Lenin’s socialism: Labels and realities

Vladimir Lenin

The following presentation was given by Paul Le Blanc on February 1 as part of a panel on “ What was socialism for Lenin?” that was part of the ongoing “Leninist Days/Journadas Leninistas” series of lectures. For more information or to register for “Leninist Days/Journadas Leninistas” visit its website here.

In considering “Lenin’s socialism,” it may be helpful to give our attention to what is actually meant by the word socialism. At the conclusion of this presentation, based on the considerations presented here, I will offer a relatively succinct summing-up of its definition and meaning.

Socialism is a word that — like democracy — has been widely used by political leaders and movements in ways that are entirely, and sometimes even murderously, incompatible. Sticking with the word “democracy” for a few moments, there are at least three distinctions worth making right from the start:

  1. there is an actual definition (democracy can be defined literally as “rule by the people”);
  2. there is the meaning the word has for a self-proclaimed adherent (for example, Abraham Lincoln saw it as meaning “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” — many would add something like: regardless of race, creed, color, or gender);
  3. there is the fact that the use of the word as a label may be inconsistent with the actual definition, as can be seen in three of many possible examples:
  • the example of a self-proclaimed “Democratic Party” that is actually — just like the Republican Party — run, internally, by small groups of power-players;
  • the example of a so-called “People’s Democracy” that is actually controlled by a repressive one-party dictatorship;
  • the example, finally, of a self-proclaimed “democratic republic” in which the real decisions are made by a power-elite concentrated in society’s economic, political, and military institutions, over and above the majority of the people.

The same is true of the word socialism — but even more so. Simply in regard to basic definitions, we find diversity and confusion. According to a Gallup Poll in 2018, “When asked to explain their understanding of the term ‘socialism,’ 17% of Americans define it as government ownership of the means of production.” We’ll come back to this conception of socialism as “government ownership of the economy” later in these remarks. Continuing with the Gallup Poll report, we are told: “Americans today are most likely to define socialism as connoting equality for everyone, while others understand the term as meaning the provision of benefits and social services, a modified form of communism, or a conception of socialism as people being social and getting along with one another. About a quarter of Americans were not able to give an answer” (Newport 2018). On the other hand, Adolf Hitler’s “National Socialist” (or Nazi) ideology has been described as genuinely socialist by some conservatives, while Bernie Sanders has defined socialism as the equivalent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal social programs (Eberling, 2020; Purdy 2016).

But the topic of today’s presentation is Lenin’s socialism, which allows us to reach for a less chaotic focus. In doing this, however, we must acknowledge that Lenin himself did not simply come up with his own definition. The scholar Lars Lih has aptly noted that Lenin, as a revolutionary theorist, was “in love with Marx and Engels,” commenting to one close friend that “really ... they are the genuine article” (Lih 2011, p. 13). So to understand Lenin, it makes sense, first of all, to consider what Marx and Engels have to say.

We should be clear that they often used the word “communism” as well as “socialism” to describe the envisioned alternative to capitalism — sometimes preferring one word or the other, but generally treating them as synonyms and referring to their approach as representing “scientific socialism”. The mass workers’ movement that arose throughout Europe after Marx’s death, while embracing his ideas, referred to its goal with what was then another synonym — social democracy. For most of his political life, Lenin referred to himself as a Social Democrat, though in his final seven years, he switched to the term Communist.

But for now, let us consider the meaning that Marx and Engels gave to the synonymous communism or socialism. In the Communist Manifesto the first step of transition to socialism involves the working-class majority winning “the battle of democracy”. The workers would then be the ruling class. Using their control of the state to take control of the economic means of production, they would ensure abundance by increasing “the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” This would open up a transitional period of “despotic inroads” on capitalist property relations and conditions of production, involving a series of economic and social reforms further increasing the power and well-being of the working class, at the same time revolutionizing the entire economic system. This development would lead to the elimination of classes and class antagonisms, which would be replaced with a free association of the producers “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx and Engels 1848, pp. 26, 27).

This understanding of socialism or communism expressed in the Communist Manifesto was repeated by Marxist-influenced socialists around the world, whom Lenin considered comrades. The German Social Democratic Party, with which Lenin identified until August 1914, demanded in its 1891 Erfurt Program, “the transformation of the capitalist private ownership of the means of production — land and soil, pits and mines, raw materials, tools, machines, means of transportation — into social property and the transformation of the production of goods into socialist production carried on by and for society,” which, for the population as a whole, would turn the economy into “a source of the greatest welfare and universal, harmonious perfection” (The Erfurt Program 1891). In the United States, the socialist leader who in 1918 won Lenin’s highest praise, Eugene Victor Debs, summed it up succinctly in that same year: “all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned … [and] industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all” (Debs 1918).

