Marxism-Leninism Research Paper

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1. Marxism, Leninism, or Marxism–Leninism?

Scholarly debates about Marxism–Leninism are inextricably bound up with larger intellectual battles about the relationship—or lack thereof—among the theoretical works of Karl Marx, the theories and political activities of Vladimir I. Lenin, and the tyrannical regime created in the 1930s by Joseph V. Stalin. During the Cold War, scholarship on these questions tended to divide into two highly polarized camps. One view, closely associated with the model of ‘totalitarianism’ developed by such thinkers as Hannah Arendt (1951), Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski (1956), and Leonard Schapiro (1972), was that the logic of Marxist ideology led inexorably to the more hierarchical, centralized, and violent forms of rule advocated by Marx’s Soviet disciples. From this point of view, the generic label ‘Marxist–Leninist’ could be reasonably applied even to philosophical and ideological works written well before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Thus H. B. Acton’s influential The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism–Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (1955) freely interspersed quotations from works by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin in order to illustrate what Acton saw as the philosophical fallacies common to all three theorists. In the hands of lesser scholars, such an approach appeared to hold Marx personally responsible for everything done in the name of his theory, decades after his death, in a country he had never visited in his lifetime; alternative, non-dictatorial tendencies within Marxist socialism in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe were often left unexamined.

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By the 1960s and 1970s, efforts on the left to resurrect Marxism—and in some cases Leninism as well—as a type of humanism incompatible with Stalinist tyranny led to a series of revisionist reappraisals of the origins of Soviet ideology (Cohen 1973). Careful study, the revisionists insisted, revealed not continuity but sharp breaks between the thought of Marx and his many of his later self-proclaimed disciples. Such discontinuities—and in particular, the rigidly hierarchical and conspiratorial nature of the Soviet ideological order—were attributed to differences in the cultural milieus of Western and Eastern Europe, to the influence of the Jacobin traditions of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia on Lenin and Stalin, to the exigencies of state-building in a hostile international environment facing the Bolshevik elite, and even to the peculiar personal psychology of Stalin himself (Tucker 1969, 1971). The term Marxism– Leninism itself, from this perspective, was a sham, useful only (for opposite reasons) to Stalinist and capitalist ideologues (Kautsky 1994).

Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, however, both totalitarian and revisionist theories about the nature of Marxism–Leninism have come into question. On the one hand, revelations from Soviet and East European archives make it quite clear that Communist Party leaders throughout the bloc really did communicate in the idiom of official Marxism– Leninism, even in their private correspondence, until nearly the end of the Gorbachev era. On the other hand, these documents also show that debates and fissures among party leaders on important ideological issues were a constant feature of Leninist rule, exploding the notion of an entirely uniform and continuous Marxism–Leninism operating from Marx to Stalin and beyond. Thus, the new evidence forces scholars to account simultaneously for continuity and change in the ideological discourse linking Marx to Lenin and later Marxist-Leninists. To understand the process by which the complex and multifaceted theories of Marx were transformed into the stultifying orthodox ideology imposed on millions of people by Stalin and his colleagues, then, it is necessary to proceed historically, identifying both the core elements of Marx’s theory which united otherwise diverse followers into a coherent intellectual movement, as well as the inconsistencies in Marx’s work that generated such heated debates among them. Here the works of intellectual historians like Leszek Kolakowski (1981), Martin Malia (1994), and Andrzej Walicki (1995) have proven especially valuable.

2. Ideological Continuities and Changes from Marx to Lenin

The first basic tenet of Soviet Marxism–Leninism— that Marx developed a comprehensive world-view based upon a unique form of dialectical materialism, supposedly reflecting the class interest of the global proletariat—is indeed largely supported by the evidence of Marx’s own work. To be sure, some of the later efforts by Soviet ideologists to apply the ‘dialectical method’ to every conceivable problem of philosophy, science, and art—with damaging and often embarrassing results—had their roots not in Marx, but instead in the writings of his collaborator Engels, whose efforts to synthesize Marx’s historical materialism with his own rather peculiar understandings of modern physics and Darwinian evolution were discouraged by Marx himself (Carver 1983). Still, Marx did explicitly claim that his theorizing about revolutionary communism reflected the universal interests of the emerging world proletariat and he expended a great deal of energy attempting to demonstrate that all rival understandings of socialism actually served the interests of nonproletarian, reactionary classes. And while Marx himself never used the exact term ‘dialectical materialism,’ he consistently claimed that the materialist conception of history that he advocated was thoroughly dialectical in the Hegelian sense—that is, based upon the idea that the logic of history is driven by the struggle between opposed principles, that this struggle generates qualitatively higher stages of development, and that history must lead ultimately to total transcendence and freedom. Seeing human labor rather than Hegel’s ethereal ‘spirit’ as the driving force in history—and as the primary means through which empirical human beings express and fulfill themselves—Marx recast the Hegelian theory of history in materialist terms, as a struggle between property-owning and oppressed laboring classes, progressing through a series of revolutions in the mode of production from slavery to feudalism to capitalism, and leading ultimately to the transcendence of class society through the final victory of the global proletariat under communism. In this way, Marx theoretically reconciled the seemingly antithetical principles of science, with its insistence on rational analysis of existing material reality, and revolution, with its goal of radical transformation of existing reality through human action. In its basic outlines, this framework was largely preserved in later Soviet presentations of dialectical materialism.

