“There it is, my fate. One fighting campaign after another – against political stupidities, philistinism, opportunism and so forth.”

— Lenin’s letter to Inessa Armand (December 18, 1916)

“Marxism will be able to do everything. Why do you think Lenin’s lying there in Moscow still all intact? He’s awaiting Science – he wants to rise again!”

— “The Foundation Pit”, Andrey Platonov

Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on a Train (Penguin 2016) deserved the praise it received. A critical account of the days before Lenin made his grand entry into the stage of the Russian Revolution, Merridale’s book brings to light minute details of the travel of the Bolshevik leader, weaving them into a tightly spun narrative. Yet, something was incomplete in this largely appreciative account, which also has some token liberal criticisms of Lenin’s anti-democratic tendencies.

Many a time, it is the case that a great leader gets his best compliments from his foes. With regards to Lenin, one should credit Alexander Solzhenitsyn with creating one of the most vivid portraits of the man. Lenin in Zurich is a truly insightful and engaging account of Lenin in the immediate period before the Russian Revolution, as he was contemplating his future and that of his people as an exile in Switzerland.

There has been some debate on whether this work of Solzhenitsyn’s belongs to history or fiction. The author undertook considerable archival research before commencing this book. A reader who is introduced to Lenin through this “novel” might consider it an elaborate psycho-profile of the man. Even Robert Service’s magisterial biography Lenin refers to it along with other academic and political works. Yet, the speculations on the workings of Lenin’s mind, and the reconstructions of his emotions and interactions fall much more in the realm of creative licence than history, and make a compelling case for this book to be categorised as fiction.

A different Lenin?

In contrast to his poignantly sombre One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin in Zurich (LIZ) has an almost ebullient tone to it – though one almost always encounters the irrepressible Lenin in his bitter-sour, cynical moods. Solzhenitsyn, an anti-communist and Russophile, does not paint a flattering portrait of Lenin. He does not hold Stalin alone responsible for the Soviet disaster, but lays the blame on Lenin and his associates too. It is interesting to note here that after decrying the dictatorial tendencies of the Russian communists for the best part of his writing career, Solzhenitsyn, towards the end of his life, expressed a great admiration for Vladimir Putin.

However, Solzhenitsyn does not demonise Lenin either. A straightforward conservative, his account of Lenin is more appealing compared to left-liberal and revisionist takes on Lenin. Mapping Lenin’s political and personal emotions, his swinging moods and his calculating demeanor, LIZ paints the human side of Lenin, but without being voyeuristic or needlessly dramatic.

The feminist in his life

Lenin’s complicated relationship with Inessa Armand, a Bolshevik-feminist, is a key plot element in LIZ. Solzhenitsyn notes how Lenin had an instrumentalist approach to most men and women in his life, their levels of importance graded by their potential utility to the cause of the Revolution. Inessa Armand was the exception. Lenin often engaged in polemical debates with her and often, as with others with whom he locked horns, emerged victor. But Solzhenitsyn captures his feeling – “Her arguments were defeated but she was invincible.”

Lenin resolutely opposed her ideas of free love as bourgeois thinking. His thinking on the subject of love and multiple relationships might appear to some as social conservativism, but we must recognise here that Lenin, like Marx, was no fan of philandering and sexual radicalism. The latter believed that true love expressed itself through reticence and modesty. Lenin, an organizer par excellence, not only realised that libertarian sexual radicalism was non-proletarian, but also that it would greatly hamper the iron discipline of a revolutionary party.

Solzhenitsyn is wrong to assume that Lenin opposed Armand’s free love ideas out of jealousy and personal insecurities. On the contrary, this too was determined by Lenin’s instrumental rationality. Likewise, LIZ shows Lenin as being considerably dependent on Armand. While he did hold her as an intellectual-lover in great passionate regard, he also applied restraint and created a distance when required. In Freud-speak, one can also say that it was the sublimation of his desires that enabled Lenin to emerge as the leader of the Revolution.

