Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee. Stalin's increasing control of the Party from 1928 onwards led to him becoming the de facto party leader and the dictator of his country; a position which enabled him to take full control of the Soviet Union and its people.

Under Stalin's leadership, the Soviet Union played a decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War (1941-45) and went on to achieve the status of superpower. His crash programs of industrialization and collectivization in the 1930's, World War II casualties, along with his ongoing campaigns of political repression, are estimated to have cost the lives of 5 to 20 million people.



Born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, he called himself Joseph Stalin, which meant "Man of Steel". Stalin became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1922. Following the death of Vladimir Lenin, he prevailed in a power struggle over Leon Trotsky, who was expelled from the Communist Party and deported from the Soviet Union.

In the 1930s Stalin initiated a Purge of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which has become known as the Great Purge, an unprecedented campaign of political repression, persecution and executions that reached its peak in 1937.

Stalin's rule had long-lasting effects on the features that characterized the Soviet state from the era of his rule to its collapse in 1991. Stalin claimed his policies were based on Marxism-Leninism. Now his political and economic system is referred to as Stalinism.

Stalin instituted his Five-Year Plans in 1928 and collective farming at roughly the same time. The Soviet Union was transformed from a predominantly peasant society to a major world industrial power by the end of the 1930s.

Confiscations of grain and other food by the Soviet authorities under his orders contributed to a famine between 1932 and 1934, especially in the key agricultural regions of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and North Caucasus that resulted in millions of deaths. Many peasants resisted collectivization and grain confiscations, but were repressed, most notably well-off peasants deemed kulaks.

Bearing the brunt of the Nazis' attacks (around 75% of Hitler’s forces), the Soviet Union under Stalin helped to the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II (known in the USSR as the Great Patriotic War). After the war, Stalin established the USSR as one of the two major superpowers in the world, a position it maintained for nearly four decades following his death in 1953.

Stalin's rule, reinforced by a cult of personality, fought real and alleged opponents mainly through the security apparatus, such as the NKVD. Millions of people were killed through famines, executions, deportations, and in the Gulag. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's eventual successor, denounced Stalin's rule and the cult of personality in 1956, initiating the process of "de-Stalinization".

Stalin adhered to Vladimir Lenin's doctrine of a strong centralist party of professional revolutionaries. In the period after the Revolution of 1905, Stalin led "fighting squads" in bank robberies to raise funds for the Bolshevik Party. His practical experience made him useful to the party, and gained him a place on its Central Committee in January 1912.


Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin meeting in 1919 . All three of them were "Old Bolsheviks"; members of the Bolshevik party before the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin meeting in 1919 . All three of them were "Old Bolsheviks"; members of the Bolshevik party before the Russian Revolution of 1917.


Rise to power

In 1913 Stalin was co-opted to the Bolshevik Central Committee. In 1917 Stalin was editor of Pravda, the official Communist newspaper, while Lenin and much of the Bolshevik leadership were in exile. Following the February Revolution, Stalin and the editorial board took a position in favor of supporting Kerensky's provisional government and, it is alleged, went to the extent of declining to publish Lenin's articles arguing for the provisional government to be overthrown.

According to many accounts, Stalin only played a minor role in the revolution of November 7. The following summary of Trotsky's Role in 1917 was given by Stalin in Pravda, November 6 1918:

All practical work in connection with the organisation of the uprising was done under the immediate direction of Comrade Trotsky, the President of the Petrograd Soviet. It can be stated with certainty that the Party is indebted primarily and principally to Comrade Trotsky for the rapid going over of the garrison to the side of the Soviet and the efficient manner in which the work of the Military Revolutionary Committee was organised.

Note: Although this passage was quoted in Stalin's book The October Revolution issued in 1934, it was expunged in Stalin's Works released in 1949.

Stalin gained considerable political power because of his popularity within the Bolshevik party. This took the dying Lenin by surprise, and in his last writings he famously called for the removal of Stalin. After Lenin's death, Stalin abandoned the traditional Bolshevik emphasis on international revolution in favor of a policy of building "Socialism in One Country", in contrast to Trotsky's theory of Permanent Revolution.

In the struggle for leadership one thing was evident: whoever ended up ruling the party had to be considered very loyal to Lenin. Stalin organized Lenin's funeral and made a speech professing undying loyalty to Lenin, in almost religious terms. He undermined Trotsky, who was sick at the time, possibly by misleading him about the date of the funeral. Thus although Trotsky was Lenin’s associate throughout the early days of the Soviet regime, he lost ground to Stalin. Stalin made great play of the fact that Trotsky had joined the Bolsheviks just before the revolution, and publicized Trotsky's pre-revolutionary disagreements with Lenin. Another event that helped Stalin's rise was the fact that Trotsky came out against publication of Lenin's Testament in which he pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of Stalin and Trotsky and the other main players, and suggested that he be succeeded by a small group of people.

An important feature of Stalin’s rise to power is the way that he manipulated his opponents and played them off against each other. Stalin formed a "troika" of himself, Zinoviev, and Kamenev against Trotsky. When Trotsky had been eliminated, Stalin then joined Bukharin and Rykov against Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Stalin gained popular appeal from his presentation as a 'man of the people' from the poorer classes. The Russian people were tired from the world war and the civil war, and Stalin's policy of concentrating in building "Socialism in One Country" was seen as an optimistic antidote to war.

Stalin took great advantage of the ban on factionalism which meant that no group could openly go against the policies of the leader of the party because that meant creation of an opposition. However, Stalin did not achieve absolute power until the Great Purge of 1936–38.


Stalin and changes in Soviet society


A. Industrialization

Industrialization or the Industrial Revolution is a process of social and economic change whereby a human society is transformed from a pre-industrial (an economy where the amount of capital accumulated per capita is low) to an industrial state. It is a part of wider modernisation process

The Russian Civil War and wartime communism had a devastating effect on the country's economy. Industrial output in 1922 was 13% of that in 1914. A recovery followed under the New Economic Policy, which allowed a degree of market flexibility within the context of socialism. Under Stalin's direction, this was replaced by a system of centrally ordained "Five-Year Plans" in the late 1920s. These called for a highly ambitious program of state-guided crash industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. Stalin's government paid for industrialization in the “Five Year Plans” by not allowing Soviet citizens to spend money, and by stealing wealth from the kulaks. As a result of Stalin’s Plans, worker's wages dropped to one-tenth of what they had been before. There was also use of the unpaid labor of both common and political prisoners in labor camps and the frequent "mobilization" of communists and Komsomol members for various construction projects. In spite of early breakdowns and failures, the first two Five-Year Plans achieved rapid industrialization from a very low economic base. Some suggest that the Five-Year Plan substantially helped to modernize the previously backward Soviet economy. New products were developed, and the scale and efficiency with which existing products were made also greatly increased.


B. Collectivization

Stalin's regime moved to force collectivization of agriculture. This was intended to increase agricultural output from large-scale mechanized farms, to bring the peasantry under more direct political control, and to make tax collection more efficient. Collectivization meant drastic social changes; people lost control of their land and its produce. Collectivization also meant a drastic drop in living standards for many peasants, and it faced violent reaction among the peasantry.

