the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Jan 15, 2024
A century ago, Vladimir Lenin, whose real name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, died at the age of 53. Lenin founded the Bolshevik Party, and he was one of the two main leaders of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, along with Leon Trotsky. During that momentous revolution, the working class in Russia overthrew the capitalist class and took power for the first time in history. Lenin then led the first workers’ state in Russia in its first years.
Lenin devoted his life to the emancipation of the working class and, more than anyone else, focused on building the organizations workers needed. He founded the Bolshevik Party, an essential tool for the working class to take power. After the workers took power in Russia, when workers worldwide looked to the Russian Revolution as a model and inspiration for what they wanted to do, Lenin and the other Russian revolutionaries pushed to create the Third International.
Lenin was born in 1870 into a middle-class family. He was a brilliant student and could have had a successful career as the lawyer he started out to be. But Lenin was revolted by the backward and repressive rule of the Tsar. When he was 17 years old, his older brother was executed for trying to assassinate the Tsar. Shortly after, Lenin was won over to Marxist ideas. He came to understand that it wasn’t enough to get rid of the Tsar and change the Russian government. The working class needed to get rid of capitalism and exploitation and build a new society. And it wasn’t enough to do it only in Russia. The socialist revolution would become international, or it would not be.
In 1893, Lenin was imprisoned and then exiled for political activity organizing workers’ study circles. Together with many other revolutionaries, he went abroad, where the work of building a revolutionary workers’ party continued.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, socialist parties were being built in many countries. The biggest and most successful, by far, was in Germany. It led the Second International, an international grouping of socialist parties, which Lenin’s party in Russia belonged to.
As these parties gained strength, they spread Marxist ideas and teachings. But their goal was to attract as many people as possible. Among them were people who used these parties to fulfill their own personal ambitions, winning elected positions in the government or privileged positions at the head of trade unions. They often succumbed to the reformist pressures of the middle class or the more privileged workers aspiring to be middle class.
This particular period—the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century—encouraged a decay of the socialist movement. The big capitalist powers of Europe were going through a growth spurt based on the colonization and enslavement of big parts of Africa and Asia, with the plunder and riches from those continents bringing untold wealth. The capitalist class kept the bulk of the booty themselves. But to blunt the rise of the working-class and socialist movements, the capitalists also granted a few reforms to workers inside the richest imperialist countries.
Lenin recognized the dangers of the growth and pressures of the middle class and their reformist goals on the socialist party in Russia. He set a goal of building a party of professional revolutionaries, that is, people committed to the cause of the working class and revolution, as opposed to the looser socialist parties whose goal was to pull in as many people as possible. In 1903, at a party congress, Lenin argued for a much more limited party, only admitting those who had proved their commitment to the cause of the working class and who devoted their activity to the working class. This led to a split among Russian socialists.
At the time, many inside the movement, including other important revolutionary leaders such as Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, did not understand the full meaning of this split and opposed Lenin for pushing to carry it out. But capitalism was producing new crises and wars. What happened in revolutions all through Europe over the next decades would soon prove Lenin right.
Already, in 1905, in the midst of a disastrous war with Japan, the Russian working class revolted and carried out a revolution that in the end was crushed. But in the process, the workers developed a new form of organization, workers’ councils, the soviets. These workers’ councils decided on their action much more democratically than all the bourgeois parliaments and congresses combined, and they were a very important step that the workers would again take in their successful revolution 12 years later.
The years that followed the 1905 revolution were ones of retreat and demoralization in the face of virulent repression. But the core of the Bolshevik Party held together and went through the experience of both revolution and repression with the working class. In 1912, despite the repression, the workers in Russia carried out a new strike wave. Those strikes might have led to a revolution. But they were cut short by Russia’s entry into World War I.
All the Socialist Parties had denounced war before it broke out and even pledged to lead general strikes to try to stop it. But once the war began, most of those parties reversed themselves and supported their own governments, succumbing to all the nationalistic and racist propaganda that government officials and the news media propagated, justifying the slaughter of millions of workers for the profit of their own capitalist class.
Lenin’s deep conviction was that only the workers’ revolution on the scale of the world could finally offer a way out. In his writings, Lenin explained the capitalist economic forces behind World War I, the underlying causes for the collapse of the socialist parties faced with this war, and the need for the working class to smash the old capitalist state apparatus. This meant especially getting rid of the capitalists’ forces of repression, consisting of the army, police, and government bureaucracy—the workers needed to create their own state, serving the interests of all the oppressed.
