Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography

Reviewed by Kyle

Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography [trans. Balint Bethlenfalvy with Mario Fenyo] (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015), 552 pp., $34

It is no easy task that Tamás Krausz has set himself in Reconstructing Lenin. However, the editor of Eszmelet (the only Marxist theoretical and political quarterly in Hungary) demonstrates himself to be more than capable of this undertaking. Krausz is a lecturer in History as well as head of the Department of Eastern European Studies at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. He seeks to contextualize Lenin’s thought and praxis in a highly detailed biographical work.

In the preface, Krausz discusses the wide range of criticism levied against Lenin which he argues is grounded in misperception of Lenin’s ideas and historical context. In discussing these criticisms, the book deals with everything from the New Left to Totalitarianist views of Lenin. For Krausz, “The problem lies in Lenin himself. His legacy allows for a variety of interpretations because in reality a variety of Lenins existed, and in spite of the inner unity and coherence of his actions he waged a constant struggle upon and within himself.” Using this characterization of Lenin, Krausz pivots between debates involving Lenin. He discusses the longue durée of Lenin studies, identifying three drastically different approaches.

The first approach treats socialism in the Soviet Union as the embodiment of Leninist or even Marxist thought. Krausz seeks to disprove this approach by demonstrating that many of the decisions made and opinions formed by Lenin were very much specific to Russia and contemporary international developments, not guided by Marxist orthodoxy. To bolster his point, the author cites the turn toward state capitalism during the New Economic Policy (NEP) as a reflection of external pressures, namely the Russian Civil War. He argues that historians are wrong to categorize NEP as part of a true socialist program. NEP as well as the policy of War Communism were meant to be transitions within transitions that would lead to socialism. Krausz is right to point out the misunderstanding in some circles about the NEP period. It was not a retreat from Lenin’s ideas or a step in a more liberal direction. Rather it was a temporary state capitalist fix for the Russian economy.

The second approach is grounded in American historical works which seek to investigate the culture, ideas, and myths on which the evolving Soviet structure was founded. This methodology pays particular attention to everyday life, geopolitical ambitions, and various other cultural factors. For the author, this approach does not give enough importance to the actions of ideologically committed individuals and/or to the crises that Soviet leaders had to deal with, such as famine and war. Later on in the book, Krausz characterizes many of the decisions of that period as a sort of baptism by fire of the Soviet system. The author rightly argues that the Bolsheviks could not have maintained power without using political terror and violence; their political structure reflected this imperative.

A final approach which the author identifies and grapples with is the old “deterministic” one that sees historical trajectories as given and Lenin as always making correct decisions. This is a harsh and somewhat broad characterization of intellectuals who had little option but to follow academic trends in countries with often strict censorship. Academic disciplines were transformed with the October Revolution. However, there were Marxist criticisms of the Soviet system that came from within the inner party and academia at different time periods.

The book logically begins with the early years of Vladimir Ilyich, which include his studies and family background. The reader will find interesting bits of information in the beginning, such as Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s influence on Lenin’s thought, as well as Lenin’s interest in Russian literature at large. However Krausz is most at home when he moves past the required narration of the early years and into more theoretical issues. Most of Lenin’s early writings are characterized as dealing with Russian capitalism and its development. It is in this period that Lenin’s thoughts begin to crystallize. For instance, the author states that, “At the center of his theoretical work stood his increasingly differentiated conclusion that Russia was unavoidably on the verge of revolutions that would shape the future of the world.” Some of the other topics covered in this period are Lenin’s respective breaks with Narodism and Liberalism, the latter of which would come to have important ramifications for the development of opposition to the Russian monarchy.

A short yet critical section of the book covers Lenin’s views on organization and revolution. The divisive phrase “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” is introduced by the author at this juncture. This phrase is situated within the context of Lenin’s thought about the ways in which spontaneous mass movements could seize power. In the Russian case, after the failure of the 1905 Revolution, he came to the conclusion that the workers could not achieve a revolutionary consciousness and culture. So it would fall upon a revolutionary vanguard to guide the proletariat. This vanguard of course became institutionalized and bureaucratized as the party-state. The dilemma of this thought is illuminated by Krausz in one of his central criticisms of Lenin, namely that there was a fundamental paradox between carrying out a revolution and maintaining political control through coercive means. Krausz oddly finds himself in agreement with Menshevik skepticism of the October Revolution. For the Mensheviks, the Russian case for socialist revolution was dubious because of the relatively small numbers of Russian industrialized workers. In this sense, the Mensheviks accurately predicted a Stalinist turn in the event that the Bolsheviks would maintain their political position.

The performativity of Lenin’s texts is perhaps the most relevant issue to contemporary discourse. Krausz must inevitably deal with charges that Lenin’s ideas, particularly in The State and Revolution, had a cause and effect relationship with Stalin’s gulags. The author argues that these Weberian analyses are “ahistorical” and “presentist.” The author has in mind here the currents of thought that developed among the moderate leftist intelligentsia in Central and Eastern Europe post-1989. The common claim that Leninist communism is a utopian ideology is excoriated by Krausz who argues that Lenin “consistently aimed to denounce all utopian constructs, though not to liquidate all utopias, for in their absence all thought looking beyond the system and oriented toward the future would be eliminated.” For the author, Lenin often came to pragmatic positions when the Bolsheviks took power but his concepts sometimes need to be viewed apart from this pragmatism.

Krausz’s work is as much a demythologization as it is a reconstruction. Great care is taken to defend Lenin from a broad spectrum of criticism, pivoting between countless debates. This causes the author to sometimes take on an apologetic tone, although he occasionally also posits Lenin’s “mistakes.” The work is thus theoretical as well as biographical. It is a welcome contribution to the histories of socialism, of Russia, and of political theory.

With the modern radical left lacking new ideas that mobilize broad support, a reexamination of the first experiment with Marxist theory is likely a good restarting point. There are numerous developments which Lenin perceived earlier than his peers: globalization, war as imperialism, and the potential of the Soviet system to become a colonizer of its incorporated territories. On this latter point, the author describes Lenin’s belief in a confederated system of republics that would maintain autonomy in cultural, economic and language issues. Krausz also cites Lenin’s pre-October 1917 idea of cooperative socialism as potentially beneficial today. The work thus has many points of relevance to the debates of our time.

Reviewed by Kyle Stanton graduate student in history University of Albany, New York