“But, as men cannot engender new forces but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance” -Jean Jacques Rousseau
The history of the world is not shaped by the ideas of great men but by the actions and mistakes of average men and the power of mass group mentality. The genius of an intellectual is the backbone to any movement but the catalyst for change lays in the movement of the people. This is an apt description of the movement for change in late 19th and early 20th century Russia, a country gripped by class struggle during a time of great change. Russia, ruled by nobility and the landed aristocracy, became a land of backwards economic practices and a great deal of poverty when Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov came onto the political scene in the early 20th century in Russia. Revolutionary movements were plentiful amongst peasant and intellectual groups alike but no man seemed to strike the nerve or take the cause on more heartily than the man that would be called Lenin. Lenin was able to galvanize a movement against the harsh strictures of capitalism and wealth and implemented a system of communism in Russia that today still exists (albeit modified) in Southeast Asia. Lenin’s interpretation of Marxist thought provided a value system for Russian peasants and workers alike and still exists today in pockets of anti-capitalist fundamentalism. In the following pages, Lenin’s background and his ideology will be expressed as will his relationship with the ideas of Karl Marx and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Finally, his influence on modern policy areas will be explored in relating his ideas to modern political thought.
Lenin was born in April 1870 in Simbirsk, the third of six children to the Inspector of Popular Schools for the province of Simbirsk. Vladimir’s parents instilled a sense of hard work and a need to succeed in their young son and provided him a very good education. With this education, however, Vladimir went on to become a very prominent revolutionary and an intellectual dynamo. The death of his oldest brother Alexander by execution (for attempting the assassination of Czar Alexander II) set off a fire of radical fervor in the young Lenin’s stomach. The intellectual was jailed several times and was constantly under police supervision and was exiled to Siberia for three years, until 1900. Lenin strove for revolution against the landed aristocracy and the evils of the Czarist rule. Revolution and the leadership of Lenin truly occurred between March and October of 1917. The czar abdicated his rule and a provisional government was put in place to establish a much more equitable rule of law. For followers of communism and Lenin, this was not good enough and in October 1917 the Constituent Assembly was dismantled and Lenin was inserted as Comrade of the Soviet States of Russia. Lenin would die January 21st, 1924, after years of painful health conditions including several strokes.
Lenin’s main political thoughts are characterized as a radical interpretation of Karl Marx’s ideas, in short a condemnation of modern democracy and the tenets of capitalism. Even Karl Marx conceded at times the advancements and the unifying ability of capitalism on a global sense. Marx would probably have been shocked had he viewed where Lenin took his beliefs. Lenin felt that capitalism was an evil thought system that destroyed the craft of work and its importance to the common man. Lenin placed highly the importance of work as a meaningful part of the common person’s psychological and emotional makeup. Lenin described the Russian industrial complex as denying “…the lower classes any rights whatever and thus…retards the development of the entire people.” Lenin obviously is no friend to capitalism’s progress of industry and as such an opponent, encouraged a worker’s revolution.
Such a revolution, however, would not be possible just by striking against the tools of their labor, as Marx would have happened. Lenin felt that the ideal approach to a proletariat revolution would be through political channels instead of economical channels. This can be seen as a top-down approach as opposed to a subtler, bottom-up approach endorsed by Marx. For such a political revolution, there would have to be some form of hierarchy, albeit a structure less foreboding and economically overpowering as the Russian aristocracy. The term professional revolutionary is mentioned as a viable way of leading the common man’s revolt. This idea basically consisted of taking workingmen and making them into revolutionaries who were capable of reading communist literature, spreading the word to fellow workers, and creating a much stronger fervor for the overthrow of their capitalist overlords. The workers would be under the wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Party so that they would not be beholden to working eleven hours a day, which would suffocate any chance for a revolutionary education.
An expansion on this notion of revolutionary leaders is how the revolution would occur. The workers of Russia and other autocratic nations had an unconscious structure of reform and change: the workplace. Unbeknownst to the Russian capitalists, they had put together hundreds and thousands of men in factories in order to produce more capital gains, but doing this they allowed for a common bond against the worker as well as a means of communicating grievances. The constant shift of workers also allowed for factory workers to see conditions in other factors and communicate with other workers who may have been facing the same plight. Basically, the structure of factory labor and the constant shifting of resources allowed for the creation of a focused revolutionary sentiment among members of the working class. Coupled with “professional revolutionaries,” the masses of factory workers would be able to have their voices heard, one way or the other.
