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1917-1924 - Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

During the 1890s, Russia's industrial development led to a significant increase in the size of the urban bourgeoisie and the working class, setting the stage for a more dynamic political atmosphere and the development of radical parties. Russians who fused the ideas of the old Populists and urban socialists formed Russia's largest radical movement, the United Socialist Revolutionary Party, which combined the standard Populist mix of propaganda and terrorist activities.

Vladimir I. Ulianov [Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov], was the most politically talented of the revolutionary socialists. Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov was born April 10, 1870, in Simbirsk, Russia. His father came from peasant stock and rose to the position of Councillor of State. His brother, Alexander, was hanged in the courtyard of Schlusselburg Bastille for terrorist activities against the government of the Czar. Another brother and two sisters, one after another, devoted themselves to the liberation of the workers and the peasants. The father of Alexander Karensky, the Minister-President of the Provisional Government which ruled Russia in the turbulent months after the fall of the Czar, was a teacher of Lenin's at the Simbirsk Gymnasium.

Lenin entered the University of Kazan, but was expelled for preaching socialism and taking part in a student rebellion. In fifteen years he was recognized as the leader of the Social-Democratic party, and as early as 1891 was regarded by the authorities as a dangerous person. Avoiding his brother's rash example, he took no part in terrorist plots, but devoted himself to agitation among the working classes. In the 1890s, Lenin labored to wean young radicals away from populism to Marxism. In 1895 he was arrested and from 1895 to 1899 exiled to Siberia. Nikolai Lenin was one of the names that he assumed while writing revolutionary pamphlets and books. After the expiration of his sentence he lived in various parts of Western Europe, editing papers, writing books and organizing his adherents.

Lenin was the master tactician among the organizers of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. In December 1900, he founded the newspaper Iskra (Spark). In his book What Is to Be Done? (1902), Lenin developed the theory that a newspaper published abroad could aid in organizing a centralized revolutionary party to direct the overthrow of an autocratic government. He then worked to establish a tightly organized, highly disciplined party to do so in Russia. At the Second Party Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903, he induced a split between his majority Bolshevik faction and the minority Menshevik faction, which believed more in worker spontaneity than in strict organizational tactics. Lenin's concept of a revolutionary party and a worker-peasant alliance owed more to Tkachev and to the People's Will than to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the developers of Marxism. Young Bolsheviks, such as Joseph V. Stalin and Nikolai I. Bukharin, looked to Lenin as their leader.

In Russia in March 1917 a spontaneous revolution erupted, prompting the czar to abdicate and initiating a struggle for power between moderate Socialists and hard-core revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks. The moderates won, formed a provisional government, and vowed to continue the war, a development that made going to war more palatable to many Americans, since the overthrow of the old dynastic-imperial system gave logic to a Wilsonian phrase that this was a war "to make the world safe for democracy."

The reign of the moderates was destined to be brief, partly because the Germans contrived to foment trouble by permitting an exiled revolutionary leader, Nikolai Lenin, to pass from Switzerland through Germany in a special sealed train to Russia. There Lenin joined with other leaders, including Leon Trotsky, in an open campaign to upset the moderate government. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, returned to Petrograd in April 1917. Although he had been born into a noble family, from his youth Lenin espoused the cause of the common workers. A committed revolutionary and pragmatic Marxist thinker, Lenin astounded the Bolsheviks already in Petrograd by his April Theses, boldly calling for the overthrow of the Provisional Government, the transfer of "all power to the soviets," and the expropriation of factories by workers and of land belonging to the church, the nobility, and the gentry by peasants.

Lenin's dynamic presence quickly won the other Bolshevik leaders to his position, and the radicalized orientation of the Bolshevik faction attracted new members. Inspired by Lenin's slogans, crowds of workers, soldiers, and sailors took to the streets of Petrograd in July to wrest power from the Provisional Government. But the spontaneity of the "July Days" caught the Bolshevik leaders by surprise, and the Petrograd Soviet, controlled by moderate Mensheviks, refused to take power or enforce Bolshevik demands. After the uprising died down, the Provisional Government outlawed the Bolsheviks and jailed Leon Trotsky (Lev Trotskii, originally Lev Bronstein), an active Bolshevik leader. Lenin fled to Finland.

Although the Provisional Government survived the Kornilov revolt, popular support for the government faded rapidly as the national mood swung to the left in the fall of 1917. Workers took control of their factories through elected committees; peasants expropriated lands belonging to the state, church, nobility, and gentry; and armies melted away as peasant soldiers deserted to take part in the land seizures. The Bolsheviks, skillfully exploiting these popular trends in their propaganda, dominated the Petrograd Soviet and the Moscow Soviet by September, with Trotsky, freed from prison after the Kornilov revolt, now chairman of the Petrograd Soviet.

Realizing that the time was ripe for seizing power by armed force, Lenin returned to Petrograd in October and convinced a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee, which had hoped to take power legally, to accept armed uprising in principle. Trotsky won the Petrograd garrison over to Soviet authority, depriving the Provisional Government of its main military support in Petrograd.

Soon after buying peace with Germany, the Soviet state found itself under attack from other quarters. By the spring of 1918, elements dissatisfied with the Communists (as the Bolsheviks started calling themselves, conforming with the name change from Russian Social Democratic Labor Party to Russian Communist Party [Bolshevik] in March) established centers of resistance in southern and Siberian Russia against the Communist-controlled area. Anti-Communists, often led by former officers of the tsarist army, clashed with the Red Army, founded and organized by Trotsky, now serving as commissar of war. A civil war to determine the future of Russia had begun.

