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Lenin's Brand of Marxism

The Revolutionary Masses
Ulianov's family in 1879. Vladimir is circled in red

The part played by Vladimir Ulianov (Lenin) in determining Russias destiny in the twentieth century is a remarkable demonstration of the role of personality in historical events. He was born in 1870 in an intellectual family - his father was a school inspector in a town on the Volga named Simbirsk, now Ulianovsk.

A striking parallel exists between Lenins and Nicholas IIs early periods of life: both experienced a tragic bereavement in the family. Whereas for Nicholas the assassination of his grandfather must have been one of the most lasting memories of childhood, Lenin was greatly influenced by the death of his eldest brother in 1887, who was executed for participating in a plot to assassinate Alexander III. At the time of his execution Vladimir was only 17. He greatly admired his brother, and his death has sometimes been considered a turning point for Lenin, who became a radical early on. 

He soon found an ideological base for his radicalism in Marxism, quickly rising to the role of the leader in the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working-Class, an underground Marxist organization, established in St. Petersburg in 1895. In 1896 he suffered imprisonment for his illegal activities and was exiled to Siberia for the three years following. While in exile, he produced a massive work called  The Development of Capitalism in Russia whose main contention was to prove that Russia was, indeed, becoming a capitalist nation. In 1900 he left Siberia and traveled abroad where he participated, together with George Plekhanov, in the publication of a Social-Democratic newspaper, The Spark, and in other revolutionary activities, often under the pseudonym of Lenin. At first awed by the father of Russian Marxism, Plekhanov, Lenin quickly rose to positions of leadership in a newly created Social-Democratic Party in which he led the extremist Bolshevik wing from 1903. Before long he became one of the most important Marxist theoreticians in Russia.

Lenins theoretical contribution to Marxism could in no sense rival the contributions of the two German originators of the doctrine.  He strove to adapt Marxism to the changing conditions in the world and to Russian circumstances, and he produced certain important additions to and modifications of the basic teaching. The need for some of these arose from the fact that Marx had analyzed the contemporary capitalist society and predicted that, as a result of a proletarian revolution, it would be replaced by a communist society, but he had little to say of a concrete nature about how the post-revolutionary society would be run, or indeed, about how the revolution itself should be organized and guided. Lenin, on the other hand, in his long career as an exiled revolutionary, wrote at length on the conduct of the revolution and on society in the immediate postrevolution phase.

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