Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his revolutionary alias, Vladimir Lenin, was born in the city of Simbirsk, now known as Ulyanovsk, on Russia’s Volga river a century and a half ago. By the age of 30, he had earned the reputation as one of the world’s leading Marxists and just seventeen years later, he along with Leon Trotsky led the world’s first socialist revolution. Rob Jones, from our sister organisation in Russia, looks at his life and ideas.
If a government today tore up all international agreements that restricted the rights of ordinary people, took over the commanding heights of the economy, introduced a system of workers control in industry and appealed to workers and peasants of the whole world to cooperate for the benefit of all, it would gain the enthusiastic support of workers and oppressed peoples. And this is precisely, and just part of, what the first Soviet government in November 1917, led by the Bolsheviks implemented.
The new Soviet government was revolutionary not just in broad strokes — it transformed almost every aspect of the life of ordinary Russian working people.
It immediately withdrew from the imperialist First World War. It granted the right of self-determination to those nations, who wanted to leave the former Russia empire. It took over the large landed estates and gave each peasant the right to use the land. It refused the Russian Orthodox church and other religions the right to participate in the state.
When, in bourgeois democracies such as Britain, the right to vote was limited to property owning men over 21, the new Soviet Russia granted all citizens, male and female over 18 the right to vote, unless they were involved in exploiting others. A system of Soviets made up of elected representatives of the workers, soldiers and peasants ran society.
The Bolshevik government declared that women should have equal rights, introduced a widespread programme to reduce female illiteracy, establish social kitchens, laundries and kindergartens to relieve the pressure on women. The marriage and divorce laws were changed to allow a woman to leave a marriage at any time if she so wished, the right to abortion was introduced. Alexandra Kollontai became the first female Government minister in the world.
Homosexuality was decriminalized and, indeed, a number of leading cultural and political supporters were gay, including Georgy Chicherin, Commissar of Foreign Affairs.
Education, including higher education, was made free for all. A mass literacy campaign was launched. Nine years of school education was provided and anyone who obtained a school certificate at 16 had the right to study at university. By 1921 over 200 new universities had been set up, tripling the number in three years. Hundreds of special schools were established to teach minority languages.
Healthcare too was made free for all, and all medical institutions were brought into the state system. Medical ideology was radically changed — rather than being aimed at treating the better off from chronic illnesses and injuries, the Soviet approach aimed to eliminate infectious diseases that, at that time, killed hundreds of thousands and even millions of poor people. Life expectancy, which was under 30 in 1913 rose to 44 in 1926, and by the end of the second war, to 60.
Notwithstanding all this, and the civil war launched by the imperialist powers after the revolution, Lenin’s Bolshevik party managed to modernise the Russian alphabet, introduce written languages in several regions, bring the reactionary Julien calendar in line with the rest of Europe. Some conservatives, wallowing in the past, still get confused and use the Julien dates today. Internal passports were abolished.
And of course, Lenin was instrumental in establishing the Third International, the Comintern, that tasked itself with building revolutionary movements across the world.
Many of Lenin’s ideas were formed during his early life in provincial Simbirsk. Living in a comfortable but modest wood built home, his father was a local school inspector, a position he used to push for education reform. The three Ulyanov boys benefited from the atmosphere in which reading was encouraged. Alexandr, the eldest, was imbued with the revolutionary spirit, joining ‘People’s will’, which believed that individual terror would lead to revolution. In 1887, he was executed for his part in a plot to assassinate the tsar. This left an irremovable conviction in Vladimir, that such methods were harmful, that only the organised and politically conscious working class could complete the revolution.
Expelled from University in Kazan after helping to organise a student demonstration, Vladimir moved to Saint Petersburg where he joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, which had been formed in 1898 to promote the views of Marx and Engels within the Russian revolutionary and workers’ movement. He was arrested, sent into exile and after his release travelled to Europe, where he played a major role in the Marxist circles there. He founded a paper, Iskra (the Spark) which was then smuggled back into Russia.
The Social-Democratic movement in Europe, originally based on the ideas of Marx and Engels had grown dramatically. In Germany, it had mass support with trade unions and elected representatives. Lenin initially had huge respect for the giants of European Social democracy such as Karl Kautsky and Wilhelm Liebknecht, as well as for Georgi Plekhanov, the founder of Russian social democracy. But the old social-democracy had become dominated by those more interested in careers in parliament than revolutionary Marxism.
What is to be done?
A turning point in Lenin’s political development came with the publication of his pamphlet “What is to be done” in 1902 and the debates at the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903. What apparently appeared to be a dispute over organisational questions, in reality was the division of Russia’s socialist movement into reformist and revolutionary wings.
