Skip to main content



Political achievements

Major writings

Political realism



Vladimir Il’ich Ul’ianov (who in 1901 began to call himself Lenin) was born on April 22, 1870, in Simbirsk, now Ul’ianovsk, a provincial town on the Volga, one of six children in an educated middle-class family. When he died on January 21, 1924, near Moscow, he was acclaimed as “the greatest genius of mankind, creator of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, founder of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the leader and teacher of the peoples of the whole world.” In different measure the events of his personal life, his intellectual life, and his active political life contributed to this metamorphosis.

His father, of lower middle-class origin, was a graduate of the university in Kazan and for many years taught mathematics and physics in secondary schools in the Volga region. In 1869 he was appointed a school inspector and, shortly afterward, director of the “people’s schools” in Simbirsk province, thus earning the rank of nobleman. Ul’ianov’s mother was a woman of indomitable character. Daughter of a country doctor with little money and a large family, she had received her schooling at home. The boy Vladimir, the second son, was an intelligent and conscientious student, and a good swimmer, skater, and chess player. He was much impressed by his father’s talk of the “darkness” of life in the villages and of the arbitrary treatment of peasants by officials. A voracious reader, Ul’ianov became well acquainted at an early age with the writings of the great Russian authors, from Pushkin through Turgenev to Tolstoi, and was especially interested in the works of Nekrasov; he was also aware of such protorevolutionary writers as Belinskii, Herzen, Chernyshevskii, Pisarev, and Dobroliubov. But there was no hint in these early intellectual activities that he would become a revolutionary.

The first blow to young Ul’ianov’s happy existence was the death of his father in 1886. An even worse shock was the arrest, in March 1887, of his elder brother, Alexander, whose brilliant research on worms at the university in St. Petersburg had promised a bright future but who, unknown to his family, had been active in terrorist revolutionary circles. Alexander was executed for having plotted the assassination of the tsar. The Ul’ianov family, shunned by local society, moved to a village not far from Kazan. Ul’ianov was admitted to the university in Kazan, though only on the strength of a character reference from the director of the Simbirsk Gymnasium, father of Alexander Kerenskii, the man Lenin was later to overthrow.

Ul’ianov was arrested in December 1887 for his part in a student demonstration against a university rule that enjoined students from forming organizations. Expelled from the university and forbidden to go abroad for study, he threw himself into preparation for external examinations and was finally permitted to take these in the spring of 1891, thus winning a first-degree diploma from the law faculty of the university in St. Petersburg. For two years he held a job in a Samara law office; at the same time he was studying Marxism and engaging in open criticism of the narodniki, activities which he continued in St. Petersburg, where he went in 1893 “in quest of the proletariat.” By the spring of 1895 he had become well enough known to be sent by his comrades to visit Georgii Plekhanov, the “grandfather of Russian Marxism,” in Geneva. Before his return he met Paul Lafargue, son-in-law of Karl Marx, and the veteran German Marxist Wilhelm Liebknecht but was unable to see the dying Friedrich Engels.

That fall young Ul’ianov joined with L. Martov (pseudonym of lulii O. Tsederbaum) and a handful of other intellectuals to form the so-called Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, which planned to publish an illegal newspaper, Rabochee delo (“The Workers’ Cause”). The first issue was confiscated, and UFianov was among those arrested. Imprisonment prevented him from participating in the vigorous strike movement of 1896, but with the aid of books borrowed from the leading libraries of the capital he was able to continue his study and writing. In February 1897 he was released to make his arrangements for a three-year period of exile at the Siberian village of Shushenskoe in Yenisei province, near the modern coal basin of Kuznetsk. There he lived in a peasant hut, his main source of income being the government allowance of 8 rubles a month. A year later Nadezhda Krupskaia, whom he had met in St. Petersburg in 1894, arrived with her mother for a visit and was permitted to remain in Siberia on the condition that she and Ul’ianov be formally married.

In Siberia, he continued his feverish literary activity, in particular pursuing his study of the spread of capitalist relations in the peasant villages. Aware of serious gaps in his education, he under-took a systematic study of quite diverse philosophical views, while also broadening his knowledge of the writings of Marx and Engels. He completed his first major work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899a), published under the pseudonym Vladimir Il’in. It was at this time also that he read Eduard Bernstein’s Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie (“The Prerequisites of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy”). Bernstein’s thesis, revising some basic tenets of Marxism, shocked Ul’ianov profoundly, and he was no less outraged by the Credo of the “Economists.” He issued his own Protest (1899&) against this penetration of Russia by the revisionist heresy, and it was adopted by a conference of exiles in Siberia (meeting ostensibly to celebrate a child’s birthday).

Political achievements

From this time on, Ul’ianov’s consuming passion was the organization of a disciplined Russian Marxist party capable of effectively combating all revisionist tendencies. To this end, he felt, it was necessary to found an all-Russian Marxist newspaper. Released from exile at the beginning of 1900 but forbidden to reside in either of the two capitals or in university or major industrial towns, he promptly applied for permission to go abroad and in July was able to leave for Switzerland. In Geneva, Plekhanov’s insistence on controlling the proposed newspaper so offended Ul’ianov that the project almost fell through. However, a compromise was reached whereby Ul’ianov was permitted to arrange for the publication of Iskra (“The Spark”) in Munich; there Krupskaia joined him in April 1901. The first number was printed (in Leipzig) in January 1901, and a monthly periodical, Zar’ia (“Dawn”), followed in December. It was in the course of this year that he began to sign his articles “Lenin.”

It was in 1901 also that Lenin began to write his second—and most significant—major work, What Is to Be Done?, published at Stuttgart in March 1902. Meanwhile, disagreements between Lenin and his editorial colleagues in Switzerland multiplied; in particular, Lenin’s insistence on emphasizing the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in connection with the formulation of an agrarian program irritated Plekhanov, who opposed Lenin’s “polemics.”

Mainly at Lenin’s insistence it was decided to call the Second Party Congress to create an all-Russian party, a task at which the Minsk Congress of 1898 had failed. Lenin himself devoted immense effort, by voluminous correspondence with Iskra agents in Russia, to guarantee a workable majority of reliable delegates. The congress met in Brussels in the summer of 1903 but found it expedient to move to London. It was attended by 43 delegates, assigned 51 votes; of these, 44 could be counted on to support the Iskra position. With the support of his colleagues on the Iskra editorial board Lenin won adoption of his draft program, though two Economist delegates fought hard to include a reference to class consciousness as a precondition to establishment of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” However, a split developed among Iskra supporters over Lenin’s effort to secure adoption of his version of the first paragraph of a party statute, embodying his conception of the dominance of a revolutionary elite. Despite the somewhat unexpected support of Plekhanov, Lenin’s formulation was defeated; Martov’s broader definition of party membership was adopted by a vote of 28-22, with one abstention. The subsequent withdrawal from the congress, over other issues, of the five delegates of the Jewish Bund and of two Economists changed the balance of strength. By vigorous caucusing Lenin was able to whip together a fairly solid bloc of 24 votes, which enabled him to carry the election of his candidates to the new editorial board of Iskra (now confirmed as the new party’s “central organ”) and to the new central committee. It was by virtue of these votes, not of the statistics of later party allegiance, that Lenin’s followers for decades boasted the name bol’sheviki (“majority men”).

Lenin’s triumph was brief. Plekhanov soon abandoned Lenin’s “hard” Iskra line, and control of the party and of its central committee passed to the men’sheviki (“minority men”). Lenin found himself doomed to years of bitter wrangling with his former colleagues. In the revolution of 1905 he was able to exercise almost no influence. He did not return to Russia until, with the October Manifesto, the autocracy had apparently surrendered. In Russia, he continued to denounce all socialists who would not follow him, and all liberals. After some wavering he supported boycott of the elections to the Duma, and he gave his blessing to, though he did not participate in, an abortive armed uprising in Moscow. After a few months of underground existence, of shifting from one hiding place to another, Lenin withdrew to the relative security of Finland. Pained by his failure to dominate the Fourth (“Unity”) Congress of the Russian Social Democrats, in Stockholm (April-May 1906), he took some comfort from his successes at the Bolshevik-organized Fifth Congress in London (May 1907) and was considerably heartened by participation in the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International (August 1907), the first international congress he had ever attended. At the end of 1907 he abandoned his base in Finland and slipped back to Switzerland.

The next ten years were the bitterest and most difficult of Lenin’s life. He became wholly occupied not with the direct struggle to combat capitalism and tsarism but with a preliminary, many-faceted battle to destroy the influence of all those who professed devotion to the cause of the proletariat, as he did, but who formulated its task in ways he considered unacceptable. Although Lenin was always ready to score a point at the expense of his rivals, he loudly and insistently denounced “opportunism” as the greatest brake on the progress of the socialist revolution. Thus, he worked himself into a position of almost total isolation within the revolutionary movement. This position, however, was ultimately to prove most advantageous to him. His name became one of the best known among the revolutionaries; but he was dissociated from all the failures of the other leading figures and thus was able, at a crucial moment, to offer fresh hope to the despairing.

In 1912, Lenin’s Bolshevik adherents in Russia secured permission from the tsarist government to publish a newspaper called Pravda (“Truth”). Lenin at once moved from Switzerland to Cracow and then to Poronino, near the Austrian-Russian border. Here he could hope to keep in maximum contact with, and direct the policy of, the new organ. He could also supervise the activities of the “Bolshevik six” in the newly elected Fourth Duma. Lenin selected Roman Malinovskii to be their spokesman, unaware that he was on the police payroll. Although Bolsheviks from abroad were regularly arrested on their arrival in Russia, Lenin long remained obdurately blind to this circumstance, despite repeated protests from more sensitive friends.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 Lenin was arrested by the Austrian police on suspicion of espionage. The absurdity of the charge facilitated his release on condition that he return to Switzerland. There he remained, in devastating impotence, attending international socialist conferences at Zimmerwald and Kienthal, only to see the meager fruits of his vigorous efforts ruined by the subsequent defection of his allies. It is to this period that belongs the work of which Bolsheviks have remained most proud, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, completed in the summer of 1916.

