Lenin, the Revolutionary

“It is necessary to dream, but with the condition of believing in our dreams. To examine real life carefully, to confront our observation with our dreams, and to perform our fantasy scrupulously.” 

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Lenin

World War I was undoubtedly the turning point in Russian history, particularly for the communist revolution. And it surprised Lenin in his usual place of respite, where he would continue studying and writing during the first months of the conflict. The entire European continent was bleeding in the trenches while Lenin—with the clairvoyance that comes from a peaceful retreat in the Alps—laid the groundwork for a revolution that had no intention of limiting itself to Russia. 

During the first years of the war, until early 1917, Lenin gained adherents among those in Russia who opposed the war, while the credibility of revolutionary socialism diminished on account of the German social democrats’ support for the war. Only Lenin’s position, in the realm of international socialism, seemed consistent with the pacifism he had defended.

But the pace of events accelerated, and the fall of the czar and subsequent formation of a provisional government, in March 1917, caused Lenin to galvanize the revolution. And then, at the most decisive hour, he proved to be a cunning player on the big stage that was European geopolitics: He got permission from the German government to cross Germany and Sweden and disembark in Finland in order to return, after many years in exile, to his beloved Russia.

Why was this such a great move? First, because he was being given a unique opportunity due to his position: While the British and French governments prevented Trotsky and other pacifist leaders from traveling to Russia, fearing they would encourage their troops to withdraw from the war, the German government saw in Lenin exactly that: someone with the potential power to get Russia’s withdrawal. 

But landing directly in Russian territory, after being guarded by German troops, would offer his opponents (conservatives and non-radicals) the perfect excuse to discredit him, by accusing him of collaborating with the central empires. The paradox is that the German government had been financially supporting the Russian pacifists for some time, hoping that their work would help to weaken the czarist government. Lenin’s return, after the czar’s fall, was the coup de grâce. But they couldn’t just do it any old way…

So Lenin demanded to travel in a sealed train while on German soil, thus ensuring that no one accused him of colluding with the German enemy: thus his transfer would be a gesture by the Kaiser toward the Russians, while treating Lenin as a liberated political prisoner. 

The move paid off, and Lenin’s image was not hurt. That allowed him to focus from the beginning on his grand plan: undermine the provisional government, bury social democracy and any alternative forces that opposed him (especially the anarchists and their undercover liberalism). It was only a matter of time before he would achieve his goal: a bloody war, famine, political crisis, unemployment and considerable economic activity coming to a halt… A perfect breeding ground for radicalism, for accusations of weakness at those who spoke of great pacts: anyone who did not defend the revolution was in favor of the imperialists, the bourgeois, the landowners… This is the logic behind the lack of scruples: The worse things were for his beloved Russia, the greater the need for a revolution: his revolution; and a messianic figure: none other than he himself. 

On November 7, 1917, a few months after his return, Lenin sparked the revolution that would bring him to power. It came on the eve of the Second Congress of Soviets, an organization that grouped the main Bolshevik currents and to which Lenin did not even report his intentions because he wanted to present the seizure of power as a fait accompli. Perhaps out of fear of internal opposition, or that other time frames might be imposed that did not come from Lenin himself.

What happened after Lenin took over is well known. But it is important to see it as the culmination of a position, of the ideology that he always held. And like all ideology, the key is not in the reality but in what it should be. Everything in his service was justified; any political action; any economic measure that sustained the revolution, even if it led to famine; any humiliating negotiation of a peace agreement.

Lenin, who was never really pacifist, signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a set of agreements that were clearly unfavorable to Russia. His pacifism allowed him to destroy the power of the czarist leaders of the Russian military. The hierarchical structures of the army were abolished, soldiers returning from the front were allowed to keep their weapons and were given land from landowners to cultivate. Soon the crops were collectivized, but by then two pillars of the Old Regime had already been destroyed: the military and the landowners. Then came a survival policy that caused the starvation of thousands of peasants. Most importantly, when the Civil War broke out between the Red Army and the White Movement formed by opponents, soldiers and supported by foreign powers…

While not an actual turning point, the Civil War was a crucial moment that laid the foundations for the future USSR: the coming together of Lenin and Trotsky, the rise of Stalin through the party ranks, the radicalization of censorship (temporarily, according to Lenin himself, because of the need for war—although it lasted for decades), the transfer of power from the Government to the Party.

Lenin wanted World War II to start as soon as possible so that his revolution would take root in a Europe torn apart by a new war. That is why he did not hesitate to declare war on Poland (a war that he lost). 

The final period of the Lenin government is somewhat paradoxical: the Civil War was won, but the socialist revolution did not prosper in any other country in Europe (as Lenin expected); his power grew, but the governing bodies he created were losing power to the organization on which he had increasingly less influence: his own party (now in the hands of Stalin); and the need to promote a kind of market economy so as not to be suffocated by the other European powers. 

At the end of his days (he would die on January 21, 1924), and having turned more to Trotsky in his final years, he helplessly witnessed the progressive accumulation of power by the party against the bodies of the Russian government, in a sort of cold war between its two main political entities. Thanks, above all, to the absolute autonomy he had granted, years ago, to the head of the party. He had done it, of course, to ensure his own control. But when he was forced to give up the position to take over the country’s government, he did something more: He turned a humble Georgian, the son of a shoemaker, into the most powerful man in Russia. It was Joseph Stalin’s turn now. 

In conclusion, we would like to highlight a few of the lessons learned from Lenin’s biography: 

  • The desire to control, to cling to the organization he created, was ultimately used by Joseph Stalin to seize power.
  • Crises, if leveraged astutely, are the best catalysts of a revolution that uses them for its own benefit. Revolutionaries depend on crises. It would not come as a surprise if they also fueled them. 
  • Fanaticism, by nature, tends to perceive the other as a potential enemy, rather than someone with whom a common future can be built. The lack of scruples makes the enemy a target to eliminate. Once again we see the age-old triad of sociopathy, desire for power and revolution.