Lenin: his youth and his formation

As part of our preparation for the In Defence of Lenin conference, we republish this article by Ted Sprague from 2010.

Much has been said about the exploits of Lenin as the leader of Bolshevik and the October Revolution. His accomplishment as an individual is of no equal in the history of human civilization. There is almost no need to repeat what has been said about his life as a Marxist by his comrades-in-arms, scores of historians, and even his opponents. His youth, however, is of our interest given the state of the world we are living in.

The world today is one filled with turbulence. The generation of baby boomers – those who lived through the post-World War II boom – has come to pass. The new generation is one which will not see any boom, any concessions, and will only see attack after attack, shock after shock, rottenness, and decay of a system that refuses to die. This will shape the consciousness of millions of youth, that youth that cannot but rebel in a society that is incapable of adequately providing them a space for their creativity and drive. It is in this light that dealing with Lenin’s youth can give us a glimpse of what is to come for the youth of our generation, Lenin not as an individual but Lenin as a product of the whole of Russian history.

In assessing Lenin’s role in the month of April 1917 when he rearmed the Bolshevik party with his famous April Theses, Trotsky characterizes the place that his partner occupies in history dialectically as such:

“The ‘sudden’ arrival of Lenin from abroad after a long absence, the furious cry raised by the press around his name, his clash with all the leaders of his own party and his quick victory over them – in a word, the external envelope of circumstance – make easy in this case a mechanical contrasting of the person, the hero, the genius, against the objective conditions, the mass, the party. In reality, such a contrast is completely one-sided. Lenin was not an accidental element in the historic development, but a product of the whole past of Russian history. He was embedded in it with deepest roots. Along with the vanguard of the workers, he had lived through their struggle in the course of the preceding quarter century.”

This analysis of Trotsky can be drawn further back to Lenin’s youth, i.e. that Lenin is a product of the whole past of Russian history going as far back as the period before he was born, the 1860s – the beginning of the Narodniki. It is instructive that Trotsky, in his book “Young Lenin” dedicated two chapters alone to treat this period.

The Intelligentsia and the Peasantry in Russia

By the late 1850s, the Imperial Russia was one of the few countries in Europe that hadn’t shaken off feudalism. In the meantime, Russian economic life was becoming more and more entwined with the rest of capitalist Europe. Eager to grow and develop industrially, the government recognized the need to dissolve serfdom in order to create free labour and abolish the insular self-sufficient mir in order to create a market economy. A feudalist government was forced to carry out bourgeois tasks because there was no Russian bourgeoisie to carry them out. This agrarian reform by decree, however, was met with unsolvable contradictions. A complete abolition of serfdom could only mean a complete abolition of the landlords, thus an agrarian reform along the lines of the English and French Revolutions was out of the question. The Tsar had to figure out how to “free” the peasants from the land without freeing them from the clutches of the landlords. Hence the Tsar’s Emancipation Manifesto of February 19, 1861 (O.S.) was met instead with peasant discontent and disturbances. However, the resistance of the Russian peasantry was doomed from the very beginning, on the one hand owing to its inherent class character – insular, atomized, and backward – and on the other hand due to the sophisticated repressive apparatus of the Tsar, combining the cruelty of feudalist inquisition with the modern bourgeois state apparatus.

Attempting to lead the peasants was the Russian intelligentsia. They were born in a land where the feudal class was decaying at a faster rate than the rise of the bourgeoisie. The intelligentsia broke away from the stale culture and backwardness of the Russian nobility and church, but found no rapprochement with the Russian bourgeoisie, which was still too primitive and crude. It had no place in this Russia, no dominant class to anchor itself to, and thus found itself compelled to represent the oppressed masses, the peasants. Frightened by its own isolation and small numbers, the intelligentsia had to renounce itself and be part of the people, which was fundamentally the peasantry. They tried to literally immerse themselves with the peasantry, dress like them, eat like them, and even work with the plough and axe.

