The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

Course No. 8071
Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee
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Course No. 8071
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What Will You Learn?

  • Explore the intellectual partnership between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
  • Investigate communism's views on politics, economics, history, art, culture, and religion.
  • Learn why early 20th-century Russia was ripe to become the world's first communist state.
  • Discover the origins of the Soviet Union's secret police, party congresses, and purges.
  • Learn how the early Soviet Union used nationalism and propaganda to solidify power.

Course Overview

Communism has decisively shaped the modern world. After the Second World War, Marxist regimes ruled over one-third of the population of the globe. Even today, after the fall of the Soviet Union, communist ideas continue to steer current events in Eastern Europe and East Asia.

According to award-winning historian Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to understand the inner dynamics of communist thought and rule (and the reasons they linger in places like Cuba, North Korea, and China), you have to go back to the crucial beginnings of communism. How did it become such a pervasive economic and political philosophy? Why, of all places, did it first take root in early 20th-century Russia?

These and other questions all get addressed as part of a fascinating story that stretches from the intellectual partnership between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the late 19th century to the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924. It’s a story whose drama, Professor Liulevicius notes, “has few equals in terms of sheer scale, scope, or suffering.”

The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin invites you to go inside communism’s journey from a collection of political and economic theories to a revolutionary movement that rocked the world. Rich with historical insights, these 12 lectures zero in on the “how” and “why” of the Bolsheviks rise to power and how communist ideas worked in theory and practice—and how they didn’t. You’ll meet thinkers and revolutionaries like Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky. You’ll unpack the meaning of texts like Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. And, you’ll experience the shock and awe of events including the Paris Commune and the October Revolution. After these 12 lectures, you’ll have a new and rewarding understanding of one of the most important—and problematic—economic and political philosophies of the modern age.

Unearth the Roots of Communist Thought

As shaped by Karl Marx, communism is defined as the abolition of private property. Along with this came the promise of social equality and a liberation from history’s record of struggle, exploitation, and suffering. “From each according to his ability,” Marx said, “to each according to his need.”

In The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin, you’ll examine five internal contradictions within the philosophy of communism that recurs throughout the historical record, sometimes in different forms. They include:

  • The role of the individual in communism,
  • The geographical spread of communism,
  • The ties between communism and nationalism,
  • The evolution of communism into a tradition, and
  • The idea of communism as a political religion.

As the 12 lectures of this course examine events throughout decades of history, two main periods of time will be discussed.

  • In “The Spectre Haunting Europe” (named for the opening line of The Communist Manifesto), you’ll examine the utopian movements that influenced Marx and Engels, and how these leaders came to develop their revolutionary philosophies.
  • In “Lenin and the Founding of the Soviet Union,” you’ll discover how Lenin became the first person to put Marxist ideas into action by violently seizing power in the wreckage of the Russian tsarist empire and the chaos of the First World War.

Explore Decades of Political Turbulence

Moving chronologically through some of the most turbulent decades of modern history, The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin explores terms, ideas, events, and people that you may have heard of in other historical surveys—but never delved into with such depth or insight.

  • Dialectical Materialism: Marx’s doctrine was based on historical (or dialectical) materialism and postulated the basis of reality as rooted in matter, not ideas. Human reality was, at base, economic—even if people were unaware of this. Thus, there could be no just law as such, but only a legal system protecting the interests of the ruling class.
  • The Paris Commune: The radical socialist government that ruled Paris for 10 weeks in 1871 (March 18-May 28) would become a template for understanding later revolutionary action. Despite its failure, the Paris Commune was viewed by Marx and Engels as the first living example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
  • The Okhrana: After the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the Okhrana (“guard department”) came into being. A secret police force organized to quell radicalism, the Okhrana also undertook psychological warfare operations. The organization is suspected to have written the notorious anti-Semitic text, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
  • Red October: Celebrated as the Great October Socialist Revolution, the 1917 seizure of power in Russia by Lenin and the Bolsheviks gave birth to a state devoted to the overthrow of all other world states. For this reason, some historians believe the Cold War didn’t begin after the Second World War but rather with this coup.
  • “The Internationale”: The song that became emblematic of international socialism was written during the Paris Commune by a Parisian transport worker. In the decades that followed, “The Internationale” became an inspiration to marchers, instilled fear in the ruling classes, and would later become the national anthem of the Soviet Union.

Crafted by a Knowledgeable Professor

While the topic of communism with its intricate links between philosophy and history might seem intimidating to tackle, Professor Liulevicius takes care to make the subject easy for anyone to understand.

A lecturer of some of the most popular modern history courses of the Great Courses, Professor Liulevicius has crafted another lecture series that offers an uncompromising look at one of the dominant political ideologies of the 20th century, exploring the origins of communist thought and the communist state.

