Lenin's place in history

By Graham Milner

Lenin stands out as one of the unquestionably great personalities of 20th century history. Yet such has been the impact of this man on the course of history in this century that his life and ideas have often become the subject of either the most vicious distortion or the most abject and craven cult-worship.

Lenin is said to have requested that no great fuss be made in commemorating his death, and that no personality cult be allowed to develop around him.[1] Lenin recognised that tendency that turns the most revolutionary figures, after their deaths, into harmless icons -- to be worshipped, while their ideas are ignored.[2] He had seen Marx's legacy treated in this way by leading ``Marxists'' in the Second International, and had spent most of the latter part (and a good deal of the former part) of his political life fighting the disastrous consequences of this tendency for the socialist movement.

Lenin's ``successors'' in the Kremlin repeated the errors of Second International's Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky. Each May Day parade in Moscow, the Soviet hierarchs stood atop Lenin's mausoleum, like pygmies. The greater were Lenin's praises sung, the wider grew the gap between the practice and the prattle of the Soviet bureaucrats. On the other side of the Cold War divide, distortion and denigration called the tune.

Although the published output on Lenin and the Communist movement is nothing short of staggering, there is still no really satisfactory, full-scale study of Lenin's life.[3] Yet attempts have been made, freed from the constricting prejudices of the Cold War or of Soviet eulogising and idolatry, to tackle the subject afresh.[4] Creative Marxism has played, and will in all likelihood continue to play, an indispensable part in this, for Lenin perhaps more than any other great figure of history succeeded in moulding his personality to fit the tasks posed by the epoch. Thus he provides an ideal subject for the materialist conception of history and biography.[5]

Early years

Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov in 1870, into a family of provincial Russian lesser nobility.[6] He did well at school and entered the University of Kazan in 1887. His older brother Alexander had been implicated in a plot against the tsar's life earlier that year. Some biographers have seen Lenin's involvement in radical politics from his earliest days at university, and his later political evolution, as a direct consequence of his brother's execution.[7] However, as the detailed study by Tony Cliff demonstrates, the young man spent some years in Samara after suspension from the university, and during this time his political views only slowly crystallised.[8] Lenin's character and convictions arguably may be said to have been largely formed by the time he reached the age of 23. [9]

At the time of Lenin's first contact with the Russian revolutionary movement, several distinct conflicting tendencies had emerged within it. The dominant strain in the movement in the early 1890s was still Narodnik populism, which traced its descent from the long, peasant-based radical tradition of the earlier 19th century. Some strains of Russian populism based their semi-socialist ideas upon the potentialities of the peasant village commune or ``mir''; claiming that this institution, which some claimed dated from pre-feudal times, could provide the vehicle for a direct transition from feudalism to socialism. Thus the horrors of industrialisation, which had attended the growth of capitalism in Western Europe, could be avoided in Russia.[10]

A Marxist social-democratic current had emerged under the leadership of Georgi Plekhanov in the 1880s that disputed the populist schema, and proclaimed the inevitability of a capitalist stage in the next period of Russian social and economic development. The task of the revolutionary movement was seen as aiding this process by working towards a revolution on the French model that would give rise to a bourgeois-democratic republic. Only after an indefinite period of capitalist development would the new urban working class grow sufficiently strong to seize power in its turn, and establish the foundations of socialism.[11]

Not surprisingly, this assessment provided sustenance to a variant of the Russian liberal movement: ``Legal Marxism'', which supported the Marxist position only to the extent that it called for the extension of capitalism as a progressive social formation under Russian conditions.[12] The continued growth of capitalist socioeconomic relations in the 1890s, particularly in agriculture, emphasised the general veracity of the Marxist prognosis.[13]

Lenin becomes a Marxist

It was during the period of isolation after his expulsion from Kazan University that Lenin studied Marx and eventually became a Marxist. In the autumn of 1893 Lenin left Samara for St. Petersburg and joined an underground social-democratic circle called the ``Elders''.[14] In this city a large industrial proletariat had already begun to concentrate, and it was here that Lenin made his own contribution to the debate with populism: What the Friends of the People Are and How They Fight the Social Democrats, a polemical tract, was published in 1895.[15] Lenin read Peter Struve's Critical Notes on the Economic Development of Russia -- a work in the Legal Marxist tradition, and was severely critical of its departure from orthodox Marxism.[16] After a trip abroad in 1895, during which he met leading Russian and Western Marxists, including Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod and Paul Lafargue, Lenin returned to St. Petersburg.[17] Shortly thereafter he was arrested with his friend and compatriot Julius Martov, imprisoned, and later exiled to Siberia.[18] During his imprisonment, Lenin continued to play a significant role in the activities of the newly founded St. Petersburg group, the League for the Emancipation of the Working Class, and also began work on his large-scale treatise The Development of Capitalism in Russia.[19]

During the final year of his three-year term of exile Lenin developed the ambitious plan which he later elaborated in What Is to Be Done?. He proposed the establishment of an official social-democratic newspaper outside Russia. This central organ would be no ordinary publication, but would direct from abroad Marxist political action throughout Russia.[20] Lenin had always retained the greatest respect for the traditions of the earlier Russian revolutionaries. While rejecting their premises, he respected the courage, devotion and organisational skill in the underground work that the revolutionary terrorists had demonstrated. In formulating plans for the building of an underground, illegal movement in an absolutist state like Russia, Lenin drew upon the heritage in tactical skill of the social-democratic movement's predecessors.[21]


After his term of exile had expired, Lenin left Russia with the aim of putting these plans for an all-Russian newspaper into effect. Named Iskra -- the Spark -- the first issue rolled off a secret German Social Democratic Party press in Leipzig in December 1900.[22] This paper became the fountainhead of the Russian Social Democratic movement. Lenin was a driving force on the Iskra editorial board, and soon personal and political clashes developed between himself and the other, younger members of the board -- Martov and Potresov, on the one hand, and the more senior comrades -- Plekhanov, Axelrod and Vera Zasulich, on the other.[23] Iskra waged implacable war against revisionist tendencies, particularly ``Economism'', a current within the Social Democratic movement that sought to reduce the dimensions of the working-class struggle to narrow trade unionism, abdicating the political fight and leaving it to the liberals.[24]

What Is to Be Done?

