The Young Lenin

For a century, the ruling class has produced industrial quantities of lies and distortions about Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party and of the October Revolution of 1917. This article, therefore, sheds an important light on the life of this revolutionary giant. Covering the formative years of Lenin’s life, the following article – first published in issue 36 of In defence of Marxism magazine, gives a portrait of Lenin in his youth: from his boyhood years, to his making as a revolutionary, the founding of Iskra up until the eve of the second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, out of which the Bolshevik faction would first begin to emerge.

“When I came to know Lenin better, I appreciated yet another side of him which is not immediately obvious – his astonishing vitality. Life bubbles and sparkles within him. Today, as I write these lines, Lenin is already fifty, yet he is still a young man, the whole tone of his life is youthful.” Anatoly Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, 1923.

“Pity for Lenin the politician is hardly in order. He was a merciless polemicist, a ruthless terrorist and an unrepentant defender of practically everything done by him and his party.” Robert Service, Lenin: A Political Life, Vol. 3, The Iron Ring, 1995.

In telling the truth about Lenin, one is immediately confronted with the same problem as confronted Thomas Carlyle in writing his biography of Oliver Cromwell. Carlyle said that before he could begin this task, he had to dig Cromwell out “from under a mountain of dead dogs, a huge load of calumny and oblivion”. Lenin has likewise been buried underneath a mountain, not just of the lies and calumnies of bourgeois historians, but also of Stalinist distortions and hagiography.

As Trotsky correctly explained of the latter:

“In the literature of the epigones Lenin is now pictured in somewhat the same light that the icon painters of Suzdal represent Christ and the saints: instead of an ideal image, you get a caricature. Much as the icon painters try to rise above themselves, in the end they reflect only their own tastes, and as a result they must paint their own idealised portraits. As the authority of the epigone leadership is maintained by forbidding people to doubt its infallibility, so Lenin is represented in the epigone literature not as a revolutionary strategist who showed genius in his appreciation of the situation, but as a mechanical automaton of faultless decisions.”

Trotsky concluded:

“The present epigones demand that Lenin be acknowledged infallible in order the more easily to extend the same dogma to themselves.”[1]

A typical sample of this literature describes how “[t]he radiant genius of the great teacher of the working people of the whole world, V. I. Lenin, lights up mankind’s road as it advances towards Communism”[2]. Such quotations could be multiplied ad infinitum.

By such means they created the cult of Lenin, as they in turn created the cult of Stalin. Such a view presents a complete falsification and caricature of Lenin. He was certainly a genius, with many great qualities, but he was also a human being, who made mistakes – although far fewer than most – and who was unafraid of admitting and learning from them. He truly mastered Marxism, as few others were able to do, not as a dogma but as a guide to action.

These Stalinist cults of personality would have been utterly alien to Lenin, who hated such grandiose and pompous displays of ‘loyalty’. Lenin’s wife and comrade, Krupskaya remarked that he always spoke disparagingly of icons – “well, he is already an icon”. This makes it all the more grotesque that the Stalinists turned his own embalmed body into an icon, despite his widow’s objections.

With the collapse of Stalinism, many of these Lenin ‘worshipers’ immediately abandoned their former views and fully embraced the prejudices of bourgeois historians and slanderers. Slavishly following their new masters, they joined the foul campaign against Lenin, Bolshevism and socialism.

As we know, many bourgeois historians have built their personal reputations and considerable incomes on attacking the name of Lenin. The works of such hacks as Pipes, Service and Figes are peppered with falsehoods, distortions and innuendo, intended to fool the naive reader.

The present article aims to reveal the authentic Lenin, beginning with his youth. Hopefully, this will provide a better understanding of him as the defender and continuator of Marx and Engels, following their deaths. We furthermore hope it will serve to encourage the reader to study Lenin’s writings, as the genuine way to understand him and his ideas.

The extraordinary life of the man born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov covers the period of 1870 to 1924. Lenin’s revolutionary political life began early in the last decade of the nineteenth century and spanned more than thirty years.

Ulyanov family Image public domainThe Ulyanov family in 1879. Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin) is seated on the right-hand side / Image: public domain

His life can be considered a prime example of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history. According to the bourgeois view, the course of history is determined by the intervention of great men in an otherwise completely accidental series of events. Marxists, on the contrary, identify general laws that operate and determine the general direction of human society beneath this sea of accidents. Lenin himself fought for revolutionary change for more than three decades before the Russian Revolution struck its victorious blow in 1917. The latter was not the result of Lenin’s personal will or powers of persuasion, but of the dead end of Tsarism and the development of the rising Russian working class.

However, under certain circumstances – such as those that developed in Russia and internationally in 1917 – the actions of a single person can play a decisive role, and can even change the course of history. Without Lenin there would have been no Bolshevism and no successful October Revolution.

A time of great upheaval

The period of Lenin’s early life was a time of great upheaval in Russia. This backward “prison house of nations”, as he would later describe it, was experiencing profound changes. Serfdom had been abolished in 1861, but this did not lead to the emancipation of the peasants (known as ‘muzhiks’). Far from it. The peasants instead had to buy or rent plots of land from the landlords, which marked a transition from a feudal subjection to an economic one, whereby the peasantry was ground down and saddled with huge debts. They had, in reality, exchanged one form of slavery for another. The power of the landlords and Church remained as before, both of which were bastions of the autocracy, with the Tsar at its head. This was a form of Asiatic despotism that gave the world such ‘wonders’ as the ‘pogrom’, and the ‘knout’: a heavy, scourge-like whip used to flog victims.

Russia had not experienced a bourgeois revolution, the likes of which had swept away the vestiges of feudalism in the West. The Russian bourgeoisie had come on to the scene late in the day. As a result, they were rather weak and simply clung to the coat-tails of the landlords, the foreign capitalists, and the old autocracy. As such, they were incapable of giving leadership to the overburdened and downtrodden peasantry. The social effects of this belated development were deeply felt among the intelligentsia. Hemmed in and stifled by the tsarist regime, the latter were in a state of agitation and ferment. The youth among this social stratum, and particularly the student youth, became a lightning rod for revolutionary ideas. The political writer and socialist, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who condemned the so-called ‘emancipation’ of the serfs as robbery, and who was pilloried and condemned by the regime to hard labour, became a symbol of resistance and an inspiration to a whole generation of revolutionary youth in Russia.

