The October 1917 revolution ended the phase of the revolution which had started earlier that year in February, replacing Russia's short-lived provisional parliamentary government with government by soviets; and the establishment of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, the world's first constitutionally socialist state, with Lenin as Chairman of the Soviet Government.
Lenin worked quickly to consolidate power and revolutionise the state, implementing socialist reforms, transferring to workers' soviets, land and estates held hitherto by the imperial regime, reorganizing into the Russian Communist Party, the various factions in the party.
Anyone who knew anything about Lenin was aware that one of his strong points was the ability in every instance to distinguish the essence of the matter from the form. But it might be worthwhile to stress that he also attached importance to the form, realizing how much the formal side of things dominates people's mind; in this way he was able to invest formality with substance. From the moment of the deposition of the Provisional Government, Lenin systematically, in small things as well as in great, acted as a government should. We had not yet any governmental apparatus; our contact with the
provinces was non-existent; we were sabotaged by officialdom; Vikzhel was interfering... with our telegraphic connections with Moscow; we had no money; we had no army. But all the time and everywhere Lenin ruled by decisions, decrees, and orders in the name of the government. It goes without saying that Lenin less than anybody else was inclined to be impressed by the magic of formality. He was acutely conscious of the fact that our strength lay in this new governmental apparatus which was organizing itself from below, from the Petersburg districts. But in order to conduct the work 'from above', from the offices deserted by the saboteurs, in conjunction with the creative work from below, this formal tone was needed, the tone of a government which today is still suspended in a vacuum, but which tomorrow or the day after would become a force, and for this reason already today acts as a force. This formality was also needed in order to discipline our own brethren. The governmental apparatus was slowly spreading its net over the turmoil and ferment, over revolutionary improvisations of advanced proletarian groups.1
Lenin negotiated a peace treaty with Germany so that Russia could be brought out of the war, faced as it was with the threat of German invasion. On 3rd March, 1918, the treaty was signed at Brest-Litovsk in spite of meeting resistance from many members of the Bolshevik hierarchy who were opposed to peace at any price with the Germans. Lenin wanted peace at any cost so that the Bolsheviks could concentrate on the work needed to be done in Russia itself, and he finally forced through the decision for acceptance, by threatening to resign. The Bolshevik leaders signed the Treaty, whereby vast stretches of Western Russia, including most of the Ukraine, the Baltic states and the South of Finland (who gained her independence), had to be delivered up to the Central Powers.
1. Leon Trotsky, On Lenin, p.116.
Soviet delegation's arrival at Brest-Litovsk for negotiations
Trotsky's words give us an insight which explains what is considered by many as Lenin's "uncompromising stance" in critical situations:
Lenin himself, in the Iskra, I think, expressed for the first time the idea that in the complex chain of political acts one had to be able, at a given moment, to discern the main, the central, link in order to seize it and to impart to the whole chain the desired direction. More than once Lenin used to return to this conception and even to the metaphor. From his conscious mind this methodological notion seemed to have permeated into his subconscious and in the end it became as if his second nature. During the most critical periods, when he was faced with tactical decisions involving a high degree of risk or exceptional responsibility, Lenin was able to set aside all that was irrelevant, all that was secondary, all that was inessential and that could be deferred. This does not mean that he considered only the main, the central part of his task, ignoring the details. On the contrary, he
viewed the problem with which he had to come to grips in all its concrete reality, approaching it from every side, weighing all its details, sometimes even tertiary ones, searching for ever new points of attack, trying to find new ways of exercising pressure, of checking facts, and calling for action. But in all this he would never lose sight of 'the link', which at that particular moment he thought was of decisive importance. He brushed aside not only everything directly or indirectly in conflict with the job in hand, but also everything which might disperse attention or slacken tension. In the most critical moments he became as if deaf and blind to all that went beyond the cardinal problem which absorbed him. In the mere posing of other questions, 'neutral ones', he saw a danger from which he instinctively recoiled. Later on, when the critical hurdle was happily cleared, Lenin would still now and again exclaim: "And yet we quite forgot to do this or that..." Or "we missed an opportunity because we were so preoccupied by the main thing..." Someone would answer him: "But this question had been posed, and this proposal had been made, only you did not want to hear anything!"
"Didn't I? Impossible!" he would say, "and I don't remember a thing."
