“He gave imagination to the writers
His every word became poetry”
by Lew Rosenbaum
On this day, April 22, 2020, perhaps millions of people are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day. In 1969 then Senator Gaylord Nelson, an environmentalist, called for a national day of teach-ins on the environment for the spring of the following year. He proposed April 22 as a day when most students would be most likely to participate. An advertising man suggested that “Earth Day” might be a more broadly appealing name than a day of teach-ins. And so “Earth Day” was born. Nelson himself repudiated the idea that the choice of April 22 was a communist plot. The John Birch Society, among others, had insinuated that the choice of April 22 was driven by the fact that date in 1970 coincided with the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Ilich Ulianov’s (Lenin) birthday. Nelson quipped that the Birch Society knew more about Lenin than he did; nevertheless, young people of 1970 knew more about Lenin than he did too.
At the time of the first Earth Day I was 27 and had come rather late to reading the works of the great Bolshevik. Just a few years later, talking with my niece Ronni, a high school activist organizer working on Earth Day, I asked with a wry smile whether she knew that April 22 was also Lenin’s birthday. She replied, with the characteristic twinkle in her eye, that was why the date was chosen.
So maybe both stories are true. Maybe Lenin’s birthday had nothing to do with the choice of April 22; maybe it had everything to do with that choice. A Talmudic fight about that is really not the point. The point is the perseverance of Lenin’s influence, even though now, in 2020, when everyone is talking about the 50th Earth Day, little attention is being paid to Lenin’s 150th birthday, which is today. Here is evidence of that perseverance: “Lenin in Urdu: His Every Word Became Poetry.” This is one of a number of essays intended to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. It is a short review essay of writers in Urdu who have celebrated Lenin. People who saw him as the embodiment of revolution. In no small part is this due to the fact that, after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917, Lenin was the main force within the Russian Communist Party who understood and fought for at first a minority position: that what was then called the “national question” was the main form that the fight for socialism was taking, the liberation of the colonial countries from imperialism.
Well of course Lenin is remembered in many more places than in the Urdu language. Bertolt Brecht wrote numerous poems that refer to Lenin. One that is a bridge from the peoples of the East is this one:
The Carpet Weavers of Kuyan-Bulak Honour Lenin
Often he was honoured and profusely
The Comrade Lenin. Busts there are and statues.
Cities were named after him and children.
Speeches are made in numerous languages
Rallies there are and demonstrations
From Shanghai to Chicago, in honour of Lenin.
But thus they honoured him
The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak
A small village in southern Turkistan:
Twenty carpet weavers stand there in the evening
Shivering with fever, in front of their humble loom.
Fever runs riot: the railway station
Teeming with buzzing mosquitoes – a thick cloud
Arising from the swamp behind the old camel cemetery.
But the train, which
Once in two weeks brings water and smoke, brings
Also the news one day
That the day for honouring Lenin lies ahead
And so decide the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Carpet weavers, poor folk
That for the Comrade Lenin also in their village
A gypsum bust would be installed.
But as the money is collected for the bust
All of them stand
Trembling with fever and contribute
Their hard earned kopecks with wobbling hands.
And the Red Army soldier Stepa Jamal, who
Carefully counts and meticulously watches,
Sees the readiness, to honour Lenin, and is filled with joy.
But he also sees the uncertain hands.
And all of a sudden he makes a proposal
To buy petroleum with the money collected for the bust
In order to pour it on the swamp behind the camel cemetery
From where the mosquitoes come, which
Cause the fever
Thus to combat the fever in Kuyan-Bulak, and indeed
To honour the late, but
Not to be forgotten
This was agreed to. On the day of paying respect to
Lenin they carried
Their battered buckets, filled with black petroleum
One behind the other
Over there and spread it on the swamp.
So they benefited themselves, in paying homage to Lenin and
Paid homage to him, in that they benefited themselves and had
Therefore understood him well.
We have heard how the Kuyan-Bulak folk
Paid their respect to Lenin. As now in the evening
The petroleum had been bought and discharged over the swamp
Stood up a man in the assembly, and he demanded
That a commemoration stone be erected at the railway Station
Reporting these events, containing
The altered plan and the exchange
Instead of Lenin’s bust the fever eradicating petroleum barrel,
And all this in honour of Lenin
And they did that too
And mounted the slab.
(Note: Kuyan-Bulak is the railway station of Ferghana in Uzbekistan. The Slab had the text: ‘In this place there should have been a memorial to Lenin, but instead of the memorial, petroleum was brought and poured over the swamp. Thus Kuyan-Bulak, in memory of Lenin and in his Name smothered malaria’. Translator.)
The Jamaica Peace Council, an organization of Jamaicans at home and abroad, published in April 2019 this poem by Langston Hughes:
Lenin walks around the world.
Frontiers cannot bar him.
Neither barracks nor barricades impede.
Nor does barbed wire scar him.
Lenin walks around the world.
Black, brown, and white receive him.
Language is no barrier.
The strangest tongues believe him.
Lenin walks around the world.
The sun sets like a scar.
Between the darkness and the dawn
There rises a red star.
As explanation, the author on the site writes:
The poem uses the figure of Vladimir Lenin as a stand-in for the march of social equality across the world, the hope of racial and economic harmony in the world.