The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin is a fascinating, and sobering, study of how ideas and theories rise to power in a bid to create a new civilization—whatever the human cost. And it’s the first part of a lecture series of upcoming Great Courses by Professor Liulevicius that will continue the story of global communism. It’s the first chapter in a long story that would see the brutal rule of Joseph Stalin, the expansion of communism into Eastern Europe and Asia, and the eventual decline and fall of the Soviet Union.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 27 minutes each
  • 1
    The Locomotive of History
    Come to see Lenin's arrival at Petrograd's Finland Station in April 1917 as one of the most important turning points in modern history: the establishment of a communist regime after decades of theory. Also, preview the themes you'll explore in these lectures, and get solid definitions of terms such as communism and socialism. x
  • 2
    Marx and Engels: An Intellectual Partnership
    The revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would rock society-and soon affect the lives of millions of people. Here, explore their body of theory (known as dialectical materialism") and learn how Marxism offered something different: a tableau of history with starring roles played by the toiling masses and economic forces." x
  • 3
    The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital
    First, unpack the meaning of the revolutionary messages in The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. Then, use a basic vocabulary of Marxist concepts to better understand Marx's model of history and economics. Last, examine how the revolutionary lives of Marx and Engels sought to unify theory with practice. x
  • 4
    The 1871 Paris Commune as a Model of Revolt
    Investigate the violent upheaval of the Paris Commune in 1871: a political experiment that lasted a mere 10 weeks. The Paris Commune would make Marx one of the most feared and hated men in the world; although it failed, Marx considered it a living example of the dictatorship of the proletariat."" x
  • 5
    Marxism after Marx
    In the decades following the death of Marx in 1883, the socialist movement grew-but also became highly factional over arguments about theory and organizational tactics. In this lecture, learn about the rise of political parties in Germany and America, the establishment of the Second International, and the struggle over revisionism."" x
  • 6
    Revolutionary Russias
    Why did a Marxist regime come to power in Russia of all places-especially when Marx considered it an unpromising place for a proletarian revolution? Professor Liulevicius tackles this question and also probes Russia's revolutionary tradition and the ideas of Georgi Plekhanov, the figure who did the most to bring Marx's teachings to Russia. x
  • 7
    The Making of Lenin
    Take a detailed look at the life of Lenin, whose ideas and actions propelled him to become the first man to bring communist theory into power in 1917. Here, focus on Lenin's hardness in the face of the 1891-1892 famine, his manifesto What Is to Be Done?, and the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. x
  • 8
    World War I as a Revolutionary Opportunity
    With the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin-who called war an accelerator of history"-had the world crisis he could turn to his advantage. Topics here include Marxist debates over the philosophies of defensism vs. defeatism, the arrival of Leon Trotsky and his theory of "permanent revolution," and the widening rift between socialists and communists." x
  • 9
    Red October: How the Bolsheviks Seized Power
    The Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, a moment that would be celebrated afterward as Red October, or the Great October Socialist Revolution. Here, examine the formula for success behind the Bolshevik takeover, the mythologizing of Red October in film and music, and the dawn of a new secret police force: the Cheka. x
  • 10
    Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary Martyr
    Spend time with one of the most famous women radicals in history: the Polish-German socialist Rosa Luxemburg. Follow her revolutionary activities throughout Switzerland, Poland, and Germany; her support of spontaneous revolt over centralized conspiracy; her struggles with the ambiguities of revolutionary devotion; and her ultimate martyrdom. x
  • 11
    The Red Bridge to World Revolution
    How does a revolutionary regime build a bridge to world revolution? After a look at the Third International, or Comintern," created in 1919 to spread the message of global revolution, explore failed attempts at sovietizing Hungary and Bavaria and the Soviet-Polish War of 1920, which dashed remaining hopes for linking up with Germany." x
  • 12
    Toward a New Communist Civilization
    Follow the trajectory of Bolshevik social experiments to inaugurate a new civilization up through the death of Lenin in 1924. You'll learn about Lenin's monumental propaganda" plan, which changed the appearance of Russia; the nationalist program of "putting down roots"; party recruitment drives and purges; and even the mummification of Lenin's body." x

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  • Printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

