Alan Woods interviewed about Lenin’s legacy

We publish here an interview with Alan Woods, conducted by a Russian news source, about the legacy of Vladimir Lenin, 150 years after his birth.

1. If you were the President of Russia, what would you consider necessary and correct to do for Lenin’s 150th birthday: for you personally and for the country in general?

AW: Unfortunately, the likelihood of my becoming President of Russia does not seem very great at present. The post is occupied by a man who does not seem to be in a hurry to vacate it any time soon. The question therefore belongs rather to the realm of fairy stories than anything else.

However, let us for a moment assume that this fiction was to be a reality. You know, Lenin was never much interested in monuments of any kind. But I am absolutely certain Lenin would want me to carry out his programme, beginning with a decree to nationalise the property of the oligarchy without compensation, and to limit the salaries of all elected officials to the wage of a skilled worker.

2. Is there any episode in your life, or any event, which is connected somehow to Lenin - his practice, his writings, his ideas? Please, tell me about it, if there's any.

800px Brodskiy Isaac Vladimir Lenin in SmolnyLike Marx and Engels, Lenin was a humble man who lived simply. He was totally dedicated to his cause / Image: public domain

AW: On a purely personal level, I can say that I actually met two of Lenin’s secretaries. That was in the year 1970, when Brezhnev was head of the Soviet state, and I was a postgraduate student in the MGU in Moscow (I believe it is now referred to as the MSU). They were two very old ladies who lived in a dacha outside Moscow. They were completely devoted to Lenin, who they described to me as a very modest and kind man.

One story they told me stuck in my memory. They said that one of the chairs in Lenin’s study in the Kremlin had a nail sticking out of it, and he would regularly tear his trousers on that nail. They were quite happy to stitch the tears in his trousers, but what struck me is that it never occurred to him to ask for a new chair.

That was very typical of Lenin, and of all the Bolshevik leaders at that time, who lived very simply, without any of the ridiculous pomp and circumstance that characterise the Stalinist bureaucracy at a later date. The English writer Arthur Ransom recalls a visit to Bukharin shortly after the revolution, when he was an important figure in the government. Ransom presented him with a packet of sugar. Bukharin was delighted, because he did not have any sugar. That was how the Bolshevik leaders lived in Lenin’s day.

Of course, these are just anecdotes, of no great significance. Far more important for me were the ideas of Lenin. Those ideas have been the guiding force of my entire life, from my youngest years up to the present.

3. Does the figure of Lenin have any importance for you personally?

As a convinced Marxist from my youngest years, it goes without saying that Lenin’s ideas have had a very profound effect on my thinking throughout my life. I was born into a poor proletarian family in South Wales in 1944. My grandfather, a tinplate worker, was a member of the Communist Party, as was my mother. I was introduced to the ideas of communism from a very early age. I have been a communist all my life, and that I’m proud to call myself a dedicated follower of Vladimir Ilich Lenin.

4. Can you, please, compare Vladimir Lenin to other rulers of Russia: pre-revolutionary, Soviet, post-Soviet?

AW: The figure of Lenin towers above all his contemporaries. Compared to him, even the most capable bourgeois politicians of the pre-revolutionary period seem like so many dwarfs. Few people today can even remember their names.

In the ranks of the Bolshevik party, it is true, there were many very capable men and women. But even in the Bolshevik leadership, if we are to be honest, there was nobody that could bear comparison with Lenin – with one notable exception. That was Lev Davidovich Trotsky.

For many decades after the death of Lenin, Trotsky’s role was systematically falsified. Only now, gradually, is the truth beginning to become clear. He was one of the main leaders of the October Revolution and second only to Lenin in the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, which was universally known as the Party of Lenin-Trotsky.

During the civil-war, when the fate of the Revolution was in the balance, Trotsky, as Commissar for War, was responsible for the creation of the Red Army from almost nothing. He played a key role in the building of the Third International and he held many other important positions in the Soviet State.

