We are marking the hundredth anniversary of Lenin’s death by reprinting an essay by American socialist historian Paul Le Blanc, in which he recounts the life of one of the most important Marxists after Marx, and explains the different components of what has come to be called ‘Leninism’.
This article was first published in the American Socialist Worker.
The conception of ‘Leninism’ has been contentious for many years. It is an ‘ism’ that has been targeted not only by all enemies of revolution, but by many who favour a revolutionary transition to a future society of the free and the equal.
Even some on the left inclined to look favourably on much of what Lenin wrote and did raise questions about the value of the term. And, after all, Lenin himself never called himself a ‘Leninist.’ He saw himself as a follower of Karl Marx, embracing the core Marxist notion that neither socialism nor the actual struggles of the working class can be triumphant unless they merge together.
Most simply, however, if ‘Leninism’ can be defined as the basic approach, ideas and practical political work of Lenin, we find that it is characterised by a richness that serious activists cannot afford to ignore. So who was this person, and what were his ideas?
The early years
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924) was known by close friends as ‘Volodya’ and, especially as time passed, as ‘Ilyich’ – but the world came to know him as Lenin, the revolutionary pseudonym be began using in the early 1900s. He became one of the greatest revolutionary leaders of the 20th century – and while controversies still rage around the value of his ideas and example, revolutionary activists throughout the world continue to learn from what he said and wrote and did.
His father was an educator and school official, and his highly cultured mother was especially concerned to teach her children a love of the arts, music and literature. All of his siblings–an older sister, an older brother, two younger sisters and a younger brother–were drawn, as he was, into the revolutionary movement.
Lenin’s older brother ended up as a martyr for participating in a plot to assassinate the tyrannical monarch of the Russian empire. The empire enabled the Russian autocracy to profitably oppress dozens of national and ethnic groups, which gave it the label ‘the prison house of nations’. The oppression was also spread to religious minorities (the official state religion being the Russian Orthodox Church), to liberal-minded intellectuals and rebellious students, and especially the empire’s labouring classes.
Known as the Tsar, the absolute monarch was rooted in an elite layer of hereditary nobles who lived grand lives through the exploitation of millions of impoverished peasants — the 80 percent of the population that worked the land. Entwined with the semi-feudal elite was a growing layer of businessmen – merchants, factory-owners, bankers – who invested capital especially in the dramatic industrialisation process that was beginning to transform Russia.
This process turned Russia’s economy increasingly into a capitalist mode of production and generated a growing working class, made up largely of men and women from peasant backgrounds who found employment in the proliferating factories and grew to account for about 10 percent of the population.
Lenin wrote a massive study, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, in the 1890s, partly while in prison and ‘internal exile’ in the Russian hinterlands. He was influenced by the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx that guided the growing socialist and labour movements of Europe at that time.
Lenin had gotten in trouble for participating in protests while still a student, and even after graduating with a law degree, he was clashing with the authorities thanks to his deepening involvement in revolutionary activities. These included educational, agitational and practical efforts on behalf of Russia’s early working-class movement.
It was also in this period that he became involved with Nadezhda Krupskaya, a young teacher who had also committed her life to the revolutionary socialist movement. While he was consigned to internal exile, the two married. Together, they became involved in the embryonic Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP).
In addition to playing a crucial organisational role in the development of the evolving Russian Marxist movement, in the late 1920s, Krupskaya would write a valuable history of that movement, Reminiscences of Lenin, from the standpoint of Lenin’s ideas and activities. (More recent and shorter introductions to Lenin’s life and work can be found in Lars Lih’s Lenin and my own Unfinished Leninism [reviewed by rs21 here].)
Starting to organise
The young Lenin was convinced that the only way a serious revolutionary movement could be developed in Russia was through the creation of collectives of serious thinkers and doers – activists – who were committed to understanding reality in order to change it for the better.
Yet there were significant differences among the activists about how to move from the oppressive present to the desired future. Some argued that Russia could and should make a detour around capitalism, sparking a revolutionary uprising among the peasant majority through the use of individual terrorist acts against the Tsarist authorities. Others argued that, in fact, capitalism would be a big step forward for Russia, and that struggles – often cautious and moderate ones – should be used to make a transition from Tsarism to a capitalist republic.
