The Exaltations of Lenin’s Revolution
In those early days, while Lenin was still new to the art of government, he gave the impression of a man who had elevated improvisation into a science. There was no problem which could not be solved by a decree, by a gesture, by a phrase, by the turning of a key in a lock. He had never given much thought to the limits of the possible — this was a province which he relinquished willingly to Bukharin — and in fact he rarely entertained the possibility of any limit to the changes he would bring about in Russia and the world. He had no false estimate of his abilities. He saw that he had judged rightly: the conquest of Petrograd was the first step to the conquest of the world.
Lenin’s Body Screenplay by: Alan Nafzger Magic vodka allows two men to steal Lenin’s body the night before it is [read screenplay]
No one entering the Smolny would have thought it possible that this small man with the piercing brown eyes, the bull-like neck, and the fringe of red hair was already planning the conquest of the world. It was not only that he did not look like a conqueror, but the setting was incongruous. The convent for the ladies of the nobility still resembled a convent. It was cold and cheerless. Icy wind from the Neva rattled the windowpanes, and electric lights burned dimly over the tables where the commissars worked. The endless gray corridors were muddy from the boots of the Red Guards; only the great hall with its Ionic columns and blazing chandeliers, which shone brightly whenever important statements were delivered, suggested a place where power was being generated.
Here in one of the upstairs rooms at the end of a long corridor he worked tirelessly to produce orders, his order, out of the chaos for which he was largely responsible. Trotsky worked in an office at the other end of the corridor, and it was characteristic of Lenin to suggest they would save time by learning to use roller skates. Such simple solutions delighted him. So it is with many of his decrees, written hurriedly, in handwriting which betrays the excitement of sudden discovery. He regarded himself as a man guided by Marxist logic, but in fact he was very often the creature of impulse, improvising on the spur of the moment, never at a loss for an appropriate answer, even when he misunderstood the question.
In the early days the entire government was given over to improvisation. Stanislav Pestkovsky tells the story of how he went to the Smolny in search of a job, was received by Lenin and Trotsky, and was told to apply to the Commissar of Finance, who was understaffed. The Commissar was Menzhinsky, later to become the redoubtable vice-president of the secret police. He had no staff. He was sitting on a sofa, exhausted by long hours of work. Above the sofa a strip of paper was tacked on the wall. It read: PEOPLE’S COMMISSARIAT OF FINANCE. Menzhinsky questioned his visitor about his career, learned that he had studied economics at the University of London, and then ran to Lenin’s room, which was opposite his own, and returned a few minutes later with a decree signed by Lenin appointing Pestkovsky director of the State Bank.
Such improvisations were the order of the day. He enjoyed writing decrees on subjects in which he was learned and on subjects on which he knew nothing at all. As a habitual user of libraries, he sketched out a decree ordering immediate changes in the Petrograd Public Library “following the practice in the free states of the West, especially Switzerland and the United States of North America.” It was an odd tribute to freedom, but the tone of the decree was inevitably dictatorial. He wrote:
1. The Public Library (formerly the Imperial Library) must immediately arrange the exchange of books with all the public libraries of Petrograd and the provinces, and also with foreign libraries (Finland, Sweden etc.).
2. No charge must be made for sending books from one library to another according to law.
3. The reading room in the library must be open every day, not excluding Sundays and holidays, from 8 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock in the evening. This is the procedure in the private libraries and reading rooms used by the rich in civilized countries.
4. An appropriate number of employees must be immediately transferred to the Public Library from the Ministry of Public Instruction (employing the services of women more widely, since the men are being drafted into the army), nine tenths of the present personnel in the Ministry being engaged in work which is not only useless but harmful.
This decree is illuminating for many reasons, for it deals with a subject very close to his heart and tells us a good deal about his attitude to education. The third paragraph was particularly reprehensible: there were almost no private libraries reserved for the rich, and he never had any difficulty in borrowing books from the specialized libraries. He was, however, an expert on libraries and could speak with authority. He liked the British Museum library most of all, detested the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, found the library at Cracow “detestable and the acme of inconvenience”, and he had a special fondness for the Societe de Lecture in Geneva where all the latest French, German and English newspapers were displayed on the racks and where he was sometimes given a room of his own, so that he could write without any interruptions, pace up and down the floor, take books from the shelves, and generally conduct himself as though he were in his own study. The Swiss library system was affiliated with the German system, with the result that during the war he was able to borrow books from German libraries. Hence the statement in the decree that the Petrograd Public Library must immediately arrange to borrow books from Finland and Sweden. It seems never to have occurred to him that the Finns and the Swedes might not have felt bound by a decree issued from the Smolny.
