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.
Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, Nicholas Babakitis currently lives in Berlin and attends the John F. Kennedy Institute at the Freie Universität Berlin. He has his BA in History and Political Science from Arizona State University. He is a fan of science fiction, cats, pizza and enjoys impersonating Slavoj Zizek… poorly.
Together with her sister she forms the band Pascal Pinon. Furthermore she is part of the musical project Samaris and performs solo as JFDR as well. Because of the upcoming Pascal Pinon album “Sundur”, we seized the opportunity of having a chat with her during Jófríður’s Berlin stay. In Morr Music’s kitchen she explained both her new work and the world.
an interview by Gregor van Dülmen and Moritz Bouws
and postmondän’s first blog post in English (feels like the beginning of something)
Pascal Pinon consists of you and your twin sister Ásthildur. Have you been making music all your life together or was there a certain point in your musical life where you said, “Let’s start a band!”?
Yes, there was a certain point when we were eleven years old. Our mom or our dad lent us their laptop and introduced us into the music software GarageBand. We found it amazing and just started recording even though we had no idea how to do that. We didn’t even have headphones, but we recorded anyway and produced two albums under the name “Við og Tölvan”, which means “We and the computer”. At that time we said, “We’re gonna start a band now.” Then we got a sound card, a microphone, and a midi keyboard for a christmas present. We still have this midi keyboard. No, sorry, my sister left it in Amsterdam where she lived to study. When she moved away from Amsterdam she left all of her things. She still hasn’t come back to pick them up. That’s already two or three years ago.
Where does she live now?
In Reykjavík. She only left Reykjavík twice since that time. One time was to go to London to visit me and to go to Berlin once for a couple of meetings.
You are following a nomadic kind of lifestyle at the moment, don’t you?
Yeah, I can’t sit still, I can’t stay anywhere. Also I’m really thrifty, I don’t want to spend much on rent when I’m not there most of the time anyway. I think you just really have to go hardcore doing one thing like travelling all the time or settling down – or live somewhere cheap. I don’t know, I’m working on this.
We would like to talk to you about your upcoming album “Sundur”. Your father helped producing your new album. Did he play an important role in the whole process?
Yes, he helped us. I would say my sister actually is the producer, because she is the one who had the most issues with everything. She was the one who actually kept everything super real, super raw, and she decided how we roll this album. I even would have put reverb on the mastering, like it’s my vibe that everything is in reverb. So for me it was really hard to say, “Okay, we’re just gonna do this.” And my dad was the one who said, “Just relax, I’ll come with you, I’ll help you out, I’ll set the microphones for you and I’ll be there and push the buttons.”
And he helped you to not get into a fight with one another?
Exactly, that’s the thing. Because the issue is I wouldn’t have minded if somebody else had done that for us. I wanted to pay a person to do that for us, just because I didn’t want to do that. But she said, “No way. We’re not going to hire anybody. It’s just a waste of money and we can do everything ourselves.” And I replied, “No, because you don’t know how to do that and then I’m going to be the one and I don’t want to.” That argument was for months. So our father was the one who said, “You go ahead and book a studio. I’ll be the one to engineer.” So both of us kind of got what we wanted. She didn’t even want to book a studio, but I told her, “There are people who want to hear this album and there’s a certain kind of pressure on this. They don’t want to listen to your bedroom recordings.” But at the same time I felt like, “Maybe they do, I don’t know.” So we met somewhere in between.
The sister’s new album “Sundur” will be released on 19th august
So it was just the three of you in the studio?
Were you and your sister also the only ones playing music on your last album?
We got a guitar player for a couple of tracks, so we met and improvised a few different songs. But yes, generally it was pretty much the two of us. And a producer in addition.
But you started your bands with four members. What happened to the other two?
We were so young and actually kind of doing a lot: We released the first album ourselves before it got re-released by Morr Music. But up onto that point we were doing everything ourselves. We ordered CDs in a manufactory and we walked to the shops when we were fifteen and asked, “We have ten CDs. Do you want to sell them?” – and they all consented. But it was a lot of pressure, because somebody had to take care of the accounting and somebody had to take care of actually going to the shops to see whether it’s sold out or not.