Lenin stated in the document The Beginning of the Revolution in Russia “only an armed people can be the real bulwark of popular liberty.” This shows another key difference between Marx and Lenin: Marx sought a non-violent and gradual economic change to improve the plight of the working class, while Lenin sought to fight a bloody revolution from the top with the masses subjecting the aristocracy to their proletarian dictatorship. This dictatorship would be like any other, Lenin believed, in that it would subject one group to the violent suppression of their beliefs and place them into a lower stratum of society. Instead of the autocratic Russian dictatorship, however, this strict leadership would subject a numerical minority to violent rule and would leave the “toiled and exploited” to rule the nation. This seemed fair and equitable to Lenin and followers of his ideology and perhaps was a means of making the playing field more balanced for everyone in society.
The edicts of the Russian Social Democratic Party and Lenin himself were based around the one overriding theme of communism: the abolishment of private property. This was seen as THE focus of the battle against the capitalist system. Private property is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the prototypical capitalist economy, spurring individualism and free market policies. The free market by its very nature allows for a fluid motion of capital and, coupled with the greedy nature of humanity, a great number of corporations become a few members of mega-sized conglomerates. This is the heart of the beast and Lenin wanted to thrust a final blow at the center of this ideological animal. The RSDP proclaimed in their program that the confiscated private property of the aristocracy would become public domain and the result would be that the workers, who had previously owned only their labor, would also own the fruits of their labor as a community. This notion of owning bot the actions and consequences of labor is the fundamental notion of communism and the sense for revolution in Lenin.
Once this abolition of private property occurred, the program of the RSDP and Lenin would be implemented in full force. There are two very important portions of the party’s doctrine that are important to focus on. The first is the importance of education in the communist doctrine of Lenin. This appears in several different sources on Lenin, but the most important can be seen in a document from one of Lenin’s diaries. In this passage, Lenin speaks at a point a few years after the Bolshevik revolution, allowing some critical distance from the fiery atmosphere that existed in the late 1910s. Lenin shows disappointment in the progress of the public education system in newly communist Russia, displaying statistics that show, at best, a rate of 223 literate people per thousand in several key soviets within Russia. This ideas flies in the face of Lenin’s idea of having everyone become both educated and compelled to work. His feeling was that the was not providing enough funding for the advancement of public schooling and that funds should be shifted significantly to the Commissar of Education. Lenin stated “…the state’s first concern should not be publishing houses but…should be people to read…,” an indication of the level of concern on the Comrade’s part. This education would advance the cause of communism into generations in the future and would allow the expansion of education outward from Russia.
The second part of this doctrine that would be implemented would be the conscription of labor as a mandate of the government. This includes forming a Red Army of peasants and workers to fight for the cause of the Soviets. The reasoning behind this would be the fact that despite freedom from autocratic and capitalist grasps; the Soviet economy would require a great amount of manpower to allow for the equality of its members. Public ownership requires public participation and employment, so in order to maintain the idea of a public good and a public trust in their resources, the public at large would have to work toward maintaining their ideals. The crucial difference between the capitalist requirement toward work and the communist conscription of labor is that the laborers are laboring for a greater good (their neighbors, society) in the communist system, while in the capitalist system the laborers are not able to see the fruits of their labor and have little meaning behind their work.
An important, and relevant, aspect of Lenin’s thoughts and interpretations of Marxism and communism in general would be the need to have a global movement of workers against capitalism and autocracy. It is very simple to see why a movement of such proportions would occur; factory workers in Russia had similar work and life experiences as workers in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and Asia among other places. Capitalism’s iron grip did not just reach Russia but almost globally, as a result, the movements against such devices would necessarily and logically become a transnational movement. Lenin felt that this movement was not even necessarily limited to factory workers but should involve all enemies of capitalism.This could include peasants, intellectuals, and those who felt that capitalism sapped the livelihood from its cogs. Lenin, unlike Marx wanted much more rapid and global change and felt that capitalism had not one center of economic impetus, but many different locations that needed to be revolutionized and communized.
