Lenin As a Statistician

New Zealand Statistician, vol 8, May 1973, p8-9.

Keywords: Statistics;

It may seem strange that V.I. Lenin, (1870-1924) should be treated as a statistician. However, in its section on statistics the Soviet Encyclopedia [1] gives considerable prominence to Lenin. Undoubtedly this is partly the required acknowledgement to one of the founders of the Soviet State and its philosophy. But even the most idle examination of Lenin’s collected works [2] shows a considerable fascination and facility with the use of statistics.

Lenin belongs to the pre-Galton-Pearson-Fisher age and his use of the data is, in today’s terminology, descriptive. But it was an age when governments throughout the world, including pre-revolutionary Russian government, were collecting masses of social data.

In the days before computers, not to mention least cost sampling, the diligence of these statisticians is impressive. “A complete census is being taken of all peasant households according to an abbreviated household card. In addition every third household is described according to a more detailed brief household card; every ninth household is described in a still fuller household card, called the detailed card; every twenty-seventh household is described, in a still fuller household card, called the special card; and lastly twenty-five households in the uyezd (probably representing about one thousandth of the total households) gave their budgets in still greater detail.” (Works, 20,82( 1914). here and subsequently original italics.) Later Lenin estimates the census population as over a quarter of a million household. (Works, 20, 83.)

Lenin was enthusiastic over the data suggesting that it “would revolutionise the science of agricultural economics” (Works, 20, 88.) Indeed he took a particular interest in agriculture, the first article in his collected works is a review of a book on Peasant Farming in South Russia based primarily upon statistical investigations (Works, 1, 13 (1893)). Through the following twenty-five years, he returns to agricultural and manufacturing statistics as he discusses the evolution of the Russian economy. In that he is in dispute with non-Marxists, he is often involved in interpreting results. The techniques are crude, mainly examination of tabular data, but Lenin was well aware of the problems of spurious and omitted variables. Clearly he would have little truck with the non-quantitative. “We have decided to begin with statistics, fully aware of course that statistics are deeply antipathetic to certain readers, who prefer ‘flattering deception’ to ‘base truths’.” (Works, 23, 273, (1917).)

After the revolution the tone changes. No longer is Lenin the social philosopher disputing about the right and the wrong but the administrator attempting to organise an enormous country on principles very different to that which had gone before. The majority of his works are now memo, telegram, directive, speech and letter. There was much less time for the careful analysis of the volumes of statistics. Nonetheless, Lenin maintained a continuing interest and indeed wanted to use statistics to assist his administration, as two 1921 letters to the Central Statistical Board indicates. (Works, 33, 29-35.)

Among the material he demanded was monthly reports on a wide series of measures of output and consumption, “a kind of index number. . . by which to appraise the state of our entire economy”, similar to the ones which “have for a long time been compiled by statisticians abroad”, (p.31) and the numbers of people receiving various quantities of bread  by their occupational classification-the latter result indicating his concern for what today we would call the income distribution. (It is perhaps of curiosity interest that while, of course, the original text of the letters was in Russian, the words “index-number” was in English.)

Lenin must have been desperate for this data. The demands in the letter are urgent and there is a frustration with the bureaucracy and “academic” activities of the Board, activities such as “checking the accuracy of the figures, the determination of the percentage error and so forth” (p.31). The Board is instructed to “have nine-tenths of the available personnel … put at once to the job of processing these eight questions correctly and rapidly and put one-tenth on the academic work …  If that cannot be done, ninety-nine per cent of the personnel must be put on processing …” (p.32).

Thus Lenin was more numerate than many of today’s politicians and was both skilful and understanding with regard to the use of statistics. Under administrative pressures, however, he was a practical man, although in fairness it was to be said that the letters indicate that within the foreseeable future he expected the academic work to be commenced.

But administrators and politicians, be they in the Soviet Union over fifty years ago or in New Zealand today, end up with the same approach towards their statistical offices. Lenin’s second letter begins with what must be a paraphrase of letters in the files of our current Government Statistician and all his predecessors.

“The. . . programme of work sent to me boils down to a request for additional funds. We cannot afford it at present. The entire programme must, therefore, be cut down in such a way as to enable the necessary work to be continued … with the funds at present available.” (p.33.)

I am grateful to Mr A. Lojkine of the Department of Russian for translating parts of the Encyclopedia.

[1] Malaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopedia(3rd ed.) (Shorter Soviet Encyclopedia)., Sov. Entsiklopedia, Moscow, 1958-60.
[2] Lenin, V.I., Collected Works (4th ed. (rev)). Lawrence and Wishart, London and Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1960-70. (In the text references are to “works” with volume and page number following and where appropriate the date the original was written.)