In the first years of collectivization, agricultural production actually dropped. Stalin blamed this unanticipated failure on kulaks (rich peasants), who resisted collectivization. Therefore those defined as "kulaks," "kulak helpers," and later "ex-kulaks" were to be shot, placed into Gulag labor camps, or deported to remote areas of the country, depending on the charge.

There were massive famines because of Stalin’s collectivization plans. These famines, some argue, were not the result of crop failures; rather, it was the excessive demands of the state, ruthlessly enforced, that cost the lives of as many as five million Ukrainian peasants. Stalin refused to release large grain reserves that could have alleviated the famine (and at the same time exporting grain abroad); he was convinced that the Ukrainian peasants had hidden grain away, and strictly enforced draconian new collective-farm theft laws in response. The death toll from famine in the Soviet Union at this time is estimated at between five and ten million people. The worst crop failure of late tsarist Russia (prior to Communism) in 1892, caused 375,000 to 400,000 deaths.

The Ukrainian famine (1932-1933), or Holodomor, was one of the largest national catastrophes with direct loss of human life in the range of millions (estimates vary).


A child left to starve by Stalin's man made famine 1932-1933.Poltava Oblast

A child left to starve by Stalin's man made famine 1932-1933.


The Soviet government intended to eradicate Ukrainian identity, culture, language, and people. Although the famine affected other regions of the U.S.S.R., its main goal was the elimination of the Ukrainian nation. Most modern scholars agree that the famine was caused by the policies of the government of the Soviet Union under Stalin, rather than by natural reasons, and Holodomor is sometimes referred to as the Ukrainian Genocide.


Purges and deportations





Nikolai Yezhov, the young man strolling with Stalin to his left, was shot in 1940. He was edited out from a photo by Soviet censors. Such retouching was a common occurrence during Stalin's reign.


Stalin, as head of the Politburo, took near-absolute power in the 1930s with a Great Purge of the party, which he said was needed as an attempt to expel 'opportunists' and 'counter-revolutionary infiltrators'. Those targeted by the purge were often expelled from the party; however, more severe measures ranged from banishment to the Gulag labor camps, to execution. Stalin killed, starved, or worked to death anyone who he percieved to be an enemy or an opponent. No segment of society was left untouched during the purges. Anyone accused of "anti-Soviet activities" could be killed or banished to the Gulag. People would inform on others arbitrarily, to attempt to redeem themselves, or to gain small retributions. The flimsiest pretexts were often enough to brand someone an "Enemy of the People," starting the cycle of public persecution and abuse, often proceeding to interrogation, torture and deportation, if not death. Millions of people were literally arrested and killed for nothing.

Shortly before, during and immediately after World War II, Stalin conducted a series of deportations on a huge scale which profoundly affected the ethnic map of the Soviet Union. It is estimated that between 1941 and 1949 nearly 3.3 million were deported to Siberia and the Central Asian republics. Separatism, resistance to Soviet rule and collaboration with the invading Germans were cited as the official reasons for the deportations, rightly or wrongly. Historian Allan Bullock explains:

Many no doubt had collaborated with the occupying forces... but many had done so not out of disloyalty but from the instinct to survive when abandoned to their fate by the retreating Soviet armies. The individual circumstances were of no interest to Stalin... After the brief Nazi occupation of the Caucasus was over... the entire population of five of the small highland peoples of the North Caucasus, as well as the Crimean Tatars - more than a million souls - (were deported) without notice or any opportunity to take their possessions. There were certainly collaborators among these peoples, but most of those had fled with the Germans. The majority of those left were old folk, women, and children; their men were away fighting at the front, where the Chechens and Ingushes alone produced thirty-six Heroes of the Soviet Union.

During Stalin's rule, all sorts of ethnic groups were deported completely or partially. Large numbers of Kulaks, regardless of their nationality, were resettled to Siberia and Central Asia. Deportations took place in appalling conditions, often by cattle truck, and hundreds of thousands of deportees died en route. Those who survived were forced to work without pay in the labour camps. Many of the deportees died of hunger or other conditions.


Number of victims

Early researchers of the number of people murdered by Stalin's regime placed the figure between 3 million and 60 million people. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “evidence” from the Soviet archives finally became available. The government archives record that about 800,000 prisoners were executed (for either political or criminal offences) under Stalin, while another 1.7 million died of privation or other causes in the Gulags and some 389,000 perished during kulak resettlement - a total of about 3 million victims. However, many historians do not believe these numbers, since the Soviets constantly lied about, distorted, and changed official records and statistics to suit their own purposes. Thus, while some archival researchers have posited the number of victims of Stalin's repressions to be no more than about 4 million in total, others believe the number to be considerably higher. Regardless, it appears that a minimum of around 10 million surplus deaths (4 million by repression and 6 million from famine) are attributable to the regime, with a number of recent books suggesting a probable figure of somewhere between 15 to 20 million. Adding 6-8 million famine victims would yield a figure of between 15 and 17 million victims. Others, however, continue to maintain that their earlier much higher estimates are correct.



A caricature of "Stalin a great friend of religion", when churches were allowed to be opened during World War II.

A caricature of "Stalin a great friend of religion", when churches were allowed to be opened during World War II.


Stalin's role in the fortunes of the Russian Orthodox Church is complex. Continuous persecution in the 1930s resulted in its near-extinction. Over 100,000 priests, nuns, and monks were shot during the purges of 1937-38. During World War II, however, the Church was allowed a revival as a patriotic organization.


World War II

Molotov and Stalin.

Molotov and Stalin.


After the failure of Soviet and Franco-British talks on a mutual defense pact in Moscow, Stalin began to negotiate a non-aggression pact with Hitler's Nazi Germany. This pact was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Stalin thought that the Second World War would be the best opportunity to weaken both the Western nations and Nazi Germany, and to make Germany suitable for "Sovietization".


Stalin (in background to the right) looks on as Molotov signs the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Stalin (in background to the right) looks on as Molotov signs the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.


Officially the Pact meant that the Soviets and the Germans had promised not to attack each other. However, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had a "secret" annex according to which Central Europe would be conquered and divided between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Stalin and Hitler both attacked and conquered various countries according to the terms of this pact.

In June 1941, Hitler broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Although expecting war with Germany, Stalin may not have expected an invasion to come so soon — and the Soviet Union was relatively unprepared for this invasion.

Even though Stalin received intelligence warnings of a German attack, he sought to avoid any obvious defensive preparation which might further provoke the Germans, in the hope of buying time to modernize and strengthen his military forces. In the initial hours after the German attack commenced, Stalin hesitated, wanting to ensure that the German attack was sanctioned by Hitler, rather than the unauthorized action of a rogue general.

The Germans initially made huge advances, capturing and killing millions of Soviet troops. The Soviet Red Army put up fierce resistance during the war's early stages, but they were plagued by an ineffective defense doctrine against the better-equipped, well-trained and experienced German forces. Stalin feared that Hitler would use disgruntled Soviet citizens to fight his regime, particularly people imprisoned in the Gulags. He thus ordered the NKVD to take care of the situation. They responded by executing hundreds of thousands (perhaps more) of prisoners throughout the western parts of the Soviet Union. Many others were simply deported east.

