Birthday > Earth Day: Happy 146th, Lenin!

It’s that time of year again. As always, the birthday of Lenin is a more momentous occasion than the bourgeois holiday Earth Day. This last year has seen a spirited defense by John Bellamy Foster of his tedious Maoist snoozefests, Marx’s Ecology (2000) and The Ecological Rift (2011). Foster’s latest, on Marx and the Earth (2015), continues this vain attempt to “synthesize” Marxism with contemporary ecological thought, albeit slinging some well-deserved barbs toward environmentalist critics of Marx along the way. Several months ago I criticized the Epimetheanism, or at least the anti-Prometheanism, of Foster & co. But a more thoroughgoing polemic, written from an orthodox Trotskyist perspective, had already been published by the Sparts: “John Bellamy Foster & Co: ‘Ecosocialism’ against Marxism.” More measured and collegial, but no less incisive, was Steven Vogel’s review of the book in 2003 from a more Frankfurt School-inspired perspective.

Regardless, we proceed to the texts. I’ve appended several short texts by Christopher Read, Leon Trotsky, and Ulianov himself below. Plus more Lenin images than you can shake a fist at. Have some Lenin biographies, while you’re at it, too:

  1. Alfred Rosmer, Moscow under Lenin
  2. August H. Nimtz, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets, or Both? (2014)
  3. August H. Nimtz, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels to 1905: The Ballot, the Streets, or Both? (2014)
  4. Carter Elwood, The Non-Geometric Lenin: Essays on the Development of the Bolshevik Party, 1910-1914
  5. Christopher Hill, Lenin and the Russian Revolution (1947)
  6. Christopher Read, Lenin: A Revolutionary Life (2005)
  7. Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought (1924)
  8. Kevin Anderson, “Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism”
  9. Klara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin: Dealing with His Views on the Position of Women and Other Questions (1925)
  10. Lars T. Lih, Lenin
  11. Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (2005)
  12. Craig Nation, War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origins of Communist Internationalism
  13. René Fülöp-Miller, Lenin and Gandhi (1927)
  14. Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography


Lenin’s fiftieth birthday

Christopher Read
Lenin: A Revolutionary
Life (Routledge 2005)

Lenin was the kind of person who would not have enjoyed surprise parties in his honor. On his fiftieth birthday he received many letters and telegrams of congratulation and, at a celebration on the following day, 23 April 1920, he thanked the organizers for sparing him congratulatory speeches. He refused a proposal to open a museum in his honor and confided to a colleague, M.S. Olminsky: “You have no idea how unpleasant I find the constant promotion of my person.” [Weber 169] He also described Kamenev’s proposal to collect and reprint Lenin’s works as “completely superfluous” and only changed his mind when he was asked if he preferred the young to read Menshevik and Economist authors instead.

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Vladimir Lenin at fifty

Leon Trotsky
Pravda No. 86
April 23, 1920

Lenin’s internationalism needs no recommendation. It is best characterized by Lenin’s irreconcilable break, in the first days of the world war, with that counterfeit internationalism which reigned in the Second International. The official leaders of “Socialism” used the parliamentary tribune to reconcile the interests of the fatherland with the interests of mankind by way of abstract arguments in the spirit of the old cosmopolitans. In practice this led, as we know, to the support of the predatory fatherland by the proletarian forces.

Lenin’s internationalism is in no sense a formula for verbally reconciling nationalism with internationalism. It is a formula for international revolutionary action. The world’s territory in the clutches of the so-called civilized section of mankind is regarded as a unified arena where a gigantic struggle occurs, whose component elements are constituted by the individual peoples and their respective classes. No single major issue can be kept restricted within a national framework. Visible and invisible threads connect such an issue with dozens of events in all corners of the world. In the evaluation of international factors and forces Lenin is freer than anyone else from national prejudices.

Marx concluded that the philosophers had sufficiently interpreted the world and that the real task was to change it. But he, the pioneering genius, did not live to see it done. The transformation of the old world is now in full swing and Lenin is the foremost worker on this job. His internationalism is a practical appraisal plus a practical intervention into the march of historical events on a world scale and with worldwide aims. Russia and her fate is only a single element in this titanic historical struggle upon whose outcome hinges the fate of mankind.

Lenin’s internationalism needs no recommendation. But at the same time Lenin himself is profoundly national. His roots are deep in modern Russian history, he draws it up into himself, gives it its highest expression, and precisely in this way attains the highest levels of international action and world influence.

At first glance the characterization of Lenin as a “national” figure may seem surprising, but, in essence, this follows as a matter of course. To be able to lead such a revolution, without parallel in the history of peoples, as Russia is now living through, it is obviously necessary to have an indissoluble, organic bond with the main forces of the people’s life, a bond which springs from the deepest roots.