Rosa Luxemburg saw things in just that way, emphasizing that socialism requires “the most important democratic guarantees of a healthy public life and of the political activity of the laboring masses: freedom of the press, [and] the rights of association and assembly,” because “without a free and untrammeled press, without the unlimited right of association and assemblage, the rule of the broad mass of the people is entirely unthinkable.” Explaining that the growth of socialist society represents “new territory” that inevitably generates “a thousand problems,” Luxemburg noted: “Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts” (Luxemburg 2024, pp. 239, 240, 241).

Other aspects of Marx’s view of socialism — or communism — emerged in points Marx and Engels made in the 1870s, and also influenced Lenin. In Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx fleetingly commented that “between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat,” by which he meant uncompromising political domination by the working-class majority. Following this transitional period, Marx went on to identify two phases that the future society was likely to go through. The initial phase would involve “a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Over time, he suggested (consistent with the point that we have seen Luxemburg making) critical and creative efforts of society’s laborers would generate an evolution to “a higher phase of communist society,” characterized not only by greater abundance, but also fewer holdovers from capitalist dynamics, and greater opportunity and freedom for cooperative human development, transforming human consciousness (Marx, 1875a. 1875b.).

We should note that Lenin gave special emphasis to this outline in his classic The State and Revolution, but he chose to re-label the first phase as socialism while reserving the word communism only for the higher phase. In this presentation we will not follow him in doing that, instead continuing to treat socialism and communism as synonyms.

An important aspect of this higher phase of communism was emphasized by Engels in Anti-Dühring. The three phases of post-revolutionary society indicated by Marx can be found here: 1) the transitional phase in which the working class seizes state power and begins the socialist reconstruction of the economy, 2) the first phase of socialism in which the final vestiges of capitalism are overcome, and 3) the eventual higher phase in which classes and class conflict give way to a society of equals, based on economic abundance and harmonious functioning beneficial to all. The need to keep order through policing and repression consequently withers away, and so does the state apparatus that exists for that purpose (Engels 1878a).

It is interesting to see Lenin’s distinction of democracy as a practice in contrast to democracy as a state institution. Under communism, he envisions a “full democracy” which is so thoroughgoing that it “becomes a habit,” presumably enduring even after the democratic state evaporates (Lenin 1972, p. 30).

As revolutionary internationalists, Marx and Engels also understood the creation of socialism as a necessarily global phenomenon — something that could not come into being in just one country. This is why they focused such attention on building international organizations, with the appeal: Workers of all countries unite! As early as 1847, Engels stressed that simply for economic reasons it would not be possible to create a socialist oasis in the world capitalist economy. “By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth … into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others,” he explained (Engels 1847). A quarter of a century later, in assessing the defeat of the working-class uprising of the 1871 Paris Commune, Marx emphasized the central importance of international working-class solidarity, “the basic principle” of the first workers’ international that he helped create and lead. “Only when we have established this life-giving principle on a sound basis among the numerous workers of all countries,” Marx stressed, “will we attain the great final goal which we have set ourselves.” He concluded that the Paris Commune was defeated because in other capitalist countries there had not “developed great revolutionary movements comparable to the mighty uprising of the Paris proletariat” (Marx 1872).

In my keynote address last Saturday, we saw that this conception of socialism outlined by Marx and Engels was essentially Lenin’s own — reflecting the same revolutionary internationalism, the same working-class radicalism, the same humanistic and transformative ethos, the same revolutionary democracy (Le Blanc 2024). We saw that the centrality of genuine and thoroughgoing democracy to socialism had special importance for Lenin in two respects: first, the working class cannot carry out a socialist revolution unless it is prepared for that through serious struggles for all democratic demands; and second, “socialism cannot maintain its victory and bring humanity to the time when the state will wither away unless democracy is fully achieved” (Krupskaya 1970, p. 328). Especially regarding this second point, Rosa Luxemburg would be moved to comment: “No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly; repeats it more stubbornly than Lenin” (Luxemburg 2024, p. 242).

But we were also compelled to take note of something else that was related to the essential element of revolutionary internationalism. As Lenin explained in his “Letter to American Workers” of 1918: “We are banking on the inevitability of the world revolution,” adding: “We are now, as it were, in a besieged fortress, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief” (Lenin 1918). But the other revolutions did not succeed or materialize. Instead Lenin and his comrades had to face, on their own, the incredible violence of immensely powerful global forces prepared to destroy the revolution through economic strangulation (with consequent waves of famine and disease), through military invasion, and through the generous funding of counter-revolutionary forces in a brutal civil war.

In the face of such horrific realities, Lenin and the Bolsheviks resorted to extreme authoritarian measures: the Red Terror and a dictatorship not of the workers and peasants, but of a beleaguered and increasingly dictatorial Russian Communist Party. Some have consequently come to misunderstand Lenin as propagating a new political model designed to achieve socialism through a sweeping and violent authoritarianism. I believe that a serious study of what Lenin and his comrades wrote, said and did indicate that they were not driven to create a new pathway to socialism, so much as simply and desperately trying to survive the horrific realities they faced. Through such desperate measures, they hoped to hold on until socialist revolutions spread to more countries that would join with Soviet Russia to build a better world.

