V. I. Lenin Essay - Critical Essays

Lenin, V. I.


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."

Principal Works

Ekonomicheskie etiudy: stat'i (nonfiction) 1899

Razvite kapitalizma v Rossii [The Development of Capitalism in Russia] (essay) 1899

Chto dielat'?: Nabolevshie voprosy nashego dvizheniia [What Is To Be Done?: Burning Questions of Our Movement (nonfiction) 1902

K derevenskoi biednotie: ob'iasnenie dlia krest'ian, chego khotiat sotsial'demokraty (nonfiction) 1903

Shag vpered dva shaga nazad [published as "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back" in The Essentials of Lenin] (essay) 1904

Dve taktiti sotsial'demokratii v demokraticheskoi revoliutsii [Two Tactics of the Social-Democrats in the Democratic Revolution] (nonfiction) 1905

Materializm i empiriokrititsizm: Kritischeskiia zamietki ob odnoi reaktsionnoi filosofii [Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Notes Concerning a Reactionary Philosophy] (nonfiction) 1909

Imperializm, kak novieishii etap kaitalizma: populiarnyi ocherk [Imperialism: The Last Stage of Capitalism] (nonfiction) 1917

Iz istorii sotsial demokraticheskoi agrarnoi programmy: Stat'i 1901-1906 (nonfiction) 1917

Novyia dannyia o zakonakh razvitiia kapitalizma v zemledielii. Vypusk I. Kapitalizm i zemledielie v Soed. Shtatakh Ameriki [Capitalism and Agriculture in the United States of America] (nonfiction) 1917

Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia: Uchenie marksizma o gosudarstvie i zadachi proletariata v revoliutsii [The State and Revolution] (nonfiction) 1918

Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renegat Kautskii [The Proletarian Revolution and Kautsky the Renegade] (nonfiction) 1918

Detskaia bolezn' "levizny" v kommunizme ["Left Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder] (nonfiction) 1921

Sobranie sochinenii [Collected Works] (nonfiction, letters, and speeches) 1960-68

Aprel'skie tezisy [The April Conference] (essay) 1934

The Letters of Lenin (letters) 1937

Lenin on Language (nonfiction) 1983

Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents, 1907-1916, The Preparatory Years (nonfiction) 1984


M. W. Mikulak (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Lenin on the 'Party' Nature of Science and Philosophy," in Essays in Russian and Soviet History in Honour of Geroid Tanquary Robinson, edited by John Shelton Curtiss, Columbia University Press, 1963, pp. 164-76.

[In the following essay, Mikulak discusses Lenin's theory of the "partyness" of science and philosophy as evidenced in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.]

The Soviet Communist Concise Philosophical Dictionary states: "Dialectical materialism teaches that philosophy, as all of science, appears to be class, party [in nature]." The idea that science and philosophy exhibit class or party characteristics is rather novel in the Western world,...

(The entire section is 4701 words.)

Stefan Morawski (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Lenin as a Literary Theorist," in Science and Society, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Winter, 1965, pp. 2-25.

[In the following essay, Morawski explicates Lenin's writings on art and literature.]

Lenin's statements on literature do not constitute a system. We know that Lenin was not an esthetician, and that he never concerned himself for any long period with literary theory and criticism. Like Marx, however, he was very much interested in literature and art. Lunacharsky's reminiscences contain the following typical story. One night in 1905, at a colleague's house, Lenin picked up some popular books on the history of art. The next morning he told Lunacharsky that he had...

(The entire section is 8497 words.)

Arnold Toynbee (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "A Centenary View of Lenin," in International Affairs, Vol. XXXXVI, No. 3, July, 1970, pp. 490-500.

[In the following essay, Toynbee explains why Lenin remains one of the most important twentieth-century historical figures despite the failure of communism.]

Everyone has been speaking or writing of Lenin recently, and there is very little that I can add.

I will start with the obvious: Lenin is one of the few people in our lifetime who has been recognised within his own lifetime as being a figure of first-class importance in world history. By 'world history', of course, I mean the tail-end of world history, just the last 5, 000 years during...

(The entire section is 4988 words.)

Lewis S. Feuer (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Between Fantasy and Reality: Lenin as a Philosopher and a Social Scientist," in Lenin and Leninism: State, Law, and Society, edited by Bernard W. Eissenstat, Lexington Books, 1971, pp. 59-79.

[In the following essay, Feuer argues that Lenin's philosophical beliefs vacillated between sober materialism and Utopian fantasy.]

