Lars T. Lih lives and works in Montreal, Quebec. He is an adjunct professor of musicology at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University, and writes about Russian and socialist history on his own time. His books include Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914–1921 (1990), Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done in Context (2006), and Lenin (2011), a biography. Links to his articles online can be found here. Lih’s work, which reconsiders and reinterprets the history of the Russian Revolution and Leninism, has sparked much discussion and debate among Marxists and those interested in that history. The following interview, conducted by North Star editor Dario Cankovic, took place in June with an eye toward drawing out some of Lih’s ideas and their relevance for today’s Left.
You received a post-graduate degree from Oxford in 1971. You later went back to academia and received a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton in 1984. What were your master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation on? How did you come to be interested in and work on Russian and socialist history?
My thesis at Oxford, oddly enough, was on Lenin and Machiavelli. It was called “Machiavelli and Lenin: A Study in Political Technique.” I’m afraid to even go back and look at it now, because I was basing it on essentially what the current view of Lenin was at the time. Then the doctoral dissertation. I remember the moment well. I was walking down the library and thinking to myself: You know, a topic that keeps popping up all the time with the Russian Revolution is the politics of food supply. The February Revolution, the October Revolution, were preceded by a breakdown in the food supply. As were the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the disturbances in Petrograd in early 1921. I thought to myself: Someone ought to examine this, just go through the whole thing and examine the relation between revolution and food supply. Then my next thought was: Why don’t I do that? So that was it. It was a moment of inspiration, but it turned out to be a very good topic because it grounded me in the czarist period and went on to the provisional-government period and ended with the Bolsheviks—three different regimes. I had a much broader time frame to begin with but then narrowed it down to the period of 1914–21, which is broad enough, let me tell you, and that became my first book.
At that time, when I was working on my dissertation, there was, and to a large extent still is, a prevalent of view of the Bolsheviks and war communism—what I call the “hallucinatory model” of war communism—namely, that the Bolsheviks thought they were on the verge of a leap into socialism and that they weren’t aware, or were hardly aware, that the country was breaking down. I mean, there are some amazing statements that people made, major historians, on this topic. This hallucinatory model of war communism contrasted starkly with what I found in my research on the politics of food supply in Russia from 1914 to 1921. So, essentially I said: My food supply people are not maniacs, they’re not fools. You can agree or disagree with them, but they were dealing with real problems and trying to do their best. So what’s this clash between the hallucinatory model and the picture emerging from my research all about? That got me into my next subject of interest, which was war communism, or what I prefer to call the myth of war communism, and it got me to look at what the Bolshevik view of things was during the war communism period, from 1918 to 1921—basically the period of the civil war.
At that point also I made a fundamental move toward looking at a wide range of Bolshevik sources, and this, surprisingly enough, is a new approach: going beyond Lenin to a wide range of other Bolshevik spokesmen. I was just thinking the other day that probably no one living has read as much Kamenev and Zinoviev as I have, taken together. I wrote a series of articles on this topic that I’m going to try to collect together in a book, hopefully with the Historical Materialism series. Currently these articles are scattered around in various journals, from the mid-1990s to about a decade ago. The book will probably have the title Deferred Dreams.
While I had a pretty solid view of what was going on in 1920, what people were looking at, saying, and thinking, I was curious: How does this all fit into the big picture? Particularly, how does it fit into Lenin and the stereotypes about Lenin? And I remember well that at some point, I said to myself: One of these days, I’m going to have to write a paragraph or so about What Is to Be Done? (1902) just to sort of show how it fits into the historical context. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even make it a chapter of a book. On the urging on Sebastian Budgen and other people to really look at this topic, I embarked on a full-scale study of What Is to Be Done?, trying not to narrow myself down to just Lenin but to look at the whole range of things that were going on when he wrote that famous pamphlet. The first thing I did with this project was to make a list of everything that Lenin responded to in his book, everybody he was arguing against, and try to read them. And that was essentially my method of putting him in context. And then, as you know, this project ballooned and turned into this big thick book.
