In his earlier book, Lih comprehensively turned upside down the conventional wisdom, Stalinist and bourgeois alike, about What Is To Be Done?. According to that conventional wisdom, the main idea in What Is To Be Done? is that the workers were reluctant to support socialism, or anything more than trade unionism, and needed a forceful, authoritarian party to pull them along. In fact Lenin's main idea was that the workers were ready and eager to hear the Marxist message, and that the Marxists must lift themselves up to be adequate to the workers, rather than dawdling and underestimating the workers.
At the Historical Materialism conference in London on 13 November, Martin Thomas from Solidarity asked Lars Lih to tell us about his new book.
My new book on Lenin is a much shorter one, and that's right for the sort of book it is. I have one unifying theme in the book.
If the book were shorter, then I would not be able to follow the theme worked out through the different periods of Lenin's life. If it were longer, the main theme would be lost in detail.
I'm also proud of the illustrations in the book. I've tried to get away from the more familiar pictures of Lenin, and to include less-known illustrations which better help convey what Lenin really did.
The main theme of the book is summed up by a quotation from a speech in commemoration of Lenin made by his widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, in 1924. Lenin, she said, had organised his life round "the grand idea of Marx" that "the working class can be the leader of all the labouring people and all the oppressed".
Lenin had a very exalted idea of the workers who were going to lead the labouring people to emancipation. You could almost say that he "believed in miracles" - he believed that the working class could do what would seem to be miracles once the socialist word was brought to it.
His view of his own role can be summed up by another quotation, from Lenin himself in a tribute to the Bolshevik leader Yakov Sverdlov, who died in 1919: "The history of the Russian revolutionary movement over a period of many decades contains a list of martyrs who were devoted to the revolutionary cause, but who had no opportunity to put their revolutionary ideals into practice. In this respect, the proletarian revolution, for the first time, provided these formerly isolated heroes of the revolutionary struggle with real ground, a real basis, a real environment, a real audience, and a real proletarian army in which they could display their talents..."
Q. Some people argue that Lenin's comment in his notes on reading Hegel's Logic, in 1915, marked a sharp turn in his political thinking. "It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!"
A. I don't think so. It was an aphorism which he threw off casually, and now it has become the only thing anyone ever quotes from those notebooks. I think the people who quote it may know Hegel very well, but they don't really understand how Lenin worked.
He didn't change his basic positions. Of course, he got involved in new polemics - with Bukharin and others on the national question, for example - and developed his positions in that way. But he did not change his outlook and view of the world revolutionary situation.
Q. Those same notebooks of Lenin contain comments saying that this or that passage in Hegel "is so obscure that nothing can be understood". So did Lenin mean by his aphorism that he himself did not understand Capital even after reading Hegel? Moreover, the shift in Lenin's views is usually said to amount to him moving from a theoretical outlook which owed much to Kautsky to a new one. But when Lenin wrote Imperialism, the next year, in 1916, he based his analysis - and his polemic against the positions Kautsky had adopted by 1916 - on ideas about imperialism which the younger Kautsky had developed.
A. I think Imperialism is another example of Lenin defending "Kautsky then" against "Kautsky now". In general I think Lenin's "homework assignments" - works where he takes a topic, studies, takes notes, and reports back what he finds, like Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Imperialism, and State and Revolution - are not the real heart of Lenin.
The real heart of Lenin's thinking is found, I think, in shorter articles, and in some longer pamphlets like What Is To Be Done?. In those you find the main theme which I mentioned, again and again.
Q. And in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky?
A. Yes. That pamphlet deserves to be better-known. Lenin's preoccupation or even obsession with Kautsky there indicates his personal debt to Kautsky. In 1919 you found people saying: why is Comrade Lenin going on about Kautsky? Kautsky was not a major political figure any more.
But dealing with Kautsky was important for Lenin. Even State and Revolution was in large part motivated by Lenin wanting to deal with Kautsky's reply to Pannekoek from 1912.
