Marxism as Applied by the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union and Their Rise to Power

Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, most famously known by his pseudonym Vladimir Lenin, was born near the river Volga, in Russia. He first read Karl Marx in 1888, and his political views would build up from that point until 1903. Vladimir Lenin would come to found the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Союз Советских Социалистических Республик). That was the year he wrote What is to be Done?, where he presented his ideas for a socialist republic. Lenin’s life and character were strongly influenced by his brother’s martyrdom while he was still a child. Alexander Ulyanov was a member of the Narodnya Volya, a rebel group against Tsar Alexander III. The Tsar’s police arrested and murdered him and various of his comrades of Narodnya Volya. This article explains Lenin’s idealisation of Marxism and his rise to power. It also touches on the foundation of the Soviet Union and its organisation.

Vladimir Lenin in black and white looking at the camera
Vladimir Lenin in black and white looking at the camera | Source: Wikipedia

| Read about contemporary Soviet culture, the case of Transnistria

| The history of the reformation in Latvia

Marxism-Leninism for the Bolsheviks

In his book What is to be Done?, Lenin explains the various pillars of his ideology for a revolution. These include:

1. A vision into a framework political organisation

2. An underground activist network to turn this vision into a political organisation

“Marxism can be defined as the theory and practice of international working-class revolution”, he writes Faulkner (Faulkner 2017:55). Lenin had lived pondering on the historical paradox that Marx and Engels found and wrote in their works. That is, that while productivity has steadily increased throughout history, millions still lived in poverty. Wealth was constantly held in the hands of a few. They thought this happened because the exploited classes had never had an interest in collective emancipation. However, the new industrial proletariat, that is, factory-waged workers, was different in this respect.

In the ancient world, there were slave owners who owned other humans as the means of production. Under feudalism, there were land owners (or feudal lords) who owned the land and serfs who worked it. Neither of those two oppressed classes had any incentive to bring about a collective change. They could overthrow the owner of the lord and divide what they took of the means of production among themselves. If a band of serfs overthrew their lord, they’d split the estate and merely relocate private property. But for the industrial proletarian, this was different, because of the nature of the means of production of their time. They can’t split factories, businesses, hospitals etc in that way, because without the full thing there would be no productivity. Thus, their best bet was communal ownership of the means of production.

The Bolsheviks posing in group
The Bolsheviks posing in a group picture | Source: Alpha History

The Industrial Proletariat

They were the first class to have a common interest in the emancipation of all humanity. For this, they would be the ones to bring communism to a political reality. The revolutions of 1848 led Marx and Engels to another radical conclusion. They argued that this proletariat was the only class capable of bringing about a determined revolution. Engels even wrote that in bourgeoisie victories, like in France in the 18th century, the main players had been proletarians. They saw a political struggle for the establishment of democracy. But there also was an economic one for redistributing goods and means of production. Marx and Engels thought that with the industrial proletariat these two struggles had become inextricably bound.

Lenin’s views were pretty mainstream within the Marxist circle until 1917. He argued that a proletariat revolution was necessary to overthrow the autocracy and establish a democratic republic. He also thought that there needed to be a redistribution of land to peasants, and eight-hour shifts in the factory. Similarly to other revolutionary groups before and after, Lenin held a romantic view of revolution. This means one with heroes and martyrs, war and sacrifice, like the Narodnya Volya, where his brother was martyred. This is also true for other Marxist figures, like the philosopher Georg Lukács or the revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara. Perhaps stemming from this passion, in the Social Democratic Labour Party’s Second Congress, 1903, he announced particular goals. The Bolshevik party, his section of the SDLP, was dedicated to the overthrow of Tsar Alexander III. It would, too, support any similar ambitions in foreign countries.

Lunch atop a Skyscraper. Picture of a group of builder during the construction of the Rockefeller Centre
Lunch atop a Skyscraper. Picture of a group of builder during the construction of the Rockefeller Centre. Recalled as a symbol of the proletariat | Source: Mentalfloss

An Underground Activist Network for the Bolsheviks

In 1883, the Emancipation of Labour Group appeared in Petersburg, led by Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov. The Tsar died, assassinated, in 1881, and what followed were many militant labour groups. The legacy of Plekhanov was a seed in the social world that evolved throughout the 1880s and exploded in the 1890s. In 1895, Lenin and others founded the St Petersburg League of Struggle and Emancipation of the Working Class. In May 1896, 30 000 textile workers in St Peterburg conducted a three-week strike that was largely organised by the League of Struggle. Thus, the League became a small social movement. However, the movement subsided. Lenin and others were arrested and sentenced to terms of exile in 1895.

When he came back to politics in 1899, he developed a complete plan to create a revolutionary movement in Russia. Between 1899 and 1903, the Bolsheviks were born as a distinct branch of Russian Socialism. His party, however, was not a political sect. Faulkner (2017) defines a political sect as a small, self-appointed organisation that tries to insert themselves into political decision making. They introduce a new idea or set of them. A democratic-centralist organisation is one where power is concentrated in a single cult-like guru. According to Faulkner, the Bolsheviks were not a democratic-centralist organisation. This is because they aspired to an open, mass, democratic party that gave the Russian masses a voice. However, their problem was that Russia was a police state. In that context, it was impossible to develop openly, which they needed if they wanted to organise democratic elections.

