Dean Parker: Lenin deserves a happy birthday


Why not celebrate workers' success in winning power, before war and famine took over.

I see from the Herald that Robyn Malcolm is being accused on Twitter of cuddling up to genocidal tyrants. She had wished Lenin happy birthday last week. Elsewhere the Herald's chief theatre critic describes me as an apologist for Stalin. Because I wrote a play about love, poetry - and socialism.

So let's look at history before someone says Pol Pot. Although they probably have already.

In February 1917, women marching in St Petersburg set off a chain of events that saw workers tying factory owners to company wheelbarrows and dumping them in the nearest canal. Soldiers began burning down their barracks.

The Tsar fell. Power became divided between a new, constitutional government and the soviets - the local councils of trade unions.

Inside the soviets, membership of one party, the Bolsheviks, began soaring.

By October 1917 the Bolsheviks were the biggest political grouping in the soviets with about a quarter of a million members.

Union delegates attending the soviets voted with the Bolsheviks to take full control of the state with the intention of establishing a socialist order.

The government fell, having nothing to prop it up, and The Union of Soviets was established.

When an American sculptor and Bolshevik sympathiser Claire Sheridan visited Russia and sculpted an allegorical figure entitled Victory, Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, told her it was not to his taste because it was too beautiful and victory was not like that.

"In its beginnings," wrote Victor Serge, a writer and an anarchist sympathetic to the Bolsheviks who went on to join them in 1918, "the Russian revolution was at once grandiose in its inner necessity and pitiful in its outer helplessness".

The Bolsheviks had promised immediate peace from the Great War, but this was only won by ceding to Germany territory that produced 30 per cent of Russia's crops, 80 per cent of its sugar, 75 per cent of its iron and coal and over half its industrial sites.

Landowners, monarchists, army generals and those opposed to the peace treaty led a civil war against the Bolsheviks.

An invasion was mounted by the armies of 14 imperialist countries intent on seizing nationalised property and a shipping blockade was set in place to starve the red workers to submission.

Lenin always recognised that the success of the revolution in Russia depended on its spread to the more industrially developed Europe. In the interim, the best that could be achieved was a holding operation and the extreme crisis of the period demanded measures that had little to do with workers' control.

The Bolsheviks set up the revolution's secret police, the Cheka, which would become a law unto itself. Wrote Serge: "I believe that the formation of the Cheka was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918 when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads."

Socialism was not intended to industrialise a backward, peasant country and certainly not one beset by invasion and civil war, famine and industrial breakdown. Socialism was about workers' control over their own lives.

By 1923, Lenin was describing the Soviet state as "a bourgeois tsarist machine barely varnished with socialism".

By 1924, the expected revolution in Germany had failed (twice) and Lenin, in the last year of his life, was now writing: "Is not the helm escaping from our hands?"

Just as the incoming revolutionary tide was ripe for Lenin, and tragic in its failure to sweep on to industrialised Germany, so was its ebbing ripe for Stalin.

Soviet art and writing, so vibrant in the 1920s, would be throttled back. Check it out. Get a history of Russian art, look at the 19th century - academy art. Now look at the early 20th century - fantastic stuff. Now late 1920s on - back to the academy.

The revolution's sexual freedoms would be replaced by a society depicting itself as asexual. Abortion would be banned, divorce and adultery became matters for strong party disapproval, criminal sanctions against homosexuality would be reintroduced. The only love to be discussed would be that for the General Secretary, Stalin.

By the late 20s, the helm had well and truly escaped. It was now in the hands of a new ruling class, a bureaucracy that Lenin had denounced and warned against all his political life and which would stretch itself over Eastern Europe.

Workers' power was lost in the shocking circumstances of civil war, famine and invasion. But momentarily it had existed, and it's this that we celebrate. Happy birthday, Lenin.

Dean Parker is an Auckland writer whose play Midnight in Moscow is on at the Aotea Centre until May 4.

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