Why was Lenin a game-changer?

Why did everything change after Vladdy Ulyanov? How did he make the world worse even after his immediate impact in the USSR was over?

It’s sometimes said that the reason is that he was so utterly ruthless. But history is full of people who were ruthless. Take the Romans. Roman armies would bring back prisoners to Rome and kill them in the city centre so everyone got to watch. Sometimes they ‘decimated’ their own battalions if they lost a battle, that is, every tenth soldier would be killed. Sometimes that soldier had to be clubbed to death by the nine soldiers who hadn’t been chosen. One Roman leader had deserters lie down on the ground, and then he ordered them to be trampled to death by elephants. And there were plenty of tribes and armies who were even worse than the Romans. And of course Russian history itself is full of leaders who did terrible things to their enemies.

So Lenin was not that unusual when we take a more historical view of things. But what was unusual about him was that he was incredibly ruthless for a socialist revolutionary. Most socialist revolutionaries before him were either weak, or only somewhat ruthless, or pretty ruthless but incompetent. Lenin went further than anyone thought was possible for a leftist. Few could even conceive of what he was capable of, let alone believe it.

This meant that he could always defeat his enemies on the right and the left, because they were fighting in a much smaller conceptual space than him. In 1917-19 everyone, including most members of his own party, and the Germans, thought his regime could not last for long after it acquired power, so they never took him seriously enough. It seemed impossible that a conventional socialist party could survive long-term. Which was true. However, the Bolsheviks were not a conventional socialist party, and Lenin did not operate according to convention. Nobody else at the time was prepared to do the things he was prepared to do. And what he was prepared to do was… almost anything.

And while he was incompetent to start with (he got away with a lot of blunders because of the chaotic situation at the time) he soon started improving. Once the Bolsheviks got competent then that really was the end of freedom in Russia for over seventy years, because part of ruthlessness he pioneered, and which Stalin took over, was always upping the ruthlessness to levels nobody believed possible. However ruthless the enemies, the Communists would top it. They always used the advantages they had, however small, in whatever way they could, no matter how evil.

And that’s how Lenin changed the world: he took the ruthlessness that was usually restricted to the most evil and psychopathic rulers and he brought in into the utopian world of socialist dreamers, losers and fools, and he made it work.

And that’s also the lesson that Mao and the other twentieth century Communists learned. Always go further with the depravity than your enemies can conceive. Perhaps the twenty-first century Communists have learned this too…


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5 thoughts on “Why was Lenin a game-changer?

  1. I have just finished reading ” Dictator Literature” by Daniel Kalder. It covers the writing of dictators from Lenin onwards.
    The thought I was left with is that although all the dictators covered were ruthless bastards, they somehow surrounded themselves with people who were bad enough to carry out the killing and torture necessary to enforce the regime. It is only when enough people get the necessary courage to stand up for themselves that the dictators are toppled.

  2. Thanks Frank, fixed now.

    John, good observation. Lenin wasn’t initially surrounded by many people like that, but the civil war changed things, it brutalised the whole country and provided him with a lot more people willing to resort to extreme violence.

    And Stalin really took full advantage of that, he methodically built up a large network of violent thugs.

  3. I suspect that even Lenin was surpassed in terms of ruthlessness by Trotsky – the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny and this, from Wiki

    Vladimir Cherniaev, a leading Russian historian, sums up Trotsky’s main contributions to the Russian Revolution:

    Trotsky bears a great deal of responsibility both for the victory of the Red Army in the civil war, and for the establishment of a one-party authoritarian state with its apparatus for ruthlessly suppressing dissent… He was an ideologist and practitioner of the Red Terror. He despised ‘bourgeois democracy’; he believed that spinelessness and soft-heartedness would destroy the revolution, and that the suppression of the propertied classes and political opponents would clear the historical arena for socialism. He was the initiator of concentration camps, compulsory ‘labour camps,’ and the militarization of labour, and the state takeover of trade unions. Trotsky was implicated in many practices which would become standard in the Stalin era, including summary executions.[79]

    Historian Geoffrey Swain argues that:

    The Bolsheviks triumphed in the Civil War because of Trotsky’s ability to work with military specialists, because of the style of work he introduced where widescale consultation was followed through by swift and determined action.

    However, your point stands – just that his henchman Trotsky was even more turhless

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