Lenin was born in 1870 in what was then the Russian Empire. His family background was not poor: his father came from the lower ranks of the nobility. But there is no doubt that many of his closest relatives hated the government and the system. Lenin’s brother Alexander was a member of a terrorist group that tried to assassinate the Tsar – the sole ruler of Russia. They failed and in 1887 Alexander was hanged.
Though Lenin never mentioned this incident in public, it must have played an important role in shaping his future life. That year he began to study the ideas of past Russian revolutionaries and started to make contact with underground movements. From them he learned the techniques of organising in secret: how to write in invisible ink, how to distribute illegal literature, how to maintain contact when in prison, how to evade informers and police. But while Lenin greatly admired the courage and commitment of the conspirators in the underground, he was determined to avoid their mistakes and failures. He turned instead to the new communist theories of Marx and Engels that were already winning mass support abroad, especially in Germany.
Russia was a very backward country. The overwhelming majority of the Russian people were peasants, eking out a desperate living on the land. Millions had no land of their own, and had to slave away for the rich landlords.
But alongside this medieval system, new industries were spreading like wildfire. A modern working class, concentrated in massive foreign-owned factories, was beginning to organise in the cities.
Lenin joined the Social-Democratic movement. This was made up of al group of writers living abroad, and circles of Marxist students and intellectuals working in secret in Russia. Unlike the other radical movements in Russia, the Marxist Social Democrats turned their attention to the new industrial working class. They set up illegal circles to teach modern ideas and socialist theories to workers, many of whom had only just arrived from the countryside and could scarcely read or write. Then they went on to agitate among the workers for action against the terrible conditions in the factories, against the laws that the factory owners used to keep the workers down, and against the dictatorship of the Tsar.
A wave of strikes in the 1890s brought thousands more workers into political life and into contact with the Marxists. From these circles of workers a new political party came into being: the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, or RSDLP.
Lenin emerged as a young leader in close contact with the movement in Russia. But after being arrested, jailed and exiled, he escaped and spent most of the rest of his life abroad. There he was able to keep in touch with the Marxist movement in other countries. This enabled him to take a broad, international view of the working class movement and its tasks, and never to fall prey to narrow nationalism. As we shall see, this was crucial to Lenin’s later political development and to the scale of his achievement.
In his early years Lenin fought hard against all trends and ideas which he thought would weaken the struggle of the working class. Through the newspaper Iskra (“the Spark”), he argued against the strategy of assassinating officials and politicians – individual terrorism – and instead insisted that it would take a mass revolution, not just the bullets and bombs of a brave handful, to overthrow the Tsarist system. Under Lenin’s influence Iskra campaigned against the ideas of the “Economists” within the RSDLP, who believed that the party should limit itself to encouraging strikes for better pay and conditions. Instead Lenin argued that the party should champion the rights of all the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world. Instead of trailing behind the spontaneous ideas of the workers, Iskra wanted the new party to raise their courageous struggles to higher, political goals: the overthrow of the Tsar and the fight for socialism.
Lenin insisted that without overcoming amateurism, and establishing a disciplined, professional party, it would be impossible to overthrow the Tsarist state, with its trained army and secret police.
He stressed that a single newspaper for the whole of Russia would enable the party to link struggles together, exert influence and direct the efforts of the working class towards a common goal. The party would need the most widespread democracy within its ranks: without this it would be impossible to check the ideas and the actions of its leaders, and to ensure that the party really reflected the ideas and experiences of the masses. At the same time, once decisions had been made, all party members should carry them out: the party should strike like a fist, with the maximum effectiveness. This principle – democracy in discussion, unity in practice – later became known as democratic centralism. It was one of Lenin’s most important contributions to the techniques of organising for revolution.
In 1903, the RSDLP split into two factions: the Bolsheviks (‘majority’) led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (‘minority’), led by Martov and other older leaders of Russian Marxism. By 1912 these two factions had developed into completely separate parties. The difference between the two groups must have appeared very narrow at first: the split began when the Mensheviks refused to accept the democratic decision of the party conference to remove some of their leaders from the editorial board of Iskra. But behind this lay a far more substantial difference.
The Mensheviks believed that the working class should rely on the liberal wing of the capitalists to overthrow the Tsar and establish democracy. The Bolsheviks by contrast believed that the working class should stay independent at all times, and should aim to play the leading role itself in the revolution, the better to defeat the capitalists in the years to come.
In 1905 the storm broke. A peaceful march to the Tsar’s palace was drowned in blood as the army opened fire on the workers, killing men, women and children. All hell broke loose.
The Russian workers launched the biggest General Strike in history: their calls for bread quickly broadened into demands for free speech, a parliament and a republic. Most important of all, the workers set up a new form of organisation: the Soviets. These democratic councils brought workers together from every industry and area. The workers’ delegates were directly elected, and could be recalled at any time. They organised the struggle and showed the way in which the working class could organise society itself. They were the seeds of a future working class state.
In many areas the soviets limited themselves to strike action and defending themselves from the police. But in Moscow the Bolsheviks had real influence. Lenin argued for an armed uprising against the Tsar.
He wrote to Bolshevik activists:
” …contingents may be of any strength, beginning with two or three people. They must arm themselves as best they can (rifles, revolvers, bombs, knives, knuckle dusters, sticks, rags soaked in kerosene for starting fires, ropes or rope ladders, shovels for building barricades, pyroxylin cartridges, barbed wire, nails against cavalry etc”.
The Soviet rose and fought courageously, but by December 17 they had been defeated. The Menshevik leaders drew from this the conclusion that the masses should never have taken to arms. Lenin disagreed:
“On the contrary, they should have taken to arms more resolutely, energetically and aggressively; we should have explained to the masses that it was impossible to confine things to a peaceful strike and that a fearless and relentless armed fight was necessary.”
The years following the defeat of the 1905 revolution were hard ones for Marxists. Every reverse for the working class movement inevitably finds its reflection in a decline of revolutionary ideas. During the following years of repression, Lenin fought against two trends in the RSDLP which would have prevented the revolution from succeeding if they had been allowed to grow unchecked.
The first of these was a right-wing trend. A grouping of the most extreme Mensheviks – the “Liquidators” – decided that the RSDLP’s secret underground organisation should be dissolved. In its place they wanted to concentrate on building a legal party alone. Lenin opposed this fiercely, convincing the party as a whole to reject this as an attempt to abandon the job of revolution and fight only for peaceful reforms.
The second trend that Lenin fought against was an ultra-left current within the Bolshevik faction. They argued the opposite of the Liquidators: that the RSDLP should concentrate only on underground work, and refuse to take advantage of any legal opportunities. In particular they opposed the participation of the RSDLP in elections to the Duma, Russia’s parliament.
Lenin regarded this as a dangerous mistake. The party should use elections to gather support and spread its message. It’s MPs, however, should be completely different from the usual breed of privileged politicians. They should be working class, and go to the Duma dressed in their ordinary clothes, treating all the ceremony and show of parliament with contempt. They were to use their position as a platform for exposing the Tsar and calling on the workers outside parliament to rise up in struggle.
Lenin’s stress on the need to combine legal and illegal work was extremely successful. When the workers’ movement began to recover with a wave of mass strikes in 1912, the Bolshevik faction was far more representative of workers’ groups on the ground than the Mensheviks or the Liquidators. The Bolsheviks finally established themselves as a completely separate party.
Everything seemed set for a final confrontation with Tsarism. But then, in 1914, the whole of Europe plunged into the chaos and mass murder of World War One. Of all the Social-Democratic and working class parties of Europe, only one stood firm against nationalism and war: the Bolsheviks.