The fact remains that the terrible situation, and some of the policies and modes of functioning that the Russian Communist Party engaged in during this period of 1918 to 1922 had a brutalizing and corrupting impact on many of the comrades. Two eyewitness-participants (Victor Serge and Natalia Sedova) later recalled: “Lenin’s speeches and writings of 1921-22 … did not conceal his uneasiness and occasional bitterness. Reminiscences by his contemporaries show that Vladimir Ilyich was ... highly critical of the outlook and conduct of those Party leaders who favored a bureaucratic dictatorship” (Serge and Sedova 2016, p. 103).

In 1922 Lenin was felled by the first of four strokes that brought his death two years later. Returning from a visit to him, a prominent comrade, Lev Kamenev, addressed the question “what does Lenin condemn?” The answer, he noted, was: “Very much and first of all, with special emphasis, our bureaucratic apparatus” (Fischer 1964, p. 603). In my recent book on Lenin, when focusing on his final years, I trace some of what he tried to do to reverse the situation — boldly, anxiously, and for the most part unsuccessfully. There is not time to elaborate here on what I found, but it was grounded in his lifelong revolutionary commitments, and consistent with what Tamás Krausz has indicated — an effort to move developments toward “self-governing socialism, the culture of workers’ councils, forms of cooperatives leading to the self-defense and self-organization of the working people” (Krausz 2022).

Lenin was keenly aware of the fact that the realities of Soviet Russia were in no way socialist — certainly not the higher stage that Marx talked about in Critique of the Gotha Program, but just as certainly not the lower stage. Rather, it remained in the very initial, transitional stage between capitalism and socialism.

After Lenin’s death the bureaucratic dictatorship that he had resisted was able to consolidate its hold under the leadership of his comrade Joseph Stalin, who expressed a commitment to building socialism in a single country and labored to modernize Soviet Russia in the name of socialism. By 1930, his regime was claiming that socialism had now been achieved. “Our soviet society is a socialist society, because the private ownership of the factories, works, the land, the banks and the transport system has been abolished and public ownership put in its place,” Stalin explained to US journalist Roy Howard in 1936. “The foundation of this society is public property: state, i.e., national, and also co-operative … property.” The primary purpose of such a society would be industrial and agricultural development to advance living standards and cultural levels of the population, and to strengthen the nation.

At the same time, Stalin explained (for example, in his report to the 1930 Party Congress), “correct leadership by the Party” is essential for such efforts: “The Party should have a correct line; ... the masses should understand that the Party’s line is correct and should actively support it; ... the Party should ... day by day guide the carrying out of this line; ... the Party should wage a determined struggle against deviations from the general line and against conciliation towards such deviations; ... in the struggle against deviations the Party should force the unity of its ranks and iron discipline.” Scholar Erik van Ree has suggested that this approach was consistent with Stalin’s view of democracy, which he saw not as rule by the people but as “policies alleged to be in the interest of the people” and as “a system that allowed the population to participate at least in state organs, even without having a determining say in it” (Stalin, 1936; Stalin 1930; Van Ree 2002, pp. 3-4).

Some (on both the right and left of the political spectrum) have insisted on labeling this as “actually existing socialism,” but other labels have also been applied, including: state-socialism, state-capitalism, bureaucratic collectivism, degenerated workers’ state, and totalitarian state economy (Van der Linden 2009). My own inclination is to see it as a variant of the transitional formation between capitalism and socialism that Marx and Engels had theorized — but in this case forced to exist on a capitalist planet much longer than anticipated. Consequently, it became bureaucratized, authoritarian, and corrupted, proving unable to move forward to socialism and, ultimately, unable to endure.

What seems clear, however, is that what the Soviet Union became was not consistent with Lenin’s conception of socialism. His conception – which he shared with Marx and Engels, with Eugene V. Debs and Rosa Luxemburg, and with many others – remains for many of us a possible alternative to capitalism that is worth considering and fighting for.

I think the following conclusion flows from what has been presented here. Socialism (or communism) – in its Marxist variant, to which Lenin adhered – can be defined as the social ownership and democratic control of the economy, and its utilization to meet the needs of all society’s members.

The meaning of such socialism includes the following three points:

(1) It envisions the creation of a society in which freedom and equality would be the condition for each and every person living within it.

(2) Given the nature of the global economy, it must be international in scope.

(3) Given the complexities of the changes it involves, the realization of socialism would encompass a process of different phases. These phases have been understood as follows:

  • first a transitional phase in which the working-class majority oversees the transition from capitalism to socialism;
  • second, an initial phase of development in which the cooperative and classless society taking shape is still influenced by previous capitalist attitudes and experiences;
  • third, a higher stage infused by the new resources, experiences and consciousness generated by an extended period of socialist evolution – in which the need of any form of state repression evaporates because the free development, creative labor, and experience of genuine community among society’s individuals has become an all-encompassing social reality.


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