During this quarantine, I happened upon several biographies of Lenin that piqued my interest. Most books about him go on for too long, but some biographers held my attention. The numerology of his life interests me in part because he was born in 1870, and I was born in 1971. Hence he was the same age I was when our respective birth centuries ended. When he was turning forty, the world had sailed through the first decade of the twentieth century, just as the twenty-first century had barely finished its first decade when I turned forty.
The coincidental link between our ages helped me to put together the many pieces of world history that come together with Lenin. His tremendous ego was well suited for the gigantic shifts in history in which he played a major role. But most importantly, what I realized in reading Lenin biographies was that he was the true father of the present-day left. While I’d studied Communism here and there in my past studies, these readings were my first immersion in the rise of Soviet Communism through a personal lens that gives the twists and turns a relatable flavor. Lenin held Marx in high regard, but Marx’s actual writings would have never held such lasting influence if it were not for Lenin’s political brinksmanship and his architectural restricting of a major world power to put Marx’s vision into place.
Unlike today’s leftists, Lenin was overt and unapologetic about his hypocrisy. For instance, when he had to recreate the Tsarist Russian Army into the new Red Army, he had no qualms about jettisoning his revolutionary allies and appointing holdovers from the hated Romanov regime into leadership positions. The Tsarist secret police that hounded him during his years of exile looked remarkably like the secret police Lenin founded to root out any ideological resistance once he’d taken power. To be true to his revolutionary vision, Lenin had to develop a callousness about human life. When famines struck Russia in the confusion after his takeover of the government, Lenin had to show no emotional vulnerability about those dying of starvation, because he had to stay coolly focused on his main goal, which was to build a futuristic society founded on Marxist principles. While he detested the bourgeoisie, he also needed to marshal their trade expertise in trying to modernize a thoroughly rural society into the industrial state that Marx had envisioned as the ideal context for Communism.
In short, Lenin was honest with himself that the ideological specifics did not matter as much as his ability to gain power and discredit the particular opponents who would stand in his way. In his position, he had to feign allegiance with the peasants, but when famine struck Russia, he also channeled popular outrage against the peasant “kulaks,” the supposed speculators and hoarders among the peasantry whom he blamed for the food shortage.
During the civil war between his army and the “Whites,” he exploited the nationalist resentments of various regions (the Ukrainians, the Baltic states, the Cossacks) in order to pit them against the conservatives who wanted to defeat him. He did this when he must have known full well that those same ethnicities were going to be gobbled up by the Soviet Union. After all, Lenin had built his career on disowning nationalism and instead trumpeting an international movement sans boundaries or ethnic loyalties. The Germans paid his way to get back into Russia in order to foment uprisings so the Russians would withdraw from World War I; his anti-nationalist rhetoric was key to his ability to re-enter the country via Finland and lead the Bolsheviks to revolt. Yet he was quite willing to inflame ethnic nationalism among the Soviet principalities if it meant weakening the Whites.
The conservatives of Lenin’s day had the same problem that many conservatives do today. This helps explain why Lenin won his civil war and why we see today’s left trouncing the right again and again. The “Whites” that rose up against Lenin’s Bolsheviks wanted to go back to the way things were under the Tsars. They embraced their ethnic chauvinisms as trademarks of the earlier system they romanticized. One should say they romanticized the Romanov past falsely, because of course by the time of the final Tsars, the rulers had only small fractions of their bloodlines that were actually Russian. Many had overwhelmingly German ancestry because of so much royal intermarriage.
The conservatives who rallied behind the Whites in Russia’s civil war failed to offer a vision that could overturn Lenin’s leftist dream. They had to have been delusional to think that the country’s mass of peasants would want to go back to an earlier way of life in which they were obedient serfs. Likewise, today’s conservatives would ask millions of working and middle class Americans to go back to the Reagan or Eisenhower eras. In the Reagan era, remember, conservative working class people had no media sympathetic to them but rather had to deal with daily barrages of biased news reporting and decadent popular culture, with no platforms to contest any of it. In the 1950s, as much as that decade fascinates all of us, America had a war in Korea that cost over 30,000 American lives, a polio epidemic, racial upheaval in the south, and poverty rate nearly twice what existed in 2019. The libertarian conservatives like to glamourize the free-market boom of Reagan’s day, while the social conservatives long for a return to the low divorce rates and strong family values of Eisenhower’s day. The problem is you cannot have both the 1950s and the 1980s; the tightly wrapped traditionalism of one and the laissez-faire social culture of the other undermine each other.
