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In Marxist philosophy, Leninism is the body of political theory for the democratic organisation of a revolutionary vanguard party, and the achievement of a dictatorship of the proletariat, as political prelude to the establishment of socialism. Developed by, and named for, the Russian revolutionary and later Soviet premier Vladimir Lenin, Leninism comprises political and socialist economic theories, developed from Marxism, as well as Lenin’s interpretations of Marxist theory for practical application to the socio-political conditions of the agrarian early-20th-century Russian Empire. In February 1917, for five years, Leninism was the Russian application of Marxist economics and political philosophy, effected and realised by the Bolshevik party, the vanguard party who led the fight for the political independence of the working class.
Functionally, the Leninist vanguard party provided to the working class the political consciousness (education and organisation), and the revolutionary leadership necessary to depose capitalism in Imperial Russia. After the October Revolution of 1917, Leninism was the dominant version of Marxism in Russia, and then the official state ideology of Soviet democracy (by workers’ council) in the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (RSFSR), before its unitary amalgamation into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. In 1925–29 post-Lenin Russia, Joseph Stalin integrated Leninism to Marxist economics, and developed Marxism–Leninism, which then became the state ideology of the Soviet Union.
As a political-science term, Leninism entered common usage in 1922, after infirmity ended Lenin’s participation in governing the Russian Communist Party. Two years later, in July 1924, at the fifth congress of the Communist International, Grigory Zinoviev popularized the term to denote "vanguard-party revolution". Leninism was composed as and for revolutionary praxis, and originally was neither a rigorously proper philosophy nor discrete political theory. After the Russian Revolution, in History and Class Consciousness (1923), György Lukács ideologically developed and organised Lenin’s pragmatic revolutionary practices into the formal philosophy of vanguard-party revolution (Leninism). As a work of political science and philosophy, History and Class Consciousness illustrated Lenin’s 1915 dictum about the commitment to the cause of the revolutionary man, and said of Lukács:
One cannot be a revolutionary Social–Democrat without participating, according to one’s powers, in developing this theory [Marxism], and adapting it to changed conditions.
— Lenin and the Russian Revolution (1971) p. 35.
In the 19th century, The Communist Manifesto (1848), by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, called for the international political unification of the European working classes in order to achieve a Communist revolution; and proposed that, because the socio-economic organization of communism was of a higher form than that of capitalism, a workers’ revolution would first occur in the economically advanced, industrialized countries. Yet, in the early 20th century, the socio-economic backwardness of Imperial Russia (uneven and combined economic development) facilitated rapid and intensive industrialization, which produced a united, working-class proletariat in a predominantly rural, agrarian peasant society.
Moreover, because the industrialization was financed mostly with foreign capital, Imperial Russia (1721–1917) did not possess a revolutionary bourgeoisie with political and economic influence upon the workers and the peasants (as occurred in the French Revolution, 1789). So, although Russia's political economy principally was agrarian and semi-feudal, the task of democratic revolution therefore fell to the urban, industrial working class, as the only social class capable of effecting land reform and democratization, in view that the Russian propertied classes would attempt to suppress any revolution, in town and country. In April 1917, Lenin published the April Theses, the strategy of the October Revolution, which proposed that the Russian revolution was not an isolated national event, but a fundamentally international event — the first world socialist revolution. Thus, Lenin's practical application of Marxism and working-class urban revolution to the social, political, and economic conditions of the agrarian peasant society that was Tsarist Russia sparked the “revolutionary nationalism of the poor” to depose the absolute monarchy of the three-hundred-year Romanov dynasty (1613–1917).
