into a comprehension of the necessity of furthering general national interests.
Lenin’s way of knowing Russian actuality is another point in which he differs from all others who have stretched out their hands towards the sceptre of leadership over the Russian proletariat. Not only does he know Russian actuality, he sees and feels it as well. At every turning point in the history of the Party, and especially at the moment when we seized power, and the fate of 150 million people hung on the decisions of the Party, I have always been amazed at Lenin’s store of what the English call “common sense.” It may be remarked that when we are speaking of a human being of whom we are convinced that his like will not recur for a century, is but a poor compliment to praise his common-sense. But it is just in this that his greatness as a politician lies. When Lenin has to decide on an important question, he does not think of abstract historical categories, he does not think of ground rents, of surplus values, of absolutism or liberalism. He thinks of Sobakevitch, of Gessen, of Sydor from the Tver Province, of the Putilov worker, of the policeman on the street, and he thinks of the effect of the measure on the Mujik Sydor and on the workman Onufria, as bearers of the revolution.
And I shall never forget my talk with Ilyitch before the conclusion of the Brest-Litovsk peace. Every argument which we brought up against the conclusion of the Brest-Litovsk rebounded from him like peas from a wall. He employed the simplest argument: A war cannot be conducted by a party of good revolutionists who, having seized their own bourgeoisie by the throat, is not capable of closing a bargain with the German bourgeoisie. The Mujik must carry on the war. “But don’t you see that the Mujik voted against the war?” Lenin asked me. “Excuse me, when and how did he vote against it?” “He voted with his feet, he is running away from the front.” And for him that settled the matter. That we would not be able to agree with German imperialism, this Lenin knew as well as everybody else, but when he spoke in favour of the Brest pause for breath, he did not conceal from the masses for a single moment the sufferings which were bound to follow. But it was no worse than the immediate breakdown of the Russian Revolution; it gave us a shadow of hope, a pause for breath, if only for a few months, and this was the decisive moment. It was necessary that the Mujik should touch with his hands the earth which the revolution had given him; it was necessary that he be confronted with the danger of losing this earth, for then he would defend it.
Let us take another example. It was at the time of our defeat in the Polish war, when negotiations were taken up at Riga. At that time I went abroad, and before leaving I paid Ilyitch a visit, in order to speak with him on the differences of opinion which had arisen between us on the relations to the trade unions, just as Lenin held the Mujik from the Riazan Province before his mental vision when deciding on the Brest peace, knowing that this Mujik was the decisive personality in the drama of war, in the same manner he placed himself in the position of the plain workman as soon as it was a question of transition from civil war to economic reconstruction, for without this plan, workman no economic reconstruction is possible. How did he put the questions to himself? The Party meetings discussed the rôle played by the trade unions in political economy; there were controversies on syndicalism and eclectism. But what Lenin saw was the victimised workman, enduring unheard of and indescribable sufferings, and now called upon to reconstitute political economy. That the economic reconstruction was an imperative necessity, that we had to assemble all our forces, and that we had the right to call upon the working class to take part in the work, all this appeared incontestable to him, but it was a question whether we should begin with this at once, whether we should withdraw thousands of our best comrades from the army, where they had accustomed themselves to, commanding, and send them back into the factories at once. Nothing would be produced by pursuing such tactics. “They must have a rest, they are very tired.” Such was Lenin’s decisive argument. He saw before him the real Russian worker, as he was in the winter of 1921, and he felt what was possible and what impossible.
Marx, in the introduction to his Critique of Political Economy, states that history only sets itself such tasks as it can fulfil. This means, in other words, that only he who grasps what tasks are historically capable of fulfilment at a given moment, and who does not fight for the desired, but for the possible, can become the instrument of history. Lenin’s greatness lies in the fact that he never permits himself to be blinded to a reality when it is in process of transformation, by any preconceived formula, and that he has the courage to throw yesterday’s formula overboard as soon as it disturbs his grasp of this reality. Before our seizure of power, we issued, as revolutionary internationalists, the slogan of the peoples’ peace against the governments’ peace. And suddenly we found ourselves in the position of a Workers’ Government, surrounded by peoples that had not yet succeeded in overthrowing their capitalist governments. “How can we conclude a peace with the Hohenzollern government?” was a question put by many comrades. Lenin answered mischievously: “You are worse than hens. A hen cannot make up its mind to step over a circle drawn around it with chalk. But it can at least justify itself by the assertion that this circle was drawn by a strange hand. But we have drawn up our formula with our own hands, and now you see the formula only, and not the reality. Our formula of peace to be concluded by the peoples had for its object the awakening of the masses against the military and capitalist government. Now you want us to go to ruin, and to let the capitalist governments carry off the victory in the name of our revolutionary formula.”