To illustrate my historiographical method, I used an analogy: socialist-realist painting contrasted with Where’s Waldo? You can imagine a scene in some socialist-realist painting, where, say, Mao is shaking hands with Stalin, and there’s a big field and no one else there, just the two heroes with the wind blowing their overcoats. This is analogous to one historiographical model that many people use. This is how many people write about socialist history, with this exclusive focus on the succession of prominent figures: from Marx to maybe Kautsky to Lenin, to whoever hero you have next, Trotsky or Stalin, whatever. In contrast, what I want to do is the Where’s Waldo? method. This is where you have a huge picture, and if you look closely you can find Lenin, but there are tons of other people, and I wanted to fill in all the people, all the detail. So that’s what I was doing in Lenin Rediscovered. Then I wrote the shorter Lenin. I first wrote the big book on the small, restricted topic of What Is to Be Done? in context and then wrote a little book on a big topic, namely Lenin’s whole life.
I’m very lucky to have a real audience who read me and challenge me, who like some things and don’t like others, and who will call me on it—and I’ve been reacting and interacting with this audience. For example, in Lenin Rediscovered, one of the things I talk about is the relation of Lenin to Kautsky. While I’m far from the first to bring up the link between the two, I’ve emphasized it in a more radical fashion, emphasized how much Lenin got from Kautsky and owed to him. And so people challenged that, as they should have, because the book was restricted to a short period, essentially from 1900 to about 1903–4. My critics said: Well, we all know that later on Lenin turned against Kautsky, and as he went on, Lenin rejected everything Kautsky stood for and rethought Marxism. So I had to take these criticisms into account.
So in what sense did Lenin break with Kautsky? There are two ways he could have done it. The first way, which is now the standard view on the Left, is that Lenin rejected everything Kautsky stood for, rethought everything, and came up with something new. The second way is that Lenin thought Kautsky betrayed his own principles, that Kautsky is a renegade (which is, of course, the title of Lenin’s pamphlet against Kautsky, although that in itself doesn’t prove anything, though it’s an indication). I call these, respectively, the scales-fell-from-my-eyes model (that’s when you realize that your hero worship of this person, of his outlook, was incorrect) and the renegade model.
This actually turned out to be a fairly straightforward question. Thanks to the index provided by the Soviet editors of Lenin’s collected works, I could easily track down references by Lenin after 1914 to Kautsky’s work published before then. And it turns out that, first of all, there’s a ton of references—that’s the first very interesting thing. Lenin continued to be obsessed with Kautsky almost to the end. In fact, “Our Revolution,” one of his last articles, essentially a deathbed article, has a remark about Kautsky. And the second discovery is that Lenin’s comments overwhelmingly say that Kautsky was great when he was a Marxist—too bad he’s not doing the same thing now! Lenin almost obsessively blasted Kautsky-today, but you can count on the fingers of one hand any negative references to Kautsky-when-he-was-a-Marxist. I’ve put a database of all those references I’ve culled online.
While Lenin Rediscovered focused primarily on the relation between Lenin and Kautsky in the early years, before 1903–4, in responding to my critics I became interested in the relation between the two figures after this period. I see their relation as an amazing story, really. Because Kautsky never had a bigger fan than Lenin. No one else was a Kautsky fan in the same intense way, and Lenin stayed that way until the end of his life. One reason for this is that Kautsky greatly influenced Lenin’s views, or, in any event, endowed them with authority. I’m not saying that Lenin learned everything he knew and thought from Kautsky—of course not, but he certainly felt validated by Kautsky. He said so. As I discuss in Lenin Rediscovered, one area in which Kautsky influenced or vindicated Lenin’s view was on the question of what revolutionary social democracy is and what the party is—basic ideas that Lenin never changed his views on and that in fact never become controversial until much later.
The second way Kautsky influenced Lenin was with respect to what I call “Bolshevism proper,” which is the scenario Bolshevism had for the upcoming Russian Revolution, their views on the issue of the peasants, and their commitment to a thoroughgoing democratic revolution that would clear the way toward rapid progress. And it turns out that Kautsky (and Rosa Luxemburg) was a mentor here also. The recent book Witnesses to Permanent Revolution has a highly influential Kautsky article from 1906 on this subject, titled “The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution and Its Prospects.” Both Lenin and Trotsky loved the piece and claimed Kautsky’s as their own views. These are very valuable resources for understanding the relation between Lenin and Kautsky, between Russian social democracy and German social democracy.