At the end of January 1917, Lenin consoled himself—and all who would still heed him—with the thought that the tsar, fearing the outbreak of a bourgeois revolution in Russia, would not dare make a separate peace with Germany. Therefore, the war would continue, enormously enhancing the chances that Europe (not Russia) would begin the socialist revolution. Six weeks later, on March 15, 1917, to his surprise and delight Lenin learned from the Swiss newspapers that the Russian autocracy had collapsed and that a “Provisional Government” had been set up. A new danger loomed— the possibility that all elements in Russia might rally to the new regime. Lenin felt it was an urgent necessity that he reach Russia and prevent the Bolsheviks from making fools of themselves. The German government was likewise persuaded that Lenin’s presence in Russia was an urgent need, though not for the same reasons. It was arranged, through Swiss intermediaries, that Lenin and other Russian exiles in Switzerland, whatever their political complexion, be permitted to travel incommunicado (on the “sealed train”) across Germany. Via Sweden and Finland, Lenin reached Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. From that moment, one might say, Lenin had no personal life, for his biography and the further history of the Russian Revolution became inextricably intertwined.

Lenin acknowledged that “Russia is now the freest country in the world”; yet he refused to take any part in enabling the new regime to establish itself. Instead he watched for every opportunity to overthrow it in the name of a new absolutism, “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” He did seize power successfully on November 7, 1917, and thereafter, notwithstanding frequent vigorous opposition from tried associates, Lenin was in fact able to guide the ever-shifting policies of the new “Soviet” regime until he was incapacitated in May 1922 by a paralytic stroke. Sufficiently recovered to partially resume his duties, he was rendered wholly impotent by a second stroke and remained so for almost a year before his final, fatal stroke.

Major writings

The explanation of Lenin’s political success cannot be found in his intellectual achievements, for he was of no significance as an abstract thinker. His most scholarly work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia ( 1899a), was simply a tract to prove definitively the folly of the narodnik concept of the role of the peasantry in Russia. He showed that the peasantry was ceasing to be a uniform mass and was splitting into capitalist and proletarian sectors (a development of which Witte and Stolypin became aware independently). In Lenin’s view this process should be encouraged by the abolition of landlordism, which was slowing the development of capitalist relations in the village. Thus, the proletarian, “depeasantized,” element in the country-side would strengthen the urban proletariat, whose lack of numbers was compensated for by its concentration, fitting it to lead a mass movement of the village poor to overthrow tsarism and capitalism together.

In What Is to Be Done? —directed against the narodniki, and against the Economists as well— Lenin developed the thought that the working class, left to its own spontaneous strivings, would never become socialist. Only the conscious effort of “educated representatives of the propertied classes,” i.e., the Marxists, would be able to “divert the labor movement, with its spontaneous trade-unionist striving, from under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social-Democracy.” This viewpoint was embodied in the program adopted by the Second Congress, in preparation for which What Is to Be Done? had been published. It continued to dominate all Lenin’s thinking and actions and is perhaps the very essence of “Leninism” as distinct from Marxism.

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalismhas been hailed as “the most outstanding contribution to the treasury of creative Marxism” and as evidence of Lenin’s stature as “a scholar of genius, a most conscientious researcher, and the greatest fighter for revolution” (Moscow [1960] 1963,

p. 274). It did indeed assert as a scientific prediction that imperialism spells the doom of capitalism and, because it creates the objective conditions for world revolution, also represents the eve of socialist revolution. In other writings at this time, however, Lenin suggested that the “law of uneven development” might make possible the victory of socialism in a single country.

Even less original than Imperialism was his other famous tract, State and Revolution (1917a), written after the failure of the July uprising as a blueprint for the immediate future. He argued that the existing “hypocritically democratic” regime was merely a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” and must be replaced by a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a term that Lenin never ceased to think of as meaning dictatorship of the Bolsheviks. He was careful to emphasize the distinction between the two stages, “socialism” (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his labor”) and “communism” (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”), a distinction that Stalin was later to cause to be written into the 1936 constitution. Lenin believed that although social inequalities would persist under “socialism,” it was impossible to attain to “communism” without an indefinitely prolonged period of “socialism.”

Political realism

Lenin’s forte was an extraordinary ability, found also in men such as Bismarck, to analyze a given practical situation and to give things an unexpected push in the general direction in which he wished them to move. He did not rely on abstract ideas as guides to policy; he attacked Trotsky for using “abstract (and therefore empty) words.” Although, like many other Russian middle-class youths of his generation, he was impressed by the grandiose aspects of Marxism, he never fully committed himself to their implications as worked out in western Europe. On the morrow of his return to Russia in 1917 he denounced “’Bolshevik’ prerevolutionary antiques” on the grounds that they failed to grasp the “incontestable truth that a Marxist must take cognizance of real life, of the true facts of reality, and not cling to a theory of yesterday, … which like all theories … only comes near to embracing life in all its complexity. Theory … is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life” ([1917b] 1964, p. 45).

His leadership of the Bolsheviks during the revolution and in the still more chaotic years that ensued involved a shrewd following of events rather than a genuinely creative initiative. With the definite goal of seizure—and retention—of power in mind, he showed true realism, even adopting positions that to many seemed at the moment completely unrealistic.

His initial demand, in the “April Theses” (announced to his party colleagues the day after his arrival in Petrograd: see 1917c), for “all power to the Soviet” surely seemed ridiculous, for the Bolsheviks were only a small minority in the Petrograd Soviet. Yet it turned out to be the only way to save the Bolsheviks from joining the Soviet majority in support of the Provisional Government and thus to absolve them from responsibility in the eyes of the masses later when discontents and disappointments had accumulated. (To be sure, this demand involved the Bolsheviks in the premature July uprising, from whose consequences they were rescued, however, by the Kornilov affair.)

It was realism, too, that prompted Lenin to insist on an armed uprising in November rather than wait for the “uncertain voting” at the Second Congress of Soviets. He was aware, as some of his associates were not, that the masses were not swinging to active support of the Bolsheviks, that disappointments and weariness had bred tremendous apathy, and that there was no likelihood of serious opposition to any group that would act with vigor, particularly if it could wrap itself in the cloak of the Soviets and would promise speedy convocation of the long-dreamt-of Constituent Assembly.

His extrication of Russia from the war, similarly, was not the realization of a plan thought out in advance; it was the result of realistic yielding to facts as they gradually became obvious to him. The initial “Appeal to the Peoples and Governments of All Warring Countries” (1917d) simply called for a general armistice (Lenin then rejected a separate one) and conclusion of the “democratic peace” that had been proposed by the Provisional Government. Only after weeks of silence on the part of the Allies did Lenin approve of separate negotiations with the Central Powers, and only on the same “democratic” terms. When it became clear that the Central Powers would not make a separate peace on the basis of no annexations and no indemnities, Lenin addressed pointed questions to a congress of army representatives: If negotiations were broken off, would the Germans, despite the winter weather, launch an offensive? If they did, could the army fight or would it flee in panic? Lenin was tempted by Wilson’s Fourteen Points address, of January 8, 1918, to contemplate renewal of the war with practical assistance from the Allies. Even in the face of a German ultimatum, Lenin advised dragging out the negotiations in the hope that the expected German revolution would break out and save Russia. Only when Trotsky’s defiant “no war, no peace” declaration precipitated the final rupture of the negotiations did Lenin begin to insist on immediate acceptance of the German terms, arguing that, no matter how onerous the Brest-Litovsk terms were, they would leave the Bolsheviks in control of an amputated Russia, with a “breathing spell” to consolidate their power in preparation for the inevitable “revolutionary war” against the whole capitalist world.

This same realism showed in his handling of the peasant question. Rejecting as irrelevant the criticism that the original Bolshevik decree on the land problem meant scrapping the established Bolshevik program in favor of the policy advocated by the Socialist Revolutionaries, Lenin had exclaimed, “We must follow life.” If the Bolsheviks were to remain in power, the peasant masses must be acquiescent; otherwise there would be no food for the towns. When, however, the peasants had clearly tired of accepting worthless Bolshevik paper in exchange for their surplus grain, Lenin promptly abandoned his principle that “the general and basic source of any right to the use of agricultural land is individual labor.” He called for a crusade—not, of course, against the peasantry but against the “village bourgeoisie”—to “carry the class war into the countryside” with the aid of the “village poor” (Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 36, pp. 368-369).

His attitude toward the Constituent Assembly also reflected keen appraisal of the realities of the moment rather than any previously elaborated ideological position. At the moment of the seizure of power, when the Bolsheviks still needed the semblance of democracy and there was at least some hope that the Bolsheviks and their Left Socialist Revolutionary allies might win a slender majority, Lenin had been willing to gamble on permitting the election of a Constituent Assembly. When, however, despite Bolshevik control of the power centers, the elections went overwhelmingly against the Bolsheviks and their allies, he flatly declared, “The Soviets are superior to any parliament, to any Constituent Assembly” (ibid., vol. 35,

p. 140). After it had met for one night, Lenin announced, “We will not give up Soviet power for anything in the world,” and the assembly was dissolved (ibid., vol. 36, p. 242).

Wherever one turns in examining the various policies for which at various times he fought so vigorously, the same theme recurs. Never did Lenin argue for action on the basis of ideas he had advanced in his major theoretical works. In combating the “Left Communists” (April 1920), he wrote them off as “doctrinaires of revolution,” adding that “God himself has ordained that for a time the young should talk such nonsense.” In advocating the abandonment of the policy of confiscating all surplus grain, the basic step in the introduction of the New Economic Policy, he argued: “We know that only agreement with the peasantry can save the socialist revolution in Russia, unless revolution begins in other countries… [The] peasantry is not content with the form of relations we have established with it … and will not go on living this way … [We] are sober enough politicians to say right out: ’Let’s reconsider our policy in relation to the peasantry’” (ibid., vol. 43, p. 59). In demanding at the Third Congress of the Third International that that body switch from the aggressive position he had urged on it a year earlier, he acknowledged:

When we began the international revolution … [it] seemed clear to us that without the support of international world revolution the victory of a proletarian revolution was impossible … In other large, capitalistically more developed countries the revolution has not broken out even yet….

What must we do now? We need fundamental preparation of the revolution and deep study of its concrete development in advanced capitalist countries.… As for our Russian Republic, we must take advantage of this brief breathing spell to adapt our tactics to the zigzag line of history, (ibid., vol. 44, pp.36-37)

In celebrating the fourth anniversary of the seizure of power, Lenin admitted:

We thought—or, it would be more accurate to say, we assumed without adequate consideration—that by direct orders of the proletarian state we could get state production and state distribution of products going on a communistic basis in a land of petty peasants. Life showed us our mistake… . Not directly on the basis of enthusiasm, but … on the basis of personal interest, on the basis of individual [or personal; in Russian, lichnyi] incentive, on the basis of economic calculation, will you labor to construct the first solid footbridge leading in a land of petty peasants by way of state capitalism to socialism; you will not otherwise attain to communism …. This is what life has told us. This is what the objective course of development of the revolution has told us. (ibid., vol. 44, p. 151, italics added)

…It is individual incentive that raises production; we need increase in production above all and no matter what. (ibid., vol. 44, p. 152)

This “lesson in tactics,” far more than his so-called testament penned in the interval between his first and second strokes, was the real guideline Lenin left to his successors.

