Leninism refers to various related political and economic theories elaborated by Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. Leninism builds upon and elaborates the ideas of Marxism, and serves as a philosophical basis for the ideology of Soviet Communism.
The term "Leninism" came into widespread use only after Lenin ended his active participation in the Soviet government due to a series of incapacitating strokes shortly before his death. Grigory Zinoviev popularized the term at the fifth congress of the Communist International (Comintern).
Leninism had become the dominant branch of Marxism, the political and economic philosophy based on the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, since the establishment of the Soviet Union. Leninism's direct theoretical descendants are Marxism-Leninism associated with Joseph Stalin and Trotskyism, associated with Leon Trotsky. Stalin and Trotsky were associates of Lenin who became the leaders of the two major political and theoretical factions that developed in the Soviet Union after Lenin's death. Proponents of each theory (including Stalin and Trotsky themselves) often deny that the other is a "real" Leninist theory, and claim that their own interpretation is the truest successor to Lenin's ideas.
Leninism holds that capitalism can only be overthrown by revolutionary means; that is, any attempts to reform capitalism from within, such as Fabianism and non-revolutionary forms of democratic socialism, are doomed to fail. The goal of a Leninist party is to orchestrate the overthrow of the existing government by force and seize power on behalf of the proletariat (although in the October Revolution of 1917, the Soviets seized power, not the Bolshevik Party), and then implement a dictatorship of the proletariat. The party must then use the powers of government to educate the proletariat, so as to remove the various modes of false consciousness the bourgeois have instilled in them in order to make them more docile and easier to exploit economically, such as religion and nationalism.
The dictatorship of the proletariat is theoretically to be governed by a decentralized system of proletarian direct democracy, in which workers hold political power through local councils known as soviets (see soviet democracy). The extent to which the dicatorship of the proletariat is democratic is disputed. Lenin wrote in the fifth chapter of 'State & Revolution':
Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people--this is the change democracy undergoes during the transition from capitalism to communism.
The elements of Leninism that include the notion of the disciplined revolutionary, the more dictatorial revolutionary state and of a war between the various social classes is often attributed to the influence of Nechayevschina and of the 19th century narodnik movement (of which Lenin's older brother was a member) - "The morals of [the Bolshevik] party owed as much to Nechayev as they did to Marx" writes historian Orlando Figes. This would help explain the traces of class bigotry (e.g. Lenin's frequent description of the bourgeoisie as parasites, insects, leeches, bloodsuckers etc and the creation of the GULAG system of concentration camps for former members of the bourgeois and kulak classes) detectable in Leninism but foreign in Marxism.
For these reasons, Lenin argued that a proletarian revolution could not occur in the developed capitalist countries as long as the global system of imperialism remained intact. Thus, he believed that a lesser-developed country would have to be the location of the first proletarian revolution. This was an open revision of Marx's thesis that such a revolution could only occur in a developed capitalist country. A particularly good candidate, in his view, was Russia - which Lenin considered to be the "weakest link" in global capitalism at the time. At the time, Russia's economy was primarily agrarian (outside of the large cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow), still driven by peasant manual and animal labor, and very underdeveloped compared to the industrialized economies of western Europe and North America.
However, if the revolution could only start in a poor, underdeveloped country, this posed a challenge: According to Marx, such an underdeveloped country would not be able to develop a socialist system (in Marxist theory, socialism is the stage of development that comes after capitalism but before communism), because capitalism hasn't run its full course yet in that country, and because foreign powers will try to crush the revolution at any cost. This required Lenin to openly revise Marx's theory on this point. He proposed two possible solutions.
One option would be for the revolution in the underdeveloped country to spark off a revolution in a developed capitalist nation. The developed country would then establish socialism and help the underdeveloped country do the same. Lenin hoped that the Russian Revolution would spark a revolution in Germany; indeed it did, but the German uprisings were quickly suppressed. ''(see Spartacist League and Bavarian Soviet Republic)
Another option would be for the revolution to happen in a large number of underdeveloped countries at the same time or in quick succession; the underdeveloped countries would then join together into a federal state capable of fighting off the great capitalist powers and establishing socialism. This was the original idea behind the foundation of the Soviet Union.
Notably, during Lenin's lifetime, he never asserted that the Soviet Union had become a socialist society, only that the communist party had won power. In fact, he saw to the enactment of what was called "state capitalism" to accelerate the development of what was essentially a third world economy to the point where socialism was feasible. Shortly after his death, it was Joseph Stalin who formally "declared" the establishment of socialism in the Soviet Union.
In the People's Republic of China, the Communist Party of China described its organizational structure as Leninist. Later, the Chinese Communists developed Marxism-Leninism into the theory of Mao Zedong Thought or Maoism, which remains popular in many third world revolutionary movements.
Present-day Leninists often see globalization as a modern continuation of imperialism in that capitalists in developed countries exploit the working class in developing and underdeveloped countries, maintaining higher profits by lowering the costs of production through lower wages, longer working time, and more intensive working conditions.