Lenin's pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (1902) took the form of a polemic against Economist ideology, while also attacking Eduard Bernstein's revisionist conceptions and drawing the links between the two tendencies. Many of the principal features of ``Leninism'' are to be found within the pages of this work. The dialectic of spontaneity and organisation; of mass action and the role of theory and program, runs like a red thread through What Is to Be Done?.

The idea expressed in the famous passage: ``the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness'',[25] i.e. the necessity for socialist consciousness to be brought to the proletariat from ``without'', is not specifically Leninist: in fact Lenin derived the notion from Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky.[26] Yet perhaps Lenin gave this concept more forceful expression than other Marxists of the time; certainly none of the other Iskraites objected to any of the contents of What Is to Be Done? at the time of its publication. Only later, after the split in Russian Social Democracy, did Lenin's Menshevik opponents berate him for the ``dictatorial'' implications they claimed were embedded in the organisational concepts sketched there. These were centralist, yet Lenin's insistance on the necessity for a strict centralism stemmed from the peculiar conditions of illegality imposed upon the Russian socialist movement, and the tactical application of the general principles of democratic centralism, where organisation was concerned, depended very largely upon concrete circumstances.

In 1905, after the revolutionary upsurge had won a number of democratic concessions from the tsarist regime, Lenin relaxed the stress on centralism in accordance with the new conditions, and placed corresponding emphasis on the democratic aspect.[27]

Lenin's organisational formula was in fact a brilliant resolution to the problem of reconciling inevitable internal political differences with the need for unity in action. The existence of tendencies and factions was sanctioned at all times in Lenin's party until the ban on factions (conceived as temporary) in 1921.[28] The familiar picture of a despotic internal regime under Leninist organisational practices stems, in large part, from its mis-identification with the Stalinist practices of ``bureaucratic centralism''.[29]

`Bolsheviks' and `Mensheviks'

The Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) in 1903 was marked by a deep-going split which was to lead to a permanent fracture of the movement into two major, separate tendencies.[30] The differences between the two tendencies that emerged (``Bolsheviks'' and ``Mensheviks'') were not programmatically clarified at the congress, and even later the differences were often perpetuated on the basis of attitudes (``hard'' versus ``soft'') rather than on the basis of firm principles. Nevertheless, some basic divergences seem clear.

The first deep-going divisions had occurred over the question of party membership requirements and statutes. Lenin insisted that a formula put forward by Martov was too loose. Martov's formulation required a member only to work ``under the guidance'' of one of the party's organisations, while Lenin's own conception demanded that a member should be obliged to personally participate in one of its organisations.[31] Perhaps it was no coincidence that all the delegates who came to the congress from Russia, where they had been working illegally, supported Lenin.[32]

Differences could also be detected over the party's attitude to liberalism; the Mensheviks were far less antagonistic to the liberal bourgeoisie than Lenin's group -- and this distinction in attitudes was to become much clearer during and after the 1905 Revolution.

Lenin, supported by Plekhanov, gained a majority on most of the important issues before the congress, but the results of the democratic decision-making process were overthrown after the congress when Plekhanov deserted to the minority.[33] Lenin resigned from the Iskra editorial board in disgust. In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back he defended his actions at the congress, providing there a good outline of his organisational conceptions.

Leon Trotsky, who had prior to the 1903 congress generally supported Lenin, tended during the congress to support the Martov faction, and afterwards attempted repeatedly to reconcile the two sides within the movement.[34]

Lenin suffered a bout of nervous exhaustion as a consequence of the bitter wrangling during the congress and its aftermath.[35] Having collected together a group of cadre who supported the Bolshevik position, he went on to publish a new Social-Democratic newspaper named Vperyod (Forward).[36]

1905 Revolution

In February 1904 the tsarist regime blundered into war with Japan. The relationship of forces between the two states: the Russian Empire -- a decrepit, creaking absolutism -- and Japan -- rapidly modernising and relatively highly industrialised -- was soon exposed.[37] After the Russian capitulation at Port Arthur, which marked the defeat of the tsarist state, an immense revolutionary upheaval convulsed Russia. Dating from ``Bloody Sunday'' January 22, 1905 (January 9 in the calendar then in use in Russia) , on which day a peaceful procession of St. Petersburg workers had approached the Winter Palace and was fired upon by tsarist troops, the movement erupted into mass strikes and peasant land seizures across Russia.[38] In October that year, the world's first ``soviet'' (council) of workers' deputies appeared, and elected Trotsky as its chairperson. The Soviet acted during its brief life as an embryonic alternative government, representing the interests of the masses, and directed a general strike that threatened to bring down the tsarist regime.[39]

Lenin returned to Russis in November 1905. Attempting to coordinate an insurrection, Lenin found that the revolutionary tide had begun to ebb, and that the forces of organised social democracy were insufficiently large to significantly affect the course of events.[40] Lenin's views on the nature and course of the democratic revolution were developed fully in a pamphlet published the following year, entitled Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.[41] Here, Lenin drew from an understanding of the weak and vacillating character of the Russian bourgeoisie the necessity for a bourgeois-democratic revolution led by a coalition bedtween the advanced proletariat and layers of the oppressed peasantry:

The workers will not be intimidated either by the thought that reaction intends to be terrible, or that the bourgeoisie proposes to recoil. The workers do not expect to make deals; they are not asking for petty concessions. What they are striving towards is ruthlessly to crush the reactionary forces: i.e. to set up a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.[42]

In that same year of ebb in the revolutionary tide, Trotsky put the finishing touches to his conception of the revolutionary tasks facing the Russian proletariat. Results and Prospects summed up his view of the lessons of the 1905 Revolution, postulating the necessity for a ``permanent revolution'' that would place the proletariat in power at the head of the oppressed masses, but which would also impel the proletariat to rapidly push beyond the bourgeois-democratic tasks, and implement socialist measures. The Russian revolution could thus only be consummated through its extension to the advanced Western European countries. This thoroughgoing internationalist notion was rejected by most tendencies in the Russian socialist movement until 1917, when the experience of the imperialist war, the February Revolution and the ``dual power'' established by it, demonstrated its veracity.[43]

Although the events of 1905 were eventually to be looked back upon as a ``dress rehearsal'' for the greater revolutionary upheavals of 1917, the years following this abortive revolution were marked by the blackest reaction and hopelessness. Few of the concessions wrung from the tsarist autocracy proved lasting: the series of dumas (representative assemblies) which convened after 1905 were broadly unrepresentative and had no real power. Notwithstanding this situation, the Bolsheviks stood candidates in all duma elections except for the 1905 poll, which was hurriedly organised by the tsarist regime to head off a developing mass upsurge.