In the course of developing the Russian application of Marxism, the pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) presented Lenin’s analysis of an economic development predicted by Karl Marx: that capitalism would become a global financial system, wherein advanced industrial countries export financial capital to their colonial countries, to finance the exploitation of their natural resources and the labour of the native populations. Such superexploitation of the poor (undeveloped) countries allows the wealthy (developed) countries to maintain some homeland workers politically content with a slightly higher standard of living, and so ensure peaceful labour–capital relations in the capitalist homeland. (see: labour aristocracy, globalization) Hence, a proletarian revolution of workers and peasants could not occur in the developed capitalist countries, while the imperialist global-finance system remained intact; thus an underdeveloped country would feature the first proletarian revolution; and, in the early 20th century, Imperial Russia was the politically weakest country in the capitalist global-finance system. In the United States of Europe Slogan (1915), Lenin said:
Workers of the world, unite! — Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence the victory of socialism is possible, first in several, or even in one capitalist country taken separately. The victorious proletariat of that country, having expropriated the capitalists and organised its own socialist production, would stand up against the rest of the world, the capitalist world.
— Collected Works, vol. 18, p. 232.
The more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, careful, attentive, skilful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest, rift between the enemies, any conflict of interests among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisie within the various countries, and also by taking advantage of any, even the smallest, opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional. Those who do not understand this reveal a failure to understand even the smallest grain of Marxism, of modern scientific socialism in general. Those who have not proved in practice, over a fairly considerable period of time and in fairly varied political situations, their ability to apply this truth in practice have not yet learned to help the revolutionary class in its struggle to emancipate all toiling humanity from the exploiters. And this applies equally to the period before and after the proletariat has won political power.
— Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder (1920)
In Chapter II: “Proletarians and Communists” of The Communist Manifesto (1848), Engels and Marx presented the idea of the vanguard party as solely qualified to politically lead the proletariat in revolution:
The Communists, therefore, are, on the one hand, practically the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: Formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.
Hence, the purpose of the Leninist vanguard party is to establish a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat; supported by the working class, the vanguard party would lead the revolution to depose the incumbent Tsarist government, and then transfer power of government to the working class, which change of ruling class — from bourgeoisie to proletariat — makes possible the full development of socialism. In the pamphlet What is to be Done? (1902), Lenin proposed that a revolutionary vanguard party, mostly recruited from the working class, should lead the political campaign, because it was the only way that the proletariat could successfully achieve a revolution; unlike the economist campaign of trade-union-struggle advocated by other socialist political parties; and later by the anarcho-syndicalists. Like Karl Marx, Lenin distinguished between the aspects of a revolution, the "economic campaign" (labour strikes for increased wages and work concessions), which featured diffused plural leadership; and the "political campaign" (socialist changes to society), which required the decisive revolutionary leadership of the Bolshevik vanguard party.
As epitomised in the slogan “Freedom in Discussion, Unity in Action”, Lenin followed the example of the First International (IWA, International Workingmen’s Association, 1864–1876), and organised the Bolsheviks as a democratically centralised vanguard party, wherein free political-speech was recognised legitimate until policy consensus; afterwards, every member of the Party would be expected to uphold the official policy established in consensus. In the pamphlet Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action (1905), Lenin said:
Of course, the application of this principle in practice will sometimes give rise to disputes and misunderstandings; but only on the basis of this principle can all disputes and all misunderstandings be settled honourably for the Party.... The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party.
Full, inner-party democratic debate was Bolshevik Party practice under Lenin, even after the banning of party factions in 1921. Although a guiding influence in policy, Lenin did not exercise absolute power, and continually debated and discussed to have his point of view accepted. Under Stalin, the inner-party practice of democratic free debate did not continue after the death of Lenin in 1924.
Before the Revolution, despite supporting political reform (including Bolsheviks elected to the Duma, when opportune), Lenin proposed that capitalism could ultimately only be overthrown with revolution, not with gradual reforms — from within (Fabianism) and from without (social democracy) — which would fail, because the ruling capitalist social class, who hold economic power (the means of production), determine the nature of political power in a bourgeois society. As epitomised in the slogan, “For a Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry”, a revolution in underdeveloped Tsarist Russia required an allied proletariat of town and country (urban workers and peasants), because the urban workers would be too few to successfully assume power in the cities on their own. Moreover, owing to the middle-class aspirations of much of the peasantry, Leon Trotsky proposed that the proletariat should lead the revolution, as the only way for it to be truly socialist and democratic; although Lenin initially disagreed with Trotsky’s formulation, he adopted it before the Russian Revolution in October 1917.
