The Bolshevik Revolution Turns 70

For 70 years the red flag with the hammer and sickle has flown over the Kremlin. On special occasions huge portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin—and, until the mid-1950s, Stalin—are displayed. Marxism-Leninism is taught in all primary schools, high schools and universities, and is the ideology of all members of the party and the party’s youth organizations.

The leaders in the Kremlin always claim that the Soviet period has been marked by historical and ideological continuity; that the ideology has not changed since Lenin but has merely been subject to "creative development." In truth, although certain principles of Soviet ideology do exhibit continuity, there have been significant changes. This essay illustrates when and how these changes took place, focusing on five periods: the revolutionary era under Lenin (1917-24), Stalin’s totalitarian period (1924-53), the contradictory phase of de-Stalinization under Nikita Khrushchev (1953-64), the period of bureaucratic restoration and increasing lethargy and decline under Leonid Brezhnev (1964-82) and, finally, the current period and its significance for the future of Soviet ideology.


The Bolsheviks came to power as a small, revolutionary party in an economically backward country of some 140 million inhabitants, over 80 percent of whom were peasants and over 70 percent of whom were illiterate. Russia was a country in which industrial workers made up only a tiny part of the population, whose economy had been wrecked by the First World War, in which famine, misery and need were widespread. The Bolsheviks in 1917 were revolutionary Marxists who had adopted fundamental Marxist concepts with Leninist modifications. In particular they were motivated by a belief in class struggle and violent revolution, by confidence that the victory of socialism was inevitable because it was dictated by historical laws, and by revolutionary internationalism.

The Bolsheviks maintained that the proletarian revolution would break out, not in the country in which capitalism was most developed, but in the "weakest link in the chain" of imperialism. This would occur during a "revolutionary situation" characterized by crisis among the

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