Chernyshevsky’s book What is to be done? certainly influenced the young Vladimir Ilyich, as it influenced so many other young people. Indeed, he read the novel five times in one summer. “It completely reshaped me,” he told Nikolai Valentinov, who shared his lodgings in 1904. “This is a book that changes one for a whole lifetime.”[3]

Vladimir Ilyich’s father, Ilya Nikolaevich Ulyanov, was an inspector of public schools in the Simbirsk region, a government official of some standing. Although he was a devout member of the Russian Orthodox church, he nevertheless maintained a progressive outlook. As a result of his diligence, he was promoted to the post of Director of Schools, and was even raised to the rank of a hereditary noble with the title, “Official State Councillor”. Lenin’s mother, Anna Elizarova, came from quite a well-off background. Her father had been a doctor and owner of an estate, on which the Ulyanov family later spent their summer holidays. She spoke Russian, German, and French fluently, and was well read. Although not wealthy, the family was certainly comfortable.

Ilya Nikolaevich and Anna Elizarova had six surviving children in total, the first being Anna who was born in 1864. The eldest son was Alexander, or Sasha, as he was affectionately known, and became the pride and joy of the whole family. Then there were the other siblings: Vladimir Ilyich, Olga, Dimitri and Maria. “We were a friendly and closely-knit family,” said one of Lenin’s sisters. As good parents, Ilya and Anna focused their attention on their children’s education and future prospects. At home, Shakespeare, Goethe and Pushkin, among other writers, were read aloud on Sunday afternoons. The young Lenin certainly had all the advantages of a decent education and settled family life. In their general outlook, the Ulyanov family could be considered typical of the Russian intelligentsia.

Zemlya i Volya

“One cannot understand the destiny of the Ulyanov family,” wrote Trotsky, “without understanding the logic of this earlier independent revolutionary movement of the Russian intelligentsia, and therewith the logic of its collapse.”[4]

The ferment of these years witnessed the creation of a new organisation, Zemlya i Volya (‘Land and Freedom’). The ‘Populists’, as they were known, were a revolutionary movement of thousands of mainly educated student youth. They enthusiastically ‘went to the people’, as they understood it. Their goal was to enlighten the peasants of the villages, and rouse them against tsarist tyranny, espousing the idea of a kind of peasant socialism. They believed that western capitalism was reactionary and therefore sought a different road for Russia. Their stated aim was to provide a spark that would spur the peasantry to revolutionary action. They worked energetically towards a peasant uprising against the old order. But the peasantry, though discontented, was immersed in backwardness. It remained unmoved by such propaganda. In fact, not only would they react with indifference but often they would even react with hostility, turning the young radicals over to the police. As a result, there were widespread arrests and the movement ‘to the people’ suffered defeat.

Given the repressive character of the tsarist regime, underground organisation was the only viable manner in which revolutionary groupings could exist. When the peasant revolution failed to materialise, the youth turned towards individual terrorism to expedite change. They targeted hated police chiefs, tyrants, torturers and gendarmes for assassination. The first attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II had taken place in April 1866. Although it failed, it left the regime shaken and spread panic through ruling circles. But the regime soon regained its nerve and reverted to harsh repression.

Within Zemlya i Volya, two tendencies emerged: on the one hand, a tendency drawing together the advocates of individual terrorism, and on the other, those who advocated propaganda in the countryside. The organisation eventually split, with the propagandists creating Chernyi Peredel (‘Black Redistribution’), meaning the land was distributed equally among the ‘black’ people, which in Russian denoted the exploited peasant masses.

The dominant terrorist wing entered the scene as Narodnaya Volya (‘People’s Will’). Its supporters were known as ‘Narodniks’ and individual terror against the state was their creed. Their tactic was akin to Bakunin’s notion of the ‘propaganda of the deed’. Openly engaging in direct action would, they supposed, lift the fighting spirit of the people by way of example. “History is too slow,” said one of its leaders, Zhelyabov. “We must hurry it on.”[5] Lenin called it “the theory of single combat”, which “has the immediate effect of simply creating a short-lived sensation, while indirectly it even leads to apathy and passive waiting for the next bout.”[6]

“Just as in the days of old the peoples’ battles were fought out by their leaders in single combat, so now the terrorists will win Russia’s freedom in single combat with the autocracy”, states a Narodnik leaflet.

Aleksandr Ulyanov Image public domainAleksandr Ulyanov – Lenin's older brother who was executed at the age of 22 for his role in the assassination attempt of Tsar Alexander II / Image: public domain

In effect, the methods of individual terrorism revolved around a handful of revolutionaries, where the masses were excluded and regarded as merely onlookers. “The warrior replaced the apostle”, commented Trotsky.[7] In 1878, the young, courageous student, Vera Zasulich, who went on to later help establish Russian Social Democracy, shot General Trepov, the Governor of St Petersburg, who had recently subjected a prisoner to corporal punishment. A prominent trial took place, but Zasulich was eventually acquitted.

Following twelve years of failed assassination attempts, on 1 March 1881 (Old Calendar), the Narodniks finally succeeded in blowing up the Imperial carriage, killing Tsar Alexander II with another bomb as he emerged. But this very success sealed the fate of the terrorist organisation. The people did not rise and the movement faced vicious repression. Five assassins were hanged. Under the blows of reaction, the organisation, composed of a dedicated group of fewer than fifty, began to disintegrate, unable to replace its losses with sufficient recruits.

“Very likely, there was no shortage of young men and women ready to blow themselves up along with their bombs,” wrote Trotsky. “But there was now no one to unite and guide them. The party was disintegrating. By its very nature, the terror expended the forces supplied to it during the propaganda period long before it could create new ones. ‘We are using up our capital,’ said the leader of the People’s Will, Zhelyabov. To be sure, the trial of the assassins of the tsar evoked a passionate response in the hearts of the individual young people. Although Petersburg was soon swept all too clean by the police, People’s Will groups continued to spring up in various provinces until 1885. However, this did not go to the point of a new wave of terror. Having burned their fingers, the great majority of the intelligentsia recoiled from the revolutionary fire.”[8]

Of course, the young Vladimir Ilyich, being only eleven years old at the time of the assassination, was largely unaware of this unfolding political drama. At this point in his life, he was engrossed in reading literature and in his studies.

Lenin’s brother

After the assassination, a new tsar, Alexander III, assumed the throne. Reforms gave way to counter-reforms. The universities were now robbed of their autonomy and local self-government, the zemstvos, was brought under the heel of the central authorities. Anti-Jewish pogroms, the monstrous hallmark of tsarism, became widespread. But in the course of this stormy period, the example of the People’s Will first attracted and then drew into its ranks Lenin’s elder brother, Alexander, who was studying science at university in St Petersburg.

In March 1887, determined to carry out ‘propaganda of the deed’, a group of young student revolutionaries took steps to assassinate the new Tsar. Bombs of nitroglycerin were prepared by the chemistry student, Alexander Ulyanov, who had become a leading member of the group. The date of 1 March was chosen for the deed, coinciding with the sixth anniversary of the assassination of tsar Alexander II. However, the plot failed and there were widespread arrests.

