Socialist Revolution

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Socialist Revolution


(proletarian revolution), the highest form of social revolution, effecting the transition from the capitalist socioeconomic formation to the communist formation. The October Socialist Revolution of 1917 ushered in the era of proletarian social revolutions.

The tasks of a socialist revolution are both destructive and creative: the seizure of power by the working class, the destruction of the previous state apparatus, the establishment of social ownership of the means of production, the creation of a system under which economic and social processes are consciously directed, the abolition of class and national antagonisms and the exploitation of man by man, the development of socialist democracy, and the implementation of a cultural revolution. Unlike all previous social revolutions, which only modified the forms of exploitation, the socialist revolution causes a radical change in the development of society and marks the transition from humanity’s prehistory to its real history.

In its broadest meaning, the socialist revolution encompasses the entire transition period from the taking over of power by the working class to the building of socialism. In a narrow sense, it refers to the transfer of power to the working class and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The founders of Marxism-Leninism believed that the distinctive trait of the socialist revolution was its decisive break with the past and the “prodigiousness of its aims” (K. Marx in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 8, p. 123). According to Marx, the socialist revolution “cannot draw its poetry from the past but only from the future. . . . Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content” (ibid., p. 122). The socialist revolution has no need of such illusions and must “arrive at its own content” (ibid.).

Because of the scope and depth of the transformations brought about by a socialist revolution, such a revolution requires the conscious participation of the masses. As Engels noted, “The time of surprise attacks, revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are in for, body and soul” (ibid., vol. 22, p. 544). Lenin stressed that the socialist revolution “can be successfully carried out only if the majority of the population, and primarily the majority of the working people, engage in independent creative work as makers of history” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 36, p. 171).

The economic basis for a socialist revolution is the conflict between the social nature of production and the private capitalist form of appropriation. After reaching enormous proportions and a high level of socialization under capitalism, the productive forces come into conflict with the constrictions of the existing production relations. This fundamental contradiction does not in itself bring about the “automatic collapse of capitalism.” Capitalist production relations show a certain resilience in reacting to the objective needs of the productive forces. Capitalist ownership evolves from private individual ownership to state-monopoly ownership, thereby permitting the further growth of productive forces within the framework of the capitalist mode of production. This process is a dialectical one: although it mobilizes all the resources of the capitalist system, it exacerbates its contradictions and brings to maturity the material prerequisites for socialism.

In addition to the necessary objective conditions, the socialist revolution requires the sufficient development of a subjective factor—the active and conscious struggle of the working class and of all working people for socialism and the existence of a revolutionary Marxist party of the working class. The Marxist party instills in the working-class movement a socialist consciousness, educates and organizes the masses, formulates the strategy and tactics of the class struggle, and provides political leadership in the socialist revolution.

The basic contradiction of capitalism evidences itself in the sphere of relations between classes as the antagonism between labor and capital, between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The socialist revolution grows out of the class struggle of the working class, whose position within the system of capitalist production relations makes it the main motive force and gives it hegemony in the socialist revolution.

The alliance of the working class with other, nonproletarian strata of working people is necessary for the victory of the socialist revolution. In all victorious socialist revolutions the peasantry has been the main ally of the working class. The socialist revolution serves the basic interests of the laboring peasantry. At the present time, the population of Asia, Africa, and Latin America is composed chiefly of peasants. A victorious socialist revolution is inconceivable without an alliance between the working class and the peasantry. In spite of the rapid decrease in the number of farmers in advanced capitalist countries, where farmers accounted for 11 percent of the gainfully employed population in the early 1970’s, it is essential to persuade the farmers to side with the working class.

Simultaneously, there has been a steady growth in the size and influence of the scientific and technical intelligentsia and other groups of intellectual workers in the advanced capitalist countries as a consequence of the scientific and technological revolution. The primary economic and political interests of the majority of the intelligentsia are closely intertwined with those of the working class. An alliance of workers performing manual and intellectual work becomes a potent force in the struggle against monopolies. It is also extremely important to enlist the support of the urban middle class. The working class, the peasantry, and other social strata that would benefit from the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of socialism constitute the social base that engenders the political forces of the socialist revolution.