Though Hughes didn’t identify as a communist and claimed to have never read Marxist texts at his congressional trial led by the infamous “Red Scare” Senator Joseph McCarthy, his poem describes an awakening in the world among oppressed people of the world for justice.
And of course there is the series of four poems, written from 1920 to 1924, by Vladimir
Mayakovsky that celebrated the life of Lenin and commemorated his death. “The time has come,” Mayakovsky wrote:
the story of Lenin
because the grief
is on the wane,
the bitter anguish
of that moment
weighed and fathomed pain.
spread Lenin’s slogans in your whirl!
Not for us
to drown in tears
There’s no one
than Lenin in the world,
surest of our weapons.
Poetry, then, is a way into understanding the international reverence for V. I. Lenin, and why he might have been on the minds of the young people in 1970, as perhaps they enjoyed a private joke behind the scenes at the expense of their elders who serendipitously chose April 22, 1970 to launch Earth Day.
Chances are, though, they didn’t know who Lenin really was. They probably didn’t know that he was a Latin scholar, and that his first introduction to revolutionary writing was through the Russian novelist Chernyshevsky. They probably had never read the essays he wrote about Tolstoy, a novelist whose writing he loved, but whose worship of Russian mysticism he detested: He could never understand how the revolutionary and the reactionary could coexist in one man. He read widely in Russian literature (Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Gogol). All of this and more was reviewed in The Guardian (“How Lenin’s Love of Literature Shaped the Revolution”) in 2017, as a way into looking at Lenin’s contribution to the Russian revolution and to the thinking of revolutionaries generally.
Lenin spent two decades building the foundation for the revolutionary organization capable of toppling the czar and establishing socialism in Russia. At numerous points in that two decades he found himself in the minority among the revolutionaries. Often he found himself in a small organization of exiles. What he did in that twenty years was write furiously. He wrote about the kind of tasks that were necessary (revolutionaries did not agree on those tasks; they did not agree on what forces in society were revolutionary; they did not agree on what role they should play as World War I got underway). He wrote about the ideological, organizational, and tactical building blocks necessary for the kind of political party he thought was necessary. Some of these contributed some ideas particular to the revolutionary situation in Russia, ideas that he began to formulate when exiled early in his career to Siberia; when he researched and wrote a book that chronicled the Development of Capitalism in Russia. Here he maintained that despite the minuscule size of the Russian industrial working class, capitalism was already developing in Russia. Despite the general consensus that the Russian peasants were a monolithic class, Lenin described the stratification of peasantry into a wealthy section, a middle section, and the great mass of the peasantry at the level of an agricultural working class and serf.
He wrote the fourth book about the foundation of the necessary political party in 1908, and it was published in Russia in 1909. Here he defended the philosophical principles or world view of dialectical and historical materialism (Materialism and Empiriocriticism). It’s really in this book that he expounds on his idea of Marxism as a method as well as a theory and a doctrine.
Lenin in Russia in 1897 to 1917 faced a situation unlike in Germany, England, or the United States. In those other countries the industrial revolution was well underway, appeared even complete. Russia was in the beginning throes of the industrial revolution, much of the country enthralled to the big banks of Europe. Lenin needed to devise a theory of the Russian revolution. He did that in his description of the relationship of the various classes in Russia, the role of the working class and the peasantry, and the development of the national question in the Russian empire and beyond. He did that by describing the objective reality the revolutionary classes faced and the role of the revolutionary organizations. What is most significant about Lenin is his capacity to describe the reality he faced and the new ideas necessary for the new situation of his time and place. He was a scientist.
What can we learn from Lenin’s experience on his 150th birthday? In the 1970s, when I read Lenin I read him as the ideologue that I was. What is to be Done?, State and Revolution, Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder, and Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism were the four books of my Talmud. I do not intend here to dismiss them as unimportant. No, there are important lessons to be learned from all of them. But the way we read them is important, especially when we realize we are no longer dealing with a revolution in the midst of industrialization. The great Russian political revolution was part of the 19th to 20th century economic industrial revolution. In fact, the ensuing liberation struggles of the colonies, the struggles that Lenin foresaw as the great movement of the 20th century, pulled those peoples into the orbit of industry and a connection to the capitalist world order, either through a bourgeois or a socialist revolution. But that era is over.
A new economic revolution is underway. And there are new Lenins walking the streets of our world, applying their understanding of the real world to develop a theory of today’s revolutionary times. In 1917 — and from 1917 through the 1960s and the first Earth Day — history has witnessed the completion of the replacement of agricultural private property by industrial-financial private property. Today we are witnessing the demise of capitalism that exists on the exploitation of labor. That seems counterintuitive, when we see people living in the streets and workers unable to buy the basic necessities of life. But the robotization of contemporary life points to the end of wage labor. If labor is excluded from the production of the means of survival, then there is no longer a way to measure the value in exchange of the means of survival. As long as money is the means of exchange, those expelled from the employer-employee relationship have no way to purchase the means of survival. The Lenin’s of our day must be developing a theory of the revolution of the end of the market and the end of private property under new conditions, when the way to resolve the problems we face must mean distribution without money.
On this Earth Day and this 150th birthday of Lenin, it’s time to recognize that the inspiration that Lenin gave to the poets in Urdu, the Russian poets, to Langston Hughes is real and deserving of reverence. We need to cultivate the Lenins of our times. Without discounting his numerous contributions, what we need to revere is Lenin’s scientific outlook and his willingness to find new solutions to solve new problems.