When Lenin Returned

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.

It is tempting to conclude that he had no emotional life; but it would not be true. Nadezhda Konstantinova Krupskaya, his wife, the companion of his lifetime, his fellow revolutionary, tells us what little we know; and it is enough to show that he was no automaton. From time to time in her memoirs we learn that Ilych was withdrawn, moody, cast down, or in high spirits. From time to time the two of them, usually for Krupskaya's health, would go off into the mountains to be alone with nature, which Ilych loved. He liked hunting in Siberia, and once let a fox, which he should have shot, go off unhurt "because it was so beautiful." He would listen to music, and above all he loved the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven.

He read other things besides revolutionary philosophy and blue books. Particularly in the last days of Swiss exile, with the world at war all around him, he gave more time to the novels he loved; Krupskaya says he had "mellowed" at this time. Nobody knew anything about this. Krupskaya tells how when she was first introduced to Lenin she was told he had never read a novel or a poem in his life. It was much later that she discovered, with surprise (the surprise is characteristic), that in fact he was as well read in the classics as she herself. He read them all again in Siberia. But the world did not know.

The world knew practically nothing. As a child he had respected and admired his brother Alexander, who was hanged for his part in the attempted assassination of the Tsar. That respect and admiration was reciprocated, but, said Alexander, "we do not understand each other." His schoolmasters did not understand him either. The headmaster of his school, none other than the father of Kerensky, whom Lenin was one day to overthrow, did his best for the boy, but complained of his excessive reserve and unsociability. He had "a distant manner even with people he knows and even with the most superior of his schoolmates."

Later on he was to develop an extreme sociability. But it was the sociability of the great headmaster, in Edmund Wilson's phrase. There is no record of any conversation at all with Lenin that was not about the coming revolution, how to make it come, and how best to equip the party to be fit and well and mentally trim for the fight. So he went on being reserved. Perhaps his friendship with Maxim Gorki was his only safety valve. Only with Gorki did Lenin ever allow political differences to be overridden by personal warmth. There is also one note to Kamenev, written when Lenin had to go into hiding after the "July Days," when the Provisional Government put its ban on him. "Entre nous," he wrote, "if they bump me off I ask you to publish my little notebook Marxism on the State (stranded in Stockholm). Bound in a blue cover . . . . There is a whole series of notes and comments. Formulate it. I think you could publish it with a week's work. I think it is important, for it is not only Plekhanov and Kautsky who have got off the track. My conditions: all this to be absolutely entre nous."

In that little note, forced out of him by an extreme emergency—for the agitation against Lenin as an alleged German agent was then formidable and dangerous—we see perfectly expressed the familiar character, while for once we are permitted a glimpse of the human feelings beneath the normally unflawed reserve.

"All the writing of Lenin is functional; it is all aimed at accomplishing an immediate purpose," said Wilson. This was true of his whole way of living. For the sake of an immediate purpose he ruthlessly cut across old friendships without the least apparent hesitation or regret; and in his public attacks on men who had been his devoted comrades the day before, he employed for the first time that crudely savage invective, the "robber-cannibal" style which has since become the dreary idiom of the Communist Party everywhere. But Krupskaya tells enough to show that he often felt regret. His recurrent joy when Martov, the Monshevik leader whom he loved, returned to the straight and narrow path of Leninism (only to stray again) is proof of this. There is more in Lenin's welcome than the delight of "I told you so!" He knew feelings of tenderness; what he lacked was a sense of doubt. He loved people, thus, with a perfect detachment, as one loves a dog or a pet rabbit. There was no sharing in his love.

Never, at any time, did it occur to him that he might be wrong and others right. Various contemporaries commented on the extreme sensitiveness with which he entered into others' feelings. But it is to be doubted whether he was capable of this. He was considerate to a degree when consideration was politically permissible. There was a deep fund of kindness, which he would switch off when it was politically desirable to do so; but it was kindness from outside. It was the kindness of the man who does not like hurting animals but will kill them, as painlessly as possible, if they happen to get in his way. This has nothing to do with the kindness of understanding.

