Transition from Marx to Lenin
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Remember that for Marx and Engels all govts are dictatorships.
A means by which one class consolidates its power over another
Quoting from the Communist Manifesto ...Political power is merely the
organized power of one class for oppressing another If the proletariat during
the contest with the bourgeoisie os compelled by the force of circumstances to
organize itself as a class, if by means of revolution, it make itself a ruling
class, and as such sweeps away by force the old conditions of production,
then it will along with thee conditions have swept away the existence of class
antagonisms, and of classes generally and will thereby have abolished its own
supremacy (Marx and Engels 1848)
Thus for Marx revolutionary politics constitutes a transition to a post political
Lenin is to Marx as Thomas Jefferson is to John Locke *
That is he took the work of a major philosopher, made adaptations
applied the theory to a particular historical situation.
There is another way that Lenin is similar to Jefferson. Both were political
activists as well as political theorists. Lenin was the leader of the Bolshevik
revolution and the first leader of the Soviet Union. In Marxism there is a
concept called “praxis” which refers to the dialectical unity of theory and
*John Locke was a major British philosopher of the Seventeenth Century and
is considered the founder of classic liberalism. Lockeʼs ideas form the basis
for our Declaration of Independence.
Leninʼs major works are
What Is To Be Done? 1905 and State and
Leninʼs Three Major Adaptations of Marx
1. The Party,
2 .The Dictatorship of the proletariat
3. imperialism & the Weakest Link
For Marx the Communist Party was a broad based democratic organization
As the working class became conscious of its alienation and oppression it
would organize itself as a revolutionary party
When the material conditions were present, and class consciousness was
developed they would make the revolution
Through force* the workers led by the party would overthrow the capitalists
and install the transitional dictatorship of the proletariat.
Bernstein and the revisionists would have a different view of the party
They would argue that in some capitalist societies, the working class could
work through the system, speak to the issues and fight for reforms that would
lead to democratic socialism.
Lenin would hear none of this, but his view of the party would differ from Marx
The key issue was class consciousness Lenin would argue that left to their
own devices, the workers would never develop genuine class consciousness.
To put it in contemporary terms they would never be “woke” The best they
could do was trade union consciousness. They would understand the need to
form unions and fight for higher wages, but would never understand that
revolution was necessary
Key quotes from What Is To Be done
All worship of the spontaneity of the working class movement only
strengthens bourgeoisie ideology . What Lenin means is that unorganized
“spontaneous” actions could be counterproductive and actually harm the
revolutionary cause. Can you think of examples?
But the workers were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable
antagonism of their interest to the whole of the modern political and social
We have said that there could not have been social democratic
consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them
The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively
by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness
...ie the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the
employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary
Why? Because as a result of false consciousness they would never develop
an understanding of theory quote 6
Well who does then? Revolutionary intellectuals like Marx, Engels and
The theories of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic,
historical and economic studies of the educated representatives of the
propertied class, by intellectuals...Marx and Engels
and in Russia... it arose s a natural and inevitable outcome of the
development of the socialist intelligentsia
Therefore a vanguard party was necessary a highly disciplined party
Those who had correct consciousness
Those who understood the material conditions of existence
Who understood the theory of historical materialism
Those who know what was to be done
They, the vanguard would lead the masses to revolutionary victory
A party of professional revolutionaries
Narrowly based rather than broadly based
Highly centralized, secret and conspiratorial
..the organization of the revolutionaries must consist of those who
make revolutionary activity their profession
The moral to be drawn is simple. If we begin with a solid foundation
of a strong organization of revolutionaries, we can ensure the stability
of the movement as a whole and carry out the aims of both social
democracy and the trade unions(by social democracy he means
These revisions had significant ramifications for the course that the revolution
would actually take, particularly in Russia
Note: Some defenders of Lenin would argue that the vanguard is not as elitist
as I am making it out to be. Many years ago, a friend said the vanguard was
in touch with the masses but simply a step ahead of them. Thatʼs what
vanguard does, it leads.
Hmm, is Lenin merely reasserting Michelsʼ “Iron Law of Oligarchy”
Dictatorship of the proletariat
Now for Marx the dictatorship of the proletariat was like his concept of the
party relatively democratic and very broad based
Government by the working class, the vast majority of the people
Only dictatorial in the sense that all states are dictatorships.
Remember, Marx believed that the state was simply a means by which the
ruling economic class protects is material interest and subordinates the rest of
society. As Engels put it “the state is the executive committee of the
For Marx, the revolution would replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over
the proletariat, with the dictatorship of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. And
of course, this would be a transitional state necessary to create the conditions
for a future classless society, where the state has “withered away”
Some of what Lenin says indicates that this is what he intends
A transition from bourgeoise to proletarian democracy
Replace the smashed state machine with fuller democracy: abolition of the
standing army. All officials to be elected and subject to recall.
It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush their resistance
The organ of suppression is here the majority of the population and not the
Once we have overthrown the capitalists, crushed the resistance with the
armed hand of the armed workers, and smashed the bureaucratic machine..
