Book review: Lenin in London

In the course of his life, Lenin made several visits to London. The first and longest took place in 1902, and lasted for over a year. He made other visits to attend the congresses of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) in 1903, 1905 and 1907, and he returned again in 1908 and 1911 to undertake studies at the British Museum. As of late, there has been a growing interest in retracing Lenin’s footsteps across the city. A fascinating ‘cottage industry’ has grown up around this subject, even encompassing Lenin Walks in the British capital.

Lenin’s visits to London have been covered in a number of books, most notably Conspirator, Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappaport, and more recently The Spark that Lit the Revolution: Lenin in London and the Politics that Changed the World by Dr. Robert Henderson.

In reviewing Henderson’s book, there were reasons to be optimistic. He was, after all, curator of the Russian collections at the British Library. For many years he attempted to uncover details about Lenin’s life in London, and his research took him to various archives in Britain and abroad, including in Russia.

With this in mind, one would hope that Henderson might provide new insights into Lenin – both the man, and the development of his ideas. Indeed, on the front cover, Henderson promises to shed “new light on [Lenin’s] world view – a philosophy which would have such a crucial impact on the twentieth century. As such, this is the first full exploration of the formation of one of the leading political visionaries of his age.”[1]

Unfortunately, this claim is completely overblown to say the least. The book most certainly does not throw “new light on [Lenin’s] world view”. On the contrary, the book is largely devoid of politics, except in the form of stale, rudimentary commentary. Where Lenin’s views are touched upon, we find nothing but a tedious rehash of the prejudices of bourgeois historians the world over. We have heard these distortions about Lenin and Bolshevism a million times. Many are presented as throwaway comments that would take not a review but another book to answer.

Idle speculation

Those readers expecting something different will be sorely disappointed. While there are some obscure stories of interest, much of the narrative is tittle-tattle, lifted from the memoirs of mostly nonentities.

1904 London Image public domainIn a letter to Plekhanov, Lenin wrote, “at first glance this London makes a foul impression!” / Image: public domain

That being said, in the course of this research, Henderson did stumble across a bundle of Lenin’s letters referring to his stay in London, that had been stored away in the vaults of the British Library. He also discovered some long-lost photographs of Russian revolutionaries in the archives. And he unearthed a certain amount of information about individuals associated with Lenin during his visits, including police spies and Russian agents who frequented East London at the time.

Henderson’s book is not, as its subtitle suggests, about Lenin’s ideas. Rather, it concerns Lenin’s whereabouts, and his acquaintances and associates on his visits to London. The book is therefore largely a catalogue of individuals, many of whom can be regarded as mere footnotes in history.

A far-better account of Lenin’s life in London in 1902-3 is to be found in Trotsky’s memoirs, My Life, and in Memories of Lenin by his wife and lifelong comrade Krupskaya.

The story of Lenin in London begins, not in Britain, but in Germany. After returning from his Siberian exile in 1900, Lenin travelled abroad to collaborate with Plekhanov and others in establishing Iskra, the first all-Russian Marxist paper. Its first issue was published in Munich in December of that year. Its editorial board consisted of Lenin himself, Plekhanov, Zasulich, Axelrod, Potresov and Martov, and a total of 21 issues were produced – initially as a monthly, and later as a fortnightly publication. However, the pressures of the German authorities forced them to move their operations elsewhere.

While Plekhanov and Axelrod wanted to move the publication to Switzerland, the majority, including Lenin, decided on London, which would allow easy access to the treasures of the British Library, a view which prevailed.

In the middle of April 1902, Lenin and Krupskaya crossed on a ferry to Dover, and from there travelled by train to London. There they were met by an old revolutionary acquaintance, Nikolai Alexeyev, who had moved to London a few years earlier. It seems Lenin took a dim view of the city on arrival. In a letter to Plekhanov, he wrote, “at first glance this London makes a foul impression!”[2]

Rather than concentrate on Alexeyev’s dealings with Lenin, Henderson instead focuses on two other figures, Konstantin and Apollinaria Takhtarev, who had already taken up residence in London. They had been part of the revolutionary social-democratic movement in St Petersburg since 1893. Apollinaria had been part of the League for the Emancipation of the Working Class, an organisation of Marxist study circles spearheaded by Lenin. However, her and her partner had become supporters of the opportunist ‘Economist’ trend. In fact, Konstantin edited the Economist paper, Rabochaya Mysl.

