Tariq Ali offers a nuanced centenial hommage to the first leader of the Soviet Union and the struggles of socialism in “Dilemmas of Lenin”.
by Nicholas Babakitis
Particularly in the English speaking, western world, impressions and opinions of Vladimir Lenin over the past century have typically fallen into two, very problematic camps: the rather uncritical Marxist love to near worship of him, or the Liberal, typically ahistorical and overly critical hatred of the first dictator of the USSR. Tariq Ali’s book, “The Dilemmas of Lenin,” takes this centurial anniversary of one of the 20th century’s most defining moments and contextualizes the events around 1917 while retaining Ali’s clear admiration for the monumental figure and accomplishments of Lenin throughout his lifetime.
In the rather typical Marxist lens of Historical Materialism (although never explicitly addressed), Tariq Ali builds a landscape for the figure of Lenin through the historical challenges and upheavals the man himself experienced as a product of Imperial Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This work is by no means strictly a biography of the man Vladimir Lenin, although he is clearly its central figure and his personal biography greatly shaped him into the great revolutionary of his time. Rather, “The Dilemmas of Lenin” brings together Russian history and attitudes of past and present, and offers a somewhat critical, yet unapologetically jubilant and Marxist outlook on the dilemmas faced by the first leader of the first socialist republic.
Anyone who has even begun to scratch the surface of Russian history knows that political struggle, revolution and radical displays of violence seem to be commonplace in the years leading up to the events of February and October 1917, and Ali’s story of Lenin begins in this chaotic Russian Empire of conflicting ideas of modernity seeped in barbaric old-world attitudes, rabid anti-Semitism and terroristic outbursts against a monarchy which tend get glossed over in Liberal accounts of pre-Soviet Russian history. In this quasi-post-feudal empire is where a young Vladimir Lenin begins to take shape politically and ideologically.
Tariq Ali quickly glosses over Lenin’s rather non-rebellious childhood in a conservative-liberal household, yet takes exceptional care of depicting young Lenin’s relationship to his older brother, Sasha, who’s execution after an assassination attempt of Tsar Alexander III in 1887 thwarted Lenin into revolutionary movements slowly transforming him into the leader he would later become. While Lenin never officially joined the anarchist group “People’s Will” (Narodnaya Volya) his brother Sasha had been member of, Lenin’s contact with terrorist tactics and their abysmal failures through the 19th century greatly shaped him in his early political radicalism. His journey, discovery and adaptation into Marxist thought could not have happened without these radical, albeit impractical roots.
From Lenin’s introduction into radical revolutionary thought to the events in 1917, Lenin finds himself amongst a myriad of socialist thought, debate and political action internationally. While Tariq Ali extensively touches on Lenin’s role in Marxist internationalism during his lifetime, the history of socialist thought birthed through revolutions in Europe predating Lenin offers the appropriate backdrop when Lenin and his chapter in Marxist and socialist ideas truly take shape. Ali throughout the book maintains the theme of building histories in which Lenin is a part of rather than simply building histories around Lenin. Lenin’s actions, ideas and relationships are historical in their construction and execution, not simply a whimsical product of another “great man” telling of history.
Lenin’s accomplishments and contributions are not simply looked upon in a vacuum of his greatness, rather are contextualized are placed alongside socialist contemporaries the likes of German communist Rosa Luxemburg, the first American socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, and the various internationalist workers organizations around Europe and the United States during his lifetime. Tariq Ali’s Lenin is shown as a piece of this vast network in the “hobgoblin” (the original English translation of “specter” in the first line of the Communist Manifesto) stalking throughout Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries soon to create quite a ruckus in Europe’s poorest empire.
In the events of 1917, Ali, as well as plenty before him, paint Lenin as the master strategist of the mass organ of revolution organizing and fine-tuning the pro-soviet propaganda, being cast into exile, the infamous “sealed train” and his return to Russia eventually toppling the provisionary government in Petrograd October 25, 1917 (November 7 in the Gregorian calendar). What Tariq Ali nicely adds in a story about the man Lenin is introduce the reader, if unfamiliar, to the vast array of often unsung female* socialists of the Revolution. While Liberals typically downplay the role of the emancipation of women’s rights after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the expansion of rights to women and projects lead by women in attempting to lift women out of literal sexual slavery in some of Russia’s most patriarchal pockets of the former empire could not have been possible without the work of women from Europe and the local Muslim communities seeking their own emancipation through revolutionary actions.
With the newly formed Russian Soviet Republic (USSR in 1922) being attacked by the Entente and their backed “White” forces and Lenin’s health and the economic situation dwindling directly in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, Ali’s depiction of the mobilization of War Communism and the aftermath are sobering and very well-aware of the situation which lay before. Power insulated centrally in a time of life or death for the new nation barely upon its own feet becomes the framework for Lenin’s infamous successor Joseph Stalin, a hero of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has seen a resurgence in popularity and admiration amongst Russians in recent years.
The 1930s in the Soviet Union will see brutal repressions of basic rights, mass starvations, deportations and industrialization at all costs. As China Mieville beautifully asks in the epilogue to his book “October,” “Is the Gulag the telos of 1917?” This question has plagued history, Marxism and the attitudes towards socialism in the Western world since and does not seem to be answered anytime soon. However, Tariq Ali gives the reader a nuanced depiction of history, socialism and revolution which will certainly not disappoint those looking for a great read during this centennial anniversary and surely give the reader a sense of positive vicarious leftist nostalgia.