Jesse D. Clarkson

[For the historical context of Lenin’s work, seeMarxismand Socialism; and the biographies ofMarxandTrotsky. For discussion of the subsequent development of Lenin’s ideas, seeCommunismandImperialism.]


The writings of Lenin listed below were first published in Russian.

(1899a) 1960 The Development of Capitalism in Russia: The Process of the Formation of a Home Market for Large-scale Industry. Volume 3, pages 23–607 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

(1899b) 1960 A Protest by Russian Social-Democrats. Volume 4, pages 167–182 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

(1902) 1961 What Is to Be Done? Volume 5, pages 347–529 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

(1916) 1964 Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline. Volume 22, pages 185–304 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Progress.

(1917a) 1964 The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution. Volume 25, pages 381–492 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Progress.

(1917b) 1964 Letters on Tactics. Volume 24, pages 42–54 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Progress.

(1917c) 1964 The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution. Volume 24, pages 20–91 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Progress. → This article contains Lenin’s famous “April Theses.”

(1917d) 1964 Report on Peace, October 26 (November 8). Volume 26, pages 249–253 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Progress.

(1920) 1952 “Left-wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Collected Works. 4th ed. Vols. 1—. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House; Progress, 1960—.

Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Complete Works). 5th ed.

Vols. 1-55. Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe Izdatel’stvo Politicheskoi Literatury, 1958-1965. → Translations in the text provided by Jesse D. Clarkson.

Selected Works. 12 vols. New York: International Publishers, 1935-1938.


Balabanov, Angelica 1961 Lenin. Hanover (Germany): Literatur und Zeitgeschichte.

Bukharin, Nikolai I. 1925 Lenin as a Marxist. London: Communist Party of Great Britain.

Haimson, Leopold H. 1955 The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Krupskaia, Nadezhda K. (1924) 1942 Memories of Lenin (1893-1917). London: Lawrence & Wishart. → First published in Russian.

Lefebvhe, Henri 1957 La pensee de Lenine. Paris: Bordas.

LukÁcs, GyÖrgy 1924 Lenin: Studie ilber den Zusammenhang seiner Gedanken. Vienna: Malik.

Moscow, Institut Marksizma-Leninizma (1960) 1963 Vladimir IVich Lenin: Biografiia. 2d ed. Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe Izdatel’stvo Politicheskoi Literatury.

Trotsky, Leon (1924) 1925 Lenin. New York: Blue Ribbon Books.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lenin." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 18 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Lenin." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (January 18, 2017).

"Lenin." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 18, 2017 from

Lenin, Vladimir Ilich


(18701924), revolutionary publicist, theoretician, and activist; founder of and leading figure in the Bolshevik Party (19031924); chairman of the Soviet of People's Commissars of the RSFSR/USSR (19171924).

The reputation of Vladimir Ilich Lenin (pseudonym of V.I. Ulyanov) has suffered at the hands of both his supporters and his detractors. The former turned him into an idol; the latter into a demon. Lenin was neither. He was born on April 22, 1870, into the family of a successful school inspector from Simbirsk. For his first sixteen years, Lenin lived the life of a child of a conventional, moderately prosperous, middle-class, intellectual family. The ordinariness of Lenin's upbringing was first disturbed by the death of his father, in January 1886 at the age of 54. This event haunted Lenin, who feared he might also die prematurely, and in fact died at almost exactly the same age as his father. Then, in March 1887, Lenin's older brother was arrested for terrorism; he was executed the following May. The event aroused Lenin's curiosity about what had led his brother to sacrifice his life. It also put obstacles in his path: As the brother of a convicted terrorist, Lenin was excluded from Kazan University. He eventually took a law degree,

with distinction, by correspondence from St Petersburg University in January 1892. However, his real interests had already turned to serving the oppressed through revolution rather than at the bar.

All the indications suggest that Lenin was initially attracted to populism, and only later came under the sway of Marxism. He joined a number of provincial Marxist study circles, but first began to attract attention when he moved to the capital, St. Petersburg, and engaged in illegal political activities among workers and intellectuals. In February 1894, he met fellow conspirator Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, who became his lifelong companion. After his first visit to Western Europe, in 1895, to meet the exiled leaders of Russian Marxism, Lenin returned to St. Petersburg and helped set up the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. He was arrested in December 1896 and, after prison interrogation in St. Petersburg, was exiled to the village of Shushenskoe, in Siberia. Krupskaya, who was exiled separately, offered to share banishment with him. The authorities agreed, providing they married, which they did in July 1898. Siberian exile, though rigorous in many respects, was an interlude of relative personal happiness in Lenin's life. His lifelong love of nature asserted itself in long walks, observation of social and animal life of the area, and frequent hunting expeditions. He read a great deal, communicated widely by letter with other socialists, and undertook research and writing. Direct political activity was not possible, and Lenin played no part in the formation, in 1898, of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDLP), to which he at first adhered to but from which he later split. His term of exile ended in February, 1900. In July of that same year, he left Russia for five years.

Up until that point much of Lenin's political writing, from his earliest known articles to his first major treatise, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, written while he was in Siberia, revolved around the dispute between Marxists and populists. The populists had proposed that Russia, given its commune-based peasant class and underdeveloped industry, could pass from its current condition of "backwardness" to socialism without having to first undergo the rigors of capitalist industrialization. Such a notion was an anathema to Lenin, who believed the Marxist axiom that socialist revolution could only follow from the overdevelopment of capitalism, which would bring about its own collapse. Lenin attacked the populist thesis in several articles and pamphlets. The main theme of his treatise on The Development of Capitalism in Russia was that, in fact, capitalism was already well-entrenched in Russia, and therefore the question of whether it could be avoided was meaningless. Nonetheless, it remained obvious that Russia had only a small working class, and much of the rest of Lenin's life could be seen as an attempt to reconcile the actual weakness of proletarian forces in Russia with the country's undoubted potential for some kind of popular revolution, and to ensure Marxist and proletarian dominance in any such revolution.

the emergence of bolshevism (19021914)

Lenin worked to develop theoretical and practical means to accomplish these closely related tasks. The core of Lenin's activity revolved around the organization and production of a series of journals. He frequently described himself on official papers as a journalist, and he did, in fact, write a prodigious number of articles, as well as many longer works. In 1902, Lenin produced one of his most widely read and, arguably most misunderstood, pamphlets, What Is to Be Done?, which has been widely taken to be the founding text of a distinctive Leninist

understanding of how to construct a revolutionary party on the basis of what he called "professional revolutionaries." When it was first published, however, it was read as a statement of Marxist orthodoxy. Lenin asserted the primacy of political struggle, opposing the ideas of the economists, who argued that trade union struggle would serve the workers' cause better than political revolution.

It was only in the following year, 1903, that Lenin began to break with the majority of the social-democratic movement. Again, received opinion, which claims Lenin split the party at the 1903 social-democratic party congress, oversimplifies the nature of the break. Lenin's key resolution at the congress, in which he attempted to narrow the definition of party membership, was voted down. Later, by means many have judged foul, he garnered a majority vote on the issue of electing members to the editorial board of the party journal, Iskra, on which Lenin and his supporters predominated. It was from this victory that the terms Bolshevik (majoritarians) and Menshevik (minoritarians) began to slowly come into vogue. However, the split of the party was only fully completed over the next few months, even years, of arid but fierce party controversies. Lenin's bitter polemic One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Crisis in Our Party, published in Geneva in February 1904, marks a clearer division and catalog of contentious issues than did What Is to Be Done. It was criticized not only by its target, Yuli Osipovich Martov, but also by Georgy Valentinovich Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Vera Zasulich, Karl Kautsky, and Rosa Luxemburg. Lenin's remaining allies of the time included Alexander Bogdanov, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev.

So much energy was involved in the dispute that the development of an actual revolutionary situation in Russia went almost unnoticed by the squabbling exiles. Even after Bloody Sunday (January 22, 1905) Lenin's attention remained divided between the revolution and the task of splitting the social democrats. With the latter aim in view, he convened a Third Party Congress (London, April 25 to May 10) consisting entirely of Bolsheviks. Only in August did Lenin's main pamphlet on revolutionary strategy, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Russian Revolution, appear. Inevitably, the wrong tacticthe identification of the revolution as bourgeoiswas attributed to the Mensheviks. The correct, Bolshevik, tactic, was the recognition of "a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry," which put less reliance on Russia's weak bourgeoisie. It also marked a significant effort by Lenin to incorporate the peasantry into the revolutionary equation. This was another way in which Lenin strove to compensate for the weakness of the working class itself, and the peasantry remained part of his strategy, in a variety of forms, for the rest of his life.

In the atmosphere of greater freedom prevailing after the issuing of the October Manifesto, which was squeezed out of the tsarist authorities under extreme duress and appeared to promise basic constitutional rights and liberties, Lenin returned to Russia legally on November 21, 1905. Even so, by December 17, police surveillance had driven him underground. He supported the heroic but catastrophically premature workers' armed uprising in Moscow in December. As conditions worsened he retreated to Finland and then, in December 1907, left the Russian Empire for another prolonged west European sojourn that lasted until April 1917. Even before the failure of the 1905 revolution, the party split continued to attract an inordinate amount of Lenin's attention. The break with Leon Trotsky in 1906 and Bogdanov in 1908 removed the last significant thinkers from the Bolshevik movement, apart from Lenin himself, who seemed constitutionally incapable of collaborating with people of his own intellectual stature. The break with Bogdanov was consummated in Lenin's worst book, Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909), a naïve and crudely propagandistic blunder into the realm of philosophy.

Politically, Lenin had wandered into the wilderness as leader of a small faction that was situated on the fringe of Russian radical politics and distinguished largely by its dependence on Lenin and its refusal to contemplate a compromise that might reunite the party. Lenin was also distinguished by a ruthless morality of only doing that which was good for the revolution. In its name friendships were broken, and re-made, at a moment's notice. Later, when in power, he urged occasional episodes of violence and terror to secure the revolution as he understood it, although, like a sensitive war leader, he did so reluctantly and only when he thought it absolutely necessary.

