Almost a century after his death, the name of Vladimir Lenin still inspires strong feelings for millions around the globe. As a revolutionary leader, he helped transform the despotic and brutal Russian empire into the world’s first socialist democracy. As a theorist he challenged Marxist orthodoxy in such profound ways that many revolutionaries today call themselves Marxist-Leninists to acknowledge his contributions. Who was this man and what ideas did he contribute to revolutionary thought?
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born into a middle-class family in the provincial town of Simbirsk in the Russian Empire on April 22, 1870. His parents were not especially political but Vladimir was radicalized by his elder brother, above all when his brother was arrested and put to death for his role in planning an assassination attempt against Tsar Alexander III in 1887.
Vladimir moved deeper into political activity at that point, continuing in study circles and revolutionary organizations at his university and in the countryside, where he came into close contact with the peasants who made up the vast majority of Russian society at that time. He was already well known among Russian revolutionaries by the time that a Russian socialist party, the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), was founded in 1898, and he joined the party before its second Congress in 1903. Around this time he adopted the nom de guerre of “Lenin.” (Identities of revolutionaries were carefully hidden to avoid arrest by the Tsarist police force.) This was also when he published one of his most important works, a book called What Is To Be Done?
In this book Lenin argued that the RSDLP should take the form of a “vanguard party” made up of full-time revolutionaries instead of the looser party organization that then prevailed in the RSDLP and in other European socialist parties. At the second Congress of the party there was a split around the question of organization; Lenin’s faction won the crucial vote and although both factions continued to use the official name RSDLP, those who followed Lenin’s strategy for organization became known as the Bolsheviks (simply meaning those in the majority; the faction on the losing side became known as the Mensheviks or those in the minority.)
The remainder of Lenin’s political life continued in the Bolshevik party and reflected the successes and failures of that party. After a period of exile in Siberia Lenin had left for western Europe in 1900, where he could more freely write and strategize with other Russian radicals in exile as well as socialists from other countries. He returned to Russia in 1905 to take part in the revolutionary wave of that year, but after the revolution was crushed he was forced to return to exile abroad again in 1907.
This second exile lasted for almost ten years and included the first years of World War I. Lenin had taken an active part in the series of international gatherings and Congresses of Socialist parties belonging to the Second International, and he was horrified when their promises to promote peace and oppose war proved empty as soon as the war began. This experience led Lenin to carry out a deeper study of the reasons that these parties failed at this crucial moment; he developed a theory of imperialism which explained why war between states had occurred in the developed capitalist world instead of socialist revolutions, and why the socialist parties had all fallen victim to opportunism and patriotism. His booklet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism was written during this period.
In February 1917 discontent in Russia over the suffering and deprivation of the long war reached such a high pitch that the Tsar was forced to abdicate and Russia became a Republic. Although socialist parties were in control of the government, capitalist social relations were left intact. Moreover, the supposedly socialist government led by Alexander Kerensky soon broke its promises to pull Russia out of the war, and discontent began to boil up again.
Meanwhile, independent political mobilization of the working class was taking shape in the form of the Soviets (a Russian word meaning “council”). These bodies were like trade unions in some ways, with workers in factories as well as peasants and soldiers electing representatives in their shop or unit; but unlike unions which often focus only on narrow economic issues, soviets represented the political wishes of their members in a society where democracy was a sham. Many different socialist parties had support and Soviet representation in different parts of the country, including the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries who were more oriented towards the Russian peasantry rather than the working class. The Bolsheviks had strong representation as well, especially in the army and in the powerful Soviet in the Russian capital of Petrograd.
Into this environment Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917 and immediately published his “April Theses.” Based on his newly developed understanding of imperialism, Lenin proposed that Russia was ready for a socialist revolution and that the Bolsheviks should and could lead it. This view was held only by a small minority even within the Bolshevik party, where many agreed with the Mensheviks that Kerensky’s government should be supported and capitalism should be allowed to develop further in Russia. Lenin further articulated his ideas in a longer piece called The State and Revolution, quickly written and published that summer. He proposed the slogan “All power to the Soviets!” — meaning that political power should not rest with a parliament but instead with the organic bodies of workers democracy that had already sprung up in the country.
By that fall Russia was gripped by a growing political crisis and Lenin’s position had convinced a majority of the Bolshevik leadership. The October Revolution began with a Bolshevik uprising in Petrograd on November 7. (The confusing difference in months is due to the fact that Russia had still not adopted the Gregorian calendar as of 1917!) The capital was soon in revolutionary hands, and Moscow and other key cities were taken in coordinated uprisings soon after.
