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What Is Leninism?

Table 1: Selected Events 1853 - 1856Crimean war.1861Emanicpation of the serfs under Alexander II.1877 - 1878Russo-Turkisk war.1881Alexander II assassinated by a Narodnik conspiracy.1883Plekhanov founds Emancipation of Labor Group, struggles against Narodniks.1898Russian Social Democratic Labor Party founded, first congress.1900 - 1901First publications of Iskra, an all-Russian underground newspaper for the RSDLP.1902Lenin publishes What is to be done?1903Second party congress of RSDLP, splits into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.1904 - 1905Russo-Japanese War1905Russian revolution (failed).1906First election to the Duma.1914Start of Worl War I, with assassination on 28 June of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.5 to 8 September 1915Zimmerwald conference.February (old style) 1917Revolution, Nicholas

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Table 1: Selected Events
1853 - 1856Crimean war.
1861Emanicpation of the serfs under Alexander II.
1877 - 1878Russo-Turkisk war.
1881Alexander II assassinated by a Narodnik conspiracy.
1883Plekhanov founds Emancipation of Labor Group, struggles against Narodniks.
1898Russian Social Democratic Labor Party founded, first congress.
1900 - 1901First publications of Iskra, an all-Russian underground newspaper for the RSDLP.
1902Lenin publishes What is to be done?
1903Second party congress of RSDLP, splits into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.
1904 - 1905Russo-Japanese War
1905Russian revolution (failed).
1906First election to the Duma.
1914Start of Worl War I, with assassination on 28 June of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
5 to 8 September 1915Zimmerwald conference.
February (old style) 1917Revolution, Nicholas adbicates. Provisional government formed.
April (old style) 1917Lenin and companions arrive through Germany in sealed car; publishes April Theses.
June? 1917First congress of soviets
August (old style) 1917Failed Kornilov coup attempt.
October (old style) 1917Bolshevik revolution.
October (old style) 1917Second congress of soviets.
1917 - 1923Russian civil war
March 1918Brest-Litovsk Treaty.
11 November 1918Armistice day.
5 to 12 January 1919Spartacist Revolution.
2 to 6 March 1919Founding of Communist International (Third International) at congress in Moscow.
21 March to 1 August 1919Hungarian Soviet Repulbic.
28 June 1919Signing of Treaty of Versailles.
27 February 1921Founding of International Union of Socialist Parties (Second and One-Half International).
March 1921Kronstadt Rebellion.
1921New Economic Policy replaces War Communism.
May 1922Lenin's first stroke
December 1922Formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)
21 January 1924Lenin dies.
1.0 Introduction

A prior question is when did Leninism become a recognized tendency? Presumably, it was not immediately with the 1902 publication of What Is To Be Done? But certainly by the year of his death, as can be seen in Stalin's lectures, delivered at Sverdlov University in April 1924. I think 'Leninism' or 'Marxism-Leninism' became a name in the early 1920s.

2.0 A Definition and Remarks on Russia's Backwardness

Stalin defines Leninism:

"Leninism is Marxism of the era of imperialism and of the proletarian revolution. To be more exact, Leninism is the theory and tactics of the proletarian revolution in general, the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular."

Several scholars in the second international had provided analyses of imperialism, trusts, and finance capital. Lenin was not even the only Bolshevik to write extensively about imperialism; Bukharin also had a book.

The theory of imperialism provided a justifaction for why the first socialist revolution need not occur in the most advanced, industrialized capitalist country. Capitalism became a global system, including colonies. A revolution outside the metropole could be a strike at the weakest link.

Others knew that, according to classical Marxism, the proletariat revolution was supposed to first happen in advanced capitalist economies. Here is a bit from Gramsci, before he was the leader of the Italian Communist Party:

"That is what happens under normal conditions. When events are repeated with a certain regularity. When history develops through stages which, though ever more complex and richer in significance and value, are nevertheless similar. But in Russia the war galvanized the people's will. As a result of the sufferings accumulated over three years, their will became as one almost overnight. Famine was imminent, and hunger, death from hunger, could claim anyone, could crush tens of millions of men at one stroke. Mechanically at first, then actively and consciously after the first revolution, the people's will became as one.

