A century after the Bolsheviks seized power for communism, Tariq Ali chooses some of the best books about an uprising that changed the world forever.
hundred years after the Russian Revolution, history, according to most historians, had pronounced its judgment. October 1917 had been relegated to a past that would never be repeated, just like the tumbrils in Paris in 1793 or Charles I’s public execution outside the palace at Westminster. History doesn’t repeat itself, not even as a farce, but its echoes remain.
What I wanted to do in The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution was to place Lenin in proper historical context as an extremely gifted political strategist and thinker who, more than any other historical figure, dominated the shape of the last century. To achieve this meant studying in detail the two streams of political thought – anarcho-terrorism and European social democracy – that Lenin absorbed and transcended to create a new synthesis.
He was neither saint nor totalitarian despot, the two roles assigned to him after his death in 1924. Hidden underneath the chaos and misery created by the horrendous civil war between the Red and White armies, (the latter backed by Britain, the US, France and their allies) there was the thread of reason.
Lenin never lost sight of this thread and in his final years, crippled by a stroke and confined to his study, he returned with vigour to denounce the failures of his own side, and insisted that if the revolution was not regularly renewed it would fail. “A Bolshevik who does not dream is a bad Bolshevik,” he would often repeat. His own dream was a state modelled on the defeated Paris Commune of 1871. This dream was the backdrop to my novel Fear of Mirrors, which I began writing soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall (and has been recently republished by Verso). In the decades that followed, the tragedies of the Revolution never completely left my mind, for October 1917 had been a formative event for my generation and its ghosts stalked the streets of Paris, Saigon and Prague in 1968.
Rereading the histories of 1917 and Lenin’s own writings without instrumentalist intent, brought back many memories and moments of discovery. Of the four works I consider indispensable, two were written by Russians and two by North Americans. All of the following works are helpful in broadening one’s understanding.