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Lenin (Reaktion Books - Critical Lives)
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2011
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924) -- who became known globally by his underground pseudonym, Lenin -- is presented in this succinct yet substantial work of scholarship as a genuine revolutionary, in stark contrast to the cold-blooded totalitarian monster that has become all-too-common in accounts from both the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. A student of the fine, honest "sovietologist" Robert C. Tucker (whose two-volume unfinished biography on Stalin has yet to be surpassed -- Stalin as Revolutionary 1879-1929: A Study in History and Personality (Acls History E-Book Project Reprint Series) and Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941), Lars Lih made a major step in shattering myths about Lenin in his massive earlier work, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context (Historical Materialism Book Series). He continues that good work in this readable and informative biography.

Common themes in much anti-Lenin scholarship (ranging from Adam Ulam and Alfred Meyer to Richard Pipes and Robert Service) are: Lenin distrusted the capacity of the working class to be truly revolutionary; he consequently veered away from Marxist orthodoxy in order to develop a "vanguard party" dominated by intellecutals such as himself in order to accomplish the revolutionary task; he was so utterly fanatical that he refused to tolerate any and all disagreement, and even turned away from music because he feared it would make him too "soft." Lenin's inhumanity, according to such acocunts, was manifest from his early callous rejection of efforts to help starving peasants during the famine of 1891-92 down through to his unrelentingly authoritarian violence utilized to force the intractable Russian masses to live up to his utopian ideals after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Lih's well-documented account demonstrates the mythological character of these and other well-worn assertions. Steeped in Marxist thought, in fact "in love" with Marx's writings, Lenin maintained throughout his life the belief in a "heroic working class" that would inevitably prove itself capable of leading (in alliance with Russia's peasant majority) both a democratic revolution to overthrow the absolute monarchy of Tsar Nicholas II and a subsequent socialist revolution (in alliance with workers of other lands) that would bring to birth a society in which (to use Marx's words) the working class would "win the battle of democracy," leading to a socialist or communist future that would be "an association in which the free development of each would be the condition for the free development of all." The revolutionary party that Lenin helped create (the Bolsheviks) was fundmanetally democratic, evolving through sharp debates and disagreements, sometimes even splits (though sometimes unifications), a collectivity of activists in which Lenin was more than once over-ruled but within which he earned considerable authority. Far from developing a blueprint for an authoritarian order, Lenin's "blueprints" (such as they were) projected a workers' and peasants' republic of democratic councils (soviets) which would, increasingly, replace what he and other Marxists perceived as the economic dictatorship of capitalism with the economic democracy of socialism. Of course, things did not turn out that way.

In this fine and richly-textured book, Lenin is placed securely in context: the context of European and Russian history, the context of the broader socialist movement (a truly mass phenomenon before World War I), the context of truly heroic workers' struggles and of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (and later the Communist Party) that contained a number of other experienced and strong-minded individuals. We are given a sense of the qualities that enabled this human being to have the impact that he did in such contexts. An iron will is combined with a brilliant intellect, with a profoundly realistic and practical theoretical and organizational bent, yet also with a desire to learn from others and -- by no means inconsequentially -- a capacity for charm and humor, and for genuine kindness.

At the same time, there definitely was a quality akin to arrogance, if we are to believe Lih's account, and at times an inclination to see a highly complex reality through the distorting lens of his revolutionary assumptions and his faith that the "heroic working class" could and would overcome all obstacles. Lih shows us that this perspective could not survive the escalation of problems and horrific crises that beset the revolutionary regime after 1917. A brutalizing civil war, combined with foreign invasions and economic blockades, and exaccerbated by terrible mistakes of the revolutionaries themselves, swept away the autonomy of revolutionary soviets and quickly evaporated the once-potent energy of "workers' democracy". In order to survive and create order amid the chaos, Lenin and his comrades implemented emergency policies and improvisations that closed down civil liberties, gave a political monopoly to the Communist Party, and generated the hot-house development of a bureaucratic order. The rescue from this dilemma that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had expected from workers' revolutions in other countries, and for which they had begun building the Communist International in 1919, failed to materialize. Modifying his expectations while engaging in initial problem-solving efforts, Lenin never abandoned the fundamental ideas and ideals that had animated him. But he was soon devastated by a series of catastrophic strokes, which ended his political activity by 1922-23 and brought death soon after.

