Blog post

The Novel of Lenin: Chapter Three

The third installment of our nine-part series: The Novel of Lenin by Joseph Andras.

Joseph Andras10 April 2024

The Novel of Lenin: Chapter Three

Chapter Three

1895-1900: Travels to Paris and Germany, the Creation of a Journal

At the turn of the century, Vladimir is authorized to travel. In Paris, he encounters Marx’s son-in-law, Lafargue. Then he travels to Switzerland and Berlin. In January 1900, his exile ends, but he returns to Germany.

We are in 1895. Vladimir is finally authorized to travel. He heads to Switzerland where he meets Plekhanov. This offspring of the aristocracy had met Engels before sowing Marxism in Russia. Lenin has read and admired him. Together, they think about creating a Marxist review. Then Lenin is off to Paris. Here he meets Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, and heads to Berlin after a treatment in Switzerland.  Of course, he is reading. His lodgings must imperatively be situated by a library. He returns to his home country in September, his Marxist readings hidden in the false bottom of his suitcase.

In Russia, the little working class has begun to raise its voice. Vladimir joins the offices of the brand-new League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. Soon it is time to establish a journal, but the police put an end to these ambitions: the League’s militants are imprisoned. In prison, Vladimir writes in invisible ink –with milk–, looks after his cell, does exercises, and concentrates on his next writing project. At the end of January 1897, he is condemned to 3 years of exile. Direction: eastern Siberia. He rents a room, bathes in the river, fishes, and hunts with passion. His family continues to support his financial needs; soon, a dog escorts him. Nadezhda Krupskaya joins him with his mother. The young Marxist with a lower nobility background had met him during a conference in Saint Petersburg in 1894. She too had joined the Union. They married in a church during the summer of 1897. In her Reminiscences of Lenin, she will write that: “Vladimir Ilyich was interested in every little detail that could help him to piece together a picture of the life and conditions of the workers, to find some sort of avenue of approach to them in the matter of revolutionary propaganda.”

Together they struggled through the translation of a few English socialist texts and Lenin multiplied his articles. Under a pseudonym, he published two books. But exile torments him: he is painfully aware of his powerlessness. Especially as the Marxist world frows restless. Eduard Bernstein, the German translator of The Poverty of Philosophy, eminent theoretician of the German Social-Democratic Party, and executor of Engels’ will, has published three articles in 1896 titled “Problems of Socialism,” then, three years later, the book Evolutionary Socialism. What does he say? This, in substance: Marx was on the wrong track; capitalism will not collapse under the weight of its inner contradictions; the middle classes must no longer be neglected; the State can become the locus of struggle through universal suffrage. In sum: reform, rather than violent revolution. An upheaval, to be sure. Rosa Luxemburg doesn’t hesitate to respond in articles that will become her celebrated Reform or Revolution? Bernstein is mistaken. Worse, it’s pure opportunism (“revisionism,” as it was called). “But now that it has shown its face in Bernstein’s book, one cannot help exclaim with astonishment: ‘What? Is that all you have to say?’ Not the shadow of an original thought! Not a single idea that was not refuted, crushed, reduced into dust by Marxism several decades ago!”

Vladimir repeatedly demands that the book be sent to him. Then, once having read it alongside his spouse, hides none of his disdain. A cat comes to live with them and Vladimir’s family laments that in his letters he tells them nothing of his day-to-day life. But he lacks this sort of spirit. What’s important is work. Later, Gorki will say of Lenin that he was “A man of simple habits, a stranger to drinking or smoking, he was busy at his difficult and complicated work from morning till night and though quite unable to see to his own needs he kept a sharp eye on the well-being of his comrades.” Finally, January 19, 1900 arrives: his exile is finished. The couple packs up 500 kilos of books and settles in Pskov. The police force him to. But he is certain that nothing can be done from within Russia. At the slightest move, he’ll dive back in.

To unite the nascent protest movement, he needs a newspaper, but as soon as it is printed, it will be censored. Time to leave: he files a request with the authorities. Pleased with the idea of getting rid of such an important man, they accept. He leaves for Germany in July, where he meets with Plekhanov in the hope of working towards this union.

It is a deception. And a bitter one at that. Plekhanov is suspicious, irritable, intolerant, and authoritarian. On top of it all, he lapses into antisemitism. Never had Vladimir so respected a man; never, in leaving, had he been so wounded. “It shows him flexing his muscles for the first time, to become a leader in his own right. It taught him never to mix the personal and political aspects of his future alliances and quarrels – he learned to discipline the emotional side of his nature,” writes the militant Trotskyist Tony Cliff in his Building the Party, Lenin 1893-1914 (Vol. 1). The century comes to a close and in Germany, Vladimir puts the final touches on the first issue of Iskra (The Spark). Its slogan? “From a spark a fire will flare up.”

This text was originally published by L’Humanité in a special edition commemorating the centenary of Lenin’s death. Translated from the French by Patrick Lyons.

Chapter Two: 1885-1893: The Death of the Brother, Marxist Circles, Nicholas II Ascends to the Throne

 [book-strip index="1"] 


Not By Politics Alone
This vivid selection, compiled and introduced by Tamara Deutscher, written by Lenin and those who knew him, brings us the revolution in his everyday life – the man who lived by politics but not by ...
The State and Revolution
Lenin’s booklet The State and Revolution struck the world of Marxist theory like a lightning bolt. Written in the months running up to the October Revolution of 1917, Lenin turned the traditional s...
Imperialism and the National Question
Fired up by the outbreak of the First World War and outraged by the capitulation of most socialist parties to the demands of national bourgeoisies, Lenin sought to understand the deeper roots of th...
Tomorrow They Won't Dare to Murder Us
A young revolutionary plants a bomb in a factory on the outskirts of Algiers during the Algerian War. The bomb is timed to explode after work hours, so no one will be hurt. But the authorities have...
Lenin's Childhood

Lenin's Childhood

When he died suddenly in 1967, Isaac Deutscher had completed only the compelling first chapter of a long-anticipated biography of Lenin, published here. It covers Lenin’s family background, birth a...
Faraway the Southern Sky

Faraway the Southern Sky

Fleeing persecution in Indochina, the young Ho Chi Minh arrived in Paris as World War I was sputtering to a close. A painfully shy twentysomething, he joined the shadowy figures of the demimonde, t...