Lenin and Iskra conducted a ferocious struggle against this tendency, which tried to reduce the workers’ movement to bread-and-butter issues, sidelining revolutionary politics and theory. Lenin had replied to a letter from Apollinaria in October 1900 in which he made clear: “[t]hat we [he and Krupskaya] regard Rabochaya Mysl as an organ of a special trend with which we differ in the most serious way… [this] is something of which you have long been aware.” He went on to say: “Without struggle there cannot be a sorting out, and without a sorting out there cannot be any successful advance, nor can there be any lasting unity[3]

Nevertheless, the Takhtarevs helped exiles in London find lodgings, and they furnished them with general assistance. As old acquaintances, they helped Lenin and Krupskaya to find accommodation, and they would also assist in finding venues for the Second Congress of the RSDLP a year later. By the time of Lenin’s arrival, however, the Economist trend was in serious decline. Despite their political differences with the Takhtarevs, Lenin and Krupskaya were grateful for their help and maintained cordial relations, as old social-democratic friends, although they were perhaps not as close as Henderson suggests.

Lenin and Krupskaya’s first flat was in Sidmouth Street, near Kings Cross. But within a week they had moved into a two-roomed building at 30 Holford Square, a short distance away. Their rooms were on the first floor and rented from Mrs Yeo, a widow and dressmaker, for 20 shillings a week. All Iskra correspondence was sent via Alexeyev’s address nearby. To keep the tsarist police off their trail, they adopted the title of Dr. and Mrs. Jacob Richter. As full-time party workers, Lenin and Krupskaya were living on very meagre wages. After their rent was paid, they had only 10 shillings to live on. According to Henderson, “Their landlady, a Mrs Yeo… was somewhat shocked, first, by the couple neglecting to hang curtains in their windows and second, by the absence of a wedding ring on Krupskaya’s finger.”[4] But she was reassured that all was well by the Takhtarevs. Krupskaya’s mother would also later join them.

British Library Image Donald MacbethLenin would spend half his time at the British Library, the finest resource in the world / Image: Donald Macbeth

After a few weeks, the other editors Martov and Zasulich also arrived and would settle in rooms on two floors of a house at 14 Sidmouth Street, which became the headquarters of Iskra. The premises became known as the “commune”, later described as “the den” by Plekhanov on account of its untidy state. Being near to where Lenin lived, he would visit every afternoon after lunch for editorial meetings, whilst he would usually spend mornings visiting the Reading Room at the British Museum, which was also within walking distance. Some months later, the “commune” had to be moved to Percy Circus, a stone’s throw from Lenin’s place in Holford Square, after the landlord issued a notice of eviction.

Iskra was to be printed at the Twentieth Century Press, in Clerkenwell Green, through an arrangement with Harry Quelch, a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF): Britain’s first openly socialist party, whose paper, Justice, was printed at the same location. However, the Russian proofs of Iskra had to be sent to an East End printer for the Cyrillic letters to be typeset by Iskra’s compositor, Blumfield, who also lived on Sidmouth Street. At the Twentieth Century Press building (today’s Marx Memorial House), Lenin was provided with a small room: enough for a small table and chair, where he worked on Iskra. Plekhanov and Axelrod remained in Geneva, but made trips to London for special editorial meetings.

The editors in London were joined in the autumn of 1902 by the 22-year-old Trotsky, who had recently escaped from exile in Siberia. Having called on Lenin very early one morning, Trotsky was then put up in the “commune” with the other editors.