It is no accident that in his Testament – his last word to the Party before his death in 1924 – Lenin says that Trotsky was “distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C. […]”.

As for the rulers of Russia following the death of Lenin, there is little to be said. Despite the huge edifice of mythology that was created to build up the legend of Stalin as a great leader, he was really a very mediocre person, a man of little culture and intellect, narrow and brutal, but with a strong character and an obsessive greed for power.

The Stalinist counterrevolution brought to power a privileged and corrupt bureaucracy that had nothing in common with Leninism and Bolshevism. Not one of those leaders can be mentioned in the same breath as Lenin.

But the bureaucracy, as Trotsky warned in 1936, eventually destroyed the Soviet Union, preparing the way for the capitalist counterrevolution that is now in power.

It goes without saying that Yeltsin and Putin have even less in common with Lenin. They are firmly in the camp of capitalist reaction, the defenders of a rich, powerful oligarchy that now rules Russia. It was to struggle against such people and the system they represent, that Lenin dedicated his entire life.

5. Which, do you think, is the main Lenin's contribution to the history of Russia and maybe the history of the whole world?

Vladimir Lenin Leon Trotsky Lev Kamenev 1920 Image public domainThe October Revolution, which Lenin helped lead, changed the course of world history and defined the 20th century / Image: Pixabay

AW: First of all, Lenin was the architect of the October Russian Revolution, which swept away landlordism and capitalism and placed the working class in power for the first time. It transformed the idea of socialism from theory into practice. From this point of view, the Bolshevik revolution can be considered the greatest event in history.

The October Revolution changed the course of world history and the last century has been dominated by its consequences. The regime established by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was neither totalitarian nor bureaucratic, but the most democratic regime yet seen on earth. The Revolution radically abolished private ownership of the means of production.

For the first time in history, the viability of a nationalised planned economy was demonstrated, not in theory but in practice. Over one-sixth of the earth’s surface, in a gigantic, unprecedented experiment, it was proved that it was possible to run society without capitalists, landowners and moneylenders.

Nowadays, it is fashionable to belittle the results achieved, or even to deny them altogether. Yet the slightest consideration of the facts leads us to a very different conclusion. Despite all the problems, deficiencies and crimes (with which, incidentally, the history of capitalism furnishes us in great abundance), the most astonishing advances were achieved by the nationalised planned economy in the Soviet Union in what was, historically speaking, a remarkably short space of time.

Before the Revolution, tsarist Russia was an extremely backward, semi-feudal economy with a predominantly illiterate population. Out of a total population of 150 million people there were only approximately four million industrial workers. That means it was far more backward than Pakistan at the present time.

Within the space of two decades Russia had established a powerful industrial base, developed industry, science and technology and abolished illiteracy. It achieved remarkable advances in the fields of health, culture and education. This was at a time when the Western world was in the grip of mass unemployment and economic collapse in the Great Depression.

The viability of the new productive system was put to a severe test in 1941-45, when the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany with all the combined resources of Europe at its disposal. Despite the loss of 27 million lives, the USSR succeeded in defeating Hitler, and went on, after 1945, to reconstruct its shattered economy in a remarkably short space of time, transforming itself into the world’s second power.

Such astonishing advances in a country must give us pause for thought. One can sympathise with the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution, or oppose them, but such a remarkable transformation in such a short space of time demands the attention of thinking people everywhere.

In the 1980s, the USSR had more scientists than the USA, Japan, Britain and Germany combined. Only recently was the West compelled to admit grudgingly that the Soviet space programme was far in advance of America’s. The fact that the West still has to use Russian rockets to put men and women into space is sufficient proof of this. This is what provoked the fear and loathing which characterised the attitude of the ruling classes of the West towards the Soviet Union.

6. What do you think about the popular historical myths concerning Lenin, such as him being a “German spy", a “bloody executioner” etc.?

AW: In 2017 the enemies of socialism “celebrated” the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution by launching a massive campaign of slander, lies and distortions directed against the October Revolution in general, and its principal leaders, Lenin and Trotsky, in particular. These lies did not even have the merit of originality. They merely regurgitated lies that had been put in circulation (and demolished) a hundred years ago.