Georgi Plekhanov Internet Archive
Georgi Plekhanov in black and white, with a suit and a full beard | Source: themartxists

The Bolsheviks’ Solutions to the Questions of Democracy in a Police State

The Bolsheviks thus had two main questions. The first was how to build a socialist organisation in Tsarist Russia. The second, how best to uphold the principles and programme of the party. With time, Lenin began seeing what he interpreted as the disintegration of the movement. The doctrine of economism became popular, advocating that workers focus on the economic struggle only, while liberals work on democracy. In Lenin’s view, this legitimised class division, and so was a regress away from Marxism. In response, he ordered an all-Russian newspaper, produced abroad and distributed to underground groups. A coherent set of ideas disseminated in this way would cement the party’s activist network. This had two goals. It would educate people about Marxism and work as a scaffolding for the movement. It would be teaching the ‘right interpretation’ of Marxism.

Demise of the Old Institutions

Story (1919) notes in his article about Soviet policy that two institutions died out with the Bolsheviks’ rise to power. These were the mir (мир) and the zemstvo (земство).

The Mir

The mir was a group of peasant households that self-govern. They elect their officials and control local forests, fisheries, hunting grounds and vacant lands. The first theory as to why their demise happened is because the soviet logically entails the destruction of the mir. This is because the mir has to care for a larger area and more people. The soviet was better suited to this. This institution was a group of workers from an area that elected a representative and sent him to Congress. There, he and other members of Congress would decide the law (“Viki1999” 2020).

The second theory is that large and important groups of society distrusted traditional forms of government. Industrial workers demanded that control over the industry not be individual but communal and proletarian. They adapted the soviet form of organisation for this task, but it has proven insufficient. Soldiers who returned from war also found that the mir wasn’t the best option. They needed to redistribute land now that demographics had changed, and the mir’s inadequacy led to inter-village conflict. Here, they welcomed Soviet authority and organisation.

The Zemstvo

The zemstvo was an institution of government of elected local assemblies introduced by Alexander II that replaced the nobles’ authority. Socialists condemned it from the beginning, arguing it was a bourgeoisie institution. The zemstvo did not have the confidence of its own employees, and thus it received various attacks and soon disappeared.

From the start, the Soviet caught the devotion of the masses. It was a movement that brought major change to all institutions of Russian society. Story (1919) argues that without the soviets, Russia would have descended into the “anarchy of despair” (page 464). At its onset, “its procedure was elastic and membership was open to all citizens within respective economic groups” (page 463). People spoke to people of their kind: bricklers spoke to bricklers, and the professional man or the politician would interfere. Everyone was allowed to have a voice. People elected delegates from among themselves who spoke in higher councils (soviets). The fluidity of the Soviet constitution proved to be one of its strengths. “In them [the Soviets] was reposed the confidence of the masses” (page 463), although with much state intervention.

The Congress after the Bolsheviks

From before the establishment of the Soviet Union, Russia was home to various peoples, including Ukrainians, Finnish and more. When the Soviet government came to power, each of these groups came to have its own socialist government. The Treaty on the Creation of the USSR gave a soviet government to every notable minority. There was a Russian soviet republic, a Ukrainian soviet republic, and so on. (The Soviet Union, however, did not include Finland). They were all bound under the government of the Soviet Union (hence “Union”).

Workers in a republic would create from among themselves a soviet which was open to any worker. The only people whom they did not allow were the bourgeoisie. This was a way to bring about the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which Marx advocated. The Soviets discussed laws and elected a delegate to represent them in congress. This congress, however, met very infrequently, only once or twice per year. Thus, members of congress chose a few representatives from among themselves to form the Central Executive Committee. This committee had the same task as the congress but worked while the latter was not active. With so many representatives, this was a very indirect form of democracy. However, Russia at that time was very poor and most people had no formal education or knowledge of Marxism. Thus, the vanguard deemed that most would not be ready for running a country.

Soviet congress, full of representatives and with an image of Lenin looking sideways on a red background
Soviet congress, full of representatives and with an image of Lenin looking sideways at a red background | Source: Soviet Art, USSR culture


The USSR is famous for its history of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, especially under its second leader, Joseph Stalin. Arguments against it say that such totalitarianism is the inevitable consequence of socialism in practice. Those in favour of socialism argue that because of different circumstances, the application of the Bolsheviks had to be so. For example, Eagleton (2011) argues that because most people in Russia had no material goods, the government applied authoritarian measures. Following Marxism, their focus was that all people had material goods, and thus they had to enforce them.

Many contrast the USSR with Nazi Germany in that both were totalitarian, but the former left-wing and the latter right-wing. Hannah Arendt (1953), however, explains both phenomena as the same idea. That is, a conception of suprahuman destiny. The USSR followed the Marxist theory of historical materialism. This theory says that the stages of history change when means of production change owners. As we saw above, the slaves rebelled against slave owners, and then serfs against feudal lords. The industrial proletariat would be the one to dethrone the bourgeoisie and bring about communism.

It is with this idea of acting for the sake of forces beyond humans that these governments legitimise their actions. The enemies of the idea are the enemies of humanity. It is rapidly that “the enemies of the idea” become merged with “the enemies of the state”. Thus, there is no problem with eliminating political opposition.


The Soviet Union was, initially, an improvement for the people of Russia. Their average living conditions improved, they all had access to work, education and health, and they all had a voice. This voice, however, soon became subject to political indoctrination, as has happened in other Marxist states, like Cuba. This is bound to happen if, as Arendt points out, the idea of destiny is held too central. Given the centrality of historical materialism in Marxism, this is likely to happen in any Marxist state. But it does not have to. Marx himself thought that the will of people did weigh more on the direction of history than on destiny.


Faulkner, N. (2017). Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (pp. 52-87). London: Pluto Press

How did the Soviet Union Work? by Viki 1999

Story, R. (1919). Foreign Governments and Politics: Observations on Soviet Government. The American Political Science Review, 13(3), 460-467. doi:10.2307/1945963

Leave a Reply