For the next few years Lenin was at his least influential. Had it not been for the backing of the novelist Maxim Gorky, it is unlikely the Bolsheviks could have continued to function. He had close support from Grigory Yevseyevich Zinoviev, Lev Borisovich Kamenev, Inessa Armand (with whom he may have had a brief sexual liaison), and from his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya. He also remained close to his family. When possible, he vacationed with them by the beaches of Brittany and Arcachon, or in the Swiss mountains. Lenin's love of nature, of walking and cycling, frequently counteracted the immense nervous stresses occasioned by his political battles. He was prone to a variety of illnesses, which acted as reminders of his father's early death, convincing him that he had to do things in a hurry. However, the second European exile was characterized by frustration rather than achievement.

from obscurity to power (19141921)

The onset of the First World War began the transformation of political fortune which was to bring Lenin to power. His attitude to the war was characteristically bold. Despite the collapse of the Second International Socialist Movement and the apparent wave of universal patriotism of August 1914, Lenin saw the war as a revolutionary opportunity and declared, as early as September 1914, that socialists should aim to turn it into a Europe-wide civil war. He believed that the basic class logic of the situation, that the war was fought by the masses to serve the interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie, would eventually become clear to the troops who, being trained in arms, would then turn on their oppressors. He also wrote a major pamphlet, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. A Popular Outline (1916). Returning to the theme of justifying a Marxist revolution in "backward" Russia, he argued that Russia was a component part of world capitalism and therefore the initial assault on capital, though not its decisive battles, could be conducted in Russia. Within months, just such an opportunity arose.

Lenin's transition from radical outcast to revolutionary leader began after the fall of tsarism in February 1917. A key moment was his declaration, in the so-called April Theses, enunciated immediately on his return to Russia (April 1617, 1917), that the party should not support the provisional government. By accident or design, this was the key to Bolshevik success. As other parties were sucked into supporting the provisional government, they each lost public support. After the Kornilov Affair, when the commander-in-chief, Lavr Kornilov, appeared to be spearheading a counter-revolution in August and September of 1917, it was the Bolsheviks who were the main beneficiaries because they were not tainted by association with the discredited provisional government which, popular opinion believed, was associated with Kornilov's apparent coup. Even so, it took immense personal effort by Lenin to persuade his party to seize their opportunity. Contrary to much received opinion and Bolshevik myth, the October Revolution was not carefully planned but, rather, improvised. Lenin was in still in hiding in Finland following proscription of the party after the July Days, when armed groups of sailors had failed in an attempt to overthrow the provisional government and the authorities took advantage of the situation to move against the Bolsheviks. He had been vague about details of the proposed revolution throughout the crucial weeks leading up to it, suggesting, at different moments, that it might begin in Moscow, Petrograd, Kronstadt, the Baltic Fleet, or even Helsinki. Only his own emergence from hiding, on October 23rd and 29th and during the seizure of power itself (November 67 O.S.) finally brought his party in line behind his policy. The provisional government was overthrown, and Lenin became Chairman of the Soviet of People's Commissars, a post he held until his death.

October was far from the end of the story. The tragic complexity of the seizure of power soon became apparent. The masses wanted what the slogans of October proclaimed: soviet power, peace, land, bread, and a constituent assembly. Lenin, however, wanted nothing less than the socialist transformation not only of Russia but of the world. Conflict was inevitable. By early 1918, autonomous workers and peasants organizations, including their political parties and the soviets themselves, were losing all authority. Ironically, at this moment one of Lenin's most libertarian, almost anarchist, writings, State and Revolution, written while he was in Finland, was published. In it he praised direct democracy and argued that capitalism had so organized and routinized the economy that it resembled the workings of the German post office. As a result, he wrote, the transition to socialism would be relatively straightforward.

However, reality was to prove less tractable. Lenin began to talk of "iron discipline" as an essential for future progress, and in The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government (MarchApril 1918) proclaimed the concept of productionismthe maximization of economic output as the preliminary to building socialismto be a main goal of the Soviet government. Productionism was an ideological response to Russia's Marxist paradox, a worker revolution in a "backward" peasant country. Indeed, the weakness of the proletariat was vastly accentuated in the first years of Soviet power, as industry collapsed and major cities lost up to two-thirds of their population through disease, hunger, and flight to the countryside.

Like the events of October, early Soviet policy was also improvised, though within the confines of Bolshevik ideology. Lenin presided over the nationalization of all major economic institutions and enterprises in a crude attempt to replace the market with allocation of key products. He also over-saw the emergence of a new Red Army; the setting up of a new state structure based on Bolshevik-led soviets; and a system of direct appropriation of grain from peasants, as well as the revolutionary transformation of the country. This last entailed the taking over of land by peasants and the disappearance from Soviet territory of the old elites, including the aristocracy, army officers, capitalists, and bankers. To the chaos of the early months of revolution was added extensive protest within the party from its left wing, which saw productionism and iron discipline as a betrayal of the libertarian principles of 1917. The survival of Lenin's government looked improbable. However, the out-break of major civil war in July 1918 gave it a new lease of life, forcing people to choose between imperfect revolution, represented by the Bolsheviks, or out-and-out counter-revolution, represented by the opposition (called the Whites). Most opted for the former but, once the Whites were defeated in 1920, tensions re-emerged and a series of uprisings against the Soviet government took place.

the final years (19221924)

Lenin's solution to the postcivil war crisis was his last major intervention in politics, because his health began to fail from 1922 onwards, exacerbated by the bullet wounds left after an assassination attempt in August 1918. The key problem in the crisis was peasant disaffection with the grain appropriation system. Lenin replaced requisitioning by a tax-in-kind, which in turn necessitated the partial restoration of market relations. Nonetheless, the state retained the commanding heights of the economy, including large factories, transport, taxation, and foreign trade. The result was known as the New Economic Policy. It was Lenin's third attempt at a form of transition. The first, outlined in the April Theses, was based on "Soviet supervision of production and distribution," a system that had collapsed within the first months of Bolshevik power. The second, later called war communism, was based on iron discipline, state control of the economy, and grain requisitioning. Lenin believed his third solution was the correct one, arrived at through the test of reality. It was accompanied by intellectual and political repression and the imposition of a one-party state on the grounds that concession to bourgeois economic interests gave the revolution's enemies greater power that had to be counteracted by greater political and intellectual control by the party. Lenin remained enthusiastic about the NEP, and did not live to see the complications that ensued in the mid-1920s.

In his last writings, produced during his bouts of convalescence from a series of increasingly severe strokes beginning in May 1922, Lenin laid down a number of guidelines for his successors. These included a cultural revolution to modernize the peasantry (On Co-operation, January 1923) and a modest reorganization of the bureaucracy to get it under control ("Better Fewer but Better," March 1923, his last article). In his "Testament" (Letter to the Congress, December 1922), Lenin argued that the party should not, in future, antagonize the peasantry. Most controversially, however, he summed up the candidates for succession without clearly supporting any one of them. His criticism of Stalinthat he had accumulated much power and Lenin was not confident that he would use it wiselywas strengthened in January of 1923, after Stalin argued with Krupskaya. Lenin called for Stalin to be removed as General Secretary, a post to which Lenin had only promoted him in 1922. There was no suggestion that Stalin should be removed from the Politburo or Central Committee. In any case, Lenin was too ill to follow through on his suggestions, thereby opening up vast speculation as to whether he might have prevented Stalin from coming to power had he lived longer.

Lenin's last year was spent at his country residence near Moscow. In the company of Nadezhda Krupskaya and his sisters, he lived out his last months being read to and taken on walks in his wheelchair. In October 1923 he even had enough energy to return for a last look around his Kremlin office, despite the guard's initial refusal to admit him because he did not have an up-to-date pass. However, his health continued to deteriorate, and he died on the evening of January 21, 1924.

See also: bolshevism; february revolution; july days of 1917; kornilov affair; krupskaya, nadezhda konstantinovna; lenin's testament; lenin's tomb; new economic policy; october manifesto; october revolution; populism; war communism; what is to be done?


Carrère d'Encausse, Hélène. (1982). Lenin: Revolution and Power. London: Longman.

Claudin-Urondo, Carmen. (1977). Lenin and the Cultural Revolution. Sussex and Totowa, New Jersey: Harvester Press/Humanities Press.

Harding, Neil. (1981). Lenin's Political Thought. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

Harding, Neil. (1991). Leninism. London: Macmillan.

Krupskaya, Nadezhda. (1970). Memories of Lenin. London: Panther.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilich (1960-1980) Collected Works. 47 vols. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilich. (1967). Selected Works. 3 vols. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lewin, Moshe. (1968). Lenin's Last Struggle. New York: Random House.

Pipes, Richard. (1996). The Unknown Lenin. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Read, Christopher. (2003). Lenin: A Revolutionary Life. London: Routledge.

Service, Robert. (1994). Lenin: A Political Life. 3 vols. London: Macmillan.

Service, Robert. (2000). Lenin: a Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shub, David. (1966). Lenin. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Ulam, Adam. (1969). Lenin and the Bolsheviks. London: Fontana/Collins.

Volkogonov, Dmitril. (1995). Lenin: Life and Legacy, ed. Harold Shukman. London: Harper Collins.

Weber, Gerda, and Weber, Hermann. (1980). Lenin: Life and Work. London: Macmillan.

White, James. (2000). Lenin: The Practice and Theory of Revolution. London: Palgrave.

Williams, Beryl. (2000). Lenin. London: Harlow Long-man.

Christopher Read

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . 18 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . (January 18, 2017).

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved January 18, 2017 from

Vladimir Ilich Lenin

Vladimir Ilich Lenin

The Russian statesman Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924) was the creator of the Bolshevik party, the Soviet state, and the Third International. He was a successful revolutionary leader and an important contributor to revolutionary socialist theory.

Few events have shaped contemporary history as profoundly as the Russian Revolution and the Communist revolutions that followed it. Each one of them was made in the name of V. I. Lenin, his doctrines, and his political practices. Contemporary thinking about world affairs has been greatly influenced by Lenin's impetus and contributions. From Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points to today's preoccupation with wars of national liberation, imperialism, and decolonization, many important issues of contemporary social science were first raised or disseminated by Lenin; even some of the terms he used have entered into everyone's vocabulary. The very opposition to Lenin often takes Leninist forms.

