- Lenin, Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov
- (1870–1924)Lenin was the alias used by Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov. He is the most influential Marxist political leader and theorist bar none. As a political leader he led the Bolsheviks in their seizure of power in October 1917, and was head of the first-ever communist state. Although his greatest achievements are as a political activist and leader, Lenin also made important contributions to Marxist theory, particularly on the themes of class, party, imperialism and revolution.He was born in 1870 to a middle-class family, and his parents were politically moderate liberals. His older brother Alexander became involved in revolutionary politics and, when Lenin was 17, was executed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate the Tsar. Lenin went to Kazan University from which he was expelled for his involvement in a student protest meeting. In 1895 he was arrested, imprisoned and then exiled to Siberia. After his term of exile he left the country in 1900 to go to Geneva where he met with Russian Marxist exiles including the great thinker and activist Georgii Plekhanov. Continuing his political activities Lenin remained in Switzerland until the Russian Revolution of 1905 prompted his return. The failure to convert the revolution into lasting radical change and the reassertion of order and government control led to Lenin, now in danger of arrest and imprisonment, returning to Western Europe. Here he remained, still as politically active as ever, until World War I saw the collapse of Tsarsism in Russia. The German government, hoping to hasten the defeat of the Russian army, assisted Lenin in returning to Russia via Germany in April 1917. In October of that year Lenin led the Bolsheviks in a seizure of power. He immediately had to deal with civil war, foreign intervention, famine, and an army and infrastructure in a state of collapse. Surviving these he showed his flexibility and pragmatism in instituting in 1921 the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed significant amounts of free trade and private enterprise. In 1922 Lenin suffered two strokes and his day-to-day involvement in politics ceased. In 1924 he died, and, against his wishes, was buried with great ceremony in Red Square, Moscow. Lenin endeavored to apply Marxism to Russian conditions, modifying it where necessary. He argued as early as 1899 in The Development of Capitalism in Russia, that Russia was already becoming capitalist, that capitalism was penetrating the countryside, and, in his words, causing the “proletarianization of the peasantry.” Although Russia was a largely agrarian society, Russian agriculture was becoming capitalist in character and the peasants were becoming agricultural wage workers. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had, according to Lenin, helped turn the peasantry from serfs into agricultural workers with greater freedom to move and to sell their labor.The gradual development of capitalism in both the towns and the countryside was inevitable Lenin claimed. It could not be halted, nor should it be. Lenin, like Karl Marx, saw capitalism as progressive. For all its faults capitalism brought with it great advances in science, technology and economic production. Only on the basis of capitalism’s achievements could socialism be achieved.However, Lenin did not simply impose on Russia a Marxist model of society based on the western advanced capitalist countries. Lenin noted the differences between Russia and the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe, and the political implications of those differences. He noted that in Russia, unlike Western Europe, the main class conflict was between the peasantry and the aristocracy. The peasantry, as well as being the largest class, also had revolutionary potential. Like the proletariat it was an exploited class, and it shared an interest with the proletariat in overthrowing the existing order. In Western Europe, Marxists tended to view the peasantry as a conservative, reactionary force. Lenin also noted that in the countries of Western Europe the bourgeois and proletarian classes were well developed and strong. In Russia the proletariat was still at an embryonic stage and the bourgeoisie was small and weak. Industrial development in Russia was not greatly advanced, and such as it was, it was the result of collaboration between the Russian feudal aristocracy and foreign capitalists. As a result, the Russian bourgeoisie was underdeveloped and lacked the strength and will to push through a bourgeois political revolution.The political significance of this was that the bourgeoisie would not overthrow the Tsarist autocracy if left to do so on its own. The bourgeois would always, according to Lenin, recoil from revolution, too afraid of the consequences, too afraid of its own weakness, too afraid of the proletariat. The proletariat, aided by the peasantry, must take the initiative and push the bourgeoisie into revolution. As soon as the bourgeois revolution was achieved, Lenin argued that the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry should start working toward a further revolution, the