The decree was written in November 1917, presumably during one of his rare moments of leisure.
Not all the decrees were written in the expectation of immediate action. As Trotsky observed, a good many of them were exercises in propaganda designed to give an air of authority to his government. Power might be snatched from his hands, his government might fall, the counterrevolution might succeed, but the evidence of the decrees would remain to remind people in future ages what they had attempted to do.
The more revolutionary the decrees, the more improbable, and the more destructive of the old order, the more he delighted in them. In December came the decree abolishing all ranks in the army:
In fulfillment of the will of the revolutionary people which is concerned with the immediate and effective eradication of every inequality in the army, the Sovnarkom hereby decrees:
1. To do away with all ranks and titles from the rank of corporal to that of general inclusive. The army of the Russian Republic is henceforth to be composed of free and equal citizens bearing the honorable title of “soldier of the revolutionary army”;
2. To do away with all privileges and the external marks formerly connected with the different ranks and titles;
3. To do away with saluting;
4. To do away with all decorations and other signs of distinction;
5. To do away with all officers’ organizations;
6. To abolish the institution of orderlies in the army.
Such decrees were pleasant exercises in propaganda, and were not intended to have any lasting effect. They could be reversed at will or modified to any extent according to the demands of the moment. The words “abolish”, “do away with”, “immediate”, “categorically imperative” were their customary decorations, but it did not follow automatically that the words meant what they said. A new language was evolving, and this characteristic Leninist language, charged with words of instant doom and frantic haste, lent itself to imitation and parody. Radek and Zinoviev in particular proved to be apt imitators and parodists, and Lenin was not above parodying himself. “We categorically demand,” he wrote on November 27, “that the Bolshevik deputies imperatively demand a voice vote on the immediate invitation of representatives of the government.” Sometimes he will go further, piling demand upon demand, urgency upon urgency, until the mind reels and the eyes close in weariness. Sometimes, too, one has the curious feeling that one is not listening to Russian, but to some Germanic-Russian hybrid. At his rare best he writes with amazing vigor and clarity, but an anthology of such passages would cover only a few pages.
Lenin’s linguistic contribution to the Russian Revolution was not among his more sober accomplishments. It is not only that he never learned to write Russian well, but to the end of his life he wrote as he wrote in his boyhood, from notes carefully numbered and compiled in order, with the result that every statement appears to be contrived and calculated according to some logical pattern. He dealt with words as he dealt with men; they must all go into the strait jackets he has devised for them. Nothing comes free. There is never a moment when he is not watching the words, to see that they obey him. Characteristically, he was the first to employ the harsh abbreviations for government departments and attitudes which became the common currency of Soviet prose, and he especially liked “Sovnarkom.”
In those days Lenin was in a state of extraordinary elation. To some visitors he gave an impression of being drunk with power and success. The world revolution was at hand, the downfall of the hated bourgeoisie was imminent, the new world order proclaimed in Petro-grad was about to begin. His tone was messianic: nearly every sentence had its “everywhere” and “immediately”.
One day shortly after the October revolution Colonel Raymond Robins went to call on him at the Smolny. Robins had been a coal miner in Kentucky and he had mined for gold in the Klondike; he had been a social worker in Chicago, and he knew his way around American politics; he was not a man to be swept easily off his feet. He admired the daring of the Bolsheviks without in any way sharing their convictions, and as head of the American Red Cross Mission to Russia he saw more of their leaders than any other American. His report, given in the third person, should be quoted at some length because it conveys better than anything else the messianic hopes of Lenin:
When Colonel Robins called on Lenin in that famous room with the velvet hangings, Lenin said to him: “We may be overthrown in Russia by the backwardness of the Russian people, or by a foreign power, but the idea in the Russian Revolution will break and wreck every political social control in’ the world. Our method of social control must dominate the future. Political social control will die. The Russian Revolution will kill it — everywhere.”
“But,” said Robins, “my government is a democratic government. Do you really mean that the idea in the Russian Revolution will destroy the democratic idea in the government of the United States?”
“The American government,” answered Lenin, “is corrupt.”
“That is not so,” answered Robins. “Our national government and local governments are elected by the people. Most of the elections are honest and fair, and the men. elected are the true choice of the voters. You cannot call the American government a bought government.”
