Paul Flewers on Dmitri Volkogonov's *Lenin: Life and Legacy*

James Farmelant farmelantj at SPAMjuno.com
Mon Aug 2 08:33:37 MDT 1999



List,

Last week I took the liberty of posting Paul Flewers' reviews
of Volkogonov's books on the Usenet newsgroup
alt.politics.socialism.trotsky.  The following is a response to
Flewer's review of *Lenin: Life and Legacy* from the newsgroup's
self-appointed anti-communist historian Hunter Watson, a
person whom our list moderator with good reason had
kicked off this list over a year ago.  I think people will see
why this individual got kicked off the list.

                Jim F.
***************************************************************


"Hunter H. Watson" wrote:

> Jim F wrote:
>
> > The following review was posted by Paul Flewers on Proyect's
> > Marxism List.
> >
> >                         Jim F.
> > *****************************************

Dear Mr. Farmalant,

You have brought the Flewers review out from the shuttered confines of
the
Marxism List. Tell us whether you intend to post this response there?

Hunter Watson

>
> >
> > Dmitri Volkogonov, Lenin: Life and Legacy, Harper Collins, London,
1995,
> > pp529, £9.95
> >
> > PRIOR to his death late last year, General Dmitri Volkogonov had
> > established himself more or less as the court historian of the
> > post-Soviet Russian elite, ready to condemn not merely the Stalin
era,
> > but the entire Soviet experience, Lenin and all.
>
> I'm sorry, gentlemen, but this first sentence is a smear. The
condemnation
> of not only the Stalin era, but of something like "the entire Soviet
> experience, Lenin and all", is more or less the view of the vast bulk
of
> academic experts. General Volkogonov's work has special significance
for
> Russians however. For 70 years they were denied their own history. This
> books were written in Russian by a Russian with access to the entire
> record, a man whose family had suffered along with them.
>
> > He had been a career
> > officer in the Red Army, and had enjoyed a reputation of being a
> > hardline Stalinist in the army propaganda department in which he
worked.
> > The words ‘vicar’ and ‘Bray’ may spring to an unkind mind.
>
> Sarcasm won't make this work. Solzhenitsyn himself was a believer and a
Red
> Army officer. So was Kopelev.
>
> > But let us
> > not speak too ill of the dead.
>
> Don't give us this disrespectful crap. Who the Hell do you think you
are,
> Flewers?
>
> > He did start having doubts about the
> > Stalinist system, and he started to collect details for a biography
of
> > Stalin. Getting into trouble with his military colleagues, who would
> > hear nothing against the old dictator, he turned to full-time
historical
> > study in the late 1980s.
>
> The false impression given here is that Volkogonov had not previously
been
> involved with history. Flewers knows better.  In fact for years he had
been
> the Director of the Soviet Institute of Military History and it was a
new
> multi-volumed history of the Second World War, a very sensitive subject
> among Stalinists, which made him persona non-grata in the Red Army in
1991.
> He had been collecting the Stalin material since the 50's.
>
> > Although Volkogonov says that his change of heart was a ‘painful
> > transition’, it is clear that his later views were more or less a
mirror
> > image of his outlook when he was an orthodox Stalinist.
>
> Translated: "Don't trust the apostate from Marxism. He must have been
born
> rotten."
>
> > Stalinism was a
> > direct consequence of Leninism in both cases, only he now puts a
> > condemnatory cross where he once put a tick of approval.
>
> In fact the roots of his "condemnatory cross"  are explained in
> considerable detail by the author. It has to do with his family history
> which paralleled those of millions of Russians of peasant origins. He
> learned the truth about his father's and uncle's arrests through his
own
> research.
>
> > Much of this
> > book resembles an unimaginative rehash of right wing Western
biographies
> > of Lenin. Lenin was a manipulative and scheming fanatic, the October
> > Revolution was a ‘coup’ that was largely the result of German
financing,
> > the Bolsheviks ruled entirely by terror, every one of Stalin’s
> > atrocities can be traced back to Lenin, and so on. It’s all very
> > familiar, and although Volkogonov rummaged about in the archives and
> > brought to light a lot of interesting documentation on many aspects
of
> > Lenin’s political career, there is a remarkably stale feeling about
this
> > book.
>
> Unfortunately for this "staleness" theory there happens to be quite a
> consensus as to these issues. That Volkogonov does not attempt the
> overthrow of histories which have dealt with Lenin's fanaticism, the
> October coup, the terror, Imperial German gold/Brest-Litovsk connection
and
> the the evolution of the totalitarian regime through Lenin to Stalin
and
> beyond is hardly cause to describe the book as stale. The truth doesn't
get
> stale. Mr. Flewers doesn't actually deny these truths. He just accuses
them
> of being "right wing".
>
> > Moreover, a lot of space is taken up with secondary issues, such as
