Lenin and Leninism

During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it. Today, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labor movement concur in this doctoring of Marxism. They omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie.

Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1917

It has now been 100 years since Lenin’s body was embalmed and put on public display in Moscow, a grotesque gesture from a “red” bourgeoisie which went hand in hand with the systematic distortion of Lenin’s real contribution to the socialist movement. Times have changed and the Russian state no longer considers Lenin to be its “founding father”, instead holding him personally responsible for the disintegration of its Empire, while in many countries of the former Eastern Bloc statues of Lenin are being taken down as part of “de-communisation”. As such, the centenary of Lenin’s death will hardly be a blip in the grand scheme of things.

However, in today’s world of crisis and war, the idea of “communism” seems more popular than it has been for decades, particularly among the young generations. So for those who see the need for a world beyond capitalism, this equivocal anniversary is an occasion to revisit the man whose name became inescapably wrapped up with the idea of “communism”.

Lenin, collective organiser

In 1870, Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov to what today would be described as an upwardly mobile family. His father came from a serf background but went to study at university and became a teacher. His mother, though also qualified as a teacher, spent much of her time raising children. Lenin had seven siblings, two of whom died while still in infancy. Despite the liberal conservative persuasion of their parents, five of the children became actively involved in the socialist movement. The eldest son, Aleksandr Ulyanov, joined Narodnaya Volya while at university – he was arrested, accused of plotting an assassination, and executed by the Tsarist authorities in 1887. Whether or not this was the direct motivation for Lenin’s initial interest in socialism, over the following two years he was rummaging through local libraries for radical books, finding his way to the works of Nikolay Chernyshevsky and eventually Karl Marx’s Capital, soon himself coming into contact with Narodnik and Marxist study circles.

At the time the socialist movement in Russia consisted of a politically heterogeneous network of revolutionary cells and study circles spread out across the Empire. Lenin was particularly drawn towards the Marxist ideas of the group Emancipation of Labour animated by, among others, Georgi Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich. Lenin founded his own League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class in 1895, and was soon arrested. In prison and in exile he studied the economic question in order to refute the appeal of Narodnik ideas within the socialist movement (which would continue to linger on with the creation of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, or SRs). He arrived at the following conclusions:

  • capitalist social relations had now taken hold within Russia;
  • the working class, and not the more numerous peasantry, would become the leading force of the future revolution;
  • this revolution would combine both socialist (fight against the capitalist class aimed at destroying the class system) and democratic (fight against absolutism aimed at winning political liberty) tasks;
  • revolutionaries scattered all over Russia had to come together into a single united party in order to face up to the tasks ahead.

Lenin was not alone in pushing for unification of the socialist movement and in 1898 the First Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was held in Minsk. However, due to police repression and internal squabbles, the new RSDLP existed mainly in name only. Lenin’s denunciations of revisionism and economism, his attempts to make Iskra a central party organ, the publication of What Is To Be Done? in 1902, must all be understood in this context. At the time, Lenin insisted on a highly centralised organisation of professional revolutionaries in order to establish a politically and organisationally coherent party able to intervene in the rising class movement in Russia. In the course of his struggle to create this party, Lenin would fall out with some of his hitherto allies and, at the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903, two party factions – Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – emerged over the seemingly trivial definition of what constitutes a party member. Behind this however there were real political differences, which became manifest in the revolution of 1905.

Lenin, revolutionary internationalist

The events of 1905 began innocuously enough – a peaceful demonstration of workers and peasants, led by the Orthodox priest turned police spy Father Gapon, intended to hand in a petition to the Tsar. Instead they were met with rifle fire. The massacre that ensued captured the popular imagination across the Russian Empire, triggering protests, strikes, insurrections, and of course the creation of workers’ councils (soviets). 1905 was a trial by fire for any organisations endeavouring to become the voice of the working class.

Lenin was in exile when the revolution of 1905 broke out, though he followed the events closely, whilst simultaneously studying the revolutions of 1789, 1848 and 1871 for insight. He sent advice to his Bolshevik comrades who, on the streets and factories of the Russian Empire, called for the extension of the strike, for workers to arm themselves, for soldiers to turn on their government. After the proclamation of the October Manifesto by the Tsar – which promised the establishment of the Duma (parliament) as well as freedom of speech and association – Lenin came back to Russia. He now recognised the party had to open up to newly emerging working class elements, and he fought to transform it on the basis of democratic centralism, making sure all higher-standing bodies were elected, accountable and subject to recall. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were still technically part of the same party, but the elections to the Duma began to reveal the depth of the schism. While the Bolsheviks were calling for an uprising and the setting up of a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”, leading Mensheviks like Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod were now suggesting a parliamentary alliance with the progressive elements of the bourgeoisie (like those in the Constitutional Democratic Party, or Kadets).

