Reviewed by Roger Marheine
Lenin: The Novel. By Alan Brien. (William Morrow & Co., 1986., 735 pp.)
Lenin’s historical contributions to revolutionary theory and practice are unsurpassed, and he embodies a most esteemed legacy for the 20th and 21st centuries—as MLT can attest. Alan Brien articulates in fictional format, Lenin’s “diary,” which creates a profound sense of the historical Lenin. (1) Aesthetically complex, it is a “Russian” novel by an English journalist, which is actually a biography disguised as an autobiographical diary. Quite simply the book is a gem—Marxist political fiction of the highest order.
For historians, social scientists, and even biography aficionados, what can be gained from fiction, the creative lie, the figment of one author’s imagination? And in this case, a fictional speculation on the life of someone as famous as Lenin might seem presumptuous. Alan Brien sets about finding the interiority of Lenin’s thought processes, which projects his innermost reflections. Brien’s is a richly achieved imaginative accomplishment that should be read by all serious thinkers.
First, Brien’s Lenin should appeal to Russian scholars and Soviet specialists even if they already “know” the revolutionary. (2) Reading Lenin’s own words, his collected output numbering over fifty volumes, will bring certain insights, no doubt. Still, for the sheer pleasure of measuring what experts already know, or believe to be true, Brien’s text is well worth their time.
Second, for those of us who are decidedly not Soviet experts, Brien’s Lenin creates a profound image of the heroic character who embodies revolution itself—his theory, his will, and his profound skill set in actually leading a revolution can all be grasped more deeply. To be sure, we must beware a cultish homage to the historical figure, as hero worship leads to sentimental infatuation and is of little use in our own struggle. Brien’s work stands up to the test—indeed its inspirational message can help us engage the world as it is today.
Third, Brien’s text should also be read by non-Marxists. Brien creates a vivid particularity and concreteness that will help skeptical readers to arrive at a fuller appreciation of Lenin’s achievements and a more accurate sense of revolutionary Russia. Fiction plumbs the subjective dimension of experience that can generate a profound empathy. (3)
The work’s fluidity, its acute sense of character, its vivid depiction of time and place, and its use of metaphor will provide great pleasure for any reader. The only caveat is that the novel does make significant demands. A glossary of the historical figures, a list of the “left” political parties competing with Bolshevism, and perhaps even a timeline would help readers new to Lenin and the Russian revolutionary period—a period of enormous complexity.
Brien’s text divides into six chronological sections, all but one titled by a place. Readers may be tempted to skip to the fifth section, “The October Revolution: April-October 1917,” when Lenin returned from exile to lead the Russian revolution. However, the earlier material, Lenin’s life before 1917, comprises half the book and is masterfully imaginative.
Precocious Teenager in Need of a Theory
The book begins with the death of Lenin’s father. Here, Brien immediately establishes two aspects of Lenin’s consciousness.
First, in a work of art, a father’s death often symbolizes the movement away from tradition to a more progressive society. (4) Lenin will reject his father’s safe, bureaucratic life as a school superintendent and scornfully dismiss the Orthodox church. He voices a scathing social commentary of the provincial dignitaries: “All the town’s Apes and Peacocks were there.” He asks, “Who were all these ludicrous forked creatures, done up in clothes and ornaments as in a nursery rhyme….What sort of person was Father that his funeral would attract such hybrid creatures?” (Brien 16) His father’s ideology that conformed to Russia’s social stagnation must be rejected.
Second, in a lyrical passage, Brien accentuates a poetically detailed description of the funeral’s sense stimuli. Lenin ponders: “I seemed to be hemmed in by walls of sense impressions.” For a full page, the young Lenin is overcome by “smells of oils, hair oil, sweat glands,” by “smells of smoke, clouds and vapors,” and by “smells of powders, spores, and grains.” He is hounded by sounds. Thus, he hears the “boys’ soprano so clean and pure it slices through your temples like an ice-pudding headache, men’s bass so subterranean and slow it vibrates toward you under the floor and shakes your crotch like a hand on your balls; tongues of mourners clacking away like sewing machines, not meanings, only background noise” (Brien 16).
