Marxism in Russia

Vladimir Lenin changed global history when he put German philosopher Karl Marx's theories into practice in Russia in 1922 with the creation of the world's first communist nation, the USSR. But how did it get to that point? The Tsarist autocracy had ruled Russia for 400 years, keeping Russia in a feudal stage of economic development for centuries. Let's look at how the application of Marx's political ideology helped to transform Russia into one of the leading global superpowers in the 20th century. Buckle up comrade, this is the Marxism in Russia origin story!

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Table of contents

    Marxism in Russia Timeline

    Let's look at a timeline of how Marxism developed, first with Karl Marx and then throughout Russia.

    1848Marx published The Communist Manifesto.
    1861Tsar Alexander II decreed the Edict of Emancipation.
    1869The Communist Manifesto (1848) was translated into Russian.
    1872Capital (1867) was translated into Russian.
    1883Georgy Plekhanov founded Liberation of Labour.
    1895Vladimir Lenin founded the Social Democratic organisation The St Petersburg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class. He was soon arrested and sent into exile in Siberia.
    1898The Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP) held its First Congress.
    1900Whilst in exile, Plekhanov, Lenin, and a few others founded the Marxist newspaper Iskra.
    1902Lenin published his pamphlet “What is to be done?”.
    1903The RSDWP informally split into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks after its Second Congress.
    1905First Russian Revolution. Tsar Nicholas II created the Duma.
    1914Russia entered WWI.
    1917February: The February Revolution instated the Provisional Government.
    March: Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. The Petrograd Soviet was formed.
    April: Lenin released his April Theses.
    July: The July Days. Alexandr Kerensky became the Prime Minister of the new Provisional Government and reduced Bolshevik support through propaganda.
    August: Kornilov Revolt. General Kornilov threatened a coup d'état against the Provisional Government. Kerensky asked the Petrograd Soviet to defend the Government, and so armed the Soviet's Red Guard.
    October: The Bolshevik Revolution.
    1917-1921Russian Civil War.
    1921Lenin issued the Decree Against Factionalism.
    1922Lenin formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) led by the Russian Communist Party.

    Marxism Definition

    Marxism is a philosophical, economic, political and social set of theories drawn from Karl Marx's writing. His most famous theory is that of economic determinism, which mapped out the creation of socialist and communist states.

    Marxism in Russia Portrait photograph of Karl Marx StudySmarterFig. 1 Portrait of Karl Marx.

    Let's look in a bit more depth at how the key theory of Marxism actually worked according to the philosopher himself. Marx theorised that as societies underwent economic development, an exploitative class system also developed. Each stage was inevitable, and so it was named economic determinism. This table demonstrates how each stage unfolds:

    #Stages of Economic DeterminismBrief Description
    1Primitive CommunismEarly human hunter-gatherer societies operated on a basis of equality. Each member of the society would contribute equally for the good of the whole. Marx described them as being essentially communist.
    2ImperialismAs society developed, territories would be marked and emperors would claim ownership of the lands. Originally, this was based on the emperor's ability to fight off competition, but this was then delegated to a nobility class who were rewarded with land for their loyalty to the emperor. The nobility became a new landowning aristocracy.
    3FeudalismThe nobility who own the land exploit the peasants who work their land. As the landowning aristocracy better exploit their workers, trade and industry improve.
    Bourgeois RevolutionWhilst industrialisation occurs, a bourgeois middle-class is created which owns the means of production (ie. the factories). The bourgeoisie demand political control and overthrow the aristocratic, feudalist government and establish a bourgeois government which aims to improve the economy through capitalism.
    4CapitalismThe bourgeois middle-class exploit their workers (the proletariat) and manipulate them to accept their condition. The class divide widens as the capitalists accumulate wealth, whilst the proletariat's situation stays the same or gets worse through wage cuts and other exploitation.
    Proletariat RevolutionThe proletariat undergoes class consciousness and rebel against their exploitation, favouring equality over private ownership. The bourgeois government is overthrown, and a proletariat dictatorship establishes a socialist government.
    5SocialismThe socialist proletariat dictatorship abolishes the class system and private ownership, and educates the middle-classes about equality and fair treatment. Those who refuse to learn the value of socialism are removed from the society (either imprisoned, exiled, or executed).
    6CommunismThe socialist government is only a transitional phase of economic development. As the society learns and puts in practice the values of socialism, class, money, government, property, private ownership and the state dissolve as every member works equally. This was Marx's theory that communism was the ultimate political, economic and social stage of society.