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Your professor

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

About Your Professor

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee
Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is Lindsay Young Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his doctorate, Dr. Liulevicius served as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford...
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The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 11.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course! I watched the whole course in three days. Like all the courses from professor Liulevicius this one is an excellent one. I have learned the history of Soviet Russia for several years, and I still learned a lot from just 12 lectures. Cannot wait for the next two parts!
Date published: 2019-12-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A New Civilization, Whatever the Cost! Excellent course on the origins of communism! Professor L. does it again! Eagerly anticipate the rest of the series! Still incredulous that so much of the world bought the messianism of communism; the world was but a donkey pursuing an unreachable carrot tottering before it. Communism made its leaders, who cared nothing for others, into godless slave masters and its followers into expendable pieces of a ruthless machine, creating the very alienation from labor that Marx, that poor little rich kid who never worked a real job and who lived first off his parents, and then off his friend Engels, condemned as a failing of capitalism. All I can say is, be careful whom you listen to, and whom you're taking advice from: Ideas do have consequences!!! Perpetual revolution is a recipe for disaster! Revolutions do eat their children...and so many more!
Date published: 2019-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prrof Liulevicius Always 4 Star Lecturer Have not yet finished the course but can say the professor is clearly understood and offers valid, trustworthy historical perspective. I've seen all his courses thus can say Prof. Liulevicius is a top educator in his field.
Date published: 2019-12-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Good Start to a TGC Trilogy Prof. Liulevicius is one of my favorite TGC teachers: he’s passionate about his topics and he presents them with a good mix of stark facts, anecdotes, and humor. His family ties to the Baltic region make him a good pick for a study of the beginnings of Communism. The first portion of the course focuses on the men who articulated the philosophy of communism: Marx and Engels, then follows the spread of socialist thought across Europe. The second portion (lectures 6-12) turn our attention to Lenin, the man who finally succeeded in creating a society based on Marxist principles. Other prominent characters are also given their due, including the firebrand Rosa Luxemburg. If you want a fuller treatment of WW1, or the Russian Revolution, you might need to look elsewhere, because the focus here is on how the Communist faction struggled and eventually gained power. The course ends with the ascendancy of Josef Stalin, but the Prof promises that there will be two more 12-lecture series that will continue the study of communism in the 20th century. The course is not video-heavy, although there are a fair number of photographs of people and events. The director experiments with multi-angle shots of the Prof, which is an annoying trend borrowed from recent documentaries. TGC made a great stride forward when they began having the profs address the camera rather than an imaginary class; it’s a shame that they’re now playing with that successful formula. The course book is slightly thicker than the average passport, another example of the decline of the print side of TGC courses. They managed this shrinkage by reducing the type to about 8-point size, and omitting a timeline, glossary, and biographical sketches (which apparently are gone for good in TGC-land). Looking at the book in PDF form is more enjoyable than the hard copy, because it contains flashes of color here and there (mostly red, due to the subject matter). I’m looking forward to the continuation of this study in future course offerings from Prof. Liulevicius.
Date published: 2019-11-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good historical overview While its a good historical overview, I would have liked more coverage of the ideas and ideology of communisim and how it developed and evolved over time, and less focus on the people or historical events. Otherwise, the presentation was great, and definitely one of the better courses here.
Date published: 2019-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course Prof. Liulevicius does an excellent job pulling together history and relevant facts to provide an informative course. He mentioned two upcoming courses that pick up where this one left off. I look forward to those. You will come away with a clearer understanding of Socialism and Communism upon completing this course.
Date published: 2019-11-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Red-Scare Propaganda This is a very shameful production by The Great Courses. Not only is it not an impartial presentation of the material, but it is so heavily biased that it can only be described as anti-communist, anti-Russian, and anti-Chinese propaganda. If you're looking to actually learn about the intellectual work of Marx and the complicated influence it had on modern history, this is not the source. This is boomer cringe.
Date published: 2019-11-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Too Short, But Very Good Professor Liulevicius has worked his way into the "automatic buy" category as far as I'm concerned. He has a way of painting a vivid picture without being too theatrical. He doesn't make much of an effort to hide his personal views, but it is all well supported and never feels like an affront to anybody's opinion. The course isn't as heavy as you might expect given the lecturer. I recall his "Turning Points in Modern History" course which is fairly disturbing sometimes and his "Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century" course which is extremely disturbing at all times. This one, surprisingly, isn't that way. It may just be that I was braced for it, but I don't think so. There are going to be some rough spots given the subject matter, but it isn't emotionally exhausting like the Utopia course. If that was giving you pause, don't let it. This one is much safer. I do have a couple of negative impressions. First, the course is too short. There is a lot packed in there, but I really think the topic justifies at least 24 lectures. He hints at the end that this is part one of a series, but that kind of makes me wonder why they didn't just release a full length course all at once. Second, the course isn't available in audio, which would have been perfectly adequate. It makes it a little bit trickier to listen in my car on the way to work. Finally, this course continues TGC's new practice of having the lecturers read their own scrips instead of speaking freely. Lectures are objectively worse because of it, even for my favorite professors. It doesn't look like TGC is going to stop producing content this way, but I'm not going to stop complaining about it. Automatic 1 star penalty. These are some of the best lecturers and storytellers in the world. Let them speak.
Date published: 2019-11-18
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