Despite having learnt English from books, when Lenin and Krupskaya arrived in London they found that they could not understand a single word of what people were saying, and nor could anyone else understand them. “At first this was very comical,” writes Krupskaya, “but although Vladimir Ilyich joked about it, he soon got down to business of learning the language.”[5] They studied English, and even received the help of a tutor in exchange for mutual lessons in Russian. They eventually picked up the language in part by listening to speakers at meetings and at Hyde Park Corner.

Despite first impressions, the couple began to enjoy life in London. Lenin explored the British Museum and Library, the finest resource in the world, where he would spend half his time. He visited pubs, reading rooms and public meetings, along with Krupskaya. They also often travelled to Primrose Hill and from there walked to Marx’s grave at Highgate. Lenin enjoyed walking and going on rides on the upper decks of open-topped buses to observe the sites of London. Given the gulf between rich and poor so evident in the city, he would mutter through gritted teeth, in English, “two nations!”

The London Congresses: facts and fiction

Krupskaya’s expanded Memories of Lenin, originally published in 1930 in Moscow, describes Trotsky's arrival in London and how he met with Lenin. The book soon fell foul of Stalinist censorship, meaning this passage was completely erased in later editions. Unfortunately, Henderson, who is well aware of this omission, also leaves the account out of his book. Yet it serves as a very good illustration of Lenin’s personal approach in dealing with comrades, despite Henderson’s suggestions to the contrary. It is therefore worth quoting the missing text from the English edition of 1930:

“At about that time we learned from Samara that Bronstein (Trotsky) had arrived there following his escape from Siberia. They said he was a fervent supporter of Iskra and produced a very good impression on everybody. ‘He is a real young eagle,’ wrote the Samara comrades. He was christened ‘the Pen’ and was sent to Poltava to negotiate with the Yuzhni Rabochy [an independent Social-Democratic group]...

“Soon after – I believe in October – Trotsky arrived in London.

“One morning there was a violent knocking at the front door. I knew full well that if the knock was unusual it must be for us, and hurried downstairs to open the door. It was Trotsky, and I led him into our room. Vladimir Ilyich had only just awakened and was still in bed. Leaving them together, I went to see to the cabman and prepare coffee. When I returned I found Vladimir Ilyich still seated on the bed in animated conversation with Trotsky on some rather abstract theme. Both the hearty recommendations of the ‘young eagle’ and this first conversation made Vladimir Ilyich pay particular attention to the new-comer. He talked with him a great deal and went [for] walks with him.

“Vladimir llyich questioned him as to his visit to the Yuzhni Rabochy. He was pleased with the definite manner in which Trotsky formulated the position. He liked the way Trotsky was able immediately to grasp the very substance of the differences and to perceive through the layer of well-meaning statements their desire, under the guise of a popular paper, to preserve the autonomy of their own little group.

“Meanwhile the call came from Russia with increased insistence for Trotsky to be sent back. Vladimir Ilyich wanted him to remain abroad in order to learn and help in the work of Iskra.

“Plekhanov immediately looked on Trotsky with suspicion: he saw in him a supporter of the younger section of the Iskra editorial (Lenin, Martov, Potressov) and a pupil of Lenin. When Vladimir Ilyich sent Plekhanov an article of Trotsky’s he replied: ‘I don’t like the pen of your “Pen”.’ ‘The style is merely a matter of acquisition,’ replied Vladimir Ilyich, ‘but the man is capable of learning and will be very useful.’ In March 1903 Vladimir Ilyich proposed co-opting Trotsky on the Iskra editorial board.

“Soon after Trotsky went to Paris, where he began to advance with remarkable success.”[6]

While ignoring this very revealing conversation, Henderson instead dredges up minor things over which to speculate and with which to reinforce his jaundiced view of Lenin. He repeatedly goes on flights of fancy, imagining what ‘could’ have happened, while making the occasional disparaging remark to bolster such musings.

By the time of the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903, the relations between the Tskhtarevs and Lenin and Krupskaya had cooled considerably. Following the Congress, they came to an end.

