Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin
(1870-1924) was a Marxist political theorist and the primary
architect of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Born to a middle
class family, the young Lenin (originally named Vladimir Ulyanov)
was a gifted student who was inspired to turn his intellectual
talents toward revolutionary activity by his reading of the works
of Karl Marx as well as by the execution of his older brother
Aleksandr for plotting to assassinate the tsar. Lenin eventually
joined the major Russian Marxist group, the Social Democratic
Party, but soon became dissatisfied with the party's lack of
revolutionary zeal. His critique of the Party's mainstream,
What Is To Be Done?
(1902), made substantial revisions to Marx's original ideas and
prompted a split among Russian Marxists between Lenin's Bolshevik faction and the Mensheviks who opposed him.
In October of 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to take advantage of the
ongoing political tumult in Russia to seize control and make the
first attempt in history to base a government upon Marxist
principles. Lenin's initial successes in providing more freedom
and economic equality to Russia were counterbalanced by the
increasingly authoritarian measures he had to adopt in the face of
a bloody civil war and foreign opposition to communist rule. By
the time of Lenin's death in 1924, the newly renamed Soviet Union
was a one party dictatorship which used heavy-handed state power
to advance its agenda of social reform. Nevertheless, Lenin's
achievements and his additions to Marxist doctrine (often
subsequently termed Marxism-Leninism to acknowledge his
contributions) would provide continuing inspiration to
revolutionary groups worldwide throughout the 20th century.
The state is a special organization of force: it is an organization of violence for the suppression of some class. What class must the proletariat suppress? Naturally, only the exploiting class, i.e., the bourgeoisie. The working people need the state only to suppress the resistance of the exploiters, and only the proletariat can direct this suppression, can carry it out. For the proletariat is the only class that is consistently revolutionary, the only class that can unite all the working and exploited people in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, in completely removing it.
The exploiting classes need political rule to maintain exploitation, i.e., in the selfish interests of an insignificant minority against the vast majority of all people. The exploited classes need political rule in order to completely abolish all exploitation, i.e., in the interests of the vast majority of the people, and against the insignificant minority consisting of the modern slave-owners — the landowners and capitalists.
The petty-bourgeois democrats, those sham socialists who replaced the class struggle by dreams of class harmony, even pictured the socialist transformation in a dreamy fashion — not as the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class, but as the peaceful submission of the minority to the majority which has become aware of its aims. This petty-bourgeois utopia, which is inseparable from the idea of the state being above classes, led in practice to the betrayal of the interests of the working classes, as was shown, for example, by the history of the French revolutions of 1848 and 1871, and by the experience of “socialist” participation in bourgeois Cabinets in Britain, France, Italy and other countries at the turn of the century.
All his life Marx fought against this petty-bourgeois socialism, now revived in Russia by the Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik parties. He developed his theory of the class struggle consistently, down to the theory of political power, of the state.
The overthrow of bourgeois rule can be accomplished only by the proletariat, the particular class whose economic conditions of existence prepare it for this task and provide it with the possibility and the power to perform it. While the bourgeoisie break up and disintegrate the peasantry and all the petty-bourgeois groups, they weld together, unite and organize the proletariat. Only the proletariat — by virtue of the economic role it plays in large-scale production — is capable of being the leader of all the working and exploited people, whom the bourgeoisie exploit, oppress and crush, often not less but more than they do the proletarians, but who are incapable of waging an independent struggle for their emancipation.
The theory of class struggle, applied by Marx to the question of the state and the socialist revolution, leads as a matter of course to the recognition of the political rule of the proletariat, of its dictatorship, i.e., of undivided power directly backed by the armed force of the people. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie can be achieved only by the proletariat becoming the ruling class, capable of crushing the inevitable and desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie, and of organizing all the working and exploited people for the new economic system.
The proletariat needs state power, a centralized organization of force, an organization of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population — the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and semi-proletarians — in the work of organizing a socialist economy.