Born in 1870, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who later changed his name to Vladimir Lenin, was the son of a civil service official in the Russian government. Lenin became interested in socialism and revolution when his brother Aleksander was executed in 1887 for being part of a group that attempted to execute Alexander III. Shortly thereafter, Lenin studied law but was banished from the university for his revolutionary interests. He completed his studies independently, even though he became a professional revolutionary and not a lawyer. Because of his revolutionary activities, Lenin was exiled to Siberia from 1895 to 1900. During his exile, he wrote The Development of Capitalism in Russia. With this publication, Lenin showed that Russia depended on a capitalist-based economy. Within Russia at this time, the peasants were divided between a developing peasant bourgeoisie (capitalist farmers) and a peasant proletariat (farm laborers). The peasants between these two economic classes were disappearing. Russian industry was divided among traditional handicrafts, backward manufacturing, and a modern machine industry, with a great deal of foreign capital invested only in the latter.
After returning from exile in Siberia, Ulyanov took the name Lenin and left Russia, joining with other Russian revolutionaries in Europe. In 1902, he wrote the pamphlet What Is to Be Done, maintaining that Social Democrats needed to be clear on the main principles of socialism: “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” In his pamphlet, Lenin wrote that unions, standing by themselves, would only lead to struggles over wages and working conditions; a socialist consciousness needed to be introduced from outside the working class. Lenin believed that, for the workers to learn to stand together, they must struggle against their employers, class society, and the state. This organization would need to be disciplined, conspiratorial, and centralized. The “party of a new type” would become the vanguard of the working class and would lead, but remain separate from, the broader democratic workers movement.
In 1904, Lenin completed One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. The intelligentsias were fixated on individualism and anarchism, and they had revulsion for discipline. The workers, because of their work lives, were familiar with discipline and self-sacrifice. Lenin wrote that intellectuals were too indecisive to be serious socialists.
Materialism and Empiriocriticism was written in 1908 to destroy the influences of Machism in the Socialist party. Ernst Mach argued that science cannot discover a reality independent of one’s experience of that reality; that is, science records only one’s experience of reality and not reality itself.
In Materialism and Empiriocriticism, Lenin stated that logic in science is the observation of the material universe, existing independent of the observer. Physical sensations are the direct connection to the external world. Every ideology is conditioned by its historical setting. Science is no different, yet science is valid independent of the observer to the degree that it corresponds externally to tangible nature.
Also in 1908, Lenin wrote The Agrarian Program of Social Democracy in the First Revolution. In this book, he clarified the peasant situation in Russia at the time. Most peasants in Russia were reduced farm workers or tenant farmers. Few peasants had enough land to survive. A few were rapidly becoming like American capitalist farmers. The large feudal latifundium (large estates) remained. The latifundium were slowly developing into large farms modeled on the German Junker type. Lenin tried to prove that by breaking down feudalism, capitalism could develop. He explained that the demand for nationalization of the latifundium by the poor would not work at this early stage. The established market economy would simply make the state become the landowner, and rebellion would grow. Only by the expansion of capitalist relationships in the countryside would socialist consciousness grow among the poor peasants.
Lenin was in Switzerland when World War I broke out. He saw World War I as an imperialist war. He wrote in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism that imperialism was “the final stage of capitalism” and that this war offered the prospect for a socialist revolution. Lenin recommended that the proletariat oppose the war and turn it into a civil war against the capitalist class.
Competitive capitalism of the early 19th century had become increasingly centralized (fewer competitive firms) and concentrated (larger firms). Monopoly capitalism was able to create larger surpluses by limiting competition. This meant that corporate capitalists were forced to export capital to ensure future profits. This became, for Lenin, a major distinction between the earlier competitive capitalism and its later descendant, monopoly capitalism. Competitive capitalism exported finished goods in exchange for raw materials produced in the poor areas of the world. Monopoly capitalism exported its capital to these areas. Capital was invested to create modern ways of extracting those same raw materials. Instead of the mines being owned by the local traditional elite, capitalists in the rich industrial nations owned them. This then increased overall capital on a world scale while arresting development in the main capitalist countries.
The principal feature of modern capitalism was the domination of monopolist consolidations by giant capitalist firms. The monopoly control was most firmly established when all sources of raw materials were controlled by a single joining of several large surviving firms. Monopoly capitalism, when a few highly centralized firms effectively dominated the economy, created imperialism out of its own needs. To find continued profits in an already overly developed economy at home, investments flowed to less developed areas of the world where the capitalist economy had not reached a saturation point, thereby making profits much higher. Export of capital was the fundamental principle of imperialism. The export of capital greatly influenced and hastened the growth of capitalism in those countries to which it was exported.
In The National Question, Lenin recognized the right of national self-determination, although he was aware of the problem of national chauvinism. He believed that internationalism was central to any hope for socialism.
With the revolution of March 1917, the German government allowed Lenin to return to Russia, insisting that he go in a sealed railway car so that the followers of his revolutionary ideas would not know of his passing.
Lenin stated in his April Thesis that Russia was now ripe for a socialist revolution, arguing that the provisional government represented the bourgeoisie, whereas the Soviets represented a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, with the proletariat leading the poor peasantry toward the full power of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies. In State and Revolution, Lenin claimed the workers could not simply take control of the existing state; they needed to smash it. He proposed that the new workers’ state replace the police and military with armed workers’ militias. Elected representatives accountable to the workers’ councils and subject to popular recall would replace the bureaucracy. All officers would be paid workers’ wages. In Lenin’s proposal, when the return of bourgeoisie was overthrown, the state would wither away.
In November 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin (who had returned to Petrograd), overthrew Aleksander Kerensky’s regime and established a Soviet government. Lenin became chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars. A bitter civil war followed, and the Bolsheviks won. But because Western Europe failed to have a successful socialist revolution of its own, and because Russia was in economic ruin, Lenin was forced to delay establishing a socialist government immediately; instead, market reforms were put into place. In Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin criticized leftist elements in the West for neglecting parliamentary tactics and legal opportunities to create their own socialist revolution. He reiterated the importance of all communist parties to become centralized and disciplined and to follow the lead of the Russian party. Lenin died January 21,1924. He did not live long enough to see a successful conclusion to his life’s work or socialism in Russia. He is remembered most due to a legacy created by his followers in the new Soviet Union. In death, he became more important to the evolution of Marxist theory than he ever had been in life. For the remainder of the 20th century, the phrase Marxism—Leninism became the definition of orthodox Marxism.
- Davis, H. B. (1978). Toward a Marxist theory of nationalism. New York: Monthly Review.
- Lenin, V. I. (1939). Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism. New York: International Publishers.
- Lenin, V. I. (1947). One step forward, two steps back. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
- Lenin, V. I. (1954a). The agrarian program of social democracy in the First Revolution 1905—1907. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
- Lenin, V. I. (1954b). Critical remarks on the national question: The right of nations to self-determination. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
- Lenin, V. I. (1956). The development of capitalism in Russia. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
- Lenin, V. I. (1970a). Left wing communism: An infantile disorder. Peking, China: Foreign Language Press.
- Lenin, V. I. (1970b). Materialism and empiriocriticism. Peking, China: Foreign Language Press.
- Lenin, V. I. (1973). What is to be done. Peking, China: Foreign Language Press. White, J. D. (2001).
- Lenin: The practice and theory of revolution. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave.