An Interview with Lenin
The Second Congress of the Third International had come to an end.
The ideological position of the various delegates who had attended had become somewhat clearer.
There were some implacable elements; others, on the other hand, had come to make some concessions, little by little.
But—and this was a curious phenomenon—when the Congress adjourned, the majority of the delegates began to engage in furious activity.
There were some, among them Bombacci, a member of the Italian delegation who, during the Congress, missed three sessions for every one he attended, and who, once the Congress had come to an end, was witnessed to be constantly coming and going, tireless, busy, restless. He was constantly visiting the Committee of the International and holding secret meetings with it.
Serrati was just the opposite. While the Congress was in session, Serrati was the indispensable man, the obligatory orator at all meetings of any importance, the man who was consulted about everything, for every reason and with regard to all matters. Why the discrepancy?
The facts came out later, but this is not the place to present them.
Something similar took place in the other delegations.
But our surprise knew no limits when we saw how previously intransigent delegates would afterwards be all smiles and advising agreement and compromise.
Summonses were continually being sent to the delegates requesting that they visit the Committee. We must mention that our delegation and one other delegate never received any such summonses. And the delegates met with the Committee. We do not know what their meetings were about; but the defections from the camp of the intransigents were to be noted after each such meeting. At the last one, Lenin was in attendance.
Because the questions that were being discussed did not interest us and, besides, everything had already been arranged behind the scenes, and since we wanted to return to Spain as soon as we could, we took advantage of the opportunity to meet Lenin and then to say goodbye to him.
As they were translating his speech into English, and we saw him getting ready to depart, we approached him and caught up with him at the door of the cafeteria.
“When do you plan to leave?”, he asked us.
“Very soon. We only need to get some more information; once we get it, we will leave.”
“Stay a little longer.”
“No,” we told him. “We cannot extend our investigations without spending a lot more time, given the reports that we have. Our presence here a few more weeks will not be productive. And our comrades in Spain would be displeased with the delay.”
“Since you will be spending at least a few more days in Moscow,” he said, “wouldn’t it be nice for us to have a private conversation together?”
“We would be most pleased. We have not suggested such a thing because we did not want to bother you.”
“Not at all,” Lenin responded. “But since I am very busy and I may forget to notify you when I am free, would you call me next Tuesday on the telephone? On Tuesday I will let you know when we can get together to talk.”
The next day, Thursday, was the last day of the regular proceedings of the Congress, and there it was agreed to hold the closing session on the following Sunday at three in the afternoon at the Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.
We spent Saturday and Sunday putting our notes in order. We also decided on our last investigative projects we were thinking of carrying out.
On Monday morning we devoted ourselves to organizing our notes from the last few sessions of the Congress, and we remained in the hotel.
At approximately eleven, the hotel commandant sent us an urgent summons to report to his office.
By means of the interpreter we were informed that Lenin had asked for us and had ordered that an automobile should be put at our disposal.
We did not expect this. We had hardly gathered together all our notes and notebooks scattered around on the work table, when the interpreter came to notify us that the car was waiting.
Accompanied by a military officer we left at once.
We entered the Kremlin by the door through which the delegates were usually admitted.
Once we got out of the car, the commander of the guard asked for our names, and after checking them against the names on the order brought by the military officer who accompanied us, he spoke with the latter in Russian and allowed us to enter.
Once we reached the first floor landing, we underwent the same procedure with another pair of soldiers.
We proceeded up the stairs.
At the second floor landing we were approached by a non-commissioned officer in command of a patrol of four soldiers, who asked us for our identification. However, because the way I pronounced my name did not seem to match the name on the order, or perhaps because it was routine procedure, he had to make a phone call to verify my identity.
Once he received confirmation of my identity over the phone, he allowed us to continue down the hall in the direction of Lenin’s office. In front of the door to his office, however, there was a table, with a registration book.
The officer who accompanied me approached the commandant and handed him the order he brought with him and then withdrew. His mission was complete.
The commandant once again asked us for our names and checked them against the order and then wrote them in the book on the table in front of him.
The whole ordeal was finally over; he rose from his chair and accompanied us to the door, which he opened and invited us to enter an office in which, in an atmosphere of profound silence but great activity, six typists were working.
After a few minutes in this anteroom we were led into Lenin’s study.
