Lenine: The Man and His Beliefs

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Lenine: The Man and His Beliefs

Magazine article

By: "A Russian Social Worker"

Date: January 1918

Source: A Russian Social Worker. "Lenine: The Man and His Beliefs." Current History 7 (January 1918): 14–18.

About the Author: Current History claims to be the oldest U.S. publication devoted exclusively to world affairs. It was founded by the New York Times in 1914 to provide detailed coverage of World War I. "A Russian Social Worker" is a pseudonym taken by the writer to preserve anonymity in the dangerous political climate in Russia in 1918.


Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov (Lenin) was the leader of the Bolshevik movement and would lead this small Marxist party to power in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. In doing so he established his brand of Marxist rule in Russia and laid the basis for seven decades of Soviet Communism.

Born into a middle class family in Simbirsk in 1870, Lenin trained and briefly practiced as a lawyer, although he spent most of his life as a professional revolutionary. Indeed, Lenin had revolutionary antecedents. His older brother, Alexander, was executed when Lenin was a teenager for his part in a plot to murder Tsar Alexander III in 1887. Lenin later claimed that this event instilled in him a deep hatred of the Russian royal family and committed him to the revolutionary cause.

Lenin did not become involved in revolutionary politics until the early 1890s when he was a young lawyer and began studying the works of Karl Marx (1818–1883). As was the case with many political texts at the time in Russia, Marx's work was illegal and Lenin was arrested in 1895 and sentenced to exile in Siberia. It was during his Siberian exile that Lenin decided to devote his life to furthering the cause of Marxism. Living in spartan conditions, he spent much of his time studying Marxist texts and working on his own interpretations, many of which were published secretly in Russia and other countries in the late 1890s. He left Russia with his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya and for nearly two decades lived in a variety of European cities.

Freed from the censorship and persecution of the Tsarist regime, Lenin became a prolific and, within his own circles, high-profile writer and speaker, promoting his own interpretation of Marxism. He co-founded a Russian-language newspaper, Iskra (the Spark), which was sold in émigré communities across Europe. In these émigré communities, Lenin found a small, but dedicated, following of intellectuals and fellow revolutionaries, such as Leon Trotsky (1879–1940). Ironically, most of them—like Lenin himself—were from the sort of "petit-bourgeoisie" backgrounds that he fulminated against.

In 1902, Lenin wrote What Is To Be Done? Although it wasn't recognized as such at the time, this became his seminal text. In it, he wrote that the ultimate goal of Marxism was complete freedom, but this could only be attained through a rigidly disciplined party. He criticized the lack of discipline among his fellow revolutionaries, saying that no fundamental changes to society could be attained while dissent and controversy raged within their ranks. Marx's dream was a society governed by a dictatorship of the proletariat, with the workers ruling over the old order. When Lenin's revolution took place in 1917, an opposite social order was, in fact, established, with a dictatorship ruling over the proletariat. Lenin claimed that this was a temporary measure, but it became the defining characteristic of Marxism-Leninism.

When revolution erupted in Russia in February and October 1917, it was seen as the test case of European socialism and Marxism. Lenin's comrades across Europe leapt to congratulate the hero of what seemed like the first successful socialist revolution and the beginning of a new world order. Left-leaning newspapers, magazines, and journals published hagiographic and eulogizing profiles of the new Russian leader.


More than one clue to the meaning of the Bolshevist upheaval in Russia is to be found in the life of Lenine, its leading spirit. Until a few weeks ago it did not matter very much who Lenine was, or what his ideas were, but when soldiers, workmen, and peasants have suddenly translated him to the highest office in the land, it becomes important that the facts of his career should be known.

The question whether or not Lenine is a tool of the German Government may be left unanswered for the present. He undoubtedly received facilities from the German Government to return to Russia from Switzerland immediately after the revolution in March, but what motive prompted the German authorities to pick an archenemy of all autocracies for such a privilege is something of a mystery. Certainly, Lenine's previous career does not suggest him as very pliable material for German intrigue.

