The Life and Death of Lenin

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction stories, particularly of his Foundation series. In this series of books, a mathematician named Hari Seldon invents a way to predict the future through the mathematics of probability, which he calls Psychohistory.  It is not possible to predict the future actions of an individual person or even small groups of people. Psychohistory only works which large populations, entire worlds and nations. By using psychohistory Seldon learns  that the Galactic Empire, which has existed for thousands of years, is falling and the galaxy will enter into a dark age lasting for many millennia if nothing is done. It is too late to avert the fall of the Empire, but Seldon hopes to shorten the interregnum between the First and Second Galactic Empires to merely a thousand years by setting up two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy that will preserve the scientific knowledge that would otherwise be lost and to lead the way to the reunification of the galaxy.

Could there really be such a method of calculating the future as Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory? In order for something like that to work, history would have to be determined by great economic and social forces and the choices of individuals, even great generals and kings, would have to be inconsequential. Carlyle’s Great Man Theory would have to give way to Spencer’s theory that even great men are mere products of their environment.

For my part, I do not believe that psychohistory could really be possible. I think that great men, and women, really do alter the course of history. There are just so many ways in which history could have turned out very differently, if the personalities of the persons involved has been different. Imagine the American Revolution without George Washington or Germany after the First World War without a Hitler. Then too, there ware the completely unpredictable workings of nature. Climate change has had a greater effect on the rise and fall of empires than is generally recognized. Diseases like the Black Death can appear due to chance mutations of a virus or bacteria and kill half the population of a continent with little warning.

I could give many examples, but the one that I would like to consider is the life and death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik Party and the first leader of the USSR. Before the Russian Revolutions of 1917, there were many socialist factions seeking reform or revolution in Russia, some Marxist, some not. Among all these parties, Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks were the most radically Marxist and the most given to violence and terrorism. Lenin and his lieutenants had no use for the kind of parliamentary reforms that more moderate groups wanted to bring to Russia, nor did he care for reforms to improve the conditions of the masses. Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted revolution.When the Czar was overthrown in February, 1917 and a republican Provisional  Government set up, the Bolsheviks played almost no role in the great affairs. Lenin was still in exile and wanted his party to have no part in bourgeoisie elections. The party would seize power in a Communist revolution.

It is important to understand that this decision to seize power was entirely Lenin’s. None of the other leading Bolsheviks thought it was a good idea and properly speaking, as good Marxists, the Bolsheviks ought not to have led a revolution at all. Marx has very definite ideas on how Communism was supposed to come about. He believed that every society moved through stages, from the primitive socialism of savages to the great slave states of the ancient world, to feudalism,  capitalism, socialism, and finally communism. Since Russia was still emerging from feudalism into capitalism, Lenin ought to have waited until capitalism was fully developed in Russia before leading the revolution. Lenin, however, realized that the Bolsheviks would never have a better chance for power than while the Russian government and economy were in a state of collapse.



Lenin’s rule as the first leader of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Russian people. All of the totalitarian aspects of the communist regime that are usually attributed to Joseph Stalin’s tyranny had their beginnings with Lenin. Lenin was the one who setup the Checka, the secret police and it was Lenin who established the Gulags and the use of terror to subdue the population. Yet, despotic as Lenin was, Stalin was far worse and it was doubly unfortunate for the Russian people that Lenin’s premature death in 1924 led to the assumption of power by Stalin.


In the year before his death, Lenin was increasingly uneasy over events in the Soviet Union. The great revolution did not seem to be leading to a communist utopia but had exchanged the tyranny of the Czar with the tyranny of the commissar. Lenin began to consider ways of making the Soviet state more representative of the workers it purported to serve. Lenin was also becoming aware that Stalin, while a good man to have around in a revolution, was wholly unsuited to wielding power after the revolution. Lenin decided that Stalin had to be relieved of his powerful position of Party General Secretary. If Lenin had lived a normal lifespan, it is likely that he would have succeeded in unseating Stalin.  It is less likely that he would have made the Soviet regime in any sense democratic. Lenin’s own autocratic personality prevented him from ever really seeing that the cause of the increasingly oppressive regime was his own reluctance to allow anyone outside the Communist Party from gaining any real independence from the rule of the Party. Still, if Lenin had not died, the rule of the Communist Party, while still despotic, would not have reached the insane level of repression as it did under Stalin. The history of the twentieth century might have been very different, depending on whether Lenin lived or died.

Lenin was only 53 when he died following a series of strokes over the previous year which progressively weakened him. After his death, an autopsy showed that he had advanced arteriosclerosis in his brain with some blood vessels completely calcified. The arteriosclerosis was far worse than might be expected in a man of Lenin’s age, especially as he had none of the risk factors that might be associated with the disease. Lenin did not smoke, was moderate in his diet, and exercised regularly. He was under a considerable amount of stress as leader of a nation in a civil war and which had to be rebuilt almost from the ground up. Still, such an advanced case of arteriosclerosis at Lenin’s age is unusual, particularly considering that the worst buildup of plaque was in the blood vessels of his brain. The blood vessels in the rest of Lenin’s body were no more afflicted by the disease than might be expected by a man of his age and habits. Something strange was going on.

Recently, researchers have discovered that a mutation in a single gene can cause a selective buildup of the plaque that causes arteriosclerosis in the legs. Could Lenin have suffered from a similar genetic disorder that caused such a buildup in the brain? Lenin’s father also suffered from cardiovascular disease, dying of heart disease at the age of 54. While it is not yet confirmed that Lenin himself suffered from a genetic defect that specifically targeted the blood vessels of the brain, it is clear that there was some sort of hereditary predisposition for cardiovascular disease.

Getting back to psychohistory, I do not see how any method of predicting the future could account for the life and death of Lenin. It would not be difficult to predict the fall of the Czar many years before it happened. It may not have been too difficult to predict that the most radical faction of the revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of the Czar would end up in control. Other revolutions have seen similar outcomes. But how could anyone predict that a small splinter faction would end up seizing power in a coup? Remember that Lenin was the only Bolshevik who thought such a coup had any chance of success. If Lenin had still been in exile, the October Revolution wouldn’t have happened and either some other Marxist faction would have gained power, or the Provisional Government would have had time to get things settled down enough to establish a more permanent government. Even if it were possible to account for the rise of the Bolsheviks, how could anyone predict in advance that their leader suffered from a genetic defect that would kill him prematurely and pave the way for a psychopath like Stalin to gain power?

I think that it is clear that it is individuals who make history, either by the decisions of the great ones, or the actions of millions of lesser people. The social and economic forces that historians like Spencer believe that drive the course of history are nothing more than the trillions of actions made by billions of people over time with considerable influence brought on by unpredictable natural events. Psychohistory will probably have to stay in the realm of fiction.


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