The Nation - February 6, 1924
V.I. Lenin dies on January 21, 1924. On February 6, this Nation editorial reflects on his life and looks forward to his legacy.
Lenin is dead. A half million people are marching past his red-draped bier in Moscow, and all over the world men are mourning or exulting.
What was the secret of his might? It is hard to analyze. No man of position in the world ever felt his power less. "I have never met a person so destitute of self-importance," said Bertrand Russell, and it was probably literally true. "Lenin struck me as a happy man," said Arthur Ransome. "I tried to think of any other man of his temperament who had a similar joyous temperament. I could think of none. This little, bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another, ready any minute to give serious advice to any who interrupt him to ask for it, advice so well-reasoned that it is to his followers far more compelling than any command--every one of his wrinkles is a wrinkle of laughter, not of worry. I think the reason must be that he is the first great leader who utterly discounts the value of his own personality." He utterly lacked dignity; none of the outward trappings with which politicians and statesmen usually enhance their appearances played any part in his influence. He did not cut his hair impressively, like Lloyd George, or even Trotzky; he probably never wore a tall hat or a frock coat in his life; he had no pomp of manner. Sometimes, coming late to a party congress or Soviet assembly, he would stray down the crowded aisle and seat himself half way up the steps to the tribune, leaning over the next step to take notes, and when an opponent scored a point against him he would lean forward, ironically applauding.
Yet this undignified little man became the idol of his people. The hundreds of thousands who marched past his casket were not by any means all Communists, or even revolutionaries. They were simply Russians, mourning their national hero. Within Russia even those who despised Lenin's communist theories trusted him somehow to lead Russia out of the slough into which the years of revolution, war, and blockade had plunged her. No other leader, within or without the ruling party, had a tithe of the universal respect and devotion which was Lenin's. The peasants affectionately called him "Ilyich"; within his own party he was "the old man," and his word carried conviction.
"His strength," Bertrand Russell thought, came from his "honesty, courage, and unwavering faith--religious faith in the Marxian gospel, which takes the place of the Christian martyr's hopes of paradise, except that it is less egotistical. He has as little love of liberty as the Christians who suffered under Diocletian and retaliated when they acquired power. Perhaps love of liberty is incompatible with whole-hearted belief in a panacea for all human ills." It must have required a terribly intense belief to hold office through the period of the "Red terror."
The generation of revolutionaries which came to power with Lenin had indeed been tried by fire. No group of men in the history of government has matched them in readiness for sacrifice. Lenin's own brother was hanged for participation as a student in a revolutionary movement. Lenin himself gave up his position as a member of the lesser aristocracy, spent three years as a prisoner in Siberia, and most of his life in exile in devotion to his principles. In 1905 he directed, from Finland, the work of the bolshevist minority in the first Duma. As an exile he was recognized as leader by his own party, though almost unknown outside it. During the war he led the tiny band of international socialists who saw the whole carnage as a conflict of rival capitalisms and met in Switzerland to preach peace--peace by revolution. When the revolution came he sought the first opportunity to return to Russia, and was soon regarded in Petrograd as the most dangerous of those fiery street speakers who denounced the compromises of Kerensky and the imperialism of Miliukov. He believed in the destined mission of the industrial working class. He believed that parliamentary democracy, in a nation 90 per cent illiterate, with an aristocracy and an oligarchy used to the technique of rule, was a farce. Someone would have to dictate, and he was determined that it should be the class-conscious minority of the working class. It was.
That class rule infuriated the class which ruled the rest of the world. Germany invaded Russia, but fell victim to the virus of revolution; the Allies blockaded Russia, shut it off from the rest of the world by a "sanitary cordon," and then invaded it from all sides. They supported the Czecho-Slovak legion invading from within, Tchaikowsky invading from the north, Kolchak from the east, Denikin and Wrangel from the south, Petlura, Yudenich, and the Poles from the west. But Soviet Russia, under Lenin, stood the test of battle. It fought off the world, and then set an example unparalleled in history in the series of generous treaties which it made with its neighbors. That long struggle, however, following four years of war, sapped the strength of the nation. It was left in no condition to attempt the largest-scale social experiment of history. Whether, under other circumstances, communism might have worked, we do not know. It never had a fair chance in Russia. And Lenin, still far-sighted, was the first to proclaim the necessary compromise.
Compromise was another of his strange virtues. He was trained in the dialectic school of exiled revolutionaries, where theorists usually learn chiefly to chop logic in a thin world of abstractions. In office this cafe scholar directed the government of a hundred million people. Trotzky was an abler administrator, but Trotzky looked to Lenin for guidance and often enough after debating with him for months accepted his dictum and reversed his own position. Lenin early lost interest in world revolution. He made two right-about faces in his policy toward the peasants. But where lesser men would have derived ingenious arguments to show that they had never changed their minds, Lenin had the courage to say, "We were wrong; we must change our policy."
Lenin is dead. His country has had to make many painful compromises since his ragged crew took power, but it is running the railroads and marketing the wealth of Russia today. The Communist Government preaching and, to the best of its ability, practicing the gospel of economic revolution, still fills the breast of Mr. Hughes with alarm. Whatever may come of it in Russia that doctrine--that political democracy without economic liberation is a farce--has swept the Western world, and the Western world will never again be quite the same. The French Revolution was crushed, but it molded the history of nineteenth-century Europe. The Russian Revolution is compromising; Lenin is dead and Trotzky is ill, but they will long continue to make history.