Lenin; Ideological Revolutionary or Cunning Pragmatist?

Lenin at the Second Congress of The Communist International

Mysterious leader of the Russian Revolution, talented theoretician and powerful orator, the figure of Vladimir Lenin is one of immense controversy and conflicting interpretations. Within his short period as director of newly Communist Russia (1917-1923) he maneuvered the Bolsheviks to sole dominance within the new regime and provided the ideological base for the future Soviet State. His life was tragically cut short in 1923/24 at the age of 53 and one cannot help but wonder what would have happened if he had lived on to spearhead the nation in it’s beginning years as a world superpower. Key to this is the argument of whether Lenin was a staunch ideologically motivated revolutionary or simply a cunning pragmatist who seized upon the opportunity of authoritarian leadership.

Within his rule, Lenin did utilise a method of Terror to eliminate his Political and Ideological opponents, and in this way he undermined much of his ideological credibility, placing the Communist party at the helm of a one-party authoritarian regime conducted by himself. The Red Terror, as it was named, saw the massacre of thousands of religious priests and laymen and the execution of hundreds of Tsarist supporters and Ministers on top of the imprisonment of thousands of anti-Bolsheviks within the prison system. Despite the loss of life, the Terror was employed during a vicious Civil War in which the Bolshevik’s committed comparably acceptable atrocities in relation to the Menshevik Whites. The Bolshevik’s employed a Terror broadly based on class persecution – the Tsarist Bourgeoisie and the remains of the Russian Upper Class. The religious aspect can also be legitimised with the Communist ideological commitment to Atheism, as they believe that religion is a great corrupter and to quote Karl Marx – ‘the opium of the people’. In this way we can see how the Red Terror reinforces the argument that Lenin was an ideologically driven revolutionary, however in the elimination of the Tsarist’s he also shrewdly eliminated the large majority of the opposition Menshevik party, and thus the Terror can be interpreted as Lenin’s cunning pragmatism.

However, does a large amount of pragmatism need to be possessed by a strong leader, especially one on revolutionary proportions? Lenin, like his fellow Communist Trotsky, believed that the revolution in Russia was only the start and that Socialism would spread from the East into the more developed countries of Central and Western Europe. The War, he believed would drive the masses to embrace Socialism and overthrow their Capitalist Governments to join Russia in a form of Communism. It was though also the War that would lead to the disproving of this hope; in fact, the war brought people together in a sense of national patriotism and support for their country and undermined the growing Socialist movement which had begun in the Second International. This organisation, founded in 1889, had begun to bind the Working Class together on a greater scale above national affiliation, but collapsed with the outbreak of War in 1914, and with it Lenin’s dream of international revolution. But, did he abandon all hope, nay he did not. Lenin stayed true to his idea that other nations would follow in Russia’s footsteps and that it would act as a springboard from which world Socialist Revolution could commence, in this way we can see how Lenin was fiercely ideologically driven.

Lenin, gripping orator


Furthermore, when compared to his fellow Bolshevik Josef Stalin, who ruled the USSR from the late 1920’s until his death in 1953 we cannot possibly consider pragmatism as a dominant force within Lenin’s premiership. Stalin showed undeniable political shrewdness and flexibility during the 1920’s when he ousted political opponent after political opponent, constantly switching ideology as he did so. From the Gradualism of Bukharin to Forced Collectivisation and a hard line on the peasantry, Stalin dipped and dived throughout the late 1920’s as it suited his pragmatic political maneuvering.