Henderson repeats the fairy tale that the split at this congress between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks “concerned the struggle over who would gain control of the party machine.”[7] He goes on to blame Lenin for the split and, of course, fully embraces Takhtarev’s side of the story. Henderson states: “Takhtarev, for one, was in no doubt that the rupture had been brought about solely by Lenin’s radicalism and his desire always to be the first – the leader – and roundly criticised him for his ‘underhand polemical tricks and intolerance’.”[8] Given his political sympathies, Takhtarev would of course say this.

As one would expect, Lenin is not allowed to answer his critics for himself in Henderson’s book. For those readers who want to better understand Lenin’s appraisal of the Congress and its significance, we refer them to his account, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

Given Takhtarev’s support for the ‘Economist’ trend, which was soundly defeated at the Congress, his distaste towards Lenin is perfectly understandable. “Takhtarev attended [the Congress] but maintained a neutral position and then left after the fifth session declaring that, given the atmosphere of sharp factional conflict, he considered it pointless and inadvisable for the Congress to continue,” writes Henderson. This is hardly a “neutral” position, by any measure!

Despite not attending the congress, his wife, Apollinaria, wrote a note to Krupskaya, in which she described it has having been run with an iron hand, and that “she wept for the Bund”, referring to the Jewish labour organisation that had previously joined the RSDLP. Krupskaya regarded the note as stupid and wrote that “she [Apollinaria] understands nothing!” Krupskaya correctly identifies Apollinaria’s political position as belonging to the “swamp”, i.e. the opportunist waverers at the congress. Henderson regards Krupskaya’s remark as “evident bile”, demonstrating that he understands nothing about the real significance of the Second Congress of the RSDLP or its participants.[9]

Notwithstanding Henderson’s version of events, the split that took place at the Second Congress was entirely unexpected to everyone, including Lenin. It took place over secondary questions, such as the composition of the Iskra editorial board. It had nothing to do with Lenin “the centralist” versus Martov “the democrat”. In fact, all the supporters of Iskra, which constituted a united block of 33 delegates, agreed on the need for a centralised party, as shown by their opposition to the federalism of the Bund, who demanded to be the sole representative of Jewish workers.

Everything proceeded quite smoothly until the 22nd session, where this unity suddenly broke down and there was a split in Iskra. A clash opened up between Lenin and Martov over the rules of who should be a member. With the support of the delegates from the Bund and the Economists, Martov and his supporters won the vote.

After this decision, Lenin found himself in a minority until the 27th session. When the Economists and the Bund walked out, Martov lost seven votes, reducing his support to 20 votes against Lenin’s 24.

Lenin was attempting to professionalise the party, nothing more. Yet he came into conflict with those who adopted a “small circle mentality”. It was this that led to the division between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ wings, which became Bolshevik and Menshevik.

The split came over the vote for the editorial board, where Lenin’s proposal won. At that point, Martov and his supporters refused to recognise the Congress decisions. Lenin tried to reach a compromise but this was rejected. The split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the congress was an anticipation of future sharp political differences, which would be exposed on the basis of events, particularly the 1905 Revolution.

As mentioned, Takhtarev left the Congress after the fifth session, at which arguments over the status of the Jewish Bund were being debated. Fears were expressed that the federalist structure proposed by the Bund, if adopted, would threaten the integrity of the party, leading to its fragmentation. Such a decision would also serve to reinforce backward, nationalist prejudices, which would be the death of the party as envisaged.

The Takhtarevs supported the Bund’s position. But they were in a tiny minority. When the vote was held, only the five Bund delegates favoured the proposal. Everyone else voted against, and it was for this reason that Takhtarev, and later the Bund delegates, walked out. Their departure from the congress had nothing to do with it being dominated by an “iron hand”, and everything to do with their being in a small minority.

By repeating these myths about the Congress, Henderson simply regurgitates the rubbish continuously pumped out by mainstream bourgeois historians about Lenin. He follows in the same bankrupt footsteps as Robert Service, Richard Pipes, Orlando Figes, and the rest.