During the Civil War, the Communist regime took increasingly repressive measures against its opponents within the country. The Soviet constitution of 1918 deprived members of the former "exploiting classes"--nobles, priests, and capitalists--of civil rights. Left-wing SRs, formerly partners of the Bolsheviks, became targets for persecution during the Red Terror that followed an attempt on Lenin's life in August 1918. In those desperate times, both Reds and Whites murdered and executed without trial large numbers of suspected enemies. The party also took measures to ensure greater discipline among its members by tightening its organization and creating specialized administrative organs.

In the economic life of the country, too, the Communist regime sought to exert control through a series of drastic measures that came to be known as war communism. To coordinate what remained of Russia's economic resources after years of war, in 1918 the government nationalized industry and subordinated it to central administrations in Moscow. The results of war communism were unsatisfactory. Industrial production continued to fall. Workers received wages in kind because inflation had made the ruble practically worthless. In the countryside, peasants rebelled against payments in valueless money by curtailing or consuming their agricultural production. In late 1920, strikes broke out in the industrial centers, and peasant uprisings sprang up across the land as famine ravaged the countryside.

While the Kronshtadt base rebelled against the severe policies of war communism, the Tenth Party Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) met in March 1921 to hear Lenin argue for a new course in Soviet policy. Lenin realized that the radical approach to communism was unsuited to existing conditions and jeopardized the survival of his regime. Now the Soviet leader proposed a tactical retreat, convincing the congress to adopt a temporary compromise with capitalism under the program that came to be known as the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Under NEP, market forces and the monetary system regained their importance. The state scrapped its policy of grain requisitioning in favor of taxation, permitting peasants to dispose of their produce as they pleased. NEP also denationalized service enterprises and much small-scale industry, leaving the "commanding heights" of the economy--large-scale industry, transportation, and foreign trade--under state control. Under the mixed economy of NEP, agriculture and industry staged recoveries, with most branches of the economy attaining prewar levels of production by the late 1920s. In general, standards of living improved during this time, and the "NEP man"--the independent private trader--became a symbol of the era.

About the time that the party sanctioned partial decentralization of the economy, it also approved a quasi-federal structure for the state. During the Civil War years, the non-Russian Soviet republics on the periphery of Russia were theoretically independent, but in fact they were controlled by Moscow through the party and the Red Army. Some Communists favored a centralized Soviet state, while nationalists wanted autonomy for the borderlands. A compromise between the two positions was reached in December 1922 by the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The constituent republics of this Soviet Union (the Russian, Belorussian, Ukrainian, and Transcaucasian republics) exercised a degree of cultural and linguistic autonomy, while the Communist, predominantly Russian, leadership in Moscow retained political authority over the entire country.

The party consolidated its authority throughout the country, becoming a monolithic presence in state and society. Potential rivals outside the party, including prominent members of the abolished Menshevik faction and the Socialist Revolutionary Party, were exiled. Within the party, Lenin denounced the formation of factions, particularly by radical-left party members. Central party organs subordinated local soviets under their authority. Purges of party members periodically removed the less committed from the rosters. The Politburo created the new post of general secretary for supervising personnel matters and assigned Stalin to this office in April 1922. Stalin, a minor member of the Central Committee at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, was thought to be a rather lackluster personality and therefore well suited to the routine work required of the general secretary.

From the time of the Bolshevik Revolution and into the early NEP years, the actual leader of the Soviet state was Lenin. Although a collective of prominent Communists nominally guided the party and the Soviet Union, Lenin commanded such prestige and authority that even such brilliant theoreticians as Trotsky and Nikolai I. Bukharin generally yielded to his will. But when Lenin became temporarily incapacitated after a stroke in May 1922, the unity of the Politburo fractured, and a troika (triumvirate) formed by Stalin, Lev B. Kamenev, and Grigorii V. Zinov'ev assumed leadership in opposition to Trotsky.

Lenin recovered late in 1922 and found fault with the troika, and particularly with Stalin. Stalin, in Lenin's view, had used coercion to force non-Russian republics to join the Soviet Union; he was "rude"; and he was accumulating too much power through his office of general secretary. Although Lenin recommended that Stalin be removed from that position, the Politburo decided not to take action, and Stalin remained general secretary when Lenin died in January 1924.

Some think that history might have happened differently if Lenin had lived long enough to see the global spread of the Russian Revolution to Western Europe and the USA. In one alternative, instead of the grim authoritarian and autarkic states of the East, socialist revolution in the worlds most advanced economies might have ushered in an era of global peace, progress and prosperity, with global federations substituting for nation-states and international organisations. In keeping with the hopes of European revolutionaries of the time, the early achievement of socialism leads to a drastic improvement in human progress, economic growth, democracy and freedom at the global level.

As important as Lenin's activities were to the foundation of the Soviet Union, his legacy to the Soviet future was perhaps even more significant. By willingly changing his policies to suit new situations, Lenin had developed a pragmatic interpretation of Marxism (later called Marxism-Leninism) that implied that the party should follow any course that would ultimately lead to communism. His party, while still permitting intraorganizational debate, insisted that its members adhere to its decisions once they were adopted, in accordance with the principle of democratic centralism. Finally, because his party embodied the dictatorship of the proletariat, organized opposition could not be tolerated, and adversaries would be prosecuted. Thus, although the Soviet regime was not totalitarian when he died, Lenin had nonetheless laid the foundations upon which such a tyranny might later arise.

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Page last modified: 28-12-2017 18:32:55 ZULU