In all, fifteen people were brought to trial accused of attempting to murder the Tsar. The bulk of the accused faced long prison sentences. However, Alexander, who was regarded as the leading conspirator, was found guilty and condemned to death. On 8 May 1887, he was taken from his cell and hanged along with four others in the courtyard of the Peter and Paul Fortress. He declared, on behalf of his comrades, that they were not afraid to die, because “there is no death more honourable than death for the common good.” His sister, Anna, who was never involved in the plot, was also arrested but was later released following the executions. Alexander’s mother learned about her son’s fate from a newspaper she had bought on her way to see her daughter.

The sacrifice that the young Alexander was prepared to make is truly remarkable. This young man – only 21 years of age – was willing to give his own life for the cause. The very thought is humbling. What courage! What dedication! What sacrifice!

Alexander had been careful not to involve his younger brother in the conspiracy, nor even to mention it to him. According to Krupskaya, while the boys had common tastes, “the difference in age probably made itself felt.” She continued, “for Alexander Ilyich did not tell Vladimir about everything.” The secrets he kept from his younger brother included his clandestine revolutionary activities. However, “the fate of his brother undoubtedly profoundly influenced Vladimir Ilyich.”[9] There can be no doubting that fact.

Vladimir Ilyich was seventeen and still at school when his brother was hanged by the tsarist state. He was shaken to the marrow by the tragedy, which came on top of the death of his father, at the age of fifty-three, a year earlier. Both deaths, in their own way, produced deep feelings in the young Lenin, provoking a critical attitude towards religion as well as a hatred of the hangman. It certainly must have deepened his sympathies for the Narodniks and their cherished cause.

Despite the tragedies that the young Ilyich suffered, he nonetheless excelled at school in Simbirsk, coming top of his class. He had a passion for Latin and the classics, and he absorbed himself in the books from his grandfather’s library. He was also very fond of chess. By a strange quirk of history, the headmaster at Ilyich’s school was a man called Fedor Kerensky, the father of the future head of the Provisional government in 1917, Alexander Kerensky, whom Lenin deposed. Fedor gave Vladimir Ilyich a glowing report: “Very gifted; consistently painstaking and regular in his attendance.”[10] These diligent qualities stayed with him for the rest of his life.

As a result of his academic achievements, he was able to enter Kazan University to study law, where his father had previously studied. This was the only university in Russia’s Eastern provinces. However, it was not very long before the young Lenin was involved in student protests, demanding university autonomy from the autocratic state authorities. For this, he along with thirty-nine others were expelled. While harbouring natural sympathies for terrorism, he did not choose the same path as his brother. The reason was simple. That avenue was blocked. Following the attempted assassination of Alexander III, such was the atmosphere in the country that any movement in that direction was ruled out. Everything was shrouded in a dark cloud, the reflection of a period of extreme reaction.

However, the story was spread that following his brother’s execution, Ilyich was supposed to have cried out: “No, we will not follow that road. That is not the road to take.” This is clearly made up by the Stalinists who want a better Lenin. As Trotsky wittily explained, “To whom were these words addressed? The mother was in Petersburg, Anna was still in prison. Evidently Vladimir imparted his tactical discovery to the thirteen-year-old Dimitri and the nine-year-old Maria…”[11]

Ilyich still had a strong attachment to the old Narodniks. It is no accident that throughout Lenin’s life, he always paid tribute to the memory of these fighters, including his brother, who left behind them a heroic tradition. “He [Lenin] has always inculcated into us the most ardent respect for this cluster of brilliant revolutionary fighters, the first generation of Populist revolutionists”, explained Gregory Zinoviev, in his lectures on Lenin’s life. “And comrade Lenin did not renounce this heritage. He said: This heritage belongs to us, and only to us.”[12]

The Emancipation of Labour group

The Chernyi Peredel, the propaganda group led by Plekhanov that had split from ‘Land and Freedom’, was not stable. In the pressurised situation, it soon began disintegrating. “The organisation had no luck from the first days of its creation”, complained Deutsch. Its leaders – Plekhanov, Zasulich, Deutsch, Axelrod – were eventually compelled to emigrate in the course of 1880 and 1881.

However, this small exiled group of five members looked to new social forces: the industrial workers, who were the class most open to revolutionary change and socialism. The Russian proletariat was a virgin working class, newly created and largely composed of millions of dispossessed peasants, thrown off the land into the cities and into the giant foreign-owned factories. Viciously exploited, they were increasingly open to revolutionary propaganda.

Through Vera Zasulich, the group was in touch with Marx and Engels in London. As a result of this contact, they became convinced of the correctness of Marxism, and, in 1883, the year of Marx’s death, they established the ‘Group for the Emancipation of Labour’ with the aim of popularising the ideas of Marxism in Russia. Plekhanov’s small grouping therefore became the bridge between the old ‘Populism’ and the emerging Social Democracy, i.e revolutionary Marxism.

“Thus, in little Switzerland arose the nucleus of the future great party, the Russian Social Democracy, which then begat Bolshevism, the creator of the Soviet Republic”, wrote Trotsky. “The world is constructed so improvidently that the birth of great historic events is not heralded by the blowing of trumpets, and celestial bodies do not exude omens. For the first eight or ten years, the birth of Russian Marxism seemed hardly a noteworthy event.”[13]

The group remained in contact with Engels for the remainder of his life, through correspondence and even visits from Zasulich. So, it was in this period of reaction that this small embryo of Russian Social Democracy was born. It would be another ten years before the first Social Democratic organisation would be established on Russian soil. This tiny handful of dedicated comrades engaged in a struggle against the Narodnik idea that Russia could simply bypass capitalism in favour of some sort of ‘peasant’ socialism. Marx and Engels answered this point theoretically in the 1882 preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, published by Plekanov’s group, which linked the fate of Russia to the world revolution.

“The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

“The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”[14]

Within this tiny émigré grouping around Plekhanov were contained the seeds of the future Bolshevism. However, it would take the person of Lenin to cause these seeds to germinate and flourish.

From exile, the group smuggled Marxist literature into Russia and, through contacts, began to establish Social Democratic circles, mainly of young students. This pioneering work earned Plekhanov the title of the father of Russian Marxism. But it should be noted, in these times his group was completely isolated. These were the wilderness years. Nonetheless, it was precisely in these years that the theoretical foundations of Russian Social Democracy were being forged.

The beginning of a political journey

In early 1888, Vladimir Ilyich moved with his family to Samara. However, given the cloud that surrounded Alexander’s name, the family was under constant police surveillance. In the autumn they moved to Kazan. At the age of eighteen, Ilyich began to mature into manhood. It was a period of preparation that would last nearly six years, in which he was in touch with local revolutionary circles. His grasp of foreign languages allowed him to read widely. Through student friends, he came across the writings of Marx, including Capital, which he began studying in great detail.

