The battle of Vimy Ridge in France, long commemorated in Canada as a defining moment of national identity, has special poignancy this month, now 100 years since it unfolded on April 9th, 1917. Many older Canadians still recall its courage and bloodshed through their own fathers: my own was there, along with his two brothers. But it is little remembered in other countries, completely overshadowed by two larger events in the week before and the week afterward.
On April 9th, Woodrow Wilson declared war on Imperial Germany and its allies, transforming the war, and all future relations between the U. S. and the world. On April 16th, Vladimir Illich Lenin returned to Russia from his years of Swiss exile; the Germans sent him back on a sealed train, correctly anticipating he might end the Russian war effort. The latter was still being maintained by the fragile post-Tsarist liberal democracy that had come to power through revolution a month earlier. Wilson, a somewhat priggish warlord and peacemaker, became famous as the apostle of “universalized” parliamentary democracy and “national self-determination.” This very American re-ordering of the world began with problems right from the Versailles peace treaties, and Wilson soon faded from the popular imagination, but much of his vision has been retained in American foreign policy ever since.
The more single-minded Lenin, while his different dream of worldwide proletarian revolution not only failed, but produced terrible consequences, no longer receives the cult adoration he held for the worldwide left for seven decades after his 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. He and Wilson both suffered strokes and then death in the 1920s. But Lenin, who also had epilepsy, spent his last year, 1924, in wheelchair-bound total helplessness, dying at only 53.
By then he had been forced to abandon, at least temporarily, many of his plans for the establishment of Marxist socialism, and even to re-introduce small-scale market capitalism. While he was fully as ruthless as Stalin, he was arguably less paranoid, so his early death was a major cause of his post-mortem idealization. He has continued to cast a shadow over the world, less for his forcefully written but now manifestly wrongheaded theorizing (in State and Revolution he argued that the end of the “contradictions” of capitalism would make it possible for cooks to be bankers) than for the example of his entirely dedicated life. He still needs to be fully understood, and not only because of the long 20th century struggle he and Wilson inaugurated.
Lenin was undoubtedly a very capable tactician and schemer, a bully with an unmatched talent for making all milder and more idealistic men do his will or be expelled from his party and then state-building apparatus. In present times, the theorists of Islamicist terrorism and seizure of state control owe far more to him than to Mohammed, recognizing a more immediately useful guide. Admiration for him has also been expressed by Steve Bannon, the ex-Goldman Sachs trader, turned alt-right media agitator and adviser to Donald Trump.
Those examples alone would be reason enough to take another look at Lenin, especially because the “Wilsonian” world order presently appears to be in some retreat. There is a deeper and related one: Lenin has been, far more than Wilson was, a hero. Not in the sense of achieving admirable things, but in the sense of becoming a model for imitation, and a reminder that ambitious intellectuals have shown a disastrously frequent fondness for false Messiahs. Fine literary dissections of these adored monsters have provided as valuable interpretations of their character and impact as conventional historical biographies. Present university students could still benefit from reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s little 1976 book, Lenin in Zurich, a “novel,” but drawing heavily on Lenin’s speeches, pamphlets, articles and private correspondence.
Solzhenitsyn was well-qualified to understand the external circumstances of Lenin’s life until 1917, as another Russian political bombshell, familiar with secret ways, imprisonment, and long exile. So have been other political novelists, Russian ones especially. But Solzhenitsyn has been unsurpassed in portraying Lenin’s obsessionalism, carrying with it the fanatical conviction that he was the only person who knew what the Russian people “really” wanted and needed.
The book is not a literary masterpiece to rival those of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, or of Solzhenitsyn’s own larger books, but that was because he was determined to be more of an accurate historian than a creative novelist. He showed Lenin’s real flair for swift response to changing circumstances (his Bolshevik “Revolution” is better described as a perfectly-timed coup d’état), and his skills at organization and propaganda. But the book also not only captured Lenin’s ruthlessness, and lack of understanding of ordinary human life (what he called “women’s work”), but the peculiar attractiveness to some minds of his moral inversionism, an awful philosophical and psychological illness, which tries to leap past the compromises of merely “bourgeois” existence to a future utopia whose coming justifies positive delight in the application of present evil.
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Nowadays, what remains of the worldwide far left has not been able to keep alive Lenin as revolutionary saint, gifted with omniscient foresight. But for long after Krushchev’s partial denunciation of Stalin in 1956, he was still portrayed, including by many radicals in the West, as relatively innocent, his ideas distorted by his terrifying successor. But Lenin despised all radicals, Marxists included, who were not his dogmatic disciples. He was equally contemptuous of the gradual liberalization of Tsarist Russia after the failed 1905 Revolution. In the years immediately before the First World War, Russia was not only moving toward constitutional parliamentary government with legal parties, but was almost eliminating the censorship of political topics in periodicals and books, and allowing a growing trade union movement. All that meant to Lenin was exasperating delay for his planned proletarian dictatorship, which he described as “… completely unlimited power, restrained by no laws or rules whatsoever and relying directly on violence.”
The actual outbreak of war stunned him; when he read in the newspaper of the German Socialist Party that its deputies had voted in favour of war credits, he at first thought the paper must be a forgery produced by the Kaiser’s government. But he was swiftly energized. He incorrectly assumed that Germany would win the war overall, and also that the war would cause successful revolutions in countries like Germany itself, England, and even Switzerland, where he had been devoting most of his workoholic energy to ideological disputes among the tiny group of Russian revolutionary émigrés there. But he realized that the inability of the democratic leader, Alexander Kerensky, to take Russia out of the war offered him a great gift: he could change world war for civil war, and was willing to pay the price of dismembering Russia from Poland, Finland, the Baltic states and Ukraine.
Lenin held to the belief, commonly but less passionately held by many men, that ordinary majorities are always stupid, and that a real leader must make use of a resolute minority to take decisive action, then becoming the “majority.” Once a doctrine of explicitly religious fanatics, he made it a major “political” one of the 20th century, possibly returning in religious garb again in the 21st. Lenin remains its reductio ad absurdum, best understood as gripped by a personal neurosis that may sometimes produce achievement in the arts or sciences, but a formula for oppression and mass murder in the making of governments. Better to commemorate the normal men who fought at Vimy for more decent and achievable values, and to beware of “natural leaders of men” and of their bien-pensant apologists.
The Prince Arthur Herald
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