In this period of revolutionary fervour, the Bolsheviks established themselves as a dynamic organisation and by 1907 had over 40,000 members, the majority of them workers. Lenin noted that the tactics formulated in his infamous pamphlet of 1902, though they set the foundation for political and organisational coherence, were now outdated. The period of the counter-revolution, unleashed by the Tsar as he reversed all the liberal reforms, also posed new problems. Mass arrests truncated the RSDLP, contributing to further factionalism. Lenin was forced into exile again, where he engaged in polemics over party organisation (against Axelrod and the Menshevik liquidators), Marxist orthodoxy (against Alexander Bogdanov and influence of Machism among the Bolsheviks), and the right of nations to self-determination (against Rosa Luxemburg and her followers in the Polish, German and Russian parties).

The gradual revival of the working class movement in Russia was disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. Lenin’s focus now shifted onto the international stage – he sought to understand the reasons for the collapse and betrayal of the Second International, and to explain the nature of capitalist imperialism. At the conferences in Zimmerwald and Kienthal, he emerged as a key figure of the internationalist opposition to war, fighting for the regroupment of revolutionaries in a Third International. The outbreak of the February Revolution allowed him to return to Russia and confirmed his perspectives.

Lenin arrived at the conclusion that the soviets, which were once again springing up across the Russian Empire, could allow for the seizure of power by the working class, and by linking up with revolutions in the more advanced West, socialism could be put on the agenda. His calls for an uprising were initially resisted by some in the party, but enthusiastically taken up by the Bolshevik grassroots. The Bolsheviks were swelling in numbers, now a party of some 200,000, agitating for “all power to the soviets”, and gradually becoming a leading political force within the movement. The outbreak of the October Revolution signalled the beginning of a revolutionary wave across the world.

Lenin, head of government

After tumultuous proceedings, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets approved the transfer of power to itself, elected a new Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) and tasked it with the creation of a Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). Lenin was chosen as the chairman of this new body. The Bolsheviks reorganised themselves into the Russian Communist Party and began preparations for the creation of a Third International. In the first six months after October, the soviet principle was extended across Russia, and workers and peasants began to upend the system of exploitation and oppression. There was no blueprint to follow – the Paris Commune, the closest historical precedent, lasted only 72 days before it was brutally suppressed. However, initial revolutionary enthusiasm could not hide objective reality. The Russia that workers inherited was beset with famine and epidemic, its economy in tatters following years of war and revolution. Not only that, in the absence of successful revolutions elsewhere, imperialist intervention was now on the horizon.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 was the first significant retreat. As Lenin argued, the advance of German troops, just weeks away from walking into Petrograd, left little choice but to sign it. Nevertheless, the decision led to widespread opposition within the party, and caused a fallout with the Left SRs (who, in support of soviet power, had only split from their mother party after soviet power was adopted by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets). The Left SRs withdrew from the Sovnarkom and staged an uprising aimed at restarting the war with Germany. Lenin’s pamphlet The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government was a turning point in his thinking – faced with such a dire situation, the task was now to “manoeuvre, retreat, wait, build slowly, ruthlessly tighten up, rigorously discipline, smash laxity”. In August 1918, after speaking at a factory meeting, Lenin was shot by a supporter of the recently dissolved Constituent Assembly. With Lenin apparently near death, the Sovnarkom decided to meet White Terror with Red Terror.

The hope that peace with Germany would provide a “breathing space” until the isolation of the Russian Revolution would be broken by revolutions elsewhere turned out to be short-lived. The revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion, Allied intervention in the North, the conquests of the White armies of Kolchak, Wrangel and Denikin, all spelled a long and bloody civil war. By 1920 the main internal threats to soviet power were defeated, briefly creating hopes for a new period of “peaceful construction”, only for the Polish and Ukrainian offensive to trigger yet another war. In those years, Soviet Russia adopted a siege mentality – the Red Army became a mass of conscripts led by former Tsarist officials, rival political tendencies were suppressed by the Cheka, one-man management was introduced in industry and grain requisitioning was enforced in the countryside. Meanwhile, the new Third International was becoming increasingly dominated by the interests of Russian diplomacy. In response to the failure of revolutions outside Russia, it began to make overtures to social democracy in the West and nationalist movements in the East.