During these dark years of reaction the revolutionary movement withered and the mass movement subsided into dormancy. Strikes grew less frequent; only in 1912 did the movement pick up again.[46] The intelligentsia lost interest in politics, while mystical currents flourished. The organisations of the social-democratic movement declined in strength and membership. Lenin in this period struggled against ``liquidationist'' currents that attempted to dissolve the party organisations of social democracy into the liberal swamp.[47]

The disillusionment and pessimism widespread among the Russian intelligentsia in the years of downturn in the mass movement was reflected inside the Bolshevik party. A number of leading party intellectuals, including Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, introduced neo-idealist and religious thought forms into the party.[48]

In order to combat these tendencies, Lenin applied himself to the study of philosophy, and in 1908 published Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, a large polemical treatise attacking the ``neo-Kantian'' school of Ernst Mach. Some biographers and commentators have described this work as a crude, mechanical-materialist text that deliberately distorts the positions of its opponents.[49] Louis Althusser has attempted to vindicate Lenin's philosophical work, seeing Materialism and Empirio-Criticism as a major statement of some originality.[50] Others have drawn a distinction between this earlier text and the Philosophical Notebooks of 1916, which were written largely in the form of marginal comments on the works of leading philosophers, particularly Hegel, during Lenin's stay in wartime Zurich.[51]

Split in the Second International

Lenin always took a great deal of interest in the affairs of the international socialist movement. He was especially concerned by the development of revisionist and reformist tendencies within the movement. He had a particularly high regard for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its leaders, particularly Karl Kautsky, as the theoretical advance guard of the world movement.[52] Lenin's appraisal of Kautsky in the pre-war period was not as acute as Rosa Luxemburg's. Luxemburg, a leader of the revolutionary internationalist wing of the SPD, worked closely with Kautsky and was much more aware of his vacillating centrism.[57] Kautsky's desertion of socialist principles in 1914 came as a deep shock to Lenin.[54]

The ominous threat of war hanging over Europe in the years before 1914 was a major cause of concern to the Second International. Anti-war resolutions were carried at pre-war congresses: one of these, endorsed at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress, was given more teeth with an amendment by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg:

Should war break out in spite of all this, it is their [i.e. the socialist parties'] duty to intercede for its speedy end, and to strive with all their power to make use of the violent economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the people, and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.[55]

The outbreak of war in 1914 found Lenin in Austrian Poland, where he was briefly imprisoned as a suspected spy.[56] Lenin's initial response to the news that the SPD and other socialist parties had voted for war credits was disbelief, followed by shock and disorientation. Yet he recovered quickly and laid immediate plans for creating a new international.[57] He declared the necessity for transforming the imperialist war into a civil war, a slogan that placed him on the far left of the then small number of anti-war socialists.[58] Most of the other opponents of the war took a centrist-pacifist stance. At the 1915 Zimmerwald and 1916 Kienthal anti-war conferences, in which Lenin played a central role, he emerged as a leader of international stature in the socialist movement. The left-wing of the loose formation of anti-war socialists gathered at these conferences was effectively the nucleus of what was to become the Third or Communist International (Comintern).[59]

Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism

Lenin was perhaps most isolated while in Zurich with his wife, Krupskaya, in 1916. Yet it was here that the final touches were put to the body of theory and organisational technique that would prove so decisive the following year, and during the early years of the Soviet republic and the Communist International. During this year he researched and wrote the book Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Although intended as no more than a popular outline, this booklet remains a significant contribution to its subject, perhaps not so much for its analysis of the nature of imperialism as for the implications drawn from that analysis for socialist strategy and tactics.[60]

Imperialism emerged as the development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism in general. But capitalism only became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development, when certain of its fundamental characteristics began to change into their opposites, when the features of the epoch of transition from capitalism to a higher social and economic system had taken shape and revealed themselves in all sheres.[61]

Lenin's view of imperialism as the era of the ``death agony'' of capitalism was closely linked with his overall conceptions of socialist goals. This era was to be one of the ``actuality of revolution'', in which the question of power would be sharply posed.[62] The necessity for a new world party to supersede the old Second International, with its unbridgable division between ``maximum'' and ``minimum'' programs, was a crucial requirement. Any revolution in a Russian Empire dominated by landlords and capitalists was now to be seen as a breach in the ``chain of world imperialism'', that would precipitate further revolution, rather than being a discrete phenomemon confined to a single country.[63]

Russian Revolution

The February Revolution of 1917 in Russia came as a surprise to Lenin. Only a few weeks previously he had delivered a speech in which he expressed doubts that ``the present generation would live to see the decisive battles of the coming revolution''.[64]

As soon as the news of the victorious overthrow of the tsar's government became known to him, Lenin made feverish preparations to return to Russia This objective was eventually achieved by means of the famous ``sealed train'', in which Lenin and other comrades, granted extra-territorial status, travelled through Germany at the behest of the German High Command. Much has been made of this incident by Lenin's opponents, both during the revolutionary year of 1917, when he was denounced as a German agent, and ever since. In fact the ``deal'' Lenin made with the German top brass sacrificed no principles, and had the German imperialists been blessed with the benefit of foresight, they would no doubt have considered that, on balance, the long-term loss to their system was immeasurably greater than any short-term gains made from the fall of the Kerensky regime and the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.[65]