The Bolsheviks moved quickly to establish a new state and to realize their promises to the Russian people. Together with left-wing representatives from the Social Revolutionaries and some others, the Bolsheviks passed a “Decree on Peace” calling for an immediate end to the war, and a “Decree on Land” which passed all property of large landowners, state and church in Russia into the hands of peasant soviets.
Lenin controversially pushed for the adoption of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was highly unfavorable to Russia, rather than continue to fight with Germany and its allies for better terms. But peace was short-lived as anti-socialist Russians and foreign powers attacked the new Soviet republic. Soon after the October Revolution, Russia had entered into a civil war and a war of defense against invading countries (which included the United States, Great Britain and Japan among others). Wartime Bolshevik policies alienated some revolutionary forces who had earlier been allied with the Bolsheviks, including anarchist groups and Social Revolutionaries.
As one consequence of this, Lenin was nearly assassinated in 1918 when a Social Revolutionary named Fanya Kaplan shot him twice at close range. Soviet Russia eventually prevailed in the civil war and joined forces with Soviet governments in the Caucasus, Ukraine and Belorussia, with those governments eventually uniting in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Bolshevik party initiated a new Communist International for pro-Soviet socialist parties in other countries. But Soviet society was largely devastated by the years of war and faced a long period of reconstruction.
Lenin too had suffered during this period; in addition to Kaplan’s attempted assassination he had aged greatly from the stress of wartime leadership. Less than a year after the civil war ended, Lenin had a stroke in May 1922 followed by a second stroke in December of the same year. A third stroke occurred in March 1923 which left Lenin mute and bed-ridden, and he died early the next year.
His immediate legacy was the first enduring socialist state in the history of the world. In his fifty-three year lifetime he had played a key role in building a revolutionary socialist movement against Tsarism and capitalism, and had led with clarity and vision in decisive moments to bring about a revolution and to lead the fledgling Soviet state to survival against enormous odds. Born into a benighted country less than a decade after the abolition of serfdom, he left behind a country in which electricity and socialist democracy were being spread together to millions of people; a country which in one more generation would defeat the greatest military power on earth and successfully smash fascism in Europe.
But what about his theoretical legacy? In the next section we consider Lenin’s contributions to Marxist theory.
Lenin’s contributions to Marxism
What is Leninism? There is no “official” answer. In fact, there are millions of people in the world today who call themselves Leninists (and nearly that many Leninist political parties, or at least that’s what it seems like sometimes), and each of them might define Leninism a little differently. That isn’t surprising when you consider that Lenin’s lifetime covered decades of active political struggle during which his own politics evolved, plus a legacy of political parties claiming Lenin’s legacy which touched the lives of more than half of humanity during the twentieth century.
Neveretheless we can identify some core features that most people would agree distinguish Leninism or Marxism-Leninism from other kinds of revolutionary politics. Among these are:
- The theory of monopoly capitalism and imperialism;
- The idea of an alliance between national liberation movements and revolutionary internationalism;
- The organizational form of the vanguard party of the proletariat.
Let’s consider each of these in turn.
Monopoly and imperialism
At the turn of the twentieth century, most Marxists believed that socialist revolutions would begin in the countries which were furthest along the course of capitalist development: Great Britain, Germany and the United States. But something quite different happened instead. Developed countries were afflicted by a different kind of social crisis: instead of fighting internal revolutions, they fought wars with each other over the division of colonies elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, socialist uprisings were actually taking place in economically “backwards” areas such as Russia (including the failed revolution of 1905).
Lenin explained this by identifying a major change in capitalism. In his booklet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism he pointed out that by the beginning of the twentieth century the most developed countries had reached a stage of monopoly capitalism, i.e. a society where the most important economic spheres were dominated by a single company or just a few companies instead of a large number of smaller competitors. He gives a one-sentence summary of his thesis: “Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.”
Since this sentence on its own is not very explanatory or convincing, he goes on to list five fundamental features of this stage of capitalism:
- The concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life;
- The merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy;
- The export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance;
- The formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and
- The territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.