The thing is, it’s just too much to be friends – and we were really good friends to begin with – and to run a business at the same time when you are fifteen. It didn’t really go hand in hand very well and it became this kind of division between the two other girls on the one hand and Ásthildur and me on the other hand. There accidentally was a tension between those two groups. I was sad about it and it really wasn’t pleasant. So together we decided that they would leave the group and we would continue. We rather wanted to stay friends than letting this completely seperate us. That was the reason. And then a couple of month later we got the record deal, which was great. It was easier for us to continue with this. But then the guitar player went on tour with us a few times. She was in the tour band for three years. So that issue didn’t actually make a big difference.
Pascal Pinon as a quartet:
Regarding your name: We think it’s really interesting, because Pasqual Piñón is a historic person – a Mexican guy who worked on a circus. What’s the connection, why did you choose his name for your band?
The four of us sat in a café together and we just opened this book and there was a picture of him and we were like, “The name is Pasqual Piñón, let’s go for that, that sounds weird!” We just liked the name.
And he neither seemed to be a bad guy, did he?
No, he seems to have been misunderstood, the poor thing.
Pasqual Pinon – “The Two-Headed Mexican” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
He was in kind of a freak-show in the beginning of the twentieth century.
Yeah, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in his position of being laughed and stared at. It must be hard if the whole purpose of your existence is to creep people out. But there’s something beautiful about it, embracing being a little bit different and to make that your something. So the name is for everyone who is different.
And concerning your home, Iceland: We got the impression that there’s always the question of an affiliation due to the isolation. On the one hand you feel connected to Europe, on the other hand to the U.S.A., right? If you agree with that impression, could you describe these influences?
It’s right. And I think Iceland is ridiculous in so many ways. One of the things is exactly what you’re talking about. We’re influenced both by America and Europe. And we are a part of Europe and we’re also kind of a part of America. We had the U.S. Army base for many years and that was right at the time when we gained our independence and caught up with the rest of the world. Before that we were such a poor country and that was the time when there was actually a lot of prosperity and really good changes in the economy. So that was thanks to the U.S. Army. And the crazy thing is that this happened during World War II. Everywhere else in the world things were just blown up and destroyed, but in Iceland things went as well as never before. There was a celebration. That’s why people in Iceland are not sensitive about anything that has got to do with the war and the terrible things that happened there, because they’re used to think of the time period as such a positive thing. And this just doesn’t make sense to the rest of the world. It was a world war and almost everywhere there was chaos and in Iceland there was growth. That’s kind of the American influence.
And then we are in Europe but we keep fighting it, thinking we are independent. There are so many ads and anti-EU campaigns. And there are people who generally just feel like we’re losing our independence. They think because we’re an island we can be totally sufficient for ourselves. But the world doesn’t work like that. Such a stated idea. We are a small community and the different parts of the earth should work together more closely. People don’t see that. And Iceland is a joke compared to that. We are about 300.000 people. And if we weren’t in the EEA I wouldn’t be able to be here. It wouldn’t be that easy for me to travel. But enough about politics, let’s go back to music!
Okay, but let’s do this switch with one more Iceland question: Like many Icelandic artists you’re signed at Morr Music. Would you say the Berlin-based label or, let’s say, labels like Morr Music in general play a significant role for Iceland’s indie scene to become recognized internationally? Because from a German point of view it seems that there has been a particular development during the last years.
Definitely. The people see that they can travel more, that they can go abroad and that there is interest. But this is happening everywhere in the music industry anyway. Everywhere there’s a lot of music being made and there’s a lot of interesting things happening. Something is always getting through and something’s always staying under the radar. Same for Iceland. But now we have this Music Export Office that was founded only a couple of years ago. They’re doing great things, give out grants and care about new artists. It’s definitely becoming more common that bands go abroad and that they are signed at an earlier stage in their careers. For instance, have a look at the work of Seabear for so many years.
So is it a motivation for young musicians to be able to go abroad with their own music?
Absolutely. That’s what they try to do. But it takes time. And you don’t really go abroad unless you have a label that is putting money into your marketing. I remember that with Pascal Pinon we wouldn’t go abroad until we started working with Morr Music. Before that we went to Sweden once which was a joke although it was great nevertheless. But otherwise we didn’t go abroad the first two years and now we play more shows in other countries than we do in Iceland. I actually think it plays such a big role in the whole thing.