Hitler's experts had expected eight weeks of war, and early indications appeared to support their predictions. However, the invading German forces were eventually driven back in December 1941 near Moscow.

The Big Three: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference.

The Big Three: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference.


Stalin met in several conferences with Churchill and/or Roosevelt in Moscow, Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam to plan military strategy. His shortcomings as strategist are frequently noted regarding massive Soviet loss of life and early Soviet defeats. An example of it is the summer offensive of 1942, which led to even more losses by the Red Army and recapture of initiative by the Germans. Stalin eventually recognized his lack of know-how and relied on his professional generals to conduct the war.

Under Stalin, any Soviet military commander who allowed retreat without permission from above was subject to military tribunal. The Soviet soldiers who surrendered were declared traitors; however most of those who survived the brutality of German captivity were mobilized again as they were freed. Between 5% and 10% of them were sent to gulags.


Time magazine (1943-01-04). Time had previously named Stalin Man of the Year for the year 1939.

Time magazine (1943-01-04). Time had previously named Stalin Man of the Year for the year 1939.


In the war's opening stages, the retreating Red Army also sought to deny resources to the enemy through a scorched earth policy of destroying the infrastructure and food supplies of areas before the Germans could seize them. Unfortunately, this, along with abuse by German troops, caused inconceivable starvation and suffering among the civilian population that were left behind.

According to recent figures, of an estimated four million POW's taken by the Russians, including Germans, Japanese, Hungarians, Romanians and others, some 580,000 never returned, presumably victims of privation or the Gulags, compared with 3.5 million Soviet POW that died in German camps out of the 5.6 million taken. Returning Soviet soldiers who had surrendered were viewed with suspicion and some were killed.

The Soviet Union suffered the second highest number of civilian losses (20 million) yet the highest number of military losses (at least 8,668,400 Red Army personnel, including around 2 million dead in Nazi captivity) in World War II. The Nazis considered Slavs in the Soviet Union to be "sub-human", and made them the target of genocide. This concept of Slavic inferiority was also the reason why Hitler did not accept into his army many Soviet citizens who wanted to fight the regime until 1944, when the war was lost for Germany.






Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky



Leon Trotsky was a Ukrainian-born Jewish Bolshevik revolutionary and Marxist theorist. He was a renowned public speaker, and an influential politician in the early days of the Soviet Union. After leading the failed struggle of the Left Opposition against the policies and rise of Joseph Stalin, Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party and deported from the Soviet Union in the Great Purge. He was eventually assassinated in Mexico by a secret agent working for Stalin.

Trotsky was born with the name Leon Davidovich Bronstein. He became involved in revolutionary activities in 1896 when he was introduced to Marxism. He helped organize the South Russian Workers' Union, and using the name 'Lvov', he wrote and printed leaflets and proclamations, distributed revolutionary pamphlets and popularized socialist ideas among industrial workers and revolutionary students. Bronstein was caught and imprisoned in Siberia for his revolutionary activity. He escaped in 1902 and changed his name to Trotsky.

Trotsky moved to London where he met Vladimir Lenin, and worked for a revolutionary newspaper called Iskra, which was designed to promote communism. Trotsky soon became one of the paper's leading authors. Trotsky spent much of his time between 1904 and 1917 trying to reconcile different groups within the party, which resulted in many clashes with Lenin and other prominent party members. During these years Trotsky began developing his theory of permanent revolution.

Trotsky secretly returned to Russia in February 1905. Trotsky and other Soviet leaders were put on trial in 1906 on charges of supporting an armed rebellion against the Czar. In January 1907, Trotsky escaped en route to deportation to Siberia.  In October 1908, he started a bi-weekly Russian language Social Democratic paper aimed at Russian workers called Pravda ("The Truth"), which was smuggled into Russia. Trotsky continued publishing Pravda until it finally folded in April 1912.

Trotsky and other communists disagreed with Lenin’s use of "expropriations" -- armed robberies of banks and other companies by Bolshevik groups to procure money for the Party.

In January 1912, the majority of the Bolshevik faction led by Lenin expelled their opponents from the party. Trotsky tried to re-unite the party, but failed.


World War I (1914-1917) and the Russian Revolution of 1917

Lenin and Trotsky advocated different internationalist anti-war positions. Trotsky wrote against the war, adopting the slogan: "peace without indemnities or annexations, peace without conquerors or conquered". He didn't go quite as far as Lenin, who advocated Russia's defeat in the war. In September 1916, Trotsky was deported from France to Spain, and then to the USA for his anti-war activities. Trotsky was living in New York City when the February Revolution of 1917 overthrew Czar Nicholas II.

Upon returning to Russia, Trotsky sided with Lenin when the Bolshevik Central Committee discussed staging an armed uprising and he led the efforts to overthrow the Provisional Government headed by Aleksandr Kerensky. After the success of the uprising, Trotsky led the efforts to repel a counter-attack by Cossaks. Allied with Lenin, he successfully defeated attempts by other Bolshevik Central Committee members to share power with other socialist parties. By the end of 1917, Trotsky was unquestionably the second man in the Bolshevik Party after Lenin. The rivalry between Lenin and Trotsky did much to destroy them both.


After the Russian Revolution

After the Bolsheviks came to power, Trotsky became the People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Trotsky's managerial and organisation-building skills with the Soviet military were soon tested. The Bolsheviks were suddenly faced with the loss of most of the country's territory, an increasingly well organized resistance by Russian anti-Communist forces (usually referred to as the White Army after their best known component) and widespread defection by the military experts that Trotsky relied on.

Trotsky and the Soviet government responded with a full-fledged mobilization, which increased the size of the Red Army from less than 300,000 in May 1918 to one million in October 1918, and an introduction of political commissars into the Red Army. The latter were responsible for ensuring the loyalty of military experts (who were mostly former officers in the imperial army) and co-signing their orders.

Facing military defeats in mid-1918, Trotsky introduced increasingly severe penalties for desertion, insubordination, and retreat. These reprisals included the death penalty for deserters and traitors, as well as using former officers' families as hostages against possible defections. Trotsky also threatened to execute unit commanders and commissars whose units either deserted or retreated without permission.

Trotsky continued to insist that former officers should be used as military experts within the Red Army and, in the summer of 1918, was able to convince Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership not only to continue the policy in the face of mass defections, but also to give these experts more direct operational control of the military. In this he differed sharply from Stalin. Stalin's stubborn opposition to Trotsky's military policies foreshadowed a continuing acute conflict between the two Bolsheviks over the policies and direction of the Soviet Union, culminating 10 years later in Trotsky's expulsion from the Soviet Union (and then in his assassination).

In the meantime, by October 1919 the Soviet government found itself in the worst crisis of the Civil War. Trotsky was awarded the Order of the Red Banner for his actions in Petrograd. Trotsky spent the winter of 1919-1920 in the Urals region trying to get its economy going again. Based on his experiences there, he proposed abandoning the policies of War Communism, which included confiscating grain from peasants, and partially restoring the grain market. Lenin, however, was still committed to the system of War Communism at the time and the proposal was rejected. It wasn't until the spring of 1921 that economic collapse and uprisings would force Lenin and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership to abandon War Communism in favor of the New Economic Policy.