Petty-bourgeois prejudice

The important theoretical debates at the time inevitably led to different tendencies and factions being created. Henderson's ignorance about such matters leads him to make the banal remark: “A common problem experienced by left-wing parties is their seeming inability to bury their differences and present a united front”. For him, political differences appear as squabbles, nothing more. He even goes on to talk about these differences leading to “the aggressive and divisive bullying tactics of Lenin’s Social Democrats…”[10] In Henderson’s mind, to fight for a definite political position is somehow equated with “bullying”.

Krupskaya Image public domainKrupskaya's Memories of Lenin provides a far-better account of Lenin’s life in London / Image: public domain

It is clear that the petty-bourgeois milieu that most academics inhabit is a million light-years away from the cut-and-thrust of political debate. The latter offends their liberal views and outlook. Their offence gives cover for their justification of the continuation of capitalism. Behind this ‘liberal’ guise lurks a reactionary essence. In a letter to Apollinaria in October 1900, Lenin explained in an honest fashion: “Of course struggle in the press will cause more ill feeling and give us a good many hard knocks, but we are not so thin-skinned as to fear knocks! To wish for struggle without knocks, differences without struggle, would be the height of naivety …”[11].

To add more spice to his dish, Henderson attempts to stir in what he presumes to be the psychology of the different actors, with their tenuous links to Lenin. In doing so, he relies heavily on subjective gossip and prejudice. For instance, Henderson relates a claim by Takhtarev that an argument between Lenin and himself over Peter Struve’s evolution from Legal Marxism to liberalism, led Lenin to say that Struve “deserved nothing better than to be killed.”[12] This hearsay is then dragged in, in order to reinforce the picture that the enemies of Bolshevism paint of Lenin. They paint him as a man of his supposed bloodthirsty ruthlessness – a trait, which they maintain, was always present in him. Takhtarev, himself an enemy of Bolshevism, would later refer to “Lenin’s iron gauntlet”, concealed under a velvet glove.

The book is littered with Henderson’s political prejudices, which reveal his smug hostility to Lenin and Bolshevism. “In 1917 and the years of the Civil War that followed, Lenin became known for his cold-blooded ruthlessness and determination,” he writes at the beginning of the work. “As this book will show, the young Lenin who visited Britain in the first years of the twentieth century demonstrated, even at that early age, a similar callous single-mindedness.”[13]

These crass remarks give us an insight into the author’s politics. His hostile words are saturated with a liberal outlook. “Single-mindedness” is conflated with “cold-blooded ruthlessness”. Without “single-mindedness” the Soviet government – faced with 21 foreign armies of intervention, and fighting for its survival – would never have won. Henderson’s views are typical of those historians who use “facts” to fit their preconceived narrative. You begin with a common prejudice and then seek to justify it by every means available. This has been the stock-in-trade of every bourgeois biographer of Lenin.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks were certainly determined. There is no doubt about that, a fact that is very much to their credit. They were fighting to overthrow the Tsarist regime, which was no genteel tea party! They made colossal sacrifices to this end. On Lenin’s first visit to London in 1902, his thoughts were very much of professionalising the work of the party. It was serious business that required a serious organisation, which he outlined in his book, What is to be Done? Amateurish methods had to be abandoned and the work placed on a proper footing. Of course, such thoughts are completely alien to the bourgeois historians of Bolshevism, who cannot comprehend such sacrifice or commitment to a revolutionary cause.

Henderson’s book is peppered with fruitless speculation, which often seems to have been included merely to pad out the book. For instance, he writes at length about Takhtarev’s personal history and political evolution, despite the latter being a political non-entity in the grand scheme of things. In doing so, he lays great stress on Lenin’s supposed past romantic feelings towards Apollinaria, and how they supposedly coloured Lenin’s relations with the couple.

All of this stuff is of course utter conjecture or make-believe – the kind of facile gossip in which Henderson seems to revel. He asserts that “it has been claimed” (these are Henderson’s words) that Lenin proposed marriage to Apollinaria, but that she rejected him, and so he directed his affections to Krupskaya instead. Many nonsensical things have been “claimed”, but this does not make them true. “It is for the reader to make up their own mind on all of these options,” states Henderson, having laid out a trail of insinuations.[14] In other words, you are invited to fill in the holes in his story with any prejudice or opinion you fancy.