The third way Kautsky influenced Lenin, and this is perhaps the most surprising, is that even after 1914, Lenin’s view of the world—by which I mean his view of the global situation, not just “the world” in a vague sense—came mainly from Kautsky. Even when he was berating Kautsky, Lenin was still operating with the ideas of the earlier Kautsky. Lenin was saying things about, as I call it, “the interactive global revolutionary scenario,” which are the ideas about socialist revolution in Europe, democratic revolutions elsewhere, national revolutions, imperialist war, all these factors with which Lenin operated afterward, these all came from Kautsky. I learned this from Lenin, because he says it himself, he told me what Kautsky books to read, and I read them, and I agree with Lenin about where he got his ideas on this vast subject.
While looking at all these references to Kautsky by Lenin, I came across my next interest. In March 1917, Lenin had just heard about the Russian Revolution, had written some articles—the famous letters from afar—and then he read a Kautsky article. We know he read it and we know he reacted to it, because he sketched out an idea in a little piece that has a few lines about Kautsky’s article, and the Kautsky quote he used was striking. It said, roughly: What’s most necessary for the Russian workers is democracy and socialism. It turns out that this is the first time, according to my detective work, that Lenin uses this idea of “steps toward socialism.” This is where Lenin makes an innovation, not before or after—that is, not in the April Theses per se. There is at least a coincidence in time here, and my view is that Kautsky was a catalyst for Lenin’s ideas. And I use that word catalyst to mean that Kautsky’s ideas were not exactly Lenin’s ideas, but what he said just got Lenin thinking and led him to come up with this sort of scenario.
Anyway, while researching that, I became intrigued by the whole story about March/April and the April Theses—the stories of the old Bolsheviks who are allegedly floundering or even going along with the Mensheviks; they weren’t revolutionary, they wanted to keep the provisional government in power, but Lenin came back and rearmed the party with Trotsky’s permanent revolution, and if it hadn’t been for that, they wouldn’t have even tried to overthrow the provisional government, and so on.
My main interest right now is overthrowing this story. It’s what I call “putting Bolshevism back in the Bolshevik revolution.” Stalin and Kamenev are in some sense my heroes for the purpose of this story, because I am rehabilitating them—well, at least rehabilitating what they were doing in March 1917! One reason people aren’t critical of this whole story is the understandable desire to make Stalin in particular look bad. The Trotskyists, the post-Soviet anti-Stalin people in the 1950s, and, of course, the Western academics—whatever else separates these different groups, they all have a common motive to not examine this story very critically. And Kamenev—he kind of gets left out, no one cares about Kamenev. So, I’m rethinking this story: looking at and rethinking a small thing, but a small thing with enormous implications for a larger thing.
That’s where I am now. You can see that over the long haul, I sort of moved from step to step, so there’s continuity in my work. I’ve been very lucky, since I’ve published my first Lenin book, to be in a larger community that cares about these questions. I’ve been responding to criticism from this community. Even when I can’t agree with the criticism, I feel it’s important to respond, to give a good answer, especially because I myself learn so much while doing it.
Between your work at Oxford and Princeton, you worked in the office of U.S. Representative Ronald V. Dellums of California, a self-described socialist; former member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), founded by Michael Harrington; and later a vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). How did that political involvement shape your academic interests? How would you characterize your own politics? And what, if any, relation is there between your politics and your scholarly work?
That’s a good question and I’m not sure if a have a good answer for it, because I often ask myself the same question. During the Dellums time, I learned a lot about practical politics, just observing. I wasn’t high in the organization or anything. It was a small office. But it was a very dramatic time, 1970–71 to 1977, with Watergate, the end of the war, a whole lot of things.
My own politics—well, I don’t spend too much time thinking about them, because I’m too busy thinking about the early twentieth century, you know, so I just characterize my views as vaguely left. Which I think is OK, because that means I’m sort of automatically not partisan, and I think that’s good for everybody. It’s good for me as I also want to keep one foot in the academic community and one foot in the activist community. What connects me to the academic community is that I am really interested in the Bolsheviks as part of Russian history, which is not the main focus of the activists. But the activists have got me interested in the larger question of the communist movement, the relation to Marxism, so I’ve had to broaden myself considerably. In particular, I’ve had to learn a lot about European social democracy, European socialism, and the Second International.