At that point he would burst out laughing, with malicious laughter in which there was an admission of 'guile; and he would make a characteristic gesture of raising his arm and moving it helplessly down, as if resigned: well, one cannot do everything. This 'shortcoming' of his was only the obverse side of his talent to mobilize, to the utmost degree, all his inner forces. Precisely this talent made of him the greatest revolutionary in history.1
The same year, a bloody civil war broke out and during the civil
1. Leon Trotsky, On Lenin, pp. 123-5.
Lenin, Painting by Brodsky, 1930
war thus unleashed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolsheviks found themselves desperately fighting for survival against anti-Bolshevik Russians. The hostile forces, called the 'Whites' were composed of former officers of the Tsar, conservatives, and other socialists opposed to the drastic restructuring by the Bolsheviks, and importantly who were supported by the Allied Powers1.
Russia's Bolshevik government had to fight not only tsarist forces, but also foreign powers intent on restoring the old order. In the east, Czech and Japanese troops occupied Siberia; from the Arctic ports of Archangel and Murmansk, British, American and French forces threatened northern Russia; while German and Austrian units marched in from the west.2
Soon forces would have reached Moscow, the new capital of Russia. The Bolsheviks controlled Moscow, Petrograd and areas of the Russian heartland. Lenin was forced to put together an army —made up of revolutionaries and radical communists who were party members, that were called the 'Reds' — into the field to do battle with the White Army. It appeared as if the new socialist state would fall, but the Red Army managed to repulse the attacks and survive. The campaigns launched by the White Army would have crushed the revolution had they not been opposed in grim earnest by the Reds. By 1920 the Whites had been driven back. The attempt at armed intervention by the Allied Powers failed and the Bolshevik forces won the ensuing civil war against overwhelming odds.
Just as Trotsky played a leading role, together with Lenin, during the 1917 Russian Revolution, it was Trotsky who organized the Red Army as well as the fight back against all the forces of reaction that were attempting to strangle the revolution in blood. Under his leadership, the Red Guards which were volunteer groups forming a Bolshevik militia consisting of factory workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors — which he had created in 1917 for the October
Leon Trotsky, Commissar of War (1918-25)
Trotsky addressing Red Army troops during the Civil War
revolution — were combined with former imperial army officers to form the Red Army. Strict discipline was kept to see that these former imperial officers were loyal to the Bolshevik cause.
Political violence rose up as a reaction to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and assassinations were carried out by the Socialist Revolutionaries — a radical socialist party that had become influential — bent upon sabotaging the Peace Treaty. The conditions prevailing in Russia at the time are described by Trotsky:
The spring of 1918 was very hard indeed. Sometimes one had the feeling that everything was slipping away, going to pieces, that there was nothing to hold on to, nothing to lean on. On the one hand it was quite obvious that had it not been for the October upheaval, the country would have fallen into decay. On the other, in the spring of 1918 one had to pose the question: Will this country, so exhausted, so ruined, and so desperate, have enough vitality to support the new regime? There were no supplies. There was no army. The governmental machinery was just beginning to be organized. Plots and conspiracies were spreading like festering sores. The Czechoslovak army on our soil behaved like an independent power; we could do nothing, or nearly nothing, to oppose it.
... This foreign army spread like a tumour into the limp flesh of south-eastern Russia, meeting no resistance, and growing bigger with the accretion of the Social Revolutionaries and other activists of an even whiter hue. Although power was already in Bolshevik hands everywhere, there was still considerable disarray in the provinces... It was only in Petersburg and in Moscow that the revolution had been really carried through; in the majority of the provincial cities the October Revolution, like the February one, was carried, so to speak, over the telegraph poles. Here in some places they were linked, in others they were not, just because things were happening
Russian and Soviet Expansion
Statue of Lenin (Seattle, USA)
Delegates to the VIIIth Congress of the Communist Party (1919), Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky at the centre.
in the capital. The formlessness of the social environment, the lack of resistance on the part of the former masters found its reflection in a certain formlessness on the revolutionary side. The appearance on the scene of the Czechoslovak battalions modified the situation, first to our disadvantage but in the end in our favour...
... the Czechoslovak uprising... shook the party out of its depression, so widespread since the Brest-Litovsk peace... it was then that a radical change took place... ... The revolution grew in power and vigour.1
There were two serious assassination attempts on Lenin's life. In the attempt in August 1918, the assailant succeeded in seriously wounding Lenin who narrowly escaped with his life, after taking two bullets. One bullet would remain till it was removed by a surgeon three years later. He recovered, however, though his health was never the same again, — this increased his popularity among the people reinforcing among them the belief of his indispensability in the prevailing conditions of chaos.
... there was the force of his [Lenin's] idealism and the tenacity of his indomitable will which at the sharp turns of history made him cut corners and foreshorten distances. He believed in what he was saying... The deep and unyielding conviction that there were tremendous possibilities of human development for which one could, one should, pay the price of suffering and sacrifice, was always the hallmark of Leninism.2
Lenin and the Soviet government came out victorious in spite of the severe opposition faced. However, by this time the Russian economy was in ruin and there was great discontent among the peasants and the workers. The country over which Lenin now presided was reeling from the bloody civil war and in a state of collapse.
Famine and poverty, shortages and inflation became very much a part of life for the Russians.
Lenin proposed the New Economic Policy, in 1921, a system of `state capitalism', which was largely an agricultural policy which allowed peasants to sell their grain on the open market; it also encouraged small-scale private industry and public sector heavy industry while encouraging trade by giving concessions to foreign capitalists. This system of 'mixed economy' started the process of industrialisation and recovery from the Russian Civil War. Lenin took a series of measures aimed at buttressing the sinking economy and to prevent further bloodshed and chaos. With the NEP, the socialist nationalisation of the economy could then be developed to industrialise Russia, strengthen the working class, and raise standards of living — health, housing and education; thus the NEP would advance socialism against capitalism.
The "State Commission for Electrification of Russia" was the first-ever Soviet plan for national economic recovery and development. The Commission and Plan were initiated and supervised by Lenin. Lenin's belief in the central importance of electrification to the achievement of communism is represented by his statement in 1920 that:
Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country in modernising Russia into a 20th-century country.
The Plan represented a major restructuring of the Soviet economy based on total electrification of the country. Lenin's stated goal for it was:
... the organization of industry on the basis of modern, advanced technology, on electrification which will provide a link between town and country, will put an end to the division between town and country, will make it possible to raise the level of culture in the countryside and to overcome, even in the most remote corners of
land, backwardness, ignorance, poverty, disease, and barbarism.1
Though Lenin was extraordinarily energetic his physical health had never been very good — suffering as he did from insomnia, migraines and a weak stomach, from a young age. The attack on Lenin's life had left him in a debilitated physical condition which was aggravated by the mental strain of the many years of revolutionary work, the leading of a revolution, fighting a civil war against great odds, governing amidst the chaos and dissent. To add to this was the fact that he was known to work fourteen to sixteen hours daily, occupied ceaselessly with all matters whether major or minor. Dmitri Volkogonov2 had this to say about Lenin towards the end of his life:
Lenin was involved in the challenges of delivering fuel into Ivanovo-Vosnesensk3... the provision of clothing for miners, he was solving the question of dynamo construction, drafted dozens of routine documents, orders, trade agreements, was engaged in the allocation of rations, edited books and pamphlets at the request of his comrades, held hearings on the applications of peat, assisted in improving the workings at the "Novii Lessner" factory, clarified in correspondence with the engineer P. A. Kozmin the feasibility of using wind turbines for the electrification of villages... all the while serving as an adviser to party functionaries almost continuously.
The creation of the Soviet Union took place in 1922, when the Russian SFSR became one of its republics unifying with former territories of the Russian Tsarist regime, and Lenin was its leader.
Lenin's health was by now declining rapidly. The chronic
Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya in 1919
headaches and insomnia grew worse and he found himself unable to carry on with the workload that had been his since 1917. These chronic ailments and the heart seizures put him in a mood of deep pessimism. "A night doomed to insomnia is a truly terrible thing when you have to be ready in the morning for work, work, work without end..."1 he confided to his medical specialist who saw that he was suffering from cerebral exhaustion. By now he was extremely fatigued and felt isolated as never before. Despite his chronic ailments he had to go on despite the fact that he found his work extremely difficult to cope with.