“Ah, Colonel Robins,” replied Lenin, “you do not understand. It is my fault. I should not have used the word corrupt. I do not mean that your government is corrupt through money. I mean that it is corrupt in that it is decayed in thought. It is living in the political thought of a bygone political age. It is living in the age of Thomas Jefferson. It is not living in the present economic age. It is, therefore, lacking in intellectual integrity … You refuse to recognize the fact that the real control is no longer political That is why I say that your system is lacking in integrity. That is why our system is superior to yours. That is why it will destroy yours.”
“Frankly, Mr. Commissioner,” said Robins, “I don’t believe it will.”
“It will,” said Lenin. “Do you know what our system is?”
“Not very well as yet,” said Robins. “You’ve just started.”
“I’ll tell you,” said Lenin. “Our system will destroy yours because it will consist of a social control which recognizes the basic fact of modem life. It recognizes the fact that real power today is economic, and that the social control of today must therefore be economic also. So what do we do? Who will be our representatives in our national legislature, in our national Soviet, from the district of Baku, for instance?
“The district of Baku is an oil country. Oil makes Baku. Oil rules Baku. Our representatives from Baku will be elected by the oil industry. They will be elected by the workers of the oil industry. You say, Who are the workers? I say, The men who manage and the men who obey the orders of managers, the superintendents, the engineers, the artisans, the manual laborers — all the persons who are actually engaged in the actual work of production, by brain and hand — they are the workers. Persons not so engaged — persons who are not at labor in the oil industry but who try to live off it without labor, by speculation, by royalties, by investment unaccompanied by any work of daily toil — they are not workers. They may know something about oil, or they may not. Usually they do not. In any case they are not engaged in the actual producing of oil. Our republic is a producers’ republic.
“You will say that your republic is a citizens’ republic. Very well. I say that the man as producer is more important than the man as citizen. The most important citizens in your oil districts — who are they? Are they not oil men? We will represent Baku as oil.
“Similarly we will represent the Donetz coal basin as coal. The representatives from the Donetz basin will be representatives of the coal industry. Again, from the country districts, our representatives will be representatives chosen by peasants who grow crops. What is the real interest of the country districts? It is not store-keeping. It is not money-lending. It is agriculture. From our country districts our Soviets of peasants will send representatives chosen by agriculture to speak for agriculture.
“This system is stronger than yours because it fits in with reality. It seeks out the sources of daily human work-value and, out of those sources, directly, it creates the social control of the State. Our Government will be an economic social control for an economic age. It will triumph because it speaks the spirit, and releases and uses the spirit, of the age that now is.
“Therefore, Colonel Robins, we look with confidence to the future. You may destroy us in Russia. You may destroy the Russian Revolution in Russia. You may overthrow me. It will make no difference. A hundred years ago the monarchies of Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia overthrew the government of Revolutionary France. They restored a monarch, who was called a legitimate monarch, to power in Paris. But they could not stop, and they did not stop, the middle-class political revolution, the revolution of middle-class democracy, which had been started in Paris by the men of the French Revolution of 1789. They could not save feudalism.
“Every system of feudal aristocratic social control in Europe was destined to be destroyed by the political democratic social control worked out by the French Revolution. Every system of political democratic social control in the world today is destined now to be destroyed by the economic producers’ social control worked out by the Russian Revolution.
“Colonel Robins, you do not believe it. I have to wait for events to convince you. You may see foreign bayonets parading across Russia. You may see the Soviets, and all the leaders of the Soviets, killed. You may see Russia dark again as it was dark before. But the lightning out of that darkness has destroyed political democracy everywhere. It has destroyed it not by physically striking it but simply by one flash of re-vealment of the future.”
Raymond Robins’ account of his meeting with Lenin breathes authenticity. Here is Lenin speaking like a schoolmaster to a perceptive pupil, revealing the flavor of his mind, his romanticism, his furious determination to see himself in historical perspective as the hammer which will strike at the heart of a society that is “decayed in thought”. In the characteristically Russian way everything is reduced to ultimate simplicities. Lenin is not concerned to defend his thesis that the political must give way to the economic: it is too obvious to need explanation. He envisages a kind of corporate state in which the elected representatives will be selected from the various industries. He insists that the political citizen must give place to the producer, as though it were not possible for the producer to be a political citizen. Again and again we hear the characteristic nihilist vocabulary echoing raucously through the short, sharp sentences. The idea in the Russian Revolution will break and wreck every political social control in the world…Political social control will die. The Russian Revolution will kill it — everywhere…Our system…will destroy yours…You may destroy the Russian Revolution in Russia. You may overthrow me. It will make no difference…The lightning out of that darkness has destroyed political democracy everywhere…So he goes on, seeing the world falling about his ears and all mankind obeying his destructive purposes, while the images of darkness gather strength until the final lightning flash.
