Letters from the Road: Lenin the prophet

We can prophecy for you (Lenin 1907 [1962]-a: 329).

A little recognised feature of Lenin’s writings is his complex invocation and transformation of the category of prophecy. While he denies the traditional theological tradition of the prophet, he also engages with it to develop an alternative, revolutionary prophecy that relativises the claims of the former. Lenin was not averse to deploying religious and even biblical imagery, especially from the Gospels. So also with the prophecy, both in the terminology itself and in what may be called prophetic utterances that evoke the fire of the biblical prophets.

The prophet in question is not one who communes with the gods or spirits and pronounces an ‘oracle’ (Lenin 1906 [1962]-e: 203), but one who analyses the complexity of events as they unfold in order to ‘foretell’ and ‘foresee’ as accurately as possible how they may unfold (Lenin 1902 [1961]: 513-14).[1] Thus, while Lenin states that ‘one does not need to a prophet to foretell …’ (Lenin 1901 [1960]: 399, fn; 1901 [1961]-c: 89; 1908 [1963]: 20), he also clearly claims, ‘We can prophecy for you’ (Lenin 1907 [1962]-a: 329).[2] In his pattern of denying that he acts as a prophet while simultaneously appropriating prophetic terminology, we may see the complex process whereby one both negates the priority of the religious sense of prophecy and then claims it for a very different usage.

So also condemnations of oppression and calls for the relief of suffering, of which a sample suffices:

We are consequently faced with an already crystallised class of workers, possessing no homes of their own and virtually no property, a class bound by no ties and living form hand to mouth. And its origin does not date from yesterday (Lenin 1899 [1960]: 539).

Or in more explicitly biblical terms, condemning those who speak with ‘honeyed words’ and ‘smooth tongues’ (Psalms 5: 9; 55: 21; Proverbs 2: 16; 5: 3; 6: 24; 7:5, 21; 26:23; Isaiah 30: 10; Romans 16: 18):

Actually, all these honeyed words are nothing but deceit and mockery of the peasant. What these smooth-tongued people call cheap and profitable farming is the want, the dire need, which forces the middle and small peasant to work from morning till night, to begrudge himself a crust of bread, to grudge every penny he spends. Of course, what can be ‘cheaper’ and ‘more profitable’ than to wear the same pair of trousers for three years, go about barefoot in summer, repair one’s wooden plough with a piece of rope, and feed one’s cow on rotten straw from the roof! Put a bourgeois or a rich peasant on such a ‘cheap’ and ‘profitable’ farm, and he will soon forget all this honeyed talk! (Lenin 1903 [1961]: 392-3).[3]

Lenin was also not averse to direct evocations of the ‘last, final struggle’, words found not only in The Internationale, but also in the biblical tradition. Yet, the role of the prophet is not to glorify himself but to deliver a message, which for Lenin was that of Marxism to workers and peasants. It was a message not so much on behalf of a divine being, but of a collective and radical movement, a ‘cause’.[4] And that message was one of freedom from grinding oppression.[5] In delivering that message, he drew not merely from the Bible, but from the language and worldview of those he wished to reach, the peasants and those who had until only very recently been peasants, the workers.[6] No wonder, then that the Social-Democrats promises the peasants a land flowing with milk and honey’ (Lenin 1903 [1961]: 418).

by Roland Boer, on the road in Herrnhut, East Germany.

References

Lenin, V.I. 1897 [1960]. The New Factory Law. In Collected Works, Vol. 2. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 267-315.

———. 1899 [1960]. The Development of Capitalism in Russia: The Process of the Formation of a Home Market for Large-Scale Industry. In Collected Works, Vol. 3. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 21-607.

———. 1901 [1960]. Casual Notes. In Collected Works, Vol. 4. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 383-413.

———. 1901 [1961]-a. The Agrarian Question and the “Critics of Marx”. In Collected Works, Vol. 5. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 103-222.

———. 1901 [1961]-b. Fighting the Famine-Stricken. In Collected Works, Vol. 5. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 231-8.

———. 1901 [1961]-c. The Lessons of the Crisis. In Collected Works, Vol. 5. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 89-94.

———. 1902 [1961]. What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. In Collected Works, Vol. 5. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 347-529.