Lenin’s greatness lies in his aiming at goals arising out of realities. In this reality he sees a powerful steed which will carry him to his goal, and he trusts himself to it. But he never abandons himself to his dreams. This is not all. His genius contains another trait: After he has set himself a certain goal, he seeks for the means leading to this goal through reality; he is not content with having fixed his aim, he thinks out concretely and completely everything necessary for the attainment of that aim. He does not merely work out a plan of campaign, but the whole organisation of the campaign at the same time. Our organisers, who are organizers only, have often laughed at Lenin as an organiser. Anyone seeing how Ilyitch works at home, in his room, or at the Council of Peoples, Commissars, might think it impossible to find a worse organiser. Not only has he no staff of secretaries to prepare his material, but up to now he has never even learnt to dictate to a stenographer, and gazes at the pen he is writing with, something like a Mujik from the Don district gazes at the first motor-car he sees. But show us in the whole Party one single individual capable of realising within decades this central idea on the reform of our bureaucratic apparatus, although this reform is inevitable if we do not want the Mujik, indignant against officialdom, to begin to howl. We all know our bureaucratic apparatus, we all cry out against the scandalous state of affairs defined by Comrade Steklov (chief editor of the Izvestia), with all the delicacy of a semiofficial organ “as slight defects of Soviet mechanism.” But which one of the party leaders puts himself the question: The new economic policy has created a fresh basis for an alliance between proletariat and peasantry; how are we to prevent bureaucracy from destroying this alliance? But the great politician of the Russian proletariat, prevented by his illness from going through his daily routine, thought of the central question of State organisation, and worked out the plan of the struggle for decades in advance. But this is only the preliminary draft, details are dependent on the confirmation of experience. But the more attention we devote to this superficial draft, the more plainly we see that in Lenin’s personality the great politician and the great political organiser are combined.
How all this happened to be combined in him, God only knows. (Comrade Stefanov and the Commission for combating religion will kindly excuse.) History has her own apparatus for distilling brandy, and no Tcheka can detect her. The German bourgeoisie could not manage to unite Germany, and somewhere, on a small landed estate grange, history set one of her machines in action, and with the aid of God or the devil, that is, by molecular work, she created Bismarck, who then fulfilled the task. If we read his first reports, if we follow his policy step by step, we are obliged to ask ourselves how it was possible for a landowner to possess such an understanding for the whole of European actuality.
The same thought arises every time we think over the history of our Party, the history of the revolution, and of Lenin. For fifteen years we looked on while this man was fighting over every comma in the resolutions, against every “ism” invented during the last twenty-five years, from Khvostism to Empiriocretism. For Lenin every such “ism” has always been the embodiment of some real enemy, existing either in outside classes or in the working class, but in any case in reality. These “isms” were the feelers of reality, and he absorbed the whole of this reality into himself, studied it, thought it out, until the finished miracle appeared, and the underground man proved himself the most earthly man of Russian reality. History offers no second example of such a transition from subterranean revolutionist to statesman. This combination of the characteristics of a leading theorist, politician and organiser has made Lenin the leader of the Russian Revolution. And that this leader should be the only one universally recognised as leader the human touch was required, the quality which has made Lenin the beloved hero of the Russian Revolution.
He himself tries to convince us that man requires absolute truth, which is an untruth in Ibsen’s individualistic formulation. Far many people the truth is deadly; it is deadly even for many classes. If the bourgeoisie were to grasp the truth about itself, and were permeated with this truth, it would be defeated already, for who can go on fighting when the truth of history tells him that he is not only condemned to death, but that his corpse will be thrown into the sewer? The bourgeoisie is blind and dumb to its fate. But a revolutionary class needs the truth, for truth is the knowledge of reality. And it is not possible to dominate this reality without knowing it. We form one part of this reality: the working class, the Communist Party. And it is only if we are able to judge of our power and our weakness that we can judge of the measures to be taken to ensure final victory. Lenin tells the proletariat the truth, and the truth only, however depressing it may be. When workers hear him speaking, they know that there is not a single phrase in all his speech. He helps us to inform ourselves on reality. At one time I was living at Davos with a Bolshevik workman dying of consumption. At that time the right of self-determination of nationalities was being debated, and we Polish Communists were opposed to Lenin’s views. The comrade of whom I speak, after having read my theses against Lenin, said: “What you have written is perfectly convincing to me, but whenever I have been opposed to Ilyitch, it has always turned out afterwards that I was wrong.” This is how the leading party functionaries think, and this is the reason of Lenin’s authority in the Party; but the workers do not think so. They do not feel bound to Lenin because he has been in the right a thousand times, but because, if he has once been in the wrong, if a mistake has been committed under his leadership, he admitted openly: “We have made a mistake, and therefore we have been defeated here; this mistake must be made good in such and such manner.” Many have asked him why he speaks so openly of mistakes made. I do not know why Lenin does it, but the results of this course of action may be plainly seen. The workman is much too enlightened to believe in redeeming saviours any longer. When Lenin speaks of his mistakes, he hides nothing, he leads the worker into his own laboratory of thought, he makes it possible for the worker to take part in forming the final decision, and the workers see in him the leader who represents their laboratory, the embodiment of their class struggle. A great class, itself needing absolute truth, loves with its whole heart a leader who is himself a truth-loving human being, one who tells the truth about himself. From such a leader the worker can bear any truth, even the hardest. Human beings have faith in themselves only when they conceal nothing, when they know everything about themselves, even the most unfavourable possibilities, and yet feel that they can say: In spite of everything . . . Lenin helps the working class to a full knowledge of every decaying and decomposing element of its own existence, and yet enables it to say in the end: I am His Majesty the Proletariat, the future ruler and creator of life. This is another factor in Lenin’s greatness.
On this day of the 25th anniversary of the Party, which not only bears the responsibility for the destiny of the sixth part of the globe, but which is at the same time the main lever of proletarian victory, the Russian Communists, and every revolutionist among the proletariat of every country, are filled with the thought and the wish that this Moses, who has led the slaves from the land of bondage, may pass with us into the promised land.
From The Communist Review, May 1923. Text taken with thanks from www.marxists.org.