Edward Crankshaw, English author and historian, first visited Soviet Russia as a member of the British Military Mission to Moscow during the war; he went back again in 1947 as a writer for the London Observer and it was in the course of these two tours of duty that he made the observations and drew the conclusions which led to his two authoritative books, Russia and the Russians and Cracks in the Kremlin Wall. When asked to define the most decisive moment in Lenin's career, Mr. Crankshaw chose without hesitation those first few days when, after long exile, Lenin returned to take into his own hands the direction of the Revolution.
Lenin would have said there was no turning point in his life; he would have said that he followed a straight line, undeviatingly, from the dawn of his political consciousness to the moment of his death. And this was true. There was no turning point because in the moment of supreme crisis Lenin, under overwhelming pressures, continued his straight line and yet was not broken.
The Russian people had wanted revolution. It had to come. What they meant by revolution was the overthrow of an inept and suffocating tyranny and its substitution by some more liberal system. The Provisional Government, if it had immediately sued for peace with Germany and shown more activity about the redistribution of land, could have remained in power, leading Russia into some kind of democratic system. But because it held to the war, as an obligation; because it knew it would depend in future on the favors of the Entente; and because it was patriotic, it could not begin to alleviate the misery of the people, greatly aggravated by the war. It was this misery which Lenin deliberately set himself out to exploit.
He was not, he never pretended to be, an original thinker. From the moment of his discovery of Marx at Kazan University his way was clear. Russia had to have revolution. In this he was at one with the whole of the Russian intelligentsia. The only proper way to bring about revolution was the Marxist way. Revolution in Russia would have to be made by the urban proletariat and the rural proletariat of the poorest peasants, led by professional revolutionaries who understood what was going on. All this was common ground with all the Marxist parties. And, indeed, it is no use looking for the secret of Leninism in any particular theory.
His whole contribution was to practice. Marx for him was a blueprint, a guide to action. The fundamental point was the dictatorship of the proletariat. The enemy was liberal reformism. The proletariat had to be educated and raised up politically to the level of a handful of professional revolutionaries, who could not possibly alone produce a revolution. Anything that in any way debilitated the strength of the professional hard core was anathema. And what debilitated was not wrong theory but mistaken strategy and tactics. The word for mistake was compromise. Thus the criticism which dwells on Lenin's theoretical inconsistencies misses the point. He was inconsistent. He appealed to Marx as the fundamentalist appeals to the Bible. He had a single burning idea: to bring the Marxist revolution to the world and to Russia. His approach to this problem was the approach not of the revolutionary theorist, like Trotsky, like the Mensheviks, like most of his Bolshevik colleagues, but of the self-made, practical statesman. His political sense found the proper tactics and strategy. His knowledge of Marx then found the text to support his action. His will and personality carried him through. His quarrels with his closest colleagues of the Social Democratic Party were invariably quarrels about tactics and strategy, not about theory: how best to further the Marxist revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the shortest possible time. He found the way. But others, like Trotsky, like Martov oven, were the more correct Marxists.
Behind him, Lenin swung into line a vast and primitive country of 150 million souls. Those who held out against the swing were broken. It was a one-man performance unique in the history of the world. The crisis, when, according to all possible calculations, Lenin had to give way or be broken, began late at night on April 16, 1917. He took it at a trot, apparently quite unaware that he was doing anything out of the ordinary.
He took it at a trot quite literally. For eight days, cooped up with an assortment of exiled comrades, he had been traveling across Europe in the famous sealed train from Zurich. For anybody but Lenin those days would have been solemn with soul-searching; the professional revolutionary, trained and self-disciplined and dedicated for years to the moment of action, cast off and toiling ceaselessly in the squalor of foreign exile to keep his comrades up to the mark, was going home to put his ideas into practice. The long, fantastic train journey, arranged by the German government, which saw in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection, was an opportunity for stocktaking of the most elaborate kind. But to Lenin it was merely a slow and tedious way of getting on with the job.
He had been at the job for years. He had been under pressure for years. For years his task had been not to preach revolution but to keep the preachers of revolution up to the mark, so that when the day came they would know what to do. For years he had worked in exile because the police would not let him work in Russia. Now that it was possible to go back to Russia, there was the difficulty of crossing enemy territory. He had thought of every conceivable means and had to abandon plan after plan, until a Swedish Social Democrat had persuaded the German government to put him on a train.
He felt no gratitude. Since the first news of the revolution had reached him in his dismal lodgings in Zurich he had lived for this day, which had now, miraculously, come. Another man would have been betrayed into expressing emotion in the first relief of tension. But not Lenin. Nobody knows what he felt in his heart, but he gave nothing away. He accepted the German offer as his right: they were not doing it for love of him but out of sheer self-interest—as well they might, seeing that he was going back to Russia to end the war! And, while they were about it, there were certain conditions he required them to observe, if he was going to honor them by traveling in their train. He laid down the conditions, like a conqueror; and they were accepted.
So he embarked, with thirty-five fellow revolutionaries, as the most natural thing in the world. The train journey was simply a hiatus in his work. He was fairly certain that he would be arrested the moment he set foot in Russia; and he spent some time preparing a speech in his defense, which he discussed with his comrades.
About Lenin's personal emotions we know nothing. Indeed, the deeper we go into the existing accounts of his life the more glaring becomes the almost total absence of any information which throws light on his state of mind at any given time.