But this was still only the early beginning of his political journey. Despite what some would suggest, he certainly did not consider himself a Social Democrat at this time. However, he was a quick learner and, wherever he could get hold of them, he treated Marx’s writings very seriously. He advanced in his studies, but he was still influenced by his sympathies towards the People’s Will. Things were still unclear in his mind. He had not, as yet, read anything of Plekhanov, although with great difficulty he would later manage to get hold of Engels’ Anti-Duhring while in St Petersburg.

Following a long period of persistent pressure by his mother on the authorities, and despite many setbacks, he was finally allowed to take his law exams in St Petersburg university, but only as an external student. At this time, he suffered a further personal blow when his sister, nineteen-year old Olga, contracted typhoid and died, by a terrible coincidence on the anniversary of Alexander’s death. Despite these blows, Ilyich finally passed his exams with a first class degree and went on to work as a lawyer’s assistant in the provincial town of Samara.

In 1891-92, the region suffered terribly from a severe famine, compounded by cholera and typhus epidemics. 400,000 people died as a result. This had a tremendous impact on the young Lenin, reinforcing his revolutionary convictions. He would spend a four-year period in Samara, during which he came into contact with an older generation of revolutionaries, mainly from the People’s Will. An internal struggle was necessary in order that he might break with these traditions and fully adopt the Marxist outlook. He came to recognise that his legal career was incompatible with the broader and more important horizons that he had newly discovered. He therefore took a bold step and placed himself fully at the service of the revolution. He would later joke about his brief career in the legal profession.

He knew that he was not the kind of person who could dip in and dip out of something. “Vladimir Ulyanov despised dilettantism,” explained Trotsky.[15] It was here, in Samara, that Ilyich emerged as a revolutionary Social Democrat and a convinced Marxist.

In late August 1893, Ilyich left Samara and his family for the capital, St Petersburg, where he joined a newly established Social Democratic circle. He met with various comrades, which at that time included Peter Struve and Mikhail Tugan-Baranovski. Both would soon politically take leave of Lenin and join the camp of liberalism. This really marks the beginning of Lenin’s political activity, in which his life now merged with the idea of building the revolutionary party. His ideas began crystallising and he advanced from a pupil to a teacher.

At the age of 23, the young Lenin was preparing not simply to become a writer, or theoretician, but a future leader of the movement. In his early contribution, On the So-called Market Question, he demonstrated a knowledge of Capital, which he deployed alongside the latest facts and figures to uncover capitalism’s development in Russia and to answer the arguments of the Narodniks.

“It is thus, between his brother’s execution and the move to St Petersburg, in these simultaneously short and long six years of stubborn work, that the future Lenin was formed. He was still to make great strides forward, not only externally but internally; several clearly delineated stages can be seen in his later development. But all the fundamental features of his personality, his outlook on life, and his mode of action were already formed during the interval between the seventeenth and twenty-third years of his life,” explained Trotsky.[16]

A new turn in the situation

This new, qualitatively higher stage in Lenin’s development is no accident. His own change reflected the changing situation in Russia. International events had an impact too, not least the dock workers’ strike in Britain and the wave of ‘New Unionism’ that was taking hold there. In 1889, the Second International was formed, and the illegal German Social Democrats won almost one and a half million votes in the elections. In Russia, it was a time of increasing class struggle and waves of strikes, during which the first real workers’ circles emerged. The youth were also awakening to Marx’s ideas.

Georgi Plekhanov Image public domainGeorgi Plekhanov – a giant in Marxist theory, Plekhanov had a profound impact on the young Lenin, as well as the development of Marxism in Russia / Image: public domain

The model of party organisation towards which the Russian Marxists – including Lenin – looked, was that of the mass Social Democratic parties of Western Europe, and particularly the German party. This was especially the case after the defeat of the revisionist ideas of Eduard Bernstein by Kautsky, Bebel and other leaders of the SPD.

In Russia, as elsewhere, the first period of revolutionary organisation was generally based upon the intelligentsia and especially the students in the first instance. The revolutionary party was, almost exclusively, the preserve of the youth.

Lenin took his responsibilities seriously. He did not study Marxism in a superficial way, but with extreme thoroughness, despite the great difficulty in obtaining these writings. He set himself the aim of conquering these ideas, not simply of repeating them by rote. He adopted this rigorous approach to all things throughout his life. Looking back on this early period, Lenin summarized the experience in Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder:

“Russia achieved Marxism – the only correct revolutionary theory – through the agony she experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment, verification, and comparison with European experience. Thanks to the political emigration caused by tsarism, revolutionary Russia, in the second half of the nineteenth century, acquired a wealth of international links and excellent information on the forms and theories of the world revolutionary movement, such as no other country possessed.”[17] (LCW, vol.31, pp.25-26)

It was this unique experience that gave the Russian revolutionary movement a head start in helping to clarify its ideas and steel its cadres in preparation for the events of 1905 and 1917. As such, the Russian Marxists had a huge advantage compared to those in other countries. Above all, these experiences also shaped Lenin’s approach.

It is therefore no accident that the first translation of Marx’s Capital in Russian appeared in 1872, five years after the original, while the French edition appeared in 1883, and the first English translation was in 1886, fourteen years after the Russian.

Lenin was keen for the Marxists to become involved in agitation amongst the workers, who were just beginning to flex their muscles. As a result, he authored the first address to the workers of the Seymyannikov works, which was written in longhand, copied four times, and then distributed by hand. Other leaflets were given to women workers of the Laferm tobacco factory, which had gone on strike. Later these handwritten leaflets were duplicated and distributed more widely.

Lenin took on board Engels’ point that the struggle is conducted on three planes: the economic, the political, and – just as importantly – the theoretical. Different Marxist texts, such as Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, were passed around among members of the circles. Vladimir Ilyich also took time to read Marx’s Capital with groups of workers.

In 1894, he wrote his first major work, Who Are the ‘Friends of the People’, and How They Fight the Social Democrats, a polemic with the Populist, Mikhailovsky, which settled accounts with the Narodniks. He followed this up with another devastating critique, The Economic Content of Narodism, which also criticised Struve’s revisionism. Both works were issued illegally.

