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Lenin’s Failed Revolution

Many contemporary historians argue that history will always favor the October Revolution, of 1917, as a socialist victory. To deny this overstatement is not historical revisionism. Rather, it is a broader understanding of Marxian principles of and the application of Communist theoretical dialectics. Lenin’s Revolution was an obvious deviation from the standard Marxian “laws of development”, and even the idea of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. These two ideals have been heavily misused by Lenin, not due to Marx’s ambiguous definition of the terms, but Lenin’s own modifications to fit the political and economic framework of Russia at the time. On the 16th of January, 1923, Lenin wrote a letter to Sukhonov, a member of the Petrograd Soviet, and attempted to explain that although Russia was not economically ready for a Revolution the consequences of the “imperial war” along with the social fervor of the country increased Russia’s preparedness for a “peasant revolution. Lenin’s letter misuses Marx’s idea of the “flexibility of revolution”, and again shows his practical modifications, which most likely influences his own ideology in the control of the Soviet Union up to his death in 1924. The Revolution’s degree of success has long presented a source of contention between Marxist intellectuals: was the Revolution a success? The answer lies in the different perspectives. The Revolution was successful in terms of its transfer of power from the provisional government to the vanguard Bolshevik party. However,  not in its institution of Socialism though proper Marxian means, which led to adverse effect in the later years.

Lenin was wrong to insist on Revolution, as Russia was economically ill-prepared to accept a Communist political system.

Lenin was wrong to insist on Revolution, as Russia was economically ill-prepared to accept a Communist political system. This incompatibility was one of the key reasons why Lenin was forced to impose dictatorial policies since the early 1920’s , and why Communism never achieved its full potential. More precisely, Lenin’s deviations from the Marxist laws of development were essentially wrong both in theory, and more so in practice. The establishment of Socialism  by force is similar to the establishment of any other political or economic system through the use of violent revolution. The economic and social turmoil that affected Russia in 1917, although presented a perfect opportunity for revolution, did not present an opportunity for successful Socialism. These factors, along with the Revolution had plunged Russia into political instability, civil war and economic disparity. Thus Lenin was forced to impose a dictatorship in order to hold on to power over the proletariat, and continue to force the webs of false Socialism over and unprepared nation. Essentially, the Revolution and dictatorship were established under the false pretenses of Marxism, due to the fact that Russia’s structure did not allow for a true Marxist revolution or the institution of communist government.The state of Russia’s economy in 1917 was closer to a feudal system, rather than a capitalist framework of organized means of production. Therefore, once the Revolution had been forced unto the country, by violent means, the new Soviet government could not hold control over the overwhelming peasant majority, and socialism could not be instituted through social evolution. This, of course, led to the destabilization of power, simply due to the fact that Russia lacked a well established capitalist system. Rozhkov argues in his “On The Agrarian Question”, that two fundamental perquisites must be met by any economic system in order to be rope for Socialism: the complete domination of large scales enterprises in all sectors of the economy, and the efficient co-operation of capitalist forces to generate large scale output. Both of these were not present in Russia’s economy whose main backbone was essentially made up of agriculture and mining.

In the early 20th century, Russia was one the least industrialized European Powers. Perhaps the best evidence to suggest this is the fact that during the First World War, Russia relied mostly on horses to transport supplies to the front. A practice abandoned by the other European nations, as the use of railways became more common. In terms of economics, Russia saw very little change in the fact that most of the production was primary located in the primary sectors, such as coal mining, rather than the production of goods. Even so, in Russia primary production was quaint in terms of the massive population inhabiting the nation. Overall, Russia lacked a fundamental base of wealth, and more importantly an infrastructure that could be used in a successful socialist takeover. In all its size, covering 1/6 of the globe, it only employed 32,000 km of rail tracks. By 1917, only 2.4 million, out of 184 million people,  were employed as industrial workers , mostly in the textile industry. To put it simply, there was no wealth in Russia which could be spread to the Russia proletariat under socialism, as it did not undergo the process of wealth creation within a true capitalist system. However, there was a more severe problem: the lack of a proletariat.