In late 1921, Lenin's health deteriorated. Taking advantage of Lenin’s illness, Stalin formed a troika (triumvirate) with two other leading communists to ensure that Trotsky, publicly the number two man in the country at the time and Lenin's heir, would not succeed Lenin. In the fall of 1922, Lenin's relationship with Stalin deteriorated over Stalin's handling of the issue of merging Soviet republics into one federal state, the USSR.  At the time of Lenin’s death in 1924, Trotsky was himself recovering from illness far away from Moscow. Stalin informed him by telegraph of Lenin’s death, but gave him the wrong information about the date for the funeral. After missing the funeral, Trotsky was cut off from all power by Stalin.

In 1927, Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party and exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. After Trotsky's expulsion from the country, his exiled followers (Trotskyists) began to surrender to Stalin; by doing so, they "admitted their mistakes" and were reinstated in the Communist Party. However, almost all of them were murdered in the Great Purges just a few years later.

In August 1936, the first Moscow show trial was staged in front of an international audience. During the trial, most of them prominent Old Bolsheviks, confessed to having plotted with Trotsky to kill Stalin and other members of the Soviet leadership. The court found everybody guilty and sentenced the defendants to death, Trotsky in absentia. The second show trial was filled with even more alleged conspiracies and crimes linked to Trotsky. In 1940, Trotsky was assassinated in his home by a Stalinist agent, Ramón Mercader, who drove the pick of an ice axe into Trotsky's skull.


Contributions to theory

Trotsky’s political ideas differed in many respects from those of Stalin. Unlike Stalin, Trotsky rejected the idea that communism should be established only in one country; instead, he wanted “permanent revolution" all around the world in order to spread communism everywhere.








Karl Marx

Karl Marx is most famous for his analysis of history, summed up in the opening line of the introduction to the Communist Manifesto (1848): "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Marx believed that capitalism would be replaced by socialism which in turn would bring communism. Marx is often called the father of communism. Sometimes, he argued that his analysis of capitalism revealed that capitalism was destined to end because of unsolvable problems within it:

The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.


— (The Communist Manifesto)


Other times, he argued that capitalism would end through the organized actions of an international working class. Marx’s ideas began to exert a major influence on workers' movements shortly after his death. This influence was given added impetus by the victory of the Marxist Bolsheviks in the Russian October Revolution. The relation of Marx to "Marxism" is a point of controversy.

Karl Marx (along with Friedrich Engels) envisioned the transformation of the world into a peaceful, equitable place in which everyone lived in harmony. They thought that this could only occur if everyone – the rich and the poor, the landowners/businessmen and the landless/wage-earners -- eventually became part of a single class, the industrual working class, which they renamed the proletariat. They thought that other people who talked of fixing the world were dreamers for assuming that society’s problems could be solved through reason. For Marx and Engels, real social harmony and equality – the goals of true socialism -- could only be created if the working man triumphed over the wealthy people of the world who got rich off of his work. The proletariat, as the “universal class,” was the future hope of all humanity in Marx’s view; the troubles that working people experience every day would lead to the destruction of the current system.

Marx’s emphasis on the importance of helping the working class makes it sound like, for him, poverty, equality, and living standards were most important; but this isn’t true. For instance, he thought that an enforced increase in wages would be nothing more than better pay for slaves! It wouldn’t make work any more meaningful. What really mattered to Marx was the problem of alienation. A capitalist, market system like ours, where we are free to buy and sell what we like for profit, alienates us from finding meaning in most of our lives. Marx thought that the capitalist system makes us think backwards about work.  In his view, work ought to be precious to us; it ought to make us feel great; it ought to be an expression of our creative powers, and it should be our highest activity. Instead, in a capitalist system, we work not because work itself is a good thing, but because we have to in order to survive, and in order to make money so we can buy buy things.  We become greedy and materialistic. We become acquisitive, storing up our purchasing power. As workers, we lose control over what we produce. We don’t enjoy the “fruits of our labour,” which are bought and sold on the market, and the profits go to the boss, not to us. But Marx suggests that even the bosses --property owners and businessmen -- are equally dehumanized and alienated, even if they don’t suffer the hardships faced by the proetariat or working class. The social alienation between owners –Marx calls them the bourgoisie -- and the workers creates further tension and hatred between the two groups. Marx writes about how the inequality between these two groups affects each:

Labour certainly produces marvels for the rich but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but deformity fore the worker. It replaces labour by machinery, but it casts some of the workers back into a barbarous kind of work and turns the others into machines. It produces intelligence, but also stupidity and cretinism for the workers.

Marx saw the problems of alienation not only in the world of work during his day; he also thought all of human history could be explained in terms of this class conflict between the rich few (the bourgeoisie) and the working many (the proletariat). Because of the inequalities he saw in the capitialist system, he was certain, not only that capitalism should be eradicated, but that it would destroy itself through its own internal contradicitons. Essentially, he thought that the workers of the world would wise-up and stand united against the bourgeoisie, and that they would take control of the means of production (all the factories, the businesses, and the land) away from the bosses and run it communally, sharing out all the benefits equally among themselves.

Marx and Engels called their doctrine scientific socialism because they thought that socialism (and ultimately, communism) was not only the right way to go, but also that their ideas about how a revolution was coming were bound to happen. Most of their writings analyze the capitalist or market system looking for what will trigger its self-destruction. They think that the class-divided market society will, once the working class become fed-up, give way to a classless society. The workers will take over all the businesses, and there will be no private property. Everyone will own everything. With the collective ownership of property, there would no longer be any real difference between proletarians and bourgeoisie. All class distinctions will disappear. There will be no more greed, because nobody will own anything, and it won’t be possible to own anything. Marx thought a perfect, equal society could be created.

How did Marx think that capitalism would self-destruct? He was pretty certain that there would be a polarization of society. That is to say: there would be a huge number of poor, working-class people, and only a very small number of wealthy owners, or  bourgeoisie. The large working class created by the free-market system would be, who would be the “gravedigger” of the system. The proletariat would be doomed to poverty, whereas the bourgeoisie would only become a richer and smaller class. The working class, led by socialists like Marx, would eventually take over the State and use it to abolish capitalism. Indeed, when the proletariat masses come to power, they would find that most of the bourgeoisie were already gone; this is because the market process would have generated ever larger industrial monopolies; little owners would have been swallowed up by bigger ones, and those bigger ones by even bigger and wealthier ones, until only a few giant firms would have survived the rigours of competition. However, without many competitors, the market would not work, even on its own terms. The new Proletarisan State would simply have to take over these monopolies from their bourgeois owners and set them to work under central planning.