Before Lenin left for Russia, he had sent a number of communications to his party followers in Petrograd, in the hope of influencing events. The Letters from Afar[66] developed the themes that were to be more fully stated in the April Theses Lenin drew up upon his return to Petrograd in April. Basing his analysis on scanty items of news gleaned from foreign correspondents of the Western press stationed in Petrograd and Moscow, Lenin immediately drew incisive conclusions about the nature of the Provisional Government established as a residual of the February insurrection, and about its relationship to the simultaneously convened Soviet of Workers' Deputies, which formed an organising centre for the oppressed masses of the whole of the Russian Empire. The outbreak of revolution in Russia was seen by Lenin as the beginning of a ``breach in the chain of world imperialism'' at its weakest link, and the February Revolution as the harbinger of a further revolution that would overthrow capitalism in Russia, and place the proletariat in power in alliance with the poor peasantry -- on the basis of the soviets.

Lenin `revolutionises' the Bolsheviks

While Lenin had desperately sought a means of returning to Russia, the Bolshevik Party leadership in Petrograd had adopted a conciliatory, almost Menshevik, attitude towards the Provisional Government. Far from denouncing this government for its failure to solve the pressing problems of the masses: an end to the war; land to the peasants; food for the starving urban workers; and the holding of popular elections -- the Bolshevik press in Petrograd (Pravda at this stage was edited by Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin) more or less accepted the new regime as a legitimate outcome of the February Revolution.[67]

Lenin's first action on arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd was to hail the February Revolution as the herald of world revolution -- socialist revolution.[68] Soon thereafter he presented the April Theses to a packed meeting of Bolshevik Party supporters and observers: the response was generally uncomprehending or hostile.[69] Only slowly did Lenin manage to persuade a majority of Bolsheviks that the power must be transferred to the soviets, and that all the party's energies must be directed to winning a majority within the soviets to that goal.[70]

As long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the soviets of workers' deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience.[71]

The ultimate success of Lenin's attempt to ``revolutionise'' the Bolshevik Party was to be the decisive event in the period between February and October 1917. The positions of Lenin and of Trotsky (the latter had arrived in Petrograd in May after being interned in a Canadian POW camp for some weeks), were in essence now identical, with Trotsky recognising the indispensability to the success of any socialist revolution in Russia of Lenin's Bolshevik Party. Trotsky joined the party in the dark period after the ``July Days'', while Lenin was forced into hiding and the Bolshevik Party organisation was virtually forced underground.[72]

The July Days of 1917 represented the first spontaneous outbreak of mass discontent with the Provisional Government. Although the Bolsheviks considered the outbreak untimely, they nevertheless placed themselves at the head of the mass movement, just as Marx had placed himself at the disposal of the 1871 Paris Commune, even though he thought its insurrection tactically premature.[73]

It was following the suppression of the insurrectionary movement in July 1917 that the reaction waxed and the tsarist general Kornilov, whom the ``socialist'' Kerensky as prime minister had made chief of staff, attempted to overthrow the soviets and the Provisional Government.[74] Only with the aid of the soviets, and particularly Bolshevik Party agitators, was the Kerensky regime able to survive. This series of events did more than any amount of words to educate the masses in the real relationship of forces within Russia, and it was not long after the Kornilov affair that the Bolshevik Party increased markedly its representative strength in the soviets.[75]

October Revolution

As soon as it became clear that the Bolshevik Party would soon be able to command a majority in the soviets for its central demands, Lenin from his hiding place across the Finnish border, urged the central committee to immediately lay plans for an insurrection to transfer power to the soviets.[76] Only very reluctantly, and after Lenin himself (on returning to Petrograd) threatened to resign from the central committee and agitate among the rank and file, did the leading bodies of the Bolshevik Party agree to the proposal.[77] A Military-Revolutionary Committee at the head of the soviets was established under Trotsky's leadership, and the insurrection was organised and carried through with remarkable ease and absence of bloodshed (in Petrograd) by November 7 (October 25 by the calendar used in Russia at the time).[78] Lenin, as chairperson of the newly established Council of People's Commissars, declared to the assembled Second Congress of Soviets on the morrow of the insurrection: ``We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order''.[79]

The first decrees of the Soviet government, which consisted of Bolsheviks with the support of Left Social Revolutionaries (SRs) [the Mensheviks, Right SRs and other groups refused to participate or recognise the legitimacy of the October action], pushed through measures not implemented by the Provisional Government: i.e. land to the peasants; a call for an immediate peace with no annexations or indemnities; decrees on workers' control and bread supplies; and recognition and guarantees of the rights of oppressed nationalities.[80]

State and Revolution

When Lenin had left his hiding place in Finland to return to Petrograd shortly before the October Revolution, he was forced to leave unfinished a manuscript on which he had been working. He wrote in a postscript to the first published edition of this booklet that: ``it is more pleasant and useful to go through the experience of revolution than to write about it.''[81] This work was The State and Revolution, in which the author restated the classical Marxist position on a subject that had been clouded by decades of opportunism and distortion. Those who consider Leninism to be a dictatorial or authoritarian creed would do well to study this booklet. In it Lenin takes up the theme of ``the withering away of the state'', projected as an essential component of the communist revolution by Marx and Engels.

