A Marxist theoretician and revolutionary, born in Russia, whose early life was characterized by a more or less orthodox Marxism. However, from the late 1890s he developed a distinctive interpretation of Marx's ideas which has since carried his name. His major works are The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), commonly held to be his most reputable scholarly piece, What is to be Done? (1902), Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), and State and Revolution (1917).
Much of his writing is of historical and partisan interest only. However, a number of his ideas have been debated by sociologists, most notably his thesis that labour movements (such as trade unions) are inevitably reformist, seeking only an accommodation with capitalism that improves the workers’ lot, so that revolutionary activity on behalf of the proletariat requires the ‘vanguard’ of a revolutionary party. The Party will then impose a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, assist the workers to transcend their ‘trade-union consciousness’ by developing a true (revolutionary) class consciousness, and so eliminate the intra-class divisions (‘working-class sectionalism’) that undermines the development of communism. A historical application of this thesis to the class struggles in 19th-century Britain (J. Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution, 1974) has provoked a heated debate about the nature of the so-called labour aristocracy in early capitalism.
Lenin also offered an influential analysis of imperialism; a model of ‘democratic centralism’, in which lower party and state organizations were accountable to higher ones, with authority resting at the centre in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat; and a theory of ‘uneven development’ which challenged the notion that the transition from traditional society to modernization is via a smooth and unilinear trajectory. Lenin's argument drew heavily on the earlier work of Nikolai Bukharin (Imperialism and World Economy, 1915) and both writers’ ideas have been debated well beyond the confines of Marxist intellectual circles.
Lenin was the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and, until his early death from a stroke, the leading politician in the new USSR. Whether everything that flowed out of that revolution finds its origins in Leninism—his particular marriage of revolutionary commitment, Marxist theory, and Russian reality—is still an open (and much debated) question. A useful short introduction to his life and work is Robert Conquest's Lenin (1972).