In Lenin Rediscovered, you argue that “Lenin’s perspective fit squarely within the mainstream of the socialist movement of his time.” How does that movement differ from self-described Leninist groups today? What lessons, if any, can activists today learn from Second International social democracy?
The techniques, the practices, our whole way of looking at things are closer to the Second International than we realize. This continuity became clear to me by reading the book Demonstration Culture. The author, Kevin J. Callahan, focuses on a specific topic of international congresses and so forth, but he brings out that the very word demonstration, meaning a mass rally or something similar, is from this period, and it was an invention more or less of the socialist left. And then all the things—the idea of the party press, petitions, protests, placards, and banners, more or less the things that the Left does, day in and day out—they were worked out and given a rationale by the Second International’s basic self-understanding, which said: We have a goal, and so the point is to connect what’s going on around you to this larger goal. (I’ve written a review of the Callahan book that will appear in the next issue of the International Newsletter of Communist Studies, where I make these points in more detail.)
Paradoxically, the Third International became the preserver and extender of this “demonstration culture.” At the end of the First World War, this whole culture might have just faded. And as far as the official Social Democratic parties are concerned, it more or less did fade away. I’d have to do more research on what happens to post–WW II social democracy in respect to this demonstration culture, but the Third International and the Communist parties and regimes certainly continued it. It’s very important. It gives one a sense of one’s past, to see these techniques that are incredibly resilient. They’re still around. Maybe social media will change them fundamentally, but I have a feeling they will just modify them.
That’s interesting, because in the traditional narrative, there’s this radical break between the Second and the Third Internationals. How did the Third International think of itself as breaking from the Second International? Because, in the traditional narrative, the break was much more fundamental than the process you were just talking about, that is, the Communists accusing the Social Democrats of betraying the goals of the movement and portraying themselves as the ones who were keeping true to them. According to the traditional narrative, the Communists went on to rethink the basic goals of the movement.
Right, well—let’s start off by saying that it’d be a good thing to examine exactly what the people in the Third International were saying or doing about their own relationship to the Second International. We have our story, a narrative about what they said, our narrative about their narrative, as it were. And I have a feeling that this is not the case, that our narrative about their narrative, our stories about their story, are mistaken. One reason is, for example, Kautsky: None of these people who were actually there disavowed their admiration for pre-war Kautsky. They weren’t ashamed that in the past they had been very admiring. I may seem to have Kautsky on the brain here, but it fits into larger things.
A couple of examples. At the very beginning of the second volume of Stalin’s complete works, he has an essay where he defends the Kautsky article from 1906 that I mentioned earlier, the one that Lenin and Trotsky liked so much. At the beginning of Stalin’s piece, he says: We all regard Kautsky as a great authority, an “outstanding theoretician,” a “thorough and thoughtful investigator of tactical problems,” and as someone whose views on Russian questions are very important. And he publishes this in his works during the Stalin era. There’s no editorial note saying Kautsky was a traitor. Stalin is not ashamed that he thought Kautsky was great—in fact, he genuinely seems proud that the Bolsheviks back then were in some sense endorsed by Kautsky. The same is true of Kamenev, who writes in 1910, in some polemic with Martov, the Menshevik leader: “It’s pleasant to be on the bench of the accused sitting next to Kautsky,” since Martov was criticizing both the Bolsheviks and Kautsky. And again Kamenev republishes this in the early 1920s and still thinks it’s a point of pride.
So it seems that the way we now think of the Second International, the way we use this term “Second International Marxism”—which was invented by people like Karl Korsch and György Lukács—is different from how the Bolsheviks themselves thought about it. In fact, I don’t think that that the Bolsheviks themselves thought in terms of “Second International Marxism”—to them, it was just Marxism. As they saw it, before the war there was social democracy, which has two wings: the revolutionary wing and the revisionist or opportunist wing, or the left wing and right wing, or the radical wing and the moderate wing. There are various ways of putting it. The revolutionary wing thought of itself as “the vanguard of the vanguard,” and I steal that phrase from Alexander Bogdanov.