History, or gossip?

Scraping the bottom of the barrel, Henderson quotes an article by Trotsky written in April 1924, the year of Lenin’s death. It was to form part of a biography that Trotsky was writing about Lenin. In the article, Trotsky mentions an episode when he was invited to a 1902 New Year’s Eve party by the Takhtarevs.

RSDLP 5th congress church Image public domainBrotherhood Church in Hackney, where the 5th congress of the RSDLP took place in 1907 / Image: public domain

Trotsky referred to the Takhtarevs simply as ‘B’, “a husband and wife of the former Petersburg group Worker’s Thought who had lived for quite some time in London”. Why Trotsky didn’t use Takhtarev’s full name is not known – it is an insignificant detail of no consequence. Nevertheless, Henderson immediately jumps on this as proof of a dastardly plot by either Trotsky or the state censors to erase the Takhtarevs from history! “It is self-evident that, as early as 1924, in the year of Lenin’s death, Party history was already being rewritten and, for whatever reason, Takhtarev and Yakubova had already become non-persons''[15].

Firstly, why in 1924 should Trotsky or the censors deliberately attempt to make the Takhtarevs “non-persons”, when they were already complete non-entities? It makes no sense. They were of no political importance whatsoever. In any case, Apollinaria died before the First World War and her husband, who was by that time no longer involved in politics, worked as a university lecturer in Russia until his death in 1925. In September 1924, Takhtarev had been dismissed from his university position, which Henderson claims was “possibly as a direct result of some not entirely flattering personal memoirs of the late Soviet leader he had recently published” (our emphasis)[16]. …Or possibly not, depending on your predilection!

Again, we see Henderson’s fertile imagination at play. He then says the Takhtarevs “had been immediately attacked by Lenin’s sister Anna and this in itself may have served as the reason for his dismissal.”[17] However, in a footnote, Henderson admits that Anna’s criticism of Takhtarev had not been published until 1934, some 10 years after the death of Takhtarev! So how could this have any bearing on Takhtarev’s dismissal?

The Stalinist campaign of falsification began, not as an attack on the likes of the inconsequential Takhtarevs, but to discredit Trotsky. It was pursued in the first instance by the “triumvirate” of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin to keep Trotsky out of the Party leadership. This followed and reflected the rise of a ruling bureaucracy after Lenin’s death. The Takhtarevs, who had nothing to do with Trotsky, were of no political interest to the triumvirate. Henderson is simply using this episode to sensationalise this non-affair and make it out to be something it was not.

In Trotsky’s story about the Takhtarev’s New Year’s party – in which he relates how there was some doubt over whether Lenin and Krupskaya would attend – Henderson draws the astonishing conclusion that this somehow showed “the true nature of the personal relationship which then existed between Lenin and his co-revolutionaries – here Trotsky betrays a certain timidity in the attitude of the ‘communards’ towards Lenin and supplies no evidence that would point to the existence of any warmth or any signs of friendship in the leader’s dealings with his closest comrades.”[18]

This ridiculous claim by Henderson is supposed to illustrate Lenin’s cold-heartedness to his close comrades and his lack of human feelings. To call this a reach is an understatement – it is a travesty! Henderson is certainly keen to stir up controversy. The reality, of course, is entirely to the contrary, as Trotsky clearly explained in his memoirs: “There was also a common room in which we drank coffee, smoked, and engaged in endless discussions. This room, thanks chiefly to Zasulich, but not without help from Martov, was always in a state of rank disorder.” He continued, “I was with Martov and Zasulich several times a day, whereas Lenin led the life of a family man, and every meeting with him, aside from the official meetings, was a small event. The Bohemian habits and tastes which weighed so heavily with Martov were utterly alien to Lenin.” (our emphasis)[19]

Lenin lived apart from the “den”, to use Plekhanov’s expression. He resided with his wife and mother-in-law, in more of a domestic set up, as Trotsky explained. It was simply a matter of taste, nothing more. Lenin was perhaps more conservative in his social attitudes than the others and preferred to keep to himself and his family. Bohemian tastes offered no attraction to him, as Trotsky pointed out. This had nothing at all to do with a “lack of warmth” towards his comrades. Such a conclusion is merely the implication of the silly insinuations on the part of our author.