Lih's biography of Lenin is a substantial contribution for those who would like to understand important aspects of recent history, and perhaps to gain some understanding as well of current and future possibilities. It would make sense, while engaging with Lenin's life and times, to engage also with some of his writings, a comprehensive survey (and introductory essay complementing Lih's findings) which can be found in a recent volume entitled Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings (Get Political).
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2013
To write an objective and neutral biography of Lenin is an impossible task, he was not a neutral figure. Neither his thinking, nor his life, are objectively analyzable, as he was always seeking out one end - the communist revolution - in everything he said and did. And to this degree, the idea that Lenin was an unprincipled pragmatist is demonstrable false, he had one principle to be sure.

Lars Lih is no Leninist, nor probably a socialist. As far as I know he comes from Duke University and used to work for a Democratic House Congressman in the US. So this isn't a book written for Marxists by a Marxist, but unlike all the recent Lenin and Bolshevik works (Ulam, Pipes, Service, etc), Lih does not paint Lenin as a rabid psychopath hellbent on death and destruction. Instead Lih believes Lenin is an almost hopeless (because he's so hopeful) romantic, convinced that the claims of Historical Materialism must come true, and his job is to help the proletariat achieve their historical goal; but it is not to force them to do so. Throughout the book Lih demonstrates that Lenin never doubted the Proletariat, he never wanted to force them or coerce them into anything, and he always thought that the vanguard should walk alongside them, never over and above them.

The only reason I can't give this book 5 stars is due to a few missing details I was looking forward too. One was more discussion of Lenin's break with Plekhanov, which is barely discussed. The other was Lenin's role and legitimacy in the October Revolution (was it a coup? wasn't it? what support did he have, etc)? Also more discussion of, does Leninism lead to Stalinism? Lih says it does not, and he offers a few bits of information as to why it doesn't, but the question doesn't feel consummated.

Overall this is a good bio, and although it's not neutral -because it can't be neutral- it's at least more sympathetic and understanding than anything Service ever wrote.
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on August 8, 2014
I had wanted to read Lih 's new translation of What Is To Be Done?, but it's too expensive and my library didn't have it. But the truth is that the problem with that book is not the translation. It's the fact that that almost everyone reads it with misconceptions, whether from bourgeois sources or from anti-Leninist socialists.

I found this to be an honest, short introduction. I don't read any of the recent biographies of Lenin. I skim them with the "inside this book" feature, and I find lies, more lies, and conjecture. But this doesn't mean there aren't a lot of good books that contribute a understanding Lenin. Trotsky wanted to write a biography of Lenin, but his publisher wanted one of Stalin. Trotsky did however leave us with The Young Lenin and a collection On Lenin: notes towards a biography;]. His [[ASIN:0873488296 History of the Russian Revolution is also essential.

Other essential works are Reminiscences of Lenin by Nadezhada Krupskaya,Reminiscences of Lenin,Moscow under Lenin,Leninism Under Lenin, and Lenin's last struggle.

As far as Lenin's works, one might start with Essential Works of Lenin: "What Is to Be Done?" and Other Writings. It's useful to see Lenin as one forging a team; to see him with his collaborators, and his opponents. The Pathfinder series The Communist International in Lenin's Time is a great way to do this. The first volume is Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents: 1907-1916: The Preparatory Years. To see the fight that Lenin began against the monstrous bureaucratization and national chauvinism that was emerging, Lenin's Final Fight: Speeches and Writings, 1922-23 is essential. The collection Not by Politics Alone: The Other Lenin by Tamara Deutscher is also excellent to get a rounded picture of the man.
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on June 8, 2014
Not a apologist nor a critical view of Lenin, simply a historical one. About time. With any luck Lih will continue to research this fascinating subject.
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on June 7, 2015
Excellent book
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on June 15, 2015
great book
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2013
Very good brief overview of the life the man who set socialism back 100 years. Very good on his relationship with Kautsky. At the end, even Lenin admitted that Kautsky was right. Could use more detail about the post Oct 1917 period.
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