Robins spoke to Lenin before he became wary of foreigners, in the days when the Revolution was still fresh and its machinery still unclogged. He had a genuine fondness for Lenin, and made no effort to hide it. When Lenin said, “I will cause a sufficient number of men to work a sufficient number of hours at a sufficient rate of speed to produce what Russia requires,” he commented mildly, “It was a sufficiently Russian remark.” He could sometimes banter with Lenin, and they were always friendly to each other.
Another visitor in those early days was Georgy Solomon, a man who had known Lenin since he was a student in Samara in 1892. Solomon was old enough to have been a friend of Genyeralov, who was executed with Alexander Ulyanov in 1887. At various times he had quarreled with Lenin’s dogmatic approach to life, but they had remained on familiar terms. Shortly after the October revolution, Solomon paid a visit to Lenin at the Smolny and asked what was going on:
“Tell me, Vladimir Ilyich, as an old comrade,” I said, “what is going on? Are you really gambling on socialism on the island of ‘Utopia’ on a colossal scale? I cannot understand what is going on.”
“There is no island of ‘Utopia’ now,” he said sharply in powerful tones. “We are creating a socialist state. From now on Russia will be the first state in which a socialist regime has been established. Ah, you are shrugging your shoulders. Well, you have still more surprises coming! It isn’t a question of Russia. No, gentlemen, I spit on Russia! That’s only one stage we have to pass through on our way to world revolution!” Involuntarily I found myself smiling. He squinted his small and rather narrow eyes which were Mongoloid, and burning with a little flame of ironical mischief, and said, “You are smiling! You are saying to yourself that all this is nothing more than a perfectly useless fantasy. I know what you are going to say. I know the entire arsenal of those stereotyped and hackneyed Marxist phrases which in reality are nothing more than bourgeois-Menshevik futilities — you haven’t the strength to draw away from them even by the length of a pig’s snout. Well, we are and we will be turning more and more to the Left!”
Here I took the opportunity of interrupting him while he was regaining his breath. “Very well,” I said, “Let us assume you succeed in making a perfect left turn; but you are forgetting the simple mechanical law of reaction and recoil. You will find yourself being thrown back by this law, and God knows where it will all end!”
“Excellent!” he exclaimed. “That’s exactly right. Even if there is such a reaction, it means we must turn still more to the left. This argument also favors me!…”
“What I don’t understand,” I said, “is what is going to happen in the future. You are only destroying things. All these requisitions and confiscations, what did they amount to unless it is destruction?”
“Quite right! Absolutely right,” he snapped back with a sudden mischievous gleam in his eyes. “What you say is absolutely true. We are destroying but remember what Pisarev said: ‘Destroy everything, smash everything! Smash, and bring everything low! The whole temple will go — everything in it that is not true to life — but the good will remain.’ We are the true followers of Pisarev, the real revolutionaries — yes, we are going to tear the whole thing down! We shall destroy and smash everything, ha-ha-ha, with the result that everything will be smashed to smithereens and fly off in all directions, and nothing will remain standing!
“Yes, we are going to destroy everything, and on the ruins we will build our temple! It will be a temple for the happiness of all! But we shall destroy the entire bourgeoisie, and grind them to powder — ha-ha-ha — to powder. Remember that, you and your friend Krassin. We shall not stand on ceremony!”
“I don’t understand what you are saying Vladimir Ilyich,” I said. “I really don’t understand how you can speak of such things with such melancholy exaltation — this apology of destruction which leads us far beyond the scope of Pisarev’s teachings in which after all there are some healthy grains … In the first place, let us set aside the dubious teachings of Pisarev w hich can lead us very far indeed…Listen…We, the old revolutionaries, we have never taught destruction for the sake of destruction. We have always stood, espiciallv in Marxist times, for the destruction only of those things w hich have already been condemned by life — those things which are already falling away…”
“And I say that all these things have outlived their purpose and they are in a a state of putrefaction. Yes, my dear sir, they are putrefied and deserve only to be destroyed. Take, for example, the bourgeoisie, or if you prefer it, democracy. They are doomed, and by destroying them we are doing no more than completing the inevitable historical process. We are advancing into life, into the very forefront of life with socialism, or more accurately, communism…
“And remember that the Lenin who talked to you ten years ago no longer has any existence. He died a long time ago. In his place there speaks the new Lenin, who has learned that the ultimate truth lies in communism, which must now’ be brought into existence. It may not please you, and you may think it is nothing but utopian adventurism, but I assure you it isn’t…
“And don’t talk to me. It will be better for you if you don’t talk, for I shall attack mercilessly any one who smells of counterrevolution. Against the counterrevolutionaries, whoever they are, I shall employ Comrade Uritsky, ha-ha-ha. Do you know him? It will be better for you, I think, if you don’t make his acquaintance.”
