Lenin’s Revolutionary Theory

Brad Forrest

Now that the Soviet Union has fully succumbed to a capitalist restoration of the economy, it’s becoming clearer with each passing day that the “market,” that is the dictatorship of the banks and big business, has ushered in a nightmare for the Russian people, with living standards plummeting while unemployment and poverty rise.

Working people in the former USSR are quickly coming to the conclusion that capitalism is, indeed, as Lenin once said, “Horror without end.” It is the object of the present article to give a glimpse into the political thought of the inspirer of the Russian Revolution, V.I. Lenin. Hopefully, those interested in a better future will peruse his work in earnest.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born April 10, 1870 in Simbirsk, Russia, the third of six children to educated and cultured parents. His father rose from the son of a serf to an Inspector of schools. His mother was the daughter of a physician. In 1887 his brother Alexander was hanged for conspiring to assassinate Tsar Alexander III.

Lenin came to political maturity in the waning epoch of the Russian populist movement, the attempt to achieve socialism through the peasantry, while having witnessed the futility of individual terrorism to achieve these aims. He became an atheist at an early age and briefly practiced law.

Lenin’s brilliance as a theorist of revolutionary practice began very early. While he was in Siberian exile in 1897, he wrote a powerful short article entitled, “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats,” outlining one of the key themes of Leninist practice.

In the article he outlines the use of what later came to be known as the “united front” for winning over new layers of workers. The united front is of supreme importance because it puts in motion ever new masses of workers who get a chance to look at the different political tendencies in practice, and prevents the revolutionary tendency from becoming an ossified sect, since it strives to strengthen revolutionaries with the masses via practice. Lenin outlines with a sure hand the tasks of revolutionaries early on:

The object of the practical activities of the Social-Democrats is to lead the class struggle of the proletariat. The creation of a durable revolutionary organization among the urban factory workers is therefore the first and most urgent task confronting Social-Democracy. While concentrating all its forces on activity among the factory workers, Russian Social-Democracy is ready to support those Russian revolutionaries who, in practice, come to base their socialist activities on the class struggle of the proletariat, but it does not in the least conceal the point that no practical alliances with other groups of revolutionaries can, or should, lead to compromises or concessions on matters of theory, or program. (Lenin, 3)

With the authority of a political leader Lenin gives firm leadership to the nascent Marxist movement in Russia. Leon Trotsky, during the rise of Hitler’s fascism in the 1930’s, used the same idea to inspire the German workers to fight Nazism by advocating the united front of Communists and Social-Democracy. However, at that time the Stalinist bureaucracy that controlled the German Communist Party repudiated the idea of the united front, which led to terrible consequences, as history well knows.

One of the most maligned pamphlets in all modern history, Lenin’s “What is to Be Done?” published in 1902, has given unending heartburn to Lenin’s demonologists of all stripes. The pamphlet is meant to outline how the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (which later split into two factions, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) should organize, thus uniting the separate propaganda circles all over Russia into a central unit, with a firm, democratic leadership.

At the time of this polemic, the reformists of German Social-Democracy, such as Eduard Bernstein, were attempting to steer away from revolutionary theory, basically saying “the movement is everything, the goal nothing.” Lenin responded by famously using an idea he got from the leading theoretician in the international socialist movement, Karl Kautsky, so as to save revolutionary theory from destruction.

In using this tactic, which is understandable in the heat of the moment, he undoubtedly went too far to prove his point. Many university professors have scolded Lenin harshly on what he had to say about workers needing to be taught “socialist consciousness,” and almost all draw the conclusion that this mistake of Lenin’s leads straight to Stalinism. Here is all of the “evil” quotation:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic (socialist) consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness. (Lenin, 24)

In a footnote Lenin severely modifies this idea with a few examples of working class ideologists: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Wilhelm Weitling. If one were to be really objective and not in an unseemly hurry to “expose” Lenin as an elitist, one would have to note that never again did he repeat this idea. After What is to Be Done, and in all of his later work, Lenin always acted on the certainty that the emancipation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves.

Leading up to the October Revolution of 1917 there was a heated debate as to what type of revolution would take place and what social forces and means would ensure a positive conclusion. The “Father of Russian Marxism,” George Plekhanov, headed the Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democrats, who thought that there would be a capitalist-led revolution in Russia, and therefore the revolutionary party would have to support the liberals/capitalists. Only after many years of capitalist development would there be occasion for the socialist revolution. This Menshevik theory of “two stages” was later used by the Stalinists after World War II to ruin revolutions all over the world —since they thought revolution was never on the agenda.
Lenin had no faith in the Russian liberals and outlined a militant program for the party championing the leading role in the capitalist revolution to the workers, supported by the peasants. Written in Geneva, Switzerland in 1905 in his pamphlet, “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy,” we read:

The workers do not expect to make deals; they are not asking for petty concessions. What they are striving towards is ruthlessly to crush the reactionary forces, i.e. to set up a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. (Lenin, 141)

The “dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” would usher in the capitalist regime against the protest and sabotage of the liberals. He would hold to this slogan up until the publication of his famous “April Theses” during the revolution of 1917, which steered Bolsheviks towards the task of taking power in Russia, rather than letting power fall into the hands of the capitalists, a position that aligned his thinking with Trotsky’s.

During the First World War, the Leninists were in a minority among the anti-war socialist movement. The Social-Democrat (socialist) politicians virtually in all the European countries ended up voting for war credits for their respective countries at the outbreak of hostilities. This betrayal of the socialist cause could be traced, in the main, to corruption of the leading officials of the working class, in actuality living amongst the better sections of the middle class professionals, far removed from the realities of the vast majority of working people.