Lenin argued the RSDLP should be a party of professional revolutionaries, disciplined, united and acting in accordance with the party’s programme. His opponents, led by Julius Martov, argued the party should be broader. It was enough, he said, for a member to agree with the general approach of the party, not necessarily participating in its activities. Lenin won a majority of votes — his faction thus became the ‘Bolsheviks’ against Martov’s ‘Mensheviks’ (minority).
Two years later at the beginning of 1905, the first Russian revolution broke out. Father Gapon, an orthodox priest and probable police agent, trying to divert the anger of the masses led a massive workers’ demonstration to the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to deliver a petition appealing for reforms. The Tsarist police opened fire, provoking a massive strike wave across the Russian empire, which then included Poland and Finland. Workers formed Soviets for the first time. By the end of the year, Trotsky had been elected President of the St Petersburg Soviet.
Although many of Lenin’s Bolsheviks failed this test, Lenin himself didn’t. One of the leading Bolsheviks in St Petersburg, Alexandr Bogdanov, represented those, who had worked conspiratorially to build an underground party, but he proved unable to make the switch to mass work. Muttering about the Soviet, which represented hundreds of thousands of workers, as a manoeuvre by Trotsky, he proposed that the Bolsheviks should present it with an ultimatum — either adopt the Bolshevik programme, or they would walk out. Lenin however, understood the significance of the Soviet. He argued that the party should now be thrown open to a mass of young workers to overcome the conservative influence of the ‘committee men’.
Lenin drew the very clear conclusion that there should be no confidence in the liberal bourgeoisie, who were trying to reach a compromise with Tsarism to grant a constituent assembly. The Mensheviks aided them. He argued that the working class should work with the poor peasantry in a revolutionary block to overthrow Tsardom, to establish a genuine revolutionary democracy. Although this would be bourgeois, it would allow the working class to lead the whole people, and particularly the peasantry to “complete freedom, for a consistent democratic revolution, for a republic! At the head of all the toilers and the exploited—for Socialism!” Trotsky went further, he argued that as the liberal bourgeois in Russia, as in other backward countries, was too weak and incapable of carrying out their own revolution, as the French and English bourgeois had, the working class would have to do it for them, and go further to implement the socialist revolution.
The years of reaction that followed 1905 saw Lenin waging a struggle to maintain a party, against the ultra-left trends, including Bogdanov, who argued that revolutionaries should not take part in Parliamentary work. But big challenges lay ahead.
The Second International had always accepted that the working class of each country had common interests. It was a massive shock when, in 1914, the German Social-Democrats with the honourable exceptions of Karl Liebknecht and Otto Rühle voted in the Bundestag to finance German Imperialism’s war machine. When Lenin first heard it, he dismissed the news as a lie. Menshevism it seems, was not just reformist, but inherent in its policies was the betrayal of internationalism. It was left to 38 delegates from 11 countries to travel in four coaches to the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915 to keep the banner of international socialism flying.
In Russia itself, revolutionary organisation was very difficult, because of the war and the activities of the Tsarist police. In the first months of the war, the Bolshevik party was reduced to a handful of members. The whole female membership had been arrested. Gradually, new forces were built but they were barely ready for the outbreak of the new revolution. When a delegation of women workers came to the Bolsheviks for help to prepare a strike for Women’s Day 1917, they were told to wait for a decision from the Central Committee. The Bolsheviks had no printing press to produce a leaflet for the strike. It was the smaller Mezhraiontsii group, a group of revolutionary anti-war social-democrats, who later, under Trotsky’s influence merged with the Bolsheviks, who provided leaflets against “War, high prices and the lack of working women’s rights”.
Many of the Bolshevik leaders in Russia had been dismissive of the ideological struggles that had taken place, in the main amongst Social-Democrats in European exile, and did not understand the meaning of the differences between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Even by April 1917, in 54 of the 68 Russian regions the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks still operated as a unified party.
Re-arming the party
Nevertheless, revolution was brewing. By the beginning of 1917, the Bolshevik party was growing — it had up to 2000 members in Petrograd. After the February revolution, when the bourgeois Provisional government came to power, the local leadership including Kamenev and Stalin gave support to the Provisional government. When Lenin returned from exile, in April he faced the task, as Trotsky named it, of “Re-arming the party”.
Nikolai Sukhanov was a Menshevik who was at the Finland Station when Lenin arrived back in Russia. A hostile, but honest witness he described what happened.
“When they write about the enthusiastic meeting with Lenin at the Finland station, there is no exaggeration. The soldier and proletarian masses who came to the station called by the Bolsheviks were full of joy… The arrival of the Bolshevik leader was marked by his head-spinning declaration that ‘the flames of the world socialist revolution are already burning’… The concern of the socialists, including the Bolsheviks about the speech of the newly arrived Lenin was not difficult to understand. They had all studied Marx and Engels, the western socialists and they all understood the sequence of steps to be taken in the same way… First of all, the bourgeois-democratic revolution and only then, using democratic freedoms and as capitalism develops and a working class emerges, a struggle for socialism… the Russian socialists were not preparing the armed struggle for power, but for the future parliamentary debates in the Constituent assembly.