    It is important to note that Marx's theory was intended to be a philosophical theory of what a path to Communism could look like. In his other works, such as The Eighteenth Bruamire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx recognised that events could play out differently depending on specific conditions and histories.

    Marxism in Russia Origin

    Let's look at how the theories of Karl Marx first developed in Russia.

    Feudalist Russia

    At the time of Marx's activity, Russia was under the Tsarist regime of the Romanovs. This can be seen as the Feudalist stage of Marx's economic determinist stages: the Tsar owned the land and delegated it to nobility who would provide military troops whilst exploiting peasants through a system known as serfdom.

    Marxism in Russia Painting of Tsar Alexander II reading the Edict of Emancipation in 1861 StudySmarterFig. 2 Painting of Tsar Alexander II.

    Despite Tsar Alexander II's Edict of Emancipation in 1861, which brought an end to serfdom in Russia and “liberated” peasants, socialists still argued that peasants had become exploited by the newly developing bourgeois landowners. Although Russia had not entered capitalist stage, the Edict had allowed all classes to own land, rather than just the nobility. This meant that wealthy citizens could purchase the land and exploit the newly emancipated peasants, replacing one exploitative class for another.

    Marxist Literature

    Marx's The Communist Manifesto was translated to Russian in 1869, which brought a new fervour to the socialist movement against Tsarism at the time. The supporters named themselves Marxists.

    Georgy Plekhanov created the first interpretation of Russian Marxism. Originally, he had supported the Populist Socialists in Russia, known as Narodniks, who wanted to unite the peasantry to overthrow the Russian government and establish socialism in Russia based on peasant communes. After understanding Marxism, Plekhanov developed a counter group to the populists known as Liberation of Labour in 1883 whilst he was in exile in Geneva, Switzerland.

    Marxism in Russia Portrait photograph of Georgy Plekhanov StudySmarterFig. 3 Portrait of Georgy Plekhanov.

    Lenin founded the St Petersburg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class in 1895 but was arrested soon after and sent into exile. Whilst in Siberia, he sent delegates to the formation of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP) in 1898 which united a few Social Democratic groups to discuss how Marxism would be applied to Russia. However, the group lacked coordination with Lenin's physical absence.

    In 1900, Plekhanov, fellow Liberation of Labour member Vladimir Lenin, and several others created the Marxist newspaper Iskra. This helped to coordinate Marxist Social Democratic organisations under the united banner of the RSDWP. At the time, the group was in opposition to the Narodniks, and believed that to achieve socialism in Russia, a bourgeois revolution was needed to industrialise and create a large proletariat to then overthrow the bourgeoisie. This followed Marx's model of economic determinism, but rather argued that the revolution must be provoked rather than allowed to occur organically.

    The RSDWP held its Second Congress in London and Brussels in 1903. Lenin had returned from exile and Plekhanov travelled from his exiled home of Switzerland, both of which were delegates at the Congress. However, at this time, Lenin had begun creating his own interpretation of Russian Marxism which divided the Party over the issues of political and economic theory.


    In 1902, Lenin released his pamphlet “What is to be done?” which outlined how he believed socialism should be achieved in Russia. Lenin gathered support for his interpretation of Russian Marxism and at the Second Congress of the RSDWP two factions formed: Lenin's Bolsheviks and Julius Martov's Mensheviks. Let's look at a brief comparison of the two parties' policies.

    Restricted political party of professional revolutionaries with an exclusive Central Committee.Open membership party so that any proletarian can run for a seat.
    Belief that Russia should transition from Tsarism to Socialism quickly and with force, skipping both the bourgeois revolution and the capitalist stage.Belief that Russia should transition from Tsarism to a Liberal/Bourgeois capitalist society and then to socialism through gradual changes and organic revolutions.
    Firm belief in the dictatorship of the proletariat to achieve socialism rather than following democracy. Open to work with Liberal politicians within a government formed via a Democratic Constitution.

    Lenin's new theory of combining the bourgeois and proletariat revolutions into one, carefully led revolution by militant professionals (known as the vanguard of the proletariat) earned his beliefs the name Marxism-Leninism. Lenin's interpretation differed most significantly from Marx's theory of economic determinism as Marx believed that the economy dictated the politics of society whereas Lenin advocated the idea of politics dictating the economy.

