22.2.09

Lenin and Biography

I spent some of reading week reading (actually reading!) a recent biography of Lenin by Robert Service. To counterbalance Soviet hagiography, Service takes a rather negative line on his subject. Take this summary of Lenin's early life:

'As a child he had striven to get his own way. He needed help, and used his family and his young wife as a crucial means of keeping support. He was not the fittest of men; and although he showed no outward signs of self-doubt, he suffered badly from nerves and other ailments. He was choleric and volatile. He was punctilious, self-disciplined and purposive. He was awesomely unsentimental; his ability to overlook the immediate sufferings of humanity was already highly developed. But at his core he had his own deep emotional attachments. They were attachments not to people he lived with but to people who had moulded his political opinions: Marx, Alexander Ulyanov [his elder brother, hanged for plotting regicide], Chernyshevshi and the Russian socialist terrorists. He had peculiar ideas of his own. But he aggressively presented them as the purest orthodoxy. He had yet to mature as a political leader. But a leader he already was.'

So not a nice guy overall. I don't really have a problem with this stance. Back when we did the Russian Revolution at school, I had ended up with the impression that Lenin was a nasty piece of work. I remember the repression of the Kronstadt strike in 1921 as being the event that ended my doubts on the subject. Lenin had betrayed his most loyal supporters, and the revolution they had fought for. His socialism was not based on a humanitarian concern for the poor. He wanted control -- to be at the head of the eventual transformation of human society. He wanted to end history, and would do so by any means necessary.

Nevertheless, I have some beef with Service's biography. While the above passage just about manages to retain the tone of objective analysis, at points this objectivity slips. Value judgements creep in. One example: when Lenin complains that his former lover, Inessa Armand, is 'scattering and destroying' him, Service jibes that 'it served him right'. Reading the biography as a whole, it's clear that the biographer has no sympathy for his subject. He ends the book on this note: 'At the very least, his extraordinary life and career prove the need for everyone to be vigilant. Not many historical personages have achieved this effect. Let thanks be given'. For Service, warning against people like him is the only impact Lenin has had which we should be thankful for.

This kind of tear-down job leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Or at least my mouth. One of the reasons why I love George Eliot's Middlemarch is the extraordinary sympathy the author has for her characters -- she maintains it even when she records their failings and bad choices. I feel that biography should attempt to do the same, even for monsters like Lenin. Service's overt dislike for his subject puts him at a distance from the reader. Lenin is standing trial, with only the prosecution being heard. On the other hand, the 'George Elliot approach' makes it easier to understand the person under study, and relate their weaknesses with our own.

We should remember that empathy does not have to include agreement with or support for other people. It's just the ability to see the world through their eyes. And this is what biography is all about.

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