Rethinking Lenin

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By Gargi Sengupta

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin, the architect of Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik revolution, politician and political theorist was considered as one of the most significant and influential figures of 20th century world history. Lenin was such a personality in history who brought about significant change in his country that reverberated around the world and impacted the lives of millions. He was the founder of the Russian Communist Party, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and architect and first head of the then Soviet Union.

He was born in Simbirsk (at present Ulianovsk), Russia on 10 April 1870. In November 1891, he passed his law examinations and graduated with a First Class degree. He moved to the then St. Petersburg in August 1893 and started working as a public defender and part of a group of revolutionary Marxists. At that time he was associated with revolutionary Marxist circles. While practicing law in 1892, he largely represented poor peasants, which led him to develop a hatred of the class bias he found in the Russian legal system. In the mid-1890s, he quit his law practice and settled in St. Petersburg. There he became associated with a group of radicals who were similarly impressed by the ideas of Marx as well as the influential Russian Marxist, Georgy Plekhanov.

At the time of staying in St. Petersburg in 1893, he continued to write and distribute political pamphlets about socialism as well as tried to stir up rebellion among the working people. He, with other agitators, strived to form the League of Struggle for the emancipation of the working class and was soon arrested for his political activities. From prison in St. Petersburg, he was sent to Siberia from 1897 to 1900. Following his release, he moved through Russia and Europe, developing his thoughts on Marxism and quickly became recognized as a leading thinker and prominent figure in the international Marxist revolutionary movement. In 1903, Lenin argued with the leadership of the Russian Social Democratic workers’ Party.

The moderates, led by Martov (whose real name was Yuliy Osipovich Tsederbaum), wanted to keep the party open to all who agreed with its politics. The radicals, led by Lenin, insisted that only those truly committed to immediate revolution should be members. In 1903, Lenin became the leader of the ‘Bolshevik’ faction of the Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party following the split within the social revolutionaries. This was about the same time he published a pamphlet ‘What is to be done?’ outlining his beliefs about the way towards a socialist state.

The implications of Lenin’s vision for the Russian Marxists became evident in the second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) held in 1903. In 1904, Russia went to war with Japan. Following a string of military defeats, by the beginning of 1905 various segments of Russian society including students and liberal members of the nobility were calling for political reform. In October 1905, the emperor issued his October Manifesto, in which he made a number of political concessions, including a commitment to establish a popularly elected legislative assembly called DUMA. In December 1907, Lenin began his second extended stay in Western Europe, settling first in Geneva, Switzerland and then in Paris.

In 1912, Lenin and his supporters organized a party conference in Prague. At this conference, Lenin formally broke from his Menshevik opponents and the rest of the RSDLP to form an independent Bolshevik Party. It was World War I that speeded up revolution in Russia. Lenin was still in Western Europe when the war began in 1914 and he saw the war as an opportunity to advance the international workers’ revolution he had worked for. When the February Revolution of 1917 led to the abdication of the Tsar and the development of the Russian Provisional Government, Lenin returned to St. Petersburg (now called Petrograd). By 1917 it seemed to Lenin that the prospect of revolution was rapidly receding and it was time for Soviets to take over power.

He arrived in Petrograd on 16 April 1917, one month after the Tsar had been forced to abdicate. He put three demands which were known as Lenin’s ‘April Thesis.’ On 25 October 1917, Lenin led his leftist revolutionaries in a successful revolt against the ineffective provisional government, an event known as the October Revolution. It was also known as Red October, the October Uprising or the Bolshevik Revolution and it was a seizure of state power from the provisional government of then Russia. Lenin, a leader of the communist party, became the new head of the newly formed USSR. Lenin, founder of the Bolshevik political party was a successful revolutionary leader who presided over Russia’s transformation from a country ruled by Tsars (emperors) to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the name of the communist Russian State from 1922 to 1991. What Marx and Engels saw as glimmerings of revolutionary potential in Russia came to fruition with the genius of Lenin’s revolutionary theory and practice.

His Ideology against the hierarchies and the capitalists would later become the foundation of modern anti-imperialism. Written in 1916, in the middle of the First World War, Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism is an essential work for understanding the phenomena of war and imperialism at present. According to Lenin, imperialism is not the result of nationalist values, ideas or policies but of concrete economic imperatives. His understanding is the way of understanding international politics today. The war of Ukraine is the consequence of the struggle between the two gangs of imperialists.

Just as in Lenin’s time British hegemony was threatened by the rise of the new socialist USSR, we are witnessing the rise of China and Russia which are challenging US hegemony today. The death centenary year of the genius leader Lenin is an occasion for us to appreciate his great contributions to explain today’s capitalism from the viewpoint of all oppressed nations all over the world.

(The writer is Associate Professor and Head of the department of Political Science, Chapra Bangaljhi Mahavidyalaya, Nadia. It was published in The Statesman.)

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