Lenin then wrote his famous “April Theses”. ‘Pravda” published them only after adding a series of comments about them being the personal opinion of the author. When he spoke at the Bolshevik Central Committee two days later, he lost the vote. Zinoviev, Shlyapnikov and Kamenev all opposed him, the latter saying “Russia is not ready for socialist revolution’. Dzerzhinskiy attacked Lenin, demanding to speak on behalf “of the comrades who have gone through the revolution in practice”. Lenin however, stood his ground — by the end of April he had won the support of the party. That was the moment, says Sukhanov when “the Russian political calendar sped up and moved from February to October”.
Lenin had been confident that the working class and particularly the youth would support him. The Bolshevik party grew dramatically during 1917 as the condition for the victory of November’s revolution ripened,reaching almost 350,000 members by the end of the year as it became clear that the liberals and moderate socialists were failing to end the war, allow national liberation, convene the constituent assembly or take any measures to improve the lot of the masses. Every fifth member of the party was under 26, half under 35.
Alliance with Trotsky
When Trotsky returned to Russia a few weeks after Lenin, the two became inseparable, jointly leading the revolution. Their earlier differences, which were dramatically exaggerated by their enemies, over the need for a tight knit revolutionary party and over the permanent nature of the revolution were resolved in practice: Trotsky became convinced Lenin was correct on the first point, Lenin thought Trotsky right on the second. Both fully understood that a revolution in Russia could only succeed if it was as part of a wider world revolution.
Lenin liked to quote Faust: “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.” He used this when he explained why he had changed his earlier position of calling for “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”. He said that those who learnt the phrase by rote were now behind the times, they had: “gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle … and should be consigned to the archive of “Bolshevik” pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of “old Bolsheviks”)”.
In fact it is issues like this that demonstrate Lenin’s real character, not that which is demonised by his opponents or deified by those, who prefer to present him as invincible. Lenin made mistakes, or could get his assessments wrong. But when he did so, he could change his opinion, usually after vigorous discussions with his comrades.
It was this approach, combined now with his close alliance with Trotsky that enabled the Bolshevik party to win the support of the working masses and the soldiers as represented by the Soviets and to lead the November revolution to victory. The new Soviet government moved to transform Russia on socialist lines.
But the imperialists rightly saw the socialist Russia as a beacon for workers elsewhere. They launched a brutal civil war — at least 14 imperialist armies, including the British, German, US, Japanese and French supported the former Tsarist and White Guard groups to try and defeat the revolution. The heroic sacrifices made by the working class during the war left it exhausted and depleted. The delay in the World Revolution, particularly after the betrayal of the German revolution by the Social Democrats, saw a backward economy isolated. This led to a reaction, a degeneration of the revolution.
Lenin’s last battle
Two attempts were made to assassinate Lenin. The more successful second by Fanny Kaplan, a left Social Revolutionary, in 1918 left him with a bullet lodged in his neck, which contributed to the strokes he later suffered before dying in 1924. In this period, however, he realized that the forces of reaction were gathering strength within the new Soviet state around the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin triumvirate. Lenin described it as “being sucked into a foul bureaucratic swamp”. To counter-act this he proposed a pact with Trotsky to fight the developing bureaucracy, but unfortunately the objective situation was against them. Over the next decade, a bureaucratic political counter revolution developed, culminating in the horrific Stalinist dictatorship, which, while maintaining the state ownership of the means of production overturned many of the social and democratic gains of the revolution.
Apart from being, with Trotsky, leader of the Russian revolution, Lenin has left us with a huge theoretical and practical legacy. He demonstrated why it is necessary to build a strong revolutionary organisation with a clear programme, able to unite the working class in the struggle for socialism. Such a party, he warned, would not be built the same way in all countries. Revolutionaries, he argued, should be prepared to intervene in all “fields, spheres and aspects of public life, and work in all of them in a new way, in a communist way”.
His analysis of the state as an instrument of repression in class society is of immense relevance today, when capitalist governments are trying to convince us, during the coronacrisis, that we are all in this together, so that the working class bear the cost of the economic collapse.
Lenin’s approach to the national question based on recognising the right of nations to self-determination is revolutionary even today, when many capitalist governments refuse this right whether in Kurdistan, Catalonia, Tibet or in North Africa.
And of course there is the experience of the Bolshevik’s united front approach, which enabled them, through the Soviets to build a powerful, united movement able to overthrow capitalism.
But most of all, perhaps is Lenin’s approach to revolutionary Marxism, which he never treated as a dogma but developed in accordance with living experience, as he commented “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is”