by Matt J. Popham
Hannah Arendt wrote in 1963 that Lenin had not yet found his definitive biographer. More than fifty years later, that still seems to be the case. Certainly the glut of reactionary tomes that emerged in the decades following the fall of the Soviet Union – despite their often impressive length, breadth, and detail – provide no decisive portrait, even if their authors seem eager to sit in final judgment. The historical revelations of some of Lenin’s more severe aspects that have come to light since the communist collapse complicate any attempts at hagiography. And even those biographers attempting “balance” often seem more ambivalent than truly objective. Perhaps overshadowed by his legacy, Lenin has remained, for almost a century, an inscrutable, irreconcilable figure.
Lars Lih’s LENIN – part of Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series – is both too broad and too brief to really be considered a biography, but it does provide an invaluable scholarly service and, in the process, accomplishes what so many historical accounts have failed to do: it successfully formulates an essential Lenin (in both senses), refreshingly free of the incongruities and assumptions so often imposed on him by contemporary historians. Through a penetrating and detailed analysis of Lenin’s political life, Lih maps a connective ideological vision that simultaneously distills Lenin’s character while reconciling many of his perceived inconsistencies. The book divides Lenin’s revolutionary career into three decades, charting the evolution – or, more often and more to the point, lack thereof – of his political thought. Citing numerous examples from Lenin’s personal and political writings and associations, including lesser known essays and polemics often overlooked by Lenin biographers, Lih makes a convincing case for a Lenin who was more complex, consistent, committed, and more hopeful – sometimes even to a fault – than previously portrayed.
Ably demolishing the dominant, “textbook” image of the dour, calculating autocrat who cynically exploited Marxist ideology to further his own ends, Lih instead reveals a dedicated, almost naïve, optimist determined to realize his vision of a heroic revolutionary scenario in which the agrarian peasant would be led by the proletarian worker. A man whose piercing intelligence and profound understanding of Marxist theory often made him impatient, arrogant, and inflexible when that vision was opposed or questioned. A man whose unwavering commitment corrupted into desperation in the wake of the Revolution, as the harsh realities of Russia, politics, and power exposed his vision’s inherent flaws – a desperation which, at times, led to drastic actions and loathsome compromises that Lenin, at his best, disliked, and at his worst, rationalized as necessary evils in pursuit of the greater good. In short, a man whose occasionally imperious nature sometimes got the better of his genuine political idealism.
Despite its brevity, it would be inaccurate and unjust to describe Lih’s book as a summary or overview. A political science professor with a specialization in Soviet history and Marxist thought, his comprehensive knowledge and meticulous research are evident on every page. Lih, however, assumes a familiarity with Lenin and the Russian Revolution on the part of his readers, and in his efforts to focus on Lenin’s relationships to certain people and events, often glosses over the people and events, themselves, in a way that might leave those unfamiliar with the subject hungry for more detail. (In this circumstance, it would be advisable to begin with a more in-depth biography or history, then chase it with Lih’s study as a tonic.) Similarly, it would be unfair to say Lih re-contextualizes Lenin, when in fact, that’s what most of Lenin’s previous biographers have done: retroactively viewed him through the emotionally warped glass of a post-Cold War historical perspective. What Lih has done is actually contextualize Lenin – put him back in his own time, allowing him a late 19th/early 20th century revolutionary’s view of Marx and communism, typical of the days before the spectre of totalitarianism cast its shadow over the Western world. By performing a full and thorough inventory of Lenin’s life and work, placing his thoughts and actions in their proper place and perspective, Lih may not be Lenin’s definitive biographer, but he has furnished us with a definitive Lenin. And that is no small feat.