Leninism (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of politics, socialism, and revolution of the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924).

States are tailor-made for the societies they govern. Socialists cannot therefore adapt a capitalist state to socialist or communist purposes, but must replace it with a new structure, the dictatorship of the proletariat. In working for this end, the working class might not be sufficiently aware of their own true or best interests, and would therefore be led by a vanguard party.

Leninism has become a derogatory term to indicate elitist or undemocratic forms of socialism.

David Miller el al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

Historical background

In the early 20th century, the socio-economic backwardness of
Imperial Russia (1721–1917) — combined and uneven economic development – facilitated rapid and intensive industrialisation, which produced a united, working-class proletariat in a predominantly agrarian society. Moreover, because the industrialisation was financed mostly with foreign capital, Imperial Russia did not possess a revolutionary bourgeoisie with political and economic influence upon the workers and the peasants, as had been the case in the French Revolution (1789–1799), in the 18th century. Although Russia’s political economy was agrarian and semi-feudal, the task of democratic revolution fell to the urban, industrial working class as the only social class capable of effecting land reform and democratization, in view that the Russian bourgeoisie would suppress any revolution.In the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) in which they called for the political unification of the European working classes in order to achieve communist revolution; and proposed that, because the socio-economic organization of Communism was of a higher form than that of capitalism, a workers’ revolution first would occur in the industrialised countries. In Germany, Marxist social democracy was the political perspective of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, inspiring Russian Marxists, such as Lenin.[5]

In the April Theses (1917), the political strategy of the October Revolution (7–8 November 1917), Lenin proposed that the Russian revolution was not an isolated national event, but a fundamentally international event – the first socialist revolution in the world. Lenin’s practical application of Marxism and proletarian revolution to the social, political, and economic conditions of agrarian Russia motivated and impelled the “revolutionary nationalism of the poor” to depose the absolute monarchy of the three-hundred-year dynasty of the House of Romanov (1613–1917), as tsars of Russia.[6]


In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) Lenin’s economic analyses indicated that capitalism would transform into a global financial system, by which industrialised countries exported financial capital to their colonies and so realise the exploitation of labour of the natives and the exploitation of the natural resources of their countries. That such superexploitation allows wealthy countries to maintain a domestic labour aristocracy with a slightly higher standard of living than the majority of workers, and so ensure peaceful labour–capital relations in the capitalist homeland. Therefore, a proletarian revolution of workers and peasants could not occur in capitalist countries whilst the imperialist global-finance system remained in place. The first proletarian revolution would have to occur in an under-developed country, such as Imperial Russia, which was the politically weakest country in the capitalist global-finance system in the early 20th century.[7] In the United States of Europe Slogan (1915), Lenin wrote:

Workers of the world, unite! — Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence the victory of socialism is possible, first in several, or even in one capitalist country taken separately. The victorious proletariat of that country, having expropriated the capitalists and organised its own socialist production, would stand up against the rest of the world, the capitalist world.

— Collected Works, vol. 18, p. 232[8]

In Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920), Lenin wrote:

The more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, careful, attentive, skillful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest, rift between the enemies, any conflict of interests among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisie within the various countries, and also by taking advantage of any, even the smallest, opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional. Those who do not understand this reveal a failure to understand even the smallest grain of Marxism, of modern scientific socialism in general. Those who have not proved in practice, over a fairly considerable period of time and in fairly varied political situations, their ability to apply this truth in practice have not yet learned to help the revolutionary class in its struggle to emancipate all toiling humanity from the exploiters. And this applies equally to the period before and after the proletariat has won political power.

— Collected Works, vol. 31, p. 23[9]

Leninist praxis

Main article: VanguardismVanguard party

In Chapter II, “Proletarians and Communists”, of The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels present the communist party as the political vanguard solely qualified to lead the proletariat in revolution:

The Communists, therefore, are, on the one hand, practically the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: Formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.

The revolutionary purpose of the Leninist vanguard party is to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat with the support of the working class. The Communist Party would lead the popular deposition of the Tsarist government and then transfer power of government to the working class; that change of ruling class—from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat—makes possible the establishment of socialism.[10] In What Is To Be Done? (1902), Lenin said that a revolutionary vanguard party, recruited from the working class, should lead the political campaign, because only in that way would the proletariat successfully realise their revolution; unlike the economic campaign of trade-union-struggle advocated by other socialist political parties and the anarcho-syndicalists. Like Marx, Lenin distinguished between the aspects of a revolution, the “economic campaign” (labour strikes for increased wages and work concessions) that featured diffused plural leadership; and the “political campaign” (socialist changes to society), which required the decisive, revolutionary leadership of the Bolshevik vanguard party.

Democratic centralism

Based upon the First International (IWA, International Workingmen’s Association, 1864–1876), Lenin organised the Bolsheviks as a democratically centralised vanguard party, wherein free political-speech was recognised legitimate until policy consensus; afterwards, every member of the Party was expected to abide the agreed policy. Democratic debate was Bolshevik practice, even after Lenin banned factions among the Party in 1921. Despite being a guiding political influence, Lenin did not exercise absolute power, and continually debated to have his points of view accepted as a course of revolutionary action. In Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action (1905), Lenin said:

Of course, the application of this principle in practice will sometimes give rise to disputes and misunderstandings; but only on the basis of this principle can all disputes and all misunderstandings be settled honourably for the Party. […] The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party.[11]

Proletarian revolution

Before the October Revolution, despite supporting moderate political reform—including Bolsheviks elected to the Duma, when opportune—Lenin said that capitalism could only be overthrown with proletarian revolution, not with gradual reforms—from within (Fabianism) and from without (social democracy)—which would fail because the bourgeoisie’s control of the means of production determined the nature of political power in Russia.[12] As epitomised in the slogan “For a Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry,” a proletarian revolution in underdeveloped Russia required a united proletariat (peasants and industrial workers) in order to successfully assume power of government in the cities. Moreover, owing to the middle-class aspirations of much of the peasantry, Leon Trotsky said that proletarian leadership of the revolution would ensure truly socialist and democratic socio-economic change.