Marx thought the rising up of the working class would probably happen when unemployment with all its attendant distress was high among the proletariat; capitalism would destroy itself in a great crash. Marx was absolutely certain that socialism would overcome capitalism sometime in the near future. But he didn’t think it was automatic; rather, he thought it also required a deliberate political struggle. He proposed (and helped to bring about) the representation of the working class by organized political parties. He saw two means by which the workers’ party could come to power: evolution or revolution. In constitutional states with a parliamentry system, he thought that the workers might struggle to make sure everyone would be allowed to vote, not just those who owned land. Once the vote was achieved for all, Marx was pretty sure that socialists could expect to be elected to power, for the proletariat would be a majority of the electorate; in other words, socialism would be a natural outgrowth of democracy.

He also thought that socialism might sometimes require revolution rather than evolution. He proposed a revolutionary seizure of power, particulary where constitutionalism and the rule of law did not exist. Such an uprising would produce a workers’ government, the dictatorship of the proletariat. In a situation like civil war, the proletarian dictatorship would have to ignore the niceties of the rule of law, at least until its power was secure. Unlike the evolutionary means where socialist governments could simply be voted into power by the people, this second approach, where there is no democracy, would involve violence and bloodshed. These two approaches, united in Marx, would eventually split into the two mutually antagonistic movements known as socialism and communism.

What would life be like in a harmonious communist State after the revolution? Marx gives a rough idea of what he expects to happen after the workers come to power. There would have to be a period during which the State would control all property and plan the whole economy. Even if the State were able to become master of the economy, and if it could conduct everything through central planning, full equality between all people would take a long time to achieve. There would have to be an period during which equality simply meant “equal pay for equal work.” All workers would be employed by the state, and ownership of property would no longer allow the wealthy to escape labour; but some would work more effectivey and diligently than others, and they would be rewarded for doing so. Beyond this stage, Marx’s thoughts on the future become pretty wishy-washy. The state would lose its coercive character; that is, it wouldn’t need to use force to make people behave properly, since all greed would have been wiped out with the eradication of private property. This only makes sense if we accept the premise that human quarrels are fundamentally caused by privtate property; a classless society would therefore not need a state to maintain civil peace. It was also Marx’s view that the State was always the tool that one class used to dominate others, so by definition a classless society swould be a stateless society. The state would “wither away.” People would learn to live without the need for any kind of government. Once the state was no longer needed, people wouldn’t need to be paid for their work. The idea of “equal work for equal pay” would give way to a nobler form of equality in the words, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

At this advanced stage of development, alienation will have ended. Work would become a freely creative activity performed for its own sake, not to be bought and sold. People would express themselves  in all directions, utilizing their creativity.








Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Lenin


Lenin’s dad died when he was a young boy; his eldest brother was arrested and hanged for participating in a terrorist bomb plot threatening the life of the Czar, and his sister was also banished because of her association. This event radicalized Lenin, and his official Soviet biographies describe it as central to the revolutionary track of his life. As Lenin became interested in Marxism, he was involved in student protests and was subsequently arrested. He was then expelled from Kazan University for his political ideas, but he continued to study independently, however. Lenin moved to St. Petersburg in 1893, where he became increasingly involved in revolutionary propaganda efforts, joining the local Marxist group. He co-founded the newspaper Iskra. Lenin was active in politics and, in 1903, led the Bolshevik faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

When the First World War began in 1914, Lenin opposed Russia’s involvement. He believed that the peasants were fighting the battle of the bourgeoisie for them, and he adopted the stance that what he described as an "imperialist war" ought to be turned into a civil war between the classes. He looked at the war, and thought it was the result of western imperialism; that is, he thought that the rich European countries were simply fighting for territories in which to markt their own goods on the grounds that their own home markets had become saturated. 

The 1917 February Revolution in Russia and the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II caught Lenin by surprise. He realized that he must return to Russia as soon as possible, but this was problematic, since the First World War would make travel home very difficult and dangerous. He managed to return to Petrograd in October, inspiring the October Revolution with the slogan "All Power to the Soviets!" Lenin directed the overthrow of the Provisional Government, marking the beginning of Soviet rule.

In 1917, Lenin was elected as the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars by the Russian Congress of Soviets. His first concern was to take Russia out of the First World War. In 1918, Lenin removed Russia from World War I by agreeing to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under which Russia lost significant territories in Europe.

After the Bolsheviks lost the elections for the Russian Constituent Assembly, they used the Red Guards to shut down the first session of the Assembly. This marked the beginning of the steady elimination from political life of all factions and parties whose views did not correspond to the position taken by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

To protect the newly-established Bolshevik government from counterrevolutionaries and other political opponents, the Bolsheviks created a secret police, the Cheka. Censorship was quickly imposed, and it was up to the Cheka to confiscate the literature of dissident workers.


Lenin and the Red Terror

After a botched assassination attempt against Lenin, Stalin, in a telegram to Lenin, argued that a policy of "open and systematic mass terror" be instigated against "those responsible". Lenin and the other Bolsheviks agreed; they instructed the Cheka to commence a "Red Terror." Between 1918-21 up to 200,000 were executed.

By September 1921, there were more than 70,000 people sent to forced labour camps due to the Red Terror. Lenin had always been an advocate of "mass terror against enemies of the revolution" and was open about his view that the proletarian state was a system of organized violence against the capitalist establishment. The terror, while encouraged by the Bolsheviks, had its roots in a popular anger against the privileged. When other Bolshevik leaders tried to curb the "excesses" of the Cheka in late 1918 during the Terror, it was Lenin who defended it. Lenin remained an advocate of mass terror.


Russian Communist Party and civil war

In 1919, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders met with revolutionary socialists from around the world and formed the Communist International. Members of the Communist International, including Lenin and the Bolsheviks themselves, broke off from the broader socialist movement. From that point onwards, they would become known as communists. In Russia, the Bolshevik Party was renamed the "Russian Communist Party.”

Meanwhile, the civil war raged across Russia. A wide variety of political movements and their supporters took up arms to support or overthrow the Soviet government. Although many different factions were involved in the civil war, the two main forces were the Red Army (communists) and the White Army (traditionalists). Foreign powers such as France, Britain, the United States and Japan also intervened in this war (on behalf of the White Army), though their impact was peripheral at best. Eventually, the more organizationally proficient Red Army, led by Leon Trotsky, won the civil war, defeating the White Russian forces and their allies in 1920. Smaller battles continued for several more years, however. The civil war has been described as one "unprecedented for its savagery," with mass executions and other atrocities committed by both sides. Between battles, executions, famine and epidemics, many millions would perish.


Lenin was a harsh critic of imperialism. In 1917 he declared the unconditional right of self-determination and separation for national minorities and oppressed nations. However, when the Russian Civil War was won he used military force to assimilate the newly independent states of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. He argued that the inclusion of those countries into the newly emerging Soviet government would shelter them from capitalist imperial ambitions.

During the civil war, as an attempt to maintain food supply to the cities and the army in the conditions of economic collapse, the Bolsheviks adopted the policy of war communism. That involved "requisitioning" supplies from the peasantry for little or nothing in exchange. This led the peasants to drastically reduce their crop production. The resulting conflicts began with the Cheka and the army shooting hostages, and ended with a second full-scale civil war against the peasantry, including the use of poison gas, death camps, and deportations. In 1920, Lenin ordered increased emphasis on the food requisitioning from the peasantry, at the same time as the Cheka gave detailed reports about the large scale famine. The long war and a drought in 1921 also contributed to the famine. Estimates on the deaths from this famine are between 3 and 10 million.

