Lenin was and remains a highly controversial figure. Some demonized him, while for many other he was (and for very few contemporaries remains) nearly an idol and a symbol of the fight for liberation and freedom. The history turned this figure from once successful revolutionary into a person mocked or hated by many. Once his statues stood all over Eastern Europe, several decades later they were turned down in euphoria. Lenin, although now not as exciting and respected as once before, remains one of the most influential and divisive figures of the twentieth century.
Origins of Leninism
Leninism sometimes referred to as Marxism-Leninism, is a doctrine including political, social, and economic principles developed by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin at the beginning of the 20th century. Experts argue that it is not merely a philosophy and not a pure political theory, but rather a collection of ideas, approaches, and strategies composed for a revolutionary purpose. What later became known as Leninism is mainly Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism to some extent influenced by the Russian anarchist Narodnik movement. Leninism was the leading ideology of the Bolshevik party and later in the Soviet Union and had a significant influence on the entire development of communism and history of the USSR. The core ideas of Lenin’s teaching or Leninism were developed throughout his life and reflected in his pamphlets What is to be Done?, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, and State and Revolution. These works became something like a Bible for several generations of communists.
In 1848 Marx and Engels wrote in their Communist Manifesto that communism is “the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others.” This idea became the cornerstone of Leninism. Marxism is not something completely new or unnatural for our civilization. Its foundation is “a ‘moral economy’ of sharing and helping each other” (Le Blanc, p.94) which developed when people still were gathering and hunting because they would not be able to survive otherwise. Both for Marx and Lenin, this idea seemed the only fair way of our existence.
Vladimir Lenin adjusted Marx’s theory to suit Russia’s mainly agricultural society. In the very beginning of the 20th century, Russia did not have what Marx considered to be prerequisites of a revolution – nationalism, irredentism, class warfare. Marxism was based mainly on urban or industrial workers, while Russia was predominantly an agrarian society. Consequently, Lenin had to adjust Marx’s learning to the needs of his country. He developed it further and revived “revolutionary content of Marxism.” Unlike many other Russian Marxists, Lenin did not merely predict a proletarian revolution but was eager to make it happen as fast as possible. Stalin later said that Leninism is not purely Russian phenomenon and can be applied internationally.
Both Lenin and Marx saw in which terrible unfair conditions are working people lived, exploited by a wealthy minority. They both believed that under capitalism proletariat would never be able to live well and earn reasonably. They both knew that a minority is ruling the society and wanted this to change. Marxists believed that capitalism would eventually degrade and “only the working class could prevent this degradation and reconstruct society” (Le Blank, 2006, p.94).
Lenin’s Goals and Vision
Lenin has correctly evaluated the situation in the country. Dissatisfaction with the ruling monarchs was growing, and the economy was in a terrible condition. One of the Lenin’s primary goals was to fight against tsarism, and under this purpose, he was able to unite many dissatisfied classes of society. Everyone in Russia seemed to be unhappy with the regime. The workers were unhappy about the social order and low pay, soldiers were unhappy about the military system and the war, peasants felt deprived and were unhappy about their poverty, the middle class wanted more civil rights and reforms, and national minorities wanted their state. Russia had enormous internal problems, and the situation was aggravated by the involvement of Russia in Russian-Japanese War in 1905, and the World War I. Dissatisfaction with the tsar as well as the popularity of Bolsheviks’ revolutionary ideas were continually growing.
Lenin wanted to establish a country of workers and peasants. Proletariat largely supported his and Bolsheviks’ interpretation of Marxism. Workers played the major role in every stage of the revolution. Bolsheviks were once only a fraction of the leftist movement. However, they have managed to win over many peasants and workers. Bolsheviks often used propaganda to gain over workers and were quite successful. The promised socio-economic reforms, better pay, working hours and conditions.
Lenin promised the workers that they will be in charge of the means of production and that the working class, not the rich people, will rule the society – what he called “dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” That was precisely what most people in Russia wanted to hear. Lenin was sure that trade-unions could not improve the situation and protect the rights of working people and summoned the workers to take power in their own hands. He explained that after a revolution his party would free working people and give them economic and democratic rights. Lenin wanted to create a republic instead of a monarchy and abolish private property. Peasants and workers massively joined in the Red Army. Some of them did not support the Bolsheviks, but they did not support the monarchists.
