Driving through Moscow and passing a statue of Lenin, as yet inviolate, the young Russian historian at the wheel inclined his head and said "That man got things done".
As an epitaph it was as unsolicited as it was laconic, but singularly relevant. These two volumes, Worlds in Collision and The Iron Ring, which complete Robert Service's monumental and eminently readable trilogy on the life, times and achievements of Lenin, concentrate exactly on that aspect of Lenin, the man who got things done, man of his times, party boss, thinker, politician, idealist, "scheming manipulator".
These are many of the ingredients Service combines and com£ to bring about the "rounded portrait" he seeks to present. In the wake of much vulgar, intemperate, almost inchoate "demonising" of Lenin, replacing one "unconvincing orthodoxy with another" these commanding volumes could not be more timely, utilising as they do the fruits of access to archival material long withheld, though with the proviso that more remains to be uncovered.
In his foreword to the first edition of Worlds in Collision (1991) Service remarks that he had anticipated some lessening, indeed a "drastic reduction" of Lenin's reputation with the opening of the documents. Though at pains to point out Lenin's limitations as a "practical leader" and the constraints on his "practical authority", the aim of this volume is to indicate and investigate the circumstances in which Lenin made his "exceptional impact", for such it was. It is that which justifies the careful examination of the type of work in which Lenin was involved between 1910-18. The ten chapters of Worlds in Collision move from 1910 to March 1918. They convey in great detail the evolution of Lenin's political thinking and political tactics, all against the background of the conditions of the party and life at large in Russia which contributed to Lenin's accession to power.
There can be no real argument with Service's claim that conditions in Russia in 1917 - military defeat combined with the enfeeblement of liberal politics and the collapse of capitalist economics - presaged revolution and signalled the eventuality of socialist government.
But the very extreme nature of these social conditions dictated that it should be "a far-left socialist like Lenin" who triumphed rather than one of less extreme views or even some liberal. It is to the elucidation of that particular relationship, to the "good and the bad" of the October Revolution, to Lenin's "accountability" that Worlds in Collision is devoted.
The events of 1917 ended the luxury, or at least the self-indulgence of seemingly endless debate and propelled Lenin on to the world stage, "not only the leader of a party but also master of a government". This was a Lenin, in the view of Service, who was an inspiring leader, incisive in analysis but often incoherent in argumentation, driven by "intolerance and self-deception".
After the scintillating analysis and impressive assembly of sources both old and new, Service delivers in this volume a sombre but realistic verdict on this Lenin, responsible "more than any other" for civil war, unable to reconcile the requirements of urban Russia with the demands of the countryside, faced with bitter inter-ethnic divisions. In short, the "enormity" of the crisis of the defunct Russian empire escaped Lenin and his policies.
No "broadly based socialist government" emerged in late 1917 and Lenin ensured that it never would. Increasing authoritarianism consumed what passed in him for a democratic instinct. Lenin had survived amid those multifarious circumstances so expertly, convincingly delineated by Service. But in March 1918 it was not simply Lenin's survival but that of his new-found state which hung in the balance.
The third and final volume of the trilogy, The Iron Ring, deals with Lenin as a practitioner, a ruthless political leader of a "dictatorship always going to be dictatorial" (and more dictatorial than was ever earlier disclosed), "a Marxist believer", demonstrably a man of ideas but whose ideas were subject to change. His inclination lay towards central state authority, class discrimination and anti-legalism, driven in the direction of what Service depicts as dictatorship combined with terror, a one-party and one-ideology state, massive state economic ownership, a class-biased social system and "legal nihilism".
But he also makes the key point that Lenin may have wanted power though not for its own sake. This was not personal dictatorship in the manner of Stalin, driven by a vanity which demanded vengeance and fuelled murderous aggrandisement. The Iron Ring traces in great and fascinating detail the enforced changes in policy after 1917, the growing tendency to resort to authoritarianism and arbitrariness with "a certain relish for violence", the challenges to and major changes in Bolshevik strategy such as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the New Economic Policy. It is nevertheless the contention of Service that, for all the twists and turns and the manoeuvres involved in the defence of the dictatorship of the proletariat and its survival, there was "underlying rigidity" embodied in Lenin who remained "true to himself and to his career".
In analysing the advent of the New Economic Policy, Service is at pains to demonstrate that this was not, as was widely assumed, a "relaxation in the social atmosphere" for those not immediately involved in politics. "Lenin still breathed fire," and conducted himself as a "confident social engineer". Capitalist practices were needed for reconstruction but there was a snarl directed towards that same capitalism.
What remained devoid of explanation or possible solution was the manner in which state capitalism would be transformed into socialism. By promoting larger units of economic activity, state capitalism would be consolidated, thereby providing the means of speeding up the "transition to socialism": QED! But the basic problem of agrarian reform was left largely untouched.
Service brings this trilogy to a sombre close with the final illness and death of Lenin, an account which must be regarded as definitive when matched against much of the previous speculation and melodramatic invention. There was much irony in Lenin's concern over the danger of a party split when, as Service points out, this came from the experienced "arch-splitter" himself. Lenin correctly espied the dire implications of the embittered rivalry between Trotsky and Stalin but placed its consequences further into the future, describing it as an event "all too improbable. . . to talk about". The analysis was correct, the timing wrong.
In theory "instability" could ensue as workers and peasants collided, in practice it boiled down to plain jealousy and naked ambition.
Socialism would not come soon to the Soviet state, its security might be assured by the capitalist world beset by its own struggles and contradictions, the New Economic Policy promised industrial advance aided by electrification, all of which held out the prospect of survival until the advent of the global socialist revolution.
The drama and the pathos of these last months of Lenin's life are graphically drawn. Pity for Lenin the politician, "merciless polemicist, ruthless terrorist", finds no place here. There was no deathbed recantation, no shift in attitude or disposition for what he had visited upon Russia after 1917.
Service submits that "there will never be the like of a Lenin again". His is a study which in its matchless scholarship, the breadth of the analysis and its profound perceptiveness of the man, his times and his temper, is uniquely and superbly matched to this 20th-century phenomenon.
John Erickson is director of the centre for defence studies, University of Edinburgh.
Lenin: A Political Life, Volume Three, The Iron Ring
Author - Robert Service
ISBN - 0 333 29392 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 393pp