96 Years Since Lenin – Revisting His Economic Legacy

21st January marks the 96th death anniversary of Lenin. In his short lifespan of 53 years, he not just changed the course of Russian economy but also left an indelible mark on the history of economic thought with his political-economic ideas.

An enquiry on Leninism must begin with the study of Karl Marx’s ideas. Marxism envisaged an egalitarian world without class distinctions where workers are not exploited. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel, in their seminal work, ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848), identified the communist party as the leader of the proletariat revolution. They believed that the communists were the most advanced of all working class and were the most suitable to lead the proletariat across nations into overthrowing the bourgeoisie. Leninism is an extension of Marxism.

Vladimir Lenin was an iron-willed man who believed in his purpose of overthrowing monarchy and establishing communism in his country, Russia. He was not just influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels but also had unflinching faith in their work. Even though he was an atheist, Lenin believed in their philosophy like a religious fanatic. Lenin had no doubts that his interpretation of Marxism, first termed as Leninism in 1904 by Martov, was the most authentic one. He, therefore, saw socialism as a way to eventually achieve communist rule in Russia and later on, in the whole wide world as well.

To achieve a state of socialism, Lenin resorted to ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat’ wherein recruits from working class would form the Communist Party and overthrow Tsarist regime. Their main objective was upliftment of labour and equitable distribution of resources. Lenin, like Marx, distinguished between economic campaign and political campaign. He advocated for the latter where socialist changes would be brought about in the society.

Lenin on Imperialism

Lenin, in his book ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ (1916), describes imperialism as a way of exploiting the labour class of underdeveloped colonies while maintaining better standards of living in the developed home country. He believed that imperialism would lead to a global financial system on which capitalism would thrive. As the title of the book suggests, Lenin saw imperialism as a manifestation of the highest level of capitalism. As capitalism results in uneven distribution of resources and growth of select individuals and groups at the cost of labour force, imperialism results in skewed development across the globe. As imperialist countries maintained relatively better labour-capital relations in their home country, the proletariat revolution had to initiate from an underdeveloped politically weak economy which according to Lenin was Russia.

Early Days of Socialism – October 1917 to June 1918

Marx was of the view that a proletariat revolution would begin in a developed European country where proletariats formed a huge chunk of urban population. Russia was considered the stepchild of Europe that was way underdeveloped than its other European brothers. Moreover, proletariats were a minority in a peasantry dominated Russia. But Lenin had a firm belief in the revolutionary abilities of the peasantry and went ahead with his idea of turning Russia into a socialist state. He began by attacking the very essence of capitalist dominance which was their economic strength. Private ownership of land was abolished and land was redistributed to poor peasants. Gradually, factories, mines and transport came under government.
Marx had only provided a guide to socialism and not a blueprint. Besides, his work focused more on western Europe. Thus, Lenin learned a lot of hard lessons in implementing socialism in Russia. He realised it is a much more complex task than he had ever imagined.

War Communism – June 1918 to December 1920

Imperialist powers such as United Kingdom, France and Japan were concerned that Russian proletarian revolution may inspire similar movements in their respective countries. They could somehow get into Russia at the fag end of the First World War and reach urban centres. In a desperate attempt to safeguard socialism, Lenin adopted the policy of war communism where resources- food and human – were largely diverted to the military fighting against capitalist powers. Under surplus appropriation, grains beyond a set limit were to be sent to army. Increased demand for labour in war factories led to militarisation of labour where the labour force was supposed to work for longer hours than they would even before revolution. War communism also delayed Lenin’s ambitious dream of collectivisation of agriculture to modernise farming practices. All of this was seen as an antithesis of the very principles of Marxism for which Lenin had been fighting. Albeit Russia succeeded in supressing the counterrevolutionaries and imperialist invaders, Lenin did realise the urgency of developing Russian industry and economy.

New Economic Policy

Due to prolonged wars with imperialists and imposition of war communism, the Russian economy dwindled sharply. As peasants had to give away their produce over a certain limit, there was hardly any enthusiasm left to produce more. Working conditions worsened. Collectivisation of land was seen as a hasty decision as farmers were not yet ready to give up their individual farming rights. Production of consumer goods fell as most of the effort went into manufacturing goods for war. Standard of living of people stooped low instead of rising.

Thus, Lenin introduced New Economic Policy (NEP) in March, 1921 to reinvigorate industrial and agricultural output. Lenin realised it was unrealistic for the government to control many small enterprises and gave assigned them to individuals. To boost production of consumer goods, fuel and other resources were allocated to the consumer industry. However, even after denationalisation of industries, majority of them still remained under direct control of the government. Lenin also acknowledged the expertise of bourgeoisie in managing industries. He utilised their expertise without transferring control to them. Surplus appropriation was replaced by tax in kind system for farmers. Collectivisation of land was put off as Russian society seemed unprepared for this policy.

The Legacy Left Behind

Lenin’s NEP drew widespread criticism from different corners. It was seen as a sharp departure from Marxist ideology. Critics argued that NEP encouraged individualism. It was seen as a shift towards capitalism. Flaws in NEP led to the emergence of a class of new businessmen called, Nepmen, who controlled the different means of production such as land, farms and factories. This resulted in revival of class distinctions which was antithetical to the idea of socialism. With the death of Lenin in 1924, also came the end of NEP and good prosperous days of Nepmen who were made to pay heavy taxes or sent to Siberia.

Lenin can be considered as one of the most influential and controversial figures of twentieth century who brought about a political revolution in the world’s largest country. Even though his policies and their implementation are widely criticised as dictatorial, there are many admirers and supporters of Leninism who perceive the October Revolution to be one of the most significant events to have shaped modern politics. Besides, different communist philosophies branched out of Leninism such as Stalinism, Marxism-Leninism and Maoism. Where some claimed direct descendance from Leninism, others stood in strict contradiction to it, which ultimately led to the emergence of communist regimes in many newly independent countries in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Without doubt, Lenin’s political-economic ideas laid the foundation for today’s communist movement across the world.

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