The long years of war, the Bolshevik policy of war communism, the Russian famine of 1921, and the encirclement of hostile governments took their toll on Russia, however, and much of the country lay in ruins. There were many peasant uprisings. In 1921, Lenin replaced the policy of War Communism with the New Economic Policy (NEP), in an attempt to rebuild industry and especially agriculture. The new policy was based on a recognition of political and economic realities, though it was intended merely as a tactical retreat from the socialist ideal. The whole policy was later reversed by Stalin.


Lenin’s final days, his death, and mummification

Lenin's health had been severely damaged by the strains of revolution and war. The assassination attempt earlier in his life also added to his health problems. The bullet was still lodged in his neck, too close to his spine for medical techniques of the time to remove. In May 1922, Lenin had his first stroke. Of Stalin, who had been the Communist Party's general secretary since April 1922, Lenin said that he had "unlimited authority concentrated in his hands" and suggested that "comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post." Lenin died in 1924. The city of Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in his honor three days after Lenin's death. This remained the name of the city until the collapse and liquidation of the Soviet Union in 1991, when it reverted to its original name, St Petersburg. His body was embalmed and placed on permanent exhibition in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow. Lenin’s character was elevated over time to the point of near religious reverence. By the 1980s, every major city in the Soviet Union had a statue of Lenin in its central square, either a Lenin street or a Lenin Square near the center, and often 20 or more smaller statues and busts throughout its territory.


The Difference Between Marxism and Leninism

          The Russian Empire was ruled autocratically by the Czar; the absence of a parliament and constitution there made it impossible to bring about socialist reforms through democratic means. The Russian Social Democratic Party was forced to work illegally, secretively, and conspiratorially. Because conditions were so different in Russia from those in western Europe where members of socialist parties had been elected to parliaments by free votes, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, was led by these conditions to create a new style and a new threory of party leadership. Before Lenin, Karl Marx had expected that the revolution would occur all-of-a-sudden from the spontaneous class consciousness of the workers; the proletariat – or working class – would just get fed up with the rich bourgeoisie owners and take over in a revolution. However, in Russia Lenin faced a backward country and a small working class. He was certain that any idea of revolution would’t rise from the poor workers; he himself would have to lead the charge. This seemingly minor difference implied a new approach to the problems of party organization. The party had to be firmly controlled from the top because the leadership could not rely on the workers’ sponatneity. Lenin’s theory of the disciplined party – democratic centralism – moulded the party into an effective revolutionary weapon that was especially suited to survival in the autocratic Russian setting.

Lenin’s socialist ideas are different from Marx in another way as well: Marx always thought that the socialist revolution would  be a world revolution. Marx thought that the European nations would drag their empires with them into socialism. Because he emphasized Europe, Marx thought the the revoultion would occur soon because capitalism, which was fated to put an end to itself, was well-advanced on that continent. Marx certainly expected that the world-wide proletariat would have victory over the few bourgeoisie within his own lifetime. But when the First World War broke out, Marx had already been dead for thirty years and the socialists still had not come to power anywhere!

Lenin didn’t take this as evidence that Marx was wrong and that the whole idea that communism was inevitable was stupid. Rather, he decided that the “advanced nations” had managed to postpone the revolution by conquering huge colonial empires. Where Marx thought that the capitalist countries of Europe would over-produce themselves into bankruptcy, Lenin believed that they had escaped this problem by finding markets for their products in other countries held in their economic power, who would have to buy their goods. However, Lenin was sure that this “imperialst solution” could only be temporary because the world was finite and now totally subdivided. Sooner or later, the problems of capitalist competitiveness would cause the system to self-destruct. Lenin thought that World War I showed that the imperialists had begun to qualrrel with each other. He believed that the socialist revolution would arise not from a business crash, as Marx had  been inclined to believe, but out of the turnoil of war. Lenin thus broadened the scope of socialism from a European to a global movement, and in doing so bolstered his own revolutionary optimism. “Capitalism,” he wrote, “has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ contries.”

World War I marked the end of the Second International – the international socialist organization headed by Engels. Although socialists had prided themselves on their internationalism, everyone felt obligated to fight on behalf of their own country. Most of the workers in the combatant states supported the war effort, effectively pitting the International against itself. The successful socialist revolution in Russia was welcomed by socialists all around the world.  In February 1917, the Czar was toppled and a constitutional democracy created. However, in October of the same year, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, seized control of the state through insurrections of armed workers in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The Bolsheviks then created a dictatorship of the proletariat in which their party played the dominant role. They outlawed political oppostion – even socialist opposition. These events were an agonizing test for the socialists of Western Europe, who had yearned for a revolution for generations. Now they were witnessing a sucessful one, and they were appalled by its undemocratice aspects.

The eventual result of the Russian Revolution was an irreparable split in the world socialist movement. Those who approved of Lenin and his methods formed communist parties in every country and gathered themselves in the Third International, or Comintern (short for “Communist International”). The official ideology of these parties was now Marxism as modified by Lenin, or Marxist-Leninism. In practice, the Comintern soon became an extension of the Soviet state for foreign policy purposes. It was dissolved in 1943 by Stalin as a gesture of cooperation with the Allies during WWII. The individual communist parties continued to be closely tied to Moscow, but the organizational emphasis shifted to Soviet satellite states. In 1947 there were bound together into the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau), which in 1956 was in turn replaced by the Warsaw Treaty Organization. The latter was dissolved in 1991 as part of the general decommunizaiton of Eastern Europe.












The Russian Revolution of 1917

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a series of political and social upheavals in Russia, involving first the overthrow of the czarist autocracy, and then the overthrow of the liberal and moderate-socialist Provisional Government, resulting in the establishment of Soviet power under the control of the Bolshevik party. This eventually led to the establishment of the Soviet Union, which lasted until its dissolution in 1991.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 centers around two primary events: the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The February Revolution, which removed Tsar (also spelled Czar) Nicholas II from power, developed spontaneously out of a series of increasingly violent demonstrations and riots on the streets of Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg), during a time when the tsar was away from the capital visiting troops on the World War I front.

Though the February Revolution was a popular uprising, it did not necessarily express the wishes of the majority of the Russian population, as the event was primarily limited to the city of Petrograd. However, most of those who took power after the February Revolution, in the Provisional Government (the temporary government that replaced the tsar) and in the Petrograd Soviet (an influential local council representing workers and soldiers in Petrograd), generally favored rule that was at least partially democratic.

The October Revolution (also called the Bolshevik Revolution) overturned the interim Provisional Government and established the Soviet Union. The October Revolution was a much more deliberate event, orchestrated by a small group of people. The Bolsheviks, who led this coup, prepared their coup in only six months. They were generally viewed as an extremist group and had very little popular support when they began serious efforts in April 1917. By October, the Bolsheviks’ popular base was much larger; though still a minority within the country as a whole, they had built up a majority of support within Petrograd and other urban centres.