Within the party, various oppositions were emerging, expressing concerns about the direction being taken (the journal Kommunist, Group of Democratic Centralism, the Military Opposition, the Workers’ Opposition, the Workers’ Group). In response, Lenin stressed that revolutionaries must learn not only how to advance, but also how to retreat. Though he tried to take on board some of their suggestions, he opposed these groups. But he also opposed some of the excesses of the party leadership (e.g. Trotsky on the militarisation of labour, and Stalin on Georgia). Ultimately, and against great odds, the existence of Soviet Russia was secured, but at a great cost – the gradual loss of its soviet character. Conditions of war and repression undermined workers’ democracy. Local soviets failed to meet and when they did, it was mainly to rubber stamp decisions from above. The Sovnarkom, instead of a body which drew its authority from the soviets, became a power over the soviets. The Kronstadt uprising in 1921 was a symptom of this development. Its tragic suppression was followed by the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which Lenin saw as another necessary retreat. Opening up the war economy to market forces was supposed to address the economic dislocation produced by years of turmoil and help rebuild a working class base.

In Lenin’s final writings there is a sense of dismay at the lack of progress that the revolution was making and the inadequacy of the institutions it had created. He proposed various administrative reforms to draw more workers into the running of the system as the alternative to bureaucratic rot. But, having suffered two strokes in 1922, Lenin was paralysed. Under intense supervision amounting to house arrest at the hands of the state apparatus he was now questioning, he could do no more than dictate his final wishes to a secretary. A third stroke in March 1923 put an end to his active political life, and on 21 January 1924 he fell into a coma and passed away.



Lenin’s biography, only summarised here, paints a complex picture: riding the revolutionary wave, he could not but fall with it when it came crashing down. The manner in which he fell, and what he as an individual could have done differently, will be a point of contention for as long as the Russian Revolution remains a subject of interest. However, that is just half the story. Once soviet power had been transformed into a party-state, an accomplished fact by the time Lenin was on his deathbed, the struggle over who would lead it had commenced.

If previously the term “Leninism” was used colloquially, there was now a scramble to make it into an official ideology, with competing interpretations emerging in pamphlets like Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism (1924) and Zinoviev’s Introduction to the Study of Leninism (1925). Already in March 1923, a Lenin Institute, directed by Kamenev, was formed with the aim of promoting “Leninism” within and outside the party. Through the so-called “Lenin Levy”, the triumvirate of Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev flooded the party with around half a million inexperienced members, easier to manipulate in their factional struggle against Trotsky. In 1924 the Fifth Congress of the Third International took place – the first that Lenin was completely absent from. It called for the “Bolshevization” of the parties of the Third International in the spirit of “Marxism-Leninism”, against “right wing dangers” and “ultra-left deviations”. Regarding the likes of Trotsky, Luxemburg, Amadeo Bordiga, Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek, the Theses on the Bolshevization of the Communist Parties (1925) stated: “The closer these political leaders stand to Leninism, the more dangerous are their views in those respects in which they do not coincide with Leninism”. In 1926 a Lenin School was set up in Moscow, to teach party cadres from around the world in the art of “Bolshevization”.

Bolshevization … means the final ideological victory of Marxism-Leninism (or in other words Marxism in the period of imperialism and the epoch of the proletarian revolution) … Lenin’s death must give as great an impulse to the propaganda of the theory of Marxism-Leninism in all sections of the Communist International, as it has done in the Russian Communist Party

Theses Of The Fifth Comintern Congress On The Propaganda Activities of the CI and its Sections, July 1924

Through manoeuvres and expulsions, the parties of the Third International were transformed into loyal mouthpieces of Moscow. In 1928, Stalin came out on top in the power struggle and his theory of “socialism in one country” became state policy with the introduction of the five-year plans. He delivered his coup de grâce in the 1930s, by physically exterminating his political enemies and even former allies in the Great Purge, many old Bolsheviks among them. The ideology of “Marxism-Leninism” was exported around the world through propaganda and military force, finding particular resonance in under-developed regions (chief among them China) where state control, collectivisation and industrialisation could serve as means of rapid capitalist development. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the ruling class in Moscow attempted to exonerate itself with official “de-Stalinization” and a “return to Leninism”, though in places like China and Albania this was denounced as “revisionism”. Either way, the official narrative in both the East and the West has ever since maintained that the various “people’s republics” and so-called “socialist states” were, in one way or another, Lenin’s legacy. This interpretation is the one thing which unites not only liberals and conservatives, Stalinists and Maoists, but also many anarchists and councilists.