Drawing mainly upon the experience of the 1871 Paris Commune, but obviously basing his analysis also partly on the role of the soviets in the events from February 1917 in Russia, Lenin sketched the outlines of the transitional state form he projected for the Russian proletarian state. Some historians have eschewed taking this ``utopian'' vision seriously, claiming that The State and Revolution represents a ``libertarian aberration in the generally authoritarian content of Lenin's socialism''.[82] The same assumptions underlie the treatment given to the revolutionary ideas at the root of the Soviet Republic's early initiatives in domestic and foreign policy. E.H. Carr, for example, has been taxed for overemphasising the ``constitution-building'' aspects of these early actions, where such measures were often seen at the time as peremptory or transitory.[83]

Rise of the bureaucracy

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that Lenin, Trotsky and the entire leadership of the Bolshevik Party (including Stalin until about 1924) considered the survival of the October Revolution and the Soviet regime to be largely contingent upon an extension of the revolution to the advanced countries of Western Europe. The civil war was fought as much to maintain a redoubt for the international proletariat as to maintain power in Russia itself; and at no stage during Lenin's lifetime was it considered that the soviets could survive indefinitely without aid from other successful socialist revolutions. These elementary truths have, however, been overlaid with encrustations from decades of Stalinist distortion.[84]

Thus the major problems which Lenin began to find increasingly unsuperable from about 1922 onwards stemmed from the isolation of the revolution in a backward, overwhelmingly agricultural country devastated by years of imperialist war, civil war and foreign intervention, and in which the Soviet government was forced to depend upon unreliable specialists and trained personnel in the state apparatus, armed forces and industry. The decimation of the proletariat in the civil war, and its destruction as any kind of cohesive social class, left the Bolshevik Party suspended above an absent working class. In such a situation, where repeated revolutionary failures abroad (notably Germany in 1923) sapped the ardour of the masses even further, the process of bureaucratisation (which had been recognised by Lenin at a very early stage) upon which the Stalin faction rode to power, proceeded more and more rapidly and irreversibly.[85]

Towards the end of his life Lenin began to prepare for an intensive struggle against the developing bureaucracy, focusing on the issues of the oppressed nationalities suffering under a resurgence of Great Russian chauvinism; threats to the monopoly of foreign trade established soon after the October Revolution, and the Stalin secretariat's increasingly rude and arbitrary mode of operation.[86] Some of the measures Lenin himself had instigated, such as the banning of factions in 1921, the disbanding of the far-left Workers' Opposition and suppression of the Kronstadt revolt of 1921 could well have provided formal precedents for the edifice of Stalinist repression that was to be created after his death.[87] Yet, Lenin had adopted these measures under circumstances which, at the time, seemed to warrant them. Only later was he to acknowledge that the machine he had been so instrumental in building was no longer responding to the conscious, directing forces. ``The old bureaucracy has been beaten'', he said, ``but the bureaucrats remain''.[88]

Perhaps the victory of those ``objective forces'' -- the same forces that had swept the Jacobins from power in France in the Thermidorian reaction of 1795-89 -- and the paralysing of the will before them, was in itself a vindication of Marxism. Lenin died, in January 1924, before any decisive struggle against the encroaching reaction could begin.

Lenin's character

Tamara Deutscher edited and published a selection of writings by Lenin and close associates that brings out those qualities often overlooked in appraisals of this most ``political'' of personalities.[90] These excerpts demonstrates Lenin's concern for literature and art, although he never professed any special knowledge in these areas; the antagonism he felt for the developing bureaucrary that has been discussed; and his views on women's rights.

Although Lenin's opinions on sex might have been rather pedestrian, as Clara Zetkin's Reminiscences reveal,[91] he was a particularly strong supporter of the women's movement, and advocated an autonomous women's organisation connected with the Comintern.[92]

Krupskaya's Memories of Lenin are an invaluable source of anecdotal information on Lenin's living habits and personality; from them one gets a sense of the essential simplicity and modesty of the man.[93] Lunacharsky also comments on Lenin's unassuming manner and personal modesty.[94] Trotsky, an acute observer of people, wrote the following on Lenin's extraordinary capacity to render complex ideas comprehensible to the experience of the masses:

Is the speaker [i.e. Lenin] really a profoundly educated Marxist, thoroughly versed in economic theory, a man of enormous erudition? It seems, now and again rather, that here is a self-educated man who has arrived at an extraordinary degree of understanding all by himself, by an effort of his own brain, without any scientific apparatus, any scientific terminology, and now expounds it all in his own manner. How is it that we get such an impression? Because the speaker has thought out things not only for himself, but also for the broad masses; because his own ideas have been filtered through the experience of these masses and in the process have become free of theoretical ballast. He can now construct his own exposition of problems without the scientific scaffolding, which served him so well when he approached them first himself.[94]

Lenin's conception of the epoch remains at the centre of the socialist project in the 21th century. Despite the venom directed at Lenin by reformist theorists and commentators, the Stalinisation of the Comintern and its subsequent destruction, the legacy of Lenin has not been destroyed.[96] The program and tactics of Marxism, which Lenin more than any other single individual developed, still retain their validity for revolutionary political activity.[97]

[Graham Milner is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]


1. Paul Ginsborg, 'The Politics of Lenin' (London, 1974) p. 3. The tendency to lionise Lenin was evident even during his lifetime: an early example of this is perhaps Gregory Zinoviev's 'Speech to the Petrograd Soviet - Lenin' (London, 1966), delivered after an attempt on Lenin's life in 1918.

2. Cf. "The State and Revolution", 'Collected Works' (Moscow, 1965) Vol. 25, p. 385. Tamara Deutscher (ed.), 'Not By Politics Alone: the Other Lenin' (London, 1973) pp. 15-16.

3. Isaac Deutscher, author of the great biographies of Trotsky and Stalin, intended to write a full-scale biography of Lenin. Although he collected an extensive amount of material for this project, it never eventuated: only a small portion was completed and was published after Deutscher's death under the title 'Lenin's Childhood'.

4. Tony Cliff's projected three volume 'Lenin', of which only the first has so far been published, seems a good example.

5. See George Novack, "From Lenin to Castro: the Role of the Individual in History Making", 'Understanding History: Marxist Essays' (New York, 1972) pp. 71-82.

6. Cliff, 'Lenin', Vol. 1, "Building the Party" (London, 1975) attempts to dispel some of the legends surrounding Lenin's family background, noting that Lenin's father in fact ranked as a nobleman, fourth in a table of fourteen ranks, with hereditary status: p. 1. Compare this with the official Soviet version in 'V.I. Lenin: a Short Biography' (Moscow, 1968) p. 7. Some of the more vindictive conservative historians have gone into paroxisms over Lenin's blood lineage: see, for example, Robert Payne, 'The Life and Death of Lenin' (London, 1976) pp. 38-47, which concludes: ``he was German, Swedish and Chuvash, and there was not a drop of Russian blood in him'' p. 47.

