An expectant queue snakes around the boardwalk that rings the wet Saturday morning grass of Charlotte Square Gardens. Edinburgh’s International Book Festival may have just begun, but the venue is sold out and there’s that unmistakable ripple of pre-event anticipation travelling up and down the line. We’re here to see Tariq Ali, who will be discussing his most recent book, The Dilemmas of Lenin, published in commemoration of the Russian Revolution’s centenary.
Introduced by chair Stuart Kelly as “a historian, novelist, polemicist, an activist, a filmmaker, and that very rare thing in these days, a public intellectual,” an erudite Ali takes his audience with him back to the fractious times of the early 20th Century and his reasons behind writing this book. One of the problems these days, he tells the packed room of attentive listeners, is that “history is seen through the eyes of the present”, a present which is regrettably “one of the most reactionary periods of the world.” And so, in the midst of a swathe of books published this year where the worst excesses of the revolution, and in particular one of its architects, will be retold, Ali tells a different story.
Without glorifying or idealising, Ali says, he writes of Lenin the feminist, who decried the ‘bondage’ of marriage and it’s effect on women, and of the world thinker who concerned himself with the possible liberation of India from British rule. The good as well as the bad should not be forgotten, he tells us, as it is in the echoes of the revolution that the world as we know it is formed today.
We file out of the talk in a strangely cheery mood for such a heavy topic, and this is down to Tariq Ali himself. In a conversational tone which makes you feel as if you could be sharing a pot of tea over the kitchen table with him, his case for what he calls “intellectual resistance” doesn’t seem like an unimaginable one. After all, given the numbers of people who came to see him speak, there are certainly plenty of us who still value the attempt to be truly objective about history, whether we agree with it or not.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival and it’s programme click here.