Like many of his left-wing Russian compatriots, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov took a political pseudonym (in his case N. Lenin—the initial N not standing for anything) as a young revolutionary activist to escape detection and arrest by the czarist secret police. Such aliases were common in the Russian Marxist underground before World War I, and he first used Lenin (possibly after the River Lena of his just-completed Siberian exile) to sign an article he wrote in 1901. He adopted many other names over the years, but it was as Lenin that he became one of the most important political figures and revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century. He organized the Bolsheviks into a coherent political group, initiated the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, and served as the first head of the Soviet state. While steeped in the orthodox Marxist understanding of history, politics, and economics, Lenin revised the Marxist theory of revolution to apply to the predominantly peasant society of Russia. His most original contribution to Marxist theory and practice concerned the methods revolutionaries should use to secure and retain state power. Lenin was above all a practical man, and few social activists have so changed the world in which they lived.
Vladimir Ilyich was born on April 10, 1870, in the Volga town of Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk) into a household that was not the typical provincial, middle-class Russian family of the time. His father, the director of the provincial school system, was regarded as politically liberal and his mother, a Volga German, was officially classified as a dissenter from Russian Orthodoxy because of her Lutheran beliefs. Vladimir had an older brother and an older sister as well as a younger brother and two younger sisters, all of whom were reared in an atmosphere of civic idealism and cosmopolitan culture. Tragedy struck the family in the mid-1880s: Vladimir’s father died suddenly in 1886 and the next year Vladimir’s older brother Alexander (1866–1887), whose revolutionary political views deeply influenced Vladimir’s own political development, was hanged with four other conspirators for their involvement in a plot to assassinate Czar Alexander III (1845–1894). Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya (1869–1939), later recounted that his beloved brother’s execution turned Lenin into a lifelong revolutionary activist against the despotic czarist system.
Despite his brother’s sedition, Vladimir was admitted to study law at the University of Kazan. He was soon expelled and banished to Kokuchkino for anti-government activities. Although his banishment was lifted in 1888, the authorities would not allow Lenin to attend the university as a resident student. After numerous inquiries, the authorities allowed him to take the law school examinations at the University of St. Petersburg. Preparing himself by independent study, he took the examinations at the 1891 session and received the highest marks. Lenin soon settled in St. Petersburg and registered for the bar. Continuing his activism against the czarist regime and attracted to Marxist analysis, he began to work out his ideas about how Marx’s notions of proletarian revolution and human liberation could be applied to Russia.
Arrested in late 1895 while organizing a coalition of left-wing groups into the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, Lenin spent the next 4 years in prison and in exile in Siberia, where he wrote his first major work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, completed in 1899. In 1898, he married his co-exiled revolutionary comrade, Krupskaya. Lenin and Krupskaya spent the next 5 years migrating through Western Europe, finally settling in Geneva, where they founded the newspaper Iskra (Spark) with other Russian Marxists he had known for many years, including Pavel Axelrod (1850–1928), Georgi Plekhanov (1856–1918), and Julius Martov (1873–1923). Iskra became the official journal of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), an organization whose purpose was to unite all socialist groups who favored the overthrow of the Russian autocracy. In 1902, Lenin finished What Is to Be Done? a major work of political theory and tactics that would guide Bolshevik party-building and activism for the next decade and a half by insisting that a small party of professional revolutionaries was needed as a leading element (vanguard) to guide the mass of workers to a successful overthrow of the government. The military metaphors were deliberate. Overthrowing the state required discipline and dedication, and Lenin believed that a revolutionary party needed democratic centralism: Party officials were elected democratically, but once they were elected and other decisions were made through voting, all members must follow those decisions or leave the party. For Lenin, democratic centralism consisted of freedom of discussion and decision making tied to unity of action and purpose.