Nikolai Lenine was born at Simbirsk, in Central Russia, in the year 1870, and he is thus now 47 years of age. His real name is Vladimir Ilitch Ulyanov, and Lenine is only one of the several aliases which he, like other revolutionists, has found it necessary to adopt at various times. A son of a Government official employed in the Department of Public Instruction, Lenine received his preliminary education in his home town. In his early twenties he went to Petrograd to continue his studies in the political science department of the Petrograd University. Here he at once became affiliated with a group of radical students who took an active interest in the political and social problems of the day.

His brother, A. Ulyanov, also a student of the same university, was already a member of the Populist Party (Narodniki) which secretly advocated violence against the existing authorities as one of the means of bringing about the abolitions of autocracy. In 1887 this brother was arrested, and charged with participation in a "terrorist" plot to wreck the imperial train carrying Alexander III. After a secret trial and without many preliminaries he was condemned to death and was hanged shortly thereafter. Lenine was also arrested at the time, but was released, as there was no evidence found against him. This arrest, however, caused his expulsion from the university.


At this time the Russian Social-Democratic movement was still in its infancy. Underground propaganda and organizing were carried on among factory employees by the enlightened and idealistic intelligentsia pledged to the "cause." It was then that Lenine spent his Sundays in a circle of uneducated workmen, explaining to them the elements of Socialist economies and the fundaments of the teachings of Karl Marx.…

Because of his socialist activities Lenine was compelled to leave Russia on several occasions. Switzerland, France, and Austria were the countries of his temporary domicile. From these foreign posts he directed the work of one of the factions of the Social-Democratic Party, developing a leadership of great power and initiative.…

A direct actionist, Lenine believed in the seizure of political power by means of a violent revolution and in establishing a proletarian government. Then only, he held, could there be accomplished an economic readjustment of the country, bringing with it a more equitablesocial order. Also, as a thorough Marxian, he had utmost faith in the ultimate triumph of the proletariat.

After the revolution of 1905 and the reaction that followed, the Lenine faction dwindled down to but a few émigrés and it seemed as if Bolshevism was destined to die out. But in 1911–12, when the spell of the reaction began to break up, and when, with the awakening, a new spirit began to permeate the political and social life of Russia, a sudden impetus to renewed activities was given to the Bolsheviki. This may also be explained by the fact that the leaders of this faction were the first to understand the momentous significance of this national resurrection. They immediately set to work, and the first Socialist daily paper, Pravda, (the Truth,) was one of the results of their efforts. Undoubtedly this daily has exercised considerable influence upon the working masses who rallied to it and gave it their whole-hearted support. Since then there has been a gradual growth of Bolshevism in the industrial centres of Russia under the intellectual guidance and leadership of Lenine. The movement gained in strength from year to year. As early as in 1913 the Bolsheviki sent six representatives to the Duma.

At the outbreak of the war in 1914 Lenine was in Cracow, at that time the headquarters of the organizations which directed the revolutionary movement in Russia. It should be remembered that Lenine, like other revolutionary leaders, was compelled to live in exile. The Austrian authorities immediately arrested him on suspicion of being a Russian spy, but as he was easily able to prove that he had no connection with the Czar's Government, he was released and permitted to go to Switzerland, where he remained until March, 1917. The news of the successful revolution caused him to endeavor to return to Russia and the German Government gave him the necessary permission to pass through Germany.


On his arrival in Petrograd, Lenine gathered together his followers and began the agitation in favor of the Bolshevist program. This program was outlined by Lenine in a remarkable statement which in the light of recent events has become an important document for the understanding of the situation. According to this statement, the chief groupings of political parties in Russia are:

  1. The representatives of the feudal landholders and the more conservative sections of the bourgeoisie.
  2. The Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) and other liberal groups representing the majority of the bourgeoisie, that is, the captains of industry and those landholders who have industrial interests.
  3. The Socialist groups which represent the small entrepreneurs, small middle-class proprietors, more or less well-to-do peasants, petite bourgeoisie, as well as those workers who have submitted to a bourgeois point of view.
  4. The Bolsheviki, who ought properly to be called the Communist Party, which is at present termed the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party, and which represents class-conscious workers, day laborers, and the poorer strata of peasantry, which are grouped with them as the semi-proletariat.


