Jim Higgins


(April 1970)

From Socialist Worker, 23 April 1970.
Later issued as a pamphlet.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Lenin – Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in Simbirsk on 22 April 1870. His father was a teacher and inspector of schools in reasonably comfortable circumstances. Lenin was able to attend the classical Gymnasium and later the Kazan university, although he was subsequently expelled after his arrest for taking part in a student revolutionary discussion circle.

The 1880s were a period of extreme reaction, following the reforms of the early 1860s and an increase in populist terrorism. In 1887 Lenin’s brother Alexander was arrested for his part in the attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. In May of that year Alexander and his comrades were executed. Lenin was deeply attached to his brother and there can be no doubt that the execution had a considerable effect on the seventeen year old boy.

To suppose, as does the official Russian biography, that this traumatic event set him immediately on the road to a marxist view and against individual terrorism is dubious. What is clear, however, is that from 1888, when he read Marx’s Capital and joined a marxist group in Kazan, he was an uncompromising opponent of acts of terror (intended to galvanise the masses but which in fact led to apathy and despair) and the idealist notions of the Russian populists, the Narodniks (named after their group Narodnya Volya – People’s Will).

In a series of closely reasoned pamphlets he argued for the marxist method against populism. Between 1889 and 1891 he managed to translate the Communist Manifesto into Russian, write several major works (amounting to some 500 pages in all) on Social Democracy and Populism, to organise discussion circles and to pass his law examinations.

In 1895 Lenin went abroad to make contact with members of the emigré marxist group, The Emancipation of Labour. In Switzerland he met the leading Russian marxist theorist Plekhanov and made arrangements for the publication of a collection of articles.

On his return to Russia he set up the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class in Petersburg and made contact with a number of groups in other Russian towns. The attempt was made to break out of the closed circles of theoretical discussion groups and to make contact with industrial workers. Leaflets were distributed at factories and preparation made for an illegal newspaper. In December 1895, Lenin and most members of the League were arrested and the material for the paper seized.

Throughout 1896 and until his exile to Siberia in 1897 Lenin was under interrogation in the St Petersburg jail. In between interrogations he found time to write a draft programme for a Social Democratic Party (prior to 1917 all socialist parties, revolutionary or not, were called Social Democratic), an obituary of Engels, a leaflet and prepare material for his major work The Development of Capitalism in Russia.

In his draft programme and the explanatory notes it is interesting to see how early Lenin’s thought developed. In a sense, Lenin’s subsequent work was in developing his 1896 programme and fighting for the necessary tactical changes, in a changing situation. The programme puts at the centre of the analysis the working class. Agitation and propaganda are set by the actual condition of the workers.

In Russia, capitalism came very late on the scene and in consequence it was grafted on to Tsarist absolutism. Alongside the most modern large-scale industrial enterprises, the administrative machinery was autocratic, graft-ridden, feudal and inefficient. In this situation the employers were able to hide behind the autocracy. Instead of controlling the state directly they operated through corrupt officials. The working class were subjected to all the concentrated barbarism of capitalism without even the crumbs of political democracy.

The struggle for better conditions in these circumstances became, willy-nilly, a political struggle.

The task of socialists, in Lenin’s conception, was to encourage the day to day struggles against the employers, to advise on the relation of forces, assist in the preparation of demands and to cast all this within the framework of a political and democratic programme.

The employers were to be forced into taking the form as well as the content of state power. The workers needed “open struggle against the capitalist class ... in order that the intrigues and aspirations of the bourgeoisie may not be hidden in the anterooms of Grand Dukes, in the salons of senators and ministers ... And so down with everything that hides the present influence of the capitalist class ... the workers need the abolition of the government’s absolute rule only in order to wage an open and extensive struggle against the capitalist class.” (Collected Works, vol.2, pp.119-120). The programme, therefore, demanded the norms of capitalist democracy (universal suffrage, religious freedom, the eight hour day, equality before the law, right to strike, factory legislation, liberalisation of the land laws).

All this was to give the working class the possibility of independent activity In the process of this struggle the working class base of social democracy was to be assured. With variations, in his estimation of the capacities and strength of the different classes, Lenin maintained to the end the idea of a programme that set out to develop class consciousness and to set the scene for the next stage of struggle. The limits of any struggle were the limits of existing working-class consciousness.