In the Russian socialist society, government by direct democracy was effected by elected soviets (workers’ councils), which "soviet government" form Lenin described as the manifestation of the Marxist ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat’. As political organisations, the soviets would comprise representatives of factory workers’ and trade union committees, but would exclude capitalists, as a social class, in order to ensure the establishment of a proletarian government, by and for the working class and the peasants. About the political disenfranchisement of the Russian capitalist social classes, Lenin said that ‘depriving the exploiters of the franchise is a purely Russian question, and not a question of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in general.... In which countries... democracy for the exploiters will be, in one or another form, restricted... is a question of the specific national features of this or that capitalism’. In chapter five of The State and Revolution (1917) Lenin describes:
...the dictatorship of the proletariat — i.e. the organisation of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of crushing the oppressors.... An immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the rich:... and suppression by force, i.e. exclusion from democracy, for the exploiters and oppressors of the people — this is the change which democracy undergoes during the ‘transition’ from capitalism to communism.
Soviet constitutionalism was the collective government form of the Russian dictatorship of the proletariat, the opposite of the government form of the dictatorship of capital (privately owned means of production) practised in bourgeois democracies. In the soviet political system, the (Leninist) vanguard party would be one of many political parties competing for elected power. Nevertheless, the circumstances of the Red vs. White Russian Civil War, and terrorism by the opposing political parties, and in aid of the White Armies' counter-revolution, led to the Bolshevik government banning other parties; thus, the vanguard party became the sole, legal political party in Russia. Lenin did not regard such political suppression as philosophically inherent to the dictatorship of the proletariat; yet the Stalinists retrospectively claimed that such factional suppression was original to Leninism.
Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e. exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people — this is the change democracy undergoes during the transition from capitalism to communism.
Soviet democracy nationalised industry and established a foreign-trade monopoly to allow the productive co-ordination of the national economy, and so prevent Russian national industries from competing against each other. To feed the populaces of town and country, Lenin instituted War Communism (1918–21) as a necessary condition — adequate supplies of food and weapons — for fighting the Russian Civil War (1917–23). Later, in March 1921, he established the New Economic Policy (NEP, 1921–29), which allowed measures of private commerce, internal free trade, and replaced grain requisitions with an agricultural tax, under the management of State banks. The purpose of the NEP was to resolve food-shortage riots among the peasantry, and allowed measures of private enterprise, wherein the profit motive encouraged the peasants to harvest the crops required to feed the people of town and country; and to economically re-establish the urban working class, who had lost many men (workers) to the counter-revolutionary Civil War. With the NEP, the socialist nationalisation of the economy could then be developed to industrialise Russia, strengthen the working class, and raise standards of living; thus the NEP would advance socialism against capitalism. Lenin regarded the appearance of new socialist states in the developed countries as necessary to the strengthening Russia's economy, and the eventual development of socialism. In that, he was encouraged by the German Revolution of 1918–1919, the Italian insurrection and general strikes of 1920, and industrial unrest in Britain, France, and the U.S.
Lenin recognized and accepted the existence of nationalism among oppressed peoples, advocated their national rights to self-determination, and opposed the ethnic chauvinism of “Greater Russia” because such ethnocentrism was a cultural obstacle to establishing the proletarian dictatorship in the territories of the deposed Tsarist Russian Empire (1721–1917). In The Right of Nations to Self-determination (1914), Lenin said:
We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation, and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation.... The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support. At the same time, we strictly distinguish it from the tendency towards national exclusiveness.... Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.
The internationalist philosophies of Bolshevism and of Marxism are based upon class struggle transcending nationalism, ethnocentrism, and religion, which are intellectual obstacles to class consciousness, because the bourgeois ruling classes manipulated said cultural status quo to politically divide the proletarian working classes. To overcome the political barrier of nationalism, Lenin said it was necessary to acknowledge the existence of nationalism among oppressed peoples, and to guarantee their national independence, as the right of secession; and that, based upon national self-determination, it was natural for socialist states to transcend nationalism and form a federation. In The Question of Nationalities, or “Autonomisation” (1923), Lenin said:
...nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice; “offended” nationals are not sensitive to anything, so much as to the feeling of equality, and the violation of this equality, if only through negligence or jest — to the violation of that equality by their proletarian comrades.