The Bolshevist platform, as outlined by Lenine, reads as follows:

The councils of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Delegates must at once take every practicable and feasible step for the realization of the Socialist program.

The Bolsheviki demand a republic of the Councils or Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Delegates: abolition of the standing army and the police, substituting for them an armed people; officials to be not only elected but also subject to recall and their pay not to exceed that of a good worker.

Sole authority must be in the hands of the Councils of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Delegates. There must be no dual authority.

No support should be given to the Provisional Government. The whole of the people must be prepared for the complete and sole authority of the Councils of the Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Delegates.

A constituent assembly should be called as soon as possible, but it is necessary to increase the members and strengthen the power of the Councils of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Delegates by organizing and arming the masses.

A police force of the conventional type and a standing army are absolutely unnecessary. Immediately and unconditionally a universal army of the people should be introduced, so that they and the militia and the army shall be an integral whole. Capitalists must pay the workers for their days of service in the militia.


Officers must not only be elected, but every step of every officer and General must be subject to control by special soldiers' committees.

The arbitrary removal by the soldiers of their superior officers is in every respect indispensable. The soldiers will obey only the powers of their own choice; they can respect no others.

The Bolsheviki are absolutely opposed to all imperialist wars and to all bourgeois Governments which make them, among them our own Provisional Government. The Bolsheviki are absolutely opposed to "revolutionary defense" in Russia.

The Bolsheviki are against the predatory international treaties concluded between the Czar and England, France, etc., for the strangling of Persia, the division of China, Turkey, Austria, etc.

The Bolsheviki are against annexations. Any promise of a capitalist Government to renounce annexations is a huge fraud. To expose it is very simple, by demanding that each nation be freed from the yoke of its own capitalists.

The Bolsheviki are opposed to the (Russian) Liberty Loan, because the war remains imperialistic, being waged by capitalists in alliance with capitalists, and in the interests of capitalists.

The Bolsheviki refuse to leave to capitalist Governments the task of expressing the desire of the nations for peace.

All monarchies must be abolished. Revolutions do not proceed in fixed order. Only genuine revolutionaries may be trusted.


The peasants must at once take all the land from the landholders. Order must be strictly maintained by the Councils of Peasants' Delegates. The production of bread and meat must be increased and the soldiers better fed. Destruction of cattle, of tools, etc., is not permissible.

It will be impossible to rely upon the general Councils of Peasants' Delegates, for the wealthy peasants are of the same capitalist class that is always inclined to injure or deceive the farm-hands, day laborers, and the poorer peasants. We must at once form special organizations of these latter classes of the village population both within the Councils of Peasants' Delegates and in the form of special Councils of Delegates of the Farmers' Workers.

We must at once prepare the Councils of Workers' Delegates, the Councils of Delegates of Banking Employees, and others for the taking of all such steps as are feasible and completely realizable toward the union of all banks in one single national bank, and then toward a control of the Councils of Workers' Delegates over the banks and syndicates, and then toward their nationalization, that is, their passing over into the possession of the whole group.

The only Socialist International, establishing and realizing a brotherly union of all the workers in all countries, which is now desirable for the nations, is one which consists of the really revolutionary workers, who are capable of putting an end to the awful and criminal slaughter of nations, capable of delivering humanity from the yoke of capitalism. Only such people (groups, parties, etc.) as the German Socialist, Karl Liebknecht, now in a German jail, only people who will tirelessly struggle with their own Government and their own bourgeoisie, and their own social-patriots, and their own "centrists," can and must immediately establish that International which is necessary to the nations.

The fraternization between soldiers of the warring countries, at the front, must be encouraged; it is good and indispensable.