Lenin, in principle, seems to stand apart from most philosophers as a proponent of very rapid and, more importantly, dangerously violent social revolution. But if Lenin is observed just at the very core ideals, not necessarily the means of achieving these ideals, he is similar to a few political philosophers of the 19th century. The most obvious of such philosophers is Karl Marx, the predecessor of Lenin and modern socialism. Marx seems to wield a double edged sword went talking about capitalism and doesn’t seem to be as certain of the evils of capitalism as Lenin became. While Marx did see some very minor benefits to capitalism (including the simplification of social relationships), Lenin drew more upon Marx’s criticisms and solutions for the capitalist problem than he does on the less obvious praises of capitalism. As well, the Enlightenment thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau provides a lesser explored link to Lenin. Rousseau’s idea of a social contract was essentially the need for individuals to give up their personal liberties toward a “general will” and a common rule of law that would protect the general will. At the basic level of the “social contract” is a connection between Rousseau and Lenin’s idea of “soviets,” where equality reigned over preeminence.
Leninism’s influence on modern policy areas is typically an issue when economic or social situations in countries or regions become turbulent or have a history of grievances. As is the case when people are pushed to their last wits, radical and extreme ideas are brought to the forefront as part of civic discourse and argument. Leninism is invariably one of these radical ideas yet it has not come to fruition in any major cases.
The major influence of Leninism (as well as Marxism) in the modern world is upon the European Union, or the common European government that helps regulate economic and domestic issues. The ideals of socialism and communism, the abolition of private property, have not quite been reached with this governmental cooperative; there is too much capitalist influence for such a radical idea to become popular. But, the idea of unifying forces to meet the dynamic needs of the 21st century is very heartening and is an interpretation, through a very broad one, of Marxism and Leninism. The works of the Union, namely the search for a common currency, environmental green policies, and common transportation issues, have all shown modern uses of socialism and some ideas of Leninism.
What lays in the future for Lenin’s legacy and his beliefs? Much like Marx, I tend to believe the Hegelian dialectical approach to history, and I see the class struggles Marx spoke about in his Manifesto as pervasive elements of society. The classes that exist today also blend into races, religions, and sexuality. Instead of mere economic class, there exists hundreds of classes, all with specific agendas that cannot possibly be met without compromise. The problem remains that most of these groups have felt slighted, either by WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) culture or by the very competitive economic environment that exists in the 21st century. These problems cannot totally be rectified by compromise or by conceding to one side or the other. If pushed to the limit and if these groups have been wronged for such a long time that they have no faith in the power of their government, there seems to be little recourse than to come up with alternative approaches to social reform.
The options are many but the most realistic options are civil disobedience and, in very extreme cases, full scale revolutions. Does Leninism solve the plight of an ethnic group? A group who have different sexualities than the norm? A group of women or college students or Muslims? Just from my readings of Lenin and those who have written about Lenin, I feel that the commitment to politics of Leninism is merely a means to an end of economic equality. I do not feel that market Leninism or the edicts of socialism are conducive to changes in racial equality or acceptance of non-conventional lifestyles.
Social change and political change, realistically, are not catered to by the revolutionary beliefs of Lenin. There will be no violent overthrow of the capitalist system; there will be no total overhaul of modern democratic ideas. The forces of capitalism will defeat the forces of anti-globalization and anti-capitalism for as long as can be imagined into the future. There will be different shades of the same types of protest; there will invariably be complaints about the inequity of capitalism, but the solvency of capitalism over the uncertainty and poor responsiveness of command economics will be use as proof why capitalism has come about.
My interpretation and conclusion about Leninism are not positive outlooks for those who enjoy the beliefs of communism but it is definitely the realistic story of how Lenin’s beliefs have come to fruition. Small pockets of Leninism still exist, modified by time and by the overwhelming forces of free markets and competitive individualistic practices. The legacy of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov remains as a man who changed political radicalism forever, creating and implementing a plan of action so revolutionary that it turned Russia upside down. Lenin’s legacy, like much of history, is left to historical subjectivity but his lasting legacy lives on as a beacon of hope for those who, in the distant future, may feel capable of throwing off the dark cloak of capitalism. Lenin’s light will shine on in the hearts of the revolutionary, the skeptical, and the politically innovative.