Conspirator: Lenin in Exile
The making of a revolutionary
By Helen Rappaport (£20, Hutchinson)
Reviewed by Niall Mulholland
In this brisk, readable account, author Helen Rappaport looks at Lenin’s life during his nearly two decades in exile in conditions of great privation and hardship. Always under the threat of state persecution, he struggled to forge a revolutionary socialist party capable of contesting for power in Czarist Russia. In this he was ultimately successfully in October 1917.
Although largely relying on published memoirs, particularly those of Nadya Krupskaya, Lenin’s life-long partner and fellow Bolshevik, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile usefully gathers together in one book the details of the life of the great Marxist, up to his arrival at Finland Station in Petrograd, April 1917.
The book is full of reminiscences, incidents, events and even anecdotes, as we follow Lenin’s many forced moves around Europe, including to Paris, Geneva, Brussels and London (like Marx before him, Lenin made great use of the British Museum in London).
We are given a detailed picture of how Lenin single-mindedly dedicated his enormous talents to the workers’ revolutionary movement. We learn of his prodigious workload and frugal lifestyle, his health problems brought on by poverty, and his great love of long walks and cycling.
After the state execution of his older brother, Aleksandr Ulyanov, for his part in a plot to kill the dictatorial Czar in 1887, the young Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (later to adopt the name Lenin) became involved in the revolutionary underground, choosing the methods of Marxism over terrorism to overthrow capitalism and landlordism.
Some of the best parts of the book examine the huge sacrifices and idealism of the “hundreds of activists”, who along with Lenin worked “covertly in Russia’s big cities, who had given up the personal life and gone underground… lived hand to mouth… living in safe houses without work permits…” Like scenes from a spy novel, Lenin is described jumping from a moving train, risking life and limb, to protect a suitcase of revolutionary literature from Czarist policemen.
Although forced to flee Russia, Lenin’s qualities of “self-discipline, energy and austerity” meant he was soon playing a pivotal role organising the work of the underground, including founding, editing and writing for party newspapers, and corresponding voluminously with fellow revolutionaries (with the aid of Krupskaya’s untiring coding and decoding of letters).
Rappaport spends a great deal of time discussing and speculating on Lenin’s personal life, for example on his relations with fellow Bolshevik Innesa Armand, and on the possible causes of Lenin’s death in 1924. In doing so, Rappaport repeats unproven allegations, some of which she admits in footnotes are “totally unverified claims” and cited from hostile authors on Lenin, including one with a “heavy anti-Russian bias” and “unsavoury” politics.
The book’s most serious weaknesses are apparent when Rappaport comments on Lenin’s political ideas and struggles, failing to provide a balanced record. Lenin’s political fights against other trends in the Russian social democratic and international socialist movement are given one-sided and often hostile treatment. However, these were essential in preparing the way ideologically and organisationally for the development and success of the Bolsheviks.
The Bolshevik leader is castigated by the author for his supposed “violent character assassination”, “crude invective” and “messianic prophecy” and for treating the proletariat as “merely an amorphous mass, the collective instrument of the party’s elitist will”.
There is nothing new in these tired and crude views. Of course, the author is free to disagree with Lenin’s politics but any serious and honest study of the history of the Bolsheviks refutes the false notion that Lenin dominated the party by underhand and autocratic methods. The reality is that Lenin was often in a minority in debates in the Bolshevik party. The colossal authority he held amongst the Bolshevik rank and file was due to the force of the logic of his ideas and their successful application to the needs and historical claims of the Russian working class. Indeed, the Bolshevik party is the most democratic and successful party of the working class in its history.
For a proper account of his ideas and methods, look elsewhere, to Lenin’s works and also to the publications and websites of the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International.