Brien’s mesh of imagery and density of impressions can overwhelm us. Really, was Lenin thinking all of that? Perhaps not–this is fiction after all. What Brien attempts here is to demonstrate Lenin’s keen awareness of the material world in all its detail. However, such awareness overwhelms Lenin as he lacks a theory to clarify these sensory data. Without a theory, he will collapse under the sheer magnitude of detail. Shortly, he suffers some form of attack (perhaps epilepsy, called petit mal by a relative), and is escorted to his room by his sister, Anna.
Later in the first section, Brien’s Lenin already shows an acute sense of primary and secondary endeavors—a critical aspect of dialectical thinking for any organizer who must focus on primary tasks and not be distracted by the secondary. When the young student performs well academically in religion but not in logic, his sister asks incredulously why the unbeliever’s focus on religion. Lenin upbraids her: “When the majority believe in something that is clearly not true, it behooves the unblinkered to examine this false doctrine and find out what it is and why [humans] are fooling themselves” (Brien 57). However, logic as taught in schools is the “mere juggling of words and phrases. A pedants’ game, neither useful nor pleasurable” (57). Academic logic is of no consequence, and those pedants who practice it are irrelevant. However, religion, which Lenin has linked to support of the tsar by the masses, is another matter entirely.
Lenin’s Brother Sasha and the Political Critique of Assassination and Terrorism
Lenin: “Action should not precede theory. Do not use the means unless you have determined the end” (Brien 72)
Brien provides a section on Lenin’s assessment of his older brother Sasha, whose failed plot to kill the tsar led to his execution. Sasha’s intentions are admirable, but the precocious Lenin asks if the failure suggests a flaw in his brother’s tactics, or ideology, or both. Sasha has studied biology at university which reflects in his scientific diligence, a propensity for careful assessments. Brien’s Lenin speaks admirably of his brother: “He was the least spontaneous person I have ever met. His aim is always to opt for certainty….[Failure] was only nature’s way of telling him he had not done his homework. If you know enough, then choice ceases to exist” (Brien 67).
Lenin discovers Sasha’s mentor had been Sergi Nechaev, whose Revolutionary Catechism inspired a few but not the masses. Its uncompromising rhetoric, noteworthy perhaps for its intensity, failed to rally the lower classes to the revolutionary cause. Its ultimate theoretical weakness was rooted in an anarchistic individualism (for a time, Nechaev joined forces with Bakunin) that could lead only to an incompetent amateurism. In fact, Lenin learns that his brother’s group was exposed when one of its members sent a letter to a friend–an incredibly indiscreet act. It was opened by the tsar’s censors, and the plotters were caught.
Brien includes Sasha’s statement at his trial, a moving passage, that is emotionally sincere, but painfully self-contradictory: “We have learned that it is only through terror…that we can defend, let alone extend our inalienable rights. This is the weapon of the weak, of the physically feeble but the spiritually strong. It is our form of single combat against the big battalions of tyranny” (Brien 81). The words portray a romantic even noble defeatism. The young Lenin concludes, however, “That is not the way.”
The embryonic concept of a vanguard party is taking shape. Trained revolutionary cadre who will make up the vanguard party cannot make such errors. Neither terrorism nor assassination will push history toward the qualitative moment. However, neither will pacifist protests for progress bring the great change that is so vitally needed.
In a compelling passage Brien’s Lenin describes “Bloody Sunday” and the failure of the 1905 revolution: “Then, the spontaneous over-flowing rivers of our people, unknown to each other, moving to no timetable, possessing no objective had wandered across the city like spilled milk across the kitchen table. When the government [attacked] most did not even know they were being sprayed with machine gun, raked by massed rifles, sliced by sabers of Cossacks…sniped at by plain clothes agents and Black Hundred groups with revolvers, until much too late” (Brien 430).
Lenin’s vanguard party could never rely on spontaneity, pacifism, naïve protests, or liberal appeals for government reform (often proposed by the well intentioned) which only lead the masses to slaughter. 1905’s tragic end, rooted in failed strategy and lack of revolutionary science, was painful validation of the ideas already put forward in Lenin’s What is To Be Done (1903).
The Mature Lenin and the Critique of Intellectuals: Why study the world if you lack the imagination, courage or will to change it?
As an intellectual prodigy, Brien’s young Lenin confesses, “The pursuit of knowledge is…a sensual pleasure, one that never stales, and for which you never need grow too old. Once you have captured a piece of truth, alive and wriggling, there is no excitement (or very few), like laying it out, cooked and filleted…before your friends” (Brien 144). The youthful exuberance of a self-confident (perhaps even arrogant) thinker is captured by Brien. However, Lenin will not remain a mere intellectual for whom ideas are prey to show off like trophies on the wall of a Russian aristocrat.