Particularly absurd is the oft repeated slander that Lenin had been a German agent. This slander is widespread. A whole layer of conservative and liberal historians have joined forces in an effort to bury the truth about the October Revolution. They could hardly contain themselves on this centenary. They howl and gnash their teeth at every reference to ‘Revolution’, ‘Lenin’ and ‘Bolshevism’.

Vitaly Startsev, a well-known Soviet and Russian historian, is the author of a large number of articles and monographs on the history of the Russian Revolution, primarily the Petrograd Council in 1917.

He is also the author of a detailed study that investigates in detail the story that Lenin was a German spy. With detailed references to archival materials Startsev managed to expose the true origin of falsified documents and even to identify the author of these falsifications.

The irony of all this is that it was not Lenin, but the Russian bourgeoisie who acted as German agents, desperate for the German army to overthrow the Bolsheviks and restore the Old Order. Bruce Lockhart, who was working as a British agent in Russia at the time of the revolution wrote the following: “The bourgeoisie was openly delighted at the prospect of the German advance, which had emboldened the anti-Bolshevik Press to attack the Bolsheviks with a frenzied fury.” (Memoirs of a British agent, p.228)

The whole approach of modern bourgeois historians is not to explore the truth, but to present Lenin as a ruthless, cold-blooded fanatic, whose ‘utopian’ plans could only end in a nightmare. The Russian masses are simply viewed as ignorant pawns, cynically manipulated by the Bolsheviks in a ruthless pursuit of naked power. For these bourgeois apologists, revolution has no other outcome. Their views, however, reflect their political prejudice, and nothing more.

The accusation that Lenin was a bloodthirsty monster who loved violence for its own sake is equally baseless. As a matter of fact, the October Revolution itself was a virtually bloodless affair, at least in Petrograd. The reason was that in the moment of truth no one was prepared to fight to defend the old order, which collapsed like a house of cards.

The Bolsheviks had already won over, not just the mass of workers and peasants, but also the great majority of the soldiers and sailors. This was achieved by peaceful agitation and propaganda over the nine-month period that preceded the insurrection.

Where there was indeed a sea of bloodshed was during the Civil War, when the forces of counter-revolution and reaction, backed by world imperialism, attempted to drown the young Soviet Republic in blood. It was the intervention of 21 imperialist armies that sustained the barbarism of the Civil War, and the death and misery that accompanied it.

The howls of protest against the alleged bloodthirstiness of Lenin and Trotsky are pure hypocrisy. The imperialist powers had already perpetrated world war in which 12 million had died and millions more were maimed and crippled. The imperialist blockade of Russia alone, following the carnage of 1914-17, brought famine, death and disease on a vast scale, in which millions perished.

In the course of history, there have been many slave revolts, all of them put down with the most appalling bloodshed. When the Roman armies had finally defeated Spartacus, they crucified thousands of slaves along the Appian Way that leads to Rome, as a warning to the slaves never to rebel again. But in Russia, for once, the slaves armed themselves and fought back against their oppressors. And they won. That is the “crime” for which the ruling class and its prostitute historians can never forgive them.

7. What is your attitude to the fact that every year on 9 May (Victory Day) Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow is covered and hidden by Russian authorities?

AW: That does not surprise me. The present rulers of Russia wish to obliterate the memory of Lenin and the October Revolution at all costs. They want the Russian people to forget that great event that changed their lives and open the way to a better future.

Lenin Mausoleum Image StaronThe Russian state can try to draw the curtain over Lenin's mausoleum each Victory Day, but they will not draw a curtain over history / Image: Staron

You may not know it, but Lenin’s widow Krupskaya did not want the mausoleum to be built. She said that Lenin had fought all his life against icons, but now they had turned him into an icon. That was perfectly true. But now times have moved on. I am implacably opposed to any suggestion to remove Lenin’s mausoleum from the Red Square, because such an act would merely be yet another step in the campaign to eradicate the memory of Lenin and the Russian Revolution.