7. See, for example, David Shub, 'Lenin: a Biography' (Harmondsworth, 1966) pp. 13-17. Compare Shub's account with Deutscher's more sober assessment in 'Lenin's Childhood' (Oxford, 1970) pp. 57-67.

8. Cliff, 'Lenin', Vol. 1, pp. 4-9.

9. Leon Trotsky, 'The Young Lenin' (London, 1972) p. 207.

10. For a good account of the roots of populism and of the early history of the Russian revolutionary movement see Adam B. Ulam, 'Lenin and the Bolsheviks' (London, 1969) ch. 2 passim. See also Cliff, 'Lenin', pp. 9-20.

11. 'Ibid.', pp. 20-30. See also Joel Carmichael, 'A Short History of the Russian Revolution' (London, 1967) pp. 32-34.

12. For a brief discussion see Deutscher, 'The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921' (Oxford, 1970) pp. 108-9, and also Bertram D. Wolfe, 'Three Who Made a Revolution' (Harmondsworth, 1966) ch. 7.

13. For facts and figures see Alec Nove, 'An Economic History of the USSR' (Harmondsworth, 1966) ch. 1.

14. Shub, 'Lenin', p. 39.

15. 'Collected Works' Vol. 1, pp. 129-332.

16. 'Ibid.', 'The Economic Content of Narodism and the Criticism of It in Mr. Struve's Book', pp. 333-508.

17. Shub, 'Lenin', pp. 41-44..

18. 'Ibid.', ch. 3.

19. On Martov's role in the league, and Lenin's relations with the future Menshevik leader at that time, see Irving Getzler, 'Martov: a Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat' (Melbourne, 1967) ch. 3.

20. Cliff, 'Lenin', ch. 3.

21. 'Ibid.', pp. 38-41. Payne, in the work already cited ('The Life and Death of Lenin') makes considerable efforts to identify Lenin's position with that of the notorious terrorist Nechaev, whom he dubs ``The Forerunner''. Lenin, of course, rejected precisely these petty-bourgeois terrorist aspects of Narodnik populism, of which the so-called ``Nechaev Affair'' was an example. As Louis Fischer, 'The Life of Lenin' (New York, 1964) notes, Nechaev's name appears nowhere in Lenin's writings: p. 45.

22. Ulam, 'Lenin and the Bolsheviks', ch. 4, part one.

23. See 'ibid.', pp. 208-25; Trotsky, 'On Lenin: Notes Towards a Biography' (London, 1971) ch. 1.

24. On Economism see Getzler, 'Martov', pp. 39-53 passim; Cliff, 'Lenin', pp. 59-66, and Richard Hyman, 'Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism' (London, 1971) pp. 11-14.

25. 'Collected Works', Vol. 5, p. 375.

26. Ernest Mandel, 'The Leninist Theory of Organisation: Its Relevance for Today' (Sydney, mimeo, n.d.) p. 19n. See the same author's 'Class Consciousness and the Leninist Party (Colombo, 1970), and further on the subject of Leninist organisation theory, Brian Pearce and Cliff Slaughter, 'What is Revolutionary Leadership (Sydney, mimeo, n.d.).

27. See Marcel Liebman, 'Democratic Centralism: Lenin in 1905' (Sydney, mimeo, n.d.).

28. Mandel, 'The Leninist Theory of Organisation'. See also James p. Cannon, "The Vanguard Party and the World Revolution", Mandel (ed.), 'Fifty Years of World Revolution' (New York, 1968) pp. 349-60; Georg Lukacs, "Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation", 'History and Class Consciousness (London, 1971) pp. 295-342.

29. A rather sad example of this mis-identification is C.L.R. James et al, 'Facing Reality' (Detroit, 1974) ch. 6.

30. For a good account see Deutscher, 'The Prophet Armed', pp. 72-86.

31. Cliff, 'Lenin', pp. 108-10.

32. Ginsborg, 'The Politics of Lenin', p. 13..

33. Shub, 'Lenin', p. 83.

34. Deutscher, 'The Prophet Armed', pp. 83-97.

35. Lenin and his partner Krupskaya went into the mountains for a month: se N.K. Krupskaya, 'Memories of Lenin' (London, 1970) p. 98.

36. Ulam, 'Lenin and the Bolsheviks', pp. 264-65.

37. Lionel Kochan, 'The Making of Modern Russia' (Harmondsworth, 1963) pp. 212-17.

38. 'Ibid.', pp. 217-20; Trotsky, '1905' (Harmondsworth, 1973).

39. Deutscher, 'The Prophet Armed', ch. 5, passim.

40. Shub, 'Lenin', pp. 102-12.

41. 'Collected Works', Vol. 9, ch. 5, passim.

42. 'Ibid.', p. 113.

43. See Trotsky, "Results and Prospects" in 'The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects' (New York, 1958) pp. 161-254; Deutscher, 'The Prophet Armed', ch. 6, passim. For a debate on the relationship between Trotskyism and Leninism see Nicholas Krasso (ed.), 'Trotsky: the Great Debate Renewed' (New York, 1972). Trotsky provides a useful summary of the conflicting positions within the Marxist socialist movement on the nature of the Russian revolution, in the form of an appendix to his unfinished biography of 'Stalin': "Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution", Vol. 2 (London, 1969) pp. 257-77.

44. Kochan, 'The Making of Modern Russia', ch. 14. On Lenin's tactical attitude to elections see Doug Jenness, "Lenin as Election Campaign Manager", 'International Socialist Review' (February, 1971) pp. 9-11. Lenin later outlined his concepts in this area more fully in a pamphlet published in 1920 criticising ultra-left tendencies in the international Communist movement: "Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder", 'Collected Works' Vol. 31, pp. 17-118.