After October, the Bolsheviks realized that they could not maintain power in an election-based system without sharing power with other parties and compromising their principles. As a result, they formally abandoned the democratic process in January 1918 and declared themselves the representatives of a dictatorship of the proletariatIn response, the Russian Civil War broke out in the summer of that year and would last well into 1920.












Russian Civil War

The Russian Civil War lasted from 1917 to 1921. It began immediately after the collapse of the Russian provisional government and the Bolshevik takeover of Petrograd, rapidly intensifying after Lenin's dissolution of the Russian Constituent Assembly and the Trotsky-negotiated signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Although the war was multi-sided and included foreign forces from several countries, the main hostilities took place between Communist forces, known as the Red Army, and loosely-allied anti-Bolshevik forces, known as the White Army. The most intense years of fighting took place from 1918 to 1920. The Communists won after four years of intense fighting, and the result was the country in ruins and the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922.

Following the fall of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and the turbulent Russian Revolution throughout 1917, a socialist-leaning Provisional Government was established. In October another revolution occurred in which the Red Guard, armed groups of workers and deserting soldiers directed by the Bolshevik Party, seized control of Saint Petersburg (then known as Petrograd) and began an immediate armed takeover of cities and villages throughout the former Russian Empire. In January 1918, Lenin had the Constituent Assembly violently dissolved, proclaiming the Soviets as the new government of Russia.

The Bolsheviks decided to immediately make peace with the German Empire and the Central Powers, as they had promised the Russian people prior to the Revolution. Leon Trotsky, representing the Bolsheviks, refused at first to sign the treaty while continuing to observe a unilateral cease fire, following the policy of "No fighting, but no peace treaty". In view of this, the Germans began an all out advance on the Eastern Front, encountering no resistance. Signing a formal peace treaty was the only option in the eyes of the Bolsheviks, because the Russian army was demobilized and the newly formed Red Guard were incapable of stopping the advance. They also understood that the impending counterrevolutionary resistance was more dangerous than the concessions of the treaty, which Lenin viewed as temporary in the light of aspirations for a world revolution. The Soviets acceded to a peace treaty and the formal agreement, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, was signed in 1918.

In the wake of the October Revolution, the old Russian army had been demobilized and the volunteer based Red Guard was the Bolsheviks' main military arm. In January, Trotsky headed its reorganization into the "Workers' and Peasants' Red Army," in order to create a more professional fighting force. He instituted a forceful conscription program, frequently resorting to repressive tactics, and used former Tsarist officers as "military specialists". The Bolsheviks banned all non-Bolshevik political activity around the same time, even other socialist groups, when it became clear that the Bolsheviks could not hold a majority of the seats in any democratically elected governing body outside of St. Petersburg and Moscow. While resistance to the Red Guard began on the very next day after the Bolshevik coup, the Brest-Litovsk treaty and the political ban became a catalyst for the formation of anti-Bolshevik groups both inside and outside Russia, pushing them into action against the new regime.

A loose confederation of anti-Bolshevik forces aligned against the Communist government. Their military forces became known as the White movement (sometimes referred to as the "White Army"), and they controlled significant parts of the former Russian empire for most of the war. The Western Allies, upset at the withdrawal of Russia from the war effort and worried about a possible Russo-German alliance, also expressed their dismay at the Bolsheviks. Winston Churchill declared that Bolshevism must be "strangled in its cradle". In addition, there was a concern, shared by many Central Powers as well, that the socialist revolutionary ideas would spread to the West. Hence, many of these countries expressed their support for the Whites, occasionally providing troops and supplies. In addition, volunteers from Italy and Poland also joined the Whites.

The majority of the fighting ended in 1920 with the defeat of the White Army.


Aftermath of the Civil War

The results of the civil war were momentous. Russia had been at war for seven years, during which time some 20,000,000 of its people had lost their lives (to go with the 3,000,000 surrendered to Poland). The civil war had taken an estimated 15,000,000 of them, including at least 1,000,000 soldiers of the Russian Red Army and more than 500,000 White soldiers who died in battle. 50,000 Russian Communists were killed by the counter-revolutionary Whites, and 250,000 civillians were wiped out by the Cheka (secret police). At the end of the Civil War, Soviet Russia was exhausted and near ruin. The droughts of 1920 and 1921, as well as the 1921 famine, worsened the disaster still further. Disease had reached pandemic proportions, with 3,000,000 dying of typhus alone in 1920. Millions more were also killed by widespread starvation, wholesale massacres by both sides, and even pogroms against Jews in Ukraine and southern Russia. The economic loss to Soviet Russia was 50 billion rubles, or 35 billion in current U.S. Dollars. The industrial production value descended to one seventh of the value of 1913, and agriculture to one third. The economy had been devasted.













The Hammer and Sickle


The symbol as it appeared on the Soviet flag.

The symbol as it appeared on the Soviet flag


The hammer and sickle is a symbol used to represent communism and communist political parties. It features a hammer superimposed on a sickle, or vice versa. The two tools are symbols of the peasantry and the industrial proletariat; placing them together symbolises the unity between agricultural and industrial workers.

It is best known from having been incorporated into the red flag of the Soviet Union, along with the Red Star. It has also been used in other flags and emblems.


The Soviet Flag

Worker and Kolkhoz Woman

Worker and Kolkhoz Woman


The hammer and sickle was originally a hammer crossed over a plough, with the same meaning (unity of peasants and workers) as the more well known hammer and sickle. The hammer and sickle, though in use since 1917/18, was not the official symbol until 1922, before which the original hammer and plough insignia was used by the Red Army and the Red Guard on uniforms, medals, caps, etc.

Some anthropologists have argued that the symbol, like others used in the Soviet Union, was actually a Russian Orthodox symbol that was used by the Communist Party to fill the religious needs that Communism was replacing as a new state "religion." The symbol can be seen as a permutation of the Russian Orthodox two-barred cross.


Russian Orthodox Cross










The proletariat (from Latin proles, offspring) is a term used to identify a lower social class; a member of such a class is proletarian. Originally it was identified as those people who had no wealth other than their sons; the term was initially used in a derogatory sense, until Karl Marx used it as a sociological term to refer to the working class.


The Proletariat in Marxist theory

In Marxist theory, the proletariat is that class of society which does not have ownership of the means of production. Proletarians are wage-workers. Marxism sees the proletariat and bourgeoisie (capitalist class) as occupying conflicting positions, since (for example) factory workers automatically wish wages to be as high as possible, while owners and their proxies wish for wages (costs) to be as low as possible.

According to Marxism, capitalism is a system based on the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie (the "capitalists", who own and control the means of production). This exploitation takes place as follows: the workers, who own no means of production of their own, must seek jobs in order to live. They get hired by a capitalist and work for him, producing some sort of goods or services. These goods or services then become the property of the capitalist, who sells them and gets a certain amount of money in exchange. One part of the wealth produced is used to pay the workers' wages, while the other part (surplus value) is split between the capitalist's private takings (profit), and the money used to pay rent, buy supplies and renew the forces of production. Thus the capitalist can earn money (profit) from the work of his employees without actually doing any work, or in excess of his own work. Marxists argue that new wealth is created through work; therefore, if someone gains wealth that he did not work for, then someone else works and does not receive the full wealth created by his work. In other words, that "someone else" is exploited. Thus, Marxists argue that capitalists make a profit by exploiting workers.

