Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich (1870–1924)

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Lenin was a Marxist revolutionary, Russian Communist political leader, and major contributor to the philosophy of dialectical materialism. Although his mentor Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov is considered the father of Russian Marxism, Lenin's distinctive version of the doctrine (later dubbed Marxism-Leninism ) was considered authoritative by the Soviet Communist leadership and had an immense impact on Russia and the world through most of the twentieth century.


Lenin was born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov into the family of a well-to-do school official in Simbirsk, Russia. He enrolled in the University of Kazan in 1887, the same year his elder brother Alexander was executed for involvement in a plot to kill Tsar Alexander III. Lenin was soon expelled from the university for taking part in student disturbances, but he gained admission to the University of St. Petersburg as an external student and in 1892 graduated with a degree in law. His activity in Marxist and other radical circles, beginning in 1888 in Kazan and Samara and continuing in St. Petersburg from 1893, led to his imprisonment in 1895, followed by banishment to eastern Siberia in 1897. Allowed to leave Siberia in 1900, he promptly fled to western Europe. For most of the next seventeen years he worked in various locations outside Russia, writing and conspiring with fellow Russian Marxists to promote the overthrow of the tsarist regime in their homeland.

From the time of the formation of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1898, Lenin worked tirelessly to gain control of the group and mold it into a militant Marxist revolutionary force. His ideas and aggressive political tactics brought him into bitter conflict with other leading Russian Marxists, including Plekhanov, but eventually his Bolshevik faction of the party became dominant (the Russian term bol'shevik means a member of the majority) and in continuing intraparty struggles he consolidated his position as both a theoretician and a leader. After the February Revolution of 1917 he was able, with the help of German military authorities, to travel to Petrograd, where in the October Revolution he led the Bolsheviks in seizing control of the Russian government. In power for six stormy years, marked by attempted assassination, civil war, famine, and the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Lenin suffered a series of strokes beginning in 1922 and died in January 1924.

Philosophical Writings

Lenin's philosophical activity extended from his student days to the Bolshevik revolution, and throughout this period its character was determined by his dogmatic materialism and his devotion to the theory and practice of Marxist social reconstruction as he understood it. His writings are strongly polemical in style, exemplifying the Leninist concept of partiinost (partisanship, party spirit) in philosophy.

Lenin first studied the writings of Karl Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels systematically in 1888 and 1889. One of his earliest works, What the "Friends of the People" Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats (1894)directed against the Russian Populists, such as Nikolai Mikhailovskyshows Lenin's general acceptance of dialectical materialism, the materialist conception of history, and the characteristic concepts of Marxist socialism. The distinctively Leninist element already evident is the strong emphasis on action, on the need to combine theory with revolutionary practice. Lenin asserted that the objective, necessary character of the laws of social change in no way destroys the role of active individuals in history. Thus, unlike those Marxists who feared that Russia was not sufficiently developed for a socialist revolution, Lenin stressed the need for expeditiously organizing the revolution, focusing on the proletariat (not the peasantry) as the leading revolutionary class. This activist approach was carried further in subsequent writings, chiefly What Is to Be Done? (1902)the first work in which he used the pseudonym Lenin )and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904). In both of these works Lenin elaborated the need for a clandestine, militant, centralized, highly disciplined party to unify and direct the proletariat.

Lenin's book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909)the principal philosophical work published during his lifetimeis directed against a group of Russian writers, including Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, who attempted to supplement Marxism with the phenomenalistic positivism of Richard Avenarius and Ernst Mach. Characterizing their position as a form of subjective idealism (and thus as inimical to Marxism), Lenin defended dialectical materialism on the chief points at issue, particularly the status and character of matter and the nature of knowledge. Opposing the view that matter is a construct of sensations, Lenin argued that it is ontologically primary, existing independently of consciousness. Likewise, space and time are not subjective modes of ordering experience but objective forms of the existence of matter. Opposing the view that discoveries of modern science cast doubt on the objectivity of matter, Lenin distinguished between scientific conceptions of matter, which are provisional and relative because no constituent of a material thing can be regarded as indivisible or irreducible, and the philosophical conception, according to which matter is simply the objective reality known to our senses. The only property of matter to which philosophical materialism is committed, according to Lenin, is the property of existing objectively. In epistemology, Lenin opposed the so-called hieroglyph theory of Plekhanov, according to which sensations are signs of an external reality that they do not necessarily resemble, and developed a strictly realist position, the copy theory, according to which sensations depict or mirror the real world. On this basis Lenin defended the possibility of objective truth, emphasizing practical experience as its test.