Lenin’s office was modestly furnished. Anything superfluous had been removed.
A large map of Russia; another smaller map depicting various other countries; a work table piled high with documents and papers; a few chairs; a few stools and armchairs. This was the furniture in his office.
Smiling, he offered us his hand, which we shook with real feeling and we sat down face to face.
He was happy, cheerful, satisfied.
“Are you pleased with how we communists have treated you?”, he asked.
“Very much,” we answered. “You have taken care at all times to look after our needs and have been most solicitous and we have been most grateful. If this was not so, if our discretion has with regard to one matter or another exceeded the limit of what was appropriate, we ask your forgiveness.”
“Not at all. From the very first, we have had the best impressions. It does not matter that you do not share our views, or that you are not one of us. We know that you have maintained your principled disagreement at all times apart from any improper indiscretions in view of the seriousness that is called for.”
Following a brief pause, he then added:
“Let us cut to the chase. Can you expand on some of the details of the report that you presented to the Third International, on the situation of the various political and social forces in Spain?”
I provided him with the details he asked for and then he said:
“So, you will continue to reject the dictatorship of the proletariat, centralization and the need to form a Communist Party in Spain in order to carry out the revolution.”
“We shall remain true to our opinions, our positions and our principles.”
“You have not been convinced by Russia’s accomplishments?”
“What I have seen in Russia, what I have observed in Russia, and the conclusions that we have drawn from the whole situation verify our opinions.”
“We have not concealed from you the fact that, when we came here from Paris, we were continuously plagued by one doubt in particular. Faced with the unknown, with conjectures and with doubtful information, we often asked ourselves this question: Are we anarchists mistaken with respect to the most fundamental tenets of our doctrine? And I will not conceal from you the fear with which we perceived the approaching moment when we might have to deny those ideas that we advocated with such passion and that formed what little intellectual heritage our lives possessed. One does not painlessly renounce the ideas that have been so dear to us, if you give the question some honest thought. To do so would be to tear a page from the history of our lives. Such amputations are always painful. But what we have seen and observed in Russia have confirmed and fortified our convictions.”
“So you still believe that the dictatorship of the proletariat is not necessary? How do you think the bourgeoisie can be destroyed? You do not think it can be done without a revolution!”
“By no means. The bourgeoisie will not allow themselves to be expropriated without a fight. They will confront the attacks of the people with the most implacable resistance, and a revolution is inevitable. It will be more or less violent; this depends on the resistance offered by the bourgeoisie; but a bloody revolution is inevitable.”
“However, the difference between the Bolshevik approach and our approach becomes clear at that juncture.”
“The revolution is an act of force. This is undeniable. But the revolution is not the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
“Dictatorship is the imposition of rule, of authority, on the part of some people, whether few or many, who run everything as they see fit, in their own name or that of the collectivity, against others, who must obey without they right of appeal, on pain of punishments and violence that are carried out by persons who are authorized to do so at the command of others, with indisputable authority.”
“That is not revolution. The revolution is the people in arms, who, tired of enduring injustice, of being deprived of their rights, of exploitation that denies them the right to live, protest against this situation; they take up arms, spill into the streets and impose by the force of numbers the social organization that they believe to be the most just. This certainly implies violence; but there is no dictatorship.”
“It is of course possible, by way of an arbitrary and captious argument, with a certain ingenious subtlety, to unite these two extremes: revolution and dictatorship. But the truth and the reality, which are hidden behind the value and the content of each of these two concepts, instantly demonstrates for us the artificiality of such reasoning and the weakness of such argumentation.”
“To make our position more clear, that is, more explicit, we can synthesize it in the following manner: the Revolution is the cause; the dictatorship can be the effect of this cause. To confuse the one with the other does not seem to be such an easy thing to me, when it is not the result of premeditated imposition from above.”
“But is the revolution not an imposition? Does it not compel the bourgeoisie to abandon their class privileges?”
“It is true that the revolution is an imposition; but the revolutionary action of the people is not a dictatorship. And if you want to split hairs over the specific meaning of every word and every concept, in order to draw conclusions that support any thesis whatsoever, I will tell you that the people will not ‘compel the abandonment of the privileges of the bourgeoisie’, but that the people ‘expropriates the bourgeoisie’, which is not the same thing.”