Lenin personifies the Russian proletariat, a young class, which politically is scarcely older than Lenin himself, but a class which is profoundly national, for recapitulated in it is the entire past development of Russia, in it lies Russia’s entire future, with it the Russian nation rises or falls. Freedom from routine and banality, freedom from imposture and convention, resoluteness of thought, audacity in action — an audacity which never turns into foolhardiness — this is what characterizes the Russian working class, and with it also Lenin.

The nature of the Russian proletariat, which has made it today the most important force of the world revolution, had been prepared beforehand by the entire course of Russian national history: the barbaric cruelty of the tsarist autocracy, the insignificance of the privileged classes, the feverish growth of capitalism fed by the lees of the world stock-market, the escheated character of the Russian bourgeoisie, their decadent ideology, their shoddy politics. Our “Third Estate” knew neither a Reformation nor a great revolution of their own and could never have known them. Therefore the revolutionary tasks of the Russian proletariat assumed a more all-embracing character. Our past history knows no Luther, no Thomas Münzer, no Mirabeau, no Danton, no Robespierre. Exactly for that reason the Russian proletariat has its Lenin. What was lost in way of tradition has been won in the sweep of the revolution.

Lenin mirrors the working class, not only in its proletarian present but also in its peasant past, still so recent. This most indisputable leader of the proletariat, not only outwardly resembles a peasant, but there is something inwardly in him strongly smacking of a peasant. Facing the Smolny stands the statue of the other great figure of the world proletariat: Karl Marx, on a stone pedestal in a black frock coat. Assuredly, this is a trifle, but it is impossible even to imagine Lenin putting on a black frock coat. Some portraits of Marx show him wearing a dress shirt against whose broad expanse something resembling a monocle dangles.

That Marx was not inclined to foppery is quite clear to all who have an inkling of the spirit of Marx. But Marx was born and grew up on a different national-cultural soil, lived in a different atmosphere, as did also the leading personalities of the German working class, whose roots reach back not to a peasant village, but to the corporation guilds and the complex city culture of the middle ages.

Marx’s very style, rich and beautiful, in which strength and flexibility, wrath and irony, severity and refinement are combined, also contains the literary and esthetic accumulations of the entire German sociopolitical literature since the days of the Reformation and even before. Lenin’s literary and oratorical style is awesomely simple, utilitarian, ascetic, as is his whole makeup. But in this mighty asceticism there is not a trace of a moralistic attitude. There is no principle here, no elaborated system and, of course, no posturing; it is simply the outward expression of inward conservation of strength for action. It is a peasant’s practical proficiency but on a colossal scale.

The entire Marx is contained in the Communist Manifesto in the foreword to his Critique, in Capital. Even if he had not been the founder of the First International he would always remain what he is today. Lenin, on the other hand, is contained entirely in revolutionary action. His scientific works are only a preparation for action. If he never published a single book in the past, he would forever enter into history just as he enters it now: the leader of the proletarian revolution, the founder of the Third International.

A clear, scientific system — the materialistic dialectic — is necessary for action on such a historical scale as devolved upon Lenin. It is necessary but not sufficient. Needed here in addition is that ineffable creative power we call intuition: the ability to judge events correctly on the wing, to separate the essential and important from the husks and incidentals, to fill in mentally the missing parts of the picture, to draw to conclusion the thoughts of others and above all those of the enemy, to connect all this into a unified whole and to deal a blow the moment that the “formula” for this blow comes to mind. This is the intuition for action. In one of its aspects it merges with what we call shrewdness.

When Lenin, screwing up his left eye, listens over the radio to a parliamentary speech of one of the imperialist makers of destiny or goes over the text of the latest diplomatic note, a mixture of bloodthirsty duplicity and polished hypocrisy, he resembles a very wise muzhik whom words cannot cajole nor sugary phrases ensnare. This is the peasant shrewdness elevated to genius, armed with the last word of scientific thought.

The young Russian proletariat was able to accomplish what it has only by pulling behind itself, by its roots, the heavy mass of the peasantry. This was prepared for by our whole national past.

But precisely because the proletariat has come to power through the course of events, our revolution has been able suddenly and drastically to overcome the national narrowness and provincial benightedness of Russia’s past history. Soviet Russia has become not only the haven for the Communist International, but also the living embodiment of its program and methods.

By paths, unknown and as yet unexplored by science, by which the human personality is molded, Lenin has assimilated from the national milieu everything he needed for the greatest revolutionary action in the history of humanity. Exactly because the socialist revolution, which has long had its international theoretical expression, found for the first time in Lenin its national embodiment, Lenin became, in the full and true sense of the word, the revolutionary leader of the world proletariat. And that is how his fiftieth birthday found him.

