On the centenary of his death, Lenin’s legacy and its importance today

Lenin argued, imperialist wars are absolutely inevitable as long as private property in the means of production exists. His ideas remain crucial today. This image is inspired by the famous work by Banksy.
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On 21 January 1924 Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, died at the age of 53. Lenin’s tactical genius galvanised the Russian working class, emboldening them to seize state power amid the chaos of World War One in October 1917. Today, as capitalism reaches its historic limit — marked by escalating imperialist wars, environmental and economic catastrophe — revolution once more becomes a historical necessity. Lenin, however, teaches us that revolutions remain impossible unless the working class achieves revolutionary consciousness. As Lenin wrote in 1915, “the old government … never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls’ if it is not toppled over.”

Born in 1870 in Simbirsk, Russia, Lenin was the son of a school inspector employed by the Tsarist civil service. Lenin’s older brother, Alexander, was executed for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III in 1887. According to Trotsky, his brother’s death at the hands of the Tsarist regime played a determining factor in Lenin’s life. Lenin showed an early interest in revolutionary literature and was expelled from university for participating in student protests. By 1900, Lenin had endured imprisonment and three years in exile, during which he completed his first major work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia.

Lenin’s mastery of the works of Marx and Engels ensured his quick rise to prominence in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party as editor of the party’s newspaper, Iskra, which translates as Spark. In 1902 Lenin published his second major contribution to Marxist theory and revolutionary practice, What is to be Done?

In this work, he argued that revolutionary consciousness could not emerge spontaneously but required a vanguard party of disciplined revolutionaries to heighten working class struggle beyond the limits of trade union consciousness, with its focus on immediate economic demands within capitalism. For Lenin, the truly revolutionary and democratic approach to organising required full debate, internal freedom of criticism and discussion followed by a decision and united collective action. In contrast to the impasse created by horizontalist organisational approaches, which reject leadership and concrete demands, the success of the Bolshevik revolution owes much to Lenin’s insistence that unity of action is crucial in ensuring effective and practical implementation of tactical and strategic decisions.

Lenin dedicates much of What is to be Done to criticising economist socialists who dismissed socialist theory, instead prioritising bread and butter issues. Lenin argued that worker’s active participation in the political sphere was essential to achieving revolutionary class consciousness. Without denying the importance of economic demands, Lenin emphasised that working class consciousness “cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected.”

Ultimately for Lenin, the conflict between capitalist and worker could only be resolved through the seizure of state power by the working class internationally — the necessary precondition for the transition to socialism.

Lenin’s key purpose in his classic work, The State and Revolution, was to defend Marx’s theory of the state against distortions promoted by Karl Kautsky, leading theorist of the German Social Democratic Party. Here, Lenin draws heavily on the writings of Marx and Engels, describing the state as “a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms” and ultimately a weapon of class rule — a “special organisation of force: it is an organisation of violence for the suppression of some social class.” Referencing Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune of 1871, Lenin further highlights Marx’s key observation that “the working class cannot merely seize the existing state apparatus and use it for its own ends.” A workers’ state, therefore, must manifest in a distinct form, entirely different from the mock democracy offered by imperialist capitalism.

A workers’ democracy for Lenin meant democracy for the majority, accompanied by the necessary suppression of the exploiters — only then could society enter the first phase of communism. The Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 witnessed the development of such a state in the form of the Soviet, which is the Russian for “workers’ council.”

According to Trotsky, the Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, which emerged in the course of the Russian revolution of 1905, came to represent around 200,000 workers, principally factory and plant workers. The Soviet organised the working masses, directed the political strikes and demonstrations, armed the workers, and protected the population against pogroms. Soviets formed once again throughout Russia in the aftermath of the February Revolution in 1917, following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas III and the establishment of a liberal provisional government. This created a situation which Lenin called Dual Power. In April, Lenin returned from exile in Western Europe, marking a pivot in the direction of the revolution and world history. Lenin fought against the provisional government, calling for “All power to the Soviets” and for socialist revolution. In October that year, the Bolsheviks, under Lenin’s leadership, overthrew the provisional government, establishing Soviet rule in Russia. For Lenin, working class victory in Russia, signalled only the beginning of a global process of revolutionary upheaval.

Poster of Lenin. From the Marxist Internet Archive.

Lenin correctly foresaw that an isolated Russian revolution would struggle to defend itself against counter-revolutionary forces. The Bolshevik victory was at risk unless the revolution spread to the industrially advanced nations, particularly those in Western Europe. The concept of socialism in one country, a notion championed by Stalin, was alien to Lenin. In a document drawn up between December 1922 and January 1923, Lenin recommended that Joseph Stalin be removed from the position of General Secretary. For Lenin, only a worldwide workers’ revolution could defeat the global imperialist system.

For Lenin, imperialism represented the pinnacle and final phase of capitalism. Its defining characteristics include the dominance of monopolies and finance capital with the merging of bank capital and industrial capital, the export of capital to colonised nations and the division of nations among imperialist powers, leading to an intensification of imperialist rivalries and war. “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries,” wrote Lenin. This domination of finance capital and imperialism still prevails today.

Faced with capitalist imperialism, Lenin argued that combating national oppression was inherently bound with the struggle for socialism. Socialists must fight “not only to bring about the complete equality of nations, but also to give effect to the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, namely the right to free political secession,” wrote Lenin. Whereas Lenin advocated unconditional support for the right to national self-determination, socialists including Rosa Luxemburg, criticised Lenin’s position on the basis that dividing existing states along national lines was a reactionary undertaking and would lead to the fragmentation of the working class. Lenin was adamant in his position, writing, “Whoever does not recognise and champion the equality of nations and languages, and does not fight against all national oppression or inequality, is not a Marxist; he is not even a democrat.”

Lenin not only spearheaded the October 1917 revolution but also made monumental contributions to Marxist theory that are profoundly relevant today as inter-imperialist rivalries sharpen. A century after his death, Lenin’s life and legacy continue to inspire the international working class movement. When we march for Palestine, reject appeals to the capitalist state to deal with those we oppose, stand unequivocally with the fight for First Nations sovereignty or join a revolutionary party, we are drawing on the immense legacy Lenin left us. A staunch internationalist, Lenin championed the principle of national self-determination and the need for workers to seize state power — emphasising that revolutionary working class consciousness can only be achieved through organised struggle against all forms of exploitation, tyranny and oppression.

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