Socialist propaganda put the Russian people in contact with the experience of other proletariats. Socialist propaganda could bring the history of the proletariat dramatically to life in a moment: its struggles against capitalism, the lengthy series of efforts required to emancipate it completely from the chains of servility that made it so abject and to allow it to forge a new consciouness and become a testimony to a world yet to come. It was socialist propaganda that forged the will of the Russian people. Why should they wait for the history of England to be repeated in Russia, for the bourgeoise to arise, for the class struggle to begin, so that class consciousness may be formed and the final ctastrophe of the capitalist world eventually hit them? The Russian people - or at lest a minority of the Russian people - has already passed through these experiences in thought. It has gone beyond them. It will make use of them now to assert itself just as it will make use of Western capitalist experience to bring itself rapidly to the same level of production as the Western world. In capitalist terms, North America is more advanced than England, because the Anglo-Saxons in North America took off at once from the level England had reached only after long evolution. Now the Russian proletariat, socialistically educated, will begin its history at the highest level England has reached today. Since it has to start from scratch, it will start from what has been perfected elsewhere, and hence will be driven to achieve that level of economic maturity which Marx considered a necessary condition for collectivism..." -- Antonio Gramsci, The revolution against Capital, 24 December 1917.

I think this points to a recurring tension in anti-colonial struggles. Should socialists support bourgeois and liberal positions and rebellions, without an immediate proletarian government conducting socialist planning?

3.0 The Start of Marxism in Russia

Plekhanov introduced Marxism to Russia. His 1891 book argues against the Narodniks, who were intellectuals championing the peasants, only recently freed from serfdom. Later, the Socialist Revolutionaries was a party championing the peasants. Some Left Socialist Revolutionaries entered the government after the October revolution. But Marxists like Plekhanov championed the working class. The peasants, although numerically superior, could only be allies.

Here I should mention that this history is mostly a history of illegal movements. Many of those important in the struggles leading up to the October revolution spent time in internal exile, in Siberia, or in external exile. Conferences and congresses were held outside Russia. Legal publications used 'Aesopian' language. Nevertheless, legal Marxism was a movement in Russia in the 1890s, with Pyotr Struve and Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky as the most prominent members.

4.0 A Vanguard Party, What is to be Done, and the Founding of Iskra

I think an important component of Leninism as the orgainization of a revolutionary party, as specified in his 1902 pamplet, What is to be done? Like the overwhelming majority of Lenin's major works, he spends a lot of time arguing against other comrades, often with personal remarks. Here his target is 'economism', the idea that socialists should concentrate on strikes and organizing industrial sites, trying to increase pay, decrease hours, and improve working conditions.

Lenin argued that social democrats should agitate on all fronts. This comprehensiveness seems to fit his personality, where he devoted his life to being a professional revolutionary. He was capable of dropping somebody after decades of friendship if that person was advocating something important he disagreed with. His arguments extended to the philosophy of science, as was being impacted by, say, the theory of relativity.

Trade unions can only bring trade union consciousness, according to Lenin. What is needed is a vanguard, a party with close connections to the workers that brings a social-democratic consciouesness.

Lukúcs, in his essay, 'Towards a methodology of the problem of organisation' (September 1922), discusses the "dialectical relation between 'final goal' and 'movement', i.e. between theory and practice." "Organisation is the form of the mediation between theory and practice." "The Communist Party is the organised form of - the first conscious step towards the realm of freedom." "The process of revolution is - on a historical scale - synonymous with the process of the development of proletarian class consciousness." The communist party is supposed to be an objective expression of the most advanced class consciousness of the workers, not a replacement. Communists need to pay close attention to all strata in the working class. The workers are supposed to be no longer be merely the object of history, but its subject as well. In his essay 'Class consciousness', Lukúcs writes "For a class to be ripe for hegemony means that its interests and consciousness enable it to organise the whole of society in accordance with those interests." In his book, he also discusses vulgar Marxism, which is deterministic.

