Monday, April 9, 2007

Vladimir Lenin and the Promise of Communism

Vladimir Lenin was born as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov on April 22, 1870 in Simbirsk, Russia to Ilya and Maria Ulyanov. He was second son of six children, all of whom seemed to have had a happy childhood. Lenin stated, “we lived in easy circumstances…we did not know hunger or cold; we were surrounded by all sorts of cultural opportunities and stimuli, books, music, and diversions.”[1] Lenin was also an excellent student who achieved high marks in all of his classes, especially in Latin, history, geography, and literature.[2] This was in part to his “fine memory and the intense and for a child exceptional, attention with which he listened to the explanations of his teachers.”[3] Between the years of 1870 and 1881 there was little conversation “concerning political and social topics” were discussed in front of Lenin as a child.

However, two events in Lenin’s life would spark a change in Lenin and what he studied: the deaths of his father Ilya, and his brother Alexander during the mid-1880s. His brother’s death seemed to hit Lenin the hardest. Alexander was a university student in the Russian capital of Saint Petersburg when he became involved in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. He was tried and executed for his role in the assassination plot in 1887. According to historian Nikolai Valentinov, it was the death of his brother which was “the key to understanding how Lenin became a revolutionary.”[4] The entire Ulyanov family began to hate Russia’s autocratic government with a passion. They held the Tsar responsible for the execution of Alexander. That summer the family left Simbirsk for Kazan in 1887 where Lenin was to become a student at the local university that fall.

During that summer, Lenin took to reading the works of various Russian revolutionaries that influenced his brother, especially the work of Chernyshevski’s What Is to Be Done?[5] While at the University of Kazan, Lenin became involved in a student demonstration and was expelled from the university. He was also barred from attending other universities in Russia as well. Eventually, Saint Petersburg University allowed him to take his final examinations in law as an external student. After passing his exams, Lenin gained employment as a lawyer’s assistant in Samara and later moved to St. Petersburg in 1893.

Lenin’s arrival in St. Petersburg put him in direct contact with the various revolutionary circles in the Russian capital. He also “…became permanently occupied with reading Russian revolutionary literature of all kinds including [Karl Marx].”[6] By 1894 Lenin had given up his job as a lawyer’s assistant and “devoted himself wholly to publicising his views in Marxist journals and to acquiring a reputation as one of the most forceful debaters in that milieu.”[7] He also visited √©migr√© leaders in exile such as George Plekhanov and Paul Axelrod in Switzerland in order to acquire their support for a new venture in publishing called Iskra, which they gave fulheartedly. Lenin’s involvement in revolutionary circles drew the attention of the police, especially his friendship with Julius Martov. The two were arrested in December of 1895 and sent to Siberia for three years as punishment.[8]

During his exile in Siberia, Lenin married Nadezhda Krupskaya, a socialist activist in July 1898. Lenin kept busy during his exile in Siberia. He worked on a manuscript which was to be a “Marxist interpretation of the economic situation in Russia.”[9] He also translated The Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism by Sidney and Beatrice Webb.[10] His exile ended in 1900, which allowed Lenin to travel the European continent and to work on his newspaper, Iskra under various aliases. After traveling the European continent, Lenin returned to Russia to sow the seeds of his revolution. He became active in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and unveiled his revolutionary system in a pamphlet entitled, What is to be done?[11] Lenin believed "that autonomous working-class action could never transcend the
barrier of ‘trade-union’ consciousness, that the workers were not
capable by themselves of thinking politically, that their world-
view was circumscribed by the categories of capitalist relation-
ships."[12] However, not everyone in the Social Democrat party agreed with Lenin’s revolutionary strategy. A split occurred in the party into Mensheviks and Bolsheviks during the Second Congress. The Mensheviks believed that political power should be concentrated in the hands of the workers while the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership believed that power should be concentrated in the hands of a revolutionary vanguard. “A campaign of violent self-justification” against the Mensheviks was launched by Lenin and consumed him throughout 1904.[13] Following the split, Lenin had to rebuild his organization. He had to set up another newspaper since Iskra was controlled by the Mensheviks in order “to vie with his opponents for the attention and allegiance of the party workers in Russia.”[14] Lenin’s “major advantage over the [Mensheviks was that] his whole approach was based on offensive strategy.”[15]

However, Lenin had to leave Russia for Finland in 1907 due to security concerns, so he had to continue his offensive abroad. He continued to travel the continent, participating in many socialist meetings such as the Prague Party Conference of 1912 and the Zimmerwald Conference of 1915. Many of the socialist groups in Europe supported their countries when World War I began in 1914, much to Lenin’s dismay. Lenin viewed the war “as fertile soil for revolution.”[16] The war went badly for Russia and the Tsar, Nicholas II was overthrown in February/March 1917. However, the Provisional Government kept Russia in the war, which did not have the majority of support among the Russian people. This fact left the door wide open for Lenin to come back to Russia.