He was also a romantic of sorts, and naïve. His attraction to the Appassionata Sonata is a clue to this; so is the way in which he glorified his own Machiavellianism and the squalor of the poor émigré's existence. He romanticized his own ascetism. Krupskaya tells how "Ilych was delighted" because one of their Zurich landladies, in a house frequented by thieves and prostitutes, gave them their coffee in cups with broken handles. But it is clear that, whatever Krupskaya may have thought, Ilych did not like cups with broken handles. These for him symbolized, the renunciation of a sensitive and fastidious soul. When Kollontai extolled the merits of free love she said that sexual satisfaction was of no more account than drinking a cup of cold water. When this was reported to Lenin he flashed out: "That may be. But who wants to drink out of a cup that has been used by many others?"


By the time of his recall to Russia, Lenin was disciplined absolutely to impersonality, so that it had become his real nature. Because of this I say that he hardly knew what he was doing, or that he was facing the supreme crisis of his life. The journey in the sealed train was a hiatus. His response to the challenge of the revolution had been immediate and direct, like a reflex action. While others rushed round with loud shouts of joy, Lenin sat down then and there and composed a telegram of admonition to the Petrograd Bolsheviks. While others were seeking solidarity with all revolutionary elements, Lenin yelled across Europe the slogan of absolute exclusiveness. "Never again along the lines of the Second International! Never again with Kautsky!" he wrote to Kollontai in Stockholm. And in his telegram: "Our tactic; absolute lack of confidence; no support to the new government; suspect Kerensky especially; arming of the proletariat the sole guarantee; immediate elections to the Petrograd Duma; no rapprochement with other parties." And then again, when he heard that the Provisional Government, supported by some Social Democrats, was for continuing the war, "the imperialist war," and calling it a "war of defense": "Our party would disgrace itself for ever, kill itself politically, if it took part in such deceit. . . . I would choose an immediate split with no matter whom in our party, rather than surrender to social patriotism."

In Petrograd these words seemed to Lenin's foes the shrill cries of a madman; to his friends the ravings of a man who had been out of touch for too long. What did Lenin know of the revolution? How could he possibly understand the power and glory of the tremendous upsurge, which he was now asking the Bolsheviks to cold-shoulder? When he arrived he would begin to understand and see things differently. The first task was to defend the revolution against all attacks from outside. Then they could think again.

But Lenin was arriving to go on saying what he had been saying for years, what he had already said in those first letters and telegrams. Already, in these and in articles for Pravda, he had laid down what Trotsky was to call "a finished analysis of the Revolutionary situation." But to those on the spot this analysis seemed irrelevant and absurd. Of the Petrograd Bolsheviks, curiously, only the young Molotov, then in his twenties and quite obscure, had grasped what Lenin was really after. When the revolution hit Russia he was editing Pravda and keeping it on Leninist lines. Then Kamenev and Stalin came back from exile in Siberia and took over from Molotov. When, in Stockholm, Lenin got hold of some copies of Pravda and read the editorials, he was horrified; it was indeed high time to go back. And when at the Russian frontier Kamenev and Stalin were there to meet him, ready for an affecting welcome, Lenin's first words were: "What's this you've been writing in Pravda? We've just seen some numbers, and we gave you what for!" Krupskaya was so moved by his returning home that she could not speak to the crowd that gathered round. But Lenin found no difficulty in speaking—or in cutting short his speech when the train pulled out. "Are they going to arrest us when they get to Petrograd?" he asked. The welcoming delegation smiled. That question showed, if nothing else did, how much Comrade Vladimir Ilych was out of touch. Within three months Lenin was in hiding for his life. That showed how much the comrades had been out of touch.

Then came the great arrival. At the Finland Station the revolutionaries had taken over the Tsars' waiting room. There they waited with a bouquet and speeches for Lenin. We have this scene from Sukhanov, a non-party Menshevik sympathizer, whom Lenin would not have allowed within speaking distance of his Bolsheviks, but whom his Bolsheviks had taken up as a friend. It was to have been an affecting scene of welcome and reconciliation—and it was to put Lenin in his place, as the respected émigré leader out of touch with the realities of Russian life, who would have to learn to walk all over again before he could run. The head of the welcoming committee was Chkheidze, one of the leading Mensheviks, and it was to Chkheidze that Lenin came at a trot.