By contrast, the link between Marx’s work and the Leninist principle of one party dictatorship is rather less direct. In fact, Marx was quite inconsistent concerning the problem of communist political strategy. Certainly he never explicitly called for the imposition of a hierarchical, centralized political party to run the post-revolutionary proletarian state. Marx did insist more than once that the postrevolutionary government would take the form of a dictatorship of the proletariat; in addition, he saw the communist party in each bourgeois nation as consisting of those workers and intellectuals who had the best theoretical understanding of the long-term strategic goals of the communist movement. However, such passages in Marx’s writings coexist with others emphasizing the independent political competence and leadership role of the working class itself. Overall, the theoretical synthesis between science and revolution achieved in Marx’s theoretical works falls apart again in his scattered writings on political strategy, where the more scientific Marx tends toward pessimism about the prospects for proletarian collective action before economic conditions are ripe, while the more revolutionary Marx calls for immediate proletarian uprisings in a wide range of developed and less developed societies.

Indeed, precisely this dilemma concerning proper revolutionary timing lay at the heart of debates about communist political strategy during the period of the Second International, the loosely organized coalition of European Marxist parties founded by Engels after Marx’s death (Steenson 1978). Revisionist, or right, Marxists, such as Eduard Bernstein, emphasized the scientific aspects of Marx’s work over the ideals of revolutionary communism and called for an evolutionary approach to socialism within the context of existing capitalist nation-states. Left Marxists, such as Rosa Luxemburg, took the opposite position, calling for immediate proletarian revolutionary action and downplaying the empirical constraints on revolutionary success emphasized by the revisionists. Finally, orthodox or center Marxists, led by Karl Kautsky, attempted to preserve the synthesis of rational analysis and revolutionary transcendence by calling for fidelity to the entirety of Marx’s dialectical outlook. In practice, this theoretical stance led to an emphasis on building the political power of existing Marxist parties, while foregoing premature attempts at communist revolution. It was in this context that Kautsky drew the conclusion that the working class could not create a revolution on its own without prior training by orthodox Marxist intellectuals (Donald 1993).

Indeed, Lenin’s 1902 proposal in What Is To Be Done? to reorganize the Marxist movement in Russia under the leadership of a strictly disciplined, highly centralized party of professional revolutionaries was originally introduced as an attempt to reinforce Kautsky’s orthodox Marxism within the small Russian Social Democratic movement founded by Georgii V. Plekhanov in the 1880s (Harding 1977). While Lenin’s conspiratorial conception of the party marked a qualitative break with the procedural democratic norms typical of European socialism at the turn of the century—a factor which played an important role in the 1903 split between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the anti-Leninist Mensheviks—his argument that such a party might itself synthesize revolutionary praxis and modern organizational science was firmly within the orthodox Marxist political tradition.

After World War I had simultaneously destroyed European capitalism, fractured the Second International along national lines, and plunged Lenin’s Russian homeland into near anarchy, the popular appeal of Lenin’s institutional solution to the dilemmas of political Marxism vastly increased. Stunned by the inaction of Kautsky and the German Social Democratic Party in the early days of the war, Lenin now insisted that, in an age of global imperialism, his model for Marxist politics was universally applicable—and moreover the sole means to combat the opportunism of the ‘bourgeois’ Second International. With the Bolshevik takeover of central Russia in November 1917 and the subsequent victory of the Red Army in the ensuing Russian Civil War, Lenin’s arguments looked prophetic. During this period Lenin’s ideas about party organization also became the basis for a new Communist International based in Moscow, spurring the formation of proSoviet communist parties throughout Europe and Asia.

3. Ideological Continuities and Changes from Lenin to Stalin

The establishment of Lenin’s party dictatorship in the Soviet Union, however, did not immediately complete the full institutionalization of Marxism–Leninism. Rather, this hyphenated term emerged only after Lenin’s death, during a new struggle among right, left, and orthodox tendencies within the Bolshevik party—this time concerning the proper economic strategy for the first socialist state. As in the political debates of the Second International, Marx’s own works were hardly an adequate guide to action here. The bulk of Marx’s economic analysis had been devoted to showing how the class conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie under capitalism would necessarily undermine capitalist profits, increase worker immiseration, and generate a global revolution. Concerning communist economics, the most that could be concluded from Marx’s writings was that it would involve some form of central planning, the gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, and, most importantly, the elimination of bourgeois private property. Beyond this, as in his political writings, Marx’s scattered references to post-revolutionary economics tend to oscillate between a scientific insistence upon the need for strict economic efficiency under socialism and a revolutionary depiction of communist society as freed from all previous economic limitations.