With comic irony, Brien depicts scenes in which the upstart Lenin makes his pilgrimage to Georgy Plekhanov, the “father of Russian Marxism.” Lenin is taken aback in noting Plekhanov has two large homes, a winter and summer estate, and that each is stocked with complete libraries. The excesses shock Lenin, as a pompous Plekhanov plays the grand seignior accepting the young mentee into his inner circle.
In the 1905 period, Brien’s mature Lenin, in vivid Marxist terms, lays bare the contradictions of the bourgeois intellectual: “He is compelled to sell the product of his labor, often his labor power by the hour. And so he himself is often enough exploited, and even personally humiliated, by the capitalist or his agents” (Brien 234). While not a capitalist, he is not proletarian either. Indeed, “The successful intellectual feels no gratitude, no loyalty, to any group, sect, or class” And further, “Nietzsche’s philosophy, with its cult of the superman, for whom the fulfillment of his own personality is everything and subordination to some great social aim is vulgar and despicable, is the real philosophy of all intellectuals….Today, in our Party, Martov and now Trotsky, and now Plekhanov, behave like intellectuals of the most corrupted kind” (Brien 235). Martov and Plekhanov would ultimately oppose the October Bolshevik revolution.
We might ask did the historical Lenin conflate Trotsky with the privileged socialist Plekhanov and the reactionary Nietzsche. At least in the earlier period, Brien says yes. (5) Recall that Trotsky, a Menshevik until after the February 2017 overthrow of the tsar, joined the Bolsheviks in late summer of 2017.
Finally, in a profoundly moving passage Brien articulates a sense of intellectual despair that many have experienced. Brien’s Lenin is enormously troubled over the 1911 suicides of French Marxist Paul LaFargue and his wife Laura, who was Marx’s daughter. He defends them against the easy dismissal that theirs is a cowardly act, a betrayal of revolutionary activism. However, Lenin asserts, “I am convinced that it is possible to dispel such infections of the emotions by an act of the will” (296). Still, in a brutally honest moment, he worries that he too could lose his way: “How can it be that the thing itself is so alive I can smell it—yet the words grow blurred and overfamiliar, ‘revolution,’ ‘revolutionary,’ ‘proletariat,’ ‘toiling masses’ etc.? (296)
Indeed, who among us, who have perhaps toiled for decades seeking the qualitative transformation, has not suffered these painful uncertainties?
Lenin as Feminist: Listen to the Women
Brien portrays several revolutionary women in considerable detail. The emphasis on gender (known archaically as the “woman’s question”) traces Lenin’s trajectory from benignly patriarchal in which women are tolerated as companions and helpmates to a full acceptance of their intelligence and revolutionary participation.
Nadya Krupskaya, whom Lenin married, educates Lenin repeatedly. Brien develops Nadya’s character, who is plagued with poor physical health (Graves disease); however, she’s a full comrade, intellectual confidante, and prodigious translator of several languages.
Her scathing written critique of Plekhanov as hopelessly out of touch moves Lenin to state: “I am ashamed to say I had never realized that Nadya could observe, think, and write like that. Have I underestimated her over these years? (Brien 343). He will concede, that he had “almost killed” her intellect, and confesses, “I had always prided myself on complete absence of any philistine prejudices….Yet I had exploited Nadya as callously as any vulgar husband….Without thinking I had allowed her to specialize in boring conspiratorial routines, coding and decoding letters, keeping an up to date card index…balancing the books, copying articles….I had never stopped to wonder whether she had other talents, other ambitions” (Brien 442).
Lenin is described by Trotsky, perhaps with some hyperbole, as “the physical sensation of truth.” However, in a critical moment, Nadya brings her husband down a notch. She comments on Lenin’s speech upon his 1917 arrival as hero from exile at the Finland Station, one of the revolution’s iconic moments. He has instructed her to take notes on his speech. Later, he sees her notes have left out some points. Her response stuns him: “Sorry I was too busy watching their faces….You blinded them. They had made their [February] revolution without you. And you return from stuffy, middle-class Switzerland, the voice from afar to explain to them what they had done and what they had still to do. They found you strange, harsh, upsetting….You saw all that too” (Brien 395). Aghast, Lenin admits, “But I hadn’t, and didn’t until later.” Brien asserts Nadya’s critical importance to the revolution. By deflating his ego and puncturing his potential cult-like status, she reins in Lenin’s excesses and secures his course.
