Letters from the Road: Lenin on Miracles

Essays

‘In certain respects, a revolution is a miracle’ (Lenin 1921 [1965]-a: 153). Revolution = miracle; революция = чудо: this is the arresting formula I wish to explore. This formula is by no means an isolated occurrence in Lenin’s texts. So let us see how Lenin deploys the term, thereby enriching his sense of miracle.

‘In certain respects, a revolution is a miracle’ (Lenin 1921 [1965]-a: 153). Revolution = miracle; революция = чудо: this is the arresting formula I wish to explore. This formula is by no means an isolated occurrence in Lenin’s texts. So let us see how Lenin deploys the term, thereby enriching his sense of miracle.

At first Lenin was not so enthused by miracles. They were regarded as the preserve of right-wing rhetoric, such as the defence of the ‘miracle’ of individual peasant ownership that will turn – as with the rest of Europe – the poverty-stricken and degraded peasant into prosperous, useful and self-respecting citizen (Lenin 1907 [1963]-a: 368). More often, he attacks his fellow communists for belief in such occurrences as a sign of weakness. In these utterances, Lenin regards a miracle as too closely tied up with religious belief, which is itself a response to and ignorance of oppressive conditions. Marx is his guide on this matter, who wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, ‘As ever, weakness had taken refuge in a belief in miracles’ (Lenin 1905 [1963]-a: 296). For instance, the Menshevik-controlled Iskra suffers from such weakness, believing that a miracle will achieve communist aims without an uprising, that it is possible to scale the mountain without a ladder. Indeed, miracles are signals of deceit, falsity and insanity (Lenin 1905 [1963]-a: 296-8). Tellingly, Lenin also castigates belief in the miracle of a spontaneous uprising, for it is assumed that it will take place without the laborious planning and organisation of which he was so keen (Lenin 1907 [1963]-b: 418).[1] The catch is that it is precisely such a miraculous uprising that Lenin will come to evaluate more positively.

This positive sense emerges in the 1910s, as though Lenin decided to take up such a term and revalue it for his own purposes. Beyond the inexplicability of revolution itself, Lenin also adds other layers. He presses heavily on his pen to emphasise the extraordinary examples of almost superhuman effort in overcoming the hurdles of the post-revolutionary situation, whether tremendous victory against all odds of the Red Army, or the efforts of workers and peasants in rebuilding the economic infrastructure of the new state, and even of organisation itself. The bulk of these usages clearly focus on astonishing human effort, which begins to sound remarkably like elements of the God-building project of Lenin’s comrade, Lunacharsky, in which the gods become models of human potentiality and achievement. No longer do the gods perform miracles, but human beings do so.

As for the inexplicable miracle, Lenin already noted with the upsurge in worker unrest and strikes in the early 1910s that such events were taking place. Thus, a simple decision by the Executive Commission of the St. Petersburg Committee, the printing of that decision and its distribution by a couple of hundred people is transformed: ‘And suddenly, a miracle occurs!’ 250,000 workers rise as one (Lenin 1913 [1963]: 225). Above all, if the February revolution of 1917, in which the tsar was overthrown, seemed inexplicable and unexpected to people in Petrograd and Russia more generally, then to Lenin in Switzerland it seemed even more so. And so in his ‘Letters From Afar’ he turns again to the language of miracle, asking how such a miracle could have happened, how a monarchy that had maintained itself for centuries and that had endured the crisis of 1905-7 could now be overthrown. Here Lenin is a little cautious in his terminology, feeling his way and qualifying his usage. ‘There are no miracles in nature or history’, he writes, but abrupt turns like revolutions involve the conjunction of unexpected combinations of events, forms of struggle and the forces of the protagonists, that ‘to the lay mind there is much that must appear miraculous’ (Lenin 1917 [1964]-a: 297). In other words, should one be able to analyse all of these conjunctions, one would be able to identify patterns of cause and effect, the role of organisation and planning. Here we find the tension between the unexpected and the foreseeable, between spontaneity and organisation that runs through all of Lenin’s permutations on the miracle.

Above all, Lenin’s overt usage of miracle lays its emphasis on human energy, effort and enthusiasm. Yet it requires stupendous moments for such miracles to occur, moments that evoke superhuman effort from those who did know they could do such. In a statement that has ‘poet’ written all over it, Lenin writes:

Revolutions are the locomotives of history, said Marx. Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by the narrow, philistine scale of gradual progress (Lenin 1905 [1963]-b: 113).

Once again note the qualifier, ‘if judged by the narrow, philistine scale of gradual process’. Soon, however, Lenin’s qualifications drop away, particularly in his unbridled enthusiasm when calling on workers to even greater effort. Now we find references to the conviction that will multiply a hundred-fold the ‘revolutionary energy and revolutionary enthusiasm which can perform miracles’, to ‘miracles of proletarian heroism’, to miracles of ‘daring, initiative and self-sacrifice’, and especially to ‘miracles of proletarian organisation’ (Lenin 1905 [1963]-b: 103; 1917 [1964]-a: 306-7, 323, 330; 1917 [1964]-d: 355, 360; 1917 [1964]-b: 43-4).[2] In each case, the call to perform miracles comes in the wake of a preliminary revolution, whether January 1905 or February 1917, which functions as both the proof that such miracles of human energy are possible and as a call to enact yet another miracle and bring about the communist revolution itself. The last example – miracles of proletarian organisation[3] – also embodies the tension I have identified already. Both organisation and spontaneity, it seems, may be described as miraculous, perpetually in tension with one another and dialectically turning into one another.

