2017 marked 100 years of the Russian Revolution and a considerable number of books were rushed out to coincide with the centenary; some in revisionist mode, others celebratory. Among these, Tariq Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution is a wonderfully ranging and layered exploration of the complex political, ideological and personal settings that shaped Vladimir Lenin, the brains behind the revolution.
Ali makes a convincing case for Lenin's strategic and tactical brilliance in bringing about the revolution. This clarity of vision and foresight grew out of Lenin's long periods of immersion in the interpretation of Marxist theory, Russian revolutionary politics, as well as exilic and international politics of the left. These strands together constituted huge dilemmas and tension for Lenin in terms of the strategic, ideological and political choices he made before and after the revolution, with lasting reverberations for the rest of the globe. Though the book is about Lenin's dilemmas and how he overcame them, it casts its net wide to drag in all the formative influences that shaped Lenin politically, analytically, emotionally, ideologically and strategically. Ali lists left internationalism, feminism, revolutionary violence and Russian absolutism as well as literary influences as the key factors that drove Lenin's political and strategic clarity.
Ali is unique among a dying breed of scholar-activists; he has authored dozens of books on world history and politics with special focus on left social movements and left internationalism. Because of his long-standing scholarly interest and practical engagement, he has developed unparalleled knowledge and insights into the history of leftist movements and leaders. In this book, he brings this vast fund of knowledge to illuminate Lenin's unique and world-changing role within the wider interplay of love, war, imperialism and revolutionary terror.
At the very outset, Ali lays down two major dilemmas that faced Lenin on the eve of World War I. The first was how to react to the war and plot Russia's exit. In this, Lenin acquitted himself admirably well by interpreting the war as imperialist in character, breaking ranks with the Social Democratic Party of Germany that was led by the equally venerated Karl Kautsky, who pulled the hugely influential party behind the German government's war effort. Lenin's analysis was at one with philosopher and economist Rosa Luxemburg, who also opposed the war—a stand for which she paid with her life. Though Lenin's predicted revolutionary uprising in Germany and the rest of Europe did not materialise, he managed to put the prevailing widespread mood of war-weariness in Russia to the advantage of the Russian revolution.
Lenin's second dilemma was how to chart a revolutionary path to power. Here, too, he was prescient and supremely strategic. Instead of following the standard line that the revolution had to necessarily go through the bourgeois-democratic phase in line with Marxist theory, Lenin forced the pace of events and pushed for immediate transfer of power to the Soviets. This strategic masterstroke turned the political tide the Bolshevik way. Ali seems to suggest here that sometimes in history the role of an individual at a crucial moment is of central importance in leading a revolution. Lenin—in Ali's view—was that individual, who conjured the revolution into being by sheer willpower and a correct analysis of the situation. Looked at this way, the book seems to advance the 'great man' narrative of history though situated in the social and political matrix of left politics.
In this, Lenin was assisted by Leon Trotsky, who was instrumental in gathering deserted and demoralised Russian soldiers into the Red Army, which was to play an important role in the revolution. Ali does well in discussing the military strategy and military philosophers of the revolution; not his specialty by my reckoning, but he shows a great deal of verve in examining the finer points of military strategy, which attests to his erudition, intellectual curiosity and versatility.
Very ably, Ali traces the broader politics of the international left which formed the background music to Lenin's thinking. His discussion of the First and Third Internationals is rich and illuminating, though sometimes the chapters feel a bit too long and tend to drag. Ali skilfully sets the scene where Russian absolutism held the whole country in its suffocating sway and provoked a rash of assassination attempts on the tsars, perpetrated by a motley crew of left, anarchist and liberal activists. One such unsuccessful attempt was traced to Lenin's elder brother, Aleksandr “Sasha” Ulyanov, who was hanged for being an accessory to the plot. This episode was to leave deep marks upon Lenin's subsequent political and ideological trajectory. Though he did not talk much about this, his brother's living ghost hovered over his thinking and actions.
Opposition to the tsar was not limited to the left-anarchist spectrum; it also drew in liberal elements of society. Radical socialist Alexander Herzen and his fellow exiles furnish one example; this oppositionist strand operated from exile in London and Europe. British political scientist E. H. Carr's famous book The Romantic Exiles and Sir Tom Stoppard's play The Coast of Utopia best illustrate the state of liberal oppositional politics in exile at the turn of the century. Ali also touches upon the little-discussed subject of the impact of literary writers on Lenin—Nikolay Chernyshevsky comes in for special mention for his influence on Lenin's political outlook. Lenin even named one of his books, What Is To Be Done, after Chernyshevsky's novel of the same title.
Ali devotes considerable space—three chapters—to the role of women in revolutionary politics, beginning with the first wave of activists that included Sophia Perovskaya, who was hanged for her role in the successful assassination of the tsar Alexander II in 1881. In the second wave—consisting of Octobrist women active in the communist party and in the revolution—two names stand out: Alexandra Kollontai and Elena Stasova, who were at the forefront of the uprising and rose through party ranks to occupy influential positions. The status of women in terms of divorce rights and employment improved after the revolution and Lenin himself was aware of the centrality of women to the revolutionary project. He wrote, “from the experience of all liberation movements, it can be noted that the success of a revolution can be measured by the extent of the involvement of women in it.” Ali helpfully reminds readers that the spark for the February Revolution was lit by women who came out into the streets demanding bread and an end to the war on the International Women's Day in 1917.
Ali also shows that Lenin was a pragmatist: when he saw the need to rebuild Russia after the long civil war, Lenin pushed for a new economic policy designed to loosen state controls and “permit a degree of capitalism” to jumpstart the stalled economy. This, informs Ali, ran counter to the notion of the commune-state embodied earlier in Lenin's book The State and Revolution. Similarly, Lenin was worried about the growing concentration of power in the party and the early instance of misuse of power by Joseph Stalin.
The Dilemmas of Lenin is a nuanced and intellectual biography and a labour of love. Ali pours a lifetime of reflection and engagement in movements produced by the Russian Revolution into it and the resulting product is a refined, deeply scholarly and well-paced book that celebrates the revolution and its gains, as well its architect. A must read—no two ways about it.
Arif Azad is a public health and development consultant whose work has appeared in national and international publications. By arrangement with Dawn, an ANN partner.