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Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), 1870-1924

lenin.gif (31691 bytes)Whoever wanted to learn to detest feudal barbarism
should be born in Simbursk
. (Trotsky)

Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, April 22, 1870, in the provincial city of Simbirsk on the Volga River. His father, Ilya Nikolaevich Ulyanov, was a secondary school teacher and eventually rose in the civil service to become a provincial director of elementary education. His specialties were mathematics and physics. Lenin's mother was a teacher as well. Both parents were deeply concerned with the popular welfare, and Lenin, along with his two brothers and two sisters, absorbed at an early age both a desire to learn and an intense commitment to improving the lives of ordinary Russians. Bertram D. Wolfe once wrote that "their household was one breathing order, peace, conscientious devotion to duty, domestic simplicity and quiet affection.

In 1887, shortly after the death of his father, Lenin's older brother Alexander was arrested in St. Petersburg for plotting against Tsar Alexander III. (In 1881, the mysterious Executive Committee of the Narodnaya Volya, succeeded in assassinating Alexander II.) Alexander Ulanov, only seventeen years old, was convicted and hanged. This tragic event hardened Lenin and although it perhaps did not make him a revolutionary, certainly hardened his hatred for the repressive culture that was late 19th century Russia.

Following the death of his brother, Lenin immersed himself in radical writings, especially those of Karl Marx and the Russian critic and nihilist Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and continued his education. Lenin enrolled at the University of Kazan (law and political economy) in 1887 but was soon expelled for his participation in student disturbances. In 1891 he passed the law examinations at the University of St. Petersburg as an external student, scoring first in his class. He practiced law briefly in Samara before devoting himself to the revolutionary movement.

Between 1893 and 1902, Lenin studied the problem of revolutionary change in Russia from a Marxist perspective. It was at this time that Lenin began to revise his understanding of Marx, the essential features of which would come to be called Leninism. Lenin agreed with other Marxists that the development of industrial capitalism in Russia was the key to radical change. However, Lenin was puzzled by the inability of Russian workers to develop spontaneously, as Marx had suggested, a radical class consciousness capable of political action. (Of course, Russia was a largely agrarian society, without a large working class or bourgeoisie for that matter.) The workers behaved like the peasantry, a class whose failure to respond to radicalism had frustrated the Russian revolutionary movement for most of the 19th century. In an effort to solve this problem, Lenin developed the notion that a radical class consciousness had to be cultivated among workers through agitation by a well-organized revolutionary party (the "vanguard of the proletariat").

It was at this time that he began to use the pseudonym "Lenin." He also met and married Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya. In 1895, Lenin was arrested, imprisoned, and sent into exile to Siberia with other members of the Marxist organization known as the Union of the Struggle. Lenin went abroad in 1900 and with George Plekhanov and others organized the clandestine newspaper Iskra (The Spark), designed to ignite the revolutionary movement. In Iskra Lenin rejected the notion of any kind of political alliance with liberals or other elements of the bourgeoisie and stressed the importance of social, rather than political, democracy, as the basis for individual freedom. This phase of Lenin's career culminated with the publication of What Is to be Done? (1902) and the organization of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in the summer of 1903. Like his Populist predecessors, Lenin continued to stress the need for a party vanguard to lead the revolution.

After 1903, Lenin struggled to develop this vanguard. He became widely known in this period for his unwavering support of and dedication to revolution. He lashed out ruthlessly at his opponents with sarcasm and scorn. Lenin was a masterful political tactician. Although he was forced into exile until 1917 (except for a brief period during and after the Revolution of 1905) in London, Paris, Geneva, and other European cities, he maneuvered for control over party committees and publications. He condemned the Menshevik Party of the RSDLP, despite being outnumbered by them.

The Mensheviks worried about the dictatorial propensities of the vanguard of the proletariat and instead argued for the development of a mass popular base among the workers. Lenin remained impatient with the Mensheviks. He saw nothing to fear from a revolutionary elite genuinely dedicated to the welfare of the workers and the peasants -- the real danger as he saw it lay with the liberals and bourgeoisie, whose social system, he maintained, robbed the worker of his true wealth and incited imperialist wars of aggression.

In 1917, Lenin published, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. In this work he denounced the Great War as a battle among the capitalist powers for control of markets, raw materials and cheap labor. Since neither the Allies nor the Central Powers offered any benefits to the working classes, he urged all socialists to withhold their support from the war effort.

The German government, looking to disrupt Russia's war efforts, allowed Lenin to return to St. Petersburg from exile in Switzerland on April 16, 1917. Lenin received a tumultuous reception and immediately issued his April Theses, published that some year in Pravda, the Bolshevik Party organ. The Theses denounced the liberal Provisional Government that had replaced the tsarist regime. It was at this time that Lenin gained the key support of Leon Trotsky.

Lenin was forced into exile (this time to Finland) during the July Days, an abortive uprising against the Provisional Government. In September, correctly perceiving the radical mood in Russia, Lenin sent a letter to the Executive Committee of the Bolsheviks calling for armed insurrection. He slipped back into Russia and successfully brought the Bolsheviks to power through the Military Revolutionary Committees and at the end of October, the government of Alexander Kerensky was brought down in a military coup.

Lenin moved quickly to consolidate Bolshevik power. He reorganized the various party factions into the Russian Communist Party and reconstituted the Russian economy along Marxist guidelines. In order to bring the country out of war he negotiated a peace treaty with germany at Brest-Litovsk in 1918. The same year, civil war broke out and he was forced to put a Red Army into the field to do battle with the White Army (who were supported by the Allies and not defeated until 1921). By that time the economy was in shambles and discontent among peasants and urban workers was high. Lenin issued the New Economic Policy as a way of shoring up the sagging economy. NEP granted concessions to foreign capitalists in order to encourage trade and he permitted peasants to sell their produce on the open market.

Despite these serious concessions, Lenin remained a committed Bolshevik revolutionary. He helped establish the Communist International, or Comintern, in 1919. On May 25, 1922, Lenin suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He also suffered from complications of an assassination attempt from 1918. After a series of strokes, Lenin died on January 21, 1924, at the age of 53.

[See also the Lenin Internet Library; the Lenin Museum; the Lenin Mausoleum: and the V. I. Lenin Internet Library]

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