James Ryan. Lenin's Terror: The Ideological Origins of Early Soviet State Violence. London and New York: Routledge, 2012. xvii, 260 pp. Bibliography. Index. Endnotes. $155.00, cloth.
In his revised doctoral dissertation, James Ryan examines Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin's ideas and directives on violence, its role in Marxist philosophy, its use as a revolutionary tactic, and the distinctions Lenin found between terror and revolutionary violence more broadly. Ryan has carefully analyzed Lenin's published writings and thoroughly mined a broad range of relevant Anglo-American secondary literature as well as Russian-language scholarly work on the topic.
Studying Lenin's thought on violence from the 1890s to 1923, Ryan concentrates on the years when the Bolsheviks were in power. Of eight chapters, two discuss Lenin's thought up to 1917, one is devoted to the revolutionary year 1917, five cover the Civil War, and one the transition to the early years of the New Economic Policy. The chronological approach allows Ryan to trace change and continuity in Lenin's thought over time.
Neither an apologist for Lenin nor one prone to ad hominem attacks on Leninist approaches, Ryan succeeds in carefully situating Lenin's ideological pronouncements, his policies, and directives in the context of important events in Russian and European history. Moreover, he understands that Bolshevism accommodated leaders with views that departed from those of Lenin, that Lenin's ideas often did not prevail, and that lower-level officials did not consistently implement Lenin's instructions or orders. Nevertheless, Lenin's ideas on violence are important to study separately, for he was "the leading and most influential figure" (p. 1) in the party and Soviet government.
Ryan situates his analysis firmly in the middle of those who take very divergent approaches toward analyzing Lenin's personality and ideas, and toward the role of ideology or contingency in the creation of the Soviet regime. He believes that ideology alone did not determine Bolshevik policies, but that it influenced strongly how Lenin and other Bolsheviks reacted to circumstances; moreover, they often created "hostile circumstances" (p. 8) because of their ideological convictions. Nevertheless, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders applied violent methods not from a love of force, but because they judged them necessary in order to overcome the violent opposition of the bourgeoisie. They also accepted and used other methods, including propaganda and non-violent pressure.
An excellent introduction clearly lays out the author's intentions, and each chapter develops his analysis with little resort to jargon. …