The Party, Without Pain
THE BOLSHEVIKS by Adam Ulam, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1965 $9.95.
I'm fond of playing the "animal, vegetable, or mineral" game with history books. An animal is lively and generally fun, but it doesn't have much to do with the facts and tends to run away with itself. A vegetable book has firm factual roots that keep it from running around but at least it's alive. A mineral book is solid ground--sometimes rocky reading, but always right.
There is at least one biography of Lenin in each of these categories. Robert Payne created a mammoth animal, The Life and Death of Lenin, which is seductively readable, though not always reliable history. David Shub's Lenin is a plant whose roots are a bit shallow, since it was written without the benefit of recently discovered documentary material. Louis Fisher's book is definitely right, but it's just a middle-sized stone. Now Adam Ulam has written a boulder.
The Bolsheviks is not as big as its title would have you believe. Ulam implicitly assumes that the history of the Bolshevik Party cannot be separated from the history of Lenin. The book is essentially an account of Lenin's life, padded with more general history and laced with occasional hints of animation. The decision to identify the Party with Lenin was in many ways an unfortunate one, because the two were not synonymous. A discussion of dissent within the Party would have made the book more exciting, and probably more balanced.
But The Bolsheviks is solid biography which frequently benefits from its pretensions to history of a broader scope. Ulam's discussions of Lenin's youth and the Party in exile are exhaustive, and his treatment of the 1917 revolutions is both thorough and fair-minded. In discussing the February revolution, for example, after giving two pages of "the bare facts," Ulam asks, "What did really happen?" He then summarizes the liberal, non-Bolshevik Socialist, monarchist, Trotskyite, and Leninist positions before adding his own interpretation. Equally impressive are his analyses of Lenin as the ruler of a state. Here he gives a very reasonable explanation of Lenin's reasons for introducing the New Economic Policy. When he writes about the Comintern, Ulam not only manages to convey a great deal of information, but also elucidates the personal motivations of Comintern founders and members, and recreates the atmosphere of world communism under Russian rule. In passages like these a small plant seems to sprout from the rock.
One cannot help admiring Ulam for having accumulated the detail that illuminates sections like those on the February and October revolutions. Unfortunately, he often prefers to combine and compromise conflicting accounts instead of selecting his facts and taking a more definitive stand. For example, there is a minor but interesting disagreement among historians about a man named Roman Malinovsky, who was either a police spy, a Bolshevik agent, or a double agent, depending on whom you read. After digesting all the available evidence, Ulam decides that "Malinovsky himself, it is obvious, was not simply a cold-blooded police agent, but a man divided in his loyalties." All well and good; but to ask the author his own question, what really did happen?
It is not Ulam's style that keeps his book in the mineral world. He handles mountains of detail as concisely as any man can. Ulam has an engaging way of making his material seem contemporary. To describe the small provincial town where Lenin spent part of his youth. Ulam quotes a contemporary journalist's description of a typical evening and adds "If only nineteenth century Russia had had television!" Or he defines the Kadets, or Constitutional Democrats, with the following sentence:
"Few political movements in history have had behind them such a high portion of their society's brains as the Kadets, who within the Russian context appeared to combine some of the characteristics of the Americans for Democratic Action and the nineteenth century English Whige."
The Bolsheviks remains inanimate because Ulam refuses to deal with the moral issues of twentieth-century Russian history. Part of his reticence can be attributed to his initial concept of the book as the history of a Party rather than a biography. When he speaks of guilt at all it is in subtly collective terms: "Insofar as the peasant was concerned, no dialectic, no contradiction within Lenin's own thinking could obscure or explain away the essentially repressive and hypocritical policy of the Bolsheviks."
Ulam explains Lenin's attitude toward terror in purely intellectual terms:
That the Communist should consider the human cost of social engineering was for Lenin almost unthinkable...It was, then, almost natural to suggest that for the people at large the Revolution and the Civil War were accompanied by only minor inconveniences when weighed against the glory and excitement of participating in the heroic struggle... When he did remember the human cost of the Revolution Lenin, following the example of Marx and Engels, was fond of the image of birth pains.
Perhaps Ulam understands Lenin as a completely intellectual idealist, but this clashes with earlier statements about Lenin's pragmatism. Furthermore, Ulam dehumanizes his subject by denying him any disenchantment or disillusionment, claiming that his ideology would not tolerate it:
He was a humble servant of the forces of history and for all the imperfection of the human material he had to wok with, for all the disappointments of the last years, the struggle to build a new society, a new world, would go on after he was gone.
The finished portrait of Lenin is unconvincing, but more important, it is uncommitted. Be The Bolsheviks a history or a biography, it deals with a period whose major issues were as much moral as intellectual, economic, and political. When it comes to handling moral questions, a book need more than a pile of factual truths. The author himself must make an entrance and make some decisions. This is the time for the book to come alive. But Ulam fails to appear, and his book never rises above painstaking historical geology