Lenin's embalmed body in the Red Square (Photo by Georges DeKeerle/Sygma via Getty Images)

January 19, 2024   6 mins

Before launching his invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin placed the blame for the war on a surprising figure: Vladimir Lenin. Allegedly, the founding father of the Soviet Union gave away the western territories of Russia as part of the establishment of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922. Indeed, 100 years later, Putin framed his annexation of Ukraine’s eastern oblasts as a reversal of this historic communist injustice. For a man repeatedly accused of wanting to restore the Soviet Union, Putin’s expansionism confirms that, as far as the legacy of the Russian Revolution is concerned, Putin is what Lenin would call a counter-revolutionary White rather than a Red.

Yet despite Putin’s hostility to Lenin, the 2013-14 Ukrainian uprising against the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych was also accompanied by the so-called Leninopad, a mass toppling of Soviet-era statues of Lenin. Meanwhile, in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, supporters of Yanukovych rallied to defend Lenin’s statues from the iconoclasts.

That Lenin, a man who died a century ago this week, can be held responsible for Ukraine’s break from the Russian orbit and taken as a symbol of Soviet-Russian domination over Ukraine tells us how obscure Lenin’s politics is today. Notwithstanding the fact his embalmed body still lies in Red Square, the real Lenin has been buried by decades of dictatorship and Cold War, the century of sanctification and vilification.

While Putin sees himself as freeing Russia from Lenin’s malign legacy, Putin’s Western critics see him standing in the line of Russian dictators stretching back to Lenin’s overthrow of Russia’s Provisional Government in the October Revolution of 1917. Yet having spent nearly half of his adult life outside of Russia as a political refugee in London, Paris, Munich, Geneva and Zurich, Lenin was as much a figure of the global Belle Époque across 1880-1914 as he was a Russian — a country which he derided as the “prison of nations”, a reference to the Tsar’s oppression of Russia’s many peripheral peoples and minorities.

In addition to the vast cosmopolitan empires of the Tsar, Kaiser and Habsburg emperor, Lenin’s era was also defined by modern progress — of the Cinématographe and airship, of avant-garde artistic experimentation and scientific breakthroughs, of seemingly inexorable economic expansion and industrialisation. Lenin is often cast as the man whose fanatical and authoritarian leadership of the Russian Revolution undid this glorious era of gentle but inexorable progress, and instead ushered in the grim 20th century of one-party governments, sinister deep-state bureaucracies and secret police regimes. Yet the historical record shows that it was Lenin who tried harder than any of his contemporaries to preserve and extend the progress of his time.

He did this by opposing imperialism — not only of the authoritarian monarchies, but also of the liberal-democratic states of the West. With the outbreak of war in 1914, Lenin’s Social Democratic Labour Party was one of the very few political parties that opposed its own country’s entry into the First World War. This was in keeping with the promises of the Basel Manifesto of 1912, an agreement in which the major socialist parties of the world decided through their global organisation, the Second International, to prevent the outbreak of war through coordinated industrial militancy and political opposition — a promise from which many reneged in 1914. Since then, conservatives and liberals alike have bemoaned the disaster of the First World War, while at the same time reserving a special place in hell for one of the very few political leaders in Europe who spoke out against it at the time: Lenin.

It was the Great War that would rip apart the world of the Belle Époque and snuff out the lights across Europe, in the words of the British Foreign Secretary of the time Sir Edward Grey. John Maynard Keynes, another upper-crust figure of this era, concluded that in undoing the “happy age” of European civilisation, the war also revealed the underbelly of that era — what he characterised as the “projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion”, which, he argued, played the “serpent” to the “paradise” of Edwardian-era globalisation.

Unsurprisingly, Lenin thought differently. Rather than rueing the loss of grand bourgeois civilisation or viewing the war as an inevitable fall from grace, he saw the era’s social development as an unstable compound of conflicting forces, which it was potentially possible to steer. As Lenin told the Romanian poet Valeriu Marcu, a fellow wartime exile in Zurich, during a discussion on how best to oppose the war: “One must always be as radical as reality itself.”