"'We ought to dream!' I wrote these words and got scared," Lenin said in his famous factional pamphlet What Is to Be Done? published in 1902. He dreamed of a centralized revolutionary organization in which "Social-Democratic Zheliabovs" would emerge; then he would dare say, a socialist Archimedes moving the social universe with...

(The entire section is 9094 words.)

Rodney Bar field (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Lenin's Utopianism: State and Revolution, " in Slavic Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, March, 1971, pp. 45-56.

[In the following essay, Barfield contends that State and Revolution is Lenin's credo on human nature, and as such should not be dismissed as mere utopianism, as many critics have done.]

General histories give little credence to the Utopian side of Lenin's revolutionary thought, especially in relation to his only formal Utopian work, State and Revolution. Most histories pass off that book as an "intellectual deviation" resulting from Lenin's "revolutionary fever" of 1917 or as a piece of political opportunism, while offering...

(The entire section is 5471 words.)

Rufus W. Mathewson, Jr. (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Lenin and Gorky: The Turning Point," in The Positive Hero in Russian Literature, second edition, Stanford University Press, 1975, pp. 156-76.

[In the following essay, Mathewson argues that Lenin's article Party Organization and Party Literature and Maxim Gorky's novel Mother together ushered in a new era in Russian thinking that revolved around Soviet literary ideals.]

No fewer than six attitudes toward literature, some of them contradictory, have been discerned in Lenin's writings. Soviet critics have had to make the most of these disparate views, stressing one at the expense of the others, but never moving beyond them. Although, taken together,...

(The entire section is 8020 words.)

Nina Tumarkin (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Religion, Bolshevism, and the Origins of the Lenin Cult," in The Russian Review, Vol. 40, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 35-46.

[In the following essay, Tumarkin examines the cult of Lenin that sprang up in Russia after the leader's death.]

In 1925, one year after Lenin's death, a story, called "Clever Lenin," circulated among the peasants of the Viatka countryside. One day, it begins, Lenin was leafing through books and newspapers and in every one found writings about himself. "Why should we fear the Entente and America when we have Vladimir Il'ich, who goes by the name of Lenin?" Lenin worried about how his country would fare without him, so he sent for the...

(The entire section is 4357 words.)

Paul N. Siegel (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Solzhenitsyn's Portrait of Lenin," in CLIO, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1984, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Siegel concludes that Alexander Solzhenitsyn's portrayal of Lenin in Lenin in Zurich bears little resemblance to the personality of the historical Lenin.]

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Lenin in Lenin in Zurich, which consists of chapters drawn from three volumes of his work in progress, is of interest in itself, in the light it casts on the historical accuracy of his project, whose avowed purpose is the correction of wide-spread misconceptions concerning the Russian revolution, and in its unwitting revelations about its author.


(The entire section is 4283 words.)

Alfred B. Evans (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Rereading Lenin's State and Revolution," in Slavic Review, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 1-19.

[In the following essay, Evans argues that Lenin's State and Revolution is not antithetical to the rest of Lenin's work, as most critics contend, but rather that the "tension between the polarities of value in Lenin's thought" would later become an integral part of Soviet politics.]

State and Revolution has long seemed to be the most puzzling of Lenin's written works. The traditional view among western scholars has regarded State and Revolution as a Utopian fantasy that is completely out of character with the rest of...

(The entire section is 8832 words.)

Paul Le Blanc (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Introduction: Authentic Leninism," in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Humanities Press International, Inc., 1990, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Le Blanc contends the core of pure Leninism is the revolutionary Bolshevik movement.]

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was the foremost leader of the world's first working-class socialist revolution, which swept Russia in 1917 and continues to reverberate down to our own time. People throughout the world—longing for an end to injustice, war, and oppression—have looked hopefully to the example of the Russian Bolsheviks and to the ideas of Lenin as a guide for liberation struggles and social change in their own...

(The entire section is 4986 words.)

Further Reading


Egan, David R. and Egan, Melinda A. V. I. Lenin: An Annotated Bibliography of English-language Sources to 1980. Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982, 482 p.

Bibliography of secondary sources on Lenin organized by subject.


Clark, Ronald W. Lenin: The Man Behind the Mask. London: Faber and Faber, 1988, 564 p.

Attempts to reveal the influence of Lenin's private and public personas.

Conquest, Robert. Lenin. London: Fontana, 1972, 142 p.

Political and historical analysis of Lenin's rise to power and subsequent influence as head of...

(The entire section is 695 words.)