The German government wanted Russia out of the war, so they made contact with Lenin in Switzerland. Lenin agreed to return to Russia and was placed on a sealed train along with his fellow Bolshevik supporters. He arrived in Petrograd in 1917 and became the leader of the Bolshevik movement with his publication of the April Theses, which called for all out opposition to the Provisional Government. But this move on Lenin’s part left many Bolsheviks cold. Finally, Lenin’s moment arrived in October 1917 when the Bolsheviks took power from the Provisional Government.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks promised, “bread, peace, land” for the people of Russia. Lenin’s first order of business was to get Russia out of the war. The Bolsheviks began negotiating with Germany at Brest-Litovsk on December 9, 1917. The Germans laid down the conditions for the treaty, but Russia did not want to lose any territory. However, Lenin faced a difficult choice: agree to German demands or face fighting with Germany again. Lenin knew that the Russian army could not take much more, so he decided that there should be peace at any cost. Lenin’s colleagues wanted to withdraw from the negotiations, but Lenin argued that:
One does not joke with war. If you want a revolutionary war, you
must stop demobilization. Otherwise you sign whatever peace is
thrust in front of you.[17]
The Treaty of Brest-Litvosk was signed in March of 1918. The final terms were harsh; Russia had lost its most of its western territory, the most fertile soil and populous area of Russia.

After the treaty was signed, elections were held in Russia to elect a permanent government. The election was held, but the Constituent Assembly was only allowed to meet once, before being shut down by the Bolsheviks. They organized a new assembly, the Congress of Soviets and gave themselves ninety percent of the seats. Lenin ordered that all opposition groups to be shut down and members of those parties were either jailed or shot. This did not sit well with many Russian people.

One Russian citizen, Fanya Kaplan shot Lenin twice; once in the shoulder and once in the lung on August 30, 1918. Lenin recovered from his wounds, but his health was never the same again. The Bolsheviks, now renamed the Communists instituted the “Red Terror” in order to eliminate these so-called enemies of the state. Thousands were either executed or put into prison camps. During this time, a civil war was rampant throughout Russia.

The civil war began in 1918 with two groups fighting one another: the Reds and the Whites. The Reds wanted to maintain the Communist government in power while the Whites wanted to overthrow it. Foreign powers such as Britain, France, Japan, and the United States intervened with troops on the side of the Whites. Lenin was quietly confident about war itself. He knew “the weaknesses, [both] material and psychological of the enemies of Communism.”[18] However, the Red Army under the command of Leon Trotsky was able to defeat them and end the war by 1920.

Lenin also had dreams of spreading the revolution across the world after defeating the Whites in the civil war. He waged a war with Poland, but Communism was not spread throughout Europe however. The Russian people were weary of war and their country was in ruins. Following the Kronstadt uprising of sailors in 1921, Lenin knew he had to shift his focus from world revolution to getting Russia back on its feet. He implemented the New Economic Policy (NEP) in order to rebuild Russia’s infrastructure. But he would not live to see the fruits of his labor.

Vladimir Lenin had been in poor health since the attempt on his life back in 1918. After a series to strokes, Lenin died on January 21, 1924. But the question was, who was to succeed Lenin? A struggle for power ensured and Joseph Stalin was the victor and the new leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


Michael Collins, The Path to Freedom (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1996).

Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins, (London: Arrow Books, 1990).

Gabriel Doherty & Dermot Keogh, Ed., Michael Collins and the making of the Irish State, (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998).

V.I. Lenin, Lenin’s Collected Works Volume 22,, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964).

________, The right of nations to self-determination: selected writings, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1977).

Ulick O’Conor, Michael Collins: The Troubles, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975).

Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks come to power: the revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976).

Leonard Schapiro & Peter Reddaway, Ed., Lenin: the man, the theorist, the leader: a reappraisal, (New York: F.A. Praeger, 1967).

Robert Service, Lenin, a political life, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

Harold Shukman, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, (New York: Putnam, 1967).

Rolf H. W. Theen, Lenin: genesis and development of a revolutionary, (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1973).

Adam Bruno Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks: the intellectual and political history of the triumph of Communism in Russia, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1966).

N. Valentinov, The early years of Lenin, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969).

[1] Nikolai Valentinov, The Early Years of Lenin, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1969), 26.
[2] Ibid., 32.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 79.
[5] Ibid., 126.
[6] George Katkov & Harold Shukman, Lenin’s Path to Power: Bolshevism and the Destiny of Russia, (New York: American Heritage Press, 1971), 23.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 27.
[9] Ibid. The manuscript was entitled, The Development of Capitalism
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 30.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Harold Shukman, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, (Westport Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977), 90.
[14] Ibid., 91-92.
[16] Katkov & Shukman, Lenin’s Path to Power, 41.
[17] Adam Bruno Ulam, Lenin & the Bolsheviks: The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia, (London: Secke & Warburg, 1965), 401.
[18] Ibid., 434.
[19] Katkov & Shukman, Lenin’s Path to Power, 33.
[20] Michael Hopkinson, Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War, 99.
[21] Coogan, Ireland in the Twentieth Century, 63.
[22] Katkov & Shukman, 30.
[23] Ulick O’Connor, Michael Collins: The Troubles, 137 & Nikolai Valentinov, 36.
[24] Ulam, 416.
[25] Coogan, Micahel Collins, 139.