This idea of the revolutionary wing of socialist democracy as “the vanguard of the vanguard” gives you an idea of what revolutionaries thought before the war. They thought that when the revolution came, they were going to get everyone over on their side. So that’s why the revolutionaries—while very suspicious of opportunists—didn’t mind working with them. The heroes of revolutionary socialists were people like Jules Guesde, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Alexander Parvus. Those were the international icons of revolutionary social democracy.
After 1914, revolutionaries said: Well, we didn’t realize how far the opportunist rot had gone. The opportunists have won, and we must abandon the ship to the opportunist rats. So revolutionaries did reject the Second International as corrupt from within, but using the same categories, using the same analysis as they had before. It just turned out that revolutionary social democracy was weaker than they thought but itself was fine.
Why was Kautsky is denounced, even by Lenin, as a “renegade,” given that he broke off from the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)—along with Luxemburg and others—to form the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which was opposed to the war?
Well, about Kautsky, and his further fate in this narrative: In 1914, he is regarded as a renegade, as someone who did not live up to his own oft-stated principles. There’s a third idea that I haven’t brought up yet, this idea of a center wing of social democracy, in between the left and right. You’ve got to be careful with that idea because some people interpret Kautsky as a centrist all along, but this was an idea that only started making sense around 1910, when I think the split between the opportunists and the revolutionaries started getting wider. There are two possible reactions to this growing split: One is to mend it, try to keep on going together. The other is to realize that this split is happening and embrace it. So according to Lenin’s analysis: Kautsky, while still being ideologically on the side of the revolutionaries, wants to get along with the opportunists. That’s what Lenin means by kautskianstvo. He obsessively denounces kautskianstvo, which I define as a sort of verbiage to cover up things for the sake of unity. It wasn’t so much what Kautsky was saying itself, at least for the most part, that was bad—the reason Lenin thought Kautsky’s current writings were so destructive was that they seemed intended to make things easier for the opportunists. What Lenin wanted was a clean break, a new International, to get rid of the opportunists. He regarded them as traitors and insisted that revolutionaries couldn’t and shouldn’t work with them.
What do you make of this whole narrative that exists today within “Leninism” about Lenin’s introducing a “party of the new type” against the supposed “Kautskyite” view of the party as a “party of the whole class”?
Both those phrases are invented. That is to say, they were never used by Kautsky and Lenin themselves, as far as I can tell. I cannot find Lenin saying “party of the new type.” In my opinion, what he wanted was a party of the old type, but purified, really living up to its own announced standards. If you read some of what he writes, that’s the impression you’ll get—or at least that’s the impression I get. He wanted the ideal Second International. It’s not a rejection of the Second International. Or rather, he wanted the ideal revolutionary wing of the Second International.
As for the “party of the whole class,” I still don’t know exactly where that comes from or who started that meme. It’s not in Kautsky. I can’t find it. No one ever says, “Look where Kautsky says this,” so I think that’s just something that started somehow. I haven’t pinned down who started it or who first said, “Kautsky believes in a party of the whole class.”
Maybe it comes from some of the rhetoric around 1903–4, from a debate between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks—between Lenin and Martov—about the membership rule in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. They argue this at the Second Congress. It was one of the things they split over: about what membership was. They’re very close, the two alternative rules offered by Lenin and Martov, but Lenin’s rule was more restrictive in the sense of defining a member of the organization as someone committed to an agreed-upon common cause, whereas Martov’s rule was you can get sympathizers in; it wasn’t like getting “the whole class,” but it was looser.
At that point, Lenin was saying about Martov’s rule: If you follow your logic to the end, we would get a party that includes everybody, our message would be diluted, we wouldn’t be a vanguard, you will ruin the whole party, and so forth. Martov did the same thing to Lenin: If we follow your logic to the end, we will have a narrow, conspiratorial organization. I read an article by Trotsky, from around 1907, that explained to uncomprehending outsiders how these sorts of Social Democratic polemics worked: You would take the other position and push the logic to the very end, try to show the absurdity of your opponent’s views. Trotsky gives very good advice to historians when he says: “It’s very dangerous to take those descriptions [from party debates] as accurate statements of someone’s outlook.”
