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An introduction to Lenin and Leninism

June 3, 2015
Paul Le Blanc, the author of numerous books, including the soon-to-be-republishe
d Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return
of a Revolutionary Doctrine, recounts the life of one of most important Marxist
s after Marx--and explains the different components of what has come to be calle
d "Leninism."
Lenin after the Russian Revolution
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 f
avor a revolutionary transition to a future society of the free and the equal.
Even some on the left inclined to look favorably 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, em
bracing 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 characterized by a ric
hness that serious activists cannot afford to ignore. So who was this person, an
d what were his ideas?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 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 o
f the greatest revolutionary leaders of the 20th century--and while controversie
s 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 w
as especially concerned to teach her children a love of the arts, music and lite
rature. All of his siblings--an older sister, an older brother, two younger sist
ers and a younger brother--were drawn, as he was, into the revolutionary movemen
t.
Lenin's older brother ended up as a martyr for participating in a plot to assass
inate the tyrannical monarch of the Russian empire. The empire enabled the Russi
an autocracy to profitably oppress dozens of national and ethnic groups, which g
ave it the label "the prison house of nations." The oppression was also spread t
o religious minorities (the official state religion being the Russian Orthodox C
hurch), to liberal-minded intellectuals and rebellious students, and especially
the empire's laboring classes.
Known as the Tsar, the absolute monarch was rooted in an elite layer of heredita
ry nobles who lived grand lives through the exploitation of millions of impoveri
shed peasants--the 80 percent of the population that worked the land. Entwined w
ith the semi-feudal elite was a growing layer of businessmen--merchants, factory
-owners, bankers--who invested capital especially in the dramatic industrializat
ion process that was beginning to transform Russia.
This process turned Russia's economy increasingly into a capitalist mode of prod
uction and generated a growing working class, made up largely of men and women f
rom 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 189

0s, partly while in prison and "internal exile" in the Russian hinterlands. He w
as influenced by the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx that guided the growing so
cialist and labor 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 authoriti
es thanks to his deepening involvement in revolutionary activities. These includ
ed educational, agitational and practical efforts on behalf of Russia's early wo
rking-class movement.
It was also in this period that he became involved with Nadezhda Krupskaya, a yo
ung teacher who had also committed her life to the revolutionary socialist movem
ent. While he was consigned to internal exile, the two married. Together, they b
ecame involved in the embryonic Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP).
In addition to playing a crucial organizational role in the development of the e
volving Russian Marxist movement, in the late 1920s, Krupskaya would write a val
uable history of that movement, Reminiscences of Lenin, from the standpoint on L
enin's ideas and activities. (More recent and shorter introductions to Lenin's l
ife and work can be found in Lars Lih's Lenin and my own Unfinished Leninism.)
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 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 o
rder to change it for the better.
Yet there were significant differences among the activists about how to move fro
m the oppressive present to the desired future. Some argued that Russia could an
d should make a detour around capitalism, sparking a revolutionary uprising amon
g 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--shoul
d be used to make a transition from Tsarism to a capitalist republic.
Lenin strongly disagreed with these revolutionary populists, on the one hand, an
d liberal democrats on the other. Instead, he argued--with others seeking to app
ly Marxist ideas to Russian realities--that only the working class would be capa
ble 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, s
ince a capitalist republic would allow for the eventual development of economic
abundance and a working-class majority that would be capable of bringing about s
ocialism.
In his 1902 polemic What Is To Be Done? Lenin argued, among other things, that t
he RSDLP must be serious about organizing a Marxist political leadership that wo
uld lead struggles against all forms of oppression, not simply economic issues f
aced by the workers.
Revolutionary groups worth their salt, according to Lenin, must stand as "the tr
ibune of the people...able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppres

sion, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people
it affects"--and they must be "able to generalize all these manifestations and p
roduce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation...in orde
r to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggl
e for the emancipation of the proletariat."
Others in the RSDLP, while not going so far as the "economists," argued that a p
olitically and economically organized working class would need to form an allian
ce 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 argu
ed, 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 wo
uld have to provide the leadership, in this worker-peasant alliance, to carry ou
t the democratic revolution. This was a key point in his 1905 polemic Two Tactic
s of the Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution. (Some who disagreed with
him accused him of wanting a bourgeois revolution without--and against!--the bo
urgeoisie.)
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 go
ing in a socialist direction, which would be supported by the spread of workingclass socialist revolutions in other countries.
Lenin, along with most other Russian Marxists, sharply disagreed with this theor
y of "permanent revolution," although by 1917, his own thinking shifted in a sim
ilar direction.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - 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 d
isagreeing with him were part of the Menshevik faction. (Bolshevik meant "majori
ty" and Menshevik meant "minority," although sometimes the actual majority of pa
rty 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 w
as on the nature and functioning of the revolutionary organization.
The conception of "democratic centralism"--often identified as the watchword of
Leninism--was first articulated most clearly, within the Russian movement, by th
e 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 i
n action." In other words, the decisions regarding the activities of a revolutio
nary organization are developed through a democratic process, in which all views
must be put forward and considered, but they must then be implemented. To do ot
herwise 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 in
sisted that revolutionary cadres commit "the whole of their lives" to the revolu

tionary struggle, not simply treating it as a hobby for "spare evenings"--unders


tood that this unserious way of proceeding would profoundly disorganize the work
of bringing about a revolution.
By 1912, this had led to a permanent organizational split between the Bolsheviks
and Mensheviks.
Even before that, however, there was also a fissure within the Bolshevik organiz
ation, 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 u
ltra-left hostility to trade union efforts and electoral activity--would continu
e to arise in the revolutionary movement, including outside Russia, causing Leni
n to pen his later classic Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder in 1920.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - IN THE period between Russia's failed revolution of 1905 to the revolutionary tr
iumphs of 1917--first, the overthrow of Tsarism in February/March, and then the
establishment of a workers' republic based on the democratic councils, or soviet
s, of workers, soldiers and peasants in October/November--Lenin's role as a revo
lutionary theorist deepened dramatically.
His insistence on the necessity of working-class political independence and on t
he need for working-class supremacy (or hegemony) if democratic and reform strug
gles 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 politi
cal forces can work together for common goals, without revolutionary organizatio
ns undermining their ability to pose effective alternatives to the capitalist st
atus quo.
Meanwhile, his profound analyses of capitalist development, imperialism and nati
onalism both utilize, 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 F
irst World War, which began in 1914. His classic popularization Imperialism, the
Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) argues that the bloody conflict was brought
on largely through the natural development of capitalism into imperialist rivalr
ies--with competing capitalist powers developing a voracious economic expansioni
sm (seeking markets, raw materials and investment opportunities) on a global sca
le, backed up by massive military machines.
Lenin's vibrantly internationalist orientation embraces the laborers and oppress
ed peoples of the entire world in these writings. Dealing with the question of n
ationalism, he made important distinctions between the nationalism of the great
imperialist powers, which he saw as oppressive and reactionary, and the national
ism 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 d
emocratic 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 d
emands," Lenin emphasized, including opposition to racial, national and gender o

ppression.
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 ourselv
es on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capi
talism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism...as a necessary basis both for th
e abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round inst
itution 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 h
is 1917 classic The State and Revolution, Lenin analyzed the nature of the state
in history, with a conceptualization--rooted in Marx and Engels, yet at the sam
e time remarkably innovative--of triumphant working-class struggles generating a
deepening and expanding democracy that would ultimately cause the state to with
er away.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - ARMED WITH these ideas and an accumulation of practical political experience ove
r a number of years, Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades developed an organization
whose constituency was, as Tams Krausz put it in his recent study Reconstructing
Lenin, was "created from among the most class-conscious members of this class th
rough a hard-fought process of selection."
The Bolsheviks' ideology and organizational structure, Krausz notes, "were recog
nized 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 brief
ly--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 revolutionarie
s, who in turn became the force they did because of the creative revolutionary e
nergies of masses of workers and peasants.
Nor could socialism be achieved in a single backward country. Lenin and his comr
ades were connected with many thousands of dedicated revolutionaries in countrie
s around the world. Their rich deliberations on how to advance the world revolut
ion can be found in the volumes on the early Communist International recently ma
de available by John Riddell and his co-workers.
Tragically, revolutions elsewhere were defeated. Russia's revolution remained is
olated, adopting authoritarian expedients to survive. Not long before he died, L
enin commented on and struggled against its bureaucratic degeneration.
Our own world is quite different from Lenin's in many ways. Yet with the approac
h of deepening crises and struggles, serious activists may retrieve Leninist too
ls that can help in the creation of a better future.