There are however some tendencies which have always stressed a distinction between the Russia of Lenin and the Russia of Stalin. The most famous is that of the exiled Trotsky and his followers, who nevertheless saw in Stalinism only a Thermidorian reaction and not yet the counter-revolution. The less known, but more critical, is that of our predecessors in the Italian Communist Left.

Our “Leninism” and Theirs

Our tendency has often been accused of being either too “Leninist” or not “Leninist” enough. Today we tend not to use the label – it creates more confusion than clarity. The compromises which Lenin defended in the context of the isolation of the revolution are the ones most eagerly appealed to in the name of “Leninism”, both by Lenin’s detractors and his epigones. The latter confuse the fact that compromise may be enforced by objective reality, with a political programme that takes compromise as its starting point. Our predecessors, having just founded the Internationalist Communist Party in the midst of the Second World War, as class struggle was reviving in the factories in Northern Italy, saw it differently:

the Lenin who fascinates us the most and stimulates our thinking is not Lenin the tactician – an important figure nonetheless – who at the helm of the first proletarian state skilfully manoeuvred between the pitfalls of a bourgeois world, a ferocious enemy, in the expectation of a new revolutionary wave which he foresaw approaching. Nor is he the Lenin of the NEP, the Lenin of compromise with the still surviving forces of Russian capitalism, an ingenious and very dangerous expedient that he always considered a painful retreat, a halt in the march of the revolution. Lenin, our Lenin, the Lenin of today’s situation, is that of the April Theses and the October insurrection. And it is at this moment in his life as a theoretician, politician and leader that we like to remember him, twenty years after his death.

Lenin Oggi, Prometeo, 1 February 1944

“Our” Lenin can be summed up in three points, which also indicate where we critically build upon his experience.

  • The Party: Lenin insisted on the need for a political organisation to provide a lead in the class struggle. The Bolsheviks have often been portrayed as a homogeneous, dogmatic party, but this is Stalinist myth. It was an organisation which evolved over time, always responding to changing circumstances.
  • The Soviets: Already in 1905 Lenin speculated that both the party and the soviets would fulfil a necessary role in the upcoming revolution. He developed this notion further in 1917. Lenin, at his best, understood that what made Soviet Russia a “workers’ state” was the existence of this soviet power.
  • Internationalism: Lenin understood the international implications of a socialist revolution, and fought against chauvinist, nationalist, and social-patriotic tendencies within the workers’ movement. He was clear that capitalism had entered a new imperialist epoch, and that imperialist war can only be opposed through the revolutionary class struggle for socialism.

Lenin became an influential party leader, but was, at the end of the day, a party member like any other. He faced criticisms, sometimes found himself in the minority, and had to struggle to get his views across. Gavril Miasnikov, a young militant who joined the Bolsheviks in 1906, described the life of the party from its inception up until 1921 in the following words:

The Bolsheviks were not afraid of criticism, or of counter-criticism, or their consequences. Down with all icons! There is no prohibition of criticism in the congresses, conferences, local or central committees. On the contrary! The Bolsheviks had the courage to protect the exercise of a comprehensive right of minorities to publish texts directed against the party’s institutions, and thus sought to fortify the struggle, to keep it free and clear of all charlatanry, all gossip and all scandal, to situate it at the level that is in conformance with a struggle of convictions. … Between 1905 and 1917, this Bolshevik practice passed through the crucible of three revolutions. The internal structure of the party was strictly bound to the living forces of the revolution, and this led to the greatest and most glorious victories that the world has ever seen.

Miasnikov, The Latest Deception, 1930

The premise of October was always the relatively quick extension of the revolution outside Russia’s borders. An economically backward revolutionary bastion could do little more than provide inspiration for the working class elsewhere:

Soviet power is a new type of state without a bureaucracy, without police, without a regular army … In Russia this has scarcely begun and has begun badly. … We must show the European workers exactly what we have set about, how we have set about it, how it is to be understood; that will bring them face to face with the question of how socialism is to be achieved. They must see for themselves—the Russians have started on something worth doing; if they are setting about it badly we must do it better. … we are confident that the European workers will be able to help once they have entered on that path. They will do what we are doing, but do it better, and the centre of gravity will shift from the formal point of view to the concrete conditions.