In February 1917, a new wave of strikes broke out in Russia in the midst of the war’s mass slaughter and the hunger and starvation striking the working class and peasantry. The workers’ mobilization pushed out the Tsar within a matter of days. The workers created new soviets, that is, workers’ councils, to organize their activity. Meanwhile, the capitalists formed a new government called the Provisional Government.
In April 1917, right after Lenin returned to Russia from exile, he called for “all power to the Soviets,” that is, for the workers to throw out the Provisional Government and take power. Many of the leaders in his own party didn’t think this was possible, including Stalin, and they sought an alliance with the moderate socialists of the Provisional Government. When Trotsky, who had remained independent of the Bolshevik Party up until that time, returned from exile in April, he immediately embraced Lenin’s policy and joined the Bolshevik Party, bringing thousands of other revolutionaries with him.
Lenin’s slogans corresponded to a sharpening of the forces of revolution, that is, the growing radicalization of not only the workers but also the peasants. In October, Trotsky led the Bolshevik Party’s insurrection that swept out the Provisional Government and put the workers’ soviets firmly in power in Russia.
The 1917 revolution took place in a country that was gigantic and rich in natural resources. But the rule of the tsars and the capitalist class had left Russia poor and backward, with only a few concentrations of industry and commerce, and much of that had been decimated by capitalist war. But the revolution did open a way forward. Everyone understood that the revolution in Russia would not be able to survive if it remained isolated. The idea was to hold on as long as possible while the working class moved ahead in other countries. The revolution would spread.
In the following years, in big countries and small countries, from Germany to Hungary to Finland, all the way to China, the working class carried out revolutions over and over again. But revolutionaries in other countries had not built what Lenin and the other Russian revolutionaries had built: a party of professional militants with deep roots in the working class, that is, a party of the Bolshevik type that could provide an alternative to the collapse and betrayal of the Socialist Parties that had gone over to the side of the capitalist class.
With the Third International, the Bolsheviks rushed to help workers and revolutionaries build new parties in their own countries. But they were trying to build parties in the midst of a revolution. They had no choice. They had to try. And they did. But they did not build real deep-rooted parties in time. One after another, the other revolutions fell backward.
In the following years, the young workers state, led by the Bolshevik Party, did hold on. Those other revolutions gave it some breathing space. The old regime could not come back. But the workers paid an enormous price. Isolated and surrounded by the hostile forces of the big imperialist powers, Russia was beset by civil war, poverty, backwardness, famine, and epidemics, that is, the legacy of the old capitalist society that roared back with a vengeance, even with the capitalists gone.
Under those conditions, the working class in Russia that had made the revolution retreated, bled, battered, and famished. For a time, the working class in Russia was so weakened it practically disappeared. Quickly filling the void was a reactionary bureaucracy with Joseph Stalin at its head. This bureaucracy took over the running of a state that the working class had built, but it was a cancer that relentlessly reinforced its position and privileges against the working class.
It fell to the relatively small Bolshevik Party to combat this cancer. And in his last years, Lenin—already very sick—led the fight, along with Trotsky and many “old Bolshevik” leaders, against Stalin and the growing bureaucracy. The lack of a successful workers revolution in other countries strengthened the hold of Stalin and the bureaucracy, which took over the Third International and used it to consolidate its own power, betraying workers revolutions in other countries as it did.
The way history is usually taught here, Lenin prepared the way for Stalin. No. Stalin was the gravedigger of the revolution. And Lenin recognized this earlier than anyone. In fact, even as he lay on his sick bed in early 1922, Lenin formally broke personal relations with Stalin, strongly opposing Stalin’s crushing repression against national minorities. And Lenin looked to Trotsky as his main ally in this fight. In his last will and testament, which the Stalinist bureaucracy kept hidden until the 1960s, Lenin called for Stalin’s removal from office.
Lenin did not live long enough to carry out his fight to the end. Stalin erected a mausoleum in Moscow to display Lenin’s body, a “cult of personality” that would have outraged Lenin. Krupskaya, his widow, said that if he had lived longer, Lenin would probably have wound up in prison along with all the other “old Bolsheviks"—all of whom eventually were “eliminated” by the bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, this very first attempt of the working class to take and hold power already shows what is possible. Its success depended a great deal on the struggles carried out by Lenin to build the revolutionary party the working class needed.
Today, as the continual decay of capitalist society leads to new forms of barbarism and impending world war, new workers’ revolutions are on the agenda. What was gained in Russia all those years ago still offers a guidepost for workers who will be pushed to revolt in our day.