In any case, all these counterrevolutionary intrigues will be in vain. The memory of the Russian Revolution lies deep in the hearts and minds of millions of Russian workers, and will not be eradicated so easily. They can try to draw the curtain over the mausoleum, but they will not draw a curtain over the facts of history. As Trotsky once said, the locomotive of history is truth, not lies.

Recently, I had an experience that demonstrated just how far this tsunami of lies has gone. A few months ago, I visited what used to be called the Museum of the Revolution in St Petersburg. It is now called something like the Museum of Political History. But really now it ought to be called the Museum of the Counterrevolution.

This was the same building where Lenin had his office in 1917, addressing the masses from a balcony. Yet, as far as I could see, there is not a single portrait of Lenin in the whole building. By contrast, Kerensky’s beady eyes glared down on me from practically every wall. If it were not so serious, it would be laughable.

8. In what way, from your point of view, are Marx and Lenin related to each other?

AW: That is a very interesting question. Karl Marx will forever be remembered as the man who established the fundamental principles and ideology of the workers movement and socialism. If he had achieved nothing else during his life, his great work Capital would be a sufficient monument to his memory.

Of course, we must not forget that Karl Marx also played what active role in the creation of the international workers’ movement, especially in the years of the First International, which he founded together with that other great leader and theoretician of our movement, Frederick Engels.

Lenin’s role was somewhat different. He dedicated all his life to the practical work of building a revolutionary party and a revolutionary International. That persistent work eventually led to the victory of the first great socialist revolution in October 1917. That must be counted as his greatest achievement.

But Lenin was not just a “practical” politician. Like Marx, he was a theoretician of great stature. Works such as Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, On Dialectics and the philosophical notebooks were most valuable additions to the philosophical literature of Marxism.

To draw a personal and psychological comparison between these two great men would be a fascinating task, but one that, I fear, falls outside the scope of the present interview. Suffice it to say that, contrary to the usual unflattering caricatures put in circulation by the enemies of socialism, Marx and Lenin were extremely humane, kind and considerate men with a colossal intellect, great personal integrity and honesty who devoted their entire lives to the cause of the working class.

9. How do you estimate some publicists' statement that Lenin's party betrayed him at the end of his life?

AW: Lenin was betrayed, not by the Party, but by the bureaucratic clique that became organised around the person of Stalin. By 1924, the workers of Russia were already exhausted, and a layer of ambitious careerists were usurping control. This phenomenon was already noted with alarm by Lenin, and his last letters prove it.

During his final illness, Lenin became aware of serious deviations in the Party leadership. Despite the strenuous attempts of Stalin to isolate him from reality, Lenin learned of the scandalous conduct of Stalin and his allies, Dzerzhinsky and Ordzhonikidze in Georgia. Using bureaucratic methods, they had trampled over the national sentiments of the people and oppressed the Georgian Bolsheviks, even using physical violence against Party leaders.

From his deathbed, Lenin was preparing a struggle against Stalin (his secretary said “Vladimir Ilyich is preparing a bombshell for Stalin”) and formed a bloc with Trotsky. But soon after this Lenin’s health suddenly deteriorated, making it impossible for him to attend the Party Congress. When he became incapacitated through illness, it changed everything.

For many years hardly anybody in Russia knew that the ‘Testament’ existed. It was published only in the stenographic report of the Central Committee available only to Party functionaries, and that soon disappeared. The broad Party membership never knew of it. Later the Stalinists denied its existence.

Max Eastman, who supported the Left Opposition, published Lenin’s ‘Testament’ for the first time in the 1920s [outside the Soviet Union]. It was only made public after Khrushchev’s famous speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin in 1956. In short, it was the Stalinist bureaucracy that betrayed Lenin and the heritage of the October Revolution, and ultimately destroyed the Soviet Union.

