For the centenary of Lenin’s death, Verso have published a screenplay by Tariq Ali which dramatises the story of Lenin’s life. Daire Ní Chnáimh reviews, and considers its contribution to left culture.

The Lenin Scenario by Tariq Ali, available from Verso.

In the introduction to this print edition of Tariq Ali’s screenplay on Lenin, the author writes that a Hollywood biopic wouldn’t be enough to introduce Lenin to a generation who don’t know his name. Directors under fleeting consideration were Oliver Stone, Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard, maybe because they would seek ways to integrate the politics into the film’s style. There have been many styles of film about the characters populating this slice of communist history, from the ultra-hammy (see Lenin: The Train) to the wacky avant-garde (see Jim Finn’s ‘Chums from Across the Void’). How does Tariq Ali’s rendition pivot toward audiences? It’s exciting and witty, and it refrains from over-explaining the history (although it is an unfortunate omission that nobody explains what a Soviet is). With words like ‘imbecile’ and ‘braggart’, the period drama is construed through period English. Even if it wouldn’t give a Gen Z newcomer enough context to understand the Russian Revolution, it is entertaining enough to provoke curiosity to learn more. Its biggest risk – which the screenplay is well aware of – is that it perpetuates the cult of Lenin which Lenin himself tried hard to combat.

The Lenin Scenario dramatises the history of a remarkable man. It starts at his childhood, when the state killed his older brother for plotting to kill the Tsar; it passes through his time in Swiss exile with Nadya Krupskaya; his 1917 return on the train, and the following power plays to oust the Russian bourgeoisie; we seem him strategise with Trotsky in the statecraft of the civil war years; and it ends with his dying days, with him racked with doubt about the rightward jolts of the Party bureaucracy. Without Lenin, the Russian Revolution may never have overthrown the bourgeois state, and with him, the newborn worker’s state morphed into a bureaucratic dictatorship whose Stalinist scars remain visible in former Soviet countries today. 

How much of this history can be understood through the paradigm of Lenin’s life? The screenplay includes a meta-warning in the form of Trotsky’s words: ‘this is not the time to reduce the rise of new social forces on a historical scale to individual relationships.’ However, this is exactly how the audience is led to make sense of them. Does the play bring into being the cult of personality against which it is trying to react? It is not a people’s history, but nor is it a chamber piece. Voiceovers that show the wider context are supplied by Inessa Armand and Nadya Krupskaya, the women closest to Lenin. Inessa says ‘All the debates within the Central Committee would have been of no avail without the members of the party. Its agitators in the army and navy. Its leaders in the factories.’ Other than this interlude, it is mainly the Committee and Party elites that we see. It would have taken a different political tradition to yield a different story.

This said, the weaving through of social history is excellently done. Ali foregrounds the sexism, antisemitism and warmongering to which the revolution was a reaction. The screenplay begins with a caption explaining that in 1887, 300 pogroms against Jews were carried out by state-backed paramilitaries. This is vital 19th century history. Given this was the era when a minority of Jewish people began to articulate the first stirrings of Zionism, it is important to recognise that revolutionary politics was understood by another minority of Russian Jews as a different, better, response. The revolution is seen to hold firm against antisemitic currents, be they among the Russian far-right or in the circles of Western diplomacy. The 1917 transformation of society also aspired to end the oppression of women. Ali is at pains to show the challenges faced by women in this effort. Despite Lenin’s emphasis on the importance of women’s participation in revolutionary politics, there remained deep-rooted patriarchal barriers to inclusion. Although the situation of women in the countryside was far worse at this time, this context is partially shown through giving scenes to Alexandra Kollontai, Krupskaya and Armand to confer about their difficulties.

While the triumph of the first revolutionary moments are among the most exciting in the story, Ali does not flinch from the bureaucratic dictatorship which descends on Russia amidst the blur of the ensuing civil war. It is the Menshevik Julius Martov who has the sharpest words here. I would say the best scene in the whole screenplay is a blistering exchange between Martov and Trotsky, where the former accuses Trotsky and Lenin of being blinded by their positions of power.