Apart from Henderson’s political rubbish and subjective meanderings, he nevertheless reveals a picture of the bustling Russian emigre community in the East End of London at the turn of the Twentieth Century. In the book, we visit the lodgings, public houses, meeting halls and other places where these exiled revolutionaries lived, socialised and debated. Henderson also describes the Free Russian Library in Whitechapel, which was a hive of activity for radical exiles. The book reveals the role of the Russian police, which took a great interest in these Russians emigres, as a result of which, a Foreign Agency was established in Paris in 1883 to spy on the exiles, in the same year that Plekhanov established the Emancipation of Labour Group in Geneva.

Lenin’s next visit to London took place in April 1905, as revolution was unfolding in Russia following the events of Bloody Sunday. In the wake of the impasse after the Second Congress, in which the ‘minority’ boycotted the Party’s committees, Lenin was keen to break the logjam through the calling of a new congress. This Third Congress would eventually open in London. Its exact venue was the Crown and Woolpack public house in Clerkenwell. This was a Bolshevik Congress, as the Mensheviks decided to hold their own separate ‘conference’ at the same time in Geneva.

Henderson asserts that Lenin, “took firm control over the proceedings” and “by the end of proceedings, had succeeded in consolidating his position of power.”[20] Despite the rich debates at the Congress over the question of armed uprising and other key issues, in the white heat of the 1905 revolution, the author’s ignorant conclusion is to reinforce his stubborn view that Lenin was “power-crazy”. To use Henderson’s own words, we leave it to our readers to “draw their own conclusions”.

If you can believe it, Henderson even gives credence to the ridiculous view held by Vladimir Burtsev, a vehement anti-Bolshevik, that Lenin supposedly operated under the “patronage of the Department of Police and of the Germans”![21] It is no accident that Burtsev ended up supporting the reactionary White Army of Admiral Kolchak and General Denikin during the Russian Civil War.

Henderson goes on in similar vein: “With Lenin gaining control of the Party from Plekhanov, the movement took on a conspiratorial aspect, with the Bolsheviks blocking all attempts to end underground activity, to unite the movement and to establish a legal workers’ party, which could openly challenge the government for basic political freedoms.”[22] It seems our author is labouring under the illusion that the Bolsheviks were operating in a democracy like Britain, rather than under a monstrous tsarist dictatorship! The very fact that they were forced to hold their congress abroad in London (and the Mensheviks in Geneva) is enough to show how difficult conditions were in Russia.

In actual fact, Lenin was in favour of using every legal opening possible to spread the ideas of Marxism, but not at the expense of putting the party itself at risk. Henderson goes on: “Lenin’s opposition to calls for the establishment of such a legal democratic framework turned out to have the most pernicious and corrupting influence on the whole revolutionary movement, which emerged in the years 1905-1906 and which would play out in full in 1917. This, according to Burtsev, was perhaps the most wicked act committed by the Bolsheviks prior to their seizure of power. In his view, the catastrophe which erupted in 1917 had already been in preparation from as far back as 1900 thanks, in large part, to the support they [the Bolshevik faction] received from the Okhrana.”[23]

Here Henderson goes so far as to spew out lies about how the Bolsheviks were actually supported by the Russian secret police! The dismissal of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a “catastrophe” says all you need to know about his political views.

In fact, the Third Congress, far from being a stitch-up, played a decisive role in drawing out the political differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism. While both factions regarded the Russian Revolution as a bourgeois revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed the bourgeoisie would play a counter-revolutionary role. As such, it would fall to the proletariat to take the lead in alliance with the peasantry. The Mensheviks, on the other hand, believed the proletariat should play a role subordinate to the leadership of the bourgeoisie. Lenin gave his assessment of both positions in Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, written in the summer of 1905.

