By Ivan Bonsell, Socialist Alternative Brighton
2024 marks the 100-year anniversary of the death of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or Lenin, the Russian revolutionary socialist elected the first leader of the world’s first ever democratic workers’ government. Along with Leon Trotsky, Lenin led the world’s first socialist revolution.
Marxists do not obsess over the role of individuals in history, but the lives of some individuals are worth studying because a combination of their ideas, linked to the momentous times they lived through, gives us valuable lessons for now and the future if we want to change the world.
Now, just as in Lenin’s time, sweeping away capitalism and its wars, conflict, environmental destruction and injustice, to be replaced with socialism on a world scale, is the greatest challenge of working people across the planet. Lenin, above many of his contemporaries, had the clearest idea of what needed to be done, and for that reason his life is rich with lessons for today.
Lenin developed his ideas as Russia was experiencing a clash of the old and the new. The Russian Tsarist empire was a vast country with a feudal system, where the kings and queens owned vast wealth, commanded absolute power, and made decrees by virtue of their royal ancestry.
Russia was backward in its development compared with the European capitalist democracies, but the rapid development of heavy industry in Russia in the early 20th century meant that some of the largest factories in the world were to be found in Russia’s modernising cities.
Lenin’s thoughts were based on Marxism, or scientific socialism. This explained the class nature of society, of how working people can and will organise to resist the exploitation on which capitalism is based. Through his writings Lenin explained how the solution to the problems faced by the working class was based on building a revolutionary party to gain mass support and eventually overthrow the capitalist class, replacing their system with workers’ democratic ownership and control.
The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was formed to support workers in struggle through strikes and protests, and articulate socialist ideas to the most advanced layers of workers. It was also a place where ideas were debated, as differing views on the way forward inevitably clashed. As society rapidly changed, ideas on how to change the economic and social system developed, and the questions of how capitalism could be reformed or overthrown, and what could replace it, were constantly debated amongst intellectuals and workers.
Against all these debates, the RSDLP split and merged over the years, but the most significant split in 1903, and then more formally in 1912, created the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The former, larger group, looked towards Lenin’s formulation of winning support from the working class to build a revolutionary party to overthrow capitalism. The Mensheviks looked toward a broader party of reform, basing their plans on the Russian capitalists’ willingness to create a more moderate form of capitalism, with socialism to be achieved later.
A revolutionary party
Lenin’s Bolsheviks understood the need for a revolutionary party with ideas worked out and thoroughly tested in the real movements of working people. The way forward was debated thoroughly, with decisions made at party congresses and then enacted by all members – what is today known as democratic centralism. Lenin conducted the fiercest debates with those he disagreed with, but it’s no surprise that there were differences of opinion over precisely what to do and the kind of organisations required by the working class to bring about change.
By the early years of the 20th century, Lenin had developed his ideas about the need for a revolutionary party. His pamphlet “What is to be Done?” put forward the idea that a team of dedicated revolutionaries need to agitate amongst the working class to explain the world in class terms and win over workers to Marxism. It is not enough to support workers in struggle through strikes, protests and demonstrations, important as that is. Marxists have to point to a way forward beyond winning a particular dispute, explaining that the only way lasting change can be achieved is by the ending of society based on class division, oppression and exploitation. It was not enough to have a loose group of people who broadly agreed with each other: Lenin wanted a disciplined party of revolutionaries, based on a clear programme to win socialist change.
In 1905, a revolutionary movement broke out in Russia but was quickly defeated. However, the experience was rich in lessons for Lenin. He saw how soviets had been created as the democratic organs of working-class power, and hoped that a revolution in Russia, led by the workers and peasants, would light the spark of a socialist revolution in the more developed countries of western Europe, which in turn would change the rest of the planet.
War and revolution
The outbreak of the First World War was a calamity for the workers’ movement in Europe. As rival capitalist powers prepared to organise vast armies to defend or expand their “rights” to imperial plunder, most workers’ leaders betrayed their principles as internationalists and supported their own national capitalists. A united, internationalist approach could have prevented, or at least limited the mass slaughter that was to take place over the next few years, but in reality, the betrayal of leaders to “social patriotism” meant that the number of genuine internationalist Marxist activists was reduced to a handful. It was in this context that Lenin produced ‘Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism’ – one of his best-known works, which analysed the context of the imperialist war as the result of capitalist development.
The war was a disaster for the Tsar and the Russian feudal establishment. By February 1917, workers organised mass strikes in protest over shortages of food and demanded peace. Soviets were re-created and the Tsarist regime collapsed, to be replaced by a provisional government composed of liberals and reformists.
Strikes began to break out in some of Russia’s largest factories. Workers were tired of the war, the death and hunger that went with it – and the provisional government which continued it. The Bolsheviks’ agitation against imperialist war and the Tsar’s life of luxury as his people suffered, had begun to have an effect and the party grew in numbers and influence, but not enough to have a major impact on the February revolution.
Revolutionaries from across the world, including Lenin, made their way back to Russia following periods of exile by the Tsarist regime. Lenin famously arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd to give a speech. Most of those gathered there to hear him expected Lenin to rejoice at the ending of feudal society and set out plans to argue for socialism in the parliamentary debates in the soonto-be-created Constituent Assembly. They expected the Bolsheviks to continue to make propaganda for socialism as the working class caught up with their comrades in western Europe.