"Lenin walked, or rather ran, into the 'Czar's Room' in a bowler hat, his face chilled, and a sumptuous bouquet in his arms. Hurrying in to the middle of the room, he stopped short in front of Chkheidze as though he had run into a completely unexpected obstacle. And then Chkheidze, not abandoning his melancholy attitude, pronounced the following 'speech of welcome,' carefully preserving not only the spirit and the letter, but also the tone of a moral preceptor: 'Comrade Lenin, in the name of the Petrograd Soviet and the whole revolution, we welcome you to Russia . . . but we consider that the chief task of the revolutionary democracy at present is to defend our revolution against every kind of attack both from within and without. . . . We hope that you will join us in striving towards this goal.' Chkheidze ceased. I was dismayed by the unexpectedness of it. But Lenin, it seemed, knew how to deal with all that. He stood there looking as though what was happening did not concern him in the least, glanced from one side to the other, looked over the surrounding public, and even examined the ceiling of the 'Czar's Room' while rearranging the bouquet (which harmonized rather badly with his whole figure), and, finally, having turned completely away from the delegates of the Executive Committee, he 'answered' thus: 'Dear Comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers, I am happy to greet you in the name of the victorious Russian Revolution, to greet you as the advance guard of the international proletarian army. . . . The hour is not far off when, at the summons of our Comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people [of Germany] will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters. . . . The Russian Revolution achieved by you has opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!'


That was the beginning. "Thus," to quote Trotsky, "the February revolution, garrulous and flabby and still rather stupid, greeted the man who had arrived with a resolute determination to set it straight both in thought and in will. Those first impressions, multiplying tenfold the alarm which he had brought with him, produced a feeling of protest in Lenin which it was difficult to restrain. How much more satisfactory to roll up his sleeves! Appealing from Chkheidze to the sailors and workers, from the defence of the Fatherland to the international revolution, from the Provisional Government to Liebknecht, Lenin merely gave a short rehearsal there at the station of his whole future policy."

What was that policy?

The policy came next day, after further rehearsals. That same night he made a little speech to the revolutionary guard of honor on the platform, spotlighted by searchlights, the sailors standing at attention: "Comrade sailors, I greet you without knowing yet whether or not you have been believing in all the promises of the Provisional Government. But I am convinced that when they talk to you sweetly, when they promise you a lot, they are deceiving you and the whole Russian people. The people need peace; the people need bread; the people need land. And they give you war, hunger, no bread—leave the landlords still on the land. . . . We must fight for the social revolution, fight to the end, till the complete victory of the proletariat. Long live the world-wide social revolution!"

They put him in an armored car and drove him in triumph through cheering crowds to the Kshesinskaya Palace, the gorgeous mansion of the prima ballerina who had been the Tsar's mistress. Krupskaya was overcome by the tumultuous scene. "Those who have not lived through the revolution cannot imagine its grand and solemn beauty." Everybody was overcome, caught up in the tremendous release of primitive power, eager to see brotherhood and concord as the future state of all those who had helped pull down the Tsar. Only Lenin was not overcome. With his speech to the sailors under the searchlights on the Finland Station he had called for a new revolution: a revolution against the Provisional Government. And he went on calling. He spoke from Kshesinskaya Palace. To the mob he gave no rest. They were pleased with themselves for what they had done. Lenin told them it was not enough. To his fellow revolutionary leaders he brought a shock of reality and a sense of dismay.

And next day he made a formal speech to a meeting inside the Palace which lasted two hours.

"On the journey here with my comrades I was expecting they would take us directly from the station to Peter and Paul. We are far from that, it seems. But let us not give up the hope that it will happen, that we shall not escape it." From savage irony, directed at those who thought they could come to a compromise with the liberals and the capitalists in the Provisional Government, he went on to the downright expression of views which seemed to his audience to have no connection at all with what was really happening. They were as pleased with their revolution as a dog with two tails. They thought they had done wonderfully well. And here was Lenin, who had watched all from the safety of Switzerland, throwing it in their teeth—not a word of congratulation or praise, just scathing contempt, like a lash. And in its place? Here again, Sukhanov:—

"He swept aside agrarian reforms, along with all the other policies of the Soviet. He demanded that the peasants should themselves organize and seize the land without any governmental interference. We don't need any parliamentary republic. We don't need any bourgeois democracy. We don't need any government except the Soviet of workers', soldiers', and peasants' deputies.'"

