“Lenin did more than anyone else to shape the last hundred years. He invented a form of government we have come to call totalitarian, which rejected in principle the idea of any private sphere outside of state control.”
As we approach the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, understanding him grows ever more important. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, Leninist ways of thinking continue to spread, especially among Western radicals who have never read a word of Lenin. This essay is not just about Lenin, and not just Leninism, the official philosophy of the ussr, but also the very style of thought that Lenin pioneered. Call it Leninthink
Morson identifies several key aspects of Leninthink —which he remarks he is noticing in some of the comments from his students.
Politics is not the art of compromise. It is the art of destroying one’s opponent completely. Not to do so is to de facto hurt your cause and therefore become an enemy the party. Morson explains that Lenin saw everything in a zero-sum game—the famous Who-Whom question—who does what to whom. Lenin made sure he was always the Who.
His view of life as a zero-sum was one of the reasons he hated market economies. For Lenin the idea of the mutual benefit of trade and exchange was impossible. Morson writes
“Lenin’s hatred of the market, and his attempts to abolish it entirely during War Communism, derived from the opposite idea, that all buying and selling is necessarily exploitative. When Lenin speaks of “profiteering” or “speculation” (capital crimes), he is referring to every transaction, however small. Peasant “bagmen” selling produce were shot.
There was “no middle ground” for Lenin. He wanted no coalitions, no compromises. To diverge even slightly was for Lenin a sign of being either an enemy deserving death or insane and to be committed to an asylum—and remember this is Lenin, so this kind of language is not hyperbole.
Morson quotes from Lenin’s What is to be Done?
“The only choice is: either the bourgeois or the socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for humanity has not created a ‘third’ ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or above-class ideology). Hence to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn away from it in the slightest degree, means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.”
“Every solution that offers a middle path is a deception . . . or an expression of the dull-wittedness of the petty-bourgeois democrats.”
Morson explains that for Lenin violence had “mystical quality.”
Lenin always insisted on the most violent solutions. Those who do not understand him mistake his ideas for those of radicals like the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, who argued that violence was permitted when necessary. That squishy formulation suggests that other solutions would be preferable. But for Lenin maximal violence was the default position.
He gives an example of one of Lenin’s orders to crush peasant (kulak) resistance to the revolution.
The kulak uprising in [your] 5 districts must be crushed without pity. . . .
1) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2) Publish their names.
3) Take all their grain away from them.
4) Identify hostages . . . . Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry . . . .
Yours, Lenin. P. S. Find tougher people.
For Lenin and for all communists, truth is what serves the party and the cause at the time. Relativism was at the core of Marxist-Leninism. As Lenin wrote:
That is why we say that to us there is no such thing as a morality that stands outside human society; that is a fraud. To us morality is subordinated to the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle.
Relativism and the duty to lie in service of the ideology is difficult for most of us to grasp. It truly does stand outside of human society. I remember as a boy my mother explaining that communists could never be trusted because they would say whatever was needed to get the advantage—and that this was not simply an anti-communist position— it was their doctrine. To believe them was to refuse to take them at their word. Truth and lying were no longer real categories for the Leninist.
Morson argues that
“Western scholars who missed this aspect of Leninism made significant errors.”
“Even Westerners who regard themselves as realists have only taken a few baby steps towards a true Leninist position. They are all the more vulnerable for imagining they have an unclouded view.”
This relativism went deeper than just lying for the party. It led to what could be called a self-aware self-delusion. People would say things they knew to be false, even incriminate themselves in service to the higher cause of the party. This would often be due to fear of imprisonment, torture, or death, but it went beyond that. As Morson writes
Partyness does not entail merely affirming that black is white but actually believing it. The wisest specialists on Bolshevik thinking have wondered: What does it mean to believe—truly believe—what one does not believe?
Brian Moynihan describes this phenomenon in the show trials in his book, The Russian Century. “All pleaded guilty though their confessions were nakedly absurd; one defendant admitted meeting Trotsky’s son in a Danish hotel that had been demolished before.”
Moynihan notes that these interrogations and trials were influenced by the secret police and fear and intimidation.
But it often was voluntary; because the Party demanded it, as one survivor recalled, and “serving the party was, for old Communists not just a goal in life, but also an inner need.” Facing a death sentence as a “mad dog of capitalism,” knowing the charges to be false Kamenev said from the dock: “No matter what my sentence will be, I will consider it just.” The sentence was death.
Eric Voegelin maintained that gnosticism is a defining characteristic of modern political movements. This gnosticism is multilayered but it includes the idea that there was secret code to the universe–a solution to the problems of sin, suffering, and death.
When this is code is found–abolition of private property, education, dictatorship of the proletariat, sexual liberation, the singularity–whatever it may be, this will usher in a new man freed from old constraints and a new kingdom of peace and justice, heaven on the earth. This Voegelin called the “immanentization of the eschaton.” Like much of Leninthink, this still exists in modern technocracy. Yuval Harari’s idea that death is merely a technical glitch is just one example of a gnostic notion.
Another element of gnostic political movements was that this secret code would only be known by a few–a new priestly class. Mass man could never understand. Bourgeois man even less so. This gnostic leadership required men who could go beyond morality and even humanity itself.
Morson explains that “the whole point of Leninism is that only a few people must understand what is going on.”
A Theory of Everything
Leninism is ideology par excellence. It is important to understand because we live in an age of ideology. We want to find the elusive theory of everything—where everything makes sense and fits together, and everyone holds the right opinions. We live in an age, that for all its talk of diversity, wants uniformity and sees any dissent from established opinions as something to be crushed. If you doubt it raise an empirical objection in a fashionable field of science or the academy and you’ll be told, contrary to the very enterprise of science and discovery, that the “science has been settled.” Facts only matter when they fit the right narrative.
Our age, and especially our politics finds it difficult to see things from a perspective different from our own. And here too we see the influence of Leninism, which Morson notes has no sense of perspective or understanding of the other.
“For a Leninist, the shoe is never on the other foot because he has no other foot.”
There is a lot more in the essay—and it is well worth your time.