counterfactuals are free

The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism War Empire Love Revolution by Tariq Ali

Did the world need another biography of V.I. Lenin? That we have no need of new biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler or Winston Churchill is obvious. Yet they will be published. In contrast the world might be rather richer for new biographies of Ranavalona I, Jósef Pilsudski, Pancho Villa and Trygve Lie. But another Lenin biography?

Lenin’s seeming unparalleled role in making history is Tariq Ali’s excuse. While Oliver Cromwell and Maximilien Robespierre merely figured in revolutions that would have happened without them, he argues, the October 1917 Russian Revolution would have been impossible without Lenin.

Focusing on the character and decisions of major leaders as the key to history is in keeping with Trotskyist tradition. That is why echoes of the strengths and weaknesses assessments of various leaders scattered throughout Leon Trotsky’s My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography can be detected in The Dilemmas of Lenin. Implicit in this and other Trotskyist narratives is that the subsequent history of communism would have been radically different if only Trotsky had won the succession struggle for control of the Communist Party and the state machinery of the Soviet Union following the death of Lenin rather than Joseph Stalin. Trotskyism would have withered to nothing decades ago without this counterfactual alternative history.

The Trotskyist focus on leadership owes much to the study of “applicatory history,” or the investigation of events from the perspective of military commanders, which served as the core content of military science in 19th and early 20th century Germany. Hardly surprising then that in addition to Trotsky, military commanders Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Mikhail Frunze make the short list of important figures discussed in The Dilemmas of Lenin.

Tariq Ali’s account conjures the social and personal environment that produced Lenin with a description of the 19th century Russian Empire and details of Ulyanov family life. The 1887 execution for treason of Lenin’s older brother Alexander Ulyanov and the consequent isolation of the family are emphasized as personal motivations for adopting the life of a revolutionary. Authors and their influential books like Nikolay Chernyshevsky and his What Is to Be Done? figure prominently as well. The inclusion of material about the influence of literature on Lenin is unsurprising given that Tariq Ali has authored serious historical fiction.

The Dilemmas of Lenin is more effective as biography it its descriptions of Lenin’s relationships with Nadya Krupskaya and Inessa Armand. From the beginning much less a romantic interest than a political comrade, Nadya Krupskaya married Lenin to accompany him into internal exile in Siberia and later external exile in Switzerland. That political partnership continued even as Lenin focused his romantic attentions on the French activist Inessa Armand. Lenin’s writing, especially his own What Is to Be Done?, proved an irresistible draw for Armand. The account favored in this biography has Lenin and Armand becoming lovers in May 1909 after meeting at the Café des Manilleurs at 11 Avenue d’Orléans in Paris. Tariq Ali reports that Lenin sought only “mutually agreed-upon monogamy without legal inhibitions” with Armand. Krupskaya continued to serve by maintaining Lenin’s correspondence with the revolutionary underground inside the empire and the diaspora of exiled Russian radicals. If the arrangement seems exploitive in the early 21st century, it would have been viewed as less so in its time.

Largely though not entirely missing from The Dilemmas of Lenin is Stalin. Instead, a chapter is devoted to the Left Menshevik faction leader Julius Martov, with whom Lenin struggled for control of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party newspaper Iskra. In keeping with the narrative of the Trotskyists and the other Leninist sects, Martov is faulted for having failed to support the Russian Revolution at its crucial moment in October 1917. Trotsky is quoted at length on the subject of Martov’s unwillingness to confront difficult decisions. Readers who are not invested in the personality cult of Lenin are free to contemplate a different counterfactual in which Martov establishes a regime less authoritarian than the party-state that resulted. Alexander Kerensky establishing a stable Socialist Revolutionary regime is even easier to credit. Trotsky, Martov and Kerensky were as plausible as Lenin as founders of a revolutionary regime because of the crucial role played not by any one leader but by the path dependence of historical events.

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John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.