The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (1870-1924), who later adopted the name V.I. Lenin, was born to Mariya Blank, a doctor’s daughter, on April 10, 1870, in Simbirsk, where his father was an educator, schoolmaster, and inspector of primary schools. He was one of six siblings.
The second child and oldest son, Alexander (Sasha), went to St. Petersburg University in the fall of 1882, where he majored in natural science. While there, he joined an organization known as Narodnaya Volya, or the People’s Will. This terrorist wing believed in a socialist party led by the working class. Socialism was the logical extension of democracy, but czarists did not allow for peaceful development of democracy. Legal opposition was not allowed. The only option for purging the official hatred of any popular movement toward socialist democracy was terrorism. In February 1887, the People’s Will planned the assassination of Alexander II, czar of Russia. The police discovered the plot, and as a result, Alexander Ulyanov was executed in 1887 for being a part of the group that attempted to kill Alexander II.
Because of this experience, young Vladimir was propelled into revolutionary activity. As such, Vladimir would become a leader in the Russian Revolution. A diligent scholar, Lenin attained a mastery of social theory and a sound understanding of the history of social movements and historical trends. As a leading activist, Lenin wrote a series of articles that would not only serve as a guide for revolution in Russia but also lay the intellectual foundation for what would become Marxism-Leninism. These articles included The Development of Capitalism in Russia. In this work, Lenin tried to prove that that by 1900, Russia had already been incorporated into the world capitalist system. As a result, the peasants were rapidly being divided into capitalist farmers and the rural proletariat. Russian industry was divided between traditional handicrafts, backward manufacturing, and a modern machine industry in which a great deal of foreign capital was invested.
In 1902, Lenin wrote the pamphlet, What Is to Be Done? “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement,” Lenin stated. He wrote that unions by themselves would only lead to struggles over wages and working conditions; a socialist consciousness needed to be introduced from outside the working class. This would require an organization of professional revolutionaries. The organization would need to be disciplined, conspiratorial, and centralized. The “party of a new type” would become the vanguard of the working class and would lead, but remain separate from, the broader democratic workers’ movement.
In 1904, Lenin wrote One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. At this time, Lenin’s writing was based upon the assumption that the workers’ party needed to be taken over by those workers who were educated with a socialist awareness. The intellectuals were undependable, obsessed with eccentricity, anarchism, and egoism, and had an intense horror of discipline.
Materialism and Empiriocriticism was written in 1908 as a rebuttal to the physicist Ernst Mach, who had stated that reality was only the actuality of our experience, and therefore science could record only our subjective experiences. In Materialism and Empiriocriticism, Lenin affirmed that science is the observation of the material universe, existing independently of the observer. Physical sensations are the direct connection to the external world. Every ideology is conditioned by its historical setting. Science is no different, yet science is valid. It is independent of the observer to the degree it corresponds externally to tangible nature.
Sensations, wrote Lenin, are our obvious link between our consciousness and the external world. Energy affects our bodies, which are excited by stimuli and provoked by the external world. This in turn excites a chemical response in our nervous system and is transformed into consciousness by the mental activity of our brains. The energy of the exterior excitation changes physical and chemical corporeal activities and is transformed into sensations. Sensations are changed into consciousness. Consciousness is cast and grows. Consciousness interprets sensations. This implies a dynamic and interactive process in mental development. We learn through actively interacting with both the social and physical environment.
Physical and social realities, Lenin noted, are constantly changing. There is an eternal process of conflict and fusion of conflicting parts leading to the death of the old and the birth of the new. This simple logic is basic to anything that can be studied. It is more than a part of mental processes, or the way that the world is studied and understood. This logic is broadly similar to the way the universe is constantly evolving. The opposition and combination of components forming ever- greater wholes is an approximation of what is really happening to the universe outside the mind. When these opposing and interacting parts are fused, there is something basically different being formed that will replace what went before. The new thing soon develops its own tensions as it begins to break down. These new tensions not only lead to the extinction of this entity but also give birth to its replacement.
Science, according to Lenin, is a specialized form of logical practice, founded upon the certainty that there is an external reality that is independent of our consciousness. Through careful observation and the use of specific scientific method to analyze observations, this external reality is more closely revealed than by any other technique of understanding. Because all scientific observations are approximations, science is a constantly growing discipline. Every generation will get progressively closer to this external reality. The limitations of the categories used are always qualified, modest, changeable, provisional, and approximate. Each scientific breakthrough is built on earlier breakthroughs. Because every ideology is historically conditioned, science itself occurs in a specific historical setting. This is the basis of materialism; the fact that political states are a reality can be understood in terms of matter in motion.
In 1908, Lenin wrote The Agrarian Program of Social Democracy in the First Revolution. Most peasants in Russia were downgraded to farm workers and tenant farmers. Only a small number of peasants had enough land to endure as farmers. A minority of the farmers were rapidly becoming more like American capitalist farmers. The large feuDalí latifundium (large estates) remained. The latifundiums slowly developed into large farms modeled on the German Junker type. With the breaking down of feuDalíism, capitalism developed. The market economy merely meant that the state was becoming a major landowner.
Lenin contributed to the Marxist theory of imperialism with his text called Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. According to Lenin, imperialism was “the final stage of capitalism,” a sign of the breakdown of capitalism and the transition to socialism. Competitive capitalism of the early 19th century had become increasingly centralized, with fewer competitive firms surviving the increasingly intense competition. As a result, capital became concentrated in larger firms. In this way, “monopoly capitalism” was able to create ever-larger surpluses by limiting competition. Markets at home became glutted, and investment opportunities in the industrialized nations declined. This meant that corporate capitalists were forced to export capital to ensure future profits. This became, for Lenin, a major distinction between the earlier competitive capitalism and its later descendent, monopoly capitalism. Competitive capitalism exported finished goods in exchange for raw materials produced in the poor areas of the world. Monopoly capitalism exported its capital to these areas. Capital was invested to create modern ways of extracting those same raw materials. Instead of mines being owned by the local traditional elite, capitalists in the rich industrial nations owned them. This caused an increase in overall capital on a world scale while arresting development in the main capitalist countries.
The principal feature of modern capitalism was the domination of monopolist consolidations by giant capitalist firms. The monopoly control was most firmly established when all sources of raw materials were jointly controlled by several large surviving firms. Monopoly capitalism, with a few highly centralized firms effectively dominating the economy, created imperialism out of its own needs. In order to find continued profits in an already overdeveloped economy at home, investments flowed to less developed areas of the world, where the capitalist economy had not reached a saturation point, therefore making profits much higher. Export of capital was the fundamental principle of imperialism. The export of capital greatly influenced and hastened the growth of capitalism in those countries to which it was exported.
The next two most important of Lenin’s works, which outlined his sense of history, were State and Revolution and “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Both were models for the direction revolution would take. In State and Revolution, Lenin maintained that the workers could not merely take over control of the existing state; they needed to smash it. Then, when the returning bourgeoisie was overthrown, the state would wither away. In “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin disapproved of leftists in the West for disregarding parliamentary tactics and legal opportunities to create their own socialist revolution. Lenin also summarized the significance of all communist parties that had become centralized and disciplined and were following the lead of the Russian party.
Michael Joseph Francisconi
See also Consciousness; Dialectics; Economics; Engels,
Friedrich; Mach, Ernst; Marx, Karl; Materialism
Lenin, V. I. (1939). Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism. New York: International.
Service, R. (2001). Lenin: A biography. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
White, J. D. (2001). Lenin: The practice and theory of revolution. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave.