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Thomas L. Lynn, Jr. discusses Tariq Ali’s latest, exploring the contemporary significance of Leninism and the individual stories of the revolution.

Tariq Ali, The Dilemmas of Lenin – Terrorism, War, Love, State, Revolution (Verso, 2017) 384pp.

Discussing the 1871 Paris Commune, Tariq Ali remarks in a footnote that the interrogation of the commune has broadly receded before a tide of ‘presentism’ – a tendency to consider the past episodically and in a segmented and narrow fashion. The dark irony of this state of affairs is a consequent insulation, not only from the past, but even from the present itself.

For arguably, we can only enter upon the tasks of the moment when we proceed from a consciousness which situates our decisions with a broader and creative historical process. This is a consciousness which aims to navigate the tensions between the spontaneities of a moment, and the focusing of such impulses through a theoretical lense.  On one hand, the abrupt or eruptive character of the former lends them powerful and potentially revolutionary force.  On the other, they defy efforts to predict or to harness them and as such, their initial vitality often becomes misdirected, or dissolute. Such is one of the central contradictions which serve as the organizing themes of The Dilemmas of Lenin – Terrorism, War, Love, State, Revolution, and, indeed, of Lenin’s own life.  In the background of that tension, of course, is the issue of the relative political or class consciousness of the people, who are the real actuators of revolution. Ali negotiates how revolution may have a spontaneous quality but at the same time must be borne out of political work by individuals and collectives.

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Among the virtues of Ali’s considered reflection here is its illustration of how that question was pivotal to the unfolding of Lenin’s own life as a revolutionary.  Indeed, it deeply informed his relationship to the ‘propaganda of the deed’ which had figured prominently in the resistance to the Tsar, and in the tragic death of Lenin’s brother, Sasha. The underlying intent of those efforts was to instigate or catalyze a broader awakening in the population at large but this effort proved ultimately sterile.  It was hence that a different approach would emerge as central in Lenin’s development, one which would culminate in the notion of the proletarian vanguard, tasked both with generating a more radical awareness among the proletariat, and with seizing political power to effect a transition beyond capitalism.

This is the argument of Lenin’s State and Revolution, and the measure in which he exhibited an integrity with its commendations is to be praised, regardless of whether he faltered in certain judgments in the wake of October 1917.  Such missteps notwithstanding, what is made clear is that Lenin’s return to Russia following the revolution of February proved integral to saving that revolution from degeneration.  This came about in virtue of two prongs of effort: Lenin’s own intense political activity, or, if you like ‘activism’; and his articulation of how the actions of the Bolsheviks (and really revolutionaries simpliciter) should be guided by a sensitivity to the theoretical.  The latter comes about most explicitly in his April Theses.

The story which Ali tells is not simply Lenin’s story.  It is really the story of the Russian Revolution more widely, with Lenin’s life serving as a structure organizing that narrative. This is not inappropriate given the essential role he played in that process. Yet, Lenin was nevertheless but one actor in an ensemble, and an actor in not all of its parts.  We are valuably recalled of the converging and significant historical factors which prepared for and led to that year, and that in several registers.  For one, there are the mere ‘facts of the matter’, i.e., the contours of Russian culture, the relation of its polities to the other European powers, the inflection of the French Revolutions and Communes, emerging class politics, and the wars, and particularly the first world war which would form the “set” of the drama.  There are also the ideological currents: utopianism, socialism, anarchism, and feminist currents.

And there are the individuals. When first paging through the book, in noting the Glossary of Personal Names at its backs, it struck me as but a convenient appendage.  In the course of writing this review though, it becomes apparent to me that it also reflects another marked merit of Ali’s contribution – the foregrounding of concrete persons as actors in history. I emphasize concrete persons because the manner of their emergence in the narrative’s course recalls us to their humanity in a way both inspiring and instructive.  Their ‘ordinariness’ is likewise our ‘ordinariness’

The recollection, though, is more than incidental.  It brings one to what is perhaps most valuable in Tariq Ali’s book, namely, its illustration that history is not a fable of inevitability, but of possibility.  It remains  up to us to realize that possibility.  It is a decision.


Thomas Lynn is a thinker situated in Cincinnati. He works on the ways in which phenomenology can inform questions in philosophy of mind, the relations between the analytic and Continental traditions in philosophy, and off the beat thinkers such as Jacques Ellus, Paul Feyerabend, or Michael Polanyi. He is also the host of Thinking Thomas, a channel dedicated to theory and philosophy.

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