“When one ‘compels’, this implies that there was a preexisting agreement, that there was a command, by means of which orders are given, and when orders are given, there is a dictate; but when the people ‘expropriates’, there is neither a command, nor an order, nor a previously existing agreement. This expropriation has a clear revolutionary value. The other methods do not.”
“But I believe that it is of no use to split hairs over concepts.”
“Speaking, therefore, of general concepts, we believe, now more than ever, that the dictatorship of the proletariat, the organization or the constitution of a class Government—the seizure of Power, to dictate laws to those who dictated them yesterday—is not an indispensable feature of a revolution that has a social character, which is the kind that is demanded by our times. It is enough to expropriate the bourgeoisie and arm the people in order to achieve this end.”
“As for the defense of the Revolution and its conquests, it is the very succession of events that has transpired in Russia which shows how the people know how to defend themselves, going so far as to sacrifice their own lives.”
“The servitude of the people is maintained by the economic dominance of the bourgeoisie. Deprive the bourgeoisie of the means of exercising this dominance, and the servitude of the people will come to an end. Entrust the organization of labor and the distribution of products over to the trade unions and you will see how the bourgeoisie will not dare to lift a finger. That is our personal view, born from what we have observed here, in Moscow and in Russia.”
“I see that there is no way to convince you. So, you will not accept centralization and discipline?”
“The results of your centralization clearly display its failure in the political and economic fields. Based on the reports we have gathered in the various Commissariats, the conclusions we have drawn concerning political and administrative centralization are diametrically opposed to those drawn by your Party. Bolshevism claims—so we have deduced from the speeches made at the Congress—that the political and economic difficulties encountered in Russia are the result of a lack of centralization and discipline, and calls for more discipline and more centralization.”
“We are of the contrary opinion.”
“The more centralization and discipline that you impose, the greater the difficulties and the harder they will be to overcome.”
“Wrong; you are mistaken, Pestaña.”
“Possibly, although we do not think so. Only time will tell. Of course, in times like these, such a conclusion is painful! But no other conclusion is possible.”
“Anyway, and without spending any more time than is absolutely necessary on these theoretical questions, we have to think that we live to subvert the capitalist regime, and this cannot be achieved unless we make the revolution.”
“That is the most important thing. And although the situation is not the same in every country, and avoiding or correcting the errors we have committed, what is essential now is to make the revolution in the other countries. Emancipate the proletariat from the bourgeois dictatorship.”
“And with respect to this question: how would you characterize the delegates who have attended the Congress, as revolutionaries?”
“Would you like an honest answer?”
“That is why I asked you.”
“OK. Even if by telling you this it will cause you to be somewhat disappointed, or make you think that I am a poor judge of men, my assessment of the majority of the delegates that attended the Congress is that they are a deplorable lot.”
“Except for a few rare individuals, all of them have a bourgeois mentality. Some because they are social climbers, and others because that is how they were raised and educated.”
“And what is the basis of such an unfavorable judgment? It cannot be based on what they said at the Congress!”
“Not exclusively; but I base my judgment on the contradiction between the speeches they made at the Congress and their everyday lives in the hotel. The little things they do every day tell you more about men than all their words and speeches. From what they do, rather from what they say, that is how you can get to really know people.”
“Many grains of sand make the mountain. The mountain does not make the grains of sand. The infinite series of small things that we do day after day are a better demonstration than anything else of what really lies at the bottom of every one of us.”
“How, Lenin, can you expect us to believe in the revolutionary, altruistic and emancipatory sentiments of many of these delegates, when in their everyday lives they carry on, more or less, just like perfect bourgeoisie?”
“They grumble and complain that the portions of food they get are small and the cooking mediocre, forgetting that we foreign delegates are privileged with regard to our meals, forgetting the most important thing: that millions of men, women, children and old people are going without, not to speak of the extras, but of what is strictly indispensable.”
“How can one believe in the altruism of these delegates, who bring unfortunate starving women to the hotel to eat, in exchange for sex, or give presents to the women who serve us at the hotel in order to take advantage of them?”
“What right do these delegates have to speak of fraternity, when they insult, humiliate and threaten the male servants in the hotel, because they were not always instantly on hand to satisfy the delegates’ most trivial whims? They consider the men and women of the people to be servants, nursemaids, lackeys, forgetting that some of them may have suffered wounds and risked their lives in defense of the revolution. What good did it do them?”
