Lenin, Vladimir (1870–1924)

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LENIN, VLADIMIR (1870–1924)


Russian revolutionary and founder of the USSR.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) was born in the provincial capital of Simbirsk, located on the Volga River. His father, Ilya Ulyanov, worked for the tsarist government as a school inspector. The Ulyanov family was thus part of the professional middle class, although technically it was enrolled in the gentry or dvorianstvo. In 1887, after Ilya Ulyanov's death, there occurred an event that marked the Ulyanov family forever: Vladimir's older brother Alexander was executed for organizing an attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander III (whose father had been assassinated by revolutionaries in 1881).

A few years later, around 1890, Vladimir adopted the political faith—"revolutionary Social Democracy"—to which he remained faithful for the rest of his life. Arrested in St. Petersburg in 1895, he was sent into internal exile in Siberia. While in Siberia, Lenin married his lifelong companion, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and developed his plan for a nationwide underground revolutionary newspaper.

As soon as he was released from exile, Lenin went abroad and carried out his newspaper plan with the help of distinguished Marxist revolutionaries from the older generation—particularly Georgy Plekhanov, the person most responsible for introducing Marx-based Social Democracy to Russia in the 1880s and 1890s—as well as revolutionaries from his own generation, such as Yuli Martov, later a leader of the Mensheviks, who opposed Lenin within Russian Social Democracy. The first issue of Iskra (The spark) appeared in late 1900 and owed much of its success to the growing revolutionary crisis in Russia that in a few years led to a cataclysmic explosion in the revolution of 1905. The pseudonym "N. Lenin" was first used during the Iskra period.

The Iskra group itself soon fell apart, with Lenin becoming the leader of the Bolshevik faction and the other members of the Iskra editorial board leading the Mensheviks. These two factions rapidly became separate political organizations uneasily coexisting within the framework of Russian Social Democracy.

The differences between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were temporarily submerged during the 1905 revolution. The meager results of the revolution and the very limited opportunity for independent political activity again exacerbated those differences, and by the time of the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the two factions had become separate parties. The years from 1906 to 1912 were depressing ones for Lenin, who spent them involved in various émigré squabbles and in trying to preserve a semblance of a viable, nationwide underground organization. Only in 1912 did a new wave of militancy among Russian workers provide support for Lenin's continued insistence that the Russian anti-tsarist revolution was not dead, but sleeping.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 opened up a new chapter in Lenin's political career, shifting his focus from Russia alone to a Europe-wide and even worldwide revolution. Lenin was devastated by the support given by the major Social Democratic parties to the war effort of their respective governments. His political activity now concentrated on two goals: creating a new international organization of truly revolutionary socialist parties and "turning the world war into an international civil war"—that is, turning the clash between nation-states into a worker-led socialist revolution against capitalism.

For the first three years of the war, Lenin's position seemed hopelessly quixotic to most observers, but this perception rapidly changed when the tsarist system collapsed in early 1917. By the end of the year, the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia at Lenin's insistence and surprised everybody (including themselves) by surviving a devastating civil war and foreign intervention, relying on ruthless repression, governmental improvisation, and passionate support from party members and sympathizers.

Russia's titanic civil war began to wind down only in 1920–1921. By this time, the country was prostrate and on the edge of total collapse. Lenin had realized one of his two goals of 1914. He had founded the Third or Communist International (the name "Social Democracy" was rejected as irrevocably tainted by the betrayal of 1914). But he was forced to admit that his other goal—Europe-wide socialist revolution—was not going to happen in the short term. He therefore instituted in 1921 the New Economic Policy, or NEP, under which capitalist forces (both small-scale domestic entrepreneurs and large-scale foreign entrepreneurs) were allowed to make economic gains while the new system consolidated itself.

NEP was only a stopgap measure that delayed the tough decisions about how to build socialism in a devastated, isolated Russia. Lenin did not live long enough to make any of these decisions. He suffered his first stroke in early 1922 and by the end of the year was no longer able to function as head of state or party. His last writings date from January 1923. Lenin died in January 1924. His body was embalmed and put on display in a mausoleum in Moscow, where it still resided as of 2006.


Lenin spent only the last six years of a thirty-year political career in power. Probably no earlier world leader came into office with a more elaborate political doctrine, defended with tenacity over decades.