At any rate, neither Kautsky nor Martov—no social democrat would every say that the party should be a party of “the whole class,” whatever that is supposed to mean. I think I read something by Pham Binh the other day in which he said this kind of eloquently: that “the RSDLP’s daily activities were geared solely towards guiding all forms of class struggle.” There were tons of other things going on in the working class outside of the social-democratic movement, and of course everyone was aware of this elementary fact. Social Democrats had their message, and they were indeed convinced that eventually the whole class would accept it—Lenin as well as anyone else. So this “party of a new type”–vs.–“party of the whole class” way of framing things is just not useful for talking about these differences within social democracy.
Again, it’s a historical question that does have real implications for today. First of all, Lenin didn’t use that phrase often. It wasn’t an essential term. He used it in only two specifically defined periods. One was in the period right after the revolution of 1905, when there were more or less free institutions in Russia, freer than at any time before or since. The other period was after the revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks were in power and had to deal with those problems. The term democratic centralism was used only in these two specific periods, as far as I can make out, and it meant really different things at different times. Back in 1905–7, it meant democratic centralism, and after the 1917 revolution, it meant democratic centralism. And therefore, I deduce from these two data that it was never used as a phrase to say something essential about Bolshevism.
After writing that article—just by serendipity or because I’ve had my antennas up—I’ve come across two more references that will really nail this issue down. The most striking is something Zinoviev said in 1923, where he’s talking about the need for more democracy within the party. The way he frames it verbally is to insist on the need for “worker democracy” (rabochaia demokratiia). He admits that at the moment in Russia, there were too many orders from on high, not enough free discussion from below, for a healthy life within the party. Right now, according to Zinoviev, the party was built on the principle of “democratic centralism,” and this was inevitable, given the low cultural level of many party members. In other words, he seems actually rather apologetic about the need to rely so much on “democratic centralism.”
This surprised even me, especially because it is sometimes said that it was Zinoviev, not Lenin, who created democratic centralism as a theory and defended it. Well, he didn’t want democratic centralism either, although he did say it was necessary for the time being. So, for the Bolsheviks, democratic centralism was not at all the essence of Bolshevism; in fact, it was an enforced compromise, something forced on them by circumstances.
Switching gears, in addition to your work on the Russian Revolution and Lenin biography, you’ve researched the presentation of political and social myths in opera and melodrama. In your 2011 Lenin, you emphasize Lenin’s romanticism and view of the working class as a heroic agent of revolutionary transformation—“heroic” in the sense of mythic, romantic, as if the revolution was, in Lenin’s mind, something akin to the climax of an opera. Could you elaborate on this, and perhaps discuss the role of romanticism and heroism in revolutions, and whether revolutionary romanticism is necessary or worth recapturing in our “postmodern,” ironic, anti-romantic culture?
I think this all ties together in my work. I look at this material and try to find the narratives. I don’t want this to be misinterpreted, but I treat these revolutionary texts to some degree in the same way people treat literary texts. That is to say, I look for the patterns, try to find the narratives, because people think politically in terms of narratives and act on them. If you want to get to the heart of things in politics, narratives have to be looked at.
I should say that I also feel that another thing that comes from my literary interests is a sense of looking at words carefully, looking at how people use words, at the time, in context, and being critical about vocabulary. This is what some of my critics call “arid textual analysis.” I suppose I do indulge in that—in fact, I really enjoy close reading—but I think something valuable comes out of it.
I’ve done this in Lenin’s case. This is where I think my Ph.D. adviser, Robert Tucker, set me on the right path. He was the one who emphasized this romantic view in Lenin. I can see why people would skeptically say, “Lenin, a romantic?” Because pick up any of his writings, and he is always getting angry, quoting his opponents with indignation, and sort of permanently saying “You can’t say that! Because of this, this, and that!” He comes off as a permanently irritated polemicist. But if you look for the romanticism, you find it, and once you find it, you start seeing that it’s all over the place. It’s what attracted people to him. If he were always the crabbed polemicist, people would run the other way—and many people did exactly that anyway, and you can hardly blame them. But he did have a romantic side, a heroic vision, and even people who didn’t like him could relate, could understand that. And I think the most perceptive critics of him at the time realized this romantic side of him. For them, it was exactly why Lenin was so destructive. I just read something last night by a guy, Wladimir Woytinsky—he was a Bolshevik but left the party in early 1917. In a striking phrase, talking about Lenin, who’s just returned, he said something like this: Lenin managed to latch on to the secret dreams of his audience; he tapped into their sense of who they wanted to be. To understand the Lenin phenomenon, you have to understand this.