The miracle of the October revolution of 1917, when the communists came to power, was perhaps one of the easier miracles. As Lenin was to emphasise many times after that revolution, the act of overthrowing and seizing state power is the easy part; the task of building a new society is far more difficult. And so we find the bulk of Lenin’s recognition of and invocations to further miracles in his post-revolutionary writings. Miracles were occurring almost daily, it seems. Thus, the continued cheerfulness in and enthusiasm for Soviet power, in face of economic ruin, hunger, cold and devastation, is miraculous, as is the achievement of steering the ship of state despite the chronic inexperience in doing so. Indeed, every time a new difficulty arises, the miracle of its overcoming becomes a proof of the workers’ and peasants’ firmness, self-sacrifice and strength (Lenin 1919 [1965]-f: 66; 1919 [1965]-d: 72-3; 1920 [1965]-h: 437).[4]

By far the most persistent ascription of miracle is to the impossible success in the ‘civil’ war. For four years the superior forces of international capital, in terms of troops, equipment, logistics and finance, assisted the White Armies in their efforts to bring down the fledgling Soviet state, yet the under-armed and under-financed Red Army was victorious. Particularly in his public speeches, Lenin repeatedly describes that victory as a stunning miracle of human grit, determination, discipline and resourcefulness. Such miracles are not only tribute to the enthusiasm for and devotion to the new communist government, but also have the direct result of increasing tenfold their support among peasants and workers, let alone those in other countries and colonies who aspire to overthrow oppressors (Lenin 1919 [1965]-g: 83; 1919 [1965]-a: 152, 153-4; 1919 [1965]-c: 177; 1919 [1965]-e: 208, 214, 230-1; 1920 [1965]-d: 382, 385-7; 1920 [1965]-a: 446, 447, 457; 1920 [1965]-c: 496; 1920 [1965]-b: 439).[5] This was indeed a ‘a miracle without parallel, in that a starving, weak and half-ruined country has defeated its enemies – the mighty capitalist countries’ (Lenin 1921 [1966]: 117). And with this example behind them, Lenin turns to calling for yet more miracles like that of the Red Army; only they need to be greater, now in terms of economic reconstruction and on the labour front (Lenin 1919 [1965]-c: 188; 1920 [1965]-g: 432; 1920 [1965]-e: 523, 525). All of which may be summed up: ‘The history of our proletarian revolution is full of such miracles’ (Lenin 1919 [1965]-d: 73).

But what does it mean for Lenin to say that revolutions and post-revolutionary struggles and reconstruction are miracles? Is it merely a metaphor? By way of some preliminary proposals, I wish to make three points. First, for Lenin, a miracle is an inexplicable and unexpected event that changes the very coordinates of existence, as well as a moment of superhuman effort, in which the gods become models for that effort. Second, miracle is not simply a metaphor but the theological translation of revolution, as revolution is the political translation of miracle. In that very act of translation or transcoding, the absolute claims of either form become relativised, movable from code to code and thereby gaining in richness. Third, revolution-as-miracle is caught in a tension, for it works between the unexpected the expected, or in Lenin’s terms between spontaneity and organisation. Time and again, he emphasises and devotes immense energy to organising in preparation for the revolution, whether in terms of party structure, publicity organs, propaganda, parliamentary involvement, agitation on the streets and military training. Yet the moment of revolution inevitably occurs without forewarning, a spark that turns instantaneously into a conflagration. Both January 1905 and February 1917 were precisely such events, let alone the myriad strikes that surrounded them. This tension between organisation and spontaneity is in many respects the key to Lenin’s equation of revolution = miracle.

-Roland Boer, in old East Berlin

 


[1] Very occasionally in his later works does a negative, if not sarcastic, note appear, as when the new provisional government after 1917 introduces a rash of legislation, when opponents accuse the Bolsheviks of hoping for miracles, or when the British bourgeoisie manages to get so many of its representatives into parliament (Lenin 1917 [1964]-c; 1918 [1965]: 357, 363; 1920 [1965]-f).

[2] Now Lenin is comfortable referring to Engels as well, who wrote: ‘“Miracles are happening here in Elberfeld”’ (Lenin 1913 [1964]: 556; Engels 1845 [1982]: 23). Already in 1902, before any of the revolutions that evoked a flood of miraculous terminology from Lenin’s pen, we find a reference to the miracles that even an individual may perform in a revolutionary situation (Lenin 1902 [1961]: 447).

