What is the connection between Karl Marx, Lenin, and Stalin?

According to Stalin, Leninism is ‘Marxism in the era of imperialism and of the proletarian revolution … Leninism is the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular’ (Foundations of Leninism, 1924). Accordingly, this ideology is often referred to as ‘Marxism-Leninism’. This, however, is a contradiction in terms: Marxism is essentially anti-Leninist. But not everything Lenin wrote is worthless; for example, his article entitled The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism(1913), contains a concise exposition of Marxism. Why, then, is Leninism objectionable? Because, for socialists, it is anti-democratic and it advocates a course of political action which can never lead to socialism.

In What Is To Be Done? (1902) Lenin said: ‘the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness’. Lenin argued that socialist consciousness had to be brought to the working class by professional revolutionaries, drawn from the petty bourgeoisie, and organised as a vanguard party. But in 1879 Marx and Engels issued a circular in which they declared:

When the International was formed we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves. We cannot, therefore, co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois.’

Nor is this an academic point, since the history of Leninism in power shows that allowing elites to rule ‘on behalf of’ the working class is always a disaster. Working class self-emancipation necessarily precludes the role of political leadership.

In State and Revolution (1917) Lenin said that his ‘prime task is to re-establish what Marx really taught on the subject of the state’. Lenin argued that socialism is a transitional society between capitalism and full communism, in which ‘there still remains the need for a state… For the state to wither away completely, complete communism is necessary’. Moreover, Lenin claimed that according to Marx work and wages would be guided by the ‘socialist principle’ (though in fact it comes from St Paul): ‘He who does not work shall not eat.’ (Sometimes this is reformulated as: ‘to each according to his work’.) Marx and Engels used no such ‘principle’; they made no such distinction between socialism and communism. Lenin in fact did not re-establish Marx’s position but substantially distorted it to suit the situation in which the Bolsheviks found themselves. When Stalin announced the doctrine of ‘Socialism in One Country’ (i.e. State Capitalism in Russia) he was drawing on an idea implicit in Lenin’s writings.

In State and Revolution, Lenin gave special emphasis to the concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. This phrase was sometimes used by Marx and Engels and meant working class conquest of power, which (unlike Lenin) they did not confuse with a socialist society. Engels had cited the Paris Commune of 1871 as an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, though Marx in his writings on this subject did not mention this as an example, since for him it meant conquest of state power, which the Commune was not. Nevertheless, the Commune impressed itself upon Marx and Engels for its ultra-democratic features – non-hierarchical, the use of revocable delegates, etc. Lenin, on the other hand, tended to identify democracy with a state ruled by a vanguard party. When the Bolsheviks actually gained power they centralised political power more and more in the hands of the Communist Party. Lenin failed to see, due to his misunderstanding of the revolutionary process, the eventual outcome is the redundancy of the revolutionary party. For the completion signals the end of class struggle.

For Lenin the dictatorship of the proletariat was ‘the very essence of Marx’s teaching’ (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918). Notice, however, that Lenin’s Three Sources article – referred to above – contains no mention of the phrase or Lenin’s particular conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And for modern Leninists this concept, in Lenin’s interpretation, is central to their politics. So, for its anti-democratic elitism and its advocacy of an irrelevant transitional society misnamed ‘socialism’, in theory and in practice, Leninism deserves the hostility of workers everywhere.


H. Gorter, A. Pannekoek, S. Pankhurst, Non-Leninist Marxism: Writings on the Workers Councils, 2007

Neil Harding, Leninism, 1996

The link is Lenin, who distorted Marxs ideas to suit his own ends, which he used to seize power in Russia, Marx and Lenin never met and Marx would have been appalled by Lenin & cos actions,Stalin took over leadership after Lenins days, that’s pretty much it,Marx and Lenin’s views contrasted, regards Ian.

Marx created a critique of capitalism (which today we call Marxism or Marxist theory) which suggested that class-based capitalism would inevitably exploit laboring classes to the point where they were so impoverished that they would be compelled to revolt, merely out of self-preservation. The theory was meant in part as a philosophical exploration of historical trends (dialectical materialism), and in part as a warning to society that political and economic changes needed to be made to prevent that kind of bloody revolution. He called for a classless society, in which all citizens were included in society, politically and economically.

Lenin was one of the foremost second-generation Marxists. He held the capitalist class would not change the system on its own, and that rather than waiting for the inevitable revolution, revolution should be fomented actively to bring it about sooner. He also believed that people were not yet ready for a fully classless society — possibly a result of his context in Russia, where most of the population were illiterate agricultural serfs — and so advocated for a state socialist system in which the means of production were taken over by the state, under the auspices of a single party, while the capitalist class was dispensed with and the populace was educated into a properly marxist worldview. This follows from Marx, who thought that state socialist systems would rise and fall as an intermediary stage between class capitalism and a fully classless society, though Marx never advocated them as a goal in their own right.

Stalin was a member of the original Politburo — ruling committee — that was set up in Russia after the revolution. He gradually accumulated power (over Lenin’s objections) and after Lenin’s death he took control of the government, establishing an authoritarian security state; he is best known for his intense surveillance of his own people and his ruthless and brutal treatment of anyone suspected of political opposition.