‘These methods – I still remember your old words – will lead to this: the Party substitutes for the working class, the Central Committee substitutes for the Party and the General Secretary substitutes for the Central Committee. Brilliant. Prophetic.’

Trotsky splutters some unconvincing ripostes; Martov drives on to point out the imperialist-tinged scale that the Committee pursues as it micro-manages workers’ parties around the world. Understood as an emanation of Lenin’s character, the bureaucratic dictatorship is the logical progression of Lenin’s desire to control and formalise. However, Trotsky’s point about historical forces being greater than social relationships lays the blame more squarely on the social forces which prevented the Russian people from self-organising without a bureaucratic state apparatus. In these moments of tightening control, Lenin ceases to be seen as the leader who could let a thousand flowers bloom. Martov’s warnings do the most to diminish the cult of personality that surrounds Lenin and his methods. 

To study Lenin is to study reasons for revolutionary ossification and decay – and to wade into his posthumous cult is to risk embracing a repetition of those organisational mistakes. What Lunacharsky terms the Leninist ‘attitude of being technicians of revolution’ is heady in that it gives a sense that a blueprint exists and perhaps it is embodied in Lenin’s embalmed corpse. But Lenin himself said that turning the dead revolutionary into a saint ‘robs revolutionary theory of its substance.’ The strength of Ali’s screenplay is that it humanises the decision-makers of the Russian Revolution. The story reveals the egos, blind spots and romantic intrigues of these figures alongside their compassion, intelligence and ideals. They were not robo-socialists with unalloyed focus on revolution – a relief, because neither are we. Ali’s narrative revives Lenin’s embalmed corpse, shows his fallibility as well as his talent, and raises the spectre of the ensuing cult even as it somewhat participates. 

On avoiding the personality cult, Nadya Krupskaya’s words at Lenin’s funeral – unfortunately not included in this screenplay – are the best: ‘You wish to honour the name of Vladimir Ilyich – then establish infants’ homes, kindergartens, houses, schools, libraries, ambulances, hospitals, homes for invalids; and above all create a living testament to his ideals.’

But the screenplay is not just an excuse to educate us on revolutionary strategy. It is a moving piece on the highs and lows of interpersonal relationships between comrades. I say that and then take more counsel from the history it contains. The play highlights the importance of culture in building up our spirits for continuing to struggle. The first scene shows a group of students commemorating the death of radical poet Dobrolyubov. When the police try to disband the gathering, the students rally themselves by singing the Marseillaise. Protest song recurs throughout, and there is also footage from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, constructivist theatre, and poetry nights with Mayakovsky. The backdrop of cultural excitement around revolutionary ideas is something we could seek to rebuild now in new ways, and Ali’s screenplay contributes to that. However, its reach is limited whilst it remains in the form of words on a page. 

In a time when revolutionary culture seems to have shrunk to the arid paperscapes of literary tomes, a good film on Lenin, which doesn’t take itself too seriously, would be a welcome breeze. In his introduction, Ali talks about a rogue incident where he almost got one million dollars to produce The Lenin Scenario as a musical stage play in South Africa. The funding fell through, but it begs the question of how, in this time when culture’s existence depends so utterly on profitability, could such a forcefully anti-capitalist film ever win funding? With many crowd scenes and elaborate locations, the screenplay was written without much attempt to keep it low-budget. Workarounds could be devised – a stage backdrop could leave the more elaborate settings to the imagination, and actors could play multiple roles. Part of rebuilding revolutionary culture for the Left in Britain requires remembering our traditions of radical theatre and filmmaking which peaked in the 1970s and 80s – although conditions for that today are even less favourable than in the Thatcher years. 

The Lenin Scenario is a tantalising work which renders Russian revolutionary history accessible, exciting and funny. It might take our own revolution to bring it to cinema screens. 

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