How Communism Works

By: Alia Hoyt  | 

The Bolshevik Revolution

Vladimir Lenin was the founder of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (the Bolsheviks, later renamed the Russian Communist Party) and the architect of the Russian Revolution. Unlike Marx, he didn't think that the proletariat would spontaneously rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie, but rather that there needed to be an elite group of party intellectuals to guide the masses who were unlikely to start this revolution. That was because the proletariat, said Lenin, suffered from double consciousness and couldn't determine their own best interests [source: Encyclopedia Brittanica].

When Czar Nicholas was dethroned in 1917, Lenin was in exile in Switzerland for playing a part in some previous anti-czar plots. When he heard of the uprising, Lenin cut a deal with Germany. If the Germans could transport him home, he would get Russia to back out of World War I. The Germans agreed and snuck him back into Petrograd through a railway car.


The Communist Party was about to gather more steam. Leon Trotsky, a Russian revolutionary who had escaped from prison and fled to America, returned to Russia to serve as Lenin's right-hand man. Trotsky is largely credited for engineering the Bolshevik Revolution.

Because the Russian Provisional Government supported the war effort, it didn't last very long. Many people shifted loyalties to the Bolsheviks, who opposed the war. When the revolution struck, the Bolsheviks used this momentum to overthrow the Provisional Government. Lenin's Red Guard took control of the Winter Palace (former home of the czar and later the Provisional Government's headquarters), effectively overturning the Provisional Government. And true to his word, Lenin pulled Russia out of the war.

But some Russians still weren't too sure about the Bolsheviks. Lenin endeavored to gain support by broadcasting slogans such as "Bread, Land, Peace and All Power to the Soviets." To people suffering from famine, this promise hit the spot. Yet in elections for the Russian Constituent Assembly in late November 1917, only a quarter of voters cast ballots for the Bolsheviks. Lenin overturned the results and sent armed guards to prevent meetings of the democratic assembly. This made it virtually impossible for the Russian people to voice their concerns in a democratic way.

The years from 1917 to 1920 became known as "war communism" due to the methods the Bolsheviks used to push their political agenda. In 1918, the party was renamed the Russian Communist Party. Lenin and his communist cohorts endeavored to put Marx's tenets of belief into practice. This marked the beginning of the Russian Civil War, which lasted from 1918 until 1922. When the war ended, the Soviet Union formed — also known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). It included Russia and 15 bordering states.

Lenin was aware that the upper class wouldn't willingly give up land or wealth. Upholding the necessary phases that Marx outlined, Lenin initiated the Red Terror, a threatening fear campaign led by the Bolsheviks. His goal was mass murder. During the Red Terror, 100,000 detractors were put to death, by some estimates. Victims included members of the bourgeoisie, White Army prisoners of war, socialists, Czarist sympathizers and innocent civilians. [source:].

Lenin also required peasants to sell their crops to him at virtually no profit, using the rationale that he needed the crops to support his army. The peasantry was so indignant that they reduced crop production drastically, leading to a full-scale civil war. The exact numbers vary, but tens of millions of people starved and millions died. Faced with so much rebellion, Lenin created the New Economic Policy to allow people to sell grain on the open market. This lasted until 1928 [source: Encyclopedia Brittanica].

Lenin also instituted slave labor camps, known as "gulags." Anyone who disagreed with Lenin's rule was sent to work at one of these camps. It's estimated that 1.2-1.7 million died between 1918 and 1956. The numbers expanded greatly under Lenin's successor Joseph Stalin [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].