> > Lenin’s personal finances, German funding of the Bolsheviks during
the
> > First World War, the execution of the Tsar, and the Bolsheviks’
> > treatment of the Orthodox Church. Much as the reader will find
certain
> > diversions interesting, such as Zinoviev’s unpublished notes on Lenin
> > (including a few amusing jokes at Lenin’s expense), Stalin’s offer to
> > cede much of the western flank of the Soviet Union to Hitler during
the
> > Second World War (which Volkogonov absurdly equates with Lenin and
the
> > Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), the banalities of Brezhnev’s diary, etc,
these
> > add little or nothing to the narrative, and interrupt its flow, as
does
> > Volkogonov’s continual leaping from one period of Lenin’s life to
> > another.
> >
> > The translator’s introduction says that Volkogonov’s original work
has
> > been abridged for the English-language version, omitting the author’s
> > philosophical ideas, and background information that is familiar to
> > Western readers. Perhaps the longer Russian original contained more
> > analytical material on its subject. Or maybe it didn’t. Whatever,
> > Volkogonov hardly bothers to analyse Lenin’s ideas, and he is too
> > interested in inverting his previous saint-worshipping into
demonology
> > to embark upon a serious study of his politics. His actual attempts
to
> > discuss Lenin’s ideas are hopelessly inadequate, and often confusing.
He
> > raises What Is To Be Done? and the concept of professional
> > revolutionaries, then suddenly veers off to discuss the close ties
> > between the party leaders and the Cheka. The none-too-hot Materialism
> > and Empiriocriticism is given a couple of paragraphs, but no mention
is
> > made of his self-criticisms in the later Philosophical Notebooks.
State
> > and Revolution is written off as ‘scholastic, contrived and detached
> > from life’. Yet this book was and remains a remarkable work, not
least
> > in its critique of Second International Marxism (which was an
implicit
> > self-criticism), and in the way it raised for the first time in
decades
> > the question of the actively creative role of the proletariat in a
> > revolution. It had a deeply democratic core, and clearly represented
> > what Lenin wanted a proletarian revolution to be.
> >
> > It is not sufficient merely to say that Lenin turned his back on
this,
> > and resorted to repression. State and Revolution and other writings
of
> > 1917 were concerned with the relationship between the working class
and
> > the proletarian party, on how the creativity of the working class
could
> > be linked in with the need for a centralised state. These finer
points
> > do not interest Volkogonov, although, to be fair, he is not alone in
> > this. For him, the Marxist project is a ‘utopia’ unworthy of further
> > discussion. The most to which humanity can aspire is a parliamentary
> > democracy, and it is quite absurd even to consider that the working
> > class can take power, and remodel society in a more efficient and
> > democratic way than capitalism can do. That’s ‘social racism’,
whatever
> > that means. As far as Volkogonov is concerned, any attempt to go
beyond
> > a liberal democracy can only end in tears.
> >
> > Volkogonov is convinced that the Bolsheviks deliberately destroyed
the
> > possibility of Russia becoming a parliamentary democracy after the
> > February Revolution, an idea that is becoming fashionable again.
>
> How can Mr. Flewers doubt this fact? For Lenin all parliaments were
nothing
> more than "bourgeois stables". Volkogonov is obviously right when he
says:
> "The very notion of achieving socialist, democratic and progressive
goals
> by means of reforms, parliament and legal social struggle was
blasphemy.
> Lenin could not see the colossal possibilities of parliamentary
activity.
> His speeches breathe hatred for the liberals and reformists, among whom
the
> most dangerous in his view were of course the Mensheviks." Lenin was
> without question an "incorrigible sectarian" who sabotaged the
possibility
> of unity with other elements of Russian social democracy.
>
> > Had it
> > not been for these fanatics, well plied with German gold, all would
have
> > been fine.
>
> That's not what Volkogonov actually says. He says as to missed
> opportunities for Russian democracy that "history might have been
> different." (pp. 84-85)
>
> > Yet the Bolsheviks did not cause the problems which destroyed
> > the Tsar and undermined the Provisional Government.
>
> Of course not. But they exacerbated them cynically, opportunistically
and
> in traitorous fashion at a time when the regime was fragile and
conditions
> in the country were terrible.
>
> > Industry,
> > communications and agriculture were all in a parlous state prior to
> > 1917. The peasants did not need the Bolsheviks to tell them to seize
the
> > land, nor did the national minorities of the Russian Empire need them
to
> > formulate their demands for autonomy or secession.
>
> But the peasants certainly did not seize the land as agents of the
state
> nor did the borderland peoples call for the doctrine that the interests