In Who are the Friends of the People, Lenin outlines the materialist conception of history – the only scientific method of explaining history – and takes up a detailed defence of Marxism, starting with dialectical materialism. He concluded that Narodism had degenerated into “petty-bourgeois opportunism”, which merged with liberalism and expressed the interests of the petty-bourgeoisie. He then went on to expound the tasks of the revolutionary Social Democrats:

“The political activity of the Social Democrats lies in promoting the development and organisation of the working class movement in Russia, in transforming this movement from its present state of sporadic attempts at protest, ‘riots’ and strikes devoid of a guiding idea, into an organised struggle of the WHOLE Russian working CLASS directed against the bourgeois regime and working for the expropriation of the expropriators and the abolition of the social system based on the oppression of the working people. Underlying these activities is the common conviction of Marxists that the Russian worker is the sole and natural representative of Russia’s entire working and exploited population.”[18]

Lenin’s book concluded:

“When its advanced representatives have mastered the ideas of scientific socialism, the idea of the historical role of the Russian worker, when these ideas become widespread, and when stable organisations are formed among the workers to transform the workers’ present sporadic economic war into conscious class struggle – then the Russian WORKER, rising at the head of all the democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism and lead the RUSSIAN PROLETARIAT (side by side with the proletariat of ALL COUNTRIES) along the straight road of open political struggle to THE VICTORIOUS COMMUNIST REVOLUTION.”

At this time, Lenin was deeply impressed with the writings of Plekhanov, especially his work, The Development of the Monist View of History, published in 1895, which outlined the materialist conception of history, and which was very critical of those who, like Struve, veered away from Marxism. Lenin referred to Plekhanov’s book as a work “which had helped to educate a whole generation of Russian Marxists.”

Plekhanov’s writings in this period helped deal a decisive blow to Narodism. In reply to their view of whether capitalism should develop in Russia or not, Plekhanov produced irrefutable facts to show that Russia had already entered the road of capitalist development and that nothing could prevent it. The task was not to arrest this development, but to harness the revolutionary potential of the young working class and organise it into a revolutionary party. Unlike the Narodniks, Plekhanov stressed the importance of the working class and its historical mission. Rather than individual terrorism, the struggle should be based on the class movement of the proletariat. While Plekhanov dealt the Narodniks decisive blows, it was Lenin’s efforts that resulted in the final defeat of Narodism within the socialist circles.

Lenin travels abroad

In early 1895, Vladimir Ilyich experienced a serious attack of pneumonia, and in May he went abroad for treatment. He took advantage of this trip to meet with Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Zasulich, in Geneva and Zurich. He then travelled to Paris and met up with Paul Lafargue, the son-in-law of Karl Marx. Next he travelled to Berlin, and spoke with Wilhelm Liebknecht, the prominent German Social Democrat. No doubt, he would have liked to have gone to London to visit Engels, but this proved too difficult to arrange. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, Engels was extremely ill and passed away in August of that year.

Engels had been enthusiastic about the prospects in Russia. In February 1895, months before his death, Engels had written to Plekhanov thanking him for the copy of his The Development of the Monist View of History.

“Vera has given me your book, for which many thanks. I have begun to read it, but it will take some time,” wrote Engels. “However, it is a great success to have managed to have it published in your country. That is a step forward, and even if we cannot retain the new position we have just gained, a precedent has been established, the ice is broken.”[19] (MECW, vol.50, pp.439-440)

Lenin, devouring all the material he could by these two great teachers, developed the warmest affection for Marx and Engels. He especially admired Engels for his self-sacrifice, genius, and human qualities. Following his death, Lenin wrote a short obituary, which stated “In him the Russian revolutionaries have lost their best friend. Let us always honour the memory of Frederick Engels, a great fighter and teacher of the proletariat.”[20]

Lenin, with clarity and dedication, was determined to follow in the footsteps of Marx and Engels. Like his teachers, Lenin possessed an ‘iron will’, for which he stood out from his contemporaries. In the words of Potresov, “Lenin alone embodied the phenomenon, rare everywhere but especially in Russia, of a man of iron will, inexhaustible energy, combining a fanatical faith in the movement, in the cause, with an equal faith in himself.”[21] It should be noted that Potresov was bitterly hostile to Lenin.

Of course, the bourgeois historians regard such traits as fanaticism, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness – and even the seeds of a future dictator. They fail to comprehend the fact that these qualities are to be found in all great revolutionaries, whether it was Robespierre in the French Revolution, or Cromwell in the English Revolution.

The more the young Lenin came to understand his role, the more these character traits of the young man crystallised. Besides Marx and Engels, he held Plekhanov in the highest esteem. In his meetings with Plekhanov, Ilyich certainly as yet remained the student rather than the teacher. He was still deepening his ideas and knowledge. However, according to Potresov, Illyich revealed “a mind of brilliance and power. Every remark showed deep reflection.”[22]

The twenty-five year old Vladimir Ilyich returned from abroad in September 1895 with a suitcase crammed with concealed illegal literature. On his return, he met with another young revolutionary, Julius Martov, in St Petersburg who had also been expelled from university. Martov was also deeply attracted to Marxism. From then on, these two young men would collaborate closely in the building of Marxist circles and quickly founded the ‘Union for the Struggle and Emancipation of the Working Class’. The school teacher N.K. Krupskaya also became involved. Soon, branches sprang up in Odessa and Tula. The following year, at Nikolayev, a young student, Lev Bronstein (later known as Trotsky) helped found the ‘Workers’ Association of South Russia’.

At this time, the balance of activity in these circles shifted from primarily theoretical discussion to increased political agitation among the workers. This change was reflected in Lenin’s writings, such as the Explanation of the Law on Fines Imposed on Factory Workers and The New Factory Law. He also continued to write about the tasks of the Russian Marxists in regard to programme, tactics and organisation. As a result of their activities, the group was constantly under state surveillance by the Okhrana, the secret police. After his visit to Plekhanov, Lenin and his comrades were planning to issue an illegal workers’ paper, the Workers’ Cause. However, in December 1895, both Ilyich and Martov, along with others, were arrested on the eve of the paper’s publication. These arrests depleted their active forces, disrupted their work, and the new paper never saw the light of day.