Brien’s Lenin has little patience with those who err on the side of intellectual caution. In fact, Alexandra (Sandra) Kollontai criticizes Kerensky, leader of the February revolution, as afraid of precisely what the Bolsheviks desire. Her implication suggests that liberals are anti-communist, at least partly out of fear. Lenin agrees.
Rosa Luxembourg’s staunch opposition to World War I endeared her to Lenin. Her intellectual courage and robust arguments were much admired and sharply contrasted with those European socialists (and anarchists) who jumped on the war wagon, leading to the collapse of the Second International.
Finally, Brien addresses Inessa Armand, the French-born Marxist who captured Lenin’s heart. Official Soviet biographies censored Lenin’s ongoing romantic affair and excluded any reference to their sexual encounters. (6) A robust intellectual, fluent in several languages, and strikingly beautiful, Armand is attracted to the married Lenin, and he is very much taken with her. Brien treats their romance with a novelist’s measured sensitivity. In a touching moment, Nadya asks if she should leave, allowing the romance to continue, but Lenin will break off the affair to prevent destabilizing his marriage and disrupting his political life.
Given recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on abortion, it is notable that the Soviet Union legalized both homosexuality (1917) and women’s right to abortion (1920) decades before the U.S. Brien suggests that the Bolsheviks’ enlightened gender policies were due to Lenin’s high regard for women’s contributions to the new Soviet society.
Turn the Guns Around: Transforming World War Into Revolution
Lenin: “Our war policy—stop the war! Fraternize! Refuse….Desert! Two million Russian soldiers already deserters, wandering between front and home. Two million recruits to our cause….Not one more dead worker or peasant, to protect foreign investors, native profiteers, and greedy landlords” (Brien 399).
One of Lenin’s most extraordinary insights was understanding that a Russian military defeat in WWI would open the door to a Bolshevik revolutionary victory. Brien traces Lenin’s grasp of dialectics—transforming a thing (national military defeat) into its opposite (revolution), perceiving the primary contradiction in the minds of the masses—hatred for the war–and ultimately to transition rank-and-file soldiers trained to fight Germans into a revolutionary army.
Few political analyses or organizational audacity can compare with Lenin’s insights. Brien’s Lenin asserts, “History is made in the trenches where the soldier, possessed by the nightmare of war-madness, plunges his bayonet into his officer’s stomach. History is made behind the lines where…the soldier escapes to his native village there to set fire his landlord’s house” (Brien 443). Indeed, war can bring class hatred into a sharper focus!
Today, Lenin’s assertions are an inspirational call to U.S. military personnel who staff over 700 bases globally, representing the interests of petroleum profiteers, arms merchants, and bankers all in “defense” of the empire.” In Vietnam, U.S. soldiers and sailors did indeed revolt, and today a good number (though not enough!) of U.S. military veterans oppose imperialist wars. Brien clarifies Lenin’s critical grasp of mutiny in the ranks of the imperialist war machine as a decisive step toward revolution.
On Trotsky and Stalin
Perhaps, Brien can be criticized for understating the Stalin and Trotsky debate, that would follow Lenin’s death. Brien’s Lenin praises Stalin’s substance from the start, yet follows Trotsky’s development from his more conservative Menshevik position to his final transformation to Bolshevism. By 1919, both are elected to the Central Committee by the Communist Party Congress, along with Lenin, Bukharin, and Kamenev.
However, by 1922, Nadya openly criticizes Stalin, and Lenin foreshadows the history that is to come: “There is something very crudely male just in the way he sits and smokes his pipe, the hard peasant father, the tough proletarian head of the household” (Brien 715). And then even more damning, “I appreciate his enormous talents, his energy, his ingenuity, his sheer capacity for work, but I know this is combined with…a callous determination to succeed on his own terms, that weakens his value as a comradely member of a team” (Brien 715). And finally, at the end of the book, Brien includes the famous note that calls for the removal of Stalin, but also a charge against Trotsky: “Comrade Trotsky is distinguished not only by his exceptional ability…but also by his too far-reaching self-confidence and a disposition too much distracted by the purely administrative side of affairs” (Brien 729).