45. Wolfe, 'Three Who Made a Revolution', ch. 21.

46. For strike statistics see Trotsky, 'History of the Russian Revolution' (London, 1967) Vol. 1, p.49.

47. Wolfe, 'Three Who Made a Revolution', p. 416; Cliff, 'Lenin', pp. 295-301.

48. 'Ibid.', ch. 16.

49. Fischer, 'The Life of Lenin', pp. 65-67; Ulam, 'Lenin and the Bolsheviks', p. 356. See also Anton Pannekoek, 'Lenin as Philosopher' (London, 1975).

50. 'Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays' (New York, 1971) pp. 23-70.

51. For a discussion see Slaughter, 'Lenin and Dialectics' (Sydney, mineo.) pp. 13-22.

52. Wolfe, 'Three Who Made a Revolution', p. 144.

53. See J.P. Nettl, 'Rosa Luxemburg' (Oxford, 1969: abridged ed.), passim.

54. Shub, 'Lenin', p. 157.

55. James Joll, 'The Second International 1889-1914' (London, 1974), p. 208. See also Julius Braunthal, 'History of the International' (London, 1966), ch. 21 and George Novack et al, 'The First Three Internationals: Their History and Lessons' (New York, 1974) pp. 67-78.

56. Shub, 'Lenin', p. 157.

57. See "The European War and International Socialism", 'Collected Works', Vol. 21, pp. 20-25.

58. See "The Slogan of Civil War Illustrated", 'ibid.', pp. 181-83, and "Socialism and War", 'ibid.', pp. 295-338.

59. Braunthal, 'The International' Vol 2 "1914-1943" (London, 1967) ch. 2.

60. Although because of the conditions of Tsarist censorship under which the book was first published these ideas could not be spelled out: 'Collected Works' Vol 22, pp. 185-304. For the official Soviet view see V.M. Shundayev, 'Lenin's Doctrine of Imperialism' (Prague, 1976): see also George Lichtheim, 'Imperialism' (Harmondsworth, 1974) pp. 100-09 and Michael Barratt-Brown, 'The Economics of Imperialism' (Harmondsworth, 1974) pp. 63-67.

61. Lenin, 'Imperialism', p. 265.

62. On this subject see Lukacs' brilliant essay 'Lenin: a Study in the Unity of His Thought' (London, 1970).

63. Some of these ideas are discussed in Mandel, "Ten Theses on the Social and Economic Laws Governing the Society Transitional Between Capitalism and Socialism", 'Critique: a Journal of Soviet Studies and Socialist Theory' (Autumn, 1974) pp. 5-22. See also Franz Marek, 'Philosophy of World Revolution' (London, 1969) ch. 7, 8.

64. E.H. Carr, 'The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923' Vol. 1 (Harmondsworth, 1966), p. 80.

65. For a reasonably sober account of the 'sealed train' episode see Ulam, 'Lenin and the Bolsheviks', pp. 423-9.

66. 'Collected Works', Vol. 23, pp. 295-343.

67. Carr, 'The Bolshevik Revolution', pp. 84-85; Deutscher, 'Stalin' (Harmondsworth, 1966) pp. 141-46.

68. Edmund Wilson, 'To the Finland Station' (London, 1960) contains an arresting account of Lenin's return and reception in Petrograd; pp. 471-75, within the context of its historic significance.

69. For accounts see Fischer, 'The Life of Lenin', pp. 127-28, and Trotsky, 'History of the Russian Revolution', Vol. 1, ch. 15.

70. 'Ibid.'.

71. "The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present revolution" (April Theses), 'Collected Works', Vol. 24.

72. For general accounts of these events see Carmichael, 'A Short History of the Russian Revolution', and Alan Moorehead, 'The Russian Revolution' (London, 1960) ch. 11, 12.

73. See Trotsky's account: 'History of the Russian Revolution' Vol. 2, ch. 1-3.

74. Ibid., ch. 4-9.

75. Ibid., ch. 12, 13.

76. Shub, 'Lenin', pp. 261-64.

77. Carr, 'The Bolshevik Revolution', pp. 103-05.

78. For a stimulating account see John Reed, 'Ten Days that Shook the World' (Harmondsworth, 1966) passim.

79. Cited in Moorehead, 'The Russian Revolution', p. 252.

80. Carr, 'The Bolshevik Revolution', pp. 116-32; Trotsky, 'History of the Russian Revolution' Vol. 3, ch.10; Victor Serge, 'Year One of the Russian Revolution' (London, 1972) pp. 72-74.

81. "The State and Revolution", 'Collected Works', Vol 25, p. 492.

82. See, for example, Ulam, 'Lenin and the Bolsheviks' pp. 461-63; Wilson, 'To the Finland Station', pp. 455-56.

83. See Carr, 'The Bolshevik Revolution', Part 2, and Deutscher's comments: "Mr. E.H. Carr as Historian of the Bolshevik Regime", 'Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays' (London, 2nd ed, 1969) pp. 91-112.

84. See Russell Bloch's "Introduction" to his edition of 'Lenin's Fight Against Stalinism' (New York, 1975) pp. 5-28.

85. Deutscher's incisive assessment of the position of the Soviet regime at the end of the Civil War deserves close attention: "The Power and the Dream", 'The Prophet Unarmed' ch. 1.

86. Increasing attention is being paid to this fight. See Bloch (ed.), 'Lenin's Fight Against Stalinism' and Moshe Lewin, 'Lenin's Last Struggle' (London, 1973). See also Trotsky, 'On the Suppressed Testament of Lenin' (New York, 1972) and also Ivan Dzyuba, 'Internationalism or Russification (New York, 1974) on the nationalities question.

87. On these events see Alexandra Kollontai, 'The Workers' Opposition' (London, mimeo, 1968); Paul Avrich, 'Kronstadt 1921' (Princeton, N.J., 1970) and Voline, 'The Unknown Revolution' (London, 1958) -- on Kronstadt and the Makhnovist movement in the Ukraine; and also Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, 'Obsolete Communism; the Left-Wing Alkternative (Harmondsworth, 1969) part 4.