As an immediate task, Lenin argued for the publication of an all-Russian newspaper, Iskra.

5.0 The Split at the Second Congress of the RSDLP and Democratic Centralism

The start of a major split in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party arose at the second party congress, held initially in 1903 in exile in Brussels. Participants included representatives of the editorial board of Iskra; Makhov, representing two votes of the Nikolayev Committee; the Bund (Jewish Workers' Union); and Rabocheye Dyelo, which was a newspaper for social democrats in exile.

The split was ostensibly focused on paragraph 1 of the party rules. Lenin's draft had the following:

"A member of the Party is one who accepts its programme and who supports the Party both financially and by personal participation in one of the Party organisations."

Paragraph 1 as formulated by Julius Martov at the Congress and adopted by the Congress stated:

A member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party is one who accepts its programme, supports the Party financially, and renders it regular personal assistance under the direction of one of its organisations.

Lenin wanted a tighter focus on professional revolutionaries, and this goes along with his concept of democratic centralism. At party congresses and meetings of the central committee, there should be the freest discussion. Once a vote has been conducted, all groups and circles, organizations and members of the party are expected to follow the direction decided upon. Martov's formulation was much looser. As Lenin put it, any professor or striker could call themselves a party member, despite not being bound by party discipline or working with a party organization.

Even though Martov prevailed on paragraph 1, he and his Mensheviks ended up in the minority. Apparently, Bolshevik means 'majority' in Russian, and Menshevik means 'minority'. Lenin was in the majority only because the Bund and the Rabocheye Dyelo group walked out. Plekhanov and Trotsky sided with Lenin at the Second Congress. But Plekhanov soon joined the Mensheviks, and Trotsky went his own way until rejoining the Bolsheviks in 1917. As late as spring 1906, an attempt at re-unification was tried at an unity congress of the RSDLP. The Mensheviks were in the provisional government formed in the February 1917 revolution, but not in the soviet government established in the October revolution.

6.0 The 1917 Russian Revolutions

The Tsar abdicated in the February revolution. The parliamentary government found themselves in charge as the provisional government. Kerensky eventually became prime minister. Political parties included the constitutional democrats (Cadets), Mensheviks, and the Socialists Revolutionaries. The SRs followed in the tradition of the Narodniks, without the terrorism. Some Left Socialists Revolutionaries joined the government established by the October revolution, since the Bolsheviks was implementing the SR agrarian program.

The soviets constituted a parallel government. A soviet is a council, perhaps for a village, a regiment, or a factory. Such soviets elected delegates to a regional soviet which, in turn, elected delegates to a more wide-ranging body, eventually to a national soviet. The Petrograd and other soviets sprang up during the 1905 revolution. The members were promptly arrested when that revolution failed. In Lenin's April theses, he implicitly draws some parallels to the Parisian communards, which Marx famously declared to be what the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like. Lenin also called for the Bolshevik party to change their name to the Communist Party and for the establishment of a new international, the Communist International (Comintern).

7.0 The Revolutionary Government

Leon Trotsky was the chairman of the Petrograd soviet, which set up the Military Revolutionary Committee. Petrograd was the Russian capital at the time. The October Revolution occurred when the Military Revolutionary Committee took over key sites in Petrograd, including the Winter Palace, and arrested the members of the provisional government. Moscow had its own uprising.

The Second Congress of Soviets met, with 670 delegates, as the October revolution unfolded. They needed some smaller sort of body to act as an executive. That would be the Council of People's Commissars, and that was the new soviet government. Lenin was its chairman. Other members included Trotsky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and Stalin. The congress proclaimed the revolution:


The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies has opened. It represents the great majority of the Soviets. There are also a number of Peasant deputies. Based upon the will of the great majority of the workers, soldiers, and peasants, based upon the triumphant uprising of the Petrograd workmen and soldiers, the Congress assumes power.

The Provisional Government is deposed. Most of the members of the Provisional Government are already arrested.