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Birthday speech

Vladimir Lenin
Pravda No. 87
April 24, 1920

(Stormy applause)

Comrades, I must naturally begin by thanking you for two things: first, for the congratulations addressed to me today, and second, even more for having spared me congratulatory speeches.


I think that perhaps in this way we may gradually, not all at once, of course, devise a more suitable method of celebrating anniversaries than the one hitherto in vogue, which has sometimes formed the subject of remarkably good cartoons. Here is one such cartoon drawn by a prominent artist in celebration of such a jubilee. I received it today with an extremely cordial letter. And as the comrades have been kind enough to spare me congratulatory speeches, I will hand this cartoon round for all to see, so as to save us in future from such jubilee celebrations altogether.[2]

Next, I would like to say a few words about the present status of the Bolshevik Party. What brought these thoughts to my mind was some lines written by a certain writer eighteen years ago, in 1902. This writer is Karl Kautsky, with whom we have now had to part ways very definitely, and whom we have to fight, but who in the struggle against German opportunism used lobe one of the leaders of the proletarian party, and with whom we at one time collaborated. There were no Bolsheviks then, but all the future Bolsheviks who collaborated with him appraised him very highly. Here is what this writer wrote in 1902:

At the present time [in contrast to 1848] it would seem that not only have the Slays entered the ranks of the revolutionary nations, but that the center of revolutionary thought and revolutionary action is shifting more and more to the Slays. The revolutionary center is shifting from the West to the East. In the first half of the nineteenth century it was located in France, at times in England. In 1848 Germany too joined the ranks of the revolutionary nations… The new century opens with events which induce us to think that we are approaching a further shift of the revolutionary center, namely, to Russia… Russia, who has borrowed so much revolutionary initiative from the West, is now perhaps herself ready to serve as a source of revolutionary energy for the West. The Russian revolutionary movement that is now flaring up will perhaps prove to he a most potent means of exorcising that spirit of flabby philistinism and temperate politics which is beginning to spread in our midst, and it may cause the thirst for battle and the passionate devotion to our great ideals to flare up in bright flames again. Russia has long ceased to be merely a bulwark of reaction and absolutism in Western Europe. It might be said that today the very opposite is the case. Western Europe is becoming a bulwark of reaction and absolutism in Russia…The Russian revolutionaries might perhaps have settled with the tsar long ago had they not been compelled at the same time to fight his ally, European capital. Let us hope that this time they will succeed in settling with both enemies, and that the new “Holy Alliance” will collapse more quickly than its predecessors. But no matter how the present struggle in Russia ends, the blood and happiness of the martyrs, whom, unfortunately, she is producing in too great numbers, will not have been sacrificed in vain. They will nourish the shoots of social revolution throughout the civilized world and cause them to grow more luxuriantly and rapidly. In 1848 the Slays were a black frost which blighted the flowers of the peoples’ spring. Perhaps they are now destined to be the storm that will break the ice of reaction and will irresistibly bring a new and happy spring for the nations. (K. Kautsky, “The Slavs and Revolution.” Iskra No. 18: March 10, 1902)

That is what a prominent socialist, with whom we have now had to break so drastically, wrote about the revolutionary movement in Russia eighteen years ago. These words lead me to think that our Party may now find itself in a very dangerous position — the position of a man with a swelled head. It is a very stupid, shameful and ridiculous position. We know that the failure and decline of political parties have very often been preceded by a state of affairs in which a swelled head is possible. And, indeed, what was expected of the Russian revolution by the man I have quoted and who is now our bitterest enemy, was immense beyond measure. But after all, the brilliant successes and brilliant victories we have gained so far were gained at a time when it was still impossible to grapple with our main difficulties. It was a time when we were confronted by war tasks, the tasks of waging a most profound and most energetic struggle against the landowner and tsarist reactionaries, and against reactionary generals. And so, the tasks that are the substance of the socialist revolution had to be postponed in order to grapple with the task of organizing the struggle against the common, everyday manifestations of petty-bourgeois instincts, division and disunity, that is, against everything that would drag us back to capitalism. These tasks were postponed both in the economic and political spheres; we were unable to tackle them properly. And therefore the danger suggested to us by the words I have quoted should be seriously borne in mind by all Bolsheviks both severally and as an integral political party. We must realise that the decisions of our last Party Congress must he carried out at all costs, and this means that a tremendous job faces us, and that a far greater exertion of effort will be demanded than hitherto.

Let me conclude with the hope that under no circumstances will we allow our Party to contract swelled head.


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