The most important single act of the socialist revolution is the seizure of power by the working class and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This act requires a national crisis, which arises out of a revolutionary situation. Lenin contended that this was the basic law of every great revolution (ibid., vol. 41, pp. 69-70).

The form assumed by a socialist revolution depends on concrete historical conditions—and the actual balance of class forces in a country. The socialist revolution may be either peaceful or violent. At the time of the Great October Socialist Revolution, when the first break in the imperialist chain occurred, a peaceful course was unlikely since the balance of forces in the world arena did not favor the working class. A peaceful socialist revolution—a rare phenomenon—was possible in Russia between the February bourgeois democratic revolution of 1917 and the July crisis of that year or during the first few days after the defeat of the counterrevolutionary Kornilov revolt (ibid., vol. 34, p. 237). The peaceful development of a socialist revolution is possible only if, as a result of the balance of forces, the ruling classes either cannot or are unwilling to use overt violence against the masses. The sharp differentiation between class forces, the growing severity of the class struggle, and the conciliatory attitude of the petit bourgeois socialist parties determined the violent course of the socialist revolution in Russia.

Relatively peaceful socialist revolutions occurred gradually in a number of European countries after World War II as a result of world conditions. Currently, the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism exists in several capitalist countries owing to a new balance of forces favoring the working class and socialism, to the scope of the mass struggle for democracy, and to the pressing need for extensive democratic changes of an antimonopolistic nature. In their efforts to realize this possibility, the Marxist-Leninist parties in these countries are working for such radical democratic reforms as the nationalization of the main branches of the economy and banking, democratic control and democratic planning of the economy, worker participation in the management of production, and the democratization of various aspects of public life.

Extensive democratic reforms achieved through a mass anti-monopoly movement are important intermediary steps in the struggle for socialism because they can undermine the power of monopoly capitalism, thereby paving the way for socialism. Democratic reforms serve as a rallying point for a large democratic coalition of left-wing forces, headed by the working class. Furthermore, in the struggle for such reforms the masses receive a practical political education, and the political prestige of the working class increases. The working class has an opportunity to occupy key positions in the bourgeois state, to gain access to executive and especially legislative bodies. This broadens the front of the class struggle and permits an attack on the power of monopolies in which mass action “from below” is combined with measures taken “from above” by government bodies that are under the influence of the revolutionary forces.

The direction taken by Marxist-Leninist parties in the capitalist countries is the antithesis of the reformist concept of the “transformation” of capitalism into socialism. Despite its gradual nature, the peaceful transition to socialism is a revolutionary leap involving the seizure of all power by the working class and other working people and a radical change in ownership relations. Even if the transition to socialism is a peaceful one, a nationwide upsurge in the class movement of the working class and its allies must occur at the decisive moment in order to paralyze and break the resistance of the bourgeoisie and to ensure the transfer of power to the working class.

Whether a socialist revolution is peaceful or violent depends on the extent of the bourgeoisie’s resistance. An armed struggle for power is inevitable and justified if the ruling classes deprive the working class of the possibility of winning over the majority of the population to socialism by peaceful means, if they forcibly suppress the legal activity of the revolutionary vanguard. However, an armed insurrection can succeed only during a national crisis, when the majority of the people will give it their support and sympathy (ibid., p. 337).

Unlike the Blanquists and the petit bourgeois revolutionaries, Marxists always seek the support of the masses. A successful armed struggle cannot be launched at just any time or place at the discretion of a group of insurgents. It can succeed only if it reflects the revolutionary mood of the masses and is launched at the crest of a mass movement. The political maturity and mastery of the revolutionary vanguard lies precisely in its ability to perceive the first signs of a mass revolutionary movement and to strengthen the movement by its actions. In view of the various forms that the revolution may take and the rapid and frequently unexpected turn of events, the working class and its parties must master all types of struggle and be ready to use them in rapid succession (ibid., vol. 41, pp. 80-81).