88. Cited in Nina Gourfinkel, 'Lenin' (New York, 1961) p. 171.

89. The parallels between the Great French and Russian revolutions are drawn by Deutscher: "Two Revolutions", 'Heretics and Renegades', pp. 53-67. See also Crane Brinton, 'The Anatomy of Revolution' (New York, 1965) ch. 8.

90. 'The Other Lenin'.

91. 'Reminiscences of Lenin' (New York, 1934) "Women, Marriage and Sex".

92. 'Ibid.' See also Mary-Alice Waters, 'Feminism and the Marxist Movement' (New York, 1972) pp. 24-29 [on the Third International].

93. 'Memories of Lenin' (London, 1970).

94. 'Revolutionary Silhouettes' (London, 1967) pp. 47-48.

95. 'On Lenin', p. 139.

96. Lichtheim's 'Marxism' (London, 2nd ed., 1964) part 5, ch. 6, has a disappointingly shallow appraisal.

97. On Stalinism and the Comintern, see Fernando Claudin, 'The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform' (Harmondsworth, 1975) For the earlier years, see Helmust Gruber (ed.), 'International Communism in the Era of Lenin' (New York, 1972).

98. Perry Anderson's 1965 circumscription of Leninism's applicability to ``backward, inchoate societies, dominated by scarcity and integrated only by the State'' was a familiarly stated case for the rejection of these politics in the imperialist countries: see "Problems of Socialist Strategy", 'Towards Socialism (London, 1965) p. 228. For a statement of Leninist conceptions in contemporary terms see Pierre Frank, et al, 'Key Problems in the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism' (New York, 1969) and Deutscher, 'The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917-1967' (Oxford, 1969).


Some fine tuning to Graham Milner's article.

The government immediately following the October Socialist Revolution was Bolshevik only. The two great decrees on Peace and the Abolition of Private Ownership of the Land were passed by a Bolshevik only government. Lenin was to repeat many times that passing the decree on Land won for the Bolsheviks the support of the peasantry and ended the hegemony the Socialist Revolutionary Party over the countryside.

It should be remembered that in the run-up to October, Lenin consistently urged the Bolshevik Party to take the power, but that Trotsky gained the majority in the Central Committee for the revolution to be made in the name of the Soviets - thus winning over the militants of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (the Left SRs did not exist as a separate party at that time).

It should also be remembered that in early November Lenin had to fight hard on the Central Committee against Kamenev, Rykov and Zinoviev, who wanted the Bolsheviks to agree to the ultimatum from the Union of Railworkers for a coalition government of all the so-called socialist parties. The basis and conditions for the participation of the Left SRs in the government automatically followed. The Left SRs could be junior partners if, and only if, they agreed to core Bolshevik policy as determined by the Second Soviet Congress.


Its a pity this doesn't draw on new work on Lenin by Lars Lih and others (or indeed any references from 1975 onward).

Given your statement that Lenin's idea are subject to "most vicious distortion or the most abject and craven cult-worship". My impression is that you are close to the latter end - the closing quote from Lenin's wife that he was a genius doesn't help that impression nor it seems is there anything in the way of criticism of Lenin's ideas and while you insist Lenin is still 'valid' it would be nice to see this spelled out. How do organisational methods of someone fighting a Czarist Autocracy in the first 20 years of last century with no parliamentary democratic institutions or genuine unions and surrounded by millions of peasants help us build a political alternative to Australian capitalism?

To respond to Shane Hopkinson: the essay published here was written in 1977, which accounts for the sources being somewhat dated. There have been several major works on Lenin published since then that I would regard as essential reading. The essay mentions that there is no credible Western biography of Lenin. That situation has been rectified with the appearance of Ronald Clark, 'Lenin: a Biography' (New York, 1988), which seems to me to be a very useful general biography. Neil Harding, 'Lenin's Political Thought' in two volumes: 'Theory and Practice in the Democratic Revolution' (London, 1977) and 'Theory and Practice in the Socialist Revolution' (London, 1981) is a fine analytical presentation of Lenin's central ideas. Paul Le Blanc, 'Lenin and the Revolutionary Party' (New Jersey, 1993) is an excellent, Marxist discussion of its subject.

I believe it could be held that in the earliest years of the international Communist movement Lenin's ideas were not that well understood. Only with translations of the major works did the nascent movement equip itself with the necessary theoretical understanding to go forward. Thus, Lenin's booklet 'Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder', published in 1920, educated many militants in the policy and tactics of revolutionary Marxism, and attempted to draw out what was of universal significance from Bolshevik experience for the international workers' movement.

You ask me what relevance do Lenin's ideas have for today, and specifically for the context of contemporary Australian capitalism? I noticed a decade or two ago, when the concept of 'globalisation' was adopted by Western economists and political scientists, it was pointed out by many socialists that such a concept had been familiar since the early 20th century in Marxist discourse, and that Lenin's booklet 'Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism' (1916) had developed many of the themes that were only now penetrating bourgeois discourse. When one looks back at the debates and theoretical controversies in the Marxist movement since the 19th century, and in particular at the Russian Marxist party debates in the early 20th century, one realises that this is indeed the cutting edge of theory and scientific understanding in so many areas.

It seems to me that the perspectives of the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International were light-years in advance of their time. Looking over the documents (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos) of the early years of the Comintern one realises that these debates are very contemporary. Some of the newer books I've mentioned, particularly Paul Le Blanc's 'Lenin and the Revolutionary Party' deal in depth with the historical emergence of Lenin's concept of organisation, and an understanding of the contemporary relevance of those ideas indeed flows from an awareness of the universal aspects of this concept of organisation for the international workers' movement.

Lenin would have been the last person to claim that his ideas were fixed and formulated for all time, but a careful study of Lenin's writings, and an assimilation of the creative, Marxist method at the base of them, provides the socialist activist with valuable guidance in day-to-day tactics, as well as in the broader areas of programme and strategy. I don't believe that there is anything wrong with emphasising Lenin's strengths. The cultists tend to be those who pay only lip-service to Lenin's ideas. And the failings of many of those who have claimed to be acting in Lenin's name, like those who claimed to act in Marx's name before his, are clear enough.