By Chet Yarbrough
By Robert Payne
With 110 published works, Robert Payne’s competence as a writer is proven. However, competence is no guarantee of insight. “Life and Death of Lenin” explores the genesis of 20th century government terrorism but fails to help one understand how Lenin became so widely revered by communist sympathizers.
Payne was a prolific writer. He wrote 14 biographies ranging from Mao to Greta Garbo. He also wrote four histories of ancient civilizations, a number of books about China, and several novels.
Payne’s book describes Lenin as an obsessive bibliophile that vilifies intellectual pursuit, distorts Marxism, and disdains science. But, Payne fails to adequately explain how Lenin earned his reputation as the physical and ideological leader of the Russian revolution. Payne infers that Lenin’s rise to power is largely luck and happenstance. Lenin seems merely a person in the right place at the right time, rather than a leader of a new form of government.
Payne argues that Lenin exemplifies single-minded concentration but, with the exception of terrorist instigation, he seems a bystander, an oracle to be turned to rather than a leader to lead. Something seems missing from the biography.
Payne reports Lenin’s belief in terrorist utility; which comes from following a 19th century philosophy propounded by Nikolay Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky believed in a socialist society–based on peasant (proletarian) communes. Like Marx, Chernyshevsky believed the worse social conditions become, the better it is for socialism.
However, the constructive revolutionary consequence of terrorism is not clearly revealed in Payne’s history of Lenin. Perhaps terrorism is used to resist counter-revolution. Perhaps terrorism allows more time for “natural” evolution of government. Both Marx and Lenin believed that communism would naturally evolve from socialism and capitalism as a result of worker exploitation.
Even though Alexander Kerensky had been a part of the Czarist government, he provided arms to proletarian workers to resist minority Bolsheviks that supported Lenin. In Payne’s book, Lenin seems only a table setter for Stalin; not a genius of persuasion or a leader of revolution. Payne suggests Kerensky had more followers
Too many questions are unanswered in Payne’s book. Why did a suppressed majority accept random violence that punished the poor and disenfranchised? Why did Alexander Kerensky, a post-revolutionary leader, fail to rise to leadership of new Russia?
Payne shows that Stalin was not Lenin’s choice for succession because of Stalin’s brutality. However, Stalin’s ability to get things done in a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy appealed to revolutionaries.
Lenin, nearing the end of his life, wrote that he regretted mistakes made in the revolution and questioned the purity of communist practice in Russia. He still believed in communism but thought it had to be reformed. He implored Trotsky to fight Stalin but Trotsky did not have the political will or strength to resist Stalin’s ascension.
Payne suggests Stalin accelerated Lenin’s death with poison. However, Payne notes that medical maladies like arteriosclerosis and concomitant strokes were proximate causes of death. (Subsequent to Payne’s history, speculation is that syphilis played a role in Lenin’s demise.)
“Life and Death of Lenin” is interesting but not enlightening. Payne offers interesting details of Lenin’s life. He tells of Nadezhda Krupskaya, his wife—a devoted revolutionary that supported and cared for him. She stood by him through poverty, an assassination attempt, and three extramarital affairs.
Lenin’s older brother plotted to assassinate the Czar but was caught and executed.
Lenin’s life is a history of contradictions. He believed in the Proletariat but despised their parochialism. He acted like an elitist but hated elitism. He acted like an intellectual but hated intellectuals. He reviled the bourgeoisie but was raised in a family of relative wealth.
Payne’s history of Lenin reinforces Tolstoy’s belief that social imperative, rather than great men, are the maker’s of history. In Tolstoy’s theory of history, Russia was ready for revolution and Lenin just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
If Tolstoy was correct, one wonders why Kerensky was not chosen as leader rather than Lenin. After all, Kerensky was at the head of a new government in Moscow while Lenin was struggling to organize the Bolsheviks in Petrograd to replace Moscow’s interim government.
Lenin must have had more than terrorism going for him but Payne offers no insight. What other appeal did he have? How did he get Russian culture to accept and perpetuate his distorted vision of communism? Terrorism alone cannot be the answer. Terrorism engenders insecurity which tears a nation apart, particularly in nations with diverse ethnic groups.
Lenin served as Commissar of Russia from 1917-1924. His embalmed body lies in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow. He remains a symbol of Russian nationalism. His revolutionary skill is a mystery to this reviewer, even after reading Payne’s book. Maybe Tolstoy has it right and he was simply in the right place at the right time.