Arising out of the contradictions of the world system of imperialism, the socialist revolution is inherently international. Certain countries, however, become the focus of the most severe contradictions because of the unequal economic and political development of capitalism. If the social and political forces for a socialist revolution exist, these countries become the weakest link in the capitalist system. This circumstance accounts for the fact that socialist revolutions are victorious at different times in various countries. The first victorious socialist revolution occurred in a single country, Russia, where conditions conducive to breaking the chains of imperialism arose in the early 20th century.

The October Socialist Revolution of 1917 began during World War I, which brought to a head the revolutionary crisis in the capitalist system. This does not mean, however, that a socialist revolution necessarily emerges out of war, as is asserted by the ideologists of anticommunism and petit bourgeois adventurism. The achievements of the world revolutionary process alter the world balance of forces in favor of the international working class, socialism, and peace. Such a change makes it possible to avert world wars and firmly establish the principles of peaceful coexistence, which gives rise to the objective and subjective prerequisites of the socialist revolution.

The working class’ struggle for socialism is intertwined with other, different revolutionary movements. Although some of these movements are not socialist, they are objectively opposed to imperialism and merge with the general worldwide revolutionary process. This convergence makes them more radical and brings them closer to the struggle for socialism. It also creates the preconditions for the transformation of democratic and national-liberation movements and revolutions into socialist ones. All contemporary revolutionary forces are rallying around the main force at the center of the modern era—the international working class and its creation, the world socialist system. The basic contradiction of modern times is the conflict between two social systems. The confrontation between capitalism and socialism throughout the world constitutes the main front of the modern social revolution.

The socialist system is leading the revolutionary process because it is the more powerful force, resting on the economic and military-political power of the working class organized as a state and engaged in solving the most complex creative problems of the socialist revolution. The final outcome of the world struggle for socialism depends on the success of this revolutionary endeavor. Discussing the ways in which victorious socialism could influence the world revolutionary process, Lenin decisively condemned the leftist idea of “exporting” revolution, of “whipping it up” by waging war on capitalist countries. “Such a ’theory’ would be completely at variance with Marxism, for Marxism has always been opposed to ’pushing’ revolutions, which develop with the growing acuteness of the class antagonisms that engender revolutions” (ibid., vol. 35, p. 403). Socialism influences the revolutionary movements in other countries by setting an example, giving international support to the working class and other progressive forces struggling for social progress, conducting a vigorous foreign policy, persistently working for peace, and opposing the export of counterrevolution by imperialism. Together with the world socialist system, the working class of the advanced capitalist countries and the national liberation movement are the main revolutionary forces of the contemporary world.

The heterogeneity of the classes and social strata taking part in the anti-imperialist struggle gives rise to contradictions within the world revolutionary process. Lenin acknowledged that the many millions of the petite bourgeoisie come to the revolution with all their prejudices (ibid., vol. 30, p. 54); they bring to the revolutionary movement their vacillations and instability, their nationalism, and their ultraradicalism. This causes temporary zigzags or even steps backward in segments of the united front against imperialism, particularly in countries where the petite bourgeoisie predominates and the industrial proletariat forms but a narrow stratum. The difficulties that may arise can be resolved through the general progress of the world revolution and through the unity forged between the main revolutionary forces of the contemporary era.

The world socialist revolution represents unity in diversity. The Great October Socialist Revolution, which reflects general laws, also bears the stamp of Russia’s historical development and contemporary phenomena. The people’s democratic revolutions that took place in a number of European countries also had distinctive traits. They developed through many stages; the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat was a relatively lengthy process; and socialist goals were combined with those of the general democratic antifascist struggle. The socialist revolutions in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba also evolved in their own way. Nonetheless, the world revolutionary process has an underlying unity. Each socialist revolution is a component of the one world socialist revolution, and all socialist revolutions have distinctive as well as common traits. The theory that deals with the general laws of the socialist revolution and of the world revolutionary process is applicable to all countries throughout the transition from capitalism to socialism. However, the different specific historical conditions in each country require that the general principles of revolutionary theory be applied, as Lenin observed, in a way “which will correctly modify these principles in certain particulars, correctly adapt and apply them to national and national-state distinctions” (ibid., vol. 41, p. 77).