When Lenin acquired his political identity as a "revolutionary Social Democrat" in the early 1890s, he was inspired not so much by a doctrine as by a movement—the European Social Democratic parties that seemed to combine a mass base with genuine revolutionary fervor. The flagship of international Social Democracy was the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The SPD strove to inculcate what its historian Vernon Lidtke has called an "alternative culture," using a vast array of agitation and propaganda devices, ranging from an extensive party press to choral societies and bicycle clubs.

The SPD derived its self-understanding from Marx's world-historical scenario, in which the proletariat took political power as a class in order to introduce socialism. The working class therefore had to be sufficiently enlightened about its true interest and sufficiently well organized to accomplish its assigned mission. This revolutionary payoff was the ultimate aim of the SPD's "alternative culture." The whole SPD strategy depended on the existence of a modicum of political freedom: freedom of speech, of assembly, of association. Karl Kautsky, the most authoritative theoretician of Social Democracy, wrote that anyone who downgraded the importance of political freedom for the proletariat was one of its worst enemies. Thus Russian Social Democracy, in contrast to earlier Russian revolutionaries, gave urgent priority to a nonsocialist democratic revolution that would replace tsarist absolutism with a constitutional system.

But the achievement of political freedom in Russia lay in the future, and for the present Social Democracy could only exist in Russia as an illegal underground organization. Was anything that remotely approached the SPD strategy of energetic mass agitation conceivable under these circumstances? An affirmative answer required some heroic assumptions about the Russian proletariat's receptivity to the Social Democratic message and about the ability of underground activists to create and sustain a viable nationwide organizational structure despite constant government repression. Among Russian Social Democrats, Lenin stood out for the fervor with which he defended the most optimistic assumptions about the validity of a mass underground movement.

In What Is to Be Done?, his famous book of 1902, Lenin asserted that the Social Democratic message had to be brought "from without" to the workers. According to a superficial reading, this assertion shows that Lenin was greatly worried about the revolutionary inclinations of the workers. In actuality, it was part of Lenin's highly optimistic argument that the message could be brought to the workers and that the workers would enthusiastically respond to the message, despite all the obstacles put up by tsarist absolutism.

Lenin's political program at this time can thus be summed up as: Let us build a party as much like the SPD as possible under underground conditions so that we can overthrow the tsar and become even more like the SPD. His political strategy for Russia was based on the question: What nonsocialist forces in Russia will help us ensure that the upcoming revolution will result in the fullest possible establishment of political freedom? In Lenin's view, the elite middle class would be satisfied with a fairly meager set of freedoms that would allow elite groups room to maneuver but would severely hamper SPD-like activity by the Social Democrats. The peasants, on the other hand, due to their land hunger, would accept Social Democracy's campaign for a radically democratic republic. In doctrinal terms, this strategy was labeled "proletarian hegemony in the democratic revolution."

In the first two decades of his career, Lenin focused on importing Western models to Russia. In the last decade, after the traumatic betrayal by Western Social Democratic parties in 1914, he focused on importing Russian models to the West. This change of focus did not signify a rejection of his earlier beliefs. On the contrary, Lenin saw himself as the one who stayed faithful to what Social Democrats had always stood for, even when deserted by "renegades" such as Kautsky.

Four Russian experiences informed the model that Lenin now set up as authoritative on a world scale. The first was his decision in 1912 to create a party without "opportunists," that is, anyone who might be tempted to substitute reform for revolution (in practical terms, without Mensheviks, who certainly saw themselves as revolutionaries). After the betrayal of 1914, Lenin felt that such opportunist-free parties were necessary everywhere. The second Russian experience was the experiment with "soviet democracy" that first took place in the 1905 revolution and later in the 1917 revolution. The soviets were improvised elected councils that took on leadership functions during times of mass upheaval. Lenin argued that the soviets represented a new form of "proletarian democracy" that was higher than ordinary parliamentary democracy.

The third Russian experience was the nationwide process of social breakdown and political radicalization that brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917. Lenin tended to define the situation faced by other Communist parties (for example, in Germany and Great Britain) in the same terms, resulting in some dubious tactical advice. The fourth Russian experience was the devastating civil war that followed the 1917 revolution, accompanied by openly dictatorial methods. Lenin and other Bolsheviks such as Nikolai Bukharin now generalized this experience and argued that any profound socialist revolution would lead to a similar episode of economic and political breakdown.