Lenin’s pamphlet, “Socialism and War,” written in the summer of 1915, outlines the Marxist theory of the just war, and how progressive wars under capitalism — such as the U.S. Civil War — had ended at the turn of the twentieth century, and therefore working people needed to turn WWI into a civil war of workers against their capitalist oppressors. Lenin outlines the ideas quite clearly where we read:

The Great French Revolution ushered in the history of mankind. From that time down to the Paris Commune, i.e., between 1789 and 1871, one type of war was of a bourgeois progressive character, waged for national liberation… When, in speaking of the wars of such periods, socialists stressed the legitimacy of “defensive” wars, they had these aims in mind… Imperialism is the highest stage in the development of capitalism, reached only in the twentieth century. From the liberator of nations, which it was in the struggle against feudalism, capitalism in its imperialist stage has turned into the greatest oppressor of nations. (Lenin, 184)

Important to note in this pamphlet is that Lenin is talking to the educated working class revolutionary, the “vanguard” of the socialist movement, who would then spread these ideas to the broader working class by essentially saying that only a “workers government” of the Commune or Soviet type could conduct a truly just war in the modern epoch of capitalism.

Lenin later outlined his theory of imperialism in a pamphlet by that name, whose content stressed that capitalism had been transformed from free competition to monopoly capitalism, and that imperialists were guided mainly by the need to find markets, raw materials and spheres of interest. In no way could capitalist governments be working for “democracy” or “national liberation,” which served as a smokescreen for their hidden interest of profits.

In Switzerland in 1916 Lenin wrote his famous pamphlet, “The State and Revolution,” to prepare the Bolsheviks for the assumption of working class power in Russia and to clarify the nature of the state and the revolutionary tasks ahead. The gist of the matter is stated succinctly:

The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power. And it follows from it that a “special coercive force” for the suppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, of millions of working people by handfuls of rich, must be replaced by a “special coercive force” for the suppression of the bourgeoisies by the proletariat (the dictatorship of the proletariat). (Lenin, 314)

Since the state no longer has to protect the minority from the majority — the rich from the poor — but rather, the majority from the minority, the state loses its historic function and begins to wither away as society moves from distribution based on the pocket book to direct distribution based on need. A truly masterful piece of essential political theory, giving clear advice to workers on how to accomplish a successful revolution!

After these ideas were realized by the assumption of power by the Bolsheviks government in October, 1917, Lenin and Leon Trotsky initiated the creation of a new revolutionary international socialist movement. Lenin had to distill a lifetime of revolutionary thought into a short space for the benefit of the newly created communist parties of the world. One of Lenin’s last great works on political practice is his pamphlet, “Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder,” written in April, 1920 for the Second Congress of the Communist International. In the pamphlet he makes specific arguments against international revolutionaries who wanted “cookbook recipes” for militant practice. He writes:

The dictatorship of the proletariat means a persistent struggle – bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative – against the forces and traditions of the old society. We … regard as… childish nonsense… to the effect that Communists cannot and should not work in reactionary trade unions. When the revolutionary party of the proletariat… began to take shape… the trade unions began to reveal certain reactionary features… because of the reactionary and counter-revolutionary character of the trade union top leadership, they jump to the conclusion that… we must withdraw from the trade unions, refuse to work in them, and create new and artificial forms of labor organization! This is… the greatest service Communists could render to the bourgeoisie. (Lenin, 569)

The most diverse sectarians of the present day are constantly committing this error. Lenin’s basic idea throughout the whole pamphlet is that the working class politicians have to take the class where it is, at the ideological level it is at, and lead them, through patient explanation to the conscious movement for socialist revolution. And he makes a very salient point about capitalist parliaments (congress):

“Parliamentarianism has become historically obsolete.” That is true in the propaganda sense. How can one say that “parliamentarianism is politically obsolete,” when “millions” and “legions” of proletarians are not only still in favor of parliamentarianism, but are downright “counter-revolutionary.” (Lenin is refuting some Left-Wingers here.) It is obvious that the “Lefts” in Germany have mistaken their desire, their politico-ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is a most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries to make. (Lenin, 579)

And Lenin goes on to outline how critical support should be given to the mass workers’ parties that are reformist (non revolutionary but progressive) to win the confidence of the reformist workers and show in practice that it is the communists that have nothing but the interests of the class at heart.

The whole of Lenin’s works are contained in many volumes and deserve special study, but this article is just a example of the thought of that great revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin. The Russian Revolution became degenerated in conditions of economic underdevelopment and western-imposed isolation, even though Lenin and the Bolsheviks had counted on world revolution to assist them in moving toward socialism.

Lenin, seeing only the beginning of Russia’s socialist degeneration, called for Joseph Stalin’s removal from the post of General Secretary, so as to try to overcome the bureaucratic strangulation of the country. This change of personnel could only be a band-aid, for the causes were essentially the poverty and cultural backwardness that the Bolsheviks had inherited from Tsarism. It was up to his co-thinker, Leon Trotsky, to make a long-range attack on the bureaucratic reaction by analyzing, in detail, why Stalin came to power and what to do about it.

Now that the world has been through many decades of unfettered capitalism, the works of that great revolutionary leader and thinker will be sought after by the new generations awakening to political life. Lenin helped lead the first successful socialist revolution. He laid down an imperishable monument and guide to future revolutionaries.


The Lenin Anthology. Edt. By Robert C. Tucker. Princeton University. W.W. Norton and Company. 1975.