“Every night, just as if they were tourists in capitalist countries, they put their shoes outside their doors for the ‘comrade’ servant of the hotel to clean and polish them. You have to laugh at the ‘revolutionary’ mindset of these delegates!”
“And the haughtiness, the snootiness and the contempt with which they treat anyone who is not influential in the Government or the Committee of the Third International is irritating and exasperating. It makes you think about how these individuals will act if tomorrow the revolution were to occur in their home countries and if they were the ones to be giving the orders from a position of Power.”
“The speeches they made at the Congress do not matter! That they should speak of fraternity, of companionship and comradery, and then act like slave-masters, is simply ridiculous, when it is not vile and detestable.”
“And, finally, these lucrative backroom deals that we have become aware of and which have sickened us with the sight of so many defections; this continuous coming and going with their hands out and putting a price on their support, smacks of the most abject skullduggery and the most disgraceful riff-raff. This is all so vile, disgusting and shameful, it is as if a mother were to sell her daughter to satisfy the caprice of the most abominable and foul persons.”
“Why should we believe in the revolutionary spirit and the seriousness of such people?”
“Because they want the revolution in their respective countries? Of course they do; but they want it to take place without endangering their sacrosanct persons and for the exclusive benefit of their own base appetites.”
“Naturally, we are not saying that, within the communist parties and among their supporters, whom these delegates represent, there are not hundreds of individuals of good faith, willing to make sacrifices and worthy of all respect and consideration. These stand apart. Our criticisms are only applicable on an individual level and are directed at the delegates who have attended the Congress.”
“This is our opinion, expressed sincerely.”
“I agree, Pestaña, I agree … although I think your judgments are somewhat exaggerated.”
As he spoke these words, Lenin rose from his chair. Our interview had come to an end. Perhaps we had overstayed our welcome; but it would have constituted an indiscretion on our part to end a conversation without knowing just how much of his time he was willing to grant us.
Before we took our leave of Lenin he asked us if we would be coming to Russia for the next Congress.
“Try to come, and bring some of your friends. Come and study on the terrain of our accomplishments. By then the situation will have improved, and maybe you will be able to reach conclusions that are closer to ours than the ones you have today.”
“Will you write something about what you have seen and what you really think of us?”
“Quite possibly,” we responded.
“If you do, do not forget to send it to me. I would be very pleased to receive it and to read it.”
We shook his hand cordially and left.
After this conversation we felt a profound sympathy and an unlimited respect for Lenin.
We did not share his ideas, nor do we share them today; but all our friends with whom we have spoken concerning him, when we refer personally to Lenin, know that we preserve for him the consideration and the respect that we believe he deserves.
A few days after this conversation with Lenin we were at Sasha Kropotkin’s house, and by chance her father was there. It was the day that he went to Moscow to interview Lenin, in an attempt to intervene on behalf of the cooperators who were under threat of a death sentence.
The purpose of our visit was to inform Sasha concerning a request we submitted to Lenin during our meeting with him.
Because of Sasha’s contacts in London, and also because of her extensive knowledge of the subject, Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar who was also quite experienced in the same subject, delegated her for a mission to the English capital to buy educational materials for Russia’s schools.
Once the Council of People’s Commissars approved the proposal, the Cheka was asked to provide the necessary passports, and the Cheka refused to do so.
No matter how many requests they received to hand them over, they refused. There was no way to overcome this opposition.
A few days before our visit to Lenin, the Cheka had just refused the third request for the passports. Sasha, who knew that we were scheduled to have an interview with Lenin, proposed to us that we should make it a point to stress how important it was for the Cheka to release the passports. Lenin’s response could not have been more favorable: he assured me that Sasha’s passport would be delivered.
Not only Kropotkin, but also his companion and his daughter, asked us about our overall impression of our interview with Lenin and our opinion of Lenin’s views with respect to the course of events.
“Personally,” we said, “we received a very good impression. As for what Lenin thinks about the course of events, he thinks like a man who has been wrong and is sincerely trying to find a way out of a bad situation. If he makes the right decision, then all is well; if not, then the revolution will falter and decline.”
That is more or less what we could deduce on the sorrowful basis of one of its manifestations.