of
> proletarian internationalism would reign supreme over their calls for
> national independence.
>
> > The Bolsheviks
> > initiated neither workers’ control in the factories
>
> The Bolsheviks crushed workers' control in the factories, and the union
> movement to boot.
>
> > , nor the discontent
> > in the army and navy.
>
> For Christ's sake Flewers, you guys love this part of the history.
Can't
> you just see the socialist realist paintings of illiterate peasant
infantry
> with shining faces being read the inspirational Bolshevik tracts in the
> blood and filth of the trenches?
>
> > No matter how much German gold flowed into their
> > party coffers, the Bolsheviks’ propaganda would have fallen on deaf
ears
> > if the masses were not intensely discontented.
>
> As we say, Bolshevism was opportunism and cynicism writ large. Lenin
was
> free of all scruples as a politician. That gave him an immense
advantage
> over, for example, the Mensheviks who were committed to liberty,
democracy
> and parliamentary systems.
>
> > Moreover, any
> > non-Bolshevik government in Russia would have been obliged to deal
with
> > a militant working class, a rebellious peasantry, a world war and a
> > German advance to the East, national struggles for autonomy and
> > secession, not to mention a chronic economic crisis tending towards
> > collapse.
>
> Well, of course. The problem is how the Bolsheviks went about it.
>
> > No government could have tackled this without resorting to
> > coercion.
>
> Translation: "No government with the Bolsheviks' agenda could have
tackled
> this without resorting to coercion. A democratic government
entertaining no
> dreams of "war communism" utopias could certainly have done it well
indeed.
> Working class militancy is unionism and pocket book issues. So they
> organize, get raises and a shorter work week. Everyone benefits in the
long
> run. The peasantry? Land reform, of course. What could be simpler. It
is
> done in democracies quite frequently. The best systems involve
condemnation
> and payment for the land before it is distributed to the tillers. And
as to
> the German advance to the East, they were on their knees before the
Western
> powers by late 1917. Brest-Litovsk was unnecessary. It was bought by
the
> Germans from a traitor. Out of the Mausoleum and into one of the
anonymous
> graves with his victims!
>
> > A parliamentary democratic regime in Russia was a pipedream.
> > Had the Bolsheviks not taken power, or if their regime had collapsed,
> > Russia’s future would have been grim — a crisis-ridden economy and a
> > series of unstable authoritarian governments.
>
> And the future as it actually unfolded was not grim?!? It was worse
than
> grim. It was an inferno for the Russian people which lasted at least
until
> 1953.
>
> > Volkogonov condemns Lenin and his colleagues for spending a lot of
money
> > on the Communist International whilst there was famine at home, yet
> > overlooks the fact that until the mid-1920s all Bolsheviks considered
> > that the very survival of their state depended upon successful
> > revolutions occurring in Western Europe.
>
> This is disgusting, an admission that the stupidities of the ideology
were
> more important than the millions of fellow citizens who were starving
to
> death. Where are your principles, Mr. Flewers?
>
> > Like so many other
> > commentators, Volkogonov does not recognise the essential
international
> > aspects of the Russian Revolution, that the October Revolution did
not
> > make sense outwith the concept of a general European revolution.
>
> Think about it again. It did not make sense *at all*, especially from
the
> point of view of Marx's doctrine. Lenin didn't give a damn about the
> suffering of the Russian people. He would much rather that the
revolution
> had taken place in England or Germany. He was willing to sacrifice his
own
> people not for their own sakes but on the altar of an imagined general
> European conflagration. He was an adventurer playing chess with the
lives
> of millions of his helpless countrymen. His active prescription for
mankind
> was universal civil war. He was a profoundly evil man.
>
> > For
> > Lenin, the October Revolution was not a self-contained affair, but
the
> > start of a Europe-wide revolutionary wave that itself was the
beginning
> > of a global shift to socialism. The Soviet regime was a desperate
> > holding operation to maintain the first bridgehead, as its collapse
> > would be a devastating blow to the hoped-for European revolution.
>
> Well, it was forced onto the defensive quite quickly. But, it didn't
begin
> that way. In fact, the attempt to invade Poland was seen by the
leadership
> as a step toward the invasion of Germany. You should be happy about
that
> never the less. Think of all the fun you've had arguing about
"permanent
> revolution" and "revolution in one country".
>
> > Volkogonov generally sees the Russian Revolution as a self-contained
> > entity, whilst at the same time considering Lenin’s ideas of a world
> > revolution to be utterly utopian.
>
> Worse than just utopian, his dreams were of a totalitarian utopia.