Instead of opera, there’s another genre, melodrama, which I find to be a more accurate analogy of the narrative structure in revolutionary texts. As a matter of fact, I’ve written an essay that was published in a book on Russian melodrama titled Imitations of Life. In that essay, I looked at the Stalin period. I’m mainly interested in the Lenin period, but I have written stuff about later developments. I looked first at socialist realist plays, then show trials as show trials, in the strict sense of the word. I looked at Pravda at the same time that these trials are going on and realized that Pravda had court transcripts that read as if they were play scripts. So the trial was a play, a scripted play, as we all know. But if it was a scripted play, what are the literary tools that would be helpful to understanding these show trials?
I should also say I’ve looked up Lenin and melodrama. Anatoly Lunacharsky—the Bolshevik Commissar of Enlightenment, in other words, the minister of education—had an approving view of melodrama. And melodrama was an extremely popular genre, stage genre, of the nineteenth century, absolutely basic, especially for popular audiences. There’s a reference in Krupskaya’s memoirs about Lenin going to see a melodrama in Paris, I think. He enjoyed it and also enjoyed that it was a politically charged one (it was, if I remember, about some sailor who was falsely accused).
What about today, and the modern part of the question? I’ll ask you a question. When I look back at this period—when you could say that there was a mass movement, a Marxist mass movement that was genuinely alive—what was it that was alive? It was a sense of a world-historical mission, that the proletariat was “the Chosen People”—this metaphor was made many a time, that this group of people was going to bring the world to a final goal. So that’s what I’m wondering: Is this sense of a world-historic mission alive today, even among the Left? This is what I’m asking you: Is there a genuine sense of this group having a mission and a real sense that it is going to happen? That was the baby that the Left has thrown out, keeping the bathwater, which is very useful—Marx’s analysis of this, class analysis of all this stuff. The bathwater is great! But the baby seems dead or gone. Does this sense of world-historical mission exist and must it exist in order for the Left to be anything like what it was? And is there a way of making it happen if it doesn’t exist? You can’t artificially insist that people believe in a mission like this—or even make yourself do it, if the belief isn’t really there.
One way of looking at this is that social democracy was a synthesis—the “merger formula,” I call it, and I talk about this formula a great deal in Lenin Rediscovered—of socialism and the labor movement. Which means, to put it another way: a union of the protests, with the action aimed at right-now improvements, along with the Big Goal, the final end. Not only was this union a good thing but it was actually happening. And, by the way, that’s another thing about Bolshevism, pre-war Bolshevism: They weren’t arguing that it would be a good thing if the proletariat led the peasants. They’re saying, “It’s happening. Hegemony is a fact.” Which accounts for their optimism.
And it also accounts for what often appears as the scarcity of real optimism today. In any event, this hypothesis of the synthesis of socialism and the labor movement was falling apart, or to be more agnostic about it, undergoing strain starting after 1905 with the German SDP and then with the war and so forth. We usually look at this degeneration as a series of betrayals, mistakes, and finding the right thing. But if you look at it objectively, with the view that the synthesis just wasn’t there, it just wasn’t happening, then it is sort of a playing out of something inevitable. This is a more useful way of looking at it: There’s a split between the labor movement and socialism. The social democrats—post-war social democrats, what we would now call “social democracy”—reacted to this tension by giving up and accepting that the union of the labor movement and socialism was not going to happen. The Communists maintained their belief in this merger. They didn’t choose the worker movement by itself or socialism by itself. Synthesis was still a goal. There was still the idea that you can unite current tasks and the Big Task. But this belief of the Communists has been something like a tire slowly going flat. And at a certain point, the belief just isn’t there anymore. So that’s what I see with the Communists in the Soviet Union, it’s just that one day they woke up and realized that even the last little shreds of belief were going. Nowadays, of course, there’s still plenty of enthusiasm, plenty of imaginative thinking, so—can that synthesis be brought back? That’s the challenge. Where these people were strong is that they didn’t just say “I want to believe in this”—they really did believe it, because they could see facts on the ground that led them to think it was happening.