The Soviet authority will at once propose an immediate democratic peace to all nations, and an immediate truce on all fronts. It will assure the free transfer of landlord, crown, and monastery lands to the Land Committees, defend the soldiers' rights, enforcing a complete democratization of the Army, establish workers' control over production, ensure the convocation of the Constituent Assembly at the proper date, take means to supply bread to the cities and articles of the first necessity to the villages, and secure to all nationalities living in Russia a real right to independent existence.

The Congress resolves: that all local power shall be transferred to the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers', and Peasants' Deputies, which must enforce revolutionary order.

The Congress calls upon the soldiers in the trenches to be watchful and steadfast. The Congress of Soviets is sure that the revolutionary Army will know how to defend the Revolution against all attacks of Imperialism, until the new Government shall have brought about the conclusion of the democratic peace which it will directly propose to all nations. The new Government will take all necessary steps to secure everything useful to the revolutionary Army, by means of a determined policy of requisition and taxation of the propertied classes, and also to improve the situation of the soldiers' families.

The Kornilovtsi-Kerensky, Kaledin, and others, are endeavoring to lead troops against Petrograd. Several regiments, deceived by Kerensky, have sided with the insurgent People.

Soldiers! Make active resistance to the Kornilovets-Kerensky! Be on guard!

Railway men! Stop all troop-trains being sent by Kerensky against Petrograd!

Soldiers, Workers, Clerical employees! The destiny of the Revolution and democratic peace is in your hands!

Long live the Revolution!

The All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies Delegates from the Peasants' Soviets"

The Constituent Assembly met on 5 January 1918. Its dissolution was justified by the claim that its election was based on ballots drawn up before the October revolution and thus outdated, not reflecting the split between the Socialists Revolutionaries and the Left Socialists Revolutionaries.

8.0 Lenin's Influence on How to Read Marx

Above, I have not said much about Marx at all. I suppose I would find something about political economy in Lenin's 1899 book, The Development of Capitalism in Russia.

In his 1913 pamphlet, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism, Lenin says that the three sources of Marxism are German philosophy, English political economy, and French socialism. I do not know how influential this claim was; the first two sources are obvious. I would like to emphasize so-called Ricardian socialists, who were not French, for the last source. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels were part of a socialist movement that predated them.

Somewhere, probably in notes not published in his lifetime, Lenin says that you cannot understand Marx's Capital if you have not read Hegel's Logic. I do not like Hegel. I have read a bit of Christopher Arthur.

I suppose I am not the only one to read Marx's Remarks on the Gotha Program with Lenin's State and Revolution in mind, and vice versa.

9.0 Conclusion

Elements of Leninism include a workers' vanguard party, democratic centralism an alliance with peasants in anti-imperialist struggles,and a government of soviets dominated by the communist party.

  • Christopher Hill. 1971 (1947). Lenin and the Russian Revolution. Penguin Books.
  • Leszek Kolakowski. . Main Currents of Marxism (3 volumes). New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Vladimir Lenin. 1902. What is to be done? Collected Works: Vol. 5
  • Vladimir Lenin. 1904. One step forward, two steps back. Collected Works: Vol. 7
  • Vladimir Lenin. 1908. Materialism and empirio-criticism. Collected Works: Vol. 14
  • Vladimir Lenin. 1914 - 1916. Conspectus of Hegel's book The Science of Logic. Collected Works: Vol. 38
  • Vladimir Lenin. 1917a. Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. Collected Works: Vol. 22
  • Vladimir Lenin. 1917b. The tasks of the proletariat in the present revolution ('April Theses'). Collected Works: Vol. 24
  • Vladimir Lenin. 1918. The state and revolution. Collected Works: Vol. 25
  • Vladimir Lenin. 1920. 'Left-wing' communism: an infantile disorder. Collected Works: Vol. 31
  • Georg Lúkacs. 1971. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Merlin Press.
  • Julius Martov. 1938. The State and Socialist Revolution.
  • Georgi Plekhanov. 1891. The Materialist Conception of History.
  • John Reed. 1966 (1919). Ten Days that Shook the World. Penguin Books.
  • Joseph Stalin. 1945. The foundations of Leninism, in Problems of Leninism. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

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