Focusing in on Lenin, we can see how he clearly abused his leadership of Russia, unleashing a mass Terror, which would allow the future Vozhd Stalin to wreak literal havoc upon the nation, as well as establishing himself as the authoritarian leader of the regime which ideologically would be merely transitional. You could question this claim by stating that it did still have the opportunity to be dissolved or heavily decreased, and at the helm Lenin was in the prime position to enact this minimalisation. Although to counter this, he the reforms he enacted however liberal paved the way for a regime which was not going to dissolve any time soon. Universal Free Healthcare, a Free Education System and the Secret Police Organisation – The Cheka. All these establishments required mass central funding which would require large taxation much out of the norm for the era, and quite obviously the Proletariat – whose ideas and beliefs Communists were supposed to be advocating – would definitely not have wanted a Secret Police Organisation watching their every move and endowed with extensive execution powers. In this way we can see Lenin as a cunning pragmatist who used the excuse that the Communist party was ruling on behalf of the people to secure his rule upon the new Russian State.

In conclusion, my personal opinion tends to drift towards the party that put forward Lenin as an ideological Revolutionary who advocating strong Marxist-Leninist ideals which he can visibly be seen to put forward during his leadership. For example Lenin supported equality in every region contemporary for his era e.g. that of womens rights, which he threw his support behind at the Party Congresses. It is hard to elevate yourself within the deep Capitalist infiltrations in your mind and try to imagine that you are so vividly gripped by belief that you would strive for it’s establishment no matter what the cost, but that is what possessed Lenin when establishing his new Russian State, and if he ever abused his power it was to achieve a greater goal, of worldwide Socialist revolution.


3 thoughts on “Lenin; Ideological Revolutionary or Cunning Pragmatist?

  1. This was a very good read and it came to a conclusion, which was both well-argued and demonstrated with immense comprehension and evidence. I have learnt new things about Lenin, for example, his push for equal rights for women, which was indeed ahead of its time. I have enjoyed reading each of your blogs. Q: What do you think Lenin might have achieved if he had lived another 10 years (assuming he would have continued as leader)? Q: Do you think Lenin’s early death, to some extent, maybe him some variation of matyr (as he is celebrated as the great Soviet leader right up to Gorbachev)?

    In terms of writing ability, if we just ignore small, silly mistakes e.g. ‘though’ instead of ‘through’, my advice would be to check your grammar and syntax a bit more studiously; just for future reference. And continuing my role as amateur-editor, I would suggest you do not directly tell the audience how/what to think. It’s just in your final paragraph – which concluded everything beautifully byt the way – I wouldn’t use personal pronouns, like ‘you’, and then also assume their upbringing in a Capitalist society. Although this will be almost 100% correct for everyone who would read this, you might annoy your reader, if for example, they resent their Capitalist society or have strong socialist values.
    But apart from those little things, I thought it was great. If you can, keep ’em coming! :)

    • On the 8th line, in my second question, the ‘maybe him some variation of matyr…’, should actually be, ‘maybe made him some variation of matyr’. Sorry.

    • I am actually one step ahead of you Oliver, my original post was going to be ‘What would Lenin have done?’, however i decided i had more substance for this question. I do have a plan for a question under that title in my notebook though, so i am going to postpone my answer as to not sap from my other post :).
      To the second question; Well, personally, i’d say it certainly added to his status as father of the Soviet Union. In that, he established the state within the last years of his life and by his death Communist Russia still had much momentum in the way of change, and could have been transformed into a REAL Socialist State. You may accuse me of being Utopian, but Cuba worked just fine under a form of accelerated Socialism (although i s’pose it is HUGELY smaller…). I think what was more important to his transformation into the great soviet leader was more down to the fact that he was the main protagonist of the Revolution, and effectively founded the nation on his own showing immense political and diplomatic skill – ending the war with Germany, restraining the pressure for the Red Army to ‘induce’ Revolution across Eastern Europe etc. As well as this the added bonus that he was also a masterful theorist and his ideas of Leninism-Marxism became the foundations for the whole Communist ideology of the Soviet Union (Despite the fact it was never really literally in place). And lastly, we of course cannot neglect the contribution of ‘Uncle Joe’ to the incessant idolatry of Lenin throughout the Soviet era – i will restrain from expanding on this point to save patronizing you :).
      Just my thoughts anyway….Do you agree my historical compatriot?

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