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Issue #1912      April 27, 2020

LENIN: A DEFINING LIFE IN HISTORY

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, later to be known as Lenin, was born in the Russian city of Simbirsk (renamed in Soviet times as Ulyanovsk in his honour) on the 22nd April, 1870. Last Wednesday, we celebrated his 150th birthday.

Lenin studied law in Kazan and Samara, took an active role in revolutionary student groups, and studied the works of Marx and Engels and other revolutionary theorists. Already in those days he drew the attention of the Tsarist police and won respect from his peers with his theoretical and leadership abilities.

In 1893, he moved to St Petersburg (later called Leningrad) and began promoting Marxism amongst workers and intellectuals. By 1895 he united the various small Marxist groups in the city into one, the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. Lenin’s leadership directed the League’s work towards the primary task of uniting the theory and practical struggle of socialism with the working-class movement, conducting extensive propaganda and organisational work amongst the workers. He consistently promoted the truth of Marx’s theories and their relevance to Russian conditions, refuted opposing ideological tendencies such as Narodism and Economism, and revisionist tendencies such as the so-called “Legal Marxism.”

In December 1895, Lenin was arrested by the Tsarist police and spent the entirety of the next four years in prison and exile in Siberia. Nonetheless, he managed to stay in secret contact with his comrades and gave important advice, as well as writing the significant work The Development of Capitalism in Russia. This book hammered the final nail in the coffin of Narodism and paved the way for Marxism to become the leading ideology of the working class movement in Russia.

It is also during this period that, inspired by Lenin’s St Petersburg group, Leagues of Struggle also arose in other cities, as well as other “Social-Democratic” groups (at that time, “Social-Democratic” was the usual term for “socialist”). In 1898, these groups united into the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) which would eventually become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and held its First Congress.

While in exile, Lenin developed a plan for the organisation of the Party and the creation of a political newspaper for the entire country, which would serve to help unite the Party and bring the Party into closer contact with the people. Once he was freed in 1900, Lenin immediately put this plan into action, founding the newspaper Iskra. Owing to Tsarist censorship, the paper had to be printed abroad and smuggled into Russia with great effort.

Although the Party had been formally founded, it still existed as a coherent body more on paper than in practice. Lenin thus devoted his attention to the question of how to build the Party organisationally and theoretically. To this end, in 1901 he published the famous work What Is To Be Done?, in which he advocated for a highly disciplined Party, with a unified and robust grasp of theory, representing the most advanced section of the proletariat, as necessary to lead the struggle to end the rule of the exploiters. Iskra popularised these theories within the Party and amongst the people.

In 1903, the Second Congress of the RSDLP was held. The “Iskra” trend within the Party had already come to dominate the Party ideologically. However, within this trend, two different groups emerged with seemingly minor differences of interpretation. These groups broke into open hostility during the Second Congress. The group led by Lenin became known as the Bolsheviks, while the group led by Martov (another member of the Iskra editorial board) became known as the Mensheviks.

The major point of conflict which emerged at this Congress was whether membership and activity in a Party organisation should be a requirement for Party membership (supported by Lenin) or not (supported by Martov). Martov proposed that the Party should accept a broader membership who did not necessarily have to join and work in Party branches or other Party organisations. Lenin, however, correctly identified that this question is no minor issue, and in fact would determine the nature of the Party and its future; that the Party must require that all members be trained as revolutionaries through practical Party work.

After the Congress, the split between these two factions grew deeper. They began to act as separate parties, acting independently and holding separate congresses. Lenin wrote his classic work One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, further solidifying the Leninist, Bolshevik theory of Party building, and rejecting the Mensheviks’ turn to opportunism. Iskra was overtaken by Mensheviks, and Lenin resigned from its board; the paper then ceased publication in 1905. The Bolsheviks set up new newspapers of their own.

In 1905, a revolutionary situation emerged in Russia. Both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks recognised the nature of this revolution as bourgeois-democratic. However, the Mensheviks promoted the dogmatic view that the Russian bourgeoisie must lead the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia as it had done in Western European countries in the previous century or earlier, and the proletariat should seek a tactical alliance with the bourgeoisie. Lenin, most famously in his work Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, argued that the Russian bourgeoisie was economically and politically underdeveloped, and would fail to carry out the full tasks of the democratic revolution, and would instead seek compromise with the Tsar. He argued that the proletariat must build an alliance with the peasantry, who comprised the majority of the population, and in common with the proletariat were horribly exploited by the existing system.