Henderson’s book also covers Lenin’s other visits to London: in 1907, 1908 and 1911. In a similar fashion, he peppers these accounts with his own jaundiced views. For example, dealing with the Fifth Congress of 1907, he says:

“The attempts by Trotsky and others to bring the internal warring factions together and to align the Party with the Kadets and other liberal parties into a unified legal opposition to the tsar’s government met with defeat.”[24]

Of course, this completely mixes up fact with fiction. It is true that Trotsky was in favour of conciliation between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, something that he later said was a mistake. However, to say that Trotsky was in favour of an alliance with the bourgeois liberals is utterly false. Trotsky sided with Lenin in opposing the bourgeois parties and he was squarely against the Mensheviks’ class-collaborationist viewpoint. In the debate, Lenin explained:

“Trotsky acknowledged the permissibility and usefulness of a Left bloc against the liberal bourgeoisie. These facts are sufficient for me to acknowledge that Trotsky has come closer to our views. Quite apart from the question of ‘uninterrupted revolution’, we have here solidarity on fundamental points in the question of the attitude towards bourgeois parties.”[25]

As they say in the press, why let the facts get in the way of a good story? Clearly, Henderson is content to peddle fiction, which he scatters throughout his book.

His conclusion is just as superficial. He ends by saying: “Perhaps it was fortunate for Lenin that, in the end, he had not spent enough time in London to have fallen under its corrosive and politically debilitating influence…” Why this ought to have been the case is a mystery. After all, hadn’t Marx and Engels spent most of their adult life in London without degenerating?

Finally, he ponders, “it is perhaps surprising that, over the course of his several visits to the British capital, he [Lenin] appeared to leave no discernible trace or mark behind.”[26]

But Lenin had no intention of leaving his “mark” in London, just as he never intended to leave his mark behind in Geneva or Munich either. They were simply his places of work. Where he did make his mark, so to speak – and one that was certainly worth talking about – was in Russia, in helping to make a socialist revolution that would reverberate around the world and change the course of history.

Whatever your opinions of Lenin, we can say with certainty that Henderson’s book will leave no discernible trace or mark behind, except a stink. Perhaps a better title for the work would be The Book That Lit a Fart – and the Nasty Odour it Left Behind.

[1] Robert Henderson, The Spark That Lit the Revolution: Lenin in London and the Politics That Changed the World (London: I. B. Tauris, 2020).

[2] V. I. Lenin, “Letter to Georgi Plekhanov, April 17, 1902,” in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 43 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), pg. 80.

[3] V. I. Lenin, “Letter to Apollinaria Yakubova, October 26, 1900,” in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 34 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), pg. 51-4.

[4] Henderson, The Spark That Lit the Revolution, pg. 83-4.

[5] Nadezhda Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1930), pg. 69.

[6] Ibid., pg. 84-6.

[7] Henderson, The Spark That Lit the Revolution, pg. 108.

[8] Ibid., pg. 108.

[9] Ibid., pg. 109.

[10] Ibid., pg. 105.

[11] Lenin, “Letter to Apollinaria Yakubova,” Lenin Collected Works, vol. 43, pg. 48.

[12] Henderson, The Spark That Lit the Revolution, pg. 100.

[13] Ibid., pg. 8.

[14] Ibid., pg. 55-6.

[15] Ibid., pg. 98.

[16] Ibid., pg. 212.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., pg. 98.

[19] Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt At An Autobiography (London: Wellred Books, 2018), pg. 125-6.

[20] Henderson, The Spark That Lit the Revolution, pg. 123.

[21] Ibid., pg. 128.

[22] Ibid., pg. 131.

[23] Ibid., pg. 131-2.

[24] Ibid., pg. 169.

[25] V. I. Lenin, “The Fifth Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party,” in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 12, pg. 470.

[26] Henderson, The Spark That Lit the Revolution, pg. 197-9.

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