Lenin, Report on the Review of the Programme and on Changing the Name of the Party, 8 March 1918

The tragedy of the Russian Revolution was that this help never arrived. In these circumstances, the Russian Communist Party, the Third International, and Soviet Russia itself, increasingly began to adopt policies of an emergency and stop-gap nature.

The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of historical possibilities. They are not supposed to perform miracles. For a model and faultless proletarian revolution in an isolated land, exhausted by world war, strangled by imperialism, betrayed by the international proletariat, would be a miracle. … In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism”.

Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 1918

The seeds of the degeneration of the revolutionary process were there from the very beginning. By March 1918 the Bolsheviks were the only party represented in the Sovnarkom, and over the next few years established increasing dominance over the VTsIK (sometimes through the gerrymandering of elections), while local soviets hollowed out. In effect, the Bolsheviks became the only governing party and increasingly the distinction between the party and the state disappeared. By 1922 Lenin recognised that the party machinery had to be separated from the government machinery, but the remedies he suggested never became reality, and were too little too late anyway – only a revival of soviet power could have turned things around, but that itself would have required a revival of the revolutionary wave. New ideological justifications were being contrived to explain the situation (Lenin was now arguing the dictatorship of the proletariat could not be exercised through the whole of the class, but only by its vanguard, i.e. the party; Trotsky later came to the conclusion that it was nationalised property which made Soviet Russia a “workers’ state”). Meanwhile, party democracy had suffered considerably during the period of the civil war, though even the introduction of the ban on factions in March 1921 did not immediately kill it off. Over the next couple years however the Politburo and the Party Secretariat had become powers unto themselves, undermining the authority of the Party Congress and even its Central Committee. This created a situation in which power was essentially centralised in the hands of Stalin and his clique.

In light of this, we insist that the international of the future cannot be a government-in-waiting. It is the working class at large which builds the new society through the collective organs of power – such as workers’ councils – that it creates in the course of its struggle. The international has to be a guide for the wider movement, and in this sense aims to gain a hearing and exert influence within the collective organs of power, but it cannot substitute itself for those bodies or dissolve itself in them, like the Bolsheviks did. Doing so would mean tying its fate to the revolutionary bastion, and ceasing to be a revolutionary reference point for the global movement if the revolutionary bastion succumbed to capitalist forces.

Another point of contention that holds much significance today is Lenin’s defence of the right to national self-determination. This has often been interpreted as support for national self-determination in the abstract. However, he opposed national self-determination in cases where he deemed it to serve reactionary aims, and posed the question in the following terms:

The Social-Democrats of the oppressor nations must demand that the oppressed nations should have the right of secession, for otherwise recognition of equal rights for nations and of international working-class solidarity would in fact be merely empty phrase-mongering, sheer hypocrisy. On the other hand, the Social-Democrats of the oppressed nations must attach prime significance to the unity and the merging of the workers of the oppressed nations with those of the oppressor nations; otherwise these Social-Democrats will involuntarily become the allies of their own national bourgeoisie.

Lenin, The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, 1915

The second condition is often forgotten by many so-called “Leninists” who, taking up the idea of “united” and “popular” fronts from the degenerating Third International, see no problem in alliances with the national bourgeoisie. For our part, since Lenin’s time we have seen how every national war gets inevitably intertwined with imperialist competition. If Lenin argued that national wars were still possible in the imperialist epoch, even though he knew they could also be transformed into imperialist wars, the development of capitalism has proven Luxemburg and her comrades right:

In this era of unfettered imperialism, there can no longer be national wars. National interests serve only as a method of deceiving the working masses in order to make them useful to their mortal enemy, imperialism. … The small nations, whose ruling classes are appendages and accessories of their class comrades in the large nations, are only pawns in the imperialist game played by the great powers. They too, like the working masses, are being misused as tools during the war, and will be sacrificed to capitalist interests after the war.

Luxemburg, Either Or, 1916

As we always repeat, the Russian Revolution is not a model to copy, but a lesson to learn from. The party-state it eventually gave birth to has left a legacy from which the working class movement has not recovered to this day. And, in the face of the counter-revolution, few of its participants preserved their integrity unscathed, Lenin included. But at a time when we yet again face a deadly drive to war, on a planet made sick by the interests of profit, the best legacy that Lenin could bequeath today would be for future generations to “do it better” as he once hoped workers and revolutionaries outside Russia would.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
December 2023

Some Further Reading:

Sunday, January 21, 2024

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