In 1903 the RSDLP held its second party conference in London, and Lenin’s ideas in What Is to Be Done? were not accepted by the majority of the delegates. Lenin’s faction left the party, but because they won an earlier vote at the conference they (ironically) became known as Bolsheviks (majority) while those who remained in the RSDLP became known as Mensheviks (minority). Lenin returned to Russia in November 1905 but, unlike Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), had little connection with the urban uprisings and soviets (workers’ councils) that had briefly changed the political landscape in the 1905 Revolution. Fleeing for his life in December 1907, Lenin returned to exile in Western Europe and eventually settled in Zurich. From neutral Switzerland, he worked with Krupskaya on promoting Marxist revolution in Russia and followed the disastrous effects that World War I (1914–1918) had on Russia. Greatly disturbed by the actions of Europe’s socialist parties in supporting the war efforts of their respective countries, Lenin accused them of supporting their ruling classes and betraying the proletariat and Marxist working-class internationalism.
During the height of the war in 1916 and amid the collapse of the Russian Front, Lenin completed a major theoretical work, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, to explain the shift of capitalism to a globalized system of exploitation, conflict, and expropriation, the lack of a revolutionary proletariat in advanced capitalist countries, and the potential for revolution within that system at the periphery. He argued that the hyper-exploitation of poorer countries allowed advanced capitalist nations to keep their own workers content by providing them with high wages and cheap consumer goods and that, contrary to Marx’s predictions, a less industrially developed country would be the location of the first proletarian revolution. Lenin considered Russia, a developing nation on the periphery, to be a prime candidate. Revolution at such a weak point could spread to other nations, who would then join with Russia to institute a socialist future. Lenin never thought that Russia could develop socialism alone: In the modern world created by capitalism, socialism required world revolution in one form or another.
Within a few months, Lenin’s prediction had come true. In the February 1917 Revolution, Czar Nicholas II (1868–1918) abdicated, the monarchy was abolished, and a provisional (interim) government was established. With safe passage through Germany (who had been fighting Russia since 1914), Lenin and several Bolsheviks left Switzerland and arrived in the Russian capital Petrograd on April 3, 1917. On arrival he announced the April Theses of “Land, Bread, Peace” and his belief that Bolsheviks should tell people to take control of the state and the country’s productive assets (land and factories) in a second socialist revolution. In many articles, pamphlets, and speeches, Lenin gradually won over the vast majority of the Bolsheviks to his point of view. After a failed workers’ uprising in July, Lenin fled to Finland for safety. He returned in October 1917 and led a successful armed revolution against the provisional government with the slogan “All Power to the Soviets,” a new democratic form of government based on elected workers’ councils (soviets), which he had advocated in his essay State and Revolution of 1917, composed during his Finnish exile.
Under Lenin’s elected leadership, the Council of People’s Commissars (CPC) abolished private ownership of land and began distributing it among the peasants, nationalized the banks, and gave workers control of factory production. The CPC also abolished the Constituent Assembly as unnecessary in the new revolutionary situation and banned non-Bolshevik political parties on the grounds that they did not represent the interests of the Russian peasants and workers. After Lenin announced his intention to withdraw Russia from the war even at the cost of losing Russian territory to Germany, a counter-revolutionary White Army arose from groups that opposed the Bolsheviks: liberals and moderate socialists who opposed the dictatorial powers of the new regime and the loss of territory, large landowners and factory owners from whom the regime had expropriated, and royalists and peasants who wanted to restore the monarchy. All wanted to overthrow the Bolsheviks, and the regime began to fight for its life. The White Army was initially successful in the Ukraine, but under Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko (1883–1939) the Red Army and pro-Bolshevik forces gradually took control of the Ukraine. Tens of thousands of pro-Bolshevik civilians were killed in the White Terror that developed in the merciless civil war, and the Bolsheviks responded with a Red Terror against White sympathizers. By February 1918, the Reds controlled most of Russia, but it was not until late 1920 that the civil war ended.
