V. I. Lenin Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

V. I. Lenin 1870-1924

(Born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) Russian political leader and theorist.

The primary force behind the Russian Revolution, Lenin was a figure of enormous influence in twentieth-century politics and history. In his writings he claimed to be an orthodox Marxist, but in actuality he broke with his ideological predecessor Karl Marx on several key points. With his extreme emphasis on class struggle, Lenin believed that a workers' revolution could be created in the largely rural and agricultural nation of early twentieth-century Russia, in part contradicting Marx's theory that a nation must develop through a period of full industrial capitalism before a successful socialist revolution could occur. Lenin also differed with Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels, both of whom believed that workers in a capitalist system naturally inclined toward socialism. Lenin instead theorized that workers would acquire at most only "tradeunion consciousness" and would need the assistance of an external party structure to achieve full socialism. Thus, as borne out by the actual events of history, Lenin is seen as instrumental in recasting the theories of Marx by organizing the Bolshevik Party and emphasizing its dictatorial leadership as a means of inciting the workers to revolution.

Biographical Information

Lenin was born on April 10, 1870, in Simbirsk. His mother was of middle-class German descent while his father was a provincial school-inspector who rose from humble origins to the level of nobility. As a child Lenin attended school at the Simbirsk Gymnasium between 1879 and 1887. In the year of his graduation his elder brother Aleksandr was executed for his involvement in the attempted assassination of Czar Alexander III. The incident contributed to Lenin's growing interest in revolutionary politics and led to his expulsion from the University of Kazan late in 1887. Later adopting the pen name Lenin in place of his own surname (Ulyanov), he began to deepen his political involvement with the Marxists in Russia, both writing on politics and continuing with his study of law as an external student of St. Petersburg University. He passed his examinations in 1891 and moved to St. Petersburg in 1893, but never practiced law. In 1895 Lenin was arrested for his political activities and imprisoned. Two years later he was exiled to Siberia, where he completed Razvite kapitalizma v Rosii (The Development of Capitalism in Russia). Released in 1900, he attempted to operate underground, but found this impossible, opting instead to leave Russia. In December of 1900, Lenin founded the Marxist political newspaper Iskra ("The Spark") in Munich as a mouthpiece for the movement. Three years later, amidst increasing factionalism among the revolutionaries, he formed the Bolshevik Party, which differed from the opposing Mensheviks on several party issues. Despite this factionalism, he continued to solidify his domination of the party over the next several years, although he failed to realize his revolutionary goals when he first returned to Russia in 1905. Only temporarily unsuccessful, he left his homeland once again in 1907, and in 1909 published an attack on his political opponents entitled Materializm i empiriokrititsizm: Kritischeskiia zamietki ob odnoi reaktsionnoi filosofa (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Notes Concerning a Reactionary Philosophy). The following years saw a revival of the Russian Worker's Union, as well as the commencement of World War I. In February of 1917, to Lenin's surprise, the Czarist regime in Russia was overthrown at Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) and a provisional government installed. Hearing of these events from abroad, Lenin immediately arranged his return to Russia. Several months later he delivered his Aprel'skie tezisy (The April Conference) attacking the new government. In October of the same year, the Bolsheviks seized power and installed Lenin as premier and head of the Soviet state. The following year Lenin negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, agreeing to the German military demands in order so that he might better focus his energies on the burgeoning civil war in Russia, where open hostilities continued until 1922. Envisioning Russia as only the first European nation to undergo a worker's revolution, Lenin founded the Communist International in 1919 and unveiled his New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921. The next year, however, he suffered a debilitating series of strokes, from which he never fully recovered. Lenin died on January 21, 1924. His embalmed body, the object of intense veneration until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, was placed in the Mausoleum on Moscow's Red Square soon after his death.

Major Works

Most of Lenin's writings were either political essays intended to promote and justify the Russian Revolution or scathing invectives designed to weaken and destroy his political enemies. In The Development of Capitalism in Russia Lenin examined the contemporary economic state of Russia and observed that its industrial and agricultural progress proved that the nation was well on its way to capitalism and therefore becoming suitable for a future socialist revolution. Lenin's well-known 1902 book Chto dielat'?: Nabolevshie voprosy nashego dvizheniia (What Is To Be Done?: Burning Questions of Our Movement) is a invitation to political action and explains the need for a well-organized party structure to achieve the goal of revolution. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Notes Concerning a Reactionary Philosophy is often considered Lenin's most cogent statement of his philosophy. Most western critics have observed, however, that the work is primarily a polemical assault against his critics. Lenin's The April Conference follows a similar vein as a highly charged denunciation of the provisional government formed in Petrograd during the February Revolution. In the pamphlet entitled Imperializm, kak novieishii etap kaitalizma: populiarnyi ocherk (Imperialism, The Last Stage of Capitalism) Lenin made his assessment of the significant roles that capitalism and imperialism played in bringing about the First World War. Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia: Uchenie marksizma o gosudarstvie i zadachi proletariato v revoliutsii (The State and Revolution), which was drafted just prior to the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, and Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renegat Kautskii (The Proletarian Revolution and Kautsky the Renegade) are seen as Lenin's theoretical and practical justifications for his creation of a "dictatorship of the proletariat."