Arrest and exile

While in prison, Vladimir Ilyich still maintained contact with his comrades through visits and secret correspondence written in milk, rendering it invisible to the eyes of the police. Vladimir was very busy in prison, writing pamphlets and preparing his book The Development of Capitalism in Russia, which finally appeared in 1899. He also wrote the Draft and Explanation of the Programme for the Social Democratic Party. In this draft he concluded:

“But, while proclaiming its support for every social movement against absolutism, the Social Democratic Party recognises that it does not separate itself from the working class movement, because the working class has its specific interests, which are opposed to the interests of all other classes.”[23]

His release from prison was followed by a three-year exile to the village of Shushenskoe in eastern Siberia, a settlement of a thousand inhabitants. There he was joined by Krupskaya, his partner and fellow comrade in St Petersburg. Ilyich continued to work on his book on capitalism in Russia, and together with Krupskaya, spent time translating Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s Industrial Democracy. The latter project brought in badly needed income. In the evenings, he usually read literature or books on philosophy – Hegel, Kant, and the French materialists. “Generally speaking, exile did not pass by so badly”, explained Krupskaya. “Those were years of serious study.”[24]

Increasingly, Lenin looked ahead to future work, and in so doing wrote The Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats at the end of 1897. “Russian Social Democracy is still very young”, he explained. “It is only just emerging from its embryonic state in which theoretical questions predominated. It is only just beginning to develop its practical activity.” This activity meant to turn towards the working class, which showed enormous promise. “And so, to work, comrades! Let us not lose precious time!”[25]

Besides his elder brother, Vladimir Illyich was not the only member of his family involved in revolutionary politics. His younger brother Dmitri had been expelled from Moscow University in 1897 for involvement in revolutionary activities, then arrested and exiled to Tula. His sister Maria was also arrested for her involvement and banished to Nizhni Novgorod.

While Lenin was still in exile, in March 1898, the first all-Russian Congress of the Social Democratic Party finally took place in Minsk and lasted three days. It published a manifesto and elected a leadership, but within a few weeks the majority of the nine delegates had been arrested. The manifesto was written by Peter Struve, whilst he was under the influence of Marxism, and contained a statement pregnant with meaning: “The farther east one goes in Europe, the weaker, meaner and more cowardly in the political sense becomes the bourgeoisie, and the greater the cultural and political tasks which fall to the lot of the proletariat. This is an essential step, but only the first step, to the realisation of the great historic mission of the proletariat, to the foundation of a social order in which there will be no place for the exploitation of man by man.”[26]

In Lenin’s Siberian exile, the post arrived twice a week: on Tuesdays and Thursdays, bringing letters, papers and books. He soon became the central figure of the exiled Social Democrats, who visited him as much as possible, but this required permission. However, Ilyich greatly missed his comrade-in-arms, Julius Martov, who had been exiled far away to Turukhansk, just south of the Arctic Circle. Despite the distance, they maintained a lively correspondence.

It was in this period that Lenin developed a future plan, which he discussed with Krupskaya, and elaborated later in Iskra; as well as in the pamphlet What is To Be Done? and in the Letter to a Comrade on Our Organisational Tasks. A key element of this plan was the proposal to establish an all-Russian Social Democratic newspaper, to be published outside of the country. It would be a central organ, which would bind together the organisation and help direct the work inside Russia through a network of worker-correspondents. The work was badly in need of such a central organ to give direction to the work.

‘Legal’ Marxism

News had come that Zhizn (‘Life’), the newspaper of ‘Legal Marxism’, had published articles by Struve and Tugan-Baranovsky, which challenged some of the fundamental ideas of Marxism. “Marx thought that socialism would inherit all the material and cultural achievements of the bourgeoisie,” wrote Struve. “And at the same time he counted on socialism taking over as a result of a crisis, economic disruption and impoverishment! The only realistic conclusion from such assumptions would be pessimistic and ‘destructive socialism’.”[27]

Iskra Image public domainThe first issue of Iskra (the 'Spark') / Image: public domain

This strange concept of ‘legal’ Marxism arose from peculiar circumstances in Russia, where the liberals needed to lean on the working class for support in their opposition and struggle with the tsarist autocracy. The growth of Marxist influence within this liberal intelligentsia was completely one-sided, devoid of Marxism’s revolutionary class content. They used this diluted and sanitised Marxism to justify the inevitable advance of capitalism in Russia and their fight for bourgeois democracy. After all, they claimed, doesn’t the Communist Manifesto talk of historical progress and the mission of capitalism to eradicate the old order? ‘Legal’ Marxism, this strange animal, was represented by P.B. Struve, S.N. Bulgakov and Tugan-Baranovsky, who ended up as out-and-out liberals. “One cannot help remarking in this connection that Marxism is most atrociously narrowed and garbled when our liberals and radicals undertake to expound it in the pages of the legal press”, wrote Lenin. “What an exposition it is! Just think how this revolutionary doctrine has to be mutilated to fit into the Procrustean bed of Russian censorship!”[28]

In the early stages of the working-class movement, Lenin had collaborated with some of these elements. In the conditions of dictatorship, they provided the small forces of revolutionary Marxism with some legal avenues to disseminate their ideas. This did not mean, however, that Lenin gave any political concessions to the ‘Legal Marxists’. As soon as they began to turn against Marxism, Lenin embarked on a determined struggle against them. The task, as Lenin saw it, was to advance the standpoint of unadulterated Marxism, which, given the tsarist censorship, could only be expounded in an all-round way by an illegal, underground paper.

Struve’s disagreements with Marxism echoed many of the revisionist ideas of Eduard Bernstein in Germany. Struve later summed up the attitude of the ‘Legal’ Marxism: “Socialism, to tell the truth, never aroused the slightest emotion in me, still less attraction… Socialism interested me mainly as an ideological force – which… could be directed either to the conquest of civil and political freedoms or against them.” It is no accident that he ended his days as a counter-revolutionary White émigré.

The ‘Legal Marxism’ of the petty-bourgeois intellectuals also had its opportunist counterpart inside the Russian Social Democratic movement – namely, ‘Economism’. Indeed, the emergence of revisionist tendencies of this character was an international phenomenon, which was also making headway in the Germany movement in the form of Bernstein’s ideas. The ‘Economists’ attempted to reduce the struggle of the working class to ‘bread and butter’ issues, based on crude agitation and activism. Theory was given a relegated status by them, and was regarded as unrelated to the class struggle.

In attempting to water down their ideas – in effect abandoning the struggle of revolutionaries for the leadership of the movement – the ‘Economists’ were a mirror image of the Legal Marxists. The ‘Economists’ issued a paper called Rabocheye Dyelo, (coincidentally the same name as the paper Lenin hoped to publish, but which was closed down). In its pages, they urged the Social Democrats to abandon their revolutionary political programme in favour of economic demands. Drawn to its logical conclusion, this was the road to the liquidation of the revolutionary party.

An all-Russian Marxist newspaper

The task of counteracting these revisionist influences became extremely pressing. Vladimir Ilyich believed that the launching of an all-Russian Marxist paper was essential in this regard. He therefore engaged with Martov and Potresov and conducted a lively correspondence with them about establishing such an all-Russian paper. Having agreed, they discussed who would write for it, how it would be printed, how it would be smuggled into Russia, as well as its political position. They then made plans to travel abroad to meet with Plekhanov. From these discussions, the idea of the Iskra (The Spark) newspaper was born, which would soon become the backbone of the movement. “All that is now lacking,” wrote Lenin, “is the unification of all this local work into the work of a single party.”[29] Iskra would be the means to accomplish this.