In 1898 a few revolutionary social democrats met in Minsk at the First Congress of the Russian Social Democracy. Almost immediately a document called the Credo appeared. In it the democratic demands of social democracy were seen not as a stage in the development of the struggle but as sufficient ends in themselves. It said that socialists should restrict themselves to the economic interests of the workers and subordinate their politics to the liberal constitutional demands of the capitalists. “Economism” as a theory and tactics for socialist agitation entered the Russian movement at much the same time as the controversy over the German socialist Bernstein’s revisionism was exercising the minds of social democrats in the West.

Lenin in Siberian exile sprang to the defence of the independence of the working class and socialism against economism, while in Europe Rosa Luxemburg and Plekhanov attacked revisionism. The development of Lenin’s ideas in this controversy were to find fuller expression in his book What Is To Be Done?.

In late July 1900 Lenin left Russia for his first long exile. The immediate political task was, through the medium of a paper, to unite the growing circles of marxist intellectuals in Russia with the spontaneous wave of working class struggles and build a united socialist party. After some initial difficulties with Plekhanov, the paper, The Spark (Iskra), was produced. The earlier years of clarification began to pay dividends. A coherent body of ideas related to the Russian movement had been developed.

The need now was for an organisation capable of popularising and acting on those ideas and to make the vital connection with the working class. It is in this light that the much misused What Is To Be Done? and the controversy of 1902-3 on organisation must be viewed.

A party of a new kind

From 1901 to 1903 Lenin and his wife Krupskaya carried the main burden of work on Iskra. Some 13 issues appeared in 1901. Many British socialists will know the hard, grinding work involved in financing and producing a readable newspaper that combines socialist agitation with working class appeal.

The production of Iskra and its distribution in Russia multiplied these problems a thousand-fold. Some of the Russian distributors sold the paper and sent the cash but did not follow up their contacts and set up workers’ groups. Another unscrupulous rascal sold the copies and then used the money to publish a paper supporting economism.

The leading emigré Russian marxists were an exceptionally talented group: Axelrod, Plekhanov, Potresov, Martov were all capable of brilliant work but they were also undisciplined and argumentative. In the circumstances it is little short of miraculous that Lenin and his wife were able to produce a paper at all.

In Russia, alongside the development of an embryonic socialist party, the chaotic situation gave rise to a number of other political organisations. In 1901 the Social Revolutionary Party, claiming, with some justice, to be the inheritors of the People’s Will, was formed. At much the same time “liberal” sections of the professions and the middle class formed the Constitutional Democrat Party (Cadets).

What Is To Be Done? is superficially an attack on economism but it is essentially the demand for a disciplined party, a party of a new kind. Lenin’s insistence on the inability of the working class to advance, unaided, beyond trade union consciousness was riot new, indeed it was a commonplace in international socialist circles.

What was new was his insistence that intellectuals, who were to bear the socialist massage to the workers, must be dedicated, full-time revolutionaries. The capriciousness and instability that characterised so many Russian intellectuals had to be subordinated to the living workers’ movement.

The party intelligentsia were to operate under the discipline of the workers in the party branches. It is this vital point that differentiates Lenin’s ideas from the rest. In the party controversy over who should be entitled to become a member, the argument turned not on a word or two ‘that only he is a member who puts himself under the discipline of the local organisation’ but over a whole conception of revolutionary struggle.

At the party congress in 1903 Lenin was defeated on the membership question. Later in the conference, however, he was successful in the elections to the editorial board of Iskra. It is from this victory that the terms Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) derive. The split in the Russian movement was never really to be healed and in 1912 the two sections became separate organisations.

The divergence of 1903 and the emnity and bad blood that flowed from that event are often cited as an example of the cold calculation of Lenin and his inhuman attitude to his political opponents. The truth is, as usual, rather different.

Martov, his opponent in the party controversy, was a very close personal friend (even after the revolution Lenin maintained warm feelings towards him). The break with old comrades and the heat engendered in the debate made Lenin physically ill.

What is characteristic of Lenin is that despite the pain it caused him he was prepared, in the interests of the revolution, to break with anybody. The fact of a disciplined, effective party organically related to the working class was worth more than old acquaintance.

1905: the first Soviet

In the wake of the Russian defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1905, the situation for the working class became more and more oppressive. A peaceful crowd went to petition the Tsar for the alleviation of their conditions. The crowd carried holy images and portraits of the “little father” – the Tsar.

