The twentieth century has been overshadowed by a clash of two ideologies, both representing a social, political and economic world order; one of the existing capitalist system, the other of revolutionary socialism. In April 1917 Vladimir Lenin, a revolutionary Marxist activist, writer and thinker, issued a series of directives on return from exile in an effort to subvert the energy of a revolution towards an uncompromising monolithic channel, famously known as the ‘April Theses’.
This thesis influenced a further revolution in October by a coup d’etat establishing the Bolshevik party in power. This revolution established the world’s first Communist state, based on the ideas and theories of Karl Marx; challenging the existing capitalist status quo of the west. Becoming, further a catalyst and inspiration for socialist, as well as non-socialist movements across the globe. However, from its outset creating an ambiguous character, on the one hand utopian in nature, but on the other, tainted with the hallmark of authoritarianism and ‘false premise’1
From the latter half of the nineteenth century Russia saw large unrest2. Further, newly found social, political and economical moods, of ‘mixed character’ began prevailing3, threatening the existing autocratic rule of the Tsar. Along with liberalism, anarchism, and conservatism, new ideas of socialism and change began to show colour. Years of unrest eventually lead to the abdication of the Tsar in 1917, followed by a power struggle. Although a provisional government was established, lead by Gregory Lvov4, in reality a’ dual power’ had emerged. One of the Soviet5 and one of the Duma6; the former the voice of the workers and peasants, and the latter representing ‘society’7, with a make-up of moderate socialists and liberals, operating with at least the passive approval of the Soviet8.
Vladimir Lenin had inspired the creation of the Bolshevik party, with his pamphlet what is to be done? . He was ideologically a radical Marxist revolutionary, on return from exile he issued his theses, primarily to the Bolshevik party, taking into account the mood of the country; he called for “all power to the soviets”. He condemned the provisional government and urged “no support” for it, for it was bourgeois, deceiving the masses, calling the war9 “imperialist”.
The war had largely been accepted as a means of defence, even within the socialist ranks. The Bolsheviks differed from the Cadets, Mensheviks and SR’s, who had been to the ‘left’, but with the fall of the tsar, they had taken on the role of heirs11. Lenin argued for a “revolutionary defeatism”12. Instead he called for state power to be passed to the proletariat and poor sections of the peasants13; breaking from capitalist interests, as well as all annexations14. Describing the present period as a transitional stage, which was due to the shortcomings of the “class conscious” proletariat. Who allowed power to be at the hands of the bourgeois, foretelling a transition of power to the proletariat. Lenin recognised the established rights structure. The provisional government had pioneered a structure of rights and liberties for the first time in Russia’s history, but the agrarian question had been postponed15, to which Lenin became an opportunist.
Indeed Lenin’s doctrine of a ‘class struggle’ and the idea of democracy as nothing more than a ‘smoke screen’ lead him to banishing the idea of parliamentary republic, which he called would be a “retrograde step”; the only acceptable form of government would be a union of soviets. In reality the bourgeoisie had tried to ‘master democracy’ by associating with it and taking charge of it16. Lenin demanded the dismantlement of the state structure and bureaucracy; something he later did, with the creation of his own secret police, the cheka and the red terror campaign. Ironically he had called for this as a utopian alternative, to the existing system he would have the masses envisage.
In agrarian policy he called for a shift in emphasis, all landed estates should be confiscated and put at the disposal agrarian soviets under nationalisation, as well as the nationalisation of all banks. Lenin was a proponent of Hilfeding’s concept, who believed that ‘control of the chief banks in the country would make it possible to regulate the economy’17; although he realised it’s inadequacies, and introduced the NEP once in power.
He further introduced the concept of socialism, a central theme in Marx’s ideas, calling not for its immediate introduction, but only in order to control production and distribution. He ended his speech with several party tasks, a change in the party’s name and an international outlook. Unlike Stalin later, who would advocate ‘socialism in one country’, Lenin believed in an international idea of socialism which would overthrow capitalism; and for some time saw passive socialist movements across Europe.
Although kalinin was of the opinion nothing was ‘new’ in Lenin’s theses, from that of an earlier party manifesto, Lenin did however add firm direction. Until this point many senior Bolsheviks were opposed to radical change, including, Stalin and Kamenev; he had a powerful drive with an obsessive belief in revolution18. Lenin promised ‘Peace, bread, land and workers’ control’,with slogans of all ‘power to the soviets’; the prospect from escaping from the deadlock of a powerful state became too irresistible in the social and political dynamic of Russia. All hopes of a democratic system thus became a far reality, as the Petrograd Soviet would begin to gain popular support and authority19.
The fact that Russia had failed to make sufficient progress, economically, politically and socially became all too apparent. Further, the provisional government’s coalition began to expose differences on key issues such as the economic system, land and the workforce. The years to come saw the fall of the provisional government, with the Bolsheviks taking control followed by almost three years of civil war, with the other factions taking arms up against the Bolsheviks. Lenin showed no regard for his fellow citizens, mercilessly crushing any opposition.
Marxist theory of the withering away of capitalism, the idea of the pheasants as ‘conservative’ class hardly fitted Marxist theory. Lenin had to re-write his revolutionary script to fit ‘backward’ Russia into a revolution before the West, and give the large majority of the peasants a role20, as well as the soldiers, whom he needed for vital support. Although Carr21 describes him as ‘self conscious’, it seems he was obsessed with ideology in pursuit of a utopian society, periodically becoming pragmatic, realising Marxist theories and the economic works of Hildferding as inconsistent .As Valentine’s memoirs suggest a ‘man with much personal charm, but with narrow intellectual horizon’22. He laid down instead a foundation for authoritarianism, which would continue for decades to come.
The communist state represented the opposite of political thinking to the west (although adopting socialist elements), Marxist-Leninism claimed universal validity, inspiring revolutionary activity universally, and so a challenge to the west; the Berlin wall, eventually becoming a visible polarization. However with the fall of the USSR, and its former ‘members ‘reversal from friend to foe, clearly highlights the triumph of capitalism and western democracy.
Carr, E. H. The Russian Revolution: From Lenin to Stalin 1917-1929. Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Coates, T (editor). The Russian Revolution 1917. Norwich: stationary office. 2000.
Gaida, F. A. Revolution, power, and the Bourgeoisie. Russian Studies in History. 2003, vol.41(no 4),p 9-30.
Hosking, G. Russia and the Russians. London: Penguin, 2002.