[3] The full text reads: ‘the slogan, the “task of the day”, at this moment must he: Workers, you have performed miracles of proletarian heroism, the heroism of the people, in the civil war against tsarism. You must perform miracles of organisation, organisation of the proletariat and of the whole people, to prepare the way for your victory in the second stage of the revolution’ (Lenin 1917 [1964]-a: 306-7). Given his pattern, Lenin would repeat the call on a number of occasions through 1917 (Lenin 1917 [1964]-d: 355, 360; 1917 [1964]-b: 43-4).

[4] On a couple of occasions Lenin’s old reserve concerning the terminology of miracle reasserts itself, pointing out that the victory of the revolution and then survival of the Soviet state may appear to be a miracle from a bourgeois perspective (Lenin 1919 [1965]-b: 256), or more directly, ‘That is not a miracle; we do not believe in miracles’ (Lenin 1921 [1965]-b: 108).

[5] Even Trotsky is attributed with the ability to perform miracles, as Cliff reports on a conversation between Lenin and Gorky: ‘Show me any other man capable of organizing an almost model army in one year and moreover of winning the sympathy of professional soldiers. We have that man. We have everything. You will see miracles’ (Cliff 1987: 203).

 

References

Cliff, Tony. 1987. Lenin 1917-1923: The Revolution Besieged. London: Bookmarks.

Engels, Friedrich. 1845 [1982]. Engels to Marx in Barmen, 22 Feburary to 7 March 1845. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 38. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 21-5.

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

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

———. 1905 [1962]. The Guilty Blaming the Innocent. In Collected Works, Vol. 8. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 306-14.

———. 1905 [1963]-a. No Falsehood! Our Strength Lies in Stating the Truth! Letter to the Editorial Board. In Collected Works, Vol. 9. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 295-9.

———. 1905 [1963]-b. The Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution. In Collected Works, Vol. 9. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 15-140.

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

———. 1907 [1963]-b. Apropos of the Minutes of the November Military and Combat Conference of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. In Collected Works, Vol. 12. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 409-18.

———. 1913 [1963]. May Day Action by the Revolutionary Proletariat. In Collected Works, Vol. 19. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 218-27.

———. 1913 [1964]. The Marx-Engels Correspondence. In Collected Works, Vol. 19. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 552-8.

———. 1917 [1964]-a. Letters from Afar. In Collected Works, Vol. 23. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 295-354.

———. 1917 [1964]-b. Letters on Tactics. In Collected Works, Vol. 24. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 42-54.

———. 1917 [1964]-c. Miracles of Revolutionary Energy. In Collected Works, Vol. 25. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 134-6.

———. 1917 [1964]-d. The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party in the Russian Revolution: Report of a Lecture. In Collected Works, Vol. 23. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 355-61.

———. 1918 [1965]. Speech at Presnya District Workers’ Conference, December 14, 1918. In Collected Works, Vol. 28. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 354-66.

———. 1919 [1965]-a. Address to the Second All-Russia Congress of Communist Organisations of The Peoples Of The East, November 22, 1919. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 151-62.

———. 1919 [1965]-b. The Constituent Assembly Elections and The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 253-75.

———. 1919 [1965]-c. Eighth All-Russia Conference Of The R.C.P(B.), December 2-4 1919 In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 167-94.

———. 1919 [1965]-d. Results of Party Week in Moscow and Our Tasks. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 71-5.

———. 1919 [1965]-e. Seventh All-Russia Congress Of Soviets, December 5-9, 1919. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 205-52.

———. 1919 [1965]-f. Speech to Mobilised Worker Communists Delivered from the Balcony of Moscow Soviet of Workers’ and Red Army Deputies, October 16, 1919. Newspaper Report. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 66-7.

———. 1919 [1965]-g. Speech to Students of the Sverdlov University Leaving for the Front, October 24, 1919. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 76-84.

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———. 1920 [1965]-c. Speech Delivered at the First (Inaugural) All-Russia Congress of Mineworkers. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 495-501.

———. 1920 [1965]-d. Speech Delivered at the First All-Russia Congress of Working Cossacks, March 1, 1920. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 380-400.

———. 1920 [1965]-e. Speech Delivered at the Third All-Russia Congress of Textile Workers, April 19, 1920. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 519-25.

———. 1920 [1965]-f. Speech Delivered at the Third All-Russia Trade Union Congress, April 7, 1920. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 502-15.

———. 1920 [1965]-g. Speech Delivered at the Third All-Russian Congress of Water Transport Workers, March 15, 1920. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 426-32.

———. 1920 [1965]-h. Two Recorded Speeches. In Collected Works, Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 435-9.

———. 1921 [1965]-a. Speech at a Plenary Meeting of the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, February 28, 1921. In Collected Works, Vol. 32. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 147-59.

———. 1921 [1965]-b. Speech Delivered at an Enlarged Conference of Moscow Metalworkers, February 6, 1921. In Collected Works, Vol. 32. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 108-11.

———. 1921 [1966]. Speech at a Meeting of the Prokhorov Textile Mills Workers, Held to Mark the Fourth Anniversary of the October Revolution, November 6, 1921. In Collected Works, Vol. 33. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 117.

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