Lenin believed that capitalism needs to be overthrown and it is possible only with a revolution – he did not find in a peaceful transition. Unlike Mensheviks, he did not think that capitalism could be adjusted or reformed, but rather that the power needed to be taken with force, even if the price to pay was a bloody civil war. In other words, revolution and seizure of power were the goals, and all the means to reach it were justified. Lenin was convinced that violence is necessary for self-defense.
Nowadays, it seems almost hard to believe, but Lenin at some point in his life did want to establish a democracy and noted that it would exist when “all members of society, or at least the vast majority, have learned to administer the state themselves, have learned to take this work into their own hands.”(Le Blank, 2006, p.94) Under such conditions, Lenin believed, that a need for a government apparatus will become obsolete and that is when real “communism” will come.
Lenin, as well as other Marxists, came to a conclusion that a highly disciplined and professional group of revolutionaries is needed to guide the masses through the revolution on its way to communism. He envisioned a state governed by “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In Communist Manifesto this idea was also reflected -“the most advanced and resolute section of the working class of every country, that section which pushes forward all others” (Marx & Engels, 1848) Rosa Luxembourg called it “the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat” (Franzosi, 1995, p.136)
Some historians believe that this idea of one party dictatorship was not a central doctrine of Leninism. It became necessary under given circumstances to reach set political goals. In 1902 in pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Lenin wrote that working class if left on its own, would accept bourgeois ideas. To prevent this, he believed that a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries is needed to lead the proletariat. In his early years, Lenin still believed in “the full application of the democratic principle in the Party organization” (Le Blank, 2006, p.96). Later, in 1917, in State and Revolution Lenin confirmed that he preferred dictatorship governing style. Since a small group of trained revolutionaries was to guide the masses, it obviously meant that democracy and open voting are unnecessary. Moreover, after coming to power, Lenin and Bolsheviks were so scared of counter-revolution that they wanted to protect themselves in every possible way. As a result, the Bolsheviks, and later the Communist Party, built a totalitarian state, where the ruling party controlled all aspects of life.
It is possible that dictatorship was one of the biggest mistakes Lenin made. Rosa Luxembourg wrote about it that “the elimination of democracy as such is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure; for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come to the correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions.” (Le Blank, 2006, p. 104) It seems like Lenin was a great democrat until 1917 and a great dictator afterward. On paper, he described almost perfect democracy, and in practice, he turned out to be completely the opposite. Maxim Gorky explains it in this way: “Lenin, Trotsky, and their supporters have already been poisoned by the corrupting virus of power” (Gorky, 1917)
Lenin had a low opinion of Russian peasants, workers, and even doctors. Lenin knew that most of the workers had shallow level of education and too ignorant to effectively govern themselves. Of course, some of the important posts in the Party were occupied by the representatives of the working class. Eventually, what was promised as “dictatorship of the proletariat” became “dictatorship of the Party.”
Lenin considered that authority, centralism and discipline are the three main cornerstones of the party. He disregarded democracy and saw it as decentralization and was fighting for political autonomy and reformism. He favored top-down approach and preferred bureaucracy over democracy: “Bureaucracy versus democracy is in fact centralism versus autonomism; it is the organizational principle of revolutionary Social-Democracy as opposed to the organizational principle of opportunist Social-Democracy” (Read, 2005, p.69). By bureaucracy Lenin most probably meant the small central decision-making part of the party. He expected all the others including the lower levels of the side to obey.
Terror After the Revolution
Russia was the first country to try to build communism, and there were no ready-made solutions. When Lenin and Bolsheviks came to power, they did not have any experience and were not ready to deal with many of the problems. So terror became one of the solutions.
