Saturday, 11 March 2017




Allen Lane, 2016, 354 pages


Review by Phil Shannon

The German ‘sealed train’ that gave Lenin safe passage from exile in Switzerland through war-time Germany to Russia in April 1917 was historically pivotal.  As the British historian, Catherine Merridale, reminds us in Lenin on the Train, Lenin was seen as a ‘plague bacillus’ (in Winston Churchill’s phrase) by Berlin, deployed by a German state desperate for a military edge in the first world war through taking one of its enemy states out of the war by sowing revolutionary disruption in Russia.  If Berlin was using Lenin for its military aims, however, Lenin was more than happy to use the German state for his political goal of socialist revolution in Russia and the rest of Europe.


Banished from Russia by Tsarist courts, Lenin had spent twenty years isolated from his home country and its simmering revolutionary discontents when stirring news came of the revolution which overthrew the autocratic Tsarist monarchy  in February 1917.  Lenin saw that the job of revolution was only half done, however.


Stopping the workers, peasants and soldiers from dispatching the new capitalist oligarchy was the top leadership in their workplace-based soviets of elected delegates.  These leaders, not deemed worthy of exile like the Bolshy Bolsheviks, were timid socialists, developing a liking for the comfortable pace of glacial reform and eyeing off the material pickings from comfortable seats in a mooted Western-style parliament (no more working with hammer or sickle for them).  A frantic Lenin was desperate to return.


All legitimate travel avenues for Lenin, however, were blocked by Britain which wanted to keep its ally, Russia, in the war, whilst Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, had vetoed a plan for Lenin to travel in disguise in a sleeper train because he would arouse suspicions due to his tendency, even in his sleep, to let fly against the political perfidy of fake socialists and revolutionary laggards. 


When the possibility of German assistance was first floated, Lenin was cautious.  By accepting the assistance of a government whose military was slaughtering Russians on the eastern front, Lenin could be seen as either a national or class traitor in Russia, and being stymied by Russian jail or being shunned by the Russian working people.


Deciding the benefits outweighed the risks, however, Lenin eventually accepted the offer of a German train but only after negotiating stringent conditions.  He insisted that the carriage be granted ‘extra-territorial status’ to ‘seal’ it from contact with Germans, including a chalk line dividing the Russian exiles’ territory from the German territory of the military guards on board.  Lenin was also adamant that Germany not bankroll the 32 returning Bolshevik revolutionaries (local Swiss socialists raised the cash) for the week-long  journey.


The simple three-word slogan, ‘Peace, Bread, Land’, and the audacious demand for ‘All Power to the Soviets’, that Lenin packed in his travel luggage brought political clarity and direction to the Russian people and brought party unity to the fractious Bolsheviks.  Socialism became not some vague, distant ideal but an urgent, realisable task.  Lenin, says Merridale, “had struck upon a kind of truth that people wanted to hear” -  after the February anti-Tsarist revolution, “the problems that had driven them to risk their lives for freedom in the first place had resurfaced, often with redoubled force” and only Lenin, at the head of the reinvigorated Bolsheviks, had the solution to the problems of war and hunger and lack of democracy.


This positive conclusion by Merridale about Lenin’s political impact is remarkably rare amongst orthodox intellectuals, who usually malign Lenin as a progenitor of Stalin, their default ideological setting.  Merridale’s favourable assessment is swiftly undermined, however, when she concludes by venting on what she professes to be Lenin’s inner dictator, whose murderous Marxist hands on the tiller in 1917 meant that “in the end, democracy could only skulk around the fringes of the revolution like a dog with mange”.


This linguistically Stalinesque simile is evidence of a lazy politics which also flavours the structure of her book.  The sealed train should be a fascinating microcosm of international politics and the political and personal dynamics of the Bolsheviks but, in Merridale’s hands, the train event is a but a brief narrative hinge between two massive, passionless, white-bread slabs of indigestible pre and post-Revolution history, offering no fresh insights.  Despite this attempt to divert Lenin into a literary siding, and to couple Lenin’s wagon to the loco Stalin, the wheels of democratic socialism remain stubbornly on track.

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