The subordination however must be to armed vanguard of all the exploited
working people people i.e. the proletariat This is a key quote. By “vanguard”
does Lenin mean the proletariat(working class) or the party?)
But in practice and to a certain extent in theory(see the above quote) the
dictatorship of the proletariat becomes the dictatorship of the party acting for
the proletariat. This is clearly what happened in practice. The political reality
of communist states is that political power is held by the Communist Party.
Obviously a more authoritarian model than Marx had presented quote.
Some would argue that this came later with Stalin. It was Stalin who moved
the Soviet Union in an authoritarian and ultimately totalitarian direction.
Others argue that it was Lenin who turned the corner in this more
Others argue that this authoritarian turn was necessitated by outside capitalist
forces that attempted to crush the Revolution. Britain and the United States
both intervened against the Communists in the Russian Civil War.
This lead right to Leninʼs third major contribution
Imperialism and the Weakest Link
Marx had predicted, wrongly of course, that the revolution would occur in the
most advanced, industrialized capitalist countries, Britain, France, Germany
Certainly not in places like Russia, China and Cuba Why not?
Because Marx argued that the communist revolution could not occur
until the material conditions for revolution were present. This could
only occur in a fully developed capitalist system.
Thus there was a theoretical need to explain why the revolution occurred in
these “less developed” countries. By the standards of classic Marxism Russia
in 1917 was “backward” It was still in the very early stages of capitalism,
industrialism was just beginning, the bourgeoisie was not the ruling class. But
the revolution did happen and needed an explanation
Lenin did not invent the theory of imperialism but he adapts it to Marxism
and uses it to explain why the revolution occurred in Russia in 1917
Now as you might guess the Marxist- Leninist analysis of imperialism and
colonialism is essentially economic
The advanced capitalist societies must colonize(directly or indirectly) the 3rd
world in order to
exploit natural resources
exploit cheap labor
expand their own markets
ease the burden on their own working class,
Thereby making them less radical
Obviously this opens up all sorts of interesting discussion. Contemporary
critics of American Imperialism will argue that while the U. S. doe not have
colonies in the traditional sense of the term, we along with other wealthy
nations, exercise an economic domination of the Third World. I the imperialists
control global capital and that gives them the means to control the global
economy. U.S. intervention if various parts of the world is a means of
protecting these economic interests.
But for Lenin the key point is that capitalism is now an international system
and that the revolution can occur at its weakest link, Russia
It is no longer sufficient to apply historical materialism to individual societies.
The international capitalist system and its contradictions must be analyzed
if the objective conditions for revolution are not present in a particular
countries that is not a problem
If the international system is ready for revolution then the chain of capital can
be broken at its weakest link
and in 1917 Russia was the weakest link
Tyranny of the Czar
Suffering of the peasants
Russiaʼs disastrous involvement in WWI
It was in the context of these revolutionary circumstances that Lenin” s
vanguard party did what “had to be done”
The trajectory of socialism looks like this:
Utopian Socialists(Owen, Fourier, St. Simon)
Marx and Engels
Stalin v Trotsky
Western Social Democracy
Although Marx is one of my major influences, I have never been a fan of
Lenin. In my opinion, he did take Marxist theory and practice in a more elitist
and potentially authoritarian direction. On the other hand, I would never
equate him with the evils of Stalinism. Lenin died in 1923 and he had warned
others about Stalin.
Defenders of Lenin would say that if he had not taken the direction that he
did, there would have been no revolution, it would have failed. Others argue
that Lenin and the Bolsheviks essentially hijacked the revolution and took it in
the wrong direction. This is an issue for historians.
Of course one need not be a Marxist-Leninist to appreciate his emphasis on
organization. There is considerable evidence that social movements do not
succeed without disciplined organizations. Thing donʼt just happen, people
organize and make them happen. That is why organizers are often called
Leninʼs Three Major Adaptations of Marx
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Imperialism and the Weakest Link
Bernstein and Democratic Socialism
democratic state +socialist economy
Public ownership and control of the economy combined with a democratic
Relationship between democracy, socialism and capitalism
capitalist economy +democratic state
capitalist economy+authoritarian state
socialist economy+democratic state
socialist economy+authoritarian sate
Democratic socialists usually argue that democracy and socialism are
Their logic goes something like this. If the people are going to own and
control the means of production they will inevitably do so through a
government. Therefore the government must be democratic. How else
could the people control the economy? Authoritarian socialism is not true
Democratic socialists usually argue that capitalism is incompatible with
democracy. The economic inequality that is essential to capitalism
undermines the political equality that is essential to democracy.
So they are saying that you cannot have socialism without democracy and
You cannot have democracy without socialism.
Most conservatives and libertarians argue that capitalism, with its emphasis
on individualism, economic liberty, private property and the free market, is
the only economic system compatible with democracy. From their
perspective socialism expands government and threatens liberty.
Many liberals would say that it just depends. There are authoritarian
socialist states and democratic socialist states. The are authoritarian
capitalist states and democratic capitalist states.