In 1860, the first underground circle of the intelligentsia was formed, known as “Young Russia”, whose immediate aim was: “a bloody and implacable revolution, which shall radically change the whole foundation of contemporary society.” Many similar circles arose, attempting to arouse the peasants. However, the expected revolution was slow to come. In the thinking of these circles, this grandiose idea of a revolution had to be forced upon the peasants.

Thus on April 4, 1866, Dimitri Karakozov, a 25-year old former student, a son of a nobleman, fired the first bullet at Alexander II. Thus, in six years, the intelligentsia had completed its first small cycle: from the hope for an immediate peasant uprising through the attempt of propaganda and agitation, to individual terror.

The 1870s opened a second cycle of this movement of the intelligentsia. It was considerably wider in scope and intensity. Numbering in the thousands, young men and women, mostly former students, initiated the movement “to the people”, a chaotic pilgrimage to the villages with an aim to carry revolutionary propaganda to all corners of Russia, to incite popular uprising.

However, in spite of the scope of this movement, reality betrayed their hopes. The peasants did not respond to their calls, and in many cases treated their propaganda with suspicion and hostility for they distrusted everything that came from the city.

We end up with a sequence of stages which are already familiar to us: from the hope of popular uprising to individual terror. And this time the cycle closed with a big bang. On March 1, 1881 (O.S.), a young man named Grinevitsky, a member of the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya), threw a bomb and killed the Tsar Alexander II.

However, even with the blood of the Tsar spilled, no peasants were aroused. The new Tsar, Alexander III, seeing that the terrorists represented nobody other than their own romanticism, opened up a period of reaction. The government took bold actions: cracking down on the liberal intelligentsia, clamping down on student activities, removing seditious works from libraries, etc.

The last issue of the journal of People’s Will that came out on October 1st, 1885 painted in bleak colours the morale of the movement: “Complete intellectual disintegration, a chaos of the most contradictory opinions on the most elementary questions of social life… on the one hand, pessimism both personal and social, on the other hand, socio-religious mysticism.”

The 1880s sounded the death knell of the revolutionary intelligentsia of the Narodnaya type. Coinciding with this period of reaction was the coming of the Russian bourgeoisie onto the scene, and as a result the inevitable bourgeoisification of the intelligentsia. The revolutionary duty of the intelligentsia to the people was replaced with bourgeois individualism.

Lenin’s brother and the March 1st affair

Lenin’s youth cannot be separated from the life of his older brother, Alexander Ulyanov, born 4 years earlier. Since he was little, Lenin had always looked up to him and tried to imitate him. When the question was put to the young Lenin, known as Volodya at a younger age, as to whether cereal should be eaten with butter or milk, he answered: “Like Sasha [Alexander].” His brother’s death, just as Lenin turned 17, was profound in shaping his future.

Alexander entered the Petersburg University in 1883 during which political hopelessness prevailed amongst the intellectual youth. In the first three years at the university, Alexander did nothing but study, his head was full of Medeleyev’s periodic table. However, Alexander could not escape his destiny which was determined by the profound change that had taken place in the political atmosphere at that time after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. The school regime was unbearable: cruel, stale, and stifling. A poet, Semyon Nadson, of the same generation as Alexander, wrote of the school period of his life: “Curses upon you, boyhood years! You passed without love, without friendship or freedom.” It is from here that the affair of March 1st 1887 originated.

The setting of Alexander’s first public activity was the Volkovo Cemetery. In 1886, he actively prepared the marking of the 25th anniversary of the Peasant Reform by a rally in the cemetery for those who had fought for the peasant liberation. On November 17, the same students assembled up to a thousand people at the Volkovo Cemetery to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of the famous critic Dobrolyubov. This time the students were surrounded by a Cossack detachment, and many were arrested; 40 students were expelled from the university. The fact that the youth so persistently made their pilgrimages to the burial ground over the graves of the fighters of the past as their political acts was an eloquent testimony of the depth of moral and political depression of that period.

