Ideology | Fascism before fascism: Lenin’s genesis
What we call fascism today was prefigured by Lenin’s worldview.
Lenin was born, as with many world historical figures from Napoleon to Hitler, on the periphery of empire. What strange force impels the outsider from the edge of empire to central prominence is, so far, unknown. We only know that we should look to men from the edges for our future titanic leaders and changers of worlds.
His hometown of Simbirsk lies on the Volga and the hairline crack that marks the divide between Western and Eastern civilisation. If the philosophy of Marxism is dialectics, then Lenin was its embodiment in life. This was a man who combined thesis and antithesis of two civilisations in one political doctrine, which came to be called Marxism-Leninism.
Lenin’s father was a schoolmaster, eventually becoming a school director and hence a member of the nobility by merit. In more distant times, with Lenin’s great-grandfather, the family bought their freedom from serfdom thanks to a devotion to craft. It is tempting to think of Lenin as a typical headmaster’s son straining under the stigma of being a spy among the boys. This was a challenge for Graham Greene, who later became a novelist (a type of spy, as he would admit) and professional secret agent. He was also the son of a headmaster, and it created within him a tension between loyalty to authority and the desire to rebel. It is this tension that is also seen in Lenin. The ideology Lenin would create, Bolshevism, was, in its way, the perfect vehicle for a headmaster’s son. It retained order, structure, hierarchy, and discipline – everything a good student and good example to the school would require – with a streak of disobedience.
The pattern of a unity of opposites – East and West, Muslim and Christian, good student and bad – is quite apparent in Lenin’s early years.
Russia is very much a country ruled by other peoples without being subject to an alien empire. The Russian aristocracy, schooled in French, were, in a sense, almost a separate ethnicity to the people they ruled over. This has always been the way with kingdoms and aristocrats to an extent, but for Russia this seems to have become an almost permanent state of affairs. Russia managed, in the 20th century, to go from one aristocracy to another. The outsiders changed nationality, but they were still alien to Russia. Lenin was descended from Germans (a fact suppressed in the Soviet Union) and Stalin was Georgian. This was, perhaps, also the price of empire – and we easily forget that when we say “Russia” we really mean the Tsarist and Soviet empires in all their great variety.
We can see a parallel with the rise of peripheral peoples to influence in the contemporary US with Russian politics. Just as the Latvians, Georgians, Jews, Germans, and other ethnic groups came to prominence under Bolshevism, so the US empire’s minority denizens are also rising in influence in that polity as the 21st century unwinds.
Lenin was known as “the German” among revolutionary circles, and so his outside status was acknowledged – until the Bolsheviks sought to wipe any memory of the fact. He was known for his typical German traits: hard work and diligence. And there is an odd sense in this that the Second World War was a struggle between two systems devised by German minds. This, perhaps, explains why the Bolsheviks and Nazis found common cause in inter-war period.
The feudal structure of Russia was quite fearsome and sprung up to manage the uninhabited stretches of the empire. Serfdom – abolished in the mid-19th century – was slavery, and the serf enjoyed fewer rights than a slave under the American system. The landowners enjoyed, for their part, a system of social privileges. The left in the West today speaks glibly of “privilege”, but Russian privilege was of a different sort altogether.
The elite really could do very different things to the ordinary masses. This system had grown to full development in the 17th century, allowing the Russians to force themselves outwards into uninhabited regions. At the same time, countries like England were falling away from feudalism, which was a much more informal network of obligations and more amenable to reform. Russia is, in this sense, a prisoner of geography. The need to expand helped her cement a social system that was not amenable to the advent of capitalism, and – worse still – this system was completed at a moment when capitalist competition completed its rise to power.
Boris Pasternak, the Russian novelist, identified the 1880s as a moment of decisive change in this system. Liberal and Enlightenment ideas flowed into Russia from the West and were taken up by the intelligentsia and some aristocrats. This seems to be very much the story of Russia from the 17th century onwards – the West flowing into Russia and reshaping her.
