“…to tell the workers in the handful of rich countries where life is easier, thanks to imperialist pillage, that they must be afraid of “too great” impoverishment, is counter-revolutionary. It is the reverse that they should be told. The labour aristocracy that is afraid of sacrifices, afraid of “too great” impoverishment during the revolutionary struggle, cannot belong to the Party. Otherwise the dictatorship is impossible, especially in the Western European countries.”
-The Second Congress of the Communist International, Verbatum Report
Today is the 147th birthday of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the outstanding visionary who led Russia’s October Revolution in 1917, waging a great battle against imperialists, fascists, feudalists, social-democrats and other reactionaries in forming the world’s very first socialist state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Lenin came from the well-off Ulyanov family in Simbirsk, on the Volga River. He became involved in Marxist theory and activism from his years at Kazan University in the 1880s. He agitated against the reformist liberal tendencies in Russia at the time and promoted the necessity of revolution. He distributed literature and agitated, and was arrested by the police state of the Russian Empire on numerous occasions. The crackdown by Russian police forced Lenin to leave the country, and he stayed in Finland, Switzerland, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. During World War I, the German government enabled Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, to travel to Russia by train, hoping that Lenin’s agitation in Russia would be a distraction to the Russian government as it fought Germany. The Tsarist government was toppled in February 1917 by a moderate political revolution which saw Alexander Kerensky become the leader of the new Russian state. Kerensky’s failure to bring Russia out of the war led to Lenin writing the April Theses which condemned the Kerensky regime and agitate towards the soviet councils established by the Bolsheviks taking state power. This happened ultimately on November 7th of that year (October 25th on the Old Style calendar, hence why it’s the October – and not November – Revolution), when the antagonisms boiled over and the Bolsheviks attacked the Provisional Government.
The sudden capture of state power was followed by the Tsarist reactionaries and the anti-communists organizing into the White Army, an armed coalition supported by the Allied powers. The U.S. and other Allied countries invaded Russia in support of the White Army, and the Central Powers also took advantage of the chaotic situation and began advancing into the country. From 1917 to 1923, the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership made peace with the Central Powers, forced the Allied powers to withdraw, defeated the Whites and gave independence to numerous states like Finland, Estonia, Latvia and others and managed to establish a new federation of Soviet republics which was the first sustained proletarian dictatorship in the world. Lenin died in 1924, soon after the end of the civil war, due to a number of health problems. Joseph Stalin succeeded him soon after as the leader of the nascent Soviet state.
As a theorist, Lenin found answers to many of the questions relating to the formation of a proletarian dictatorship. In What Is To Be Done?, Lenin outlined the necessity of a vanguard organization, led by the most class-conscious and advanced sections of the working class, to agitate and guide the workers. In The State and Revolution, Lenin argued that an organized class dictatorship of the proletariat was necessary in defeating capitalism, and how this dictatorship would “wither” over time as society transitioned towards collective leadership and the contradictions which gave rise to state apparatuses were reconciled. Lenin also argued the necessity of strategic work like engaging in bourgeois-parliamentary elections and working with reactionary trade unions in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, as well as explaining the national question in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination. By far one of his most important works, especially in relations to the problems today, is Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, where he explained how imperialist powers like Britain and Germany drained the Global South for immense profits and how the workers in the imperialist countries benefited directly from the exploitation of the colonies. Lenin considered this to be parasitism and quoted Engels who referred to the reactionary and parasitic workers in the imperialist countries as a “bourgeois proletariat”. Lenin saw how the native workers of the imperialist countries were being provided high-paying administrative jobs while immigrants to those countries had to work the low-paying and more dangerous jobs.
Lenin’s policies in the civil war from 1917 to 1923 demonstrated Lenin’s strategic insight, such as the War Communism policy during the war, which instituted strict state ownership and control of agricultural produce, industry, production and trade, turning the country into a massive military camp determined to defeat the Whites and their imperialist allies. As the War Communism period exhausted much of the population, however, the policy was ended near the end of the war in 1921 and replaced with the New Economic Policy, which enabled some degree of private ownership under strict regulation and implemented the “tax in kind” for the peasants, which meant that they would pay a small part of their produce as tax but keep large portions of their produce, contrary to the War Communism period when agricultural produce was subject to large-scale confiscation under a fixed price. The NEP, which Lenin considered an “antechamber” or a gateway to socialism, gave breathing space to workers and peasants and enabled reconstruction of the country after the war, and was part of a more gradual process of social transformation.
Lenin’s contributions to Marxist theory led to the Marxist-Leninist wave of revolutions in Europe from the 1920s to the 1950s and his insights on imperialism also paved the way to the revolutions in Asia and Africa during the Cold War. As a theorist, as a revolutionary, and as a leader, Lenin was a giant and his creative and visionary approach should be embodied by all progressive forces in the world today.