Dictatorship of the proletariat

In Bolshevik Russia, government by direct democracy was realised and effected by the soviets (elected councils of workers) which Lenin said was the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat” postulated in orthodox Marxism.[13] The soviets comprised representative committees from the factories and the trade unions, but excluded the capitalist social-class to ensure the establishment of a proletarian government, by and for the working class and the peasants. Concerning the political disenfranchisement of the capitalist social-class in Bolshevik Russia, Lenin said that “depriving the exploiters of the franchise is a purely Russian question, and not a question of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in general.… In which countries…democracy for the exploiters will be, in one or another form, restricted…is a question of the specific national features of this or that capitalism.”[2] In chapter five of The State and Revolution (1917), Lenin describes the dictatorship of the proletariat as:

the organisation of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of crushing the oppressors.… An immense expansion of democracy, which, for the first time, becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the rich…and suppression by force, i.e. exclusion from democracy, for the exploiters and oppressors of the people – this is the change which democracy undergoes during the ‘transition’ from capitalism to communism.[14]

Concerning the disenfranchisement from democracy of the capitalist social class, Lenin said: “Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e. exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people—this is the change democracy undergoes during the transition from capitalism to communism.”[15] The dictatorship of the proletariat was effected with soviet constitutionalism, a form of government opposite to the dictatorship of capital (privately owned means of production) practised in bourgeois democracies. Under soviet constitutionalism, the Leninist vanguard party would be one of many political parties competing for election to government power.[1][13][16] Nevertheless, because of the Russian Civil War (1917–1924) and the anti-Bolshevik terrorism of opposing political parties aiding the White Armies’ counter-revolution, the Bolshevik government banned all other political parties, which left the Leninist vanguard party as the sole, political party in Russia. Lenin said that such political suppression was not philosophically inherent to the dictatorship of the proletariat.[17][18][19]


National self-determination

The Bolshevik government nationalised industry and established a foreign-trade monopoly to allow the productive co-ordination of the national economy, and so prevent Russian national industries from competing against each other. To feed the populaces of town and country, Lenin instituted War Communism (1918–1921) as a necessary condition – adequate supplies of food and weapons—for fighting the Russian Civil War.[16] In March 1921, the New Economic Policy (NEP, 1921–1929) allowed limited, local capitalism (private commerce and internal free-trade) and replaced grain requisitions with an agricultural tax managed by state banks. The NEP meant to resolve food-shortage riots by the peasantry and allowed limited private enterprise; the profit motive that encouraged farmers to produce the crops required to feed town and country; and to economically re-establish the urban working class, who had lost many workers to fight the counter-revolutionary Civil War.[20][21] The NEP nationalisation of the economy then would facilitate the industrialisation of Russia, politically strengthen the working class, and raise the standards of living for all Russians. Lenin said that the appearance of new socialist states was necessary to strengthening Russia’s economy in the establishment of Russian socialism. Lenin’s socio-economic perspective was supported by the German Revolution of 1918–1919, the Italian insurrection and general strikes of 1920, and worker wage-riots in the UK, France, and the US.

In recognising and accepting nationalism among oppressed peoples, Lenin advocated their national right to self-determination, and so opposed Russian chauvinism, because such ethnocentrism was a cultural obstacle to establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat in every territory of the deposed Russian Empire (1721–1917).[22][23] In The Right of Nations to Self-determination (1914), Lenin said:

We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation, and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation.… The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support. At the same time, we strictly distinguish it from the tendency towards national exclusiveness.… Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.[24]

The socialist internationalism of Marxism and Bolshevism is based upon class struggle and a peoples’ transcending nationalism, ethnocentrism, and religion—the intellectual obstacles to progressive class consciousness—which are the cultural status quo that the capitalist ruling class manipulate in order to politically divide the working classes and the peasant classes. To overcome that barrier to establishing socialism, Lenin said that acknowledging nationalism, as a peoples’ right of self-determination and right of secession, naturally would allow socialist states to transcend the political limitations of nationalism to form a federation.[25] In The Question of Nationalities, or ‘Autonomisation’ (1923), Lenin said:

[N]othing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice; “offended” nationals are not sensitive to anything, so much as to the feeling of equality, and the violation of this equality, if only through negligence or jest – to the violation of that equality by their proletarian comrades.[26]

Socialist culture

The role of the Leninist vanguard party was to politically educate the workers and peasants to dispel the societal false consciousness of religion and nationalism that constitute the cultural status quo taught by the bourgeoisie to the proletariat to facilitate their economic exploitation of peasant and worker. Influenced by Lenin, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party stated that the development of the socialist workers’ culture should not be “hamstrung from above” and opposed the Proletkult (1917–1925) organisational control of the national culture

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