Lenin suffered a stroke in May 1922, and then a second one in December of the same year. With declining health and facing the probability of his imminent death, Lenin was troubled by the future of the Revolution and the problem of how the Revolution could flourish after him. He worried about the policies of the central party leadership and how after him the newly formed USSR would be governed. He saw that the party and the government had moved far from its revolutionary goals:
... he disliked the new Soviet bureaucracy almost as much as he had disliked the old Tsarist autocracy. In considerable bitterness he called the Soviet republic "a Work-State with bureaucratic excrescences," and at the end of 1922 he admitted: "We have taken over the old State apparatus."2
By the end of 1922 he became greatly troubled by the question of the future leadership and as his disquiet increased he felt impelled to write a secret letter to the Congress. Having lost the use of his right side, he was forced to dictate the letter. This document became known as Lenin's Testament.
Lenin begins formulating a program for the rebuilding of the Soviet government. The first two letters focus
on reducing bureaucratism in the State Planning Commission and the Central Committee, while the third letter deals with the necessity of ensuring minority cultures in Russia have national self-determination. Lenin emphasises the need to make these changes to the Soviet government and warns of potentially disastrous consequences if the necessary but difficult steps are not taken. These works begin Lenin's early and incredibly insightful critique of the Soviet government; notably suggesting the removal of Stalin. 1
On 10th March, 1923, Lenin's health was dealt another severe blow when he suffered an additional stroke, this one taking away his ability to speak and concluding his political work. Nearly ten months later, on 21st January, 1924, aged 53, he passed away in the village at his estate at Gorki settlement (later renamed Gorki Leninskiye). In a testament to his standing in Russian society, his corpse was embalmed and placed in a mausoleum on Moscow's Red Square.
In the four days that the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin lay in state, more than 900,000 mourners viewed his body in the Hall of Columns; among the statesmen who expressed condolences to the Soviet Union was Chinese premier Sun Yat-sen, who said:
Through the ages of world history, thousands of leaders and scholars appeared who spoke eloquent words, but these remained words. You, Lenin, were an exception. You not only spoke and taught us, but translated your words into deeds. You created a new country.
1. Lenin's Testament, formally Letter to the Congress, Russian Pismo K Syezdu, two-part document dictated by Lenin on Dec. 23-26, 1922, and Jan. 4, 1923, and addressed to a future Communist Party Congress. It contained guideline proposals for changes in the Soviet political system and concise portrait assessments of six party leaders (Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Grigory Y. Zinovyev, Lev B. Kamenev, Nikolay Bukharin, and Georgy Pyatakov). The testament, written while Lenin was recovering from a severe stroke, concluded with a recommendation that Stalin be removed from his position as secretary-general of the party. — http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/335969/Lenin's-Testament.
You showed us the road of joint struggle... You, great man that you are, will live on in the memories of the oppressed people through the centuries.1
Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik Revolution that changed the direction of Russia completely, and was the architect of the Soviet state. After his death the political theory incorporating his contributions to Marxist thought and the practical Russian application of Marxism was called Leninism, which later coupled with Marxist economic principles by his successors, was called Marxism-Leninism. Lenin has been called the most important revolutionary in history, and the most important political figure of the twentieth century. Robert Service in his biography of Lenin says:
Without Lenin, there would have been no Revolution in October 1917. Without Lenin, the Russian Communist Party would not have lasted much beyond the end of 1921.2
In his biography of Lenin, Louis Fischer has the following to say about him:
[Lenin's collected writings] reveal in detail a man with iron will, self-enslaving self-discipline, scorn for opponents and obstacles, the cold determination of a zealot, the drive of a fanatic, and the ability to convince or browbeat weaker persons by his singleness of purpose, imposing intensity, impersonal approach, personal sacrifice, political astuteness, and complete conviction of the possession of the absolute truth. His life became the history of the Bolshevik movement.3
The following words of Trotsky on Lenin provide a fitting tribute to him:
Our great party embracing half a million is a great community with great experience, but in this half million men Lenin occupies a place that is incomparable. The historical past knows no man who has exerted such influence, not only on the destiny of his own land, but on the destiny of mankind; she has no standard with which to measure Lenin's historical significance.1
What constituted Lenin's genius? It consisted precisely in this: that through him the young Russian proletariat liberated itself from the conditions shackling its development and reached towards the heights of historic universality. Lenin's personality, deeply rooted in the soil of Russia, burst forth, grew organically, expanded into creative and genuine internationalism. Lenin's genius consisted, first of all, in transcending all confines.2
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