One hundred years ago today, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died.
My first thought on learning this was that, indeed, he lived up to the expectations of the “Great Man” approach to thinking about human history – individuals who drive events and are not driven by them.
Lenin was an organizer, a man who built and directed systems of human collaboration. He was a master of the “executive function,” adjusting and tacking before the wind when necessary, imposing his personal will when possible, putting others to work to realize his dreams.
The 1997 Black Book of Communism asserts that communist regimes killed over 94 million human persons. Not a small legacy for Vladimir Ilyich. Who else in history can take credit for anything so grand?
Karl Marx had only been an academic, writing up theory and commentating on history, politics, society and economics. But Marxism without Lenin would have been no more than a minority partisan fancy of disenchanted intellectuals and a handful of their working class allies – the reality of Marxism in Bismark’s Germany.
Lenin made real, for all time, Georg Fredrich Hegel’s dream of the state as history. Hegel had been gobsmacked by Napoleon, saying as he saw him ride through Jena: “I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.”
In his Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel wrote that “The state is the actuality of the ethical Ideal. It is ethical spirit as the substantial will manifest and clear to itself, knowing and thinking itself, accomplishing what it knows and insofar as it knows it.” The state, he proposed, is self-consciousness raised to its universality. The state, therefore, is to be our overlord, Godlike.
It was Lenin who first created such a man-God on Earth, though the pharaohs before him and the Chinese in Asia had achieved a similar absolute submission of a people beneath a ruling apparatus claiming divine authority for its legitimacy.
In 1903, when he was 33 years old, Lenin precipitated a schism in the Russian socialist movement, demanding a “hard” cadre-led party of militants willing to use violence in place of a “soft” open party working within the law by building alliances. Lenin’s principles were “vanguardism” and “democratic centralism” or centralizing power in the state, a la Hegel, to tell the masses – the “demos” – what they should think and do.
In 1921, Lenin would put his vision of justice in the phrase “The whole question is – who will overtake whom?” – which became the Russian communist mantra for legitimation of everything: “Who – Whom” (kto kogo). This central and very practical concern of Leninism is “Who does what to whom?,” with the point being that you always want to be the doer and never the victim.
(Mikhail Cheremnykh and Viktor Deni, 1920)
Lenin’s faith in the rightness of dictatorship was set forth in his 1902 pamphlet, What is to be Done? Burning Questions of our Movement.
Lenin believed with all his heart that proletarians would not, on their own, become political and seize state power through strikes and seeking better working conditions. To produce a Marxist thinking proletariat capable of taking state power and eradicating the power of capital, Lenin insisted that Marxists should form a political party to be the vanguard of revolutionary progress. He wrote: “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without; that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships (of all classes and strata) to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes.”
When we recall the achievements of Lenin, we should never fail to note that there are evil people in the world and sometimes, they even make history.