Lenin has a bad reputation. His embalmed corpse is still on display for tourists in Moscow, a grotesque monument to the cultish hero-worship of elite political figureheads that characterised 20th century totalitarianism.
Based on the version of Lenin’s life told in most history books, his legacy is one of violence, repression and an elitist disdain for the capacities and rights of ordinary people.
It can be a surprise, then, to read of Lenin’s life, and learn that he spent most of it as a pro-democracy activist, facing arrest and exile for his attempts to bring political freedom to one of the most repressive states in the world. He staked his life, and won his role in history, as an anti-war campaigner, calling for – and strategising to bring about – an end to the senseless brutality of World War One.
Lenin was not just about peace, love and understanding. He was a Marxist: that is what drove and structured his hatred of oppression and war, and his faith in the working class.
And, although he is characterised as a symbol of sneering political elitism, in truth his world view was based on an unshakable conviction that ordinary working class people could not just change the world, but run it themselves.
Lenin was not just about peace, love and understanding. He was a Marxist: that is what drove and structured his hatred of oppression and war, and his faith in the working class. In a way, the rulers of his time were right to persecute him. The kings, generals and bosses of his time understood, just as he did, that ending war and political repression would require a battle, and that humanity’s victory would mean the end of their rule. That is why they hounded him in his life and slandered him in his death. It’s also why his life’s work is important to understand a century later.
A champion of democracy
Russia in the time of Lenin’s youth was a nightmare. To go on strike was a crime; to form a union was a crime; to publish a newspaper without permission was a crime. Disobedient peasants were whipped. Unruly workers were shot. Activists were beaten, tortured, exiled or hanged. Jews and other minorities were routinely massacred. Famine was frequent. Voting rights were almost non-existent. This empire of repression was laced together with a sophisticated and well-funded network of secret police, spies, blackmailers and torturers.
This was the system that Lenin declared his enemy. When he was 17 years old, he organised a protest calling for political freedom for students. As punishment, he was expelled from university and exiled. This began the pattern of his life: as an organiser of a democratic movement, he risked and experienced repression and victimisation. But his dedication only deepened as his strategies became more serious.
Within a few years of that student protest, Lenin was a Marxist. He attempted to organise workers into revolutionary activist groups, certain that working class action was the key to social change. Such work was done under constant police surveillance and not infrequent persecution: Lenin was imprisoned and then exiled for this work. But even in exile from Russia, he organised the pro-democracy workers’ movement, taking delight in any sign that the Russian dictatorship was weakening and a “real, open struggle for freedom” was approaching.
In 1905, as the first Russian revolution approached, Lenin wrote:
“The revolution is spreading. The government is beginning to lose its head … The demand of the insurgent St. Petersburg workers – the immediate convocation of a Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal, direct, and equal suffrage by secret ballot – must become the demand of all the striking workers.”
Lenin’s hunger for a victory of democracy, and his willingness to organise and fight for it, meant that, like many pro-democracy activists before and since, he spent time in prison, on the run and banished from his homeland. But he and the socialist organisation he led only grew more determined to win political and economic freedom as the system he fought against became more crazed and violent.
An end to all wars
World War One remains one of the greatest atrocities ever perpetrated against humanity. For four years, much of the world was submerged in poison gas, laced with trenches and barbed wire and shattered with machine gun fire and artillery bombardment. Tens of millions were killed and maimed. Capitalism’s senseless drive towards industrial-scale violence consumed entire continents.
The ruling class, including in the so-called democracies, ramped up their internal violence too, jailing anti-war protesters and throwing charges of sedition and treason against anyone who spoke out against the war drive.
The war is remembered now as a pointless catastrophe. The sheer barbarity of European civilisation was never more clearly revealed. But at the time, it was applauded by almost every respectable political figure in Europe, including those “moderate” socialists who sought an official place in polite society. To take a stand against the mass murder was in many cases illegal.
In this climate, Lenin led the fight, not just against the war, but against the system that made war inevitable. He called for, and organised, mutinies and rebellions against the viciously anti-democratic war regime, insisting on “the need [for soldiers] to use weapons, not against their brothers, the wage slaves in other countries, but against the … governments and parties of all countries”.
When, during the war, soldiers from opposing armies began “fraternising” (chatting, exchanging gifts and playing football between the trenches), military commanders declared it tantamount to treason and imprisoned the offenders when they could. Lenin wrote with great excitement of these rebellions against the hateful, undemocratic violence of his time:
“[F]raternisation is a path to peace … this path does not run through the capitalist governments, through an alliance with them, but runs against them … this path is beginning to wreck the hateful discipline of the barrack prisons, the discipline of blind obedience of the soldier to ‘his’ officers and generals, to his capitalists.”
It was Lenin’s belief in the potential of the working class that led him to fight for democracy and against war, and to encourage resistance and rebellion against the elites wherever it emerged. And it was this – an authentic Marxism – that allowed him to lead the Russian Revolution in 1917, finally sweeping away the pro-war government on a massive wave of organised working class resistance.
A century later, capitalism has not yet been defeated, and we continue to live in a world defined by routine war and brutality. “Democracy” is a sham, in Australia and abroad. Billions are spent every year on fighter jets, prisons and hellish offshore camps for refugees. We must wait patiently for a chance to see a contest between Turnbull, the narcissistic right wing millionaire, and Shorten, the narcissistic right wing bureaucrat.
To fight for authentic democracy and an end to oppression and violence, to promote disobedience and resistance, and to believe in the power and potential of the working class: these things are just as dangerous to the Trumps and Turnbulls of our time as they were to the kaisers and tsars of Lenin’s. That is why Lenin’s life is treated as a horror story in the circles of respectable politics, and why it must be investigated seriously by anyone who wants to fight against war, repression and injustice.