In other words, in an era in which the stability of physical reality itself was being undermined by Albert Einstein and Max Planck’s revolutionary overthrow of Newtonian physics, so too the social structures of bourgeois Europe had revealed their own instability. Yet rather than adopting the tragic outlook of Grey and Keynes, for Lenin this meant fighting for the relinquished mantle of 19th-century liberalism — to reclaim its hostility to war and militarism, to overweening state power and empire, to defend the right to self-determination — and extend it, in the form of socialist politics against the disaster of the Great War itself. This included substituting revolution for world war, a prospect which horrified the pacifist Marcu.

On this, however, Lenin was consistent. Less than six months after the revolution of October 1917, Lenin withdrew Russia from the war under the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. His peace with Germany undercut the Kaiser’s justification for war, which was to defend Germany against Russia’s imperial expansion to the west. Ultimately, the war ended when the German navy mutinied and soldiers and workers councils sprung up across the German empire, the prospect of revolution precipitating an armistice. By contrast, Woodrow Wilson, re-elected president in November 1917 on a promise to keep the US out of the conflict, led his country into the war less than six months later. To wish away Lenin’s communists is to wish away those who exerted themselves the most — and were in the short-term the most successful — in their efforts to rescue European civilisation from the self-immolation of the Great War.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is widely seen as marking the end of our own neo-Edwardian epoch, the second era of liberal peak-globalisation that began with the fall of the USSR in 1992. That ours was a far more seedy, more hypocritical, less accomplished and less self-assured era than the first Belle Époque is abundantly evident, not least in the fact that we have no statesmen who, like Grey before them, understand how dangerous their diplomatic machinations are surrounding the crisis in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Nor do we have figures of the stature of Keynes who, despite his fabular understanding of the Great War, understood that a prelapsarian politics was impossible, and saw political innovation in the form of vigorous fiscal policies as a necessity in order to preserve liberalism from further implosion.

Even Putin, with all his militaristic brutishness and authoritarian thuggery, has sufficient historic vision to see himself in the role of undoing Lenin’s legacy to restore Russian greatness. By contrast, most Western liberals today, deranged by conspiracy theories about Russian electoral interference, are consumed by a politics of nostalgia for the Nineties, unable even to reach Keynes’s level of understanding and identify the equivalent serpents in their own historic paradise — an effort that would, after all, require them to identify their own sins.

Likewise, we have no organised working-class politics capable of throwing up any popular tribunes worthy of the name, let alone revolutionary statesmen of Lenin’s perspicacity, to combat the drift to another world war. More than any movement of the Left, the most electorally successful anti-war politics of our times has come from a populist of the Right, Donald Trump — a testimony to the failures of the Left if ever there was one. Trump has even borrowed the tactic of Lenin’s fellow anti-war socialist of the Second International, US presidential candidate Eugene Debs, by campaigning on his mugshot. By contrast, the Left, bewitched by the promises of human rights, have themselves been the serpents in their own paradise of globalisation, consistently arguing for the humanitarian crusades that have undercut sovereignty, international law and institutionalised cooperation.

While Lenin and Debs sought to draw the masses deeper into political life to extend the gains of the 19th century, their political opponents across the spectrum drew the opposite conclusion — the need to keep the masses out, blaming the war itself on the masses’ nationalistic fervour. The promise of democratic containment was that war could be avoided, thereby helping to preserve peace and prosperity. It is this promise that has broken down in the 30 years since the fall of the USSR. The more that politics was dominated by the liberal centrists of peak globalisation, the more militaristic Western foreign policy has become, as seen in the rise of the Forever Wars.

From this, we can draw the conclusion that greater democratic influence in politics is needed as a counterweight to blithe liberals blundering into a new era of great power rivalry and permanent war. Unlike Lenin and Debs, who were riding the crest of the waves of popular enfranchisement and working-class self-assertion, being “as radical as reality” today means drawing the masses back into politics —not as a revolutionary act but nonetheless as a necessary one. For only then might we be able to overcome the disastrous legacy of the 20th century, and emerge from the mire of authoritarian great power politics.

Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.