Formative Years

V. I. Lenin was born in Simbirsk (today Ulianovsk) on April 10 (Old Style), 1870. His real family name was Ulianov, and his father, Ilia Nikolaevich Ulianov, was a high official in the czarist educational bureaucracy who had risen into the nobility. Vladimir received the conventional education given to the sons of the Russian upper class but turned into a radical dissenter. One impetus to his conversion doubtless was the execution by hanging of his older brother Alexander in 1887; Alexander and a few associates had conspired to assassinate the Emperor. Lenin graduated from secondary school with high honors, enrolled at Kazan University, but was expelled after participating in a demonstration. He retired to the family estate but was permitted to continue his studies in absentia. He obtained a law degree in 1891.

When, in 1893, he moved to St. Petersburg, Lenin was already a Marxist and a revolutionary by profession, joining like-minded intellectuals in study groups, writing polemical pamphlets and articles, and seeking to organize workers. The St. Petersburg Union for the Struggle for the Liberation of Labor, which Lenin helped create, was one of the important nuclei of the Russian Marxist movement. The most important work from this period is a lengthy pamphlet, "What Are the 'Friends of the People,' and How Do They Fight against Social-Democracy?" In it Lenin presents the essentials of his entire outlook.

In 1897 Lenin was arrested, spent some months in jail, and was finally sentenced to 3 years of exile in the Siberian village of Shushenskoe. He was joined there by a fellow Marxist, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, whom he married in 1898. In his Siberian exile he produced a major study of the Russian economy, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, in which he sought to demonstrate that, despite its backwardness, the economy of his country had definitely transformed itself into a capitalist one. If Lenin had produced nothing else than this learned though controversial work, he would today be known as one of the leading Russian economists of his period.

Emigration to Europe

Not long after his release from Siberia in the summer of 1900, Lenin moved to Europe, where he spent most of the next 17 years, moving from one country to another at frequent intervals, periods of feverish activity alternating with those of total frustration. His first step was to join the editorial board of Iskra (>The Spark), then the central newspaper of Russian Marxism, where he served together with the top leaders of the movement. After parting from Iskra, he edited a succession of papers of his own and contributed to other socialist journals. His journalistic activity was closely linked with organizational work, partly because the underground organizational network within Russia to some extent revolved around the distribution of clandestine literature.

Organizational activity, in turn, was linked with the selection and training of personnel. For some time Lenin conducted a training school for Russian revolutionaries at Longjumeau, a suburb of Paris. A perennial problem was that of financing the movement and its leaders' activities in their European exile. Lenin personally could usually depend on financial support from his mother; but her pension could not pay for his political activities. Much of the early history of Russian Marxism can be understood only in the light of these pressing money problems.

His Thought

A Marxist movement had developed in Russia only during the last decade of the 19th century as a response to the rapid growth of industry, urban centers, and a proletariat. Its first intellectual spokesmen were people who had turned away from populism (narodnichestvo), which they regarded as a failure. Instead of relying on the peasantry, they placed their hopes on the workers as the revolutionary class. Rejecting the village socialism preached by the Narodniks, they opted for industrialization, modernization, and Westernization. Their immediate aim they declared to be a bourgeois revolution which would transform Russia into a democratic republic.

In accepting this revolutionary scenario, Lenin added the important proviso that hegemony in the coming bourgeois revolution should remain with the proletariat as the most consistently revolutionary of all classes.

At the same time, Lenin, more than most Marxists, made a clear distinction between the workers' movement, on the one hand, and the theoretical contribution to be made by intellectuals, on the other. Of the two, he considered the theoretical contribution the more important, the workers' movement being a merely spontaneous reaction to capitalist exploitation, whereas theory was an expression of consciousness, meaning science and rationality. Throughout his life Lenin insisted that consciousness must maintain leadership over spontaneity for revolutionary Marxism to succeed. This implies that the intellectual leaders must prepare the proletariat for its political tasks and must guide it in its action. Leadership and hierarchy thus become key concepts in the Leninist vocabulary, and the role and structure of the party must conform to this conception. The party is seen as the institutionalization of true consciousness. It must turn into the general staff of the revolution, subjecting the working class and indeed all its own members to command and discipline.

Lenin expressed these ideas in his important book What's To Be Done? (1902), the title of the work expressing his indebtedness to Nikolai Chernyshevsky. When, in 1903, the leaders of Russian Marxism met for the first important party congress, formally the Second Congress, these ideas clashed head on with the conception of a looser, more democratic workers' party advanced by Lenin's old friend luli Martov. This disagreement over the nature and organization of the party was complicated by numerous other conflicts of view, and from its first important congress Russian Marxism emerged split into two factions. The one led by Lenin called itself the majority faction (bolsheviki); the other got stuck with the name of minority faction (mensheviki). Lenin's reaction to the split was expressed in his pamphlet "One Step Forward—Two Steps Back," published in 1904.

Mensheviks and Bolsheviks disagreed not only over organizational questions but also over most other political problems, including the entire conception of a Marxist program for Russia and the methods to be employed by the party. Bolshevism, in general, stresses the need for revolution and the futility of incremental reforms; it emphasizes the goals of Marxism rather than the process, with its timetable, by which Marx thought the new order was to be reached; in comparison to menshevism it is impatient, pragmatic, and tough-minded.

The Revolution of 1905 surprised all Russian revolutionary leaders, including the Bolsheviks. Lenin managed to return to Russia only in November, when the defeat of the revolution was a virtual certainty. But he was among the last to give up. For many more months he urged his followers to renew their revolutionary enthusiasm and activities and to prepare for an armed uprising. For some time afterward the technology of revolutionary warfare became the focus of his interest. His militancy was expressed in an anti-Menshevik pamphlet published in 1905, "Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution."

The major impact of the aborted revolution and its aftermath was a decided change in Lenin's attitude toward the peasantry. Lenin came to recognize it as a class in its own right—not just as a rural proletariat—with its own interests, and as a valuable ally for the revolutionary proletariat. His pamphlet "The Agrarian Question in the Russian Revolution of 1905-7" presents these new views in systematic fashion.

Bolshevism as an Independent Faction

In the 12 years between the Revolution of 1905 and that of 1917, bolshevism, which had begun as a faction within the Russian Social-Democratic Workers party, gradually emerged as an independent party that had cut its ties with all other Russian Marxists. The process entailed prolonged and bitter polemics against Mensheviks as well as against all those who worked for a reconciliation of the factions. It involved fights over funds, struggles for control of newspapers, the development of rival organizations, and meetings of rival congresses. Disputes concerned many questions about the goals and strategies of the movement, the role of national liberation movements within the Marxist party, and also philosophic controversies. Lenin's contribution to this last topic was published in 1909, Materialism and Empirio-criticism.

Since about 1905 the international socialist movement had begun also to discuss the possibility of a major war breaking out. In its congresses of 1907 and 1912, resolutions were passed which condemned such wars in advance and pledged the parties of the proletariat not to support them. Lenin had wanted to go further than that. He had urged active opposition to the war effort and a transformation of any war into a proletarian revolution. He called his policy "revolutionary defeatism." When World War I broke out, most socialist leaders in the countries involved supported the war effort. For Lenin, this was proof that he and they shared no aims or views. The break between the two schools of Marxism had become irreconcilable.

During the war Lenin lived in Switzerland. He attended several conferences of radical socialists opposed to the war or even agreeing with Lenin's revolutionary defeatism. He read extensively on the Marxist theory of state and wrote a first draft for a book on the subject, The State and Revolution. He also immersed himself in literature dealing with contemporary world politics and wrote a book which may, in the long run, be his most important one, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), in which Marxism is effectively made applicable to the 20th century. By the beginning of 1917 he had fits of despondency and wrote to a close friend that he despaired of ever witnessing another revolution. This was about a month before the fall of czarism.

Lenin in 1917

It took a good deal of negotiation and courage for Lenin and a group of like-minded Russian revolutionaries to travel from Switzerland back to Russia through enemy country (Germany). Much has been made of Lenin's negotiations with an enemy power and of the fact that some Bolshevik activities were supported financially by German intelligence agencies. There is no convincing evidence, however, which might show that acceptance of funds from objectionable sources made Lenin an agent of these sources in anyway. And from his point of view the source of aid was immaterial; what counted was the use to which it was put.

The man who returned to Russia in the famed "sealed train" in the spring of 1917 was of medium height, quite bald, except for the back of his head, with a reddish beard. The features of his face were arresting—slanted eyes that looked piercingly at others, and high cheek-bones under a towering forehead. The rest of his appearance was deceptively ordinary: a man of resolute movements clad quite conservatively in a middle-class suit.

Versed in many languages, Lenin spoke Russian with a slight speech defect but was a powerful orator in small groups as well as before mass audiences. A tireless worker, he made others work tirelessly. Self-effacing, he sought to compel his collaborators to devote every ounce of their energy to the revolutionary task at hand. He was impatient with any extraneous activities, including small talk and abstract theoretical discussions. Indeed, he was suspicious of intellectuals and felt most at home in the company of simple folk. Having been brought up in the tradition of the Russian nobility, Lenin loved hunting, hiking, horseback riding, boating, mush-rooming, and the outdoor life in general. He sought to steel himself by systematic physical exercise and generally forbade himself those hobbies which he considered time-wasting or corrupting: chess, music, and companionship. While his life-style was that of a dedicated professional revolutionary, his tastes in art, morals, and manners were rather conventional.

Once he had returned to Russia, Lenin worked feverishly and relentlessly to utilize the revolutionary situation that had been created by the fall of czarism so as to convert it into a proletarian revolution which would bring his own party into power. These were the crucial 6 months of his life, but space does not permit a detailed account of his activities in the period. The result of his activities is well known: Opinions in Russia quickly became more and more polarized. Moderate forces found themselves less and less able to maintain even the pretense of control. In the end, the so-called provisional government, then headed by Kerensky, simply melted away, and power literally fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks. As a result of this so-called October Revolution, Lenin found himself not only the leader of his party but also the chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (equivalent to premier minister) of the newly proclaimed Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic.

Ruler of Russia

During the first years of Lenin's rule as dictator of Russia, the major task he faced was that of establishing his and his party's authority in the country. Most of his policies can be understood in this light, even though he alienated some elements in the population while satisfying others. Examples are the expropriation of landholdings for distribution to the peasants, the separate peace treaty with Germany, and the nationalization of banks and industrial establishments.