10. What, from your point of view, was the succession from Lenin to Stalin, if there was any? How do you see it? Did Stalin continue Lenin's way or did he choose a different path for Russia?

Stalin Lenin Kalinin 1919 Image public domainLenin broke all ties with Stalin towards the end of his life and tried to remove him from the post of General Secretary / Image: public domain

AW: Lenin saw in Stalin’s methods the beginnings of “bureaucratism not only in the Soviet institutions but also in the Party.” In order to fight against this danger, he dictated a confidential letter giving his estimate of the leaders in the Central Committee and, 10 days later, added a postscript in which he proposed to remove Stalin from his post as General Secretary of the party.

In his ‘Testament’, he wrote: “Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.” Here, Lenin was expressing himself carefully, but later he added a postscript in which he accuses Stalin of being rude and disloyal and advocated his removal as general secretary.

After the death of Lenin, Stalin carried out a bureaucratic counterrevolution against October, destroying all the elements of workers democracy Lenin had established. In order to consolidate its victory, the bureaucracy conducted a bloody, one-sided Civil War against the Bolshevik party, which was physically annihilated. The Stalinist regime was a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism that had absolutely nothing in common with the ideas of Lenin. Leninism and Stalinism are not twins, as the enemies of socialism allege, but mortal enemies. They are mutually antagonistic and incompatible.

11. Which of the recent statements or quotations about Lenin impressed you the most?

AW: Since 99 percent of the recent literature written about Lenin, both in Russia and in the West, consists of a whole series of lies, distortions and slanders, I cannot think of a single quotation that has impressed me, although many have produced in me a feeling of profound and nauseous revulsion.

12. Please, tell me about your attitude to how the historical period connected with Lenin is being taught at school and in higher education establishments nowadays.

History is always written by the victors. Those who carry through the capitalist counterrevolution in Russia are the ones who write the history books. They decide what lies will be taught in the schools and they will write the school textbooks. From a scientific point of view, this new literature is entirely worthless. It is motivated, not by a sincere desire to establish the truth, but only to serve the interests of the ruling elite and the wealthy parasites who now rule Russia. From these lines my attitude towards such “history” must be fairly obvious.

13. How do you think the Russian authorities should formulate attitudes to the figure of Lenin to attain national unity?

AW: I am sure it is not up to me to give the Russian authorities advice, either on how to use the figure of Lenin, ought to achieve the unity of the Russian nation. Furthermore, I suspect that my advice would not be entirely welcome by them.

In the first instance, I must point out that the people who rule Russia today are the products of capitalist counterrevolution and therefore profoundly hostile to Lenin and everything he stood for. And national unity must be a mere fiction, as long as a tiny handful of wealthy oligarchs rule the nation and decide everything that happens.

14. How do you think is it necessary to build the new memorials to Lenin?

Lenin statue Image Adam Jones FlickrLenin's real monuments are not the ugly statues erected by the Stalinists, but his life's work / Image: Adam Jones, Flickr

AW: I have no doubt that Lenin would have been horrified by the idea of the kind of pompous statues and monuments that were built in the Stalinist era, allegedly to honour his memory, while in practice the Stalinists trampled every single one of his principles in the dirt.

Like Lenin, Marx and Engels were also very modest men who shunned all kinds of pomp and ceremony. The original grave of Marx and Engels in Highgate Cemetery in London was a simple stone slab. After the Second World War, the Stalinists and the Soviet embassy decided that a more imposing monument was required. The result was what I consider to be a very ugly monstrosity, although it is generally revered by people who wish to go to Highgate Cemetery to honour his memory. I respect their wishes, of course, but cannot share their aesthetic tastes.

And where is the memorial to Marxist great lifelong friend and comrade, Frederick Engels? You will not find it, for one simple reason. Engels left instructions that his mortal remains should be cremated and cast into the sea off Beachy Head, a beautiful stretch of coastline in Sussex where he used to spend his holidays. Engels did not want any memorial of that sort, partly because, with his customary sense of humility, he did not want any memorial to compete with that of Marx.