Marx and Engels worked out the theory of the socialist revolution. They demonstrated scientifically the historical inevitability of the socialist revolution, described its moving forces, and identified the basic conditions necessary for its success. In the imperialist epoch, the theory of the socialist revolution was creatively developed by Lenin, who generalized from new experiences. Lenin studied the maturation of the material prerequisites for socialism within monopoly capitalism, the laws governing the victory of the socialist revolution in various countries at different times, the role of the subjective factor in the revolution, the appearance of revolutionary situations, and the development of the world socialist revolution. Lenin’s ideas were elaborated in documents of the Communist International. The theory of the socialist revolution has been further developed in documents drawn up at international meetings of Communist and workers’ parties, in the program of the CPSU, and in the documents and decisions of congresses of Marxist-Leninist parties.

The struggle of Marxist-Leninist parties against revisionism and petit bourgeois pseudorevolutionary ideology centers on the issue of the socialist revolution. Right-wing opportunism rejects such fundamental principles of the theory of the socialist revolution as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the necessity of destroying the bourgeois state apparatus, and the leadership role of Marxist-Leninist parties. “Left-wing” opportunism is betraying the creativity of the Marxist-Leninist theory of the socialist revolution, and this leads to sectarianism, prevents the discovery of concrete ways of leading the masses toward a socialist revolution, and undermines the Marxist-Leninist strategy of creating broad-based class alliances. “Left-wing” opportunism also denies the necessity of transition stages and forms in the struggle for the ultimate goal, stresses the absolute necessity of armed violence, and minimizes the importance of the creative tasks in the revolutionary process. By creatively developing the theory of the socialist revolution, Marxist-Leninist parties are decisively rebuffing bourgeois ideologists and revisionist and petit bourgeois pseudo-socialist concepts.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii. In Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4.
Marx, K. Klassovaia bor’ba vo Frantsii s 1848po 1850g. Ibid., vol. 7.
Marx, K. Vosemnadtsatoe briumera Lui Bonaparta. Ibid., vol. 8.
Marx, K. Kritika Gotskoiprogrammy. Ibid., vol. 19.
Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 1. Ibid., vol. 23, ch. 24.
Engels, F. Anti-Duhring. Ibid., vol. 20, pp. 278-95.
Lenin, V. I. Chto delat’? In Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6.
Lenin, V. I. Dve taktiki sotsial-demokratii v demokraticheskoi revoliutsii. Ibid., vol. 11.
Lenin, V. I. “O lozunge Soedinennykh Shtatov Evropy.” Ibid., vol. 26.
Lenin, V. I. Imperializm, kak vysshaia stadiia kapitalizma. Ibid., vol. 26.
Lenin, V. I. “Voennaia programma proletarskoi revoliutsii.” Ibid., vol. 30.
Lenin, V. I. Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia. Ibid., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. Groziashchaia katastrofa i kak s nei borot’sia. Ibid., vol. 34.
Lenin, V. I. Detskaia bolezri “levizny” v kommunizme. Ibid., vol. 41.
Lenin, V. I. “Doklad o mezhdunarodnom polozhenii i osnovnykh zadachakh Kommunisticheskogo Internatsionala 19 iulia.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Doklad o taktike RKP 5 iulia.” Ibid., vol. 44.
Lenin, V. I. “Piaf let rossiiskoi revoliutsii i perspektivy mirovoi revoliutsii.” Ibid., vol. 45.
Programmnye dokumenty bor’by za mir, demokratiiu i sotsializm. Moscow, 1961.
Programma KPSS (Priniata XXIIs”ezdom KPSS). Moscow, 1974.
Materialy XXIVs”ezda KPSS. Moscow, 1971.
Materialy XXVs”ezda KPSS. Moscow, 1976.
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K 100-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia Vladimira Il’icha Lenina: Tezisy TsK KPSS. Moscow, 1969.
Mezhdunarodnoe Soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii, Moscow, 1969.
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Vodolazov, G. G. Dialektika i revoliutsiia: Metodologicheskie problemy sotsialnoi revoliutsii. Moscow, 1975.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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