From 1918 to 1921 a fierce civil war raged which the Bolsheviks finally won against seemingly overwhelming odds. During the civil war Lenin tightened his party's dictatorship and eventually eliminated all rival parties from the political arena. A spirited defense of his dictatorship can be found in his "The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky" (1918), in which he answers criticism from some more moderate Marxists. Lenin had to create an entirely new political system with the help of inexperienced personnel; he was heading a totally exhausted economy and had to devise desperate means for mobilizing people for work. Simultaneously he created the Third (Communist) International and vigorously promoted the spread of the revolution to other countries; and meanwhile he had to cope with dissent among his own party comrades, some of whom criticized him from the left. The pamphlet "Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder" is a response to this criticism.

When the civil war had been won and the regime established firmly, the economy was ruined, and much of the population was bitterly opposed to the regime. At this point Lenin reversed many of his policies and instituted a trenchant reform, called the New Economic Policy. It signified a temporary retreat from the goal of establishing communism at once and a resolve to make do with the social forces available: the Communist party declared itself ready to coexist and cooperate with features of the past, such as free enterprise, capitalist institutions, and capitalist states across the borders. For the time being, the Soviet economy would be a mixture of capitalist and socialist features. The stress of the party's policies would be on economic reconstruction and on the education of a peasant population for life in the 20th century. In the long run, Lenin hoped that both these policies would make the blessings of socialism obvious to all, so that the country would gradually grow into socialism. The wariness, the caution, the fear of excessive haste and impatience which Lenin showed in the years 1921-1923 are expressed only inadequately in the last few articles he wrote, such as "On Cooperation," "How We Must Reorganize the Workers and Peasants Inspectorate," and "Better Less but Better."

In 1918 an assassin wounded Lenin; he recovered but may have suffered some lasting damage. On May 26, 1922, he suffered a serious stroke from which he recovered after some weeks, only to suffer a second stroke on December 16. He was so seriously incapacitated that he could participate in political matters only intermittently and feebly. An invalid, he lived in a country home at Gorki, near Moscow, where he died on Jan. 21, 1924. His body was preserved and is on view in the Lenin Mausoleum outside the walls of the Moscow Kremlin.

Further Reading

Numerous collections and selections of Lenin's writings have been published in English. No first-rate biography has as yet been written in English to match Gérard Walter, Lénine (1950). Louis Fischer, The Life of Lenin (1964), was praised highly. It is based on exhaustive research, is fair and comprehensive, but is disorganized and poorly written. Interesting glimpses into Lenin's life are provided by his widow, N. K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin (trans., 2 vols., 1930-1932); Nikolai Valentinov's studies, Encounters with Lenin (1953; trans. 1968) and The Early Years of Lenin (trans. 1969); Richard Pipes, Social Democracy and the St. Petersburg Labor Movement, 1885-1897 (1963); Angelica Balabanoff, Impressions of Lenin (1964); and Leon Trotsky, Lenin: Notes for a Biographer (trans. 1971), with a good introduction by Bertram D. Wolfe. See also David Shub, Lenin: A Biography (1948; rev. ed. 1967); Moshe Lewin, Lenin's Last Struggle (1967; trans. 1968); and Isaac Deutscher, Lenin's Childhood (1970).

For a survey of Lenin's ideology see Leopold H. Haimson, The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism (1955); Alfred G. Meyer, Leninism (1957); and Adam B. Ulam, The Bolsheviks (1965). A general appraisal of the man and his work is Leonard Schapiro and Peter Reddaway, eds., Lenin: The Man, the Theorist, the Leader (1967). For the broader political background see Arthur Rosenberg, A History of Bolshevism (1934); Leonard Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1959); Robert V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution (1960); and Theodore I. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism (1964). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Vladimir Ilich Lenin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 18 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Vladimir Ilich Lenin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (January 18, 2017).

"Vladimir Ilich Lenin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved January 18, 2017 from

Lenin (Ulyanov), Vladimir Ilyich

Lenin (Ulyanov), Vladimir Ilyich

(b. Simbirsk, Russia [now Ulyanovsk, U.S.S.R.], 22 April 1870;d. Gorki, near Moscow, U.S.S.R., 21 January 1924),

politics, statesmanship, philosophy.

Lenin’s paternal grandfather was a peasant and a serf. His father, Ilya Nicolaevich, was an inspector of public schools in Simbirsk, and his mother, Maria Alexandrovna Blank, a well-educated woman. His character and outlook were strongly influenced by his family, by the political and social environment in which he was brought up, and by the progressive traditions of Russian literature. An elder brother, Alexander, was executed in 1887 for an attempt on the life of the Czar Alexander III. In 1887 Lenin graduated from the Gymnasium with a gold medal and entered the University of Kazan. He was soon expelled for participating in the student movement and arrested. He then began the study of Marxism, seeing in it the ideological weapon for liberation of the Russian proletariat. In 1891 he succeeded brilliantly in the examination for the faculty of law at the University of St. Petersburg.

This notice will be concerned only with the place of natural science and its philosophy in Lenin’s work and thought. It is convenient to divide his career into three periods. The first (1893-1905) includes his work in St. Petersburg, his Siberian exile in the village of Shushenskoye, where he married Nadezhda Konstantinova Krupskaya, and his first residence abroad from 1900 to 1905. The second (1905-1917) includes his participation in the revolutionary events of 1905-1907, followed by his second and longer residence abroad from 1908 to 1917. The third (1917-1924) includes the February and October revolutions and the early years of the Soviet state.

Throughout the first period of his life, Lenin studied seriously about natural science with emphasis on its history and on the parallels to be made out between developments in natural and social science. He devoted particular attention to the Darwinian theory of evolution, to chemistry, and to psychology, with a view to substantiating and developing a scientific method applicable to the analysis and generalization of factual material. He adopted the name Lenin in 1901, as a literary pseudonym in the first instance.

It was after 1907, however, during his exile in Switzerland that Lenin gave himself most intensively to scientific reading. The positivist philosophies of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius were then arousing interest among the Russian intelligentsia. Lenin considered them to be merely varieties of subjective idealism, and directed a book, Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909), against them and their Russian followers. The argument is a defense and a development of dialectical materialism, the philosophical theory of Marx and Engels.

In preparation for that work, Lenin studied hundreds of writings on natural science and philosophy, concentrating now on physics, and reading widely in the literature in English, French, German, and Italian, as well as Russian. He frequented the libraries of Geneva and Paris, and traveled to London to work, like Marx before him, in the reading room of the British Museum. In the course of his studies, he formed the view that a revolution in science had begun around the turn of the century, marked by Roentgen’s discovery of X rays, the isolation of radium, the identification of the electron, and the transformation of chemical elements in early atomic physics. Traditional notions about the structure and physical properties of matter and the modes of motion had thus been vitiated. It was henceforth quite impossible to hold that atoms were indivisible, elements immutable, mass invariant, and the laws of classical mechanics universally valid. Experiment showed the contrary.

Nevertheless, changes in scientific comprehension of matter offered no justification for the views of idealists and the energeticists, who made the error of referring matter to electricity while separating motion from matter and declaring motion to be immaterial. Philosophical materialism, Lenin argued, does not presuppose admitting any specific physical theory of the structure of matter as a compulsory requirement. He showed that all physical notions are relative and changeable—and yet their relativity and changeability fails to lead to a conclusion that matter may disappear or be transferred into something spiritual or immaterial. That atoms turn out to be divisible is not to be taken as a derogation of the objective existence of matter. Indeed, Lenin predicted ever further penetration of science into matter, stating that the electron is as inexhaustible as the atom, and therefore could no more be regarded as the least structural unit of matter than could the atom itself. In Lenin’s view, modern physics illustrated the dialectical nature of human cognition, and it substantiated materialism. Certain physicists who adopted idealistic notions in this crisis of the old views of matter failed to understand the point. Their errors, in Lenin’s view, were a feature of the revolutionary disintegration of previous basic orthodoxies in physics. Lenin indicated that overcoming the difficulties and resolving the crisis required replacing obsolete metaphysical materialism with dialectical materialism.

During his years in Bern early in the war Lenin concentrated his studies on Hegel’s philosophy as well as on the history of science and technology, which he thought the most pertinent aspect of history for verifying the operation of the dialectical method. His notes on these studies were the direct continuation of Materialism and Empiriocriticism. They were published after his death under the title Philosophical Notebooks (1929-1930), for once involved in the events of the Revolution in Russia, he had no time to finish the treatise on dialectics he had conceived and already begun.

As head of the Soviet state, Lenin took a direct part in the organization of science, higher education, and cultural life. Technological problems of the energy supply had interested him even during the years of exile, when among his scientific interests was a study of the possibility of converting mineral coal deposits into gas for urban and industrial use. Now in April 1918 he formed a plan according to which the Russian Academy of Sciences should take an active part in constructing a new socialist economy. His most immediate concerns were with seeking out new mineral resources within Soviet Russia and devising a scheme for electrifying the whole country.

The Civil War in Russia (1918-1920) impeded putting these ideas into effect for a time, but at the end of 1920 Lenin drew together leading scientists and engineers in preparing a detailed project for electrification under a famous slogan: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” His speeches and writings of that period emphasize the importance of developing science and technology for the benefit of all humanity, and not of a privileged class. It was his view that science is a force making for peace and welfare in a time of inevitable revolutionary change. He kept himself informed of developments in science, and never disputed technical findings or theory on dogmatic grounds. Lenin admired Einstein as one of the great reformers of natural science and considered the theory of relativity to be entirely consistent with the dialectical progress of knowledge. He ardently advocated union between progressive scientists and Marxist philosophers. His article “On the Significance of Militant Materialism” (1922) was dedicated to that subject.


1. Original Works. Lenin’s works have been collected in several editions, all published in Moscow: 1st ed., 20 vols. (1920-1926); 2nd and 3rd eds., 30 vols. (1925-1932); 4th ed., 45 vols. (1941-1957); and 5th ed., complete in 55 vols. (1958-1965). Translations include that into English of the 4th ed., as Collected Works, 45 vols. (Moscow-London, 1960-1970), with index to the complete works (1969-1970). Archive materials and manuscripts are listed in Leninskye zborniki ( “Lenin Collections” ), 37 collections, 39 vols. (Moscow, 1924-1970).