The Tsar’s response was to fire on the crowd. From humble petitions the Petrograd workers moved rapidly to strikes, demonstrations and armed struggle. Their slogan “The eight hour day and arms” was given weight and real revolutionary content by the spontaneous development of Soviets – workers’ councils. The movement spread like wildfire. Thousands of estates were burned, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike.

The real fight against Populism and Economism was won in the streets and the Soviets. Lenin’s description of the working class as capable of only trade union consciousness was transformed into: “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic ... The special conditions of the proletariat in capitalist society leads to a striving for socialism: a union of them with the Socialist Party bursts forth with spontaneous force ...”

After five years of exile Lenin returned to Russia. At first he was suspicious of the Soviet, seeing in this novelty not an organ of working class power but a transitory combat organisation.

The Bolshevik organisation was small and with little influence. Lenin called for the recruitment of workers by the thousand. In a time of revolutionary ferment the restrictions of 1903 were unnecessary and redundant.

But the relation of forces in the revolution were against the working class. The autocracy maintained its army, the liberal middle class vacillated and the socialist forces were not strong enough. After several months the leaders of the St Petersburg Soviet were arrested and the subsequent strike in Moscow was bloodily suppressed.

The revolution ended with the Cadets in tortured doubt as to whether they should join Witte’s ministry, with some of the choicer examples of Tsarist reaction and a series of government inspired anti-semitic pogroms.

The desert years

The years that followed the defeat of the 1905 revolution have been called the “years of the desert”. The workers’ movement in Russia was in steady retreat. Revolutionaries, active until then, became tired and disillusioned. The most dedicated held on and survived – just.

In the absence of a living movement the emigre quarrels became bitter and inward looking. Immature, ultra-left tendencies developed in the party. Attempts were made by some to import Kantian idealism into marxist philosophy.

Lenin fought all these struggles, if not with enthusiasm, with vigour. The need to hold on and maintain the organisation was amply justified in 1917.

The struggles against the ultra left and the “God-seekers” are not, of themselves, of any great significance. But, as part of the process by which Lenin developed his ideas of organisation and the application of Marxism, the period of 1905 to 1917 is the period in which a party capable of taking power was built and that is certainly of more than passing importance.

Against the war

1914 was the real testing time for socialism and socialists. In country after country, yesterday’s revolutionary internationalists became today’s grovelling social patriots. Plekhanov in Russia, Hyndman in Britain, Guesde in France, almost the entire German Social Democracy, became enthusiastic participants in national defence.

Those who maintained a consistent position were pathetically few in number. The Russian Social Democracy, the Bulgarians, the Italians and a few isolated groups, such as Luxemburg’s in Germany, were all that kept the revolutionary tradition alive.

It is difficult today, with the experience of 50 years of social democratic betrayal to draw upon, to conceive of the shock that the treachery of the Second International in 1914 imposed on the internationalists. For years the hopes for the revolution had been placed, rather misplaced, in the International, particularly its German section.

To reject the moribund Second, with its passive millions, for a new international with a few adherents was a prospect that daunted all but the most uncompromising. Of these the most uncompromising was Lenin. At the anti-war conferences of Berne, Kienthal and Zimmerwald, the slogan “Turn the imperialist war into civil war” was advanced by the Bolsheviks against the pacifist slogans of “Peace without annexations and international reconciliation.”

In 1916 Lenin wrote his major contribution to internationalism in his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In this work, Lenin develops marxist theory on the connections between the metropolitan countries and the colonial world. He sees in this the root cause of war and reformism in the metropolitan centres. In its descriptions of the interdependence of the developed and underdeveloped countries, the book brings on to the stage of history for the first time the revolutionary role of the colonial peoples in the scheme of world revolution.

From 1914 to 1917 Lenin lived mainly in Switzerland. The war made contact with the Russian movement difficult and his time was spent in correspondence with those socialists abroad who were against the war. He joined and was active in the left of the Swiss Socialist Party.

He wrote not only his book on Imperialism but a host of articles and pamphlets on the war and the attitude of socialists. In this period he deepened his understanding of the fatal conjuncture of practical opportunism with verbal revolutionism, best exemplified by Kautsky (the erstwhile “Pope of Marxism”).

1917 – then Stalin’s growing menace

In Russia the ruling autocracy was finding the task of fighting a full-scale modern war impossible. The already unstable regime was literally falling apart under the pressure of events. Beaten in battle, unable to meet the minimal requirements of the working population and incapable of relinquishing even a shadow of power to anyone else, the Tsar and Tsarism were doomed.

