Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (lĕn´Ĭn, Rus. vlədyē´mĬr Ĭlyēch´ lyĕ´nĬn), 1870–1924, Russian revolutionary, the founder of Bolshevism and the major force behind the Revolution of Oct., 1917.
Born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, at Simbirsk (later called Ulyanovsk in his honor), he was the son of a school and civil service official and was drawn early to the revolutionary cause, especially when his brother, Aleksandr I. Ulyanov, was executed (1887) for his participation in a plot on the life of Alexander III. Lenin's law studies at the Univ. of Kazan were interrupted when he was banished for revolutionary activities. He completed his studies independently and practiced law briefly, but soon renounced his legal practice, turning entirely to the study of the teachings of Karl Marx and to propagandizing among the workers, particularly in St. Petersburg. He was exiled to Siberia in 1895 and, when his exile ended (1900), he left Russia to continue his revolutionary activities abroad.
Theoretician and Revolutionary
In a pamphlet titled What Is to Be Done? (1902) Lenin argued that only a disciplined party of professional revolutionaries could bring socialism to Russia. In 1903, at a meeting of the Russian Social Democratic Labor party held in London, the party split into two factions, the Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (see Bolshevism and Menshevism). Lenin continued to be the chief exponent of Bolshevik thought in the long struggles for supremacy against Plekhanov, Kautsky, and other less radical Marxists. With the outbreak of revolution in 1905, Lenin returned to Russia. His view that the Bolsheviks should take part in the second duma prevailed in 1907, but he left Russia later that year and subsequently mostly engaged in complex theoretical disputes.
Lenin was in Switzerland during the early years of World War I. In his view the war was an imperialist struggle; since imperialism was
"the final stage of capitalism,"
it was a historical necessity that the war would offer opportunities for a revolution of the proletariat. Consequently, Lenin urged the proletariat to oppose the war by an international civil war against the capitalist class. After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of Feb., 1917, the German government allowed Lenin to cross Germany en route from Switzerland to Sweden in a sealed railway car. By aiding his return to Russia, the Germans hoped (correctly) to disrupt the Russian war effort.
Lenin concluded that Russia was now ripe for a socialist revolution, arguing that the moderate provisional government represented the bourgeoisie whereas the soviets represented, in his words, a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. In July, 1917, after an abortive mass uprising in Petrograd, Lenin was forced to flee to Finland. Although the Bolsheviks were represented only by a minority in the first all-Russian Soviet congress (June, 1917), they soon gained decisive power. In Nov., 1917 (October according to the Old Style), the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, who had returned to Petrograd, overthrew Kerensky's weak and disorganized regime and established a Soviet government.
Lenin became chairman of the Council of People's Commissars and virtual dictator; Trotsky, Stalin, and Rykov were the other chief members. The Bolsheviks (who became the Communist party) asserted that the October Revolution had established a proletarian dictatorship. The new government's first acts were to propose an armistice with Germany and to abolish private ownership of land and distribute it among the peasants. Banks were nationalized, a supreme council was established to revive the dislocated economy, and workers' control over factory production was introduced. Atheism officially replaced doctrinal religion. All opposition was ruthlessly suppressed by the Cheka, or political police, under Dzerzhinsky.
Lenin fulfilled his promise of peace by accepting the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Mar., 1918). However, civil war in Russia and a war with Poland prevented peace from coming to Russia until late 1920. In 1919, Lenin established the Third International, or Comintern, to further world revolution. The policy of
prevailed until 1921. It brought extensive nationalization, food requisitioning, and control over industry. In 1921, in an attempt to boost the economy, Lenin launched the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed some private enterprise.
By 1922, Lenin had eliminated all organized opposition and had silenced hostile factions within the party. In fact, Lenin had set up a dictatorship of the Communist party, which controlled the hierarchy of local, regional, and central soviets. He retained the post of chairman of the Council of People's Commissars and was a member of the ruling Politburo of the Communist party until his death.
The strain of Lenin's labors destroyed his health. He suffered a stroke in 1922; a later stroke (1923) deprived him of speech. In a testament criticizing Stalin, written near the end of his life, he recommended Stalin's removal from the post of general secretary of the party. After his death (Jan. 21, 1924) this testament was suppressed, and Stalin emerged victorious in the contest for succession. Lenin's remains are in a mausoleum on Red Square.
Lenin's speeches and writings were highly regarded by his successors and followers. His major contributions to Marxism were his analysis of imperialism (stressing, among other things, the importance of colonial areas as the breeding ground for revolution) and his concept of a revolutionary party as a highly disciplined unit. One of the greatest and most practical revolutionists of all times, Lenin combined mastery of theory with shrewd political instinct. Although he attacked any theoretical revisionism or gradualism, he supported opportunistic compromises to further the establishment of socialism.
Lenin's voluminous writings and speeches are available in collected and selected English editions and in individual pamphlets. See also Memories of Lenin (1930) by N. K. Krupskaya (Lenin's wife); biographies by L. Trotsky (1925, repr. 1971) and R. Service (2000); A. B. Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks (1966); E. Kingson-Mann, Lenin and the Problem of Marxist Peasant Revolution (1983); A. G. Meyer, Leninism (1986); L. Schapiro and P. Reddaway, ed., Lenin (1987); P. LeBlanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (1989); R. Service, Lenin: A Political Life (1985); H. Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin In Exile (2010).