It will be noticed that the Bolsheviki have actually attempted to carry out the greater part of this program, and in some cases have apparently succeeded, at least temporarily.


The program outlined by Lenin in 1917 echoed directly his then largely forgotten 1902 tract What Is To Be Done? Indeed, it was his call for unity and discipline that allowed the Bolsheviks to prevail over larger and more populist political organizations in the chaos of war-torn and hunger-ravaged Russia.

After seizing power by a coup d'état in October 1917, the Bolsheviks began persecuting their opponents and denying any form of free political expression in the interests of a disciplined revolution. The necessity of discipline within party ranks spoken of in his Bolshevik platform and in What Is To Be Done? was quickly implemented across not just the Bolshevik party but in Russia as a whole. There was no allowance for dissent, no matter how nuanced. Even Leon Trotsky, once one of Lenin's closest allies and the architect of the Bolshevik revolution, was forced into exile after stepping out of line and was later murdered by Soviet agents.

Lenin came to power on a slogan of "Peace, Land and Bread." One of his first acts as Russian leader was to withdraw Russian troops from World War I and to make peace with Germany. However, Lenin soon found himself fighting a civil war against the so-called White Army, a loose coalition of anti-Bolshevik forces, which was to continue from 1918 until 1922. His call for global revolution and anti-imperialist rhetoric marked him as an enemy of most nations and some, such as Great Britain, sent expeditionary forces to assist the White Army.

Another of Lenin's early acts as Russian leader was to establish the Council of People's Commissars (the Cheka and later the NKVD), a secret police force whose pervasiveness soon surpassed that of the old tsarist police force. Initially, its role was limited to rounding up Bolshevik opponents, but its mandate quickly expanded to include overseeing agrarian reforms and forcing the collectivization of farms. These reforms were widely and often violently opposed by peasants, who refused to produce crops, plunging Russia into famine and contributing to its ongoing civil war. This increased the zeal of the Cheka and their assault on the peasantry became known as "the Terror." During this chaotic time, as many as nine million people died. Agrarian collectivization was the USSR's foremost problem in its early years. As a result, a second famine occurred in the early 1930s in which at least another four million people died.

In August 1918, Lenin survived an assassination attempt by Fanya Kaplin, a factory worker, despite being shot three times. Although he recovered, a bullet remained lodged in his shoulder near his neck, and this severely impaired his health within a few years. He suffered three strokes between May 1922 and March 1923, which first left him paralyzed down one side and eventually unable to speak or move. He died in January 1924.

Although Lenin never lived to see the most profound effects and worst excesses of Soviet Communism, his ideas were fundamental to its initiation and to the course it took. He instigated a total-itarian system, where any limited form of democracy or debate was not just suppressed, but actively persecuted. He saw the "making" of a true proletarian state coming after an organized campaign of violence against capitalists. In the event, "capitalist" became a catch-all term for virtually every social class in Russia and almost every person in the country suffered, either under the terror instigated by Lenin, as a result of the famine caused by his policies, or under the horrific policies of his successor, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953).

Even in the years following the Russian revolution when it became clear that Lenin had forsaken the utopian ideals of his comrades, both in Russia and elsewhere, his socialist allies continued to defend him. They dismissed the reports of brutality, famine, and hardships emerging from Russia as capitalistic propaganda. This state of denial persisted for most of the USSR's history, with famous writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Kingsley Amis defending the excesses of Lenin and Stalin. Even historians traditionally portrayed Lenin as the "least worst" face of Soviet Communism, particularly when compared to Stalin. Not until the collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s and the opening up of previously secret archives was the extent of Lenin's crimes realized and the historical record revised.



Figes, Orlando. A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924. London: Jonathan Cape, 1996.

Hill, Christopher. Lenin and the Russian Revolution. London: Penguin, 1971.

Pipes, Richard. Russia Under the Old Regime. London: Penguin, 1995.

Web sites

Marxist Internet Archive. "What Is To Be Done?" <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/> (accessed May 22, 2006).