The role of the Marxist vanguard party was to politically educate the workers and peasants to dispel the societal false consciousness of religion and nationalism that constitute the cultural status quo taught by the bourgeoisie to the proletariat to facilitate their economic exploitation of peasant and worker. Influenced by Lenin, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party stated that the development of the socialist workers’ culture should not be ‘hamstrung from above’, and opposed the Proletkult (1917–25) organisational control of the national culture.
In post–Revolutionary Russia, Stalinism (Socialism in one country) and Trotskyism (Permanent world revolution) were the principal philosophies of Communism that claimed legitimate ideological descent from Leninism' thus, within the Communist Party, each ideological faction denied the political legitimacy of the opposing faction.
Until shortly before his death, Lenin worked to counter the disproportionate political influence of Joseph Stalin in the Communist Party and in the bureaucracy of the soviet government, partly because of abuses he had committed against the populace of Georgia, and partly because the autocratic Stalin had accumulated administrative power disproportionate to his office of General Secretary of the Communist Party. The counter-action against Stalin aligned with Lenin’s advocacy of the right of self-determination for the national and ethnic groups of the former Tsarist Empire, which was a key theoretic concept of Leninism. Lenin warned that Stalin has “unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution”, and formed a factional bloc with Leon Trotsky to remove Stalin as the General Secretary of the Communist Party. To that end followed proposals reducing the administrative powers of Party posts, in order to reduce bureaucratic influence upon the policies of the Communist Party. Lenin advised Trotsky to emphasize Stalin’s recent bureaucratic alignment in such matters (e.g. undermining the anti-bureaucratic Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection), and argued to depose Stalin as General Secretary. Despite advice to refuse “any rotten compromise”, Trotsky did not heed Lenin’s advice, and General Secretary Stalin retained power over the Communist Party and the bureaucracy of the soviet government.
After Lenin’s death (21 January 1924), Trotsky ideologically battled the influence of Stalin, who formed ruling blocs within the Russian Communist Party (with Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, then with Nikolai Bukharin, and then by himself) and so determined soviet government policy from 1924 onwards. The ruling blocs continually denied Stalin’s opponents the right to organise as an opposition faction within the Party — thus, the re-instatement of democratic centralism and free speech within the Communist Party were key arguments of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, and the later Joint Opposition.
In the course of instituting government policy, Stalin promoted the doctrine of Socialism in One Country (adopted 1925), wherein the USSR would establish socialism upon Russia’s economic foundations (and support socialist revolutions elsewhere). Conversely, Trotsky held that socialism in one country would economically constrain the industrial development of the USSR, and thus required assistance from the new socialist countries that had arisen in the developed world, which was essential for maintaining Soviet democracy, in 1924 much undermined by civil war and counter-revolution. Furthermore, Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution proposed that socialist revolutions in underdeveloped countries would go further towards dismantling feudal régimes, and establish socialist democracies that would not pass through a capitalist stage of development and government. Hence, revolutionary workers should politically ally with peasant political organisations, but not with capitalist political parties. In contrast, Stalin and allies proposed that alliances with capitalist political parties were essential to realising a revolution where Communists were too few; said Stalinist practice failed, especially in the Northern Expedition portion of the Chinese Revolution (1925–1927), wherein it resulted in the right-wing Kuomintang’s massacre of the Chinese Communist Party; nonetheless, despite the failure, Stalin’s policy of mixed-ideology political alliances, became Comintern policy.