Here we come to the deep roots of Leninism, and its curious rightist kernel. Revolutionaries in 19th century Russia prefigured Lenin’s thought in many ways. They considered elite, tightly bound groups of revolutionaries as essential. They identified the lack of a middle class in Russia as extremely important; since the regime rested on the army and police, a coup-like attack on the system could easily succeed.
Above all, Lenin was inspired by the populist revolutionary Chernyshevsky. His philosophy rested mainly on revolutionary elitism and a hatred of liberals and liberalism. What does this resemble? It resembles nothing less than fascism. The fascist is an elitist who wishes to create a new, scientific hierarchy over the old and decadent order of society. This new order will probably be biological in nature, as opposed to being based on religion as in the feudal system or individual merit under liberal capitalism. Lenin’s family were ennobled, but their enoblement came through merit. They prefigured the fascist ideal of an aristocratic type elite derived from “fresh blood” that would replace the old hierarchy.
In other words, Bolshevism always was “national Bolshevism” (a phenomenon of the 1930s and 1990s that sought to combine Communism and Nazism, see the Russian poet Limonov). Consider, especially, that Bolshevism rested its power base on the peasantry and not the working class as demanded by Marxism. The peasantry, Marx knew, are a conservative sort – like small shopkeepers – they are bound to the Earth (blood and soil) and have, through their own small holding, a conservative and individualistic nature as masters of their domain. They are unlike the deracinated mass man produced by the factories. The fascists and the Nazis worshipped the peasant: a pure and unspoiled person connected to the earth of the nation.
Lenin had contempt for intellectuals and people with moral qualms, and dismissed these as mere “wets”. This attitude has a Nietzsche-like or fascist tang to it. The intellectuals were weak and out of touch with the vital spirit of the age, and they had no national loyalty – only loyalty to ideas. They had to be pushed aside, if the revolution was to succeed. And such thinking is precisely fascistic in nature – or perhaps we should say it is precisely Bolshevik in nature, and that fascism is a poor imitation of Bolshevism.
Lenin was, in this sense, the first fascist. It was merely that his revolution still played lip service to Marxist internationalism and the working class. But neither figured heavily in the Russian revolution, and the system’s true form quickly cemented under Stalin: nationalistic, socially conservative, authoritarian, and so on. This is why, even today, neo-fascists admire them remaining Marxist-Leninist regimes.
In Lenin’s time, Russian intellectuals formed a very definite class that was devoted purely to ideas. There was egalitarianism there, for class background didn’t matter. In our contemporary Western intelligentsia, background matters. There is prestige in coming from a sexual or ethnic minority, and there is shame in being middle class. People in this milieu become inverted snobs. They are always inventing a new victim identity or pretending to be less than they are. This tendency is itself a source of the “virtue signal”, an empty act that signals a person’s status within the liberal intelligentsia’s victim hierarchy. But this was not a problem for the Russians. It seems they met purely on the basis of the idea, and damn the social origins of the thinker. This is good news for those who believe that the “virtue signaller” is treading a path towards Bolshevism. They are actually stepping away from the milieu that created it.
Ironically, the activities of the populist agitators inspired by figures like Chernyshevsky actually frustrated liberalisation. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 stymied liberal reforms. By demanding too much, the revolutionaries received nothing. But, in a sense, this forestalling of liberalisation was to their benefit. The grievances that went unaddressed due to the assassination provided the accelerant for later revolutionary social change.
Lenin’s older brother was executed in 1887 for taking part in a terrorist plot that would have sought to reinstate the stalled liberal reforms. There is an element of personal grudge against Tsardom in Lenin’s history that must surely loom larger than any immediate social or familial influence. He disagreed with his brother’s strategy (based on assassination), but I cannot help but see in his zealous seizure of power an element of fraternal competition. Lenin seems to have taken over the mantle of the “golden” older brother and excelled his achievements – a simultaneous revenge and final victory over a brother’s success.
This familial aspect is also found in Lenin’s abandonment of religion. This occurred in the year of his father’s death. Lenin was eighteen at the time. It is my view that the death or absence of a father is a sure way to destroy religious belief in a boy or young man. The rise of the single parent family is probably a great contribution to the rise of atheism in the West. This is because the father is modelled after God – even more so if he is a teacher as Lenin’s father was – and acts with authority to secure the family. If the father is absent or scorned, the child loses a connection with the idea of God. They have no model for it, only the instability of the mother. The universe, accordingly, seems female and chaotic. Atheism, the triumph of the “random”, quickly follows.
