It must be said
to the biographerís credit that he places his subject to the
scrutiny of facts and therefore avoids the extreme conclusions
of other authors who have written about the Russian Revolution
in general and Lenin in particular. In last one-decade these
include Dmitri Volkogonov, Edvard Radzinsky, Orlando Figes and
Richard Pipes.That Service manages to do a doublethink (to
borrow a phrase from Orwellís otherwise flawed "Nineteen
Eightyfour"), is another matter.
reviewer whose early introduction was to the hagiographies on
Lenin churned out by Soviet publishers, the recent researches
have tended to be more in the nature of additions of some facts
or in the de-mythologisation of others.
qualitatively new dimensions have been few: the impact of
Russian agrarian extremists in addition to Marx on Leninís
thought and his many edicts and decisions during and after the
Civil War that can be considered to be the genesis of the later
totalitarian state. In this book there is new light on Leninís
exchange of letters with those close to him, particularly Nadya
Krupuskaya and Inessa Armand.
points, even Service has little to add and there is a reason
that despite his attempts to highlight the negative aspects of
Lenin, he opens the book with the sentence: "Lenin was an
proverbial wisdom of hindsight, the first point need not really
have surprised us. After all, there was substantial material to
indicate the violent programme of the agrarian socialists and
their impact on Russian revolutionaries. Dostoevskyís
"The Demons" and particularly Joseph Conradís
near-prophetic "Under Western Eyes" had underlined
these streams of Russian revolutionary thought much earlier.
role in setting up the later Stalinist state, it needs to be
read cautiously. While it is hard to imagine that the Soviet
state would have been fundamentally different if Lenin had lived
longer or if the leadership had passed on to someone else other
than Stalin, it is also incorrect to see Stalinism as being a
direct and legitimate continuation of Leninism.
Lenin was, as
Service rightly points out, capable of reversing his decisions
in the light of new developments ó he often took an
isolationist position but then used all his force to carry the
rest of the Bolsheviks along with him. This was not the case
with Stalin, who preferred the somewhat more
"convenient" option of physically eliminating his
resorted to polemical pamphleteerism for the dissemination of
his ideas, Stalin paved the way for simplistic sloganeering
masquerading as profound truths. This was carried to its logical
culmination in the Red books in Maoist China that pioneered the
"communism for dummies" trend, if you will.
reversing the early 1920s economic policies, Stalin deviated
grievously. Though it may be conjectural to state this, it is
possible that the ex-USSR might have developed those policies at
an earlier stage that China adopted in the 1970s. As Roy
Medvedev has forcefully argued in his recent book
"Post-Soviet Russia: A Journey through the Yeltsin
Years", a pragmatic symbiosis of market features would have
been a historically judicious choice compared to the barrack
socialism that finally evolved.
recounts information about Leninís pedigree, including Mongol
and Jewish ancestry. The family background of Lenin was
generally ignored in the official biographies about Lenin and
therefore the chapters on Leninís childhood and early
upbringing make interesting reading, if only for their novelty.
Even Louis Fischerís "Lenin: A Life" focused more on
his later years.
The author also
touches some of the important works like the "April
Thesis" and "The State and Revolution",
attributing these generally to Leninís whims or wily scheming.
Though one expects that he would have discussed these more
seriously in his previously published three-volume work on Leninís
political thought, it is necessary not to underestimate his
theoretical writings and to throw out the baby with the
A number of
principles still carry a lot of weight, one of them being Leninís
critique of Narodism. In India, for example Narodism in the form
of Gandhism and neo- Narodism in the writings of Third World
theorists like Ashish Nandy and Vandana Shiva has been a much
stronger current than in Russia. In this regard, one still needs
to "go back to Lenin" to use a clichť popularised by
Soviet writers. As the early 21st century comes to resemble more
and more the early 20th century, this need may become all the
more relevant as does a much more critical attitude.
Then there are
certain aspects that Service either does not expend himself
fully on or does not touch at all.
For example, he
points out that despite all his faults, Lenin was the
acknowledged leader among both the Bolsheviks as well as his
closest adversaries, the Mensheviks. If Plekanov was respected,
Martov loved but still it was Lenin that the people followed,
there must have been some reasons. Many of the other leading
revolutionaries were extremely educated and forceful
personalities. Despite that, why was there such universal
agreement regarding Lenin? Service answers this with a
An aspect of
Leninís personality that has recently been highlighted by
Volkogonov and Radzinsky as well as Service needs attention.
This is the supreme importance that Lenin attached to his
personal security. While Volkogonov terms this
"cowardice", Service does not go that far, but even he
does not attempt to provide an explanation.
The reason may
be partly psychological and partly borne out of conviction on
Leninís part. In his seminal work "What is to be
Done?" Lenin had indicated that the working class cannot
accomplish revolution by itself and there is need for an
intelligentsia that grows outside the working class that
develops theory and injects class- consciousness into the
on the other hand was powerful enough to silence the rebellious
intelligentsia. It must be remembered that Nikolai Chernesveskyís
literary and philosophical works were written only in his early
years. Once he returned from his incarceration, he became
completely silent. His mental faculties had been ruined. Lenin
must have been fearful of a similar fate befalling him ó his
brother Alexanderrís execution would have been a gory reminder
An aspect that
needs attention from Leninís biographers and scholars of the
Russian Revolution is a more judicious treatment of the
personalities that he was associated with. In Serviceís
account, these personages appear and disappear like passing
silhouettes except for Krupuskaya, Inessa Armand and Stalin.
This leaves one not only with numerous loose ends but also does
not help to adequately compare Lenin with some of the other
leading figures in the Russian Social Democratic movement.
specially true of the important Menshevik theoreticians Yuli
Martov, Pavel Axelrod and Alexander Bogdanov (whom Service
considers to be Leninís intellectual superior and with whom
Lenin engaged in polemics in "Empirio-Criticism and
Materialism"), not to mention Trotsky, Stalin and Bukharin.
The last three
at least have had their share of biographers (Isaac Deutscher
for Trotsky and Stalin, Stephen Cohen for Bukharin). It is the
leading Mensheviks who have been ignored by historians.
As for Lenin, the current
biographer does not achieve what Deutscher accomplished for
Trotsky. The need and the long wait for a definitive biography
of Vladmir Illyich Lenin are not yet over.