Lenin’s analysis was proven correct when the revolution failed to achieve its full aims, with the Tsar instead making limited compromises to the bourgeoisie. Despite this, the revolutionary struggle succeeded in establishing revolutionary committees (later to be known as Soviets) of workers, peasants and soldiers.

After the failure of the first Russian Revolution, a period of intense repression and reactionary policy by the Tsarist regime followed. The revolutionaries were forced underground. Lenin was forced to spend more and more of his time outside of Russia. But regardless of these difficulties, his leadership was unanimously upheld by his comrades. The Bolsheviks became skilled at combining legal and illegal forms of work, dynamically adapting to the changing circumstances, and tightened their discipline and theoretical foundation. In 1912, the Bolsheviks formally declared themselves an independent Party, and founded the renowned newspaper Pravda, and further extended and deepened their presence amongst the working people.

By this time, the contradictions of imperialism around the world were intensifying, and there began a new revolutionary upsurge. However, with the outbreak of the First World War, the European Social-Democratic parties of the Second International, which had already been severely criticised by Lenin for many years for their opportunism, completely abandoned principle and openly sided with their respective imperialist governments in the war. Lenin instead made the correct Marxist analysis of the war as an inter-imperialist conflict, which should be opposed by the proletariat of all countries. A split occurred in the socialist movement across the world, and Lenin and the Bolsheviks played a major role in organising the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference of European socialist groups opposed to the war and subsequent such conferences.

In 1916, Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, in which he clearly analyses the nature of the imperialist stage of capitalism and its significance to Marxist theory and practice, and showed how the development of imperialism initiates the era of proletarian revolution.

The contradictions intensified by the war led to a surge in sympathy for the Bolsheviks among the Russian workers and peasants. A new revolutionary situation emerged, and Lenin was quick to identify it and calculate a course of action.

In early 1917, several major strikes broke out around Russia. On several occasions, the army was sent in by the Tsarist government to fire on crowds of striking workers. But this brutality only further radicalised the workers and turned the sympathy of many soldiers against the government. On 12th March, soldiers in St Petersburg refused to fire on the workers and instead joined them in protest. The news spread rapidly. Workers, peasants, and soldiers around the country united against the Tsar. New Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies were established, with leadership contested by the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and the petty-bourgeois “Socialist-Revolutionary” party.

The Tsar abdicated on 15th March, and the next day a Provisional Government was announced. This government was supported by, and included representatives of, the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries. However, Lenin declared that this government was, in fact, an organ of bourgeois rule, which was proven correct when it pledged to continue the imperialist war and took measures to preserve the privileges of the capitalists and landlords. Lenin correctly analysed that the situation Russia faced was a struggle between two powers: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, represented by the Provisional Government; and the dictatorship of the proletariat, represented by the Soviets.

In April, Lenin was able to return to Russia, and wrote his April Theses, in which he demanded that the war end, and described a plan to surpass the bourgeois-democratic revolution and proceed immediately to the socialist revolution. He advocated for all power to be given to the Soviets, and the Provisional Government to be disbanded. He also recommended that the Party no longer be called “Social-Democratic,” but instead a Communist Party, to mark clearly the schism between the opportunist parties who had betrayed the proletariat and the firm Marxist parties who consistently upheld the proletariat’s interests. This change would be made at the 7th Party Congress in 1918. Likewise, Lenin advocated for a new International to be formed of these Communist Parties of all countries, which would be done in 1919 named the Communist International.

The struggle over the next few months developed rapidly and took many turns, which Lenin capably navigated. The consistency of the Bolshevik Party and servility of the other parties to the bourgeoisie led to a steady increase of support for the Bolsheviks and their policies by the people. Eventually, the October Socialist Revolution broke out and was swiftly victorious, with the undisputed leadership of the Bolshevik Party.

Lenin’s thought and practice, and his leadership of the long struggle to achieve the victory of the socialist revolution, are a vast treasury of knowledge, eternally relevant to our struggle. His subsequent leadership of the building of the Soviet state, the first socialist state, and the beginnings of socialist economic construction for the last years of his life (tragically cut short on 21st January 1924 due to a stroke) are likewise of incalculably great value. For these reasons, and especially for his further elaboration and development of, and unshakeable commitment to, Marxism in the era of imperialism and proletarian revolution, we proudly call ourselves Marxist-Leninists.

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