This is Section a of Chapter 3 of Beyond Classical Marxism.
Under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) took power in Russia in November 1917 (the “October Revolution”, according to the old-style calendar). There followed a two-year civil war with the anti-communists aided by the various capitalist countries, including the U.S. However, the Bolsheviks emerged victorious, at the cost of suppression of all other parties, particularly of the Menshevik side of the RSDLP and the Socialist Revolutionary Party (the main party of the peasantry, who constituted the huge majority of Russians). The working class, which was supposed to be in control of the state, was also suppressed as this dictatorship grew. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin step-by-step gained control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, as the Bolsheviks called themselves; he ousted Trotsky in 1927 and finally had him assassinated in 1940, and through the purge trials of 1936-1938 he had all of the remaining Old Bolsheviks killed, thereby giving himself absolute power. Stalin’s outrageous criminal activity was finally exposed by Khrushchev in 1956.
The Soviet Union presented itself, highly inspirationally, as the socialist alternative to capitalism, and anti-capitalist revolutionaries in other countries followed its “vanguard party” approach which often resulted in viable one-party dictatorships (China especially, but also Vietnam, Cuba, Cambodia, Laos, and certain Eastern Europe countries). China and Cuba were particularly inspirational for the “vanguard parties” arising in the New Communist Movement in the United States in the late 1960’s and 1970’s8. Except for the followers of Trotsky, Stalin’s heinous crimes were basically ignored because the result was a state which could challenge worldwide capitalism.
But a Leninist one-party dictatorship is not socialism. The essence of socialism is democracy, both politically and in the organization of the economy. Nonetheless, budding revolutionaries (myself included) latched onto Leninism as the way to go in superseding capitalism; lip-service was always given to the goal of a state democratically controlled by the working class.
We should be clear on what is meant by “Leninism”, for quite a few socialists define themselves as “Leninist” when they mainly mean to associate themselves with the profound anti-capitalist revolution in Russia instituted by the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership, and with the model society advocated by the Bolsheviks before they actually took power and had to establish a terroristic dictatorship in order to maintain their control. Perhaps we should call it “really existing Leninism”, for it guided the organization of a number of anti-capitalist countries which followed in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, not to mention the politics and organization of Communist Parties throughout the world. (Such an appellation recalls to mind the phrase “really existing socialism” with which apologists for the Soviet Union dismissed criticism of that society.) Anyhow, by “Leninism” we have particularly in mind the one-party state tightly controlled by a dictatorial “vanguard party” supposedly ruling on behalf of the working class; its main (Stalinist) version has the party giving only perfunctory play to internal democracy, functioning in a completely top-down manner.