Around the corner from me is a barber’s shop decorated with black-and-white photographs of icons of the 20th century. James Dean is there with the usual cigarette hanging out of his mouth; Marilyn Monroe is perching on the edge of a pool table. A poster for the film Taxi Driver is alongside a photo of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack — and also a photo of Lenin.
I guess the aim is to appear edgy, alternative and rebellious. But obviously there is no image of Hitler. That would be unacceptable: Hitler was a fascist who invaded countries and killed millions of people. It would be tasteless to display an image of him. But Lenin is apparently OK.
This Saturday is the centenary of the death of Lenin and I asked Whitestone Insight to do an opinion poll to discover what the British think of him. It emerges from this poll (of more than 2,000 people) that of those aged eighteen to twenty-four who have heard of Lenin and have a view one way or the other, the proportion who have a “favorable or very favorable” view of him is a terrifying 43 percent. If you include all the young people polled, the proportion who approve of Lenin falls to 15 percent, but that includes those who haven’t a clue who Lenin was and therefore couldn’t approve or disapprove.
The lie Lenin fans choose to believe is that if only he had lived, communist rule would have succeeded
Our poll tallies with those done in America, where many young people are also overtly keen on communism. The polls there reveal that 28 percent of Gen Z and 22 percent of millennials have a favorable view of “communism” and that the percentage is rising every year.
This chimes with what we discovered a few weeks ago, talking to students and their teachers outside the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Lenin was “a very important person from history and we have a lot to learn from him,” said one woman I spoke to, confidently. Others agreed.
It is a curious phenomenon that Lenin is acceptable and even approved of whereas Hitler is beyond the pale. It is not exactly a secret that Lenin started off seventy years of communist rule in Russia which included two major famines, the Red Terror, the Great Terror and continuing poverty. The death toll of Soviet communism was in the order of twenty million. So how do people manage to think favorably of him?
I discovered from our SOAS conversations that the first thing admirers of Lenin do is kid themselves that he led a popular revolution removing a corrupt, tyrannical Tsarist regime. This is just not true. The February revolution could indeed be considered a popular revolution and the Tsar was indeed removed from power. But Lenin took no part in it. He was in Zurich and had to read about it in the Swiss newspapers. He did lead the so-called October Revolution, later the same year, but that was not a revolution. The fact that it is referred to as that in Britain is one of several ways in which Soviet propaganda has entered British textbooks. In reality it was a coup. In a rather chaotic series of events, some 10,000 Red Guards took control of Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) and arrested the provisional government.
Then there is the idea that the coup somehow represented the “will of the people.” We have clear proof that it did not.
The Bolsheviks got only 24 percent of the vote in the elections to the constituent assembly. The more moderate socialist revolutionaries received 39 percent. To put it bluntly, the Bolsheviks lost. But Lenin did not care. Rather like Hitler, whose party incidentally got a higher percentage of the vote in Germany than the Bolsheviks did in Russia, he closed the constituent assembly and deployed armed soldiers to prevent anyone reopening it. The lie Lenin fans choose to believe is that if only Lenin had lived, communist rule would have succeeded. Lenin’s replacement by Stalin ruined it all.
But Lenin did all the things that Stalin did. Lenin began government control of agriculture, setting a fixed price that the government would pay for corn and other grains. The price was absurdly low because of the high rate of inflation. A shortage of food ensued. Lenin then requisitioned grain from peasants at gunpoint. These disastrous policies contributed heavily to death by starvation of at least three million people in 1920-21. Lenin implicitly recognized the part his policies had played by reversing them in 1921.
Meanwhile, he took advantage of the famine to steal from the church, seizing half a ton of gold along with a vast quantity of silver and precious stones in November 1921 alone. He stated that this was an opportunity to kill members of the bourgeoisie who resisted this expropriation. “The confiscations must be conducted with merciless determination… the greater the number of clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing for this reason… [i.e. resisting church looting], the better.’ In two years, more than thirty bishops and 1,200 priests were killed.
Lenin created the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. His on-the-record instructions to kill include this written order following a revolt in Penza province: “Hang (absolutely hang, in full view of the people) no fewer than 100 known kulaks [peasants owning a little land], filthy rich men, bloodsuckers.” Lenin did not engage in class war. He engaged in class murder.
Lenin set up the concentration camps which eventually became the Gulag. He issued a decree in 1918 stating that it was “imperative to safeguard the Soviet Republic from class enemies by isolating them in concentration camps.” Every provincial city was ordered to create one and by the end of 1920 there were 107 of them. Lenin authorized the use of poison gas in 1921 to kill peasants in the Tambov uprising. Vyacheslav Molotov, a senior Soviet politician under both Lenin and Stalin, remarked that both leaders were “hard men… harsh and stern. But without a doubt Lenin was harsher.”
Lenin did not engage in class war. He engaged in class murder
Again and again the records show Lenin urging his colleagues to be more ruthless and to kill. Against all this, the defense is sometimes: “Well it was a time of civil war, so extreme measures were necessary.” But why was there a civil war? Only because Lenin had mounted a coup that was contrary to the expressed views of the Russian people. Supporters of Lenin argue that he did some wonderful things. He issued a decree that women should have equal rights in 1917. But it was the provisional government that had already given women the vote, and it is not as if the Soviet Union was unique in conferring increasing rights to women during the 20th century. It was happening throughout Europe. It is noticeable that the first politburo included no women at all, and most people will be hard pressed to think of any woman who ever achieved a major political or business role in the Soviet Union.
There is anyway something grotesque about this sort of argument. It is reminiscent of the well-known justification for Mussolini’s dictatorship in the 1930s: that “he made the trains run on time.” You could say something similar about Hitler: “at least he righted the wrongs of the Versailles Treaty” or “he gave the Germans back their self-respect.” Such arguments are obscene when juxtaposed with mass slaughter.
The final argument is that Lenin was an important historical figure. This is true. Robert Service, in his biography of Lenin, went so far as to say: “Without Lenin, there would have been no revolution in October 1917. Without Lenin, the Russian Communist Party would not have lasted much beyond the end of 1921.”
But what were the consequences of his success? Russia endured seventy years of communist rule with all the deaths, savage torture, prison sentences and economic failure this caused. The secondary effects of the coup rippled through the 20th century far more than Hitler’s brief rule. Lenin’s success made Stalin possible. Stalin, in turn, made an alliance with Hitler in 1939 which freed both of them to invade their agreed shares of Poland. Stalin also invaded the Baltic states and grabbed as much of Finland as he was able. At the end of World War Two, Stalin invaded most of Eastern Europe, leading to more mass deportations, terror and murders. The Soviet Union also enabled the communist coups in China, Vietnam and elsewhere. Lenin created a template for similar coups around the world. The Soviet Union gave financial and military assistance to them.
In short, yes, Lenin was an important historical figure, I can agree with his young admirers on that at least. The communist regimes which emerged in his wake caused poverty, fear, oppression and the deaths of an estimated 80 to 100 million people. He was important in the sense that he was the most disastrous leader of the 20th century and the damaging effects of his coup continue to this day. His image should be as unacceptable as Hitler’s.