The Fickle Fate of Politicians
"you can't always get what you want"
Conspirator: Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappaport
If only renowned politicians could be traded on an exchange like stocks. One could have made a fortune in 1917 going long on Lenin, then shorting him in the late eighties. Both positions would have yielded windfall profits. Both, also, were sudden transformations. And yet, as biographer, Helen Rappaport, points out, there really is no such thing as creation ex nihilo. After leaving Russia, an agonizing, lengthy trajectory began for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, aka Ulyanov, leading to the transformations of 1917. Naturally, one book is not enough to decide upon a grandiose academic matter that concerns the October Revolution, and the role played by its undisputed Bolshevik leader, V.I. Lenin. But for the casual American reader, a single book is exceptional. Only one movie, practically, Reds (1981), managed to capture the emotionality of the period. As a nation, America has thoroughly rejected communism. But its lack of interest in foreign nations and how their inhabitants think and feel is not easily explained. Still, there are those of us who recall just how powerful the USSR once was. It was hard to know, then, how people behind the Iron Curtain truly thought and felt. The Kremlin exercised unprecedented control over numerous nations irregardless of their unique histories and cultures. It was not until 1991, as Rappaport points out, that the final Communist Regime ultimately collapsed, following the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. There went the Lenin Museum, as well as an impressive assortment of statues and memorials. Gone, it would seem, forever . . . unless the future would grant us a glimpse into what is yet to occur.
Democrats and socialism
Communism? No! Socialism? Maybe!
A single page in history may not always seem relevant, and often it is not, and yet, many historical ideas remain in the offing, long after they are, supposedly, debunked. High taxes, entitlements, social security, medicare, various allocations, and, in general, excessive government expenditures speak of a sophisticated, deeply entrenched socialist present, and an even more profoundly socialist future to come, departing step by step from capitalism, and somehow, magically, not approaching communism. Nevertheless, economic policies in these times are, in the wake of so many crises, highly creative, original, and bold, not to say dangerous and laden with risk. How much harm has been done to fellow Americans by artificially sustaining extra-low interest rates probably cannot be calculated.
There were those who could otherwise have partly lived off high interest rates. Perhaps they had it coming -- looking for easy street and not finding it. But that kind of sentiment or resentment, really, is not the traditional rhetoric of capitalism. It is, instead, the fertile seeds of anti-capitalism. Still, this tangent is by no means the story of Lenin's steep rise and abrupt fall. It is a side trip not so surreptitiously meant to capture interest. For it was, after all, economics that spelled doom for the rigid Russian royalty that a motley, international group of insurgents eventually toppled. Until then, the outcry for peace, bread, and land was relentless. After the installment of a provisional government, it would be another five years before Lenin fully won power in his own country, from which he went into exile in 1900.
Rappaport's biography deals with the meaningful years during which Lenin went from just another revolutionary to the solitary leader of all Russia. Hardly a small accomplishment. To try to understand how it happened is difficult to conceive, at least from the well written facts and descriptions in this biography. All Lenin seems to have done was to read, write, and speak. Of course, he did all three expertly. He was brilliant, prolific, and outspoken. Another virtue, if it can be called that, was to steer clear of countless detours away from straight, uninterpolated Marxist philosophy and vision. In doing so, Leninism became as revered a concept as Marxism. Together, Marxist-Leninism would set a political agenda embraced by every successor. But despite detente, perestroika, glasnost, and other concerted efforts by the East to appease the West, as well as allow more freedoms and choices within, the great experiment came to a crashing halt. Hardly anyone today believes in a worker's paradise. Still, Marx's assessment of human nature continues to rival religious views. He held mankind in high esteem, and strove to provide him with a better structure in which to live and thrive. In his opinion, history systematically denied him his natural birthright. Also, the Hammer and Sickle, for a time, was able to achieve goals unheard of in the Free World -- drastically less unemployment, crime, and self-defeating cultural license. That said, who really wants to hear about it?
The Fed and its fixed monetary policy
Don't fight the fed -- basic Dow Jones theory
For stock brokers and the like, it is dirt simple. Low interest rates encourage investments in stocks. But money markets, CDs, and other safer and more secure financial instruments that savers depended upon in the past have altogether vanished. Baby-boomers in particular have been mistreated. Retiring with more liquid assets than any former generation, current policies more or less dictate that their money is no good. Whether it was earned or inherited, banks snubbed them, turned their backs, and decided to exclusively address their own, obtuse needs. The interest rate on a million dollar money market at a prestigious bank would only pay a scanty amount. Banks are saying in so many ways that our money, your money, whose-ever's money is worthless. They do not want it. They would rather you put it somewhere else. So what happened? No doubt billions are still welcomed. Perhaps something can be worked out. But millions? Hundreds of thousands? Nothing doing. Before 2008, banks sold houses to people who could not afford them. Now they have sent the very same people to the stock market. Where are their scruples? And when the government talks about jobs, they do not differ between jobs-to-die-for and hand-to-mouth. Although people, especially blue collar workers, have denounced communism, they have been forced to accept socialism, and a form of capitalism that defies analysis. Communism is virtually dead, and yet socialists, covertly and overtly, continue to flirt with it.
