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Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Theoretician and Revolutionary

In a pamphlet titled What Is to Be Done? (1902) Lenin argued that only a disciplined party of professional revolutionaries could bring socialism to Russia. In 1903, at a meeting of the Russian Social Democratic Labor party held in London, the party split into two factions, the Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (see Bolshevism and Menshevism). Lenin continued to be the chief exponent of Bolshevik thought in the long struggles for supremacy against Plekhanov, Kautsky, and other less radical Marxists. With the outbreak of revolution in 1905, Lenin returned to Russia. His view that the Bolsheviks should take part in the second duma prevailed in 1907, but he left Russia later that year and subsequently mostly engaged in complex theoretical disputes.

Lenin was in Switzerland during the early years of World War I. In his view the war was an imperialist struggle; since imperialism was "the final stage of capitalism," it was a historical necessity that the war would offer opportunities for a revolution of the proletariat. Consequently, Lenin urged the proletariat to oppose the war by an international civil war against the capitalist class. After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of Feb., 1917, the German government allowed Lenin to cross Germany en route from Switzerland to Sweden in a sealed railway car. By aiding his return to Russia, the Germans hoped (correctly) to disrupt the Russian war effort.

Lenin concluded that Russia was now ripe for a socialist revolution, arguing that the moderate provisional government represented the bourgeoisie whereas the soviets represented, in his words, a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. In July, 1917, after an abortive mass uprising in Petrograd, Lenin was forced to flee to Finland. Although the Bolsheviks were represented only by a minority in the first all-Russian Soviet congress (June, 1917), they soon gained decisive power. In Nov., 1917 (October according to the Old Style), the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, who had returned to Petrograd, overthrew Kerensky's weak and disorganized regime and established a Soviet government.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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