Debates raged on amongst the students: what is there to do? Their cry for a freer society fell on deaf ears. In the face of indignation and political impotence, the past had provided them an answer: Terror! In the beginning, Alexander was opposed to this conclusion, saying that it was absurd and even suicidal to attempt to engage in any political activity before one had worked out a correct view. The others answered him: are we going to sit back while violence triumphs and our people are oppressed? Against his better judgment, he yielded.

The conspirators resolved to kill the Tsar on March 1st 1887. However, a plan carried out of despair is destined to fail. They were all arrested in the afternoon of March 1steven before having a chance to execute the plan. Alexander’s speech in court spelled out the pessimism that formed the basis of their action: “We have not any strongly united class which might restrain the government … our intelligentsia is so weak physically and so little organized that at present we cannot enter into an open struggle … The weak intelligentsia, very weakly imbued with the interest of the masses … can defend its right to think only with terrorism.” On May 8th Alexander together with the others was hung.

The execution of his brother shook Lenin, even more so because he had never known of the revolutionary mind of his brother. Alexander never made the slightest attempt to influence Lenin, and he did so because he himself was in a quandary and couldn’t see any way ahead. He thought to himself: what was the use of getting Volodya involved in a political affair that was in impasse? Furthermore, the young Lenin was in a world of his own: poetry and fiction. One day in the summer of 1886 when the brothers shared a room, while his brother was pouring over Das Kapital, Volodya, lying on a couch, was reading and re-reading all of Turgenev’s novels and went into raptures about them. Lenin showed not the slightest interest in the book which his brother was so deeply absorbed in. This changed abruptly with the execution of his brother.

It would have been a sterile occupation to try to speculate whether Lenin would have ever decided to become a revolutionary if his brother hadn’t died a martyr. Tsarist Russia was filled with enough reasons to turn a young man into a revolutionary, and the general political development of Lenin was not an exceptional case. The early 1890s saw many young intellectuals turning abruptly to Marxism for a number of historical factors: the capitalist transformation of Russia, the rise of the Russian proletariat, and the dead end of the Narodniki intelligentsia. On the other hand, to brush away personal attributes with historical generalisation doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding the development of Lenin both as an individual and the product of history and why he stood out amongst the hundreds, if not thousands, of youth who turned to Marxism.

First Acquaintance with Revolution

Upon the death of his brother, Lenin became interested in the belief that had led his brother into such revolutionary action; not so much because of his intellectual curiosity but more so because of his yearning to understand his estranged brother. He knew that his brother had a great respect toward Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Russian revolutionary and the philosophical founder of Narodism. His novel What is to be done?, written in the early 1860s while the author was held in prison, was part novel, part propaganda that provided revolutionary impetus and philosophy for the youth during that period. Lenin had read it superficially when he was fourteen. Now he tried to read it again, this time more seriously and with a conscious attempt to understand the motives that had lead his brother to the gallows. He wrote about Chernyshevsky’s What is to be done?:

“Chernyshevsky’s novel is too complex, too full of thoughts and ideas, in order to be understood and valued at a young age. I myself tried to read it… when I was fourteen years old… it was a worthless and superficial reading that did not lead to anything. But then after the execution of my brother, knowing that Chernyshevsky’s novel was one of his favourite works, I began what was a real reading and poured over the book, not several days but several weeks. Only then did I understand its full depth. It is a work which gives one a charge for a whole life.”

It was from Chernyshevsky that Lenin was imbued with a revolutionary spirit which he once lacked, where according to Lenin What is to be done? “not only showed that any correctly thinking and truly honest person must be a revolutionary, but also something more important: what a revolutionary should be like, what rules he should follow, how he should approach his goal and what means and method he should use to achieve it” More importantly, it was from reading Chernyshevsky – which was prompted by his desire to understand his brother better – that Lenin was first introduced to philosophical materialism and Hegel’s dialectics.