Lenin’s family were ostracised by local liberals when his brother was executed. This cowardice seems to have set Lenin firmly against liberalism. This, again, is a familiar refrain of the right today: the liberals are cowards and hypocrites. In Lenin’s time, they decried the Tsar but shrank from supporting people who opposed him. This complaint is again familiar from fascism. The fascist hates liberals more than communists, and this is because they have a common kinship in detesting the weak.
Lenin progressed to Kazan University in 1887, but he was expelled for involvement in a student protest and took his law exams from home. In 1891, a famine swept the region and this provided the first display of what would become Lenin’s “the worse, the better” outlook. Lenin advocated allowing the famine to continue without any aid, since the death and destruction it caused would discredit the regime. This Machiavellian outlook and indifference to human suffering is also prototypically fascistic, and perhaps also contains a Darwinian aspect that has been suppressed in the contemporary world. The late 19th century thinkers of all varieties were quite comfortable contemplating the extinction of weaker groups in a struggle for survival. Lenin claimed that:
“Psychologically this talk of feeding the starving is nothing but an expression of the saccharine-sweet sentimentality of the intelligentsia.”
Lenin had come to value a kind of ruthless honesty as the highest value, and he believed that only revolutionaries were thorough going in their honesty. This is again quite similar to Nietzsche’s injunction to find a personal loyalty to the truth as perceived by the individual. It is an invitation to speak and impose one’s power on the world through speaking your truth. And it finds an echo in the contemporary world of the alt-right and neo-reactionaries, who are also people who claims to speak cold truths about the world on matters such as sex and race difference against liberal sentimentality. It is easier to imagine Lenin among the alt-right or neo-reactionaries rather than among the liberal intellectuals of today. The lone man – harsh, speaking the truth, realistic, and doing what is necessary – is a rightist mythos (if not fascistic), but is precisely the mythos inhabited by Lenin.
How did Lenin become a “Marxist”? A curious aspect of Tsarist censorship accounts for this fact. The Tsarist regime decided to allow Marxist material into the country in order to counter populist propaganda. The process was similar to the way the US and Israel backed Islamists during the Cold War to knock out the Communists. It is like the old woman who swallowed a fly…then a spider to catch the fly…then a bird. The cat’s paw eventually turns round and attacks its master. This is what happened to the Russians. The intelligentsia took up Marxism, exotic and exciting, and developed it into a revolutionary tool that proved more potent than the populism it was meant to suppress.
There is a sense in which Marxism in Russia was merely sheep’s clothing for the wolf of populism, since the general strategy and analysis of populism was carried over into the new revolutionary movement. But the real picture is more complicated. Marx himself believed that the Russian “Mir” (village community) could provide the basis for socialism without an advanced capitalist economy in Russia. This chimed with the populist view quite neatly, and actually contradicted his Russian followers who looked to the proletariat and advanced capitalism for development.
Lenin remained in the orthodox camp for a while, holding that, contra Marx, capitalism was firmly established in Russia. The village commune was no longer viable. The path was full-steam ahead, and intellectuals had role simply in making the proletariat conscious of their power and social role. They were not leaders or supervisors, but handmaidens. But for Lenin, even though he contributed to this analysis, his utilitarian and cold nature could not sustain the illusion. Russia required a dedicated elite to lead the workers and – especially – the peasants, if it was to have a revolution. The populists were correct and Marx was wrong in this instance. It took Lenin, with his combination of populism and Marxism, to develop a Machiavellian strategy that would sweep away the old regime.
The new regime – elitist, sexually conservative, technocratic, and connected to the peasants – would be populism under a Marxist garb. East and West combined. What was spread from Lenin’s revolution to Italy and Germany was not Marxism, but Russian populism.
That technocratic populism became our fascism.
Lenin (1972) Conquest, Robert (Glasgow: Fontana)