    Marxism in Russian Revolution

    Lenin's interpretation was popular with the radical members of the RSDWP because it was a quicker route to socialism and did not engage with the Liberals to create the inconvenient capitalist bourgeois stage.

    The 1905 Russian Revolution demonstrated the failures of a Constitutional Monarchy, as the Tsar suppressed the Duma through rigging elections. This led Lenin to become more radical in his approach. The 1917 February Revolution instated the Provisional Government which constituted both Liberals and Socialists, but its reluctance to act regarding WWI and reform throughout its 7-month tenure showed how this coalition was unfavourable for the Bolsheviks and Russia. The Petrograd Soviet was formed to represent soldiers and workers. Lenin's April Theses denounced the Provisional Government and declared the slogan of “Peace, Land and Bread” to unite peasants, soldiers, and soviets to the Bolshevik cause.

    Marxism in Russia Bolshevik poster showing Lenin sweeping the earth of monarchy and capitalists StudySmarterFig. 4 Poster of Lenin sweeping away monarchists and capitalists.

    The Bolsheviks and Petrograd Soviet formed an alliance, as the Bolsheviks promised “All Power to the Soviets” to overthrow the bourgeois Provisional Government and allow the proletariat councils to run the government. The Bolsheviks had gained a majority within the Petrograd Soviet by September 1917, creating proletariat and military support for the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik Revolution occurred in October 1917. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks formally split, and Lenin led the newly established Russian Communist Party in 1918.

    The Russian Civil War followed the Bolshevik Revolution as rivalling political parties fought for control of Russia. The Bolsheviks were victorious by 1921. Lenin's 1921 Decree Against Factionalism banned dissent from other political parties, enforcing the Communist dictatorship.

    After the Bolshevik victory, Lenin created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics led by the Communist Party. Its political stance was a socialist nation that was guided by (Marxism-Leninism) communist ideology. The Communist Party's Central Committee led Russia through a dictatorship to enforce socialism throughout the country. Lenin had officially established Marxism in Russia.

    Marxism in Russia - Key takeaways

    • Karl Marx created his political theory of communism throughout the 19th century in works such as The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Capital (1867). His key theory was economic determinism which theorised that communism would occur organically after a series of revolutions.
    • Georgy Plekhanov is credited with bringing Marxism to Russia when he formed the Liberation of Labour group in 1883 to use Marxist ideas to protest against feudal Tsarist rule in contrast to the other socialist group the Narodniks.
    • The Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP) was formed in 1898 by Plekhanov and Lenin. After Lenin published his "What is to be done?" pamphlet in 1902, the RSDWP unofficially split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1903.
    • Lenin led the Bolsheviks with his theory of Marxism-Leninism which advocated the dictatorship of the proletariat to achieve socialism in Russia.
    • Following the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 and after the Russian Civil War in 1921, Lenin successfully established a Marxist government in Russia in 1922 with the formation of the USSR.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Marxism in Russia

    What is Marxism in simple terms?

    Marxism is the belief in the political and economic theories of Karl Marx. Marx's key theory is economic determinism, which explains that society naturally progresses through economic stages with class struggles for control of the means of production. Eventually, after a series of revolutions, socialism is established which leads to communism.

    What is the difference between Marxism and Communism?

    Marxism is a political theory of how to achieve communism. Communism is a political form of governance based on Marx's theories.

    What is the aim of Marxism?

    According to Karl Marx, every society is destined to become communist through a series of economic and political stages and revolutions. Marxists aim to successfully establish communism in a society.

    What is the Marxist view of society?

    Marxism understands society through the class system. Higher classes exploit the lower classes. With the establishment of communism, class is abolished and everyone lives in an equal society.

    How did Lenin apply Marxism to Russia?

    As Marx's theories were based on British society, Lenin had to adapt them to Russia. He argued that a vanguard could lead a revolution representing the peasantry and the proletariat, overthrow Russia's feudalist system and establish communism in one revolution. This opposed Marx's theory that a bourgeois revolution would overthrow feudalism, and after a period of capitalism, a proletariat revolution would overthrow the bourgeoisie.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which stage of Marx's economic determinism theory was Russia in during the 19th century?

    What was the key theory developed by Karl Marx that explained how communism would be established in a society?

    According to Marx's theory of economic determinism, how many revolutions would society undergo before it reached socialism?

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