Lenin’s works on science include Materializm i empiriocrititsizm (“Materialism and Empiriocriticism”), in several eds. (Moscow, 1909-1969), translated into several languages, including English (Moscow, 1970); O nauke i vysshem obrazovanii ( “On Science and Higher Education” 1st ed., Moscow, 1967; 2nd ed., 1971); and V. V. Ado ratsky, ed., Filosofskye tetradi, which first appeared as vols. IX and XII (Moscow, 1929, 1930) of Leninskye zborniki (most recent separate edition, Moscow, 1969), and which was translated into several languages, including into French as Cahiers philosophiques (Paris, 1955).

II. Secondary Literature. On Lenin and his scientific work, see the collections Organizatsia nauki v pervye gody sovetskoy vlasti (1917-1925). M. S. Bastrakova et al., eds., Sbornik dokumentov ( “Organization of Science in the First Years of Soviet Power [1917-1925]. A Collection of Documents” ; Leningrad, 1968); M. E. Omelyanovsky, ed., Lenin i sovremenoye estestvoznanie ( “Lenin and the Contemporary Natural Sciences” Moscow, 1969), English trans, in press; P.N. Pospelov, ed., Lenin i Akademia nauk. Sbornik dokumentov ( “Lenin and the Academy of Sciences. A Collection of Documents”; Moscow, 1969); A. V. Koltsov, ed., V. I. Lenin i problemi nauki ( “V. I. Lenin and Problems of Science”; Leningrad, 1969); and M. V. Keldysh et al., eds., Lenin i sovremennaya nauka ( “Lenin and Contemporary Science”; Moscow, 1970).

See also B. M. Kedrov, Lenin i revolutsia v estestvoznanii XX veka ( “Lenin and the Revolution in the Natural Sciences in the Twentieth Century” ; Moscow, 1969); and Lenin i dialektika estestvoznania XX veka ( “Lenin and the Dialectics of the Natural Sciences in the Twentieth Century”; Moscow, 1971), trans. into French as Boniface Kedrov, Dialectique, logique, gnoséologie: leur unité (Moscow, 1970); and P. V. Kopnine, Filosofskye idei V. I. Lenina i logika ( “Philosophical Ideas of V. I. Lenin and Logic” ; Moscow, 1969); Dialektika kak logika poznania. Opyt logiko-gnoseologitcheskogo issledovania ( “Dialectics as Logic and the Theory of Cognition. The Logical and Gnosiological Analysis” ; Moscow, 1973).

Biographies include Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Biograficheskaya khronika 1870-1921 ( “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. A Biographical Chronicle 1870-1921” ), written under the direction of G. N. Gorshkov, 3 vols. (Moscow, 1970-1972); Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Biografia, written under the direction of P. N. Pospelov (1st ed., Moscow, 1960; 5th ed., 1972); K. A. Osiroukhova et al., v. I. Lenin. Kratkyi biograficheskiyi otcherk ( “V. I. Lenin. A Short Biography” ; 1st ex., Moscow, 1960; 7th ed., written under the direction of G. D. Obytchkin, 1972); G. N. Golykov et al., eds., Vospominania o Vladimire Ilyiche Lenine ( “Recollections of V. I. Lenin” ), 5 vols. (Moscow, 1968-1970); and, especially, N. K. Krupskaya, O Lenine ( “On Lenin” ; Moscow, 1971).

B. M. Kedrov

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lenin (Ulyanov), Vladimir Ilyich." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 18 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Lenin (Ulyanov), Vladimir Ilyich." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (January 18, 2017).

"Lenin (Ulyanov), Vladimir Ilyich." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved January 18, 2017 from

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (lĕn´Ĭn, Rus. vlədyē´mĬr Ĭlyēch´ lyĕ´nĬn), 1870–1924, Russian revolutionary, the founder of Bolshevism and the major force behind the Revolution of Oct., 1917.

Early Life

Born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, at Simbirsk (later called Ulyanovsk in his honor), he was the son of a school and civil service official and was drawn early to the revolutionary cause, especially when his brother, Aleksandr I. Ulyanov, was executed (1887) for his participation in a plot on the life of Alexander III. Lenin's law studies at the Univ. of Kazan were interrupted when he was banished for revolutionary activities. He completed his studies independently and practiced law briefly, but soon renounced his legal practice, turning entirely to the study of the teachings of Karl Marx and to propagandizing among the workers, particularly in St. Petersburg. He was exiled to Siberia in 1895 and, when his exile ended (1900), he left Russia to continue his revolutionary activities abroad.

Theoretician and Revolutionary

In a pamphlet titled What Is to Be Done? (1902) Lenin argued that only a disciplined party of professional revolutionaries could bring socialism to Russia. In 1903, at a meeting of the Russian Social Democratic Labor party held in London, the party split into two factions, the Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (see Bolshevism and Menshevism). Lenin continued to be the chief exponent of Bolshevik thought in the long struggles for supremacy against Plekhanov, Kautsky, and other less radical Marxists. With the outbreak of revolution in 1905, Lenin returned to Russia. His view that the Bolsheviks should take part in the second duma prevailed in 1907, but he left Russia later that year and subsequently mostly engaged in complex theoretical disputes.

Lenin was in Switzerland during the early years of World War I. In his view the war was an imperialist struggle; since imperialism was "the final stage of capitalism," it was a historical necessity that the war would offer opportunities for a revolution of the proletariat. Consequently, Lenin urged the proletariat to oppose the war by an international civil war against the capitalist class. After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of Feb., 1917, the German government allowed Lenin to cross Germany en route from Switzerland to Sweden in a sealed railway car. By aiding his return to Russia, the Germans hoped (correctly) to disrupt the Russian war effort.

Lenin concluded that Russia was now ripe for a socialist revolution, arguing that the moderate provisional government represented the bourgeoisie whereas the soviets represented, in his words, a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. In July, 1917, after an abortive mass uprising in Petrograd, Lenin was forced to flee to Finland. Although the Bolsheviks were represented only by a minority in the first all-Russian Soviet congress (June, 1917), they soon gained decisive power. In Nov., 1917 (October according to the Old Style), the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, who had returned to Petrograd, overthrew Kerensky's weak and disorganized regime and established a Soviet government.

Soviet Leader

Lenin became chairman of the Council of People's Commissars and virtual dictator; Trotsky, Stalin, and Rykov were the other chief members. The Bolsheviks (who became the Communist party) asserted that the October Revolution had established a proletarian dictatorship. The new government's first acts were to propose an armistice with Germany and to abolish private ownership of land and distribute it among the peasants. Banks were nationalized, a supreme council was established to revive the dislocated economy, and workers' control over factory production was introduced. Atheism officially replaced doctrinal religion. All opposition was ruthlessly suppressed by the Cheka, or political police, under Dzerzhinsky.

Lenin fulfilled his promise of peace by accepting the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Mar., 1918). However, civil war in Russia and a war with Poland prevented peace from coming to Russia until late 1920. In 1919, Lenin established the Third International, or Comintern, to further world revolution. The policy of "war Communism" prevailed until 1921. It brought extensive nationalization, food requisitioning, and control over industry. In 1921, in an attempt to boost the economy, Lenin launched the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed some private enterprise.

By 1922, Lenin had eliminated all organized opposition and had silenced hostile factions within the party. In fact, Lenin had set up a dictatorship of the Communist party, which controlled the hierarchy of local, regional, and central soviets. He retained the post of chairman of the Council of People's Commissars and was a member of the ruling Politburo of the Communist party until his death.

The strain of Lenin's labors destroyed his health. He suffered a stroke in 1922; a later stroke (1923) deprived him of speech. In a testament criticizing Stalin, written near the end of his life, he recommended Stalin's removal from the post of general secretary of the party. After his death (Jan. 21, 1924) this testament was suppressed, and Stalin emerged victorious in the contest for succession. Lenin's remains are in a mausoleum on Red Square.


Lenin's speeches and writings were highly regarded by his successors and followers. His major contributions to Marxism were his analysis of imperialism (stressing, among other things, the importance of colonial areas as the breeding ground for revolution) and his concept of a revolutionary party as a highly disciplined unit. One of the greatest and most practical revolutionists of all times, Lenin combined mastery of theory with shrewd political instinct. Although he attacked any theoretical revisionism or gradualism, he supported opportunistic compromises to further the establishment of socialism.


Lenin's voluminous writings and speeches are available in collected and selected English editions and in individual pamphlets. See also Memories of Lenin (1930) by N. K. Krupskaya (Lenin's wife); biographies by L. Trotsky (1925, repr. 1971) and R. Service (2000); A. B. Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks (1966); E. Kingson-Mann, Lenin and the Problem of Marxist Peasant Revolution (1983); A. G. Meyer, Leninism (1986); L. Schapiro and P. Reddaway, ed., Lenin (1987); P. LeBlanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (1989); R. Service, Lenin: A Political Life (1985); H. Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin In Exile (2010).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 18 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (January 18, 2017).

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved January 18, 2017 from

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich


Vladimir Ilyich Lenin founded the Russian Communist party and led the 1917 Russian Revolution, which placed the Bolshevik party in charge of the government. The establishment of the Soviet Union can be traced to Lenin's study of revolution and the ruthless imposition of a one-party state based on Lenin's interpretation of Marxism. The Russian Revolution also profoundly affected U.S. society and politics.

Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov on April 22, 1870, in Simbirsk, a town on the Volga River. The son of a government official, Lenin was a bright student. He entered Kazan University at Kazan in 1887. That same year his brother Alexander Ulyanov was hanged for taking part in an unsuccessful plot to kill Czar Alexander III, of Russia. Lenin was deeply influenced by his brother's actions. Within three months, he was expelled from school for protesting the lack of freedom in the university. He moved to St. Petersburg and entered St. Petersburg University, from which he graduated with a law degree in 1891.

During his academic period, Lenin studied the works of karl marx and his political philosophy, Marxism. In 1893 Lenin joined the Social Democratic group, which believed in Marxist principles. A gifted writer and speaker, Lenin soon traveled to Western Europe to meet with other Marxists. He was arrested by the czar's police in 1896 for revolutionary activities and sent into Siberian exile in 1897. During his exile Lenin wrote one of his most important works, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899).

Lenin was allowed to leave Russia in 1900. He traveled to Germany, where he began writing for a revolutionary newspaper called Zarya (Dawn), which was smuggled into Russia. He took the pen name Lenin at this time, hoping to confuse the police. In 1902 he wrote what is considered a masterpiece of revolutionary organization, What Is to Be Done? In this work Lenin advocated the use of a highly disciplined party of professional revolutionaries to lead the masses in an uprising against czarist Russia. This revolutionary party would serve as the "vanguard of the proletariat." It would also assume supreme control during this revolutionary period.

