A Look Back At Lenin’s Violent Use Of Marxism

While Stalin, Lenin, and other fascist dictators of communist countries are often looked at by the West as the sad, but inevitable results of idealistic collectivism, what we can see from a sketch of the evolution of Marxist ideology from Marx himself, to the way in which Lenin would go on to use it as a political tool at the expense of the Russian people. Its violent manifestation as fascism in the Soviet Union was hardly the inevitable or logical conclusion to a Marxist experiment. Instead of Marxism’s connection to the Soviet Union serving as a cautionary tale about what is bound to go wrong when the virtues of democracy and western liberalism (and in turn capitalism) are deviated from and resisted, the relationship between the thinker and the geopolitical crises that would come about in his name serves as a more familiar and tangible cautionary tale of the ways in which political theories can be manifested as political realities, rife with problems that theories are unfit for addressing.

As the problems that industrialization and modernity created for everyday citizens became evident in the 19th century, Marx’s focus came to be on class, capitalism, and work. Focused on the emergence of industrialization, capitalism, and the problems entailed therein for workers, Marx came to see capitalism as inevitably leading to a stage of revolution, in which the proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie and “seize the means of production.” Marx and Engels can arguably be credited with the valorization of the working class in the industrialized, capitalist West, seeing the oppressed masses as the most significant and powerful force in changing the political and economic structures of these nations. For Marx, a vibrant proletariat revolution could only emerge in response to capitalism and industrialization, in which the proletariat gain the power of the bourgeoisie by “seizing the means of production.”

The society envisioned emerging from this was one that was undeniably intended to be less oppressive than capitalist societies.

While many of his contemporaries, such as prominent figures in enlightenment thinking and classical liberalism like Rousseau, Kant, and Locke notably develop and evolve their philosophies based on emphasizing the concept of “personhood” and the practice of respect for persons in political settings, Marxism instead emphasizes the collective over the individual. A vibrant rhetoric of collectivism would prove to be crucial to Lenin’s goals, and it would come to be a defining characteristic of the Soviet Union.

As political tensions between westerners and Slavophiles emerged in the 19th century, Russia was put in a position where it would have been challenging to side with either position. The emancipation of the serfs and the resulting economic consequences of compensating landowners put Russia at the mercy of a global economy in order to industrialize. One of the first steps of this was the establishment of a state bank in 1860, bolstering Russian credit ratings. As the country continued to pursue its goal of becoming an industrialized and prominent world power despite its poor economic circumstances, foreign investments were critical in fuelling a period of rapid industrialization. This was at odds with a rhetoric that sought to define Russia as a separate entity from the West, the latter of which was heavily associated with things like industrialization and foreign investment. One proponent of a more westernized Russia, Plekhanov, would formulate a version of Marxism more in line with Marx’s original work. He adhered to Marx in characterizing a proletariat revolution as the result of a period of bourgeois capitalism, and as socialism as the result of this revolution rather than socialism and revolution as two intertwined goals. Lenin’s use of Marxism emerged in opposition to this, and can best be characterized by its emphasis on imminent revolution in Russia, despite the ways in which it didn’t fall under the category of industrialized, capitalist societies with a strong proletariat class capable of bringing about revolution and developing a socialist society.

The root of this tension in 19th century Russia can be characterized as a conflict between the opposing ideologies of individualism and collectivism. The former, linked to the West and in turn to the industrialization Russia was striving for, was at direct odds with a self-defined Russia that maintained its traditional, collectivist values. This points to one reason why Marxism, with its emphasis on the collective over the individual, was particularly appealing in Russia in contrast with Western liberalism, which was developing a rhetoric of respect and rights for individual persons, seeing the actualization of human potential as emerging from this rather than one’s role in society. While enlightenment and classical liberal thinkers sought to discover and make explicit universal truths about human nature and government, and a discourse of “personhood” and “rights” centred around individuality emerged, this was in contrast with Marx. His work emphasized the relationship between history, ideas, and politics. Marx’s emphasis on collectivism, as well his deterministic view of individual freedom, bore far more resemblance to traditional Russian values than any form of individualistic liberalism proliferated by the West.

Marxism presented such fertile grounds for political leverage in Russia that Lenin was obliged to look past the ways in which it was at odds with his goals. While Plekhanov saw Russia’s role in Marx’s historical materialist account of global politics as pre-industrialized and awaiting with open arms the stages of full industrialization, capitalism, and western liberalism it would have to go through in order to be primed for revolution, Lenin had no patience for undergoing this process. A revolution in Russia, under Marx’s original conditions, would be impossible to bring about in one person’s lifetime. For this reason, Lenin instead shifted to a position that accepted much of Marxism, but not the place in history in which Russia would be placed under Marx’s original work. While Marx valorized spontaneous revolution fuelled by a majority of workers themselves, without outside agitation or intervention, as a result of their reflections upon the negative experiences of capitalism, this was at direct odds with Lenin’s goals, and it’s a position he would come to stand in staunch opposition of. Unlike Marx, Lenin saw the revolutionary capacity of the masses less as a powerful force in and of itself, and more as material for the right revolutionary leader to groom and bring about political consciousness in. Rather than an organic revolution spurred by the majority for the sake of the majority, Lenin’s conception of revolution depended on external forces to awaken the masses, and to determine their best interest and lead them towards it. From here, we can see the emergence of a distinct “ends justify the means” mentality that would dominate Lenin’s work, and the political rhetoric of the Soviet Union. Spontaneity in particular is where he would distinguish himself from Marx in his thinking on revolution, saying that a spontaneous working-class movement on its own would inevitably lead to bourgeois politics.

From this point, we can see exactly what happened and why, in terms of the evolution of Marxism to Leninism: sovereignty, granted to the majority of the proletariat in Marx’s formulation, is instead granted to a handful in Lenin’s formulation. This proposes not so much a radical transformation of pre-existing political norms, but a re-branding of them, fuelled by a selective reading of Marx. Although Marx’s influence on Lenin and the trajectory of Russian history is undeniable, Marx and Russia are hardly as interconnected as they initially seem, based on a popular, American understanding of Marxism and Russian history. The appeal of Marxism to Russian politicians such as Lenin is clear-cut and logical, particularly given their historical context. But upon closer examination, we can hardly call the outcomes of Lenin’s revolutionary goals and the emergence of the Soviet Union as definitely Marxist in the canonical sense, given the crucial ways in which Lenin’s political theory diverts from Marx’s. What instead becomes apparent is the ways in which the political and cultural ideology of Russia at that period of time was itself the driving force behind the version of Marxism that Lenin and the Soviet Union would come to embody. While there are distinct ways in which Lenin’s Marxism is not traditionally Marxist, there are also distinct ways in which Lenin’s formulation of Marxism is traditionally Russian. Emphasizing collectivism, military and industrial strength, and a non-Western approach to politics and culture are forces that were at the heart of Lenin’s emergence and success as major political force.

Jeanita Lyman