proletarian revolution. The struggle for the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions should, according to Lenin, constitute a single “uninterrupted revolution.”Lenin’s theory of the party and his view of class consciousness is found in his book What Is to Be Done? (1902). Marx’s belief in the spontaneous emergence of a revolutionary class consciousness was rejected by Lenin. Lenin believed that it was impossible for the workers to develop a revolutionary class consciousness spontaneously, on their own. It could only be brought to the workers from outside, by the party. Left to themselves the workers will only develop what Lenin called “trade union consciousness,” that is to say, workers would become aware of the antagonism between themselves and their bosses in their own workplace, but not of the wider class conflict. Left to themselves the consciousness of workers would only rise to the level of trade union-type demands for better pay and conditions. Without the introduction of Marxist theory by a Marxist party, the workers’ consciousness would remain limited to the narrow economic struggle and not be widened to the general political struggle. Trade union consciousness, according to Lenin, ultimately hinders the proletarian revolution and helps to perpetuate capitalism, because it operates within capitalism without challenging it.The role of the party, according to Lenin, is to bring Marxist theory to the masses, to combat spontaneity and trade union consciousness, and to foster instead a revolutionary socialist consciousness. For Lenin, the party must take a leading role, it must be a vanguard party. The party must consist of fully trained, full-time revolutionaries, an elite of dedicated professional revolutionaries. There should be a distinction between the mass of workers and the party, so party membership should be limited to an elite and dedicated few. Lenin also advocated a centralized, hierarchical party organization, characterized by strict secrecy and discipline. He rejected the idea of internal party democracy as utopian under the then existing conditions where the communist party in Russia was an illegal organization operating in an autocratic state with a secret political police. As circumstances in Russia changed, Lenin’s views adapted, and following the 1905 revolution the Bolsheviks opened up party membership and gained large numbers of new members. At the 1906 party congress, Lenin put forward the principle of democratic centralism. In essence, democratic centralism meant that decisions within the party should be taken democratically, but once made they should be centrally imposed. Democratic centralism allowed completely free discussion before decision-making, and required absolute conformity and discipline afterwards; in Lenin’s words, “freedom of discussion, unity of action.” The democratic aspect in practice took second place to the centralist aspect of the principle. The reassertion of state oppression after 1905 made internal party democracy impossible again, and even after the 1917 revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power, the emphasis was on centralism rather than democracy. In 1921 Lenin oversaw the banning of factions within the party. Centralized unity was achieved at the expense democracy.In 1916 Lenin published a hugely influential booklet called Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. According to Lenin, imperialism, the building of empires by powerful countries, resulted from a change in the character of capitalism. At the beginning of the 20th century, Lenin claimed, there was a shift from competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism. Production and capital had become more and more concentrated in the hands of a few cartels or trusts. These cartels effectively operated as monopolies, eliminating free competition. In addition, Lenin identified a trend toward greater integration of industrial and finance capital with finance capital becoming dominant over industrial capital. In other words, the banks and industry were becoming more integrated, and the banks were exercising ever greater control over industry. The institutions of finance capital, such as the banks, were controlled by the cartels. In the search for ever greater profits the finance institutions controlled by the cartels looked to the economically backward countries to invest their capital in. Lenin described these finance institutions as exporting capital rather than exporting commodities. In the less developed countries the price of land, labor and raw materials was low, so allowing high profits to be made. According to Lenin, it was this drive to reap profits from the export of capital to less developed countries, the drive to divide up the world between the international cartels, that produced imperialism.The cartels struggled against each other to gain spheres of influence in the world, where they could control investment and gain high profits. The competition between the cartels led to the advanced capitalist countries seeking to gain territories abroad in the form of colonies, resulting in war. Lenin noted that imperialism brings economic benefits to the advanced capitalist