Ultimately, as he nears death, Brien’s Lenin contemplates the competition for Soviet leadership that will emerge upon his demise. He makes an erroneous historical prediction: “Surely, whatever his strengths, Stalin cannot hope to outmaneuver operators like Zinoviev, Bukharin, Radek, especially Lev Davidovich (Trotsky)” (Brien 715). History would prove otherwise.
Brien’s novel exhibits extraordinary subtlety, rooted in remarkable erudition. His impressive command of historical particularity situates his text within traditions of “journalistic fiction” or “documentary fiction,” in which the reader “lives” the richness of the historical experience.
This is Lenin with few faults and tremendous revolutionary vision. Brien’s admiration for Lenin’s penetrating observations, his grasp of enormous detail analyzed within comprehensive theory, his intellectual audacity, and his scrupulous regard for assessing correctly the revolutionary moment, all play out in this impressive text.
Lenin: The Novel should be viewed as a classic fictional text in the Marxist canon–a book for the ages.
- Born in Sunderland, England to working class parents, Alan Brien (1925-2008) attended university on a scholarship and emerged as a prodigious journalist for the mainstream British Press. His Lenin was the result of extensive travel and research across Russia and the Soviet Union.
- Lenin’s legacy has generated a number of biographies. The most recent is Tamas Krausz’s Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography (2015) Monthly Review Pr. Krausz’s text will be reviewed in a forthcoming MLT post.
- See Barbara Foley’s Marxist Literary Criticism Today (2019) Pluto Pr. Foley addresses Concreteness/Particularity in fiction. A vivid particularity, especially about a subject that biased readers believe they know something about, can help them perceive a concept anew. In this case, Lenin in Brien’s fictional account, should provoke a far more enriched understanding of the historical Lenin. Foley also challenges Bourgeois critics who argue fiction should show, not tell. Bourgeois critics argue “telling” is propagandizing when in fact as W.E.B. Dubois stated, “All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists” (qtd in Foley 101).
- In the ancient Greek drama, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, Oedipus kills his father and “marries” his mother. While Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of the “Oedipus Complex” emphasizes incestuous sexuality, of more interest socially is that Oedipus is the capable “new” man who seeks to think rationally and govern a secular realm, independent of the unjust gods. His character signifies progress. In Shakespeare” Hamlet, Hamlet’s father has been killed by Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. However, the father’s ghost urges Hamlet to seek immediate revenge. Hamlet delays because he is skeptical, he ponders his dilemma, and he creates a play (art) to solve the mystery. He rejects his father’s feudalistic ethic of blind revenge, and like Oedipus attempts a rational quest to find truth. In pre-revolutionary Russia, the killing of the father (tsar), is not merely assassination, but will come to signify the eruption of mass revolutionary consciousness. Ultimately, Lenin will have to challenge the “father of Russian Marxism,” Georgy Plekhanov whose academic Marxism showed significant economic insights, but as a Menshevik precluded full revolutionary consciousness. Finally, Alexander Kerensky, who “fathered” the February revolution would also need to be overthrown.
- Brien here is almost certainly thinking of his British contemporaries of the 1960s–1980s who, like their American counterparts, showed philosophical cowardice and complicity with mainstream political parties (Labour and the Tories in England/Democrats and Republicans in the U.S). However, like Plekhanov etc. of Lenin’s time, so-called Marxists today and even “Leninists” fail to grasp the theoretical complexity of imperialism as in recent ‘defend Ukraine’ arguments. See Slavoj Zizek’s “Pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine” The Guardian, June 21, 2022. Zizek, a most prolific Marxist author, co-edited Lenin Reloaded: A Politics of Truth, (2007) Duke U. Pr. Lenin Reloaded stresses a vibrant Leninism in the face of hegemonic neo-liberalism. However, in the recent Guardian article, Žižek fails to grasp a fundamental Leninist premise—inter-imperialist rivalries are the primary contradiction and root cause of almost all modern war.
- Krause’s Reconstructing Lenin addresses Armand’s intellectual defense of “free love” and that Lenin wrote responses arguing that Bourgeois marriage was largely a false social construction. However, Lenin rejected “free love” as “not really a proletarian but a bourgeois demand” (Krausz 63).
-Roger Marheine taught English at Pasadena City College and is now retired. His interests include war culture and resistance literature.