Lenin has not been a hot topic in Soviet history recently, even with last year’s centenary of his Russian Revolution. A few books have appeared on his political thought and practice before 1917, but none of them focused on what he did once he was in power.
The last significant contribution was T. H. Rigby’s Lenin’s Government (1985), which challenged the conventional wisdom that Lenin, like Stalin, was a party man to whom government institutions were relatively unimportant. Rigby argued that, in his few short years in power before illness sidelined him, Lenin sought to rule through the government’s cabinet (the Council of People’s Commissars, or Sovnarkom) set up under his chairmanship in October 1917, rather than the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee and Politburo.
Lara Douds develops Rigby’s argument further on the basis of new archival evidence which, she says, reinforces his conclusions, except on a few minor issues.
Her Lenin, like his, is less an ideologist rigidly implementing preformed doctrines than a pragmatist improvising in the face of contingency, albeit one whose interpretation of situations was based on Marxist assumptions.
Douds takes as a given that Lenin initially hoped and expected that the new Soviet regime would prove more truly democratic than mere “bourgeois parliamentarianism”. Although conceding that a descent into repressive dictatorship quickly occurred, she judges this to be a product of contingency and the Bolsheviks’ inexperience and myopia rather than malevolent intention.
A central issue here is whether the Bolsheviks were determined from the beginning and at all costs to establish a party dictatorship and eliminate all political opposition. While for the first few months the Bolsheviks shared ministerial positions in Sovnarkom with the left SRs (a splinter group of the large peasant-oriented Social Revolutionary Party), many scholars have seen this coalition as doomed from the start because Lenin was incapable of sharing power. Douds disputes this, pointing out that it was the left SRs who broke the coalition – not because the Bolsheviks had made working together impossible, but because the SRs, like the “left” faction in Lenin’s own party, could not stomach the punitive Brest-Litovsk peace with Germany in March 1918.
In Douds’ view, the power shift of the early 1920s from Sovnarkom to Politburo is not attributable to Stalin, as is sometimes assumed, but a product both of Lenin’s unwillingness to throw his weight behind a successor as Sovnarkom leader after his first stroke in December 1921 and of the cumbersomeness of Sovnarkom procedures, which led government ministers (even occasionally Lenin himself) to go to the Politburo for a quick decision.
If there is a missing element here, it is the role of the Red Army, which until large-scale demobilisation at the end of the Civil War had provided Russia’s most effective administrative machinery nationwide. Whether those functions of local administrative leadership were to be inherited by institutions subordinate to the Sovnarkom or to the Politburo was a key issue that Lenin (and, following him, most historians, including Rigby and Douds) largely ignored.
Sheila Fitzpatrick is honorary professor of history at the University of Sydney. Her recent books include A Spy in the Archives (2013) and Mischka’s War: A European Odyssey of the 1940s.
Inside Lenin’s Government: Ideology, Power and Practice in the Early Soviet State
By Lara Douds
Bloomsbury Academic, 240pp, £85.00
Published 22 February 2018