A shrewd realist

Lenin’s ruthlessness is shown in his fondness for the Jacobins and his contempt for the moderates of the French Revolution. While Lenin did not believe in moderation in Revolution, he was, much like his approach towards free love, acerbically sceptical of the infantile spirit and hollow radical rhetoric. Solzhenitsyn details the theoretical meticulousness of Lenin. He was ready to make some practical compromises – like his willingness to strike a bargain with Alexander Parvus to be smuggled back into Russia with German help – but was resolute in avoiding even a minor theoretical error.

“He had a quicker and keener eye for the narrowest chink of disagreement than for the broad expanse of converging platforms,” writes Solzhenitsyn. And thus, anyone with some familiarity with Lenin’s writings would know that he reserved the most acidic of his polemic and the worst of his abuses for fellow Leftists. Lenin’s approach, something that is crucially relevant to the current times, was justified on the premise that deviations within the Left (ultra-radical, identitarian, dogmatist, bureaucratic, etc.) were more harmful to the Revolution than the assaults of the Right.

Solzhenitsyn brings out Lenin as a cold theoretician and a shrewd realist who is irascible and contemptuous towards the common man. But while critics in USSR (which was socialist only in name at the time of publication of LIZ) saw this as ungenerous condemnation, one should creatively look at this as a compliment. Glorification of, and overidentification with, the common man, the underdog, the mob, is not just a cheap populist manoeuvre, it also helps tyrannies secure moral legitimacy for themselves.

The Stalinist state and the vulgar mutilations that Mao and Pol Pot subjected Marxism to were possible only by appealing to the common man. Stalin genuinely believed that he represented the will of the average man and hence sought to dumb down all philosophy, art and culture to the level of the average man. Mao and Pol Pot took this absurdity further. They cynically respected the initiative of the masses, and choreographed senseless and self-defeating orgies of violence in the name of Cultural Revolution and Year Zero so as to create a new people by killing all those they thought were representative of the old.

Lenin, on the other hand, had no respect for the herd. He did not believe in limitless possibilities of socialism and was cautious on what could be achieved and how it could be defended and expanded. He favored theoretical rigour to overtures to mass sentiments. If he gorged on classical philosophy and Hegel during his exile instead of mingling with the people, it was to strengthen the praxis of socialism. He wanted the masses to be raised to the level of advanced revolutionaries – Maoist thinking is repelled by the thought of anything more advanced than peasant simplicity. Lenin had contempt for the votaries of proletarian culture as he felt that the high culture of the bourgeois could only be effectively ousted by something better, not by celebrating the mediocre. In Solzhenitsyn’s eyes, Lenin was pro-European and anti-Russian. More power to that Lenin!

Reclaiming Lenin

Increasingly the trend among the contemporary liberal-left is to associate a vulgar identity politics and anti-Western resentment of anyone claiming to be marginalised with a “revolution”. From dictators in Africa, through warlords in Afghanistan, to Islamists who blow up civilians in Paris, they are all seen with sympathy, ironically, along with sexual libertarians and multiculturalists whom the former groups would ruthlessly persecute in their zones of power. The failure of the grand narrative of the socialist revolution has opened up spaces to micro narratives that are mostly spin-offs of Pol Potism, fuelled by an exaggerated sense of victimhood and an “entitlement” to be offended (and therefore, to go on a rampage) on that basis. Unfortunately, directionless mass protests like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring also do not provide a way out.

In his Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, written at the beginning of the previous century, Lenin emphasised a point that is relevant to our times: “It is now our duty to show the proletariat and the whole people the inadequacy of the slogan of ‘revolution’; we must show how necessary it is to have a clear and unambiguous, consistent, and determined definition of the very content of the revolution.” Theoretically, a critical task of those on the radical Left in the centenary year of the October Revolution is this: defending Lenin against the poisonous trends of his successors and in that process, reconfiguring a Leninism for the 21st Century.

Lenin in Zurich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, translated by HT Willetts, The Bodley Head.