From 1917 on, Lenin's biography is essentially a political history of Soviet Russia. Here we will list some of the major turning points for which Lenin was directly responsible. The first of these was the decision of the Bolshevik Party to take power in late 1917. The first Bolshevik government was authorized by a national congress of representatives from local soviets, but within a year the electoral soviet system had atrophied and all other parties were outlawed or barely tolerated, leaving the Bolsheviks with a permanent one-party dictatorship. This process is hardly conceivable without Lenin's driving participation, although it remains unclear to what extent Lenin's hand was forced by the profound tensions of civil war.

Another crucial decision was the signing of a separate peace with Germany, as ratified by the Brest-Litovsk treaty in early 1918. While this decision gave the new government some breathing space, it also profoundly alienated revolutionaries both at home and abroad, as well as Russia's former allies. The treaty also risked turning Soviet Russia into a satellite of imperial Germany, but this gamble paid off when the German state collapsed in late 1918. Despite the Brest-Litovsk treaty, Lenin did not lose faith in the short-term prospects of world revolution until mid-1919, particularly owing to the failure of the soviet-style revolution in Hungary. After mid-1919, Lenin's political calculations had to be made on the assumption of an isolated socialist Russia.

Another crucial decision in which Lenin played a central role was to establish an effective Red Army based on peasant recruits and tsarist officers, held together by committed party members who served as "political commissars." The same type of adoption and adaptation of "bourgeois" models occurred in the civilian state and the economy. Lenin and the Bolsheviks are sometimes said to have deceived themselves that Russia was about to take a "leap into communism" even amid the ruins of civil war Russia. Not only is this assertion without foundation but it distracts attention from the truly unexpected process of creative imitation that gave rise to many permanent features of the Soviet state.

Lenin was also responsible for the decision to adopt the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921. This decision was less of a profound turning point than it is often said to be. NEP was a pragmatic although risky relaxation of pressure on the economy in the aftermath of the economic and military emergency of the previous years. The risks inherent in this relaxation of pressure are often overlooked because the gamble paid off, but the threat of renewed military intervention or internal economic collapse remained real enough.

Looking back in 1921, Lenin felt that the basic cause of Bolshevik victory in the civil war was grudging but ultimately decisive support from peasants who saw the Bolsheviks as a bulwark against the armies mounted by dispossessed landowners. Looking ahead, Lenin sketched out yet another scenario in which the peasants would accept the leadership of the proletariat (as organized and represented by the Bolshevik Party). This time, proletarian leadership consisted in showing the economic superiority of socialism over the market. Lenin coined the phrase "who-whom" (kto kovo) to explain this strategy: Who would win out over whom in gaining the economic loyalty of the peasants—the socialist workers or the capitalists? (Ironically, the phrase kto kovo, coined to explain the logic of NEP, is often used as a symbol of the hard-line and repressive aspect of Lenin's outlook.)


In a book published in 1930, the American journalist W. H. Chamberlin wrote that "boundless hatred for the capitalist system and its upholders, boundless faith in the right and the ability of the working class to dominate a new social order—these were certainly the two dominant passions of Lenin's strong and simple character." This comment brings us closer to the truth than the commonly accepted version of Lenin as someone who profoundly mistrusted the revolutionary inclinations of the workers. Rather, both his successes and his failures were based on his bedrock assumption that the workers were rapidly moving toward an acceptance of the world-historical mission assigned to them by the epic narrative of Marxism. Lenin's ultimate loyalty was to this doctrinal narrative.

Lenin is regarded as the founder of bolshevism, and this description can hardly be gainsaid. But even here we should not imagine Lenin creating a political faction ex nihilo. There existed currents among the Social Democratic praktiki (underground activists in Russia itself) who felt that Lenin was the voice among the émigrés that best expressed their problems and aspirations. As one of those young praktiki, Iosif Dzhugashvili (Stalin), wrote later, Lenin's writings in the 1902–1904 period "completely corresponded to Russian reality and generalized in masterly fashion the organizational experience of the best praktiki. "

Neither Lenin nor the people around him (prior to his death and the beginnings of the Lenin cult) believed in the existence of "Leninism," that is, profoundly new theoretical innovations. Rather they saw him as a great political tactician, someone who could give the party political and organizational orientation by applying the basic doctrine to concrete situations.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, archival documents were published that brought out the callous and ruthless side of Lenin, particularly during the civil war. In fact, this side of Lenin can be amply illustrated by material available many years earlier. But Lenin's willingness to countenance massive loss of life for political goals does not particularly distinguish him from other statesmen of the World War I period. The difference is rather that most other statesmen imposed sacrifices in the name of the nation-state, while Lenin did so in the name of class war and socialist revolution.