>
> > It may well be that any transition to socialism will be obliged to go
> > through an authoritarian stage;
>
> So, you're willing to make that mild sounding admission? So kind of you
to
> be frank about what you have in store for us. In fact the data is in.
The
> issue can no longer be debated seriously. Socialism of the
> Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist persuasion, the only kind we have known
since
> 1917, has been unable to function AT ALL for most of a century without
the
> most severe forms of authoritarianism. It simply could not be abandoned
and
> there was little sign that the future held anything different until it
> crashed. Gorbachev simply presided over the crash helpless to do
anything
> about it.
>
> > ;the question here is whether the
> > democratic impulse behind that transition can be recovered.
>
> A laugher. The term democracy must be re-defined in the most cynical
> fashion before it can be applied to a regime with a totalitarian agenda
and
> an ideology which hinges on class war and dictatorship.
>
> > The
> > transformation of the Soviet leadership into a permanently oppressive
> > ruling elite was not a foregone conclusion. The degeneration of the
> > Russian Revolution into Stalin’s terror regime was not caused by the
> > authoritarian measures of the Bolsheviks after 1917 (although their
> > harmful effect upon both the Bolsheviks and Soviet society as a whole
> > cannot be denied), but because the Soviet republic was isolated due
to
> > the failure of revolutions to materialise in Western Europe.
>
> Sure, Flewers, cast about to find reasons other than the nature of
Lenin
> and the Bolshevik Party for the catastrophe which was the Russian
> Revolution, "A Peoples' Tragedy" Professor Figes calls it. Go ahead,
> reassure us that the regime just had no choice but to kill millions
because
> it was "isolated". That justifies the deaths and the ruined lives just
> fine, doesn't it? The poor fellows were isolated.
>
> > Confined
> > within a backward, devastated country, there was little chance that
the
> > democratic features of Bolshevism could successfully reassert
> > themselves. A democratic strand did exist within Bolshevism, as
during
> > the 1920s and into the 1930s not only did inveterate oppositionists
> > demand the democratisation of the regime, so did those like Trotsky,
who
> > had been quite authoritarian at times, and even former Stalinist
yahoos
> > like Riutin.
>
> Trotsky was grossly authoritarian. Lenin was worse. Democratic
centralism
> was his creation. Democracy was conformation to the leadership's
decisions
> without a peep. Democracy was the right to take orders.
>
> > Volkogonov does not investigate whether Lenin’s authoritarian
measures
> > after the October Revolution were rooted in his political evolution
in
> > the Second International, with its essentially statist conception of
the
> > transition to socialism.
>
> Back to theory. Sorry, we don't give a damn about that. Nothing matters
but
> the practical measures taken by the regime when in power. The record is
> horrible, indefensible, never to be repeated.
>
> > Although State and Revolution signified a
> > considerable break from that tradition, and although he understood
the
> > necessity of bringing the working class into the management of the
> > Soviet system, to what degree did his previous political evolution
act
> > as a statist counterweight to those democratic aspirations?
>
> You guys are hopeless. This sentence is so filled with illusions. Your
man
> is still Lenin. He had *no intention* of bringing the working class
into
> the management of the Soviet system. He rigorously kept workers out of
the
> policy making aparat at the center. He crushed Shlyapnikov, the only
> influential worker among the first ruling generation of Old Bolsheviks.
He
> crushed the unions. In any event the very idea that the predominantly
> peasant, semi-literate factory workers of 1917 Russia,  just one step
out
> of the countryside, were suitable to become managers is also utopian.
>
> > This is of
> > no interest to Volkogonov. He never understood the essence of Lenin’s
> > ideas, either in his time as a saint-worshipping Stalinist or in his
> > last years as a born-again anti-communist.
>
> Volkogonov was an honest pragmatist, a Russian patriot and a fine
writer of
> history. Marxist/Leninists suffer upon reading it not from Volkogonov
> himself but from their own unvarnished history. It is shameful.
>
> > Volkogonov notes that compared to the thousands of hagiographical
works
> > on Lenin, there are but a few objective works, no doubt implying that
> > this book deserves to be numbered amongst the latter. He does not
> > mention the tendentious hatchet-jobs that have appeared over the
years
> > in the West, but it is in this genre that this book should be
included.
>
> Lenin was the agent of his own demise. His reputation will never be
> restored. He will remain among the 20th Century's monsters forever.
>
> Hunter Watson
>
> >
> >
> > Paul Flewers


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