———. 1903 [1961]. To the Rural Poor: An Explanation for the Peasants of What the Social-Democrats Want. In Collected Works, Vol. 6. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 359-430.

———. 1904 [1961]. May Day. In Collected Works, Vol. 7. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 197-200.

———. 1905 [1963]. The First of May. In Collected Works, Vol. 8. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 348-51.

———. 1906 [1962]-a. On the Eve. In Collected Works, Vol. 11. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 15-16.

———. 1906 [1962]-b. The Present Situation in Russia and the Tactics of the Workers’ Party. In Collected Works, Vol. 10. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 112-19.

———. 1906 [1962]-c. Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.: A Letter to the St. Petersburg Workers. In Collected Works, Vol. 10. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 317-82.

———. 1906 [1962]-d. The Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. April 10 (23)- April 25 (May 8), 1908. In Collected Works, Vol. 10. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 277-309.

———. 1906 [1962]-e. The Victory of the Cadets and the Tasks of the Workers’ Party. In Collected Works, Vol. 10. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 199-276.

———. 1906 [1963]. A New Coup d’État in Preparation. In Collected Works, Vol. 11. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 207-12.

———. 1907 [1962]-a. Angry Embarrassment: The Question of the Labour Congress. In Collected Works, Vol. 12. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 320-32.

———. 1907 [1962]-b. Draft for a Speech on the Agrarian Question in the Second State Duma. In Collected Works, Vol. 12. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 267-99.

———. 1907 [1963]. The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy and the First Russian Revolution, 1905-1907. In Collected Works, Vol. 13. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 217-431.

———. 1908 [1963]. On to the Straight Road. In Collected Works, Vol. 15. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 15-21.

———. 1910 [1963]. The Beginning of Demonstrations. In Collected Works, Vol. 16. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 355-8.

———. 1911 [1963]-a. Old and New: Notes of a Newspaper Reader. In Collected Works, Vol. 17. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 300-3.

———. 1911 [1963]-b. “The Peasant Reform” and the Proletarian-Peasant Revolution. In Collected Works, Vol. 17. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 119-28.

———. 1912 [1963]. Famine. In Collected Works, Vol. 17. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 527-8.

———. 1913 [1963]. The Question of Ministry of Education Policy (Supplement to the Discussion of Public Education). In Collected Works, Vol. 19. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 137-46.

Lih, Lars T. 2011. Lenin. London: Reaktion Books.



[1] Or, as he delicately balances both denial and assertion of prophecy, ‘We do not claim to be prophets able to foresee all the possible outcomes of the present highly complicated political situation. Social-Democrats, however, must carefully weigh up the trends of all the forces that are operating in politics in order wisely to decide their own tactics’ (Lenin 1906 [1963]: 212).

[2] Or as Lih quotes Lenin: ‘We are living through a happy time, when this prophecy of the great socialists is beginning to be realised’ (Lih 2011: 153).

[3] Such prophetic utterances may be found through Lenin’s writings (Lenin 1903 [1961]: 393-5, 410-11, 430; 1897 [1960]: 278; 1899 [1960]: 237-48, 293, 414-15, 418, 431, 442-3, 537; 1901 [1961]-a: 164-6, 177-80, 205; 1901 [1961]-b; 1906 [1962]-b: 112; 1906 [1962]-a: 16; 1907 [1962]-b: 269; 1910 [1963]: 355; 1912 [1963]: 527-8), especially works like his fiery Mayday articles (Lenin 1904 [1961], 1905 [1963]; 1913 [1963]: 142).

[4] ‘But every sensible man understands that socialism cannot be attained at once: to attain it a fierce struggle must be waged against the entire bourgeoisie and all governments; all urban workers all over Russia must unite in a firm and unbreakable alliance with all the rural poor. That is a great cause, and to that cause it is worth devoting one’s whole life’ (Lenin 1903 [1961]: 411).

[5] Even if it occasionally comes from a ‘dream’ (Lenin 1902 [1961]: 509-10).

[6] Note his interest in the speeches of the peasant members of the Duma (Lenin 1907 [1963]: 398-9; 1907 [1962]-b: 297; 1906 [1962]-d: 287; 1906 [1962]-c: 345; 1911 [1963]-b: 125).

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