Dialectics, which Lenin had long considered the heart of Marxism, is treated most fully in Philosophical Notebooks (1933), a posthumous compilation of notebook entries and fragments dating chiefly from 1914 to 1916, including his extracts from, and comments on, a number of works by other thinkers, above all Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Science of Logic. Lenin showed a high regard for the Hegelian dialectic, which he found thoroughly compatible with materialism, and he asserted that dialectics, logic, and the theory of knowledge are identical. In his conception of dialectics Lenin departed from Engels in laying the greatest stress not on the transition from quantity to quality but on the struggle of opposing (contradictory) forces or tendencies within every natural object and process; Lenin saw this struggle as the internal basis of all change, and thus as the core of dialectics.

Lenin's last major works are concerned mainly with economic and political aspects of the revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) he argued that capitalism had reached its final, monopolistic phase and was ripe for overthrow, but that, because of the uneven development of capitalism in different countries, socialism would not triumph in all or most countries simultaneously, as Marx had expected. In State and Revolution (1918), directed against the supposed opportunism of Marxist rivals such as Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky, Lenin elaborated on the Marxist thesis that the state is an instrument of class domination. He laid special stress on a number of points not fully developed by Marx or Engels: One was the need for shattering the bourgeois state machinery and establishing a proletarian state or dictatorship of the proletariat, and another was the distinction between the lower phase of communism, in which people are rewarded in proportion to the work they perform and the state is still needed to repress remnants of the former exploiting classes, and the higher phase, in which rewards are proportional to peoples' needs and the state will wither away because all class antagonisms have been eliminated.


Throughout the twentieth-century Communist world (including China), Lenin was regarded as a philosophical luminary of the first magnitude. In the Soviet philosophical pantheon, he was considered the greatest thinker in history after Marx. Formal education in philosophy in Russia under Communist rule was structured on the premise that Lenin's pronouncements were beyond criticism; his writings were published in vast editions in all major and many minor languages, making him the most widely published philosophical thinker of the twentieth century. In one sense he was also the most influential: Although his conceptual contributions to the development of philosophy as an intellectual discipline were negligible, his ideas provided the impetus and the rationale for policies that materially and often tragically affected the lives of millions of people.

The attack on Stalinism begun by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 did not immediately disturb the cult of Lenin, whose principles Joseph Stalin was said to have betrayed, not implemented. With the introduction of perestroika in the mid-1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev, however, significant responsibility for the flaws and evils of the Soviet system was traced back to Lenin himself; in particular, his theory of imperialism and his fixation on class antagonisms to the neglect of common human interests and moral values were criticized at the highest levels. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, the Communist Party lost political power and Lenin's philosophical authority all but evaporated in Russia and the former Soviet bloc. Thereafter, educational curricula in Russia and Eastern Europe were reworked to eliminate the vestiges of Marxism-Leninism, and the publication of Lenin's writings ceased.

See also Communism; Dialectical Materialism; Engels, Friedrich; Marxist Philosophy; Russian Philosophy.


Harding, Neil. Lenin's Political Thought. 2 vols. New York: St. Martin's, 19771981.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth, and Dissolution. Vol. 2: The Golden Age. Translated by P. S. Falla. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilich. Collected Works. 45 vols. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 19601970.

Reference Index to V. I. Lenin, Collected Works. 2 vols. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 19781980.

Scanlan, James P. Marxism in the USSR: A Critical Survey of Current Soviet Thought. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Service, Robert. Lenin: A Political Life. 3 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 19851995.

Wetter, Gustav A. Dialectical Materialism: A Historical and Systematic Survey of Philosophy in the Soviet Union. Translated by Peter Heath. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.

Wolfe, Bertram D. Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History. 4th rev. ed. New York: Dell, 1964.

James P. Scanlan (1967, 2005)