Lenin: Heroic Visionary Or Cruel Tyrant?

Was he the “good” predecessor of the mass-murdering Stalin, or should Lenin himself be regarded as a brutal dictator?

Vladimir Lenin

1: HEROIC VISIONARY

Lenin was the founder of the Soviet Union, a nation now notorious for its crushing of personal freedoms, and the countless killings which took place under Stalin. But how much should Lenin himself be blamed for all of this? The answer is less obvious than some vehemently anti-Communist critics might think.

Let's consider Lenin, the man. The sheer authenticity of his passion cannot be doubted by anyone. He did not cynically exploit the Russian situation of 1917 to satisfy his lust for power. The revolution, which overthrew the Tsar and later installed the Communist regime, was not just a path to leadership for leadership's sake. Whatever anyone thinks of Lenin, we cannot deny his sincerity. He genuinely believed that Russia could achieve a Communist utopia, and that he would be the first step in the salvation of the nation.

As the great philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, Lenin had "unwavering faith - religious faith in the Marxian gospel". And, unlike pretty much any dictator you can think of, Lenin had humble, almost monastic tastes. Instead of living in the lap of luxury, he remained single-minded about his mission. As noted historian Richard Pipes says, Lenin was "exceedingly modest in his personal wants", and had "an austere, almost ascetic, style of life".

This is relevant, because it gives us an idea of his mindset and integrity. Yes, he could be a strong, ruthless leader when it came to it. But everything he did was genuinely in the service of what he believed to be the greater good. The sadism, paranoia and bigotry we associated with the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were absent.

Speaking of his ruthlessness... Yes, Lenin unleashed violence against his enemies. But bear in mind, these were years of civil war and massive instability. As writer Gary Younge says, Lenin is now criticised for "dictatorial tendencies as though he were ruling an established democracy in peacetime rather than a ravaged nation emerging from autocracy, at war first with itself and then with foreign powers."

And here's another key point in Lenin's defence. In his dying days, Lenin recognised the danger of Stalin, and tried to stop his rise to power. He wrote a now-famous testament, in which he lambasted "Comrade Stalin" for having "unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution."

Lenin was, of course, more right than he could have known. Stalin, whom Lenin also described as "coarse" and "intolerable" would indeed go onto betray the ideals of the revolution, and victimise his own people. That was a terrible crime, but not one which we can lay at the feet of Lenin.

2: CRUEL TYANT

Stalin was bad. But here's the ugly truth: Lenin was the same. There could not have been a Stalin without Lenin, and not just because the latter was the founder of the USSR. No: Lenin erected the very apparatus of the police state, and simply passed the baton of brutality to Stalin.

Let's consider the words of James Ryan, author of Lenin's Terror: The Ideological Origins of Early Soviet State Violence. Lenin, says Ryan, was "the first and most significant Marxist theorist to dramatically elevate the role of violence as revolutionary instrument". Under Lenin's rule, there were 28,000 executions EVERY YEAR. Consider that number for a moment.

As Richard Pipes says, Lenin had such "utter disregard for human life, except where his own family and closest associates were concerned." It was Lenin who instigated the "Red Terror", which saw widespread arrests and executions throughout the land. The aim of the Terror was described by one of Lenin's foot soldiers as being to "kill our enemies in scores of hundreds... For the blood of Lenin... let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie - more blood, as much as possible."

Lenin ordered the creation of the Cheka, the secret police organisation which was a model for Hitler's Gestapo. The Cheka were responsible for unspeakable cruelties - their methods included crowning victims with barbed wire, stoning them to death, dunking people in boiling water, and scalping them. Orlando Figes, author of A People's Tragedy, sums their violence up as "matched only by the Spanish Inquisition."

Lenin himself explicitly and proudly declared that "terror" was their aim. Anyone questioning the revolution was fair game. He called for striking workers to be "executed in large numbers", and sent a notorious telegram ordering the public hanging of peasants, to set an example to others.

Let there be no ambiguity: Lenin may not have had the tacky tastes of a typical dictator, but he most assuredly had the cruelty and bloodlust. The only reason he is not more widely despised is that he died at a relatively young age. If he hadn't, we wouldn't now be slamming Stalin. Because Lenin would have become Stalin.