Lenin strongly disagreed with these revolutionary populists, on the one hand, and liberal democrats on the other. Instead, he argued – with others seeking to apply Marxist ideas to Russian realities – that only the working class would be capable of leading a consistent struggle for genuine political democracy and for the economic democracy of socialism.
But even within the Marxist political collectivity to which Lenin was committed, the RSDLP, there were significant emerging differences that had to be discussed and debated.
Some were termed ‘economists’ because they argued that Marxists should restrict their agitation among workers to economic issues (building trade unions, etc.), allowing pro-capitalist liberals to lead the struggle for political democracy, since a capitalist republic would allow for the eventual development of economic abundance and a working-class majority that would be capable of bringing about socialism.
In his 1902 polemic What Is To Be Done? Lenin argued, among other things, that the RSDLP must be serious about organising a Marxist political leadership that would lead struggles against all forms of oppression, not simply economic issues faced by the workers.
Revolutionary groups worth their salt, according to Lenin, must stand as
the tribune of the people…able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects…able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation…in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.
Others in the RSDLP, while not going so far as the ‘economists,’ argued that a politically and economically organised working class would need to form an alliance with the capitalists.
Lenin, on the other hand, argued that only a worker-peasant alliance, embracing a majority of the country’s toiling masses, would be capable of pushing through a thoroughgoing revolution that would overturn Tsarism. The capitalists, he argued, would be frightened of an insurgent working class, and would instead prefer to make deals with the Tsar, the landowning nobility, and the military forces of the old order.
Only the workers and peasants would go all the way – and the workers’ movement would have to provide the leadership, in this worker-peasant alliance, to carry out the democratic revolution. This was a key point in his 1905 polemic Two Tactics of the Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution. (Some who disagreed with him accused him of wanting a bourgeois revolution without – and against! – the bourgeoisie.)
Leon Trotsky agreed with Lenin on the worker-peasant alliance, but went further, saying that a workers’ revolution, supported by the peasantry, would logically and necessarily establish the political power of the working class and end up going in a socialist direction, which would be supported by the spread of working-class socialist revolutions in other countries.
Lenin, along with most other Russian Marxists, sharply disagreed with this theory of ‘permanent revolution,’ although by 1917, his own thinking shifted in a similar direction.
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
A significant section of the RSDLP agreed with Lenin on these and other matters, and they gathered with him in the Bolshevik faction, while most RSDLP members disagreeing with him were part of the Menshevik faction. (Bolshevik meant ‘majority’ and Menshevik meant ‘minority,’ although sometimes the actual majority of party members swung one way or the other.)
The Menshevik idea of a worker-capitalist alliance, as opposed to the Bolshevik commitment to a worker-peasant alliance, was one essential divergence. Another was on the nature and functioning of the revolutionary organisation.
The conception of ‘democratic centralism’ – often identified as the watchword of Leninism -was first articulated most clearly, within the Russian movement, by the Mensheviks. But the Bolsheviks immediately embraced it as well, and it can be argued that they took the idea more seriously.
The basic definition of democratic centralism is ‘freedom of discussion, unity in action.’ In other words, the decisions regarding the activities of a revolutionary organisation are developed through a democratic process, in which all views must be put forward and considered, but they must then be implemented. To do otherwise would violate democracy.
More than once, however, a decision arrived at through a serious discussion and democratic vote was openly rejected and flouted by the Mensheviks. Lenin – who insisted that revolutionary cadres commit ‘the whole of their lives’ to the revolutionary struggle, not simply treating it as a hobby for ‘spare evenings’ – understood that this unserious way of proceeding would profoundly disorganise the work of bringing about a revolution.
By 1912, this had led to a permanent organisational split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.
Even before that, however, there was also a fissure within the Bolshevik organisation, particularly after the immense, yet failed, revolutionary insurgencies of 1905. Sharp differences arose around the relationship of reform and revolution — with Lenin insisting that social reform struggles were essential for building a mass workers’ movement capable of leading a victorious revolution in the future.
The counterposition of revolution to ‘mere reforms’ — and of armed struggle and ultra-left hostility to trade union efforts and electoral activity — would continue to arise in the revolutionary movement, including outside Russia, causing Lenin to pen his later classic ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, An Infantile Disorder in 1920.
From 1905 to 1917
In the period between Russia’s failed revolution of 1905 to the revolutionary triumphs of 1917 – first, the overthrow of Tsarism in February/March, and then the establishment of a workers’ republic based on the democratic councils, or soviets, of workers, soldiers and peasants in October/November – Lenin’s role as a revolutionary theorist deepened dramatically.