Union of Struggle Image public domainSt Petersberg chapter of the Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class in 1897 / Image: public domain

The year 1900 was a turning point. Not only was it the start of a new century, but it was also the year Lenin and Krupskaya finished their term of exile. As they were banned from living in St Petersburg, Moscow or any industrial area, after spending time in Pskov, Vladimir Ilyich applied for permission to go abroad. The request was granted, no doubt with the idea that the further away these revolutionaries were from Russia, the better. Following an encouraging secret meeting with Vera Zasulich in St Petersburg, which Lenin used to sound out support for the new paper, he returned to Pskov to meet up with Martov and Potresov. Soon after, Potresov went to Germany to meet with the Emancipation of Labour Group and ascertain the prospects of printing a paper with the Social Democrats in exile. On 16 July 1900, Ilyich left Russia for Zurich in order to meet personally with Plekhanov.

Lenin sought to enlist Plekhanov’s support for the paper. But unfortunately, the meeting did not go as planned, to say the least. In fact, it almost led to an immediate rupture and the abandonment of the entire project.

Lenin had been joined by Potresov in the discussion with Plekhanov. It was clear that Plekanov was suspicious of both of these newcomers and the discussion became rather tense. Lenin was deeply shocked and hurt by Plekhanov’s behaviour. Soon afterwards, Lenin wrote down his impressions of the meeting for his closest comrades in How the ‘Spark’ Was Nearly Extinguished.

Plekanov’s nerves were clearly on edge following the recent split, when the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad adopted by a majority the ‘Economist’ position. As a result, Plekhanov and his supporters walked out of the organisation. This experience certainly coloured his behaviour. In his meeting with the two young men, Plekhanov displayed excessive intolerance and a bad temper. The situation soon became intolerable.

As Lenin recalled afterwards, “Arsenyev (Potresov) began by declaring that as far as he was concerned, his personal relations with Plekhanov were broken off once and for all, never to be restored. He would maintain business relations with him, but as for personal relations – finished. Plekhanov’s behaviour had been insulting to such a degree that one could not help suspecting him of harbouring ‘unclean’ thoughts about us (i.e. that he regarded us as careerists). He trampled us underfoot, etc. I fully supported these charges. My ‘infatuation’ with Plekhanov disappeared as if by magic, and I felt offended and embittered to an unbelievable degree. Never, never in my life, had I regarded any other man with such sincere respect and veneration, never had I stood before any man so ‘humbly’ and never before had I been so brutally ‘kicked’. That’s what it was, we had actually been kicked.”[30]

With the mediation of Zasulich and Axelrod, however, they managed to patch things up. In their final interview with Plekhanov, he admitted that there had been a sad misunderstanding and he was on edge. “Plekhanov displayed all his dexterity, the brilliance of his examples, smiles, jests, and citations, which compelled us to laugh in spite of ourselves”, noted Lenin.

On that basis the ‘Spark’ was rekindled. This whole episode revealed Lenin’s patient and flexible approach when dealing with people and organisation. What a contrast with the allegations thrown at him of being a dictator and tyrant, by bourgeois historians and reformists alike.

In fairness, Plekhanov’s manner can also be understood. Having burned his fingers with others from the interior, and with the April split fresh in his mind, he was anxious to ensure that things were clear from the outset. It must be said he was affected by years of exile, confined to a small group, and was lagging behind the real situation. Plekhanov’s group had all the hallmarks of a propaganda circle with its amateur methods. In the end, a compromise was reached whereby Iskra would have an editorial board of six: Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich from the veterans, and Lenin, Martov and Potresov from the younger generation. Given the even number, in the case of a tied vote, Plekhanov was given a casting vote.

“We had agreed among ourselves not to relate what had passed to anyone except our most intimate friends … Outwardly it was as though nothing had happened … but within a cord had broken, and instead of splendid personal relations, dry, business-like relations prevailed, with a constant reckoning according to the principle: si vis pacem, para bellum [if you desire peace, prepare for war].”[31]

The launch of the paper was agreed and Munich was chosen as the place for it to be produced, with the paper printed on the German Social Democratic press. With this matter settled, a network inside Russia was organised for the paper’s distribution. The editorial board would be based in Munich. Plekhanov and Axelrod, who lived in Switzerland, maintained contact through correspondence and occasional trips to Germany. A Declaration was issued in September, which in practice was a declaration of war on the revisionist tendencies.

The first issue of Iskra appeared on 24 December 1900 in Leipzig, with the masthead “Out of this spark will come a conflagration”. The following issues were printed in Munich. It was the first-ever underground All-Russia Marxist newspaper to be distributed in Russia. In addition, a new theoretical magazine was to be issued in April. Everything was in place to win the battle of ideas and make Iskra the dominant tendency in the Russian movement.

“The issues were shipped to Berlin and stored in the cellars of the Vorwärts, the official organ of the German Social Democratic Party,” writes the Menshevik historian David Shub.

“In this subterranean storeroom a handful of trusted German Social Democrats carefully folded copies of Iskra in small parcels and concealed them in packing-cases. These were routed to towns close to the Russo-German frontier, where they were picked up by the professional smugglers who ran the contraband across the border to waiting Iskra agents.

“From these border points the papers were delivered by special messengers to clandestine Iskra committees throughout the Russian Empire.”[32]

This was a very difficult and dangerous operation. They had to work hard to avoid the Prussian police, as well as the Okhrana agents, who were on the lookout for Russian revolutionaries. Papers were smuggled into Russia in various ways: double-bottomed suitcases, special waistcoats, and bodices, as well as being sown into skirts. “With our equipment women would carry about three or four hundred copies of Iskra,” explained Krupskaya.

According to Krupskaya, probably no more than ten percent of the revolutionary literature arrived at its destination. Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, the establishment of Iskra was a milestone in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement.

A centralised organisation

While in Munich, Lenin sought to consolidate the framework of the party, not only through Iskra, but in other writings such as Where to Begin and What is to be done? He drew attention to the weaknesses of the organisation, which was not fit for purpose. The local circles were uncoordinated and leaderless, and engaged in work in a haphazard fashion. The need to professionalise the work was becoming more urgent, and Lenin had developed clear ideas about how this could be achieved.

There needed to be centralism in the work, with two leading centres: a Central Organ and a Central Committee (CC). The Central Organ would be responsible for the ideological leadership of the organisation, and would direct work from abroad, beyond the reach of the pervasive secret police, while the CC would be responsible for the direct and practical work.

