It is now a century since Vladimir Lenin’s death and more than three decades since his Bolshevik project collapsed. But while much of his political life was highly problematic from today’s perspective, his remorseless pragmatism, as one might call it, still has purchase.

Recall Lenin’s well-known commitment to “concrete analysis of the concrete situation.” One must avoid both dogmatic fidelity to the cause and unprincipled opportunism. Under quickly changing real-world conditions, the only way to be remain truly faithful to a principle — to remain “orthodox” in the positive sense of the term — is to change one’s own position. Thus, in 1922, having won the civil war against all odds, the Bolsheviks embraced the New Economic Policy, allowing a much wider scope for private property and the market.

In explaining this decision, Lenin used the analogy of a mountain climber who must retreat “in order to leap further forward.” After enumerating the new Soviet state’s achievements and failures, he concluded: “Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility ‘to begin from the beginning’ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish).”