In February 1917 a peaceful women’s demonstration demanding bread was fired on. The result, a general strike, the reinstitution of the Soviets – but this time Soviets that could take and could hold the power.

For a short time it was possible for the politicians to maintain the fiction that only they had the necessary intelligence and ability to govern, but not for long. In the beginning the predominant influence in the Soviets was Social Revolutionary and to a lesser extent Menshevik. For them, the Soviets did not represent working-class power but a means to a provisional government. Years of mechanical adherence to the marxist formula, that Russian socialism would have to wait until capitalism had fully developed and assumed complete political power, blinded them to the actual situation. The attempt to bend the revolution, despite the tangible evidence of workers’ power in the Soviets, to conform to their preconceptions led the Mensheviks into coalitions with capitalist government. Finally many of them found themselves on the side of open counter-revolution in the camp of Admiral Kolchak and Baron Wrangel.

In April 1917 Lenin returned to Russia. His last and longest exile was at an end. His programme (the April Theses) shocked not only the Mensheviks but also large sections of the Bolshevik Party.

In calling for all power to the Soviets, an end to the war, social production under the control of the Soviets, nationalisation of the banks, abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy, lie was breaking with a whole tradition of Russian Social Democracy and, in the eyes of many, capitulating to “Trotskyism”. The Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd, in the persons of Stalin and Kamenev, had pursued a policy little different from that of the Mensheviks.

Stalin in particular had indicated support for the provisional government and the war. In the brief but heated controversy that followed, Lenin threatened to take the take the fight out of the party and into the working class. In the end the Bolsheviks were convinced.


From the recognition of the Soviets as the centre for socialist advance, it was but a short step to the actual seizure of power. The Bolshevik agitators were sent into the factories and the barracks. By June, a demonstration organised to show the workers’ support for the provisional government and its war aims brought half a million workers onto the streets almost all of them behind Bolshevik slogans: “All power to the Soviets, Down with the capitalist ministers.”

In May Trotsky returned to Russia. As Lenin’s views on the perspectives for the revolution converged with his, his own views on such previously disputed questions as the nature of the party converged with Lenin’s. In a short time he was accepted into a leading position in the Bolshevik Party and was to play a vital role in the struggle for power.

After an abortive street demonstration in July the government took the opportunity to arrest leading members of the Bolshevik Party (including Trotsky) and Lenin went into hiding. From July to October, Lenin was effectively cut off from the day to day affairs of the party. Besides writing a mass of detailed letters and articles on the changing situation, he also found time to write his book on the marxist theory of the state, State and Revolution.

The provisional government, now led by a “socialist”, Kerensky, was in a difficult situation. The war was becoming increasingly unpopular, while the allies were pressing for an offensive on the Eastern front. The army General Staff were restless, particularly General Kornilov, at the spread of democratic notions into the army and Kerensky’s inability to control the Soviet.

At the same time the Bolshevik slogans were taking deeper and deeper root among the working class. Something had to give. Kornilov marched on Petrograd to restore order, overthrow Kerensky, and set up a dictatorship. Kerensky, bereft of all but the trappings of power, had to turn to the workers and soldiers organised in the Soviets and. inevitably, to the imprisoned Bolsheviks. Trotsky and the rest were released and brilliantly organised the defence of the city. Kornilov was defeated and the direct road to the overthrow of the provisional government laid. On 25 October the Military Revolutionary Council led the insurrection.

The situation that shortly faced the Bolsheviks after the assumption of power was exceptionally grim: the complete breakdown of administration, the break up of the war front and a hostile army of Germans in the Ukraine together with an even more hostile internal opposition. The power had been taken and must be maintained until the revolution in the West could come to the rescue.

Peace with the Germans had to he achieved to allow a breathing space. At Brest Litovsk peace talks were begun. The result was a “robber’s peace”. With the end of the imperialist war and the defeat of the Germans the “robber’s peace” was annulled but some 22 foreign armies descended onto Russian soil to bring aid and comfort to the various White armies, to snuff out the Soviet Republic and to share the resultant spoils.

The creation of the Red Army by Trotsky and the eventual defeat of the interventionist and counter-revolutionary armies is not only a tribute to Trotsky’s genius as an organiser but is also confirmation of the very real support that the Bolshevik government had among the Russian masses.