With respect to the language in which you are singing: Do you prefer Icelandic or English? As you know worldwide there are millions of people, listening to Icelandic music even though they don’t understand the lyrics.
It’s really hard to say. Because first of all, I make music for myself. I have something in my head, like, “I need to make this one and it needs to be in Icelandic.” Just because the word and the poetry make sense that way to me. I could translate it, but it wouldn’t be the same. I think some people do it for the market or for the people they’re communicating with. And I understand and respect that. It’s really cool, too, when people understand you, when you have something to say. Then you give it another layer of depth, like the feeling and the emotion of the music. But for us, I mean, there are two songs on Sundur that don’t even have any words. They’re just instrumental. So we just don’t give a fuck. We just do whatever we want. I like to sing in English as well.
Your new album’s title is “Sundur” which is the Icelandic word for “apart”, right? Is that the main theme of your album, standing apart from each other?
It’s definitely the main theme in the whole process of making this album. When we started doing it Ásthildur had already left to Holland and before that we used to have such an easy access to each other. We were sharing a bedroom most of the time growing up. We are twins and we always had a super tight relationship, whether we wanted to have or not. Making music was such an easy thing to do because we always were around each other. But then she was away and things went up in the air. We realised it’s even a struggle merely to see each other.
And did songs come up in that process? Did you send demos to each other?
The first song of the album we wrote together. And it’s kind of an introduction to that situation. But I wrote all songs apart from the first one on my own. It was more like bringing a song to her and seeing if she likes it and if she wants to collaborate and just do something with it.
Your last album was called “Twosomeness”. Do both tell a story together?
They do. It’s a contrast. It’s like this vs. this. But it’s a natural kind of next chapter. The first album, “Pascal Pinon”, was just composed of home recordings. For the second album we worked with a producer for the first time. We were just messing around and exploring different things we can do in the studio, things that we had never done before. This album is kind of a going back to the beginning, this tight unit of going separate ways. And this is the result. In my mind it was such a chaotic piece of music, because the sound is just all over the place. I thought people might find it scattered and crazy. I’m so surprised that people seem to be so open-minded about it. That shows me that you just have to stay true to yourself and then people will respond. If you’re real, they will recognise it. And that’s great thing to be reminded of.
impressions of Twosomeness:
For the people who don’t know your new album yet: How would you describe its sound compared to the sound of the one before?
I would say that this is a ridiculous album. But listen to it if you want to! I’m so sorry to the label, I hope they didn’t hear this. (She’s laughing)
Because listening to it for the first time it sounded more melancholic than the last one. It sounds more raw and diverse. It’s not like a concept, but it sounds very real and natural.
Yeah, that’s actually kind of the best way to describe it. Saying it’s ridiculous is such a cheap way of describing. I’m so sorry, I’ll try a little bit harder. It’s just I had something in my head that I wanted to create. We started that journey and the result is not what we wanted to make at the beginning. But it’s obvious that you can’t ever think you have something in your mind and go out doing exactly that. It doesn’t work that way. Things change and that’s great. It’s worth celebrating. So this album is probably kind of fucked up as much as it possibly can be. But within that space it’s folk-cute music, it’s not fucked up music. If we were a little bit angrier as people we’d probably be making punk music and the concept would still be the same.
So if this is going to become the most popular of your albums so far. What will you do in the future?
I don’t know at all. Things are going to happen and I’m just learning.
So one last question: Will there be a tour after the release? Will you come back to Germany?
Yes. We have a tour coming in November. It’s from 10th to 20th November. Berlin, Münster, Tecklenburg and Cologne. Some shows are with Peter Broderick. The dates will be announced, but the Berlin show is on 11th November.
O cool, so we’ll meet again there. Thank you very much for the interview!
Thank you, guys!
One show missing in the list is the one at Alínæ Lumr Festival on 26th August in the internationally well-known metropolis of Storkow. Fair enough, since we only asked her for tour dates. But after the interview we feel prepared for a “Sundur” review which will follow in a few days. But then we’ll switch back to German again. Sorry for that, such a cheap way of writing a review.