“I am indebted to Chernyshevsky for my first acquaintance with philosophical materialism. And he was the first to point out to me Hegel’s role in the development of philosophical thought; from him came my conception of the dialectical method, after which it was much easier to master Marx’s dialectic… I read Chernyshevsky with pencil in hand, taking extensive notes and writing summaries of what I had read. The notebooks in which all this was written I kept with me for a long time thereafter… Before my acquaintance with the works of Marx, Engels, and Plekhanov, only Chernyshevsky had a major influence on me, an overwhelming influence.”

Chernyshevsky’s influence over Lenin on his road to Marxism was not something unique. Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, also read the works of Chernyshevsky in his youth before he became a Marxist. “My own intellectual development took place under the massive influence of Chernyshevsky,” wrote Plekhanov later in his life.

The Road to Marxism

The first step that Lenin took toward Marxism has shown clearly that his political development was not a straight line. Lenin’s peaceful world of poetry and fiction was disrupted violently by the death of his brother, yet he did not jump straight to Marxism. Soviet biographers – the epigones – tried to embellish Lenin in his early youth with a divine-like intellectual power, that he embraced Marxism purely out of his own faculty. Tales were created that the house of the Ulyanovs was something of a political club, with young Lenin actively involved in it, that as early as 1887 Lenin already was a Marxist, and many more that step over facts and logic. Unhappy with Lenin as he is, the epigones wanted a better Lenin, a Lenin that is so infallible that his development defies the laws of Marxism itself.

Lenin’s first run in with the authorities took place just four months after he was admitted to the law school at Kazan University. On December 4th 1887, the students of Kazan University held a protest with Lenin participating in it, not demanding the overthrow of the Tsar, but merely demanding the right to have their eating places and reading rooms. Lenin was not one of the leaders of the protest; however, his odious family name was enough reason for the authorities to arrest him the next day and expel him. The police inspector in his report wrote: “In view of the exceptional circumstances affecting his family, this attitude of Ulyanov toward the meeting moves the inspector to consider him fully capable of various kinds of unlawful and criminal demonstrations.”

From his expulsion in 1887 until his arrival at St. Petersburg in 1893 when he effectively started his revolutionary work, Lenin prepared himself theoretically. Lenin as an author didn’t emerge until 1893, with his first work On the So-Called Market Question. It was not Lenin’s conscious understanding of the need for a revolutionary idea before embarking on political actions that compelled him to hole up for six years developing himself and absorbing the philosophy of dialectical materialism. Peculiar circumstances such as being sent to school at a remote Kazan – although he was expelled very soon as we have seen –, subsequently banished to a small village Kokushkino, and later moved to a little farm in Samara, and general historical circumstances of intensified Tsarist reaction and the political decline of the intelligentsia provided the young Lenin with a deferment from direct political action. However, he made good use of this isolation.

While in a banishment at Kokushkino, living in the estate of his grandfather, he happened upon an old bookcase containing the books of his deceased uncle, who was considered well-read in his time. A couple of hundred stray volumes and some sets of Russian progressive journals, this is the choice of books that Lenin had, which was accidental. The young eyes devoured the books. Yet, the bookcase was not enough. Lenin had to resort to the library and his family also subscribed to a somewhat liberal newspaper. Here, he first learned how to critically read a daily newspaper, a complicated art in which he subsequently became a virtuoso.

In autumn 1888, Lenin was permitted to move back to Kazan. He made some acquaintances, and joined a circle of young people gathered around an old member of People’s Will, Chetvergova. The Kazan circle was by no means a conspiratorial circle as the general political and moral ebb in Russia didn’t allow it. The affair of March 1st 1887 was practically the last convulsion of the period of the People’s Will. The circle was merely a discussion group gathered around Chetvergova, whom Lenin respected just like a young green recruit looks up to a scar-covered veteran. It was from this circle that Lenin got a hold of Das Kapital, a rare treasure in Kazan as they had been removed from libraries and confiscated from private apartments.

