THURSDAY marked 150 years since the birth of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, the communist revolutionary and political theorist who served as head of the Soviet government from 1917 to his death in 1924. Just another day for most of us but for London Young Labour (LYL), a Labour-affiliated group with more than 15,000 members aged 14-26, it was a cause for celebration. Accompanied by a striking image of Marx and Lenin on a British National Union of Mineworkers flag, the group tweeted that Lenin’s ‘legacy and the legacy of the Russian revolution still inspires millions around the world to fight. For peace and socialism!’
At the time of writing the tweet had received almost 2,000 likes and has even been defended by former coalition Business Minister Sir Vince Cable.
Yet rehabilitating Lenin and his mission is not an option for a civilised society.
The ‘October Revolution’ afforded rose-tinted praise in this tweet was not the romantic popular uprising immortalised in Eisenstein’s storming of the Winter Palace in the 1927 film October: Ten Days That Shook the World. This episode was nothing more than an illegitimate putsch of Russia’s provisional government which, although imperfect, had already toppled the Tsarist regime in February of the same year. It occurred because Lenin and his comrades were unhappy with the results of the first free election in Russia’s history which failed to deliver a mandate for their policies. Lenin’s political vision was inaugurated by the evil and unnecessary murder of the Romanov children, whose bullet-riddled bodies were tossed into unmarked graves, probably on Lenin’s personal orders. As detailed in Robert Service’s A History of Modern Russia, the USSR that Lenin’s coup begat, rather than alleviating poverty and oppression, enforced the worst elements of ancien regime tyranny on Russia and eventually on its expansive colonies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Tsarist gulags of Siberia were expanded and transformed into an empire of brutal forced labour, staffed by exiles who had been torn from their homes and families, with no access to appeal. Victor Sebestyen’s 2017 biography, Lenin the Dictator, details how, amid the Russian civil war that eventually delivered the Bolshevik victory, sailors at the Kronstadt naval base revolted, drawing up a list of demands such as freedom of the press and abolition of the secret police. At this news, Lenin ordered that 20,000 troops be sent to ‘show them no mercy’.
We must crush the myth that Lenin was inspired by a noble idealism that was simply perverted by Stalin. Lenin was as pitiless a tyrant as his successor and conscience-free in the face of that which threatened his mission toward enforcing socialism. He was no freedom-loving humanitarian, but a ruthless tyrant, happy to suppress any inkling of opposition for his cause, advocating the violent repression of religion and press freedoms. ‘We do not promise any freedom, or any democracy,’ Lenin exclaimed at the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921. ‘We were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the sacredness of human life,’ his comrade Trotsky declared in The Defence of Terrorism.
During his time in the number one spot, Lenin willingly facilitated Trotsky and Stalin’s brutal commitment to preserving Bolshevik power irrespective of the violence and oppression it required. His government founded the institutional apparatus Stalin would use to send tens of millions to their deaths. He established ‘murder and arrest quotas’ that allowed the NKVD to murder ordinary citizens on a mass scale as ‘enemies of the people’, often for the most minor of civil offences. Stalin may have died with more blood on his hands than Lenin, but he had a whole 30 years to flex his muscles compared with Lenin’s seven. The terror of the Soviet system was systemic. Stalin was not the innovator of the one-party state, secret police or the forced labour camps, he was simply the happy heir to them, and any honest history admits that Lenin was the brains behind their foundation.
It must be emphasised that, despite a mass of backlash toward their tweet, from myself included, LYL made no attempt to defend or apologise for their statement, and in fact, nonchalantly exclaimed how their post ‘blew up’ (that’s Twitter-speak for awe at a post’s unexpected popularity). Yet even this article’s quick rundown of Lenin and the revolution he stood for is a testament to the fact that anyone wishing to ‘celebrate’ its legacy is either misled or immoral. The replacement of absolutism with totalitarianism does not seem worthy of applause to me. There is no shame in admitting one was wrong, and in fact, such an admission – when genuine – requires courage and should be met with warmth rather than rebuke. I invite London Young Labour to do so.