Lenin’s pragmatism allowed him to see the right’s critical weaknesses and exploit them. Baiting the Russian right into aligning itself with the very past that the masses found unconscionable and which the intelligentsia knew was infeasible, Lenin did not have to offer a realistic timeline for the raising of the glorious utopia of his Marxist fantasies. He simply had to control the discourse so the average person saw the future as a choice between a past they knew was bad and some other vague possibilities that were at least seemingly better than the past.
From the amount I’ve been able to read of Lenin, I can see why he felt so conflicted. His wife probably spoke the truth when she objected to the Russians turning him into a godlike icon after death and preserving his corpse for public view. In his heart Lenin probably did not want to make the compromises he ended up making in order to gain and maintain power. Therefore it did not surprise me to hear that he suffered from headaches and various ailments that sound psychosomatic. With no belief in God and a ruthless obsession with building power and crushing opposition, his physiology was undoubtedly riddled with stress. But this adds to my overall perception that Lenin founded today’s left in so many ways. He built the infrastructure for the leftist brain, not only its overt performance of ideology, but also its deceptive strategies for gaining power and even its neurotically unconscious double-mindedness about itself.
The Stalinism that followed Lenin would seem unfair to tar the whole present-day Left with. But Leninism is still the mainstay of today’s left. Virtually each of Lenin’s compromises with the system he detested finds a mirror in the left’s chicanery today. While the left claims to speak for the working class, leftist causes are dominated by wealthy philanthropists, out-of-touch celebrities, corporate neoliberals, and elite academics. There is absolutely nothing about the left that betokens a strong understanding or connection to the masses of people outside the uppermost 1% of society; in fact in the left’s hatred of Trump supporters one sees echoes of Lenin’s attack on the kulaks.
The left’s exploitation of identity politics also looks and smells a lot like Lenin’s exploitation of ethnic rivalries to get into St. Petersburg at the end of World War I and to defeat the Whites in the civil war. Judging from their actions I cannot say the left has any deep commitment to the specific groups they champion. They like black Americans except when their powerful Christianity pits them against the decadent claims of the LGBT movement. They like women except that women are still largely called to motherhood and therefore are more likely to oppose abortion and radical sex education in schools; it is women, after all, who largely run the left’s favorite bogeyman, homeschooling. The left likes Latinos as helpless immigrants dependent on political patronage, but white liberals will be quick to repel the colorful expressiveness of Latinos by accusing them of harassment or firing them from their boardrooms. They like Asian Americans who get interned during World War II (as long as they don’t mention it was Roosevelt who put them in camps) or who soak up liberal ideology when they are eager elite college students; they do not like Asian Americans who seek low taxes for their small businesses, want low taxes, cut deals with Walmart, or attend evangelical churches opposed to gay marriage. In so many of these identity politics ententes, we see Lenin’s calculations and triangulations. Obviously it is not the identity of a group, or what makes that group of people who they are, which the left embraces–it is only the momentary alignment of some portion of that group with the political agenda the left seeks. As long as they can suppress any reference to conservative views among their patronage groups, the left can keep up the charade of identity politics by pretending that the myriad exceptions to their stereotypes do not exist.
Since Lenin had fatal strokes only a few years after gaining power, he never had time to undo the hideous structures and oppressive rhetorical machines that he built, even though he built them probably as a deliberate compromise to gain power, which he would have wanted to roll back later, once the Soviet Union was established. That moment never came for Lenin, and it will never come for today’s left. Power is a temptation and also a disease. Once you make it your number one priority to get power at all costs, no matter the hypocrisy or abuses or deception, your story will end as Lenin’s did. Though you may try to arrange for your Trotsky to follow you and bring the good vision to its completion, you will get instead a Stalin to poison your legacy forever.
Perhaps the biggest mistake conservatives make is to resist the left by disputing leftist rhetoric and ideology. Lenin’s life teaches us that the left wing he fathered will say and do many things that they do not mean, thinking that these are simply compromises they have to make in order to gain power. We should fight them for what they do, how they manage their organizations, how they betray their own constituents. We should not walk into the trap the Whites fell prey to, by digging in our heels to defend conservative rhetoric that we haven’t even thought through and can’t fully defend. The left inherited Lenin’s fatal flaw, the thirst for power. It will undo them if we can figure that out and adjust our resistance strategies accordingly.