In fact, if it weren't for Kautsky we would have almost no systematic, coherent attempts by the Bolsheviks to expound their views. State and Revolution, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Terrorism and Communism (Trotsky), The Economics of the Transition Period (Bukharin), and so on, were all written as responses to Kautsky.
Q. In my view, with the April Theses of 1917, in substance Lenin came over to Trotsky's perspective of "permanent revolution". But you don't think so...
A. In the debate between the "Old Bolsheviks" and Lenin in spring 1917, I think the "Old Bolsheviks" came nearer to being right about the class dynamics of Russian in revoloution than Lenin. Lenin overestimated the differentiation of the peasantry and therefore underestimated the potential support for a thorough-going democratic revolution
The debate was about whether the bourgeois revolution was finished in Russia. Lenin said it was finished. The "Old Bolsheviks" who said that it was not finished, and therefore there remained many radical democratic tasks such as liquidation of the noble landowners as a class, were right.
Q. But the leading "Old Bolsheviks" in that debate, Stalin and Kamenev, advocated critical support for the Provisional Government ...
A.. In my view, ‘critical support’ is a misleading summary of their tactics. Stalin's and Kamenev's perspective was to replace the Provisional Government with the soviets. For example, Kamenev explained that when he demanded that the Provisional Government publish the secret treaties, that was not because he thought it would do it, but so that the workers would see that the Provisional Government wouldn't do it and see the need to replace it.
Q. Is that an explanation that Stalin and Kamenev gave when on the defensive in the debate with Lenin?
A. No, that's before Lenin got back to Russia. The debate was about whether the bourgeois revolution was finished, and Lenin said it was...
Q. Not quite, I think...
A. I think he did. And if you look for a point where Lenin clearly changed his views, this is it. Later he would say that the bourgeois revolution had not been carried through until late 1918. And later still, in 1921, he would say that all the Bolsheviks had managed to do was to carry through measures of the democratic revolution, that even that was not finished, and they had not really started yet on socialist tasks.
Trotsky's view back in 1905 was that the peasants would not support the workers for socialism, but the workers might get away with making a socialist revolution without open revolt from the peasantry. Then either international revolution would change the balance, or you would eventually end up with a civil war with the peasantry.
Lenin never quite thought that the workers could get away with making a socialist revolution unless the peasant majority supported socialism. This was the main reason he limited his perspective to democratic revolution before 1917. He did think in 1917 that the peasants, or a large section of them, might rapidly move towards supporting socialism. He overestimated the differentiation in the peasantry. Later he realised he had been wrong. This is shown, among other things, by the fact that the Bolsheviks abandoned the "poor peasants' committees" at the end of 1918.
Maybe Trotsky’s theory was closer to being right as a description of what would happen. There was a civil war with the peasantry later, in 1930, when collectivisation was imposed...
Q. Except that then the force conducting the civil war against the peasantry was not the working class, but the bureaucracy which had suppressed the working class... How did you start on your research? How did you become interested in writing on Lenin?
A. My first book, Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914-1921, was about food supply in Russia. My research on this topic got me interested in ‘war communism’, the name often given to the Bolshevik policies of 1919-1920. Lots of people were saying that war communism had been a time of crazy policies, so I looked into it and found that it wasn't so. I hope to publish a collection of my articles on this topic in the near future.
Then I got into a larger-scale research project on the Bolsheviks. My intention at first was to move away from a Lenin-centred approach, and see the Bolsheviks in a broader way.
As you can see, it hasn't happened that way, since I have ended up writing quite a lot about Lenin. But I think the originality of my take on Lenin owes a lot to the fact that I have read what other Bolshevik and Social-Democrats wrote, as well as Lenin. I'm hoping now to get back to researching the Bolsheviks more broadly, putting Lenin as leader into his context.
My motive in it all has been less in drawing political conclusions than a more academic urge to get things right. I'd always been interested in the Russian Revolution. But it was a lucky day when I got involved with all this. It's been very stimulating, and I have grown to depend very much on critical reader response.