What does all this have to do with Lenin?
Nothing. Except this. The communist, who once wooed the working class, might at some point in the future find a distraught and disgruntled middle class that has, in addition to jobs, excess capital, earmarked for investments. If it turns out that pouring money into government coffers in the form of taxes can be likened to tributes to a Czar, then a case could be made for the re-introduction of the most hated politicos in America -- and now, all over the world. Worse, current Fed policy is shamelessly manipulative. Stocks and bonds are not safe havens. However well-intended, it does in fact appear as though the Fed has been rolling the same loaded dice for quite some time. The nicer aspects are noteworthy: easier credit for small business loans and low mortgages, and especially a mountain high stock market that could not have got there without Bernanke's no-interest-rate prescription. But the advertisements on television to buy gold and silver are hard to ignore. The ads declare that the biggest losers will be those who hold onto money, which seems destined for hard times ahead. Hard assets are much more practical: a house, a car, a television, a computer, and then arrangements for the basics, such as food and clothing. It is not that bad, but the next crisis is not likely to announce itself until it hits. The price of gold and silver, however conservative, will fluctuate, as will the dollar, but the former are precious metals with intrinsic value, and the greenback resembles more and more, with every passing day, a piece of paper. Want to buy Apple at $1200 a share? Then let it go at $120? Just wait. That unique opportunity might just knock.
Then again, there is nothing of this in the biography of the man who appeared in Russia's Finland Station in 1917, dressed not much better than a hobo, coming directly from the cafes, libraries, low-rent apartments, and park soap boxes of Europe. It was there that he studied and lectured, living on next to nothing, but always in the company of great intellectuals, many greater than himself. What distinguished him and his Bolsheviks from others was their stubborn, steadfast clinging to a hard line that the truer majority of accommodationists were quite willing to forego, if only Czar Nicholas II would kindly step down. At last, in fact, he did just that. But Russia appears not to have had an aptitude for pure democracy, echoing the contempt Plato also expressed for the rule of the rabble. There must be order, at least temporarily, even if, as Marx so aptly phrased it, the state is destined to wither away. Before the disenchantment fellow-travelers and card-carriers experienced under Stalin, Lenin's eschewal of adulterated, watered-down, or labyrinthine Marxism ensured that the Comintern would not survive. Now Lenin's prestige also suffers, but such men, who come from almost nowhere, can never be ruled out. Consider the biography of Ho Chi Minh, who lived in even more humble circumstances than Lenin, and then presided over the North Vietnamese Army.
warning: explicit lyrics
Lennon's Working Class Hero set to Lenin pix
working class heroes?
Gone are the days. Struggles between capital and labor are mostly history, though they continue, much less dramatically than in the early and middle 20th century. There is a lot to respond to in the song by John Lennon, as there is in Imagine. All of which goes to show that this horrible business about religions and economies is not yet over. But how does one arrive at an informed position? The exact definition of capital has never actually been established, or, for that matter, sung. It is not simply counterpoint, not to put too fine a point on it, to communism. In fact, there is a great deal of mystery in capitalism that is bothersome to those who like to think more than is considered healthy. Henry Ford, whose reputation has also been as sullied as Lenin's, did not think of himself as a capitalist. That is to say, he worked within the capitalist system, but was not, himself, in his own words, "the" capitalist. Since at the time, mass producing automobiles in factories and publishing a newspaper, the inventor of the affordable Model T could hardly have been considered a laborer, what was he getting at? Probably, it does not really matter, and some of his ideas have rightfully been repudiated. But they are intriguing, as is the fact that Marxist economy, barely readable, is no longer regarded very seriously, except in its obsolescent, historical context. Nevertheless, no one argues with his accusative writing on the abuse of labor, recorded by eyewitnesses, and extracted from reputable newspapers. Still, working in both Germany and England, the idea of a government across the Atlantic of, by, and for the people never seems to have made much impact on Marx.