Lenin’s own writings on economic matters betray a similar ambivalence about the way to combine rational analysis with revolutionary objectives in economic policy. The New Economic Policy (NEP) he instituted in 1921 reestablished markets for agriculture and consumer goods, but left much of heavy industry, communications, and foreign trade under the control of the party-state. After Lenin’s death in 1924, a new debate emerged between a right opposition led by Bukharin, advocating a slow, evolutionary, and scientific approach to socialist economics based upon a long-term continuation of the NEP, and a left opposition, led by Trotsky, advocating revolutionary tempos of industrialization at home and communist advance abroad. As in the Second International, however, the right appeared to sacrifice the revolutionary vision of Marxism to support an uninspiring sort of state capitalism, while the left appeared to lack any realistic strategy to build enduring socialist institutions.

The notion of a unified Marxism–Leninism that might serve as a new ideological orthodoxy for Leninist party members in the Soviet 1920s emerged directly out of this struggle. When Lenin suffered the first of a series of strokes in 1922, a triumvirate of Grigorii Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and Joseph Stalin took control of the Soviet state in Lenin’s’s stead. Already by 1923, Zinoviev and Stalin were declaring themselves to be true ‘Leninists’ in opposition to the ‘objectively antirevolutionary’ arguments of Trotsky and his Left Opposition. After Lenin’s death and Trotsky’s defeat in early 1924, Zinoviev and Stalin competed to position themselves as the sole authoritative interpreters of Marxist and Leninist doctrine. However, Zinoviev’s thinking on economic matters was comparatively undeveloped, and with the publication of Stalin’s slogan ‘socialism in one country’ in December 1924—an explicit attack on Zinoviev, who then headed the Communist International—control over the definition of Marxism–Leninism shifted decisively toward Stalin’s camp.

By 1929, when Stalin turned on his erstwhile supporter Bukharin and eliminated the Right Opposition, he and his intellectual supporters had worked out the third doctrinal pillar of Soviet ‘Marxism–Leninism’—namely, a conception of Marxist ‘political economy’ designed, in effect, to support a Leninist ‘professional revolutionary’ centralization of all economic activity in the USSR (Hanson, 1997). Five-year plans were intended to synthesize scientific analysis of the Soviet Union’s potential production with the revolutionary heroism of workers and managers bent upon overfulfillment of their monthly and yearly plan targets. The abolition of the distinction between town and countryside was to be achieved through the brutal collectivization of agriculture and the liquidation of the independent peasantry as a class. Finally, the elimination of bourgeois private property was to be cemented by perpetual mass purges and arrests of all suspected collaborators with the global bourgeoisie—a policy that ultimately gave rise to the Great Terror of the mid-1930s.

Thus by 1936, when Stalin declared that ‘socialism in the main’ had been built in the USSR, Marxism– Leninism was established in the form which became the model for other twentieth-century Leninist regimes. The global power of this ideology was vastly strengthened after the Soviet victory in World War II, when the Red Army imposed Marxist–Leninist doctrine, party rule, and economic planning on the occupied countries of Eastern Europe, while new selfdescribed Marxist–Leninist regimes were established in China and North Korea. However, the brutal violence employed by Stalin to enforce total conformity to his own interpretation of Marxism did not suffice to eliminate the inherent tensions between modern organizational rules and Utopian revolutionary aspirations at the core of Marx’s original vision of communism. Indeed, even before the dictator’s death, new fissures in the international communist movement began to emerge among Leninists emphasizing rapid revolutionary advance, such as Mao, those gravitating toward supposedly more democratic forms of socialism, such as Tito, and various orthodox pro-Soviet communists defending the Stalinist status quo.

During the post-Stalin era, the increasing inability of Soviet Marxism–Leninism to provide a stable basis for long-term economic growth, political loyalty, or cultural commitment led to the gradual decay of the ideology (Evans 1991). Established Marxist–Leninist regimes everywhere were simultaneously undermined by high-level corruption and mass public cynicism. Various ‘deviations’ from Marxism–Leninism within the Soviet bloc were crushed by Soviet military force. The last-ditch effort by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s to reinvigorate Marxism–Leninism by stripping it of its hierarchical and centralizing features only hastened its institutional demise, first in Eastern Europe and then in the USSR itself. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, communist parties and regimes worldwide entered a period of profound crisis. By the turn of the twentieth century, Marxism– Leninism officially persisted as a state ideology—at least formally—only in the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba. The original Stalinist conception of a single proletarian world-view institutionalized in a genuinely revolutionary party and a uniquely socialist form of economic development, however, was almost certainly dead.


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