Lenin shows how the economic logic of monopoly leads to imperialism and war between imperialist countries. Monopoly has the effect of making capitalism much less effective and overall less profitable (a point that even supporters of capitalism agree with); in order to maintain the profits that capitalism requires, capital shifts from domestic production into finance capital with its speculative bubbles and bursts, and into foreign markets where capital could more profitably valorize itself. This idea of imperialism differs from the commonplace use of the term today, but they are related because imperialist countries compete to control markets and to keep other imperialist countries out of their spheres of influence, leading to inter-imperialist wars. (This description of a world where finance capital is all-powerful and countries go to war over markets and resources seems to fit in 2012 as well as it did in 1916.)
His theory explained the slower development of revolutionary consciousness in the most developed countries (where the existence of monopolies acted as a brake on the development of class struggle) and the outbreak of socialist and anti-colonial movements in less developed countries, where exploitation of the working class and the peasantry was more naked and brutal. It also explains why the most developed states are driven to war in order to redivide the world and protect their colonial and imperialist interests; as Lenin says, “Imperialist wars are absolutely inevitable under such an economic system as long as private property in the means of production exists.”
National liberation and revolutionary internationalism
No one would claim that Lenin was the first Marxist to advocate an international perspective. In fact internationalism was a key feature of the communist movement as far back as 1848 when the Communist Manifesto declared “Workers of the world unite!” Marx himself was at the center of the so-called First International which united socialist parties across many countries of Europe and the United States.
But not all internationalisms are created equal. When the twentieth century, a Second International in Europe again united large and powerful socialist parties from many countries, and appeared to show the way forward to a world where socialist nations could act in harmony with each other instead of competition and war. Member parties of the International declared their opposition to colonialism and promised to take no part in a war between their countries… and yet when war broke out in 1914, the Socialist parties of all the countries involved in the fighting broke their pledges and threw their support behind their “own” country (with the exception of the Bolshevik party in Russia).
Lenin saw that good phrases about internationalism did not mean much without a political line and practice that dealt correctly with the issues of imperialism and colonialism. Socialist parties in imperialist countries had done little or nothing to assist anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements in the lands controlled by “their” country. Because they were de facto fighting instead for a redistribution of power within the existing imperialist system, it followed that when push came to shove they fought for the survival of that system instead of taking revolutionary action against their own bourgeoisie in order to actually bring about radical change.
So Lenin proposed a new kind of internationalism which stressed the need for socialists in imperialist countries to take real action against imperialism in their political work. When the Third International (also known as the Communist International or Comintern) was founded after the Russian Revolution, one of the conditions for parties to join was the following:
“A particularly marked and clear attitude on the question of the colonies and oppressed nations is necessary on the part of the communist parties of those countries whose bourgeoisies are in possession of colonies and oppress other nations. Every party that wishes to belong to the Communist International has the obligation of exposing the dodges of its ‘own’ imperialists in the colonies, of supporting every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds, of demanding that their imperialist compatriots should be thrown out of the colonies, of cultivating in the hearts of the workers in their own country a truly fraternal relationship to the working population in the colonies and to the oppressed nations, and of carrying out systematic propaganda among their own country’s troops against any oppression of colonial peoples.”
In this period Lenin envisioned an alliance between broad anti-colonial movements in the colonial world (which included most of the globe at that time) with socialist movements led by the proletariat in developed capitalist countries. Lenin emphasized the right for all nations to secede from states in which they were oppressed. At the same time, they fought against movements that called on revolutionaries to support total national autonomy or cultural nationalism (also known as Bundism after the Bund or Union of Jewish workers in Russia, which promoted those ideas.) The Bolsheviks saw these struggles as a red herring which would divide the multinational working-class movement. In their view, with the triumph of socialism the basis for national oppression would disappear; and on the other hand as long as capitalism survived, national or cultural autonomy would be at risk and would not in any case prevent the oppression of the majority of people of all nationalities.
Lenin summed up his view in an essay called “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”:
“The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and all national isolation; not only to bring the nations closer to each other, but also to merge them. And in order to achieve this aim, we must, on the one hand, explain to the masses the reactionary nature of the ideas of [...] so-called “cultural national autonomy” and, on the other hand, demand the liberation of the oppressed nations, not only in general, nebulous phrases, not in empty declamations, not by “postponing” the question until socialism is established, but in a clearly and precisely formulated political programme which shall particularly take into account the hypocrisy and cowardice of the Socialists in the oppressing nations. Just as mankind can achieve the abolition of classes only by passing through the transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, so mankind can achieve the inevitable merging of nations only by passing through the transition period of complete liberation of all the oppressed nations, i.e., their freedom to secede.”