By the time of Lenin's death, the Soviet Union was a one-party dictatorship with a minimum of political freedom. To equate this system with the excesses of the Stalin era or even to draw a straight and unproblematic line of development from one to the other betrays a lack of understanding of what Stalin was all about. The key case is Stalin's violent campaign to impose collectivization on the peasants. For Lenin and for all other Marxists of his generation, the use of violence to impose new production relations was unthinkable. Lenin's most eloquent tirades on this theme come from the civil war period (many people believe that Lenin sanctioned such violence during so-called War Communism and only retreated from this hard line during NEP).

Lenin did employ violence to extract resources from the peasants during the civil war, as indeed did all the warring governments opposing the Bolsheviks. Precisely because of this pressure, he halted any effort to revolutionize production relations in agriculture. Both during the civil war and NEP, the basic strategy for changing production relations was demonstrating to the peasants the economic advantages of socialism, on the assumption that this process would span an entire historical era—and not, as in Stalin's collectivization campaign, a matter of months.

Early twenty-first-century efforts to portray the Lenin and Stalin eras as merely two phases in one "war against the peasants" fail in the light of these facts. Nevertheless there are other threads that do connect Lenin and Stalin. The Soviet system can be described as "the SPD model minus political freedom"—that is, reliance on an SPD-like campaign to inculcate an alternative culture, but now in the context of a state monopoly on all forms of expression. Paradoxically, the man who for many years fought for political freedom for Russia now ensured the entire absence of any social checks and balances that might have prevented the country's descent into state-induced hysteria.

Lenin's responsibility for Stalin resides less in any plans that he bequeathed than in the absence of any coherent strategy for responding to the inevitable dilemmas ahead. His gamble on world revolution had failed. His gamble on "the economic advantages of socialism" soon ran into serious trouble. His flailing attempts at the end of his life to address the problems created by political monopoly were superficial.

Lenin is perhaps the key figure in the transformation of nineteenth-century politics into twentieth-century politics. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 constituted a challenge to the "bourgeois" certainties of European civilization, thus providing the framework for the major conflicts of the ensuing decades. The new "Communist International" and its successors were responsible for some of the most powerful political institutions of the century (as well as for many botched and clumsy failures). The political system described earlier as "the SPD model minus political freedom" was influential far beyond the communist movement. No simple formula can do justice to Lenin's odyssey from provincial Russian Social Democrat to world leader and founder of communism.

See alsoBolshevism; Communism; Russian Revolutions of 1917; Stalin, Joseph; Trotsky, Leon .


Primary Sources

Fyson, George, ed. Lenin's Final Fight: Speeches and Writings, 1922–23. New York, 1995. Speeches and writings from Lenin's final period.

Krupskaya, Nadezhda. Reminiscences of Lenin. New York, 1960. Classic memoir account by Lenin's wife.

Lenin V. I. Collected Works. Moscow, 1960–1970. Lenin's complete works made available in English by the Soviet government.

——. Neizvestnye dokumenty, 1891–1922. Moscow, 1999. New documents from the archives. The English-language edition of some of these documents by Richard Pipes (The Unknown Lenin, New Haven, Conn., 1996) cannot be recommended due to manifold errors and strained interpretations.

Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Lenin Anthology. New York, 1975. A well-chosen selection of writings from Lenin's entire career.

Secondary Sources

Chamberlin, William Henry. Soviet Russia. Boston, 1930. A description of Soviet Russia just prior to Stalin's revolution by a veteran American journalist.

Donald, Moira. Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists, 1900–1924. London, 1993. Shows the intense interaction between German and Russian Social Democracy.

Lewin, Moshe. Lenin's Last Struggle. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York, 1968. Argues that Lenin sketched out new perspectives in his final period.

Lidtke, Vernon L. The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany. Oxford, U.K., 1985. A classic study of the SPD model.

Lih, Lars T. Lenin Rediscovered: "What Is to Be Done?" in Context. Leiden, Netherlands, 2005.

Tucker, Robert C. Political Culture and Leadership in Soviet Russia: From Lenin to Gorbachev. New York, 1987. See particularly the article "Lenin's Bolshevism as a Culture in the Making."

Lars T. Lih