“We must centralise the leadership of the movement,” wrote Lenin. “We must also… as far as possible decentralise responsibility to the Party on the part of its individual members, of every participant in its work, and of every circle belonging to or associated with the party. This decentralisation is an essential prerequisite of revolutionary centralisation and an essential corrective to it.[33]

Lenin stressed the central role of the paper in the building of the party. In Where to Begin (Iskra, No.4), he wrote that the newspaper’s role should not be “limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this last respect, it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour. With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organisation will naturally take shape that will emerge, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political events carefully, appraise their significance and their effect on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence those events.”[34]

However, the main brunt of his polemic was against the ‘Economists’, especially their concentration on working-class spontaneity. In doing so, he stressed the importance of the party and the need for it to be based upon “professional revolutionaries” who would dedicate their time to its work and construction.

Lenin expanded on these ideas about professionalising the revolutionary organisation in What is to be Done?, which he finished writing in 1901 and published in 1902. It was received with great interest by revolutionaries, especially those in touch with work in Russia. It constitutes a Marxist classic on the building of a revolutionary party, its function and tasks. However, it has been criticised by reformist and bourgeois commentators for providing the supposed basis for totalitarianism and the seeds of Stalinism. Anthony Read, for instance, in his book The World on Fire claims:

“Bolshevism was founded on a lie, setting a precedent that was to be followed for the next ninety years. Lenin had no time for democracy, no confidence in the masses and no scruples about the use of violence. He wanted a small, tightly organised and strictly disciplined party of hard-line professional revolutionaries, who would do exactly as they were told.”[35]

Of course, this is a complete slander against Lenin, one we are all too familiar with. As a realist, Lenin understood that a revolution in Russia could only be carried out under the guidance of a dedicated, centralised party embedded in the working class. This is what he attempted to forge in the form of the Bolshevik Party.

He argued for theoretical clarity, as he explained in What is to be Done?

“Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.”[36]

He went on to stress the words of Engels on the need for the theoretical struggle. “The people who cannot pronounce the word ‘theoretician’ without a sneer,” observed Lenin, were precisely those who wallowed in their own ignorance.

In his attacks on the ‘Economists’ and their worship of spontaneity, Lenin bent the stick in the opposite direction, as he himself put it. As a result, he quotes a mistaken view taken from Kautsky that socialist consciousness can only be brought to the workers from outside by the intelligentsia, and that the working class is only capable of trade union consciousness when left to itself.

This is clearly erroneous. While the highest expression of socialist consciousness, the theory of Marxism, was not thrown up by the working class, but arose from a fusion of the most advanced ideas of the time, workers were certainly capable of drawing political and revolutionary conclusions. The history of Chartism in Britain gives a clear illustration of this fact.

Lenin recognised his error and a year later, during the Second Congress of the RSDLP, he explained: “We all know that the ‘economists’ bent the stick in one direction. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it in the other direction, and that is what I did.”[37]

Lenin’s error was therefore a polemical exaggeration, which he never repeated ever again.

Despite this, Lenin’s What is to be Done? certainly pointed the way forward. Krupskaya expressed the view that it was a work that “must be studied by everyone who wants to be a Leninist in practice, and not in words alone.”[38]

The systematic work of Iskra, especially Lenin’s role, prepared the way for the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party in the summer of 1903, which constituted the real founding of the party. The Congress preparations were in Lenin’s hands. “How Vladimir Ilyich longed for the Congress!” remarked Krupskaya.

This Second Congress would prove to be the opening of a new chapter of the revolutionary movement in Russia. It would eventually lead, on the basis of events, to the divergence between Menshevism and what was to become known as Bolshevism. By this time, you could say that Lenin was becoming increasingly conscious of his future role. However, the Second Congress and its aftermath falls outside the scope of the present article. It is a subject we will return to.

In the meantime, for an explanation for these developments, as with the whole period, we recommend a study of Alan Woods’ excellent book, Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution.

[1] Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 3, Sphere Books, 1967, pg 327.

[2] Pravda, October 31, 1963.

[3] Quoted in Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, (New York City: Pimlico, 1997), pg 131.

[4] Leon Trotsky, The Young Lenin, (New York City: Doubleday, 1972), pg 24.

[5] Quoted in Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, (Penguin Press, 1972), pg 26.

[6] V. I. Lenin, Lenin Collected Works (LCW), Vol. 6, (Lawrence & Wishart), pg 191.

[7] Leon Trotsky, The Young Lenin, (New York City: Doubleday, 1972), pg 34.

[8] Ibid., pg 36.

[9] Nadezhda Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, (London: Martin Lawrence, 1930), pg 5.

[10] Quoted in James Maxton, Lenin, (Daily Express Publications, 1932), pg 15.

[11] Leon Trotsky, The Young Lenin, (New York City: Doubleday, 1972), pg 118.

[12] Gregory Zinoviev, Lenin, (London: Socialist Labour League, 1966), pg 9.

[13] Leon Trotsky, The Young Lenin, (New York City: Doubleday, 1972), pg 145.

[14] Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Marx and Engels Collected Works (MECW), Vol. 24, (Lawrence & Wishart), pg 426.

[15] Leon Trotsky, The Young Lenin, (New York City: Doubleday, 1972), pg 188.

[16] Leon Trotsky, The Young Lenin, (New York City: Doubleday, 1972), pg 207-7.

[17] V. I. Lenin, LCW, Vol. 31, pg 25-6.

[18] V. I. Lenin, LCW, Vol. 1, pg 298-99.

[19] Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, MECW, Vol. 50, pg 439-40.

[20] V. I. Lenin, LCW, Vol. 2, pg 27.

[21] Quoted in Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution 1899-1919, (The Harvill Press, 1997), pg 348.

[22] Quoted in David Shub, Lenin, (Penguin, 1969), pg 43.

[23] V. I. Lenin, LCW, Vol. 2, pg 120.

[24] Nadezhda Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, (London: Martin Lawrence, 1930), pg 38.

[25] V. I. Lenin, LCW, Vol. 2, pg 345 & 347.

[26] Quoted in E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1, pg 4.

[27] Quoted in David Shub, Lenin, pg 55.

[28] V. I. Lenin, LCW, Vol. 1, pg 326.

[29] V. I. Lenin, LCW, Vol. 4, pg 216.

[30] Ibid., pg 340.

[31] Ibid., pg 348.

[32] David Shub, Lenin, pg 61.

[33] V. I. Lenin, LCW, Vol. 6, pg 246-7.

[34] V. I. Lenin, LCW, Vol. 5, pg 22-3.

[35] Anthony Read, The World on Fire, (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 2008), pg 3-4.

[36] V. I. Lenin, What is to be Done?, (London: Wellred Books, 2018), pg 26.

[37] V. I. Lenin, in Minutes of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, (New Park Publications, 1978), pg 169-70.

[38] Nadezhda Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, (London: Martin Lawrence, 1930), pg 65.