What were the main points in Lenin's "A Letter to American Workingmen" and what was his purpose in writing it?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The main goal of Lenin's "A Letter to American Workingmen" was to broaden the workers' struggle in Russia to include the working class of the United States.  His purpose was to make the class struggle a worldwide one.

One of Lenin's most intense points in the letter is that American capitalism has created a small class of the very rich along with a much larger group of the very poor. For Lenin, America's social and economic condition is the very essence of exploitation:  

At the same time, America has become one of the foremost countries in regard to the depth of the abyss which lies between the handful of arrogant multimillionaires who wallow in filth and luxury, and the millions of working people who constantly live on the verge of pauperism.

He argued that the rise of American industrialization in the mid-nineteenth century has led to a worldwide desire to control wealth around the world.  Lenin asserted that this has led "the American multimillionaires, these modern slaveowners, [to turn] an exceptionally tragic page in the bloody history of bloody imperialism."  He points to examples of this in the conquest of the Philippines in 1898 as well as American participation in World War I, where the working class poor did the bidding of the very wealthy.

Another one of Lenin's points suggests that those who propagate American capitalist interests wish to discredit the Russian Revolution.  In arguing that the actions of the working class in Russia posed a direct threat to the capitalist system, Lenin asserted that this helped to make American workers pawns in the worldwide game of wealth consolidation:

The American people... find themselves in the latest, capitalist stage of wage-slavery to a handful of multimillionaires, and find themselves playing the role of hired thugs who, for the benefit of wealthy scoundrels, throttled the Philippines in 1898 on the pretext of “liberating” them, and are throttling the Russian Socialist Republic in 1918 on the pretext of “protecting” it from the Germans.

Lenin wishes to convince the American working class to reject propping up the capitalist system.  His goal is to galvanize the American working class into action.

In affirming that all workers around the world embrace freedom from capitalist control, Lenin advocates American workers join their Russian comrades.  Lenin understands that the American working class might not see themselves in class terms.  It is for this reason that he speaks powerfully to the idea that economic class is a universal condition, applicable to anyone who suffers under the capitalist system of exploitation:

"The workers of the whole world, no matter in what country they live, greet us, sympathize with us, applaud us for breaking the iron ring of imperialist ties, of sordid imperialist treaties, of imperialist chains—for breaking through to freedom, and making the heaviest sacrifices in doing so..."

Lenin is deliberate in his use of language.  He understands that the wealthy have used the media to discredit the movement in Russia. One of his points is to appeal to the economic condition of workers in America.  This is why his use of words such as "workers of the whole world" and "imperialist ties" is meant for Americans to think of themselves in economic terms.  This is further seen in lines such as, "The American workers will not follow the bourgeoisie. They will be with us, for civil war against the bourgeoisie."

One of Lenin's final points is that revolutionary action is intrinsic to American history.  He argues that the call to change existing conditions is a part of what it means to be American:

The American people have a revolutionary tradition which has been adopted by the best representatives of the American proletariat, who have repeatedly expressed their complete solidarity with us Bolsheviks. That tradition is the war of liberation against the British in the eighteenth century and the Civil War in the nineteenth century. 

Recognizing that Americans might see themselves in patriotic terms, Lenin taps into American history. In this way, Lenin's points work on economic and historical levels.

In the end, Lenin's purpose was to convince American workers of the need to embrace socialist change.  He wanted them to mirror the same type of action that he oversaw in Russia.  Lenin wishes to broaden this class movement around the world in order to strengthen his own position domestically and internationally.  His purpose in doing so was to display that class struggle is a worldwide condition and not something solely limited to one nation.

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