His insistence on the necessity of working-class political independence and on the need for working-class supremacy (or hegemony) if democratic and reform struggles are to triumph is matched by his approach to social alliances (such as the worker-peasant alliance) as a key aspect of the revolutionary struggle.
We also find his development of the united front tactic, in which diverse political forces can work together for common goals, without revolutionary organisations undermining their ability to pose effective alternatives to the capitalist status quo.
Meanwhile, his profound analyses of capitalist development, imperialism and nationalism both utilise, expand on, and to some extent deepen Marx’s own analyses.
Lenin was forced to deal with this in the face of the horrific calamity of the First World War, which began in 1914. His classic popularisation Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) argues that the bloody conflict was brought on largely through the natural development of capitalism into imperialist rivalries – with competing capitalist powers developing a voracious economic expansionism (seeking markets, raw materials and investment opportunities) on a global scale, backed up by massive military machines.
Lenin’s vibrantly internationalist orientation embraces the labourers and oppressed peoples of the entire world in these writings. Dealing with the question of nationalism, he made important distinctions between the nationalism of the great imperialist powers, which he saw as oppressive and reactionary, and the nationalism of the oppressed peoples fighting for liberation from imperialism, which he saw as progressive and worthy of support.
Especially dramatic is Lenin’s remarkable understanding of the manner in which democratic struggles flow into socialist revolution. Democracy is at the heart of the Leninist strategic orientation. ‘We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands,’ Lenin emphasised, including opposition to racial, national and gender oppression.
The push for genuine democracy means a push for genuine socialism, he explained:
While capitalism exists, these demands–all of them–can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism…as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms.
A working-class majority can bring socialism only if permeated with ‘the spirit of the most consistent and resolutely revolutionary democracy,’ he concluded.
Challenging commonplace perspectives in the socialist movement of his time, in his 1917 classic The State and Revolution, Lenin analysed the nature of the state in history, with a conceptualisation–rooted in Marx and Engels, yet at the same time remarkably innovative–of triumphant working-class struggles generating a deepening and expanding democracy that would ultimately cause the state to wither away.
Tools for the struggle
Armed with these ideas and an accumulation of practical political experience over a number of years, Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades developed an organisation whose constituency was, as Tamás Krausz put it in his recent study Reconstructing Lenin, was ‘created from among the most class-conscious members of this class through a hard-fought process of selection.’
The Bolsheviks’ ideology and organisational structure, Krausz notes, ‘were recognised by politically conscious members of the working class in 1905 and 1917 as valid expressions of their politics.’
This made possible the transition after the 1917 revolution that — at least briefly — gave ‘all power to the Soviets,’ as the Bolsheviks’ slogan foretold.
None of this was a one-man show. Lenin was able to play the role he did because he was part of a collectivity involving many talented and capable revolutionaries, who in turn became the force they did because of the creative revolutionary energies of masses of workers and peasants.
Nor could socialism be achieved in a single backward country. Lenin and his comrades were connected with many thousands of dedicated revolutionaries in countries around the world. Their rich deliberations on how to advance the world revolution can be found in the volumes on the early Communist International recently made available by John Riddell and his co-workers.
Tragically, revolutions elsewhere were defeated. Russia’s revolution remained isolated, adopting authoritarian expedients to survive. Not long before he died, Lenin commented on and struggled against its bureaucratic degeneration.
Our own world is quite different from Lenin’s in many ways. Yet with the approach of deepening crises and struggles, serious activists may retrieve Leninist tools that can help in the creation of a better future.
Paul Le Blanc’s many books include
Lenin: Responding to Catastrophe, Forging Revolution (Pluto Press, 2023);
Revolutionary Collective (Haymarket Books, 2022)
The Living Flame: The Revolutionary Passion of Rosa Luxemburg (Haymarket Books, 2020)
Left Americana (Haymarket Books, 2017)
October Song (Haymarket Books, 2017)
rs21 has carried a number of articles on the relevance of Lenin and Leninism for revolutionaries today including
Ian Birchall – Lenin yes, Leninism no?
Phil Gasper – Is Leninism dead?
Charlie Post – Leninism?
Barnaby Raine – How to learn from Lenin
Gus Woody – Moving towards an ecological LeninismOriginal post