Lenin and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
After the fall of the long-standing Tsarist regime in the Russian empire, it became clear that the need for further reform and revolution was necessary. The provisional government, led by a majority of bourgeoisie and conservative leaders, was disorganized and ideologically fragmented. The lack of cohesion in regards to planning, policy and leadership paved the way for the rise of Lenin and the radical Bolshevik movement to seize power, secure control of the government under the guise of a dictatorship of the proletariat, and to institute socialism and communism in its place. Lenin, a skillful and charismatic leader, seized the opportunity to institute his ideals for a socialist, Soviet nation, and his policy and ideology shaped the future of Russia for decades to come. The peasantry and working class, largely uneducated and disenfranchised from political and governmental life, clung to the need for strong leadership after the fall of the last Tsar or conversely face a descent into anarchy. Unable to fulfill that need, the Provisional Government had little chance of standing against the Bolshevik revolution or the rising tide of socialism that followed. Lenin and the cult of Leninism that lasted long after his death indicates that he was, at least in part, a “cornerstone of Soviet History”. Lenin’s rapid rise to power in the dictatorship of the proletariat demonstrated a clear need for a people’s revolution while the masses he strove to give voice to remained largely ignorant of the cost of loyalty to a regime that would inflict itself and its ideological prerogative on their freedoms, their growth and even their lives. By capitalizing on this ignorance and utilizing propaganda, rhetoric and extremism to inflict terror on its political rivals, this regime transformed Russian history could only ever be toppled, as in the case with its predecessors, by further revolutionary ideals and actions near the dawn of the twenty-first century.
The Rise of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Once the Tsar had been ousted in the revolution of March, 1917, a Provisional Government took the place of the absolutist regime as the closest form of Democracy Russia had ever known until that point. The Provisional Government promised the Western Allies that Russia would remain active in WWI, and strove to establish freedoms similar to the idea of a Russian bill of Rights. The Provisional Government, however, was not what the Bolsheviks or Lenin had in mind. Sponsored by a Germany eager to remove Russia from the equation of WWI, Lenin was returned from exile to Russia where he made a series of speeches and Tretes against the Provisional Government and the concept of Duel Power in the absence of authoritarian rule. The overwhelming majority of Russian people had no concept of democracy, and they were underrepresented by the elections that the Provisional Government held. Although the Bolsheviks were the minority party, they were able to turn the tide and persuade the people to turn against the provisional government, allowing Lenin and the Bolsheviks to wrest political power away from the fledgling democracy and place it in the hands of the socialists. Lenin’s use of extreme measures played a pivotal role in his ultimate goal of a socialist state under the power of a dictatorship of the proletariat, and he viewed himself as a leader who was a champion of the people he represented.
The rhetoric utilized in Lenin’s April Theses, for example, demonstrates his ability to turn the people against the government in ideology as well as action. He purposely portrayed the Provisional Government as the enemy, using terms such as “overthrow”, “violence”, “deceiving”, “dishonest”and many more. By portraying the existing governmental structure as an enemy that must be fought as well as encouraging fraternization of the armed forces stationed on the front lines of WWI’s Eastern front, Lenin was skillfully able to manipulate the unrepresented majority of citizens, stirring them up against the government that had risen in the place of the old, outdated Tsarist regime. With the proletariat riled up and the working class, the army and the overwhelming majority of peasants’ support, the Bolsheviks were able to rise up against the hierarchy of the Provisional Government made up of a majority of bourgeoisie and intelligentsia who, like the Tsarist regime before them, were out of touch with the needs and desires of the common Russian people, although great strides were made to increase the freedoms and protections that the common person could enjoy throughout the empire.
The Provisional Government, struggling with international affairs and obligations as well as the daunting task of rebuilding and uniting the former Tsarist Empire, did not present a united front against enemies from within. With differing opinions, ideologies and plans from all sides, the Provisional Government couldn’t possibly hope to overcome the united front of the Bolsheviks, especially after Lenin was able to convince soldiers at the front line to abandon their posts and unite with an armed proletariat under Bolshevik control. Although in April, Lenin maintained that the duty of the socialist Bolshevik responsibility was to “present a patient, systematic and persistent explanation” to those in opposition to the coming socialist regime, his methods included the likes of the Cheka and the Red Army – willing and able to intimidate, manipulate, force and coerce any lingering opposition. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolshevik party was able to “cater to the instincts and hatreds of the masses, making the Provisional Government, for all intents and purposes, doomed to failure almost before it began.
Once the Provisional Government fell and the Bolsheviks took official control of the Russian government, the terror, manipulation and utilization of extreme measures and policy didn’t end. The ever-expanding Cheka was the “eyes, ears and the mailed fist of the proletariat and the naked, avenging sword of the revolution” determined to stamp out any lingering opposition or potential threats of counter-revolution. Lenin’s policy on power centered on the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat – a power, he insisted, that was unrestricted by any laws. These policies and justifications were laid out plainly in the Theses on the Constituent Assembly, in which Lenin explained that “only the ruthless military suppression of this revolt of the slave-owners can really safeguard the proletarian-peasant revolution… the entire people are now fully aware that the Constituent Assembly, if it parted ways with Soviet power, would inevitably be doomed to political extinction.
The Heart of Russia
A charismatic, determined and resolute leader who was secure in his objective and motivations, Lenin was able to step in and bridge the gap between authoritarian rule, bringing Russia to the opposite extreme of a socialist totalitarian dictatorship under his carefully crafted, planned and executed supervision. His policies far outlived him, and set the stage for the next seventy plus years of Russian history. Russian history today, in the quest for democracy, is left picking up the pieces of the ideologies that Lenin left behind and striving to understand a post-communist world. Though Lenin’s impact on Russian life cannot be understated, understanding the motivation and consistency behind it allows for deeper understanding of the man behind the Soviet machine, and can shed light on the Russian people from the twentieth century through today.
Dziewanowski, M. K. Russia in the Twentieth Century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.
Lenin, N. “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution” Pravda No. 26, Marxist Internet Archive. April 7, 1917, accessed December 9, 2015.
Lenin, V.I. “Theses on the Constituent Assembly” Pravda No. 213, Lenin Internet Archive. December 26, 1917, accessed December 9, 2015.
Olsen, Kelly Lorraine. “Paving the Path for Success: Lenin’s Political Theory in Practice, 1902-1917.” Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations, Florida State University, 2009.