The audience felt they had been hit over the head. Next day came the celebrated April Theses. In Trotsky's summary: "The republic which has issued from the February revolution is not our republic, and the war which it is waging is not our war. The task of the Bolsheviks is to overthrow the imperialist government. But this government rests upon the support of the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, who in turn are supported by the trustfulness of the masses of the people. We are in the minority. In these circumstances there can be no talk of violence on our side. We must teach the masses not to trust the compromisers and defensists. 'We must patiently explain!' The success of this policy, dictated by the whole existing situation, is assured, and it will bring us to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and so beyond the boundaries of the bourgeois regime. We will break absolutely with capital, publish its secret treaties, and summon the workers of the whole world to cast loose from the bourgeoisie and put an end to the war. We are beginning the international revolution. Only its success will confirm, our success, and guarantee a transition to the socialist regime."

Lenin was alone. The April Theses were offered in his name. They infuriated the Mensheviks and drove many Bolsheviks into the Menshevik camp. He did not mind. "Do not be afraid to remain in a minority." And he proposed a formal break with the Mensheviks. He would no longer share with them the name of Social Democrat. "Personally, and speaking for myself alone, I propose that we change the name of our party, that we call it the Communist Party." Not one of the members of the conference agreed to that final break with the Second International, which had betrayed itself when its members voted war credits to their own government in 1914. "You are afraid to go back on your old memories?" he jeered. "Don't hang on to an old word which is rotten through and through. Have the will to build a new party . . . and all the oppressed will come to you."

"Have the will to build a new party," this extraordinary man demanded in the moment of the party's triumph. Six months later the deed was done, but not before Lenin himself had been driven into hiding to escape from Peter and Paul.

How was it done? What was it all about?

The October revolution was produced by the impact of two distinct forces. One was immense, undisciplined, unsettled as to purpose, and a mass of contradictions; the other compact, maneuverable, and single-minded. One was the people of Russia in revolt, who in March had overthrown the Tsar; the other was the extreme left wing of a single revolutionary party among many, the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. At the moment of crisis this party was reduced for all practical purposes to a single individual, Vladimir Ilych Lenin, born Ulyanov, who had made Bolshevism, sustained it, preserved its inviolability against bitter odds, identified it absolutely with himself, and yet, on the eve of its triumph, was on the verge of resigning from it. The Bolshevik Party in crisis was nothing but Lenin's will and the men who were prepared to submit to it absolutely. If Lenin had resigned after his return to Russia in 1917 it would have lost its identity, swallowed up by the Mensheviks and the "Compromisers." Lenin would have formed another party, but too late to win for himself the government of Russia; there would have been no Soviet Union. On the other hand, had Lenin given in to the popular demand and allowed his most trusted colleagues to persuade him into compromise, he would have lost his own identity and Bolshevism would have lost its meaning; there would have been no Soviet Union. Lenin made his unbelievable stand when he trotted into the Finland Station in his bowler hat and found himself face to face with Chkheidze.

It was Lenin's personality and tactical skill alone which enabled him, in the name of Marx, to make skilled Marxists follow him against the teachings of Marx. He did this, in the end, by the means he outlined in the April Theses. In the suffering and confusion of revolutionary Russia he held aloof from those who were trying to make the revolution work. He harassed them and embarrassed them with absolute ruthlessness. He appealed to the people, the workers, the soldiers, the peasants, for whom generations of revolutionary intelligentsia had sacrificed themselves, over the heads of the men who had at last helped the people, the workers, the soldiers, and the peasants, to carry out the revolution. He appealed to their most selfish instincts: the desire for bread, for land, for peace. And, in the end, he got them on his side sufficiently to overthrow the government of Petrograd. For this he substituted the dictatorship of the proletariat, which meant, in effect, the dictatorship of Lenin's will.

He was a man selfless and without ambition. He was absolutely lacking in imagination. He loved the people as animals, not as people. He pitied them, but he did not respect them. He was, in the last degree, a sentimentalist. He wanted to save the people from the dreadful tyranny of the Tsars—but in his way and no other. His way held the seeds of another tyranny. He did not see this. If he had been able to see this, he would not have had the superhuman single-mindedness which carried him through all the isolation of the years in the wilderness, denouncing like a minor prophet all those, however beloved, who saw differently from him, on to the Finland Station, at a trot, to declare war, and sustain it to victory, against a revolution which promised to give the people of Russia all that they had ever asked. His sustaining faith, his scientific base, as he would have called it, was that the world revolution, which alone could sustain the Russian revolution, was at hand. He was wrong.