Marx himself argued that it was the goal of the proletariat itself to displace the capitalist system with socialism, changing the social relationships underpinning the class system and then developing into a communist society in which: "..the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (Communist Manifesto).












Communism is an ideology that seeks to establish a classless, stateless social organization based on common ownership of the means of production. It can be considered a branch of the broader socialist movement.

Karl Marx held that society could not be transformed from the capitalist mode of production to the advanced communist mode of production all at once, but required a transitional period which Marx described as the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, the first stage of communism. The communist society Marx envisioned emerging from capitalism has never been implemented, and it remains theoretical; Marx, in fact, commented very little on what communist society would actually look like.

In the late 19th century, Marxist theories motivated socialist parties across Europe, although their policies later developed along the lines of "reforming" capitalism, rather than overthrowing it. One exception was the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. One branch of this party, commonly known as the Bolsheviks and headed by Vladimir Lenin, succeeded in taking control of the country after the toppling of the Provisional Government in the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1918, this party changed its name to the Communist Party, thus establishing the contemporary distinction between communism and other trends of socialism.

Communism grew out of the socialist movement of 19th century Europe. As the Industrial Revolution advanced, socialist critics blamed capitalism for the misery of the proletariat—a new class of poor, urban factory workers who labored under often-hazardous conditions. Foremost among these critics were the German philosopher Karl Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels.



Like other socialists, Marx and Engels sought an end to capitalism and the systems which they perceived to be responsible for the exploitation of workers. But whereas earlier socialists often favored longer-term social reform, Marx and Engels believed that popular revolution was all but inevitable, and the only path to socialism.

According to the Marxist argument for communism, the main characteristic of human life in class society is alienation; and communism is desirable because it entails the full realization of human freedom. Marx believed that communism allowed people to do what they want, but also put humans in such conditions and such relations with one another that they would not wish to exploit, or have any need to.

Marxism holds that a process of class conflict and revolutionary struggle will result in victory for the proletariat and the establishment of a communist society in which private ownership is abolished over time and the means of production and subsistence belong to the community. Marx himself wrote little about life under communism, giving only the most general indication as to what constituted a communist society. It is clear that it entails abundance in which there is little limit to the projects that humans may undertake. In the popular slogan that was adopted by the communist movement, communism was envisioned as a world in which each gave according to their abilities, and received according to their needs.



In Russia, the 1917 October Revolution was the first time any party with an avowedly Marxist orientation, in this case the Bolshevik Party, seized state power. The assumption of state power by the Bolsheviks generated a great deal of practical and theoretical debate within the Marxist movement. Marx believed that socialism and communism would be built upon foundations laid by the most advanced capitalist development. Russia, however, was one of the poorest countries in Europe with an enormous, largely illiterate peasantry and a minority of industrial workers. The Bolsheviks successful rise to power was based upon the slogans "peace, bread, and land" and "All power to the Soviets," slogans which tapped the massive public desire for an end to Russian involvement in the First World War, the peasants' demand for land reform, and popular support for the Soviets.

The usage of the terms "communism" and "socialism" shifted after 1917, when the Bolsheviks changed their name to the Communist Party and installed a single-party regime devoted to the implementation of socialist policies under Leninism. The Second International had dissolved in 1916 over national divisions, as the separate national parties that composed it did not maintain a unified front against the war, instead generally supporting their respective nation's role. Lenin thus created the Third International (Comintern) in 1919. Henceforth, the term "Communism" was applied to the objective of the parties founded under the umbrella of the Comintern. Their program called for the uniting of workers of the world for revolution, which would be followed by the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat as well as the development of a socialist economy. Ultimately, if their program held, there would develop a harmonious classless society, with the withering away of the state.

During the Russian Civil War (1918-1922), the Bolsheviks nationalized all productive property and imposed a policy of "war communism," which put factories and railroads under strict government control, collected and rationed food, and introduced some bourgeois management of industry. After three years of war, Lenin declared the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921, which was to give a "limited place for a limited time to capitalism." The NEP lasted until 1928, when Joseph Stalin's personal fight for leadership, and the introduction of the first Five Year Plan spelled the end of it. Following the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks formed in 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union, from the former Russian Empire.



Marxist-Leninism is a version of socialism, with some important modifications, adopted by the Soviet Union under Stalin. It shaped the Soviet Union and influenced Communist Parties worldwide. It was heralded as a possibility of building communism through a massive program of industrialization and collectivization. The rapid development of industry, and above all the victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, maintained that vision throughout the world. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union adopted the Marxist-Leninist theory of "socialism in one country" and claimed that, due to the "aggravation of class struggle under socialism," it was possible, even necessary, to build socialism alone in one country, the USSR. This line was challenged by Leon Trotsky, whose theory of "permanent revolution" stressed the necessity of world revolution.













The NKVD (Secret Police)

The NKVD or People's Commisariat for Internal Affairs was the leading secret police organization of the Soviet Union that was responsible for political repressions during Stalinism. It ran the Gulag system of forced labor; itdeported Russian populations and peasants labeled as "Kulaks" to unpopulated regions of the country; it guarded state borders and conducted espionage; it executed political assassinations abroad and was responsible for subversion of foreign governments, and enforcing Stalinist policy within Communist movements in other countries.

Although the NKVD performed the function of state security, the name of the organization today is associated primarily with its criminal activities: political repressions and assassinations, military crimes, violations of the rights of Soviet and foreign citizens, and violation of the law.


Repressions and executions

The NKVD arrested, exiled, tortured, or killed anyone accused of being an “enemy of the people.” Millions were rounded up and sent to gulag camps and hundreds of thousands were executed by the NKVD. Formally, most of these people were convicted by NKVD troikas ("triplets") - special courts martial. Evidential standards were very low; a tip off by an anonymous informer was considered sufficient grounds for arrest. Usage of "physical means of persuasion" (torture) was sanctioned by a special decree of the state, which opened the door to numerous abuses, documented in recollections of victims and members of the NKVD itself. Hundreds of mass graves resulting from such operations were later discovered throughout the country. Documented evidence exists that the NKVD committed mass extrajudicial executions, guided by secret "plans". Those plans established the number and proportion of victims (officially "public enemies") in a given region (e.g. the quotas for clergy, former nobles etc., regardless of identity). The families of the repressed, including children, were also automatically repressed.

The purges were organized in a number of waves according to the decisions of the Politburo of the Communist Party. Distinctive and permanent purging campaigns were conducted against non-Russian nationalities. Despite this, it is important to note that Russians still formed the majority of NKVD victims. NKVD agents became not only executioners, but also one of the largest groups of victims. The majority of 1930s agency staff (hundreds of thousands), including all commanders, were executed.

The NKVD organized overseas assassinations of ex-Soviet citizens and foreigners who were regarded as enemies of the USSR by Joseph Stalin. Leon Trotsky was killed by the NKVD.