The vanguard party
Probably no aspect of Leninism is more (in)famous and controversial than the vanguard party. Liberals and anarchists unite in seeing the vanguard party as an instrument of tyranny and a way to make the ruling class give up its own autonomy and independence. Even many Leninists disagree about exactly what the term means or how it should be applied in the world we live in today.
It’s best to begin at the source. In his booklet What Is To Be Done? Lenin laid out the need for a revolutionary party made up of a smaller number of full-time revolutionaries rather than a broad mass party which workers could join without making a significant personal commitment.
Lenin first argued that although capitalism would inevitably lead to class struggle, this struggle would lead the workers only to the point of trade union consciousness, i.e. an awareness of the need to struggle together for better pay and better conditions in the workplace. It would not lead to a socialist understanding of the need for political struggle against capitalism. He wrote:
“But why, the reader will ask, does the spontaneous movement, the movement along the line of least resistance, lead to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination.”
“The working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism; nevertheless, most widespread (and continuously and diversely revived) bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class to a still greater degree.”
Revolutionary theory would have to be brought to the working class and fused together with their struggles and level of consciousness obtained through those struggles. The “vanguard” in vanguard party refers to the natural leaders of the working class itself, i.e. those men and women most involved in struggles against capitalism who develop the deepest understanding of the system, fused together with those people of whatever class origin who bring the experience of socialist theory and knowledge of the history of international class struggle.
Such a vanguard party could take many forms, but Lenin argued further that in the social conditions of Tsarist Russia, where secret police were everywhere and had free reign to arrest if not kill revolutionaries, it was necessary for such a party to be relatively small and tightly-knit:
“A small, compact core of the most reliable, experienced, and hardened workers, with responsible representatives in the principal districts and connected by all the rules of strict secrecy with the organisation of revolutionaries, can, with the widest support of the masses and without any formal organisation, perform all the functions of a trade union organisation, in a manner, moreover, desirable to Social-Democracy. Only in this way can we secure the consolidation and development of a Social-Democratic trade union movement, despite all the gendarmes.”
This party should operate according to the principle of democratic centralism, where the party would have internal discussion, debate, selection of leaders and consensus on policy as far as possible; but when decisions were made all party members would carry them out fully whatever their own feelings about them. This model was intended to balance the need for participatory democracy while preserving the unity of action which was necessary for a small party to make an impact in society at large.
In an essay on Lenin, György Lukács addressed a common objection to the idea of the vanguard party: “Does not the danger then exist that these ‘professional revolutionaries’ will divorce themselves from their actual class environment and, by thus separating themselves, degenerate into a sect?” But this question misses the historical context of Lenin’s model:
“It misses the core of Lenin’s concept of party organization simply because, as Lenin said, the group of professional revolutionaries does not for one moment have the task of either ‘making’ the revolution, or – by their own independent, bold actions – of sweeping the inactive masses along to confront them with a revolutionary fait accompli. Lenin’s concept of party organization presupposes the fact – the actuality – of the revolution. [...]
The party, as the strictly centralized organization of the proletariat’s most conscious elements – and only as such – is conceived as an instrument of class struggle in a revolutionary period. ‘Political questions cannot be mechanically separated from organization questions,’ said Lenin, ‘and anybody who accepts or rejects the Bolshevik party organization independently of whether or not we live at a time of proletarian revolution has completely misunderstood it.’”
Lenin’s idea of the vanguard party was born in a polemical debate within the Russian Marxist movement and faced criticism at every step of the way: from other Marxists, precipitating a split in the RSDLP and later from figures such as Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg; from anarchists and revolutionaries from other trends; and of course from anti-socialists. Many people today identify birth defects in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries due to the existence or the actions of the vanguard parties which helped create them.
Nevertheless it is the vanguard party which proved to be by far the most successful vehicle for making and sustaining anti-capitalist revolution in the century since it was first proposed. Socialist parties in the Leninist tradition liberated half of humanity from the sphere of capitalism, for some time at least.
- Lenin Internet Archive, including texts of most of his works, more biographical information and pictures and audio.
- Video of Lenin with a cat
- Lenin at Smolny, a brief remembrance by Alexandra Kollontai
- Lenin for Beginners
- Foundations of Leninism, by J. V. Stalin
- History of the CPSU(b)
- Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context, by Lars Lih
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