Lenin’s draconian policy of war communism (1918–1921) during the civil war reversed many of the early liberatory CPC decrees and created great distress and led to riots, strikes, and demonstrations. War communism was the economic policy adopted by the Bolsheviks in a time of national emergency (war) that outlawed private ownership or control of most economic resources to prevent famine and to prosecute the war against the Whites. Under war communism (at least in theory), the government managed all large factories, planned and organized production, maintained strict labor discipline (strikers could be shot), requisitioned agricultural surpluses from peasants above what they needed to live, centralized distribution among the remaining population, rationed and distributed food and most commodities in a centralized way, and outlawed private enterprise. War communism underwrote the Bolsheviks’ victory in the civil war, but it was an overall economic failure because production in all sectors of the Russian economy fell below pre–World War I levels. This aggravated people’s hardships and, combined with the effects of 7 years of war and a severe drought, contributed to the deaths of 3 to 10 million people.
During the civil war, democracy still existed within the Bolshevik Party but hardly outside it. The party ruled Russia with authoritarian methods, including a reconstituted secret police (Cheka), labor camps, and executions of political opponents. Although these techniques were all commonly used by the czars, people had come to expect a different kind of rule from Lenin, but he felt he had little choice in a country where revolutionary change was being fought to the death by groups wanting to oust the Bolsheviks from power. Like Marx, Lenin always regarded a state as a dictatorship, that is, the rule of one class to the oppression of others. The dictatorship of the proletariat would rule Russia in the interest of the majority of people—workers and peasants—and this workers’ and peasants’ state would have to expect resistance from the classes it had displaced and expropriated because its rule would be the beginning of their end. Such an existential struggle would be violent, and the state would wither away when classes disappeared in a truly communist society. Such was Lenin’s vision in State and Revolution.
The years of World War I, war communism, civil war, and famine had wrecked the country and its economic and social infrastructure. Peasants, early Bolshevik allies, were in near-constant revolt. The largest was the Tambov Rebellion (1919–1921). Just as it was quelled, an uprising in March 1921 by another group of early Bolshevik supporters, the sailors at Kronstadt, caused Lenin to replace the hated policy of war communism with the New Economic Policy. The New Economic Policy permitted some private ownership of small enterprises, especially farms, reinvestment of profits or surplus in excess of the government’s levy (a tax in kind usually), and private labor contracts. While a step back from complete socialism, for which Russia as a whole was not ready, the New Economic Policy would prepare conditions for a future transition to socialism because the state, as the organized will of the peasantry and proletariat, would still own and manage strategic industries (large factories producing coal, iron, and electricity), what Lenin called the commanding heights. The New Economic Policy, with its market incentives and breakup of aristocratic landed estates, succeeded in creating an economic recovery after the devastating effects of world war, revolution, and civil war. By 1928, agricultural and industrial production had been restored to pre–World War I levels.
In his writings during the early Soviet period, Lenin emphasized the importance of modernizing Russian industry and agriculture and bringing electricity to all parts of what was now the Soviet Union. He promoted free universal health care, the emancipation of women, and mass literacy campaigns, but he was becoming disillusioned by developments in the Soviet Union. Despite his hopes that the dictatorship of the proletariat was only a transitional political stage preceding the withering away of the state, genuine communism, and human emancipation, he began to worry that he had merely helped replace one autocratic system with another.
Lenin’s health declined after being shot by Fanya Kaplan, a member of the outlawed Social Revolutionary Party, on August 30, 1918. Because of their location, the bullets were never removed, and historians believe that the assassination attempt was a major contributing factor to Lenin’s first stroke in May 1922, a time when Lenin was reevaluating, as he always did, what steps would rectify a problematic political situation and was making critical remarks about the methods of his Bolshevik comrades, especially Josef Stalin. Experiencing partial paralysis on his right side after his first stroke, he retired from active politics in December 1922 after his second stroke. Suffering a third stroke in March 1923, the once dynamic social activist became bedridden and lost the ability to speak. Lenin died on January 21, 1924. Despite the fact that he wanted to be buried in a simple grave next to his mother, his body was embalmed and placed on permanent exhibition in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow on January 27, 1924.
Bolsheviks; Russian Revolution; Trotsky, Leon
Russian, b: 10 April (22 N.S.) 1870 Simbirsk. d: 21 January 1924, Gorki, near Moscow. Cat: Marxist. Educ: Simbirsk gymnasium, 1879–87;...
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