By the times of the Revolution, Russia’s economy was still functioning within the boundaries of serfdom. Although legally abolished by Alexander II, centuries of serf-oriented systems had well entrenched roots that promoted feudalism. Despite the expansion of production by capitalist means, such as industrialization and rail roads under Nicholas II, the infrastructure of the country was still being held up by the peasant population. Trotsky believed that the development of the Russian economy between 1900 to 1917, when compared to the other Western European states, was in itself primitive. In fact, the economic history of Russia shows that the Russian state had always been economically inferior to the Western nations, simply due to the millions of agrarian peasants that ran the economic structures of the country. The lack of a well developed capitalist infrastructure led to the lack of workers in industrialized sectors and thus the absence of a proletariat. Around 80% of Russia’s demographics were made up of peasants, whose earning were  tied to the land. Although they were still identified as the “lower class” they had no affinity to Marx’s definition of the proletariat. This lack of a proletarian majority had an adverse affect on the institution of socialism in Russia. Many peasants who found themselves in the grips of a socialist system, could only understand Marxism as the ability to regain control over their economic means by eliminating their landlords. This was undoubtedly a positive aspect, but it was meant to be part of the capitalist revolution theorized by Marx; once the peasants dislodge themselves from their land, they participate in capitalist production through wage and salary earning, which would lead to the creation of the proletariat, and than eventually socialism. The Russians peasants had skipped one entire step, and found themselves to have no aggregate capital to support themselves- thus the famines that ravaged Russia in the early 1920’s.

Lenin. Photo By: Tare Gheorghe
Lenin. Photo By: Tare Gheorghe

The lack of a capitalist base, and more importantly the absence of a proletariat, hastily undermined the proper institution of Bolshevik control over the Russian nation. In the years following the October Revolution, the economic state of Russia became more disheartened, not only because of the ravages of the First World War, but also due to centuries of economic primitivism. There were no resources available to the majority of the population, except the little they produced on their lands. Lenin’s ability to stabilize the nation and hold control became increasingly difficult. By 1920, the Bolshevik power base, under Lenin, instituted the first forms of mass collectivization of grain across Russia, in order to feed the Russian population, and the growing Red Army. This turned out to be a disastrous campaign for the peasants, who already had no resources to spare. The peasant’s anger over the Bolshevik programs first manifested itself into the Tombov Rebellion of 1920, where 65 to 70 thousands peasants rose up against the Red Army, which was directing the collectivization process. This is perhaps the first instance of massive suppression of anti-Bolshevism in the new Soviet Republic. Around, 5000 to 5500 peasants were killed by the Red Army, and the rest imprisoned on labor camps. As soon as the rebellion was dealt with, the collectivization program continued freely, and more strictly under the administration of the Red Army. The significance of the Rombanov rebellion lies in the fact that the Bolsheviks had forced socialist measures, of collectivization of all resources, onto a people who had nothing to spare. It is for this reason why War Communism, which was essentially, the violent institution of socialist principles of collectivization, deviated from Marxism.

“War Communism” was the most devastating oppressive measure imposed on the non-proletarian peasants of the Soviet Union. Established immediately after the Revolution, in 1918, it advocated for the militarized distribution of food, usually grain, to all sectors of the nation and army. There are two main reasons why “War Communism” became a necessary deviation from Marxist principles. Firstly, Russia’s agricultural efficiency was inferior to all European standards. The food produced by the peasants only sufficed to feed themselves, or for the local market distribution. Without a strong and consistent base for agricultural production, more precisely mechanized agricultural production, “War Communism” presented itself as the only way to feed the Red Army during the Civil War. Secondly, urban centers had no strong supply of food, therefore a centralized collection and distribution system was needed to feed the urban population. “War Communism” was a dictatorial measure placed by Lenin to try and force the Marxist principles of Communism unto a backward society. The idea of equal distribution of food is only possible within a nation where it has a state of functional industrialized agriculture. Russia had no such infrastructure, thus Lenin forcefully instituted collectivization by “manual force”.

The most significant evidence to suggest that Russia was indeed economically ill-prepared for a Socialist Revolution was the fact that, by 1918, it found itself in a Civil War. The primary reason for his, above all, was the fact that it lacked a well defined proletariat base to support the Revolution. It was rather led by a small minority blocks of power, with no real defined support from the non-proletarian masses. Therefore, the minority blocks of power,: the Reds and the Whites found contention between themselves over grievances of political domination and petty Marxist differences. The Civil War was essentially and ultimate struggle for power over the Russian nation. The Bolsehviks lacked real proletarian support. Rather, they gained support from the few industrial workers that inhabited the urban centers, and mostly from its propaganda material distributed in rural areas. The Whites, whose main political base was made of liberals, monarchists, conservatives, and social revolutionaries, sought to take control over the Bolshevik government who constantly reinforced its dictatorial policies to maintain control over Russia.