I am absolutely certain that Lenin would have exactly the same attitude. The only memorial he would want today is for the workers and youth of Russia to follow his example, to read his works, to build a real, Bolshevik Communist Party, to organise, and to fight for socialism in Russia and internationally.

That is the memorial to Lenin which we must build.

15. Which of the literary texts (novels, poems, stories) devoted to Lenin are worthwhile, from your point of view?

AW: I must confess that I have never had much interest in this kind of literature. I think it would take a very great writer to produce a half decent novel or play about Lenin’s life. The subject is simply too big to admit of literary treatment, unless it was of the very greatest kind, and that is a very tall order.

I know that, during the Stalinist period, there were all kinds of cheap novels, stories, poems and so on dedicated to Lenin. But the great majority will have been tasteless attempts to portray a great man as a hopeless sentimental philistine, a kindly old man or, even worse, something akin to the sycophantic hagiography produced by the Orthodox Church to celebrate the memory of Saints.

As for the literary products of the present counter revolutionary period, the only effect it has on me is a profound sense of revulsion caused by a realisation of the depths of cynicism to which the human spirit is capable of sinking.

There is only one exception I would make, and it is a poem by that great Bolshevik poet Mayakovsky, written in 1929 if I am not mistaken, not long before he committed suicide. It is called a Conversation with Comrade Lenin, and in it the poet enters into a one-sided “conversation” with a portrait of Lenin hanging on a white wall. In it we read the following:

“there’s all kinds,
                 and they’re thick as nettles:
           red tapists,
                            down the row,
They strut around
                       as peacocks,
badges and fountain pens
                          studding their chests.
We’ll lick the lot of ’em-
                            to lick ’em
is no easy job
               at the very best.”

This was at a time when Lenin’s heritage was being buried by the upstart caste of Stalinist bureaucrats, against which this poem is clearly aimed. Unfortunately, Mayakovsky did not succeed in his declared aim of defeating them, and he made the ultimate protest by taking his own life in the following year.

16. Which of Lenin's writings do you consider to be the most significant and relevant? Why?

AW: It is difficult to know where to begin! The collected works of Lenin in English occupy, I think, 45 substantial volumes. The Russian edition has about 10 more. In each one of them (I have read them all) one finds a vast quantity of works of great interest and profundity. It is a real goldmine that any serious Marxist – I would say any serious intellectual – ought to read with attention.

Of course, some works stand out as particularly brilliant. I am thinking of State and Revolution, What is to be Done? Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, Left-wing communism: an infantile disorder, and many other works are also of fundamental importance. I have already mentioned his philosophical writings.

If I have to choose one work that, for me, sums up the essence of Lenin’s thought and method, it would have to be Left-wing Communism. Why? Because here you find the distilled essence of Lenin’s method and the summing up of decades of experience. As a treatise on revolutionary tactics, it is really a work of supreme importance, even today.

17. Do you think the name of Lenin will be forgotten in the 21st century, or will it get more and more popular as humanity comes to a global dead-end?

AW: Lenin once said that capitalism is horror without end. The present global crisis is a graphic illustration of the truth of these words. The capitalist system has long since ceased to play any progressive role on a global scale. But this is even more the case in Russia, where the victory of the capitalist counterrevolution has thrown Russia back many decades.

Despite all the attempts of the ruling clique to distort the lessons of history, to lie and slander the memories of the Russian Revolutionaries, and particularly Lenin and Trotsky, the memory of that revolution lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of Russian people.

The crisis in Russia has only just begun. As it deepens, millions of people will begin to understand that capitalism means misery, suffering, exploitation and humiliation for the masses, while a handful of wealthy parasites in this themselves by stealing the wealth created by the working class.

A new generation is entering into struggle. It will be a long, hard battle against the ruthless and oppressive ruling oligarchy. But in the course of that struggle, the lessons will be learned, and the ideas of the October revolution, of Bolshevism, will once again occupy the place of honour that they deserve. Without any doubt, the future belongs to Lenin.