countries, to the imperialist countries, in the form of high profits. These can, in part, be used by the ruling capitalist class to buy off the workers in their own countries, to bribe the workers with extra pay and benefits. The ruling class in the advanced capitalist countries can afford to pass on some of the economic benefits of imperialism to the working class, and in so doing buy the loyalty and acquiescence of the workers. This is one reason, according to Lenin, why a revolution had not occurred in the advanced capitalist countries yet: imperialism allowed the ruling class to corrupt the working class by sharing the economic benefits. In addition, imperialism makes the class struggle international according to Lenin. It globalizes the class struggle and makes it possible for a truly international revolution to take place. It also means that Marxists should not necessarily look to the advanced capitalist countries for a proletarian revolution to happen first, because developed countries can buy off their workers. Instead, according to Lenin, Marxists should look for the “weakest link” in the chain of capitalism: a country (or countries) where capitalism has sufficiently developed to create a proletarian class, but where the bourgeoisie is not so developed that it can acquire colonies, and, with the benefits it receives from colonization, buy off the workers. Imperialism, Lenin argued, means that revolution is more likely to happen in a relatively backward country such as Russia, than in an advanced capitalist country like Germany. Russia, in Lenin’s view, was the “weakest link” in the chain.In 1917, at a crucial time of political change and social unrest, a time when one might expect Lenin to be taken up with revolutionary activity rather than writing, he wrote another important text, State and Revolution. Even more remarkable is the utopian character of the book, unlike any of Lenin’s other works. In State and Revolution Lenin outlines what appears to be a utopian vision of the future socialist state and society. However, as with all his writings, Lenin had a very specific reason for producing this book at this time. Lenin had two targets in mind when he wrote it: first, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and Karl Kautsky in particular; and second, the anarchists. State and Revolution is an attempt to counter the arguments of these two groups. The SPD was becoming increasingly reformist in practice and, according to Lenin, had replaced the idea of class struggle with the idea of class harmony. For Lenin, the SPD was guilty of misunderstanding the nature of the state. According to Lenin a state is “an organization of violence for the suppression of some class.” In other words, the state is, by its very nature a repressive organization and cannot be used by the workers or their representatives to create a socialist society. So, against the German SPD, Lenin argued that the state was an organization of violence for the suppression of the proletariat, and that it had to be completely destroyed Lenin was equally concerned to distance himself from the anarchists. He rejected the anarchist view that there would be no state at all after the revolution. While Lenin believed the bourgeois state should be smashed, he also thought that a form of workers’ state would initially be necessary after the revolution. The error of the anarchists was not that they believed that the state should be abolished, but that they believed it could be abolished overnight, that there would be no transitional stage. Lenin argued that in place of the bourgeois state there would have to be a state of armed workers, the dictatorship of the proletariat. This he described as a semi-state, which would begin to wither away almost as soon as it came into existence. The dictatorship of the proletariat, according to Lenin, would be temporary, a transitional period between the end of capitalism and full communism. The dictatorship of the proletariat was necessary in order to crush the resistance of the old exploiting class, the bourgeoisie, and to lead the masses in the construction of the socialist society. Under capitalism the state is a machine for the suppression of the majority by the exploiting minority; the dictatorship of the proletariat is the suppression of the minority exploiter class by the overwhelming majority. Only when communism is achieved will the state completely disappear. With its repressive functions gone all that will remain of previous state functions will be simple administration, which the people themselves will be able to perform. The fundamental rules of social behavior will, according to Lenin, become a matter of habit, and not require the state to enforce them.It is ironic given Lenin’s pragmatism, the views he expresses in State and Revolution, and his dislike of personal praise and hero worship, that Leninism should have become such a dogma, the Soviet State should have become a Behemoth, and Lenin himself should have become a venerated figure, treated as hero/god by his party, the Soviet state, and innumerable followers.See also COMMUNIST PARTY OF THE SOVIET UNION.
Historical dictionary of Marxism. David Walker and Daniel Gray . 2014.