to sum it up
There are these men and women who live partly selfless lives. Such a one was Lenin. Certainly, he was egotistic. But no biography explains the part of his life, and others similar to his, that flowed freely like blood, in this case, into the swirling political and economic currents. The old guard communists were daring. They aimed much further than what the French and the American Revolutions accomplished. For them, it was not enough to remove the aristocracy from power or develop laws and principles that militated against potentates. To them, the entire capitalist or pre-communist infrastructure, including and especially priests, the wealthy, and the advantaged had to be eliminated. It is hard to understand how such lofty literature, so utopian, somehow or other led to the ugly massacres in Cambodia. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and its savagery was anything but idealistic. But the plain fact is that the communists opened the door to many of the very same outrages that they believed were due to the oppression of undeserving ruling classes -- from Pharaohs to Czars to elected officials as well. And they have never explained the Gulag Archipelago, show trials, or slaughters. And yet, if not for the communists, who are sometimes equated with totalitarians, European fascism would undoubtedly have stood a better chance of success in the previous century. Better "Reds" than the "Boys from Brazil".
all the right moves
Ms. Rappaport alone cannot bring the interested or curious up to speed. The topic at hand is complex and intricate. Nevertheless, it can be stated that during Lenin's time, prior to his return, Marxism had splintered into diverse sects. He himself had his influences, such as Georgy Plekhanov, known as the Russian father of Marxism, and those with whom he disagreed, such as Eduard Bernstein, whose revision of Marxism Lenin excoriated -- even if he read every word. Bernstein was not alone. Despite his fatherly aura, Plekhanov also came to meet with Lenin's disapproval. At the same time, the main subversive newspaper, Iskra, was being smuggled into several nations and beginning to garner interest. Naturally, there were arrests, interrogations, trials, and severe sentences, but nothing, not even the Czar's secret police, could stop the momentum. Among Lenin's converts was Leon Trotsky, who caught up with his role model in London, after Lenin left Munich. Later, Lenin went to Geneva, ill but unable to afford a doctor. He rejected the Martovites, though Julius Martov would have made a useful ally. He also refused to support the Mensheviks, who, around the same time, were stronger and more popular than the Bolsheviks. All of this probably amounts to the worst egregious sins of over-intellectualism, but this is the substance of the biography, very informative, neatly framed, and smart. In addition, the more human touches are also included. Lenin's marriage, mistress, bicycle riding, and love for popular entertainment, with an occasional opera, are also discussed. All in all, one gets the impression that Lenin knew precisely what he thought Marxism meant for Russia, as well as the world, and steadfastly refused to swerve, left or right, from a gamble that, somewhat miraculously, paid off.
But detractors can have a field day, if they so desire. What did Lenin know about street fighting, which many of his comrades were boning up on and putting into operation? Next to nothing. The failed but influential 1905 Revolution took place without his being anywhere near Bloody Sunday, or the heartwrenching events that ensued thereafter. But how did Lenin, often in poor health and subject to the whims of various authorities, manage to survive long enough to become the Chairman of the first Soviet government? After all, he was not in hiding. And despite an array of pen names his writing was widely disseminated. His unconventional views were known. He did of course live far from Russia, where he would undoubtedly have been punished, if not executed, as was the sad fate of his older brother.
Germany makes it happen
To those already in the know, it is the legendary sealed train toward which the biography moves. Strangely, it was the capitulation of German socialists that inspired Lenin to become a communist. British and French socialists also caved in as the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand led Germany to declare war on Russia in 1914. The abdication of Nicholas II in 1917 made it imperative that Lenin go back. The Winter Palace had been taken. Germany, distracted, overwhelmed, and concerned by the entry of America into the war, saw in Lenin's return an opportunity to take Russia out of the war. As Ms. Rappaport phrases it: "The right-wing German militarist and the Bolshevik arch-revolutionary going hand in hand seemed like an absurd joke." (p. 288) But the odd-couple was deadly earnest. Lenin would not have to present his papers or be questioned about what he did or be submitted to any of the sundry humiliations he had grown accustomed to. In early April, Lenin left Zurich amid well-wishers and hecklers. The Germans fastened shut three of the four doors leading into the Russian section of the train. Lenin and his wife traveled, technically, second class. But they were a big deal going through Sweden and Switzerland. As the train approached Petrograd, the British, who had helped set up a democratic interim government, did not interfere, but had misgivings.
When he arrived, his speeches electrified the Russians. He spoke of a new world, not just a new Russia. And for a while, Russians felt as though they were the freest people anywhere. Now, the iconoclasts have had their way. They have erased the presence of Lenin from their very eyes via artistic representation. Histories are being re-written to show another point-of-view that impugns the communists as authoritarians if not tyrants. The churches are once again attended. There are no satellite countries or buffers against Western imperialism, so-called. But struggles continue. Terrorism is ubiquitous. It originates and lashes out from multiple directions. And however beautiful, comforting, and nourishing, churches are not deciders of a host of secular issues that are quite literally matters of life and death. As of this moment, communists outside China, a handful of other nations, and select ivory towers are much fewer in number and less vocal. But the world has not ended, and talk of the end days, also, has not brought about the apocalypse. It could also be true that communists are regrouping -- contemplating, once again, What is to be Done.