The anti-Bolshevik sentiment that was rampant across the nation most likely arose out of the fact that the Bolshevik Government failed to administer the failing economy of the nation, and massive unpopularity of “War Communism.” The infamous Kronsdat Rebellion, in March 1921, was a consequence of the Civil War, and more importantly the Bolshevik dictatorial collectivization policies. The left-wing uprising called for economic reforms and more democratic principles, in contrast to the dictatorial policies established by Lenin. “The Fifteen Demands” of the sailors of Kronsdat seem to have been written for a right-wing government, rather than a Socialist system. Particularly, demands 5, 6, and 11 call for the end of forced collectivization, and liberation of all those imprisoned for opposing collectivism.  Although the rebellion was violently subdued, Lenin answered promptly with his New Economic Policy program which loosened the Bolshevik grip over the economy. After the failure of “War Communism”, the New Economic Policy, ironically, liberalized the economics framework to try and bring the Soviet Union some form of capital, which was readily needed for its survival. Lenin’s “necessary retreat” was directly caused by the fact that Russia was not a capitalized nation at the times of the Revolution in 1917. The policy liberalized the formation of petty-bourgeois businesses, the acceptance of foreign investment, and some form of market economy. These principles which are inherently the fundamentals of Capitalism, and the foundations of Roshkov’s two prerequisites, were to lay down the structure of Capitalism in order to build a proletariat. It is uncertain whether Lenin established the NEP to simply prevent future rebellions, or to try yo create the necessary capital needed for a successful transition into socialist society. Trotsky’s explanations of the N.E.P. point to the latter.

The Civil War, and anti-Bolshevik rebellions, between 1918 and 1921, all of which in part were the results of a failing economic structure, prior to and after the Revolution, all had promoted Lenin’s “legitimization of dictatorship”. Lenin was losing his grip over the new Soviet Union, thus he was forced to institute measures to try and hold control. The glue that held the structure of instability together was the lack of a proletariat framework. Lenin was well aware of Russia’s lack of “proletarian consciousness,” yet in order to continue the forced institution of Socialism, the Bolshevik party assigned proletarian identity to peasants by force. This is evidenced by their recruitment into bureaucratic positions in the Party, and wide-spread membership in the rural sectors of the country. Essentially, Lenin established a false sense of proletarian identity over the peasant population, which aided his institution of overall dictatorship. The reason for this is that, Lenin ultimately used the principles of the proletariat to justify his own control over them.

Throughout Lenin’s work, it is obvious that he was aware of Russia’s lack of economic preparation to accept Socialism, yet he still insisted on Revolution mainly due to the opportunistic element present. In many of his letters he explains that, essentially, the instability of the Provisional Government and the confusion over the First World War had provided a perfect opportunity to seize control over the state, and that Socialism could have been installed after power had been gained. He defended these principles by suggesting that the Revolution was entirely based off Marxist doctrines, such as that of Marxian Crisis. However, a Marxian crisis is defined as the economic instability within a Capitalist system, while Russia’s unstable climate in 1917 was rather of a political and social nature within a feudal system. Scientific Marxism argues that in order for Socialism to be instituted successfully within a nation, it must have the capitalist infrastructure needed o maintain a calibrated transition period into Communism. This leads into the idea that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was in fact, as argued by Marx, to be a rule of the majority by non-dictatorial means. However, Lenin disregarded these principles and had instituted Socialism over a feudal society, by the use of force- the “dictatorship.” Trotsky defended the idea of the Revolution in Russia and proposed the idea of “permanent revolution”. The problem with this concept is that is implies a constant power struggle through the use of any means necessary, such as dictatorship. Therefore, if the permanent revolution meant to keep hold of the transition period, it could only do so under the power of a minority. Trotsky meant to justify the Revolution, but did much more than that; he defined the very structure of Russia after 1917 of being constantly stuck in a transitory stage towards Socialism.

Lenin’s deviations from Marxism, although entirely practical by nature, proved to be a far greater challenge than his outlined goals and projections in his famous “What is to be done?”. The events in Russia, following the Revolution, prove that by skipping Capitalism within the ‘laws of development’ gives rise to far greater problems than the institution of Socialism. The lack of economic preparation by nature leads to the lack of a proletariat, and strong industrial and agricultural base, which leads to political and economic instability. This instability, by nature must be a controlled fierce dictatorship in order to ensure that power remains in the hands of the vanguard state or party. It is important to note that Vladimir Lenin was on of the most important Marxist intellectuals and revolutionaries of the 20th century. His work, efforts and determination to free the enslaved Russian people were undoubtedly sincere. Although the way he went about achieving this became brutal, it is obvious that he had the best interest of the nation. Lenin’s failures and achievements in Russia serve as a source of lessons, and bastion of experience for all contemporary Marxist intellectuals. When the times arises for a capitalist country to naturally enter the stage of Socialism, by passive or violent proletarian revolution, Lenin’s efforts in Russia will serve as a reminder of the possibility of failure if a nation does not meet the capitalist prerequisites needed.

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One thought on “Lenin’s Failed Revolution

  1. A very well written article. It seems to mostly focus on the economic end of Lenin’s revolution and dictatorship, but also touches on the trouble of drastically shifting people from one lifestyle into another and his overly idealistic expectation that Marx’s theory could be rushed. I’m actually not sure people will ever be able to make Communism work correctly, but we’re definitely not ready for it yet.

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