Until exiled from Russia in 1929, Leon Trotsky helped develop and led the Left Opposition (and the later Joint Opposition) with members of the Workers’ Opposition, the Decembrists, and (later) the Zinovievists. Trotskyism ideologically predominated the political platform of the Left Opposition, which demanded the restoration of soviet democracy, the expansion of democratic centralism in the Communist Party, national industrialisation, international permanent revolution, and socialist internationalism. The Trotskyist demands countered Stalin’s political dominance of the Russian Communist Party, which was officially characterised by the ‘cult of Lenin’, the rejection of permanent revolution, and the doctrine of Socialism in One Country. The Stalinist economic policy vacillated between appeasing capitalist kulak interests in the countryside, and destroying them. Initially, the Stalinists also rejected the national industrialisation of Russia, but then pursued it in full, sometimes brutally. In both cases, the Left Opposition denounced the regressive nature of the policy towards the kulak social class of wealthy peasants, and the brutality of forced industrialisation. Trotsky described the vacillating Stalinist policy as a symptom of the undemocratic nature of a ruling bureaucracy.
During the 1920s and the 1930s, Stalin fought and defeated the political influence of Leon Trotsky and of the Trotskyists in Russia, by means of slander, anti-Semitism, programmed censorship, expulsions, exile (internal and external), and imprisonment. The anti–Trotsky campaign culminated in the executions (official and unofficial) of the Moscow Trials (1936–38), which were part of the Great Purge of Old Bolsheviks (who had led the Revolution). Once established as ruler of the USSR, General Secretary Stalin re-titled the official Socialism in One Country doctrine as “Marxism-Leninism”, to establish ideologic continuity with Leninism, whilst opponents continued calling it “Stalinism”.
In political practice, Leninism (vanguard-party revolution), despite its origin as Communist revolutionary praxis, was adopted throughout the political spectrum.
In several works, including an essay written from jail and published posthumously by her last companion, Paul Levi (publication of which precipitated his expulsion from the Third International) titled "The Russian Revolution", the Marxist Rosa Luxemburg sharply criticized some Bolshevik policies, such as their suppression of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, their support for the partition of the old feudal estates to the peasant communes, and their policy of supporting the purported right of all national peoples to "self-determination." According to Luxemburg, the Bolsheviks' strategic mistakes created tremendous dangers for the Revolution, such as its bureaucratisation.
Left communism is the range of communist viewpoints held by the communist left, which criticizes the political ideas of the Bolsheviks at certain periods, from a position that is asserted to be more authentically Marxist and proletarian than the views of Leninism held by the Communist International after its first and during its second congress. Proponents of left communism have included Amadeo Bordiga, Herman Gorter, Anton Pannekoek, Otto Rühle, Sylvia Pankhurst and Paul Mattick. "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder is a work by Vladimir Lenin attacking assorted critics of the Bolsheviks who claimed positions to their left.
Critics of Lenin, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Noam Chomsky, have argued that Stalinism (i.e., a political system which includes forced collectivization, a police state, a totalitarian political ideology, forced labor camps and mass executions) was not a deviation from Lenin's policies, but merely a logical extension of them.
"The "call-up of 1937" was very loquacious, and having access to the press and radio created the "legend of 1937", a legend consisting of two points: 1) If they arrested people at all under the Soviet government, it was only in 1937, and it is necessary to speak out and be indignant only about 1937; 2) In 1937 they were the only ones arrested. Here's what they write: "That terrible year when they arrested the most devout Communist executives: Secretaries of the Central Committees of the Union Republics, Secretaries of the Provincial Party Committees, Chairmen of the Provincial Executive Committees; all the commanders of the military districts, marshals and generals; provincial prosecutors; Secretaries of District Party Committees..." At the very beginning of our book, we gave a conspectus of the waves pouring into the Archipelago [labor camps] during the two decades up to 1937. How long all that dragged on! And how many millions there were! But the future call-up of 1937 didn't bat an eye and found it all normal.... And for a long time after, as they became convinced of the irrevocability of their fate, they sighed and groaned, "If only Lenin were alive, this would never have happened!" What did they mean by this? Was it not precisely this that had happened to the others before them?" Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 2, p. 328
Works by Vladimir Lenin:
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