The theory of Leninism is at its most basic foundations, the practical application of Marxism as interpreted by Lenin. During its initial inception, Leninism as an ideological theory was largely indistinct from Marxism, varying only in the practical application of achieving the transitional phase of Socialism. Over time however, the changing needs of the growing Soviet Union provided Leninism with its own unique ideological framework. This of course, would later be synthesized into Marxism-Leninism by Lenin’s contemporaries, such as Stalin, and become the official state-ideology of the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death.
The most important aspect of Leninism proper would undoubtedly be the theory of the revolutionary Vanguard party, as initially conceived in Lenin’s 1902 work ‘What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions For Our Movement’. The ideal of the Vanguard party was a theory by which ideologically pure persons from within the broader working class revolutionary movement would be recruited to the party, then expected to unite together and steer the ideological course of the revolution, while being sure to both stray from dangerous dogmatism and ideological backpedalling.
One of the core issues afflicting the early Soviet Union which prompted the need for Leninism over a strict and orthodox theory of Marxism was that Russia was largely still a feudal nation at the time of the October Revolution. Marx had envisaged that Socialism would need to rise first in industrialized nations such as Germany, where the proletariat (wage-earning labour classes) would unite to overthrow the bourgeoisie (capitalist class that owned the means of production). This differed in much of Eastern Europe at the time where the proletariat was in fact comparatively small and largely overshadowed by the class of peasantry and large-scale landowners. Rather than working with the means of production, the peasantry often were involved in subsistence farming on the land owned by someone else. It was considered by Marx that this class would be unable to achieve Socialism, which naturally created unexpected difficulties for the emerging Soviet Union. Leninism was in many ways the designed specifically to counter this specific issue afflicting the Soviet Union.
Leninism, as it grew and fostered in the early years of the Soviet Union, was allowed to grow and change with the changing needs and material conditions of the time, especially as they could fluctuate so wildly during a period of civil war. This led to Lenin and the Vanguard Party instituting temporary policies such as ‘War Communism’ (with priorities placed on keeping the Red Army stocked with food and ammunition) and later the ‘New Economic Policy’ (the temporary allowment of small-scale private enterprise and the ending of grain requisition, to be replaced instead by a tax). To some this may have seen like ideological contradiction, however Lenin simply saw these as being methods deemed necessary for achieving Communism in the future. To rush the process would potentially be to create catastrophe.
In the early years, a large part of the intent of Leninism was to foster revolutions in countries around the world, hopefully leading to majority-Capitalist nations such as Germany falling to Socialist influence. This proved to not be the case and forced a change in economic and foreign policy, much of which was ultimately overseen by Stalin in the aftermath of Lenin’s death. Due to the failure of revolutions in Capitalist nations, there was seen to be a need to consolidate power and resources within the Soviet Union, ultimately leading to the famous Five Year Plans and mass industrialization and collectivization reforms. Once again, these theories and practices were primarily put in place by Stalin, however the influence of traditional Leninism lived on, with its practical application being synthesized and perfected upon to suit the material conditions of other nations, such as the People’s Republic of China.
While Lenin did of course believe in the Marxist assertion that upon the true achieval of Socialism, the state would ultimately wither away, leading to Communism, he rejected Anarchist assertions that the state must be immediately crushed. Lenin saw the state as being a tool of the ruling classes to crush dissent and attempts at revolution, however he also saw it as a mechanism that could be used by the proletariat themselves to crush the bourgeoisie and end the risk of a reactionary return-to-form. Lenin also saw an inherent contradiction in the assertions of Anarchists in that by dismantling the state immediately without removing the material conditions that create the necessity for a state, it will be inevitable that another will simply rise in its place and make the Socialist revolution ultimately pointless.
Following the model of the Paris Commune, Lenin felt that he could use a state structure to ultimately destroy the necessity for a state in and of itself, thereby creating material conditions by which the state could naturally wither away due to a lack of material necessity and allow for the working class to achieve actual stateless Communism. This use of a state controlled by the workers themselves is the source of the term ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, with the state being run communally by the people who collectively own the means of production, with the Vanguard Party serving as a guideline for the actions of this state towards naturally achieving Communism. These theories are particularly elaborated upon in Lenin’s key work ‘The State and Revolution’ from 1917.
After Lenin’s death in 1924, the future of Leninism was in a crisis, with two principal political theories being considered its successor. Stalin advocated Marxism-Leninism, the theory by which the Soviet Union would continue to expand and evolve over the following years. While Stalin did contribute to this political theory in many ways, he always stressed that it was merely to be a continuation of orthodox Leninist theory taken to its natural conclusion. To contrast, Leon Trotsky advocated his theory of Trotskyism as being a successor to Leninism, ultimately leading to an ideological battle within the Vanguard Party. Due to the conditions of the Vanguard Party itself, this ultimately led to Trotsky being expelled from the party and eventually from Russia altogether. Trotskyism became a fringe movement whilst Marxism-Leninism became the core ideology of the Soviet Union and the generally regarded ‘successor’ to Leninism as a whole, being further synthesized and altered throughout the Soviet states to meet specific material conditions, or in some cases to achieve different ends altogether.