The pages of Das Kapital opened Lenin’s eyes just like it did his brother just a couple of years earlier. However, the difference is that with Lenin Marx’s ideas took a firm hold of him; they finally gave him an understanding of the society he was living in. He would sit with his elder sister trying to explain the mysteries of surplus value and capitalist exploitation. On the contrary, Alexander, filled with the pessimism that was prevalent in that period, couldn’t bring himself to share his discovery with his siblings.

In the next couple of years, Lenin acquired more Marxist works. However, it was not until Lenin got acquainted with the works of Plekhanov in early 1891 that he completely broke from the Russian Populist tradition and became a convinced Marxist. In 1893, he moved to St. Petersburg and embarked on a road that later changed not only the course of Russian history but that of world history.

The Role of the Individual in History

To what extent do Lenin’s personal traits influence his development to become the leader of the October Revolution? Plekhanov, in his brilliant work The Role of the Individual in History, wrote the following:

“It follows, then, that by virtue of particular traits of their character individuals can influence the fate of society. Sometimes this influence is very considerable; but the possibility of exercising this influence, and its extent, are determined by the form of organization of society, by the relation of forces within it. The character of an individual is a ‘factor’ in social development only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be such.”

Going through his life since childhood, even before he turned his attention to politics, we can already see defining characters that separated him from many other youth in his generation that also turned to Marxism: sense of duty, discipline, and orderliness. Since he was young, his parents taught him and his siblings “thrift, orderliness, respect for labour and its fruit”. In the future, he strongly disliked sloppiness, laziness, and extravagance among adults, and particularly in the Bolshevik party where professional conduct and attitudes were expected from those who aimed to reorganize the society.

His academic record was also a testament to his work ethics. Lenin climbed through the high-school curriculum without pause and each year with merit. His language and literary teacher, Fyodor Kerensky, the father of Alexander Kerensky, would set his writing as an example to others and rewarded him with the highest mark, and spoke of him as “exceptionally talented, constantly diligent and accurate.” When meeting with parents, the principal never failed to praise this pupil. Equally exceptional was his ability to obtain a law degree in eight months, where it normally took 4 years for most students. He did so without the help from professors and came first in a class of 144 students.

Since he had been in high school, he wrote very methodically. He would first sketch an outline to make sure that his ideas would be expressed in full. Around this outline, he would then group references, arguments, and quotations, and from here the introduction, body, and conclusion would fill in. This methodical way of writing gave him the arsenal needed to compose a piercing analysis of the Russian – and international – political and economic developments that served as a guide to action for his party.

Lenin had the all the characteristics to be a successful person in all trades. He could have chosen to be a successful farmer during the time when his family bought a small farm in Samara. With his ability to analyse complex situations and form arguments, let alone his first-class law diploma, he could have been an outstanding lawyer. Yet, Lenin chose a road of struggle. In the year of 1893, at the age of 23, he took a bold step toward revolution and never wavered after that.

The youth, in their existential moments, are faced with that one burning question: what do I want to be? Lenin, like thousands of youth of his generation, was faced with the same question. Victor Serge recalled his existential moment:

“What do you want to be? Lawyers, to invoke the law of the rich, which is unjust by definition? Doctors, to tend the rich, and prescribe good food, good air, and rest to the consumptives of the slums? Architects, to house the landlords in comfort? Look around you and examine your conscience. Do you not understand that your duty is quite different: to ally yourself with the exploited, and to work for the destruction of an intolerable system?”

Like Victor Serge and many of his future comrades-in-arms, Lenin took the road of struggle.

It is thus, in the six years between the execution of his brother and the move to St. Petersburg, that the future of Lenin was formed, not in a straight line but in leaps and bounds, where the sequence of his personal development intertwines with the sequence of historical development.