Such conversations would be unbelievable if others very much like them had not been recorded, if Lenin’s public statements did not tally with them. That Lenin could say such things and believe them is extraordinary enough; what is still more extraordinary is that a man in such a state of exaltation was able to continue the day-to-day work of government without going mad.
It was as though a volcano had suddenly erupted, spewing out smoke and lava and the most brilliant flames, setting fire to all the woods around, while the earth trembled and the cities burned. For those who looked on, suffocating in the smoke and dying in the heat, it was as though they were living through an inferno. But there seemed to be salamanders living in the flames.
A wild hope and furious exaltation uplifted the hearts of the Communists. It was not only Lenin who lived in expectations of a miraculous change in the nature of society. Bukharin spoke of new voyagers making more dangerous and more fruitful explorations than were ever made by Columbus. And not only dedicated Communists were roused to wonder. “In city, village, and Army, people rejoiced in the fullness of their liberation, in the limitless freedom that now summoned their creative efforts,” wrote Isaac Steinberg, the Left Socialist Revolutionary who became Commissar of Justice under the Communists until he learned that there was no justice under Communism and fled into exile. The poet Alexander Blok greeted the revolution with joy, uplifted with “a new faith in the purifying power of revolution,” and his most famous poem The Twelve describes twelve Red Guards marching through the snow with Christ at their head. He, too, was aware that new and terrible emotions had been kindled by the revolution, and he spoke in his poem The Scythians, written shortly after The Twelve, of a new destructive race coming out of the East possessing “a love like fire that burns and destroys everything in its path.” In the savagery of these new Scythians there was a pure and perfect purpose, for they would sweep away all the accumulated rubbish of the past.
Exaltation, violence, dizziness, the extremes of compassion and of hate, were mingled in those early days of revolution. Deep within the Russian consciousness, engrained upon their flesh from ancient times, was the desire to do away with government, with every form of government which did not spring from the individual or from small groups of individuals. In an address to the people of Russia, printed in Pravda on November 19, Lenin appealed to this instinctive force in them, saying that they were all members of the government, were themselves the government:
Comrade Workers! Remember that you yourselves now govern the state. No one will help you unless you unite and take all the affairs of the state into your hands. Your Soviets are organs of governmental power, organs with deciding voices and full powers to act.
At the time he seems to have meant what he said. He, too, was living in a state of utopian excitement. In the following January, he declared that the triumph of socialism throughout Russia would be assured “within a few months”. At one of the meetings in the Smolny he told Trotsky that within six months socialism would have been achieved and Russia would become the greatest state in the world. The entrancing prospect fortified him, but there were moments when the excitement was almost too great to be borne. Just after the conquest of power in Petrograd, he turned with a kind of awkward shyness toward Trotsky and said, “You know, from persecution and living illegally to come suddenly into power, it’s too rough altogether.” Then he paused, searching for the right word, and said, “Es schwindelt! — It makes one dizzy!” It was oddly characteristic of him that he should have spoken the words in German.
He was still dizzy three months later, when he wrote some private notes on the subject of the revolution, using the delirious words of Thucydides who spoke of his own history as “a possession for all time”, valid for all eternity. So he wrote:
Revolutions are the locomotives of history.
Drive them at full speed ahead and keep them on the rails…
Already conquered: Maximum of democracy; concretization of the first steps to socialism; peace and the land.
And if it was strange that he regarded “the maximum of democracy” as the first of his conquests, it was no stranger than that he should regard revolutions as the locomotives of history driven at full speed and always in danger of running off the rails.
The revolution was to run off the rails many times before he had finished with it. Then the wrecking crews would come along, the rails would be torn up, new rails would be laid, the locomotive would be reassembled and set once more on its course “at full speed ahead”. On that dangerous and foolhardy journey, the locomotive was always coming to grief.
But in those early days, before disenchantment and cynicism set in, the exaltations of revolution seemed in themselves to be sufficient to solve all problems confronting the new state in which the people were summoned to govern themselves. They did not know, and could not have guessed, that they would not be permitted to govern themselves at all.