This paper will compare and contrast the works of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Huntington, describing the way in which these writers represent evolving ideas about who, in society, is prone to undertaking revolutions.

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Marx, Lenin, Trotsky about Revolutions

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Published around 1848, Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto laid out a historical grounding and justification for communist ideology, suggesting that communism represented the solution to centuries of class struggle. For Marx, revolutions are historically most likely to be led by the proletariat. Marx describes history as characterised by class struggles; he argues that, throughout history, the relationships between the classes have been determined by the means of production in the society, so that when the proletariat revolt, they take over and change the means of production, creating a new ruling class. However, Marx feels that under capitalism, the revolution will need to be inherently different, because the means of production cannot be overtaken by the proletariat. He argues that, in modern industrial society, the bourgeoisie (the ruling class) exploit the proletariat (the working classes) beyond a sustainable level, until the proletariat revolt to overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish an inevitable, communal system of society in which the means of production and the profits are distributed equally. Marx’s Manifesto established a clear connection between economic deprivation and exploitation and the urge to revolution (Marx, n.p.).

Vladimir Lenin’s The State and the Revolution, published in 1917, was heavily influenced by Marx’s writing and thinking; it demonstrates the way in which Lenin’s thought and ideology transformed Marx’s theoretical ideas of revolution into a practical reality. For Lenin as for Marx, it is the proletariat who are prone to undertaking revolutions. However, Lenin draws a distinction between the state and any other group within society, suggesting that while the goal of any revolution is to crush the state, the members of the defeated state are just as likely to revolt against the new system. It is for this reason that a strong communist dictatorship is necessary following the revolution of the proletariat: to quell the revolutionary remnants of the displaced bourgeoisie, and to prevent a new state from forming in the place of the old. Lenin therefore, although he adopts the same view as Marx that it is the proletariat – the economically deprived and exploited class – who are initially most likely to begin a revolution, goes further than Marx, exploring the possibility of revolution after the supposedly final revolution of communism. Lenin feels that, far from being final, the revolution of the proletariat is likely to be succeeded by counter-revolutions, seeking to re-establish the old order. Unlike Marx, Lenin sees the threat of revolution as inescapable, even after the proletariat have risen (Lenin, n.p.).

As one of the two men earmarked as Lenin’s successor, Leon Trotsky’s though on revolution incorporated and built upon the ideas of both Marx and Lenin. Like Lenin, Trotsky continued the evolution of Marxist theories of revolution to accommodate the changing economic and political landscape the followed on from the communist revolution. In comparison to Marx and Lenin, Trotsky believed that revolution was most likely to occur as a cooperative effort between the proletariat and the peasantry. He felt this distinction was necessary to address the situation in countries, such as Russia, which had not achieved advanced capitalist societies. Trotsky’s theory is more global in nature than those of Marx and Lenin, addressing not only the class struggles within a nation, but wider global inequalities that shaped the political and economic stage in the aftermath of WWII. Trotsky was concerned about the ability of the revolutionary proletariat to sustain a cause in the face of capitalist pressure from other parts of the world; he therefore felt that revolution would not only occur through the proletariats of individual nations, but through the proletariat of many nations united under a common socialist banner (Trotsky, n.p.). His evolving theory of revolution predicted, and to an extent fuelled, the fears that would shape the actions of the West during the resulting Cold War.

Samuel P. Huntington, writing at the height of the Cold War, continued the evolution of the theory of revolution to describe a changing economic and political global community. Like Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, Huntington agrees that revolutions usually start as a result of the proletariat classes desiring to overthrow and replace the ruling classes; as for Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, Huntington considers the economic exploitation and deprivation of the working classes as a fundamental contributing factor to the fomenting of revolution. However, Huntingdon indicates the ways in which this pattern of historical economic development has continued into the modern day, with the grand ideologies of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky being replaced by the perpetual unrest of the third world. For Huntington, those most likely to undertake revolutions are the people who live in societies where there is “a shortage of political community and of effective, authoritative, legitimate government” (Huntington, 2); in other words, those societies where economic hardships continue to undermine attempts at stable government.

Huntingdon’s assessment not only goes a long way to explaining how revolutions in the era of Marx and Lenin came to occur in Russia and France; it also provides a model which equates to contemporary global politics and economy, explaining why it is predominately in third-world, developing nations that revolution and civil unrest are now most common.

As can be seen, then, while the way in which revolution is realised in contemporary society has changed since the days of Marx, his fundamental observation about the link between economic deprivation and revolutionary action remains critical.

  • Huntington, Samuel P. Political Order in Changing Societies. London: Yale University Press, 1973. Print.
  • Lenin, Vladimir. “The State and Revolution.” The Revolutionary Taking of Power. Berkeley University, 2016. Web. 18 March, 2016. Retrieved from:
  • Marx, Karl. “Communist Manifesto.” Marx-Engles Archive. Marxist Internet Archive, 2016. Web. 18 March, 2016. Retrieved from:
  • Trotsky, Leon. “Peculiarities of Russia’s Development.” The History of the Russian Revolution. Marxist Internet Archive, 2016. Web. 18 March, 2016. Retrieved from: