So it’s that time of year again, when - although our problems remain pretty much the same as they were on December 31st - the illusion of the “New Year” provides a sense that things are starting over. I don’t know about you, but this gives me a burst of energy that lasts around, oh, three weeks or so before inertia kicks in.
Anyway, given that I only have a very short time before the bubble pops, I’ve been looking for inspirational figures to help me attack 2012 with gusto. That’s why I just read Lenin, written by the English historian Robert Service.
Now you might be thinking: “Are you crazy? Why would you want to learn from him? Lenin was a catastrophe for Russia! He created the one party state, crushed freedom of the press and established the institutions of state terror that were brought to their apex under Stalin!”
Alternatively, you might be thinking: “Right on Comrade! Vladimir Ilyich killed the Tsar, liberated the people and created the world’s first socialist state (RIP)! He also loved kids!”
In fact, I incline to the former view; but that doesn’t mean I think Lenin has nothing to teach me, or you, from an inspirational guru point of view, I mean. Sure everybody says “Steve Jobs” or “Sam Walton” but what did they really do? Sam created a shop, Steve sold some entertaining gizmos. But Lenin changed history. I don’t want to change history myself, but a little bit of that drive/energy would be nice. There was nothing inevitable about the Bolshevik seizure of power: it took great skill, insight, cunning, daring, energy and bravery. Those are the qualities I’m interested in…. can I unleash my inner Lenin?
Well, I must admit, our backgrounds are pretty different. Lenin was a minor aristocrat, the recipient of an excellent classical education, and he was spoiled rotten by his mother and sisters. Also, his elder brother Alexander was executed by the Tsar, which left Lenin with a passionate hatred of the Russian monarchy. Absolutely none of that applies to me, but maybe that doesn’t matter… surely it’s what Lenin did after his youth that counts?
Alas, here again I don’t have much in common with the Father of the International Proletariat. Funded by his family’s wealth and cash donations from supporters of the cause, Ilyich was able to loaf around Europe for decades, writing articles about the coming Revolution and arguing obscure points of doctrine with his rivals. Now I live in Texas where if you loaf, you starve (unless you inherited oil money). On the other hand, if I moved back to Scotland, I could claim free money from the government and easily dedicate myself to the goal of International Revolution. It’s not exactly the same as living on cash from your family’s estate but it’s not entirely different either….
Finally, Lenin was bald whereas I have a lot of hair: another big difference. (We both wear beards however.)
But none of this gets to the core of Lenin’s amazing, world-changing career. And yet this is where I really run into trouble, for two reasons.
#1) Lenin was a fanatic. I mean, he really, really believed in Marx’s millenarian fantasy of the coming earthly paradise for workers. In fact, he believed in it so much that he subjugated all morality to that goal. When peasants were dying from famine in his home region he did nothing because he believed that the crisis would hasten the Revolution. Thus he was also able to call for mass executions, and organize colossal state theft when in power. That’s also how he was able to crush his rivals- he felt none of the constraints that they did; the ends always justified the means.
As for me, I have no ineffable solution to the world’s problems that I wish to impose on others, so I hesitate before calling for the shooting of priests, or the abolition of political parties I don’t like, etc. Lenin didn’t pause for a breath.
#2) Lenin never doubted that he was correct. Of course he was wrong about many things, but he was always able to revise his stance and charge forward regardless, even forgetting that he had changed positions. Thus when revolution didn’t break out all over Europe as he had expected, he modified his theories, projecting this blessed apocalypse into the future, and carried on unaffected by cognitive dissonance.
Here, too, is a problem. When I was a bit younger I thought I was right about most things. But I’ve made too many mistakes to persist in that particular illusion. Indeed, I think it’s probably good to cultivate an awareness of one’s errors, so you don’t step into the same mess over and over again.
And so I’ve not had much luck channeling my inner Lenin. But, considering the people who actually did emulate his example, e.g. Mao, Kim Il-sung, Ho Chi Minh, that’s probably a good thing. Guess I’ll need to look elsewhere for inspiration. Any suggestions?