Disputes within Russian revolutionary circles over Lenin's ideas led to a split in 1903 between Lenin's Bolshevik party and the Menshevik party, which favored moderation. Bolsheviks followed Lenin's instructions to commit acts of terrorism within Russia. They also worked hard to organize trade union members and Russian sailors and soldiers.

During most of world war i, Lenin stayed in Switzerland. When revolution broke out in Russia in March 1917, Lenin returned with the aid of Germany, which hoped he would gain power and agree to a peace treaty. Accused of being a German agent by the provisional government, Lenin fled to Finland. He returned to Russia secretly in October 1917 and led the October Revolution, which toppled the provisional government and placed the Bolsheviks in charge.

Once in power Lenin moved quickly to eliminate all political opposition. He organized the Red Army (named after the color of the flag of the world Communist movement). The Red Army fought a civil war with the Whites, who opposed one-party and one-man rule by Lenin. The civil war ended in 1922, with the defeat of the White Army. During this period the U.S. government supported the Whites, fearing that the Russian Revolution was a prelude to further Communist revolutions in Europe. This fear seemed confirmed in 1919 when Lenin formed the Communist International to export revolution to the rest of the world.

In 1919 and 1920, U.S. anxiety about the Russian Revolution and the dictatorship of Lenin produced a national hysteria that has come to be known as the first red scare. President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general A. mitchell palmer created an antiradicalism unit and appointed j. edgar hoover to run it. In late 1919 and early 1920, Palmer raided suspected revolutionaries and subversives. Most of these suspects were not U.S. citizens. The largest "Palmer raid" occurred on January 2, 1920, when six thousand people were arrested. Palmer's agents abused the constitutional rights of these people, searching homes without warrants, holding individuals without giving specific charges, and refusing access to legal counsel. Many aliens were deported because of their radical political views.

Lenin's revolutionary zeal was tempered by the need to defeat the Whites and to establish a national government in the wake of the loss of lives and resources in World War I. Faced with economic ruin, Lenin instituted in March 1921 his New Economic Policy. This policy abandoned many socialist measures and permitted the growth of small businesses. Lenin also tried to get the United States and Europe to invest in the Soviet Union, but was refused because the Soviets had repudiated all foreign debts. The United States did, however, through its Commission for Relief, provide large amounts of food that may have helped save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Lenin's last years were marked by failing health and a concern about the direction of the Communist party and the Soviet Union. He worried about the increasing strength of the political bureaucracy and about Joseph Stalin's

plottings to succeed him. In May 1922 he suffered a stroke, then returned to work against his doctor's advice. He suffered additional strokes in November 1922 and March 1923, the last one destroying his ability to speak clearly. Lenin died January 24, 1924, physically unable to appoint his successor. His body was preserved using special chemicals and placed in a tomb on Red Square in Moscow.

further readings

Lenin, Vladimir. 1993. The State and Revolution. New York: Penguin.

Service, Robert. 2000. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.



Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . 18 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . (January 18, 2017).

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved January 18, 2017 from

Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch

Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch 1870-1924


Vladimir Ulianov was born in 1870, and in the 1890s he chose Lenin as his revolutionary pseudonym. Lenin formed the Bolshevik Party in 1903 and used it to conduct a Communist revolution in November 1917. As the first leader of the Soviet Union, he consolidated power and introduced a socialist system.

At a time when Western Marxists rapidly were deciding that socialist goals could be achieved through parliamentary action, Lenin firmly rejected Western democracy as a way of improving the lot of the workers. Conceding that workers were attracted to short-term economic gains, Lenin insisted in What Is to Be Done? (19011902) that a revolution was still possible by use of a tightly organized, centralized party that adhered strictly to orthodox Marxist ideas. Lenins party proved very popular among the ethnic Russian workers and peasants in central Russia who worked part-time in the cities. After the overthrow of the tsar in March 1917, he won majority support in the elections of the soviets of central Russian cities. In an election in late November 1917 he won only 25 percent of the vote in the nation. He lost the truly peasant areas (both Russian and non-Russian), but won a strong plurality in the major cities and the peasant population surrounding the cities in the northwest region of the country.

When a military coup failed in September 1917, Lenin drove his reluctant lieutenants to seize power on November 7, and he became head of government (chairman of the Council of Peoples Commissars). Yet, he had established the party as the major political instrument, and really ruled as chairman of the Central Committee and Politburo of the Communist Party.

Lenin had only five years to rule the Soviet Union before he was disabled by a stroke. The first three of these years were marked by civil war, and the next two by a desperate effort to restore the economy. These five years made it clear that Lenin was determined to establish a quite centralized political system. He banned other parties, strengthened central control over the Communist Party, and even created a Communist International (Comintern) to subordinate foreign Communist parties to Moscow.

The great mystery about Lenin concerns the type of socialist economic system he would have left in place if he had lived longer. He died at the age of 54, and he had only five years in power, three of them during a fierce civil war. His State and Revolution ([1918] 1993) combined an anarchic vision of the long-term future that embraced Marxs withering away of the state with a medium-range centralized view of an economy run by the state with the precision of a post office.

But when the civil war ended, Lenin introduced a New Economic Policy (NEP) that legalized private agriculture and trade in an effort to restore the economy. The question is whether he eventually would have established a state-directed economy, as Josef Stalin did in 1929, or whether he would have accepted a more mixed economy. No one knows, of course, but he did leave in place a highly centralized political system that Stalin could use to consolidate power and do with as he wished.

The major theoreticaland practicalcontribution of Lenin to Marxism was his insistence that a country could jump easily from feudalism to socialism where the bourgeoisie was weak and avoid the long capitalist stage of the West. In practice, this meant that such a revolution was possible in Russia. But in his Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin laid a broader theoretical base behind this theory. He argued that Western capitalism had postponed revolution by exploiting colonies and semi-colonies, and that this was so necessary to the survival of Western economies that the struggle for colonies led them to war. In this terrible war, the whole capitalist system would collapse around the world. This doctrine was called Marxism-Leninism, and Lenins anticolonial addition was a crucial element in making communism attractive in the Third World.

SEE ALSO Bolshevism; Bureaucracy; Capitalism; Communism; Imperialism; Leninism; Marxism; Oligarchy; Peasantry; Russian Revolution; Socialism; Stalin, Joseph; Trotsky, Leon; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


Lenin, V. I. [19011902] 1993. What Is to Be Done?: Burning Questions of Our Movement. New York: International Publishers.

Lenin, V. I. [1918] 1993. State and Revolution. London: Penguin.

Jerry Hough

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 18 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (January 18, 2017).

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 18, 2017 from


Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) (1870–1924) A Marxist theoretician and revolutionary, born in Russia, whose early life was characterized by a more or less orthodox Marxism. However, from the late 1890s he developed a distinctive interpretation of Marx's ideas which has since carried his name. His major works are The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), commonly held to be his most reputable scholarly piece, What is to be Done? (1902), Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), and State and Revolution (1917).

Much of his writing is of historical and partisan interest only. However, a number of his ideas have been debated by sociologists, most notably his thesis that labour movements (such as trade unions) are inevitably reformist, seeking only an accommodation with capitalism that improves the workers' lot, so that revolutionary activity on behalf of the proletariat requires the ‘vanguard’ of a revolutionary party. The Party will then impose a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, assist the workers to transcend their ‘trad-union consciousness’ by developing a true (revolutionary) class consciousness, and so eliminate the intra-class divisions (‘working-class sectionalism’) that undermines the development of communism. A historical application of this thesis to the class struggles in nineteenth-century Britain ( J. Foster , Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution, 1974
) has provoked a heated debate about the nature of the so-called labour aristocracy in early capitalism.

Lenin also offered an influential analysis of imperialism; a model of ‘democratic centralism’, in which lower party and state organizations were accountable to higher ones, with authority resting at the centre in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat; and a theory of ‘uneven development’ which challenged the notion that the transition from traditional society to modernization is via a smooth and unilinear trajectory. All of these have been debated well beyond the confines of Marxist intellectual circles.

Lenin was the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and, until his early death from a stroke, the leading politician in the new USSR. Whether everything that flowed out of that revolution finds its origins in Leninism–his particular marriage of revolutionary commitment, Marxist theory, and Russian reality–is still an open (and much debated) question. A useful short introduction to his life and work is Robert Conquest's Lenin (1972).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lenin." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 18 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Lenin." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (January 18, 2017).

"Lenin." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved January 18, 2017 from

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich (1870–1924) Russian revolutionary. He evolved a revolutionary doctrine, based principally on Marxism, in which he emphasized the need for a vanguard party to lead the revolution. In 1900, Lenin went abroad and founded what became the Bolsheviks (1903). After the first part of the Russian Revolution of 1917, he returned to Russia. He denounced the liberal republican government of Kerensky and demanded armed revolt. After the Bolshevik revolution (November 1917), Lenin became leader of the first Soviet government. He withdrew Russia from World War I, and totally reorganized government and economy. He founded the third Communist International in 1919. In 1921, the New Economic Policy (NEP) marked a return to a mixed economy. In 1922, he headed the newly formed Soviet Union. In 1923 a new constitution established the supremacy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Lenin's authority was unchallenged until he was crippled by a stroke in 1922. After his death, a struggle ensued between Trotsky and Stalin.;

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich." World Encyclopedia. . 18 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich." World Encyclopedia. . (January 18, 2017).

"Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved January 18, 2017 from


Lenin •tannin •antivenin, Lenin •Kalinin • linen • bedlinen •underlinen • feminine •Cronin, phone-in, ronin, serotonin •Bakunin • run-in • melanin • santonin •crankpin • backspin • hatpin •tenpin • hairpin • tailspin • wheelspin •Crippen, pippin •stickpin • kingpin • Crispin • linchpin •tiepin • topspin • clothespin •lupin, lupine •pushpin • terrapin • Turpin • Karin •chagrin • aspirin • Catrin • Kathryn •Gagarin •Erin, Perrin, serin •Sanhedrin • epinephrine • dextrin •brethren • Montenegrin • pyrethrin •peregrine •Corin, florin, foreign •doctrine • sovereign • Aldrin •Paludrine • murrain •Kirin, stearin •Lohengrin •burin, urine •tambourin • mandarin • warfarin •saccharin, saccharine •tamarin • Catherine •navarin, savarin •culverin • Mazarin

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lenin." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 18 Jan. 2017 <>.

"Lenin." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (January 18, 2017).

"Lenin." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved January 18, 2017 from