Four years of imperialist war followed by four years of civil war left Russia prostrate. Transport was at a standstill, as was industrial production. Even more disastrous, the working class base of the Bolshevik Party had virtually disappeared from the factories. They had fought and died in the Red Army and had been taken into the government and party administration.

In the absence of the class, democracy disappears and power is exercised behind closed doors to satisfy the interests of the few. Stalin displayed special talents of an exceptionally high order for this type of skullduggery.

The last years of Lenin’s life and his failing health mirror the decline of the revolution. The monumental problems of reconstruction involved the Soviet state and the party in a number of situations where principle was, necessarily, subordinated to expediency. The New Economic Policy was adopted not as a development of socialism but as an attempt to put a little dynamism into a devastated economy. It is not without significance that Lenin uses the term “state capitalism” for this feature of Soviet life. The need to make these compromises was, however, seen as a temporary expedient.

Every day that the Soviets extended their life brought them that much closer to the revolution in the West, particularly in Germany. The internal situation, while Lenin was at the helm, was conditioned by the hopes for international revolution.

It was only under Stalin that the interests of the Third International (set up to aid the revolution abroad) were subordinated to the interests of Russian diplomacy and the internal situation in the Russian party.

The demobilisation of the Red Army made a massive contribution to the ranks of the party. Army officers were able to achieve high rank in the party and the government machine on the basis of some administrative skill and organising ability.

Unfortunately the skills acquired in an army, even the Red Army, are not entirely conducive to working-class democracy. It is on these formations and the lower rank leftovers from Tsarism that the Stalinist bureaucracy was based.

Lenin, due to his illness (in May 1922 he suffered a stroke that paralysed his right side and affected his speech) was at first slow to recognise the full import of the developments in the party and the administration.

As the full extent of the situation began to dawn on him, Lenin saw the need to reform the Party institutions, to cut out the plethora of bureaucratic committees and to increase the numbers on and the influence of the leading committees of the party.

In his view, the seven-man political bureau held too much power and its actions should be subjected to the discipline of a broader party committee. The essence of the change was to bring into the administration more workers: a return to the fundamentals of 1903

On the question of Georgian independence, Lenin fought an incomplete and ultimately unsuccessful fight against Stalin and his henchmen.

In the course of Lenin’s illness, Stalin utilised his own position as general secretary to keep news of developments in the Soviet Union from him. The doctors were given instructions not to permit Lenin to work.

It was only by laying down an ultimatum that he would ignore their advice completely, that he was able to gain a few minutes each day to read reports and dictate a few notes and letters. At one stage Stalin felt so confident that be threatened Krupskaya with a party court for permitting Lenin to dictate a short note.

Lenin did not discover this last episode until after he had completed his Testament. When he did he broke off all personal relations with Stalin. The Testament reveals the difficulty that Lenin faced. With the working class weak and small in number the only salvation for the regime lay within the party structure itself.

The danger of a split was analysed and the character of leading Bolsheviks discussed, not always to their advantage. But it is in an appendix, written some days later, that Lenin suggests that Stalin should be removed from the post of general secretary.

In the first months of 1923 Lenin feverishly began to prepare a case against Stalin. Directing his attention to the Georgian affair, Lenin let it be known that he was preparing a “bomb for Stalin”.

But on 7 March, Lenin suffered another attack. He was paralysed and never spoke again.

It is interesting to speculate as to the possible outcome of the struggle if Lenin had lived and regained his health. It is possible to argue, and often is argued, that the internal Russian and the external world situation would have imposed on a Leninist party the same development, with perhaps less barbaric methods that Stalin imposed.

It seems to me that such a view leaves out of account a whole series of considerations that are linked to the active participation of Lenin in the Russian party and the International. The grotesque theory of “socialism in one country”, the consequent subordination of the international communist movement to the needs of the Russian bureaucracy are, in my view, unthinkable in terms of a party or a government led by Lenin.

But such speculation, no matter how interesting, is not particularly fruitful. Lenin’s life was dedicated not to what might have been but in defining the goal, estimating the resources available, and then setting out the road to reach that goal.

Today we are too often presented with the spectacle on the one hand of those who have forgotten the goal, ignore the resources and wander round in ever decreasing circles. On the other hand we have those who only recognise the goal, have little or no resources and proceed to march smartly backward into the past.

For revolutionary marxists the goal is socialism, the available resources are the working class as it is, not as we would like it to be, and the road to that goal is the construction, with the active participation of advanced workers, of a revolutionary party.


Last updated on 1.11.2003