Instead, Lenin called for preparations for the socialist revolution to begin straight away. He wanted power to transfer to the soviets, in the name of the working class and poorer layers of the peasantry.
Lenin’s ‘April Theses’ summed up his ideas at the time, but the conservative elements of the Bolshevik leadership including Stalin and Kamenev in Petrograd disagreed. They wanted to wait for a future date rather than struggle for workers gaining power now. Lenin waged a struggle to win the party over to his way of thinking, appealing to the workers and in particular the younger layer of workers who had joined the party in recent years, transforming it into a more vibrant and less conservative organisation.
By the end of April, Lenin had won a majority for his way forward, and when Trotsky also returned to Russia, the two collaborated to agitate and argue for all power to pass to the soviets. By this point, they had both reached the same conclusion that this was crucial for the completion of the Russian revolution.
Earlier differences were later exaggerated by enemies of genuine Marxism, to drive an artificial wedge between their two approaches. Both came round to the other’s way of thinking, in relation to Lenin’s idea of a disciplined party and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.
Lenin further refined his previous theory that the struggle for democracy would need to be won by the workers and peasants. He saw that the working class, as a minority in Russia (outnumbered by millions working on the land) was the class to change society and the slogan “All power to the Soviets” expressed the idea that revolutionary change in Russia could only be achieved by the democratic bodies of workers, soldiers and peasants transforming society along socialist lines.
The successful revolution of October 1917 meant that working people had established democratic control over their lives. Through the soviets, power was wielded by and for ordinary working class people for the first time in history. The revolution nationalised the big companies, granted land to the poor peasantry, and saw historic advances for the rights of oppressed people. Women were granted the right to divorce and abortion, gay marriage was legalised. Russia’s involvement in the brutal imperialist World War was ended immediately.
The right of self-determination was also granted to all the former nations of the Russian Empire. Nations such as Ukraine were given national rights for the first time in their history, and chose to support the revolution, while others such as Finland were granted the right to secede from Russia. This was a key part of the Bolsheviks’ programme, which fought all aspects of capitalist oppression, and of Lenin’s approach to the “national question”. This method was key to the Bolsheviks’ ability to win the support of colonised people throughout the former empire.
Lenin and Trotsky were conscious that a socialist revolution had taken place in a relatively backward country but saw this as the beginning of a process that would spread across the planet, certainly not something that could be limited to Russia alone.
Capitalists outside Russia saw a spreading revolution as a major danger to their wealth and privilege and imperialist armies were sent to crush it during the Russian Civil War. Fortunately, their efforts were defeated by a working class with a disciplined workers’ army and party inspired to defend the gains of their revolution. However the sacrifices made by a generation of young workers and the delay in spreading revolution to other, more technologically advanced countries, had left Russia in ruins, and the soviets in crisis.
Capitalist historians have tried to slander the revolution by pointing toward Lenin as ‘the original dictator’ and a predecessor to Stalin’s repressive regime. But in fact, even in the most difficult of conditions, debate and discussion flourished on all aspects of social, economic and political life. The desperate fighting and emergency measures enacted during and immediately after the civil war, under the threat of a bloody imperialist counter-revolution to reverse all these gains, were, even despite certain excesses, a far cry from the Stalinist dictatorship that followed.
Indeed, Lenin’s final years were in fact spent fighting against a bureaucratic counter-revolution, where the emerging dictatorship headed by Stalin did away with ideas of democratic workers’ control and the socialist revolution spreading to other countries – cornerstones of the Bolshevik revolution. Many of the social gains of 1917 were ditched in favour of a dictatorship based on Russian nationalism, with special privileges available to a ruling clique, but still maintaining the gains of a planned economy under state ownership. In order to do this, they ultimately had to arrest and execute thousands of Bolsheviks.
Lenin himself identified the danger this growing bureaucratic elite posed at an early stage, and had been preparing a struggle against it. At the 11th congress of the Bolshevik party (his last public appearance) he said “if we take that huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can truthfully be said that the
Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth they are not directing, they are being directed.” Unfortunately Lenin passed away following a series of strokes before he could carry this final struggle to its conclusion. His wife and fellow Bolshevik Nadezhda Krupskaya later remarked that Lenin himself “was only saved from prison by his death”.
As leader of the most successful revolutionary party in history, Lenin demonstrated the need to build a revolutionary party with a clear programme, able to unite workers in the struggle for socialism. He understood that there is no blueprint for such a party, given the differences between countries and circumstances, but said that genuine revolutionaries should be willing and able to intervene in all “fields, spheres and aspects of public life”.
Revolutionary socialists should aim to be involved in all struggles of working people, both to aid their success, but also to agitate for long-term solutions to the problems faced by workers under capitalism.
He also made major theoretical contributions to a Marxist understanding of the capitalist state, as an instrument of oppression, which is sometimes subtle in its application, sometimes there to openly crush protests in the name of order i.e., stable capitalist exploitation. Understanding the need to replace the capitalist state with workers’ democratic control is a key part of Marxist theory.
Finally, Lenin recognised that Marxism is not a dogma, but an approach developed by revolutionaries over decades of lived experience. A pure social revolution only exists in a theoretical world. For success, revolutionaries and revolutionary parties have to apply the Marxist methods to the circumstances in which they find themselves. The greatest tribute to Lenin is for revolutionaries to apply this lesson today