Can you think of examples of these combinations?
Democratic socialists are often Marxists but usually not Leninists. Of
course, the Leninists accuse them of “revisionism”. Also there are many
democratic socialists who do not identify as Marxists.
How does democratic socialism differ from Marxism/Leninism ?
1. Evolution rather than revolution.
Socialism can be achieved peacefully through gradual reform.
In those capitalist societies with democratic institutions(parties,
elections, parliaments) socialists should work within that system.
Workers should form their own political party to compete with the
Use civil liberties like freedom of speech, press and assembly.
Speak out on issues, offer alternatives, propose reforms
Run candidates for office, get elected and govern
2. There will probably never be a pure (classless)communist society
The state will not wither away, but that is fine, provided
that the socialist state is a democratic state
Indeed socialists may lose elections and some-but not all-of their
reforms will be undone. However, they will continue as the peaceful
opposition, criticize the government, offer alternatives, win the next
election, govern the country and move it closer to the ideals of socialism.
As you may noted in your reading, Lenin thinks that this evolutionary
approach will never succeed. Revolution is necessary.
Eduard Bernstein is a major figure in history of democratic socialism
He was the leader of the German Social Democratic Party(SPD)
He wrote Evolutionary Socialism, published in 1899
He was an arch rival of Lenin who calls him a revisionist. In Marxist jargon,
revisionist is usually a pejorative term. For some Marxists, revisionists are
Is Bernstein a Marxist?
Yes, he is a follower of Marx and Engels but argues that revisions of their
theory and practice are necessary in light of historical changes
The overall theory of historical materialism is sound but it must be revised
and adapted to to take into account significant changes that Marx and
Engels could not have anticipated in 1848
Some of Marxʼs prediction had simply not come true
Capitalism was not on the verge of collapse
Class warfare is not escalating at a rapid pace
There is a growing middle class between the bourgeoisie and the
proletariat. Perhaps the middle class and the proletariat can be
allies on some issues
Reforms are taking place
extension of the suffrage(right to vote)
growth of unions
some laws regarding child labor
Some capitalist privileges are being slowly eroded as workers gain power
Thus in this period the emphasis should be on
the political struggle between the classes
and the extension of democracy
Quoting Engels who was Marxʼs co-author and closest collaborator
The task of social democracy is to
Organize the working class politically
Fight fight for all reforms which raise the working class politically
and transform the state in the direction of democracy
So the struggle for socialism has two fronts
The fight for the working working class,
Fight for reforms that benefit workers
higher wages, worker safety, etc
The fight for democracy,
For reforms that protect and extend democracy
Hm, this sounds a lot like liberal democracy. People cannot govern
themselves if they do not have the rights to do so
What is the relationship between socialism and liberalism?
From the perspective of orthodox Marxism liberals are enemies.
Why ? How would this be even more true for Lenin?
Bernstein agrees that liberals are enemies when they support capitalist
interests but they are allies when the support the workers
Putting this into contemporary context, a democratic socialist would argue
that liberals are allies when they support universal health care, but they are
enemies when they support the insurance or the pharmaceutical interests.
Bernstein does believe that classic liberalism developed as a capitalist
ideology. That its historic task was to create the political conditions for
Nevertheless, and this is crucial, even while liberalism was a bourgeoise
ideology it still advocated progressives values such as freedom and
Indeed for Bernstein, democratic socialism is the fulfillment of liberalism
What would Lenin say about that?
Bernstein Rejects the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
This is a major break from both Lenin and Marx
For Bernstein the transitional state must be democratic for everyone
Members of the bourgeoisie will lose much of the power and privilege that
they held under capitalism, but they will not lose their political rights.
Indeed, they might use those rights to win the next election, but hey, thatʼs
For Lenin, and probably for Marx, this is a grave error. The proletariat must
use its power to crush the last remnants of the bourgeoisie.
Brief interlude from “recent” history In the early 1970ʻs the people of Chile
elected a socialist government led by Salvador Allende. Reforms were
instituted. However, in a military coup, backed by the economic elites and
the CIA, the democratic government was overthrown. For a number of
years after that Chile was a dictatorship. No doubt Lenin or Castro would
have said, “that is what happens when you let your enemies stick around”
But for Bernstein democratic socialism requires democracy
Universal suffrage is crucial
It can be a tool for the workers, it enables them to form a party,
run candidates, win elections, pass reforms, achieve the goals
Nationalism Here is another break from orthodox Marxism. Marx had
stressed that socialism was an international movement “Workers of the
world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains” For example, why
should German workers fight French workers in a war that makes the
capitalists rich? Capitalists put their class interests above the nation,
workers should do the same. The worker has no country
Bernstein argues that while this might have been true in the 1840ʼs, it no
Now that workers are citizens, with rights, they do have a stake in their
Of course socialists should oppose unjust wars. But if the war is just it
should be supported.
Thus, in World War I, German socialists did support their countryʼs war
effort. Some saw this as the death knell of international socialism
As you might guess L ...
Purchase answer to see full