When Lenin came to power, all other political parties were eliminated. Coercion, repressions, and terror played a significant role in implementing Lenin’s policies. Albert Rhys Williams, an American journalist, wrote, “They have abolished free speech, free press, free assembly. They have imposed drastic military conscription and compulsory labor. … They have lowered their Communist ideals…” (Le Blanc, p.89)
Alter the revolution, Bolsheviks from liberators became oppressors. Lenin was very well aware of the terror that was going on after the revolution. Only in the years between 1917 and 1922 140,000 opponents of Bolsheviks were executed by the secret police, the Cheka. These persecutions were carried out in ‘the name of the interest of the workers’. When Lenin came to power, Bolsheviks were a minority, so to preserve power, they tried to eliminate all their enemies, which included anarchists and Mensheviks among others. Some historians argue that terror was done not only to protect the achievements of revolutions but also to eliminate other revolutionaries and political opponents.
Lenin even in his early writings before the revolution admitted that terror might be a necessary weapon. In the 1920s he wrote in one of his letters: “It is a great mistake to think that the NEP put an end to terror; we shall again have recourse to terror and economic terror” (Lewin, 2008, p.133). No doubt, Lenin knew about the terror and considered it appropriate. However, unlike Stalin for example, Lenin hated terror and repressions and saw them only as defense instruments. Lenin closed the Cheka in 1922.
Whatever is being said about him, Lenin was no doubt a genius. Max Eastman, an American writer, wrote about him “He is simple in his heart like a peasant who knows proverbs, but in his mind subtle and mighty.” (Le Blanc, p.90) Edna Ferber, an American novelist, admitted that „Lenin is sheer intellect — he is absorbed, cold, unattractive, impatient at the interruption.” (Le Blanc, p.80)
Some biographers write that Lenin was a kind person who liked children and cats. At the same time, Stefan T. Possony, one of Lenin’s biographers, described him as “Self-righteous, rude, demanding, ruthless, despotic, formalistic, bureaucratic, disciplined, cunning, intolerant, stubborn, one-sided, suspicious, distant, asocial, cold-blooded, ambitious, purposive, vindictive, spiteful, a grudgeholder, a coward…” (Le Blank, 2006, p.78). Nikolai Bukharin admitted that Lenin “didn’t give damn for the opinions of others” and Anatoly Lunacharsky noted that Lenin intentionally “surrounded himself with fools” so that they will agree with everything he says. (Le Blank, 2006, p. 106) At the same time, there are also opinions of others that Lenin did like an open debate.
Tsar Nicholas II underestimated Lenin and his supporters. The last Russian tsar believed that the power to rule the country was given to him by God and was convinced that the people would remain loyal to him. Even after the Revolution of 1905, he was very reluctant to introduce reforms that would improve workers’ and peasants’ lives. He continued to order to shoot protestors and limit civil rights. Nicholas II ignored the warning about people’s growing discontent. He was sure that people still regard him as “god” and could not imagine that Lenin will come to power and never considered him a dangerous opponent.
The tsar underestimated not only Lenin but other proponents of change and reform n Russia, the Cadets and the Social Revolutionaries. Nicholas II seemed to be wholly detached from the reality and turned both leftists and liberals against himself. He was convinced that Russians worship their tsars and are devoted to the church, who’s supported he had. Nicholas did not agree to democratize Russia because he was afraid to lose his throne. Despite all the signs, he continued to believe that Russian people wanted autocracy and monarch’s unlimited power. He missed his only chance to retain control by intruding reforms and modernizing Russia. The ruler agreed to establish a new legislative organ, the State Duma, which did not exist more than two years. Under such circumstances, Lenin’s ideas very even more welcomed by the masses.
Lenin is one of the most widely published authors and one of the most controversial historical figures. Seen by some as an “enemy of civilization” or as a hero, most probably he was neither a demon nor an idol. Lenin had good intentions and high ideals before coming to power but was not able to execute the desired. Lenin’s efforts to build a society where “the free development of each would be the condition for the free development of all” turned out to be one of the greatest disasters of the 20th century. He wanted to create a free and equal society of peasants and workers, but when he came to power, he did not have enough experience, means, and knowledge to do it. As a result, especially during Lenin’s successor, the power has been completely taken away from the proletariat, and most of the achievements of the revolution were crossed out. Some historians hold Lenin accountable not only for his sins, but also for the fact that he inspired another dictator of the century, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler.
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