Lenin and Stalin, 1922. Photo: Public Domain Lenin and Stalin, 1922. Photo: Public Domain

There was nothing inevitable about the grotesque transformation of Russia’s fledgeling workers’ state into Stalin’s Soviet Union, explains John Westmoreland in the third of his three-part series

Part One: Lenin and revolutionary organising
Part Two: 1917: Lenin and workers’ power

In 1976 the American historian Richard Pipes was asked by the then CIA director, George H. W. Bush, to head Team B, an anti-Russian committee whose task was to assess Russian military capabilities.

Pipes was born in Poland. His father Marek was a businessman. Anti-Communism was a family affair. When Communist Russia collapsed in 1991 western academia entered a period of frenzied anti-Communist publication, and Pipes’ work reached a mass audience.

According to these right wing ideologues 1991 was ‘the end of history’. Capitalism had finally, and rightly, triumphed. The whole Communist experiment had been a disaster, and so on.

Richard Pipes had already published the historical account to base these speculations on. His The Russian Revolution, published in 1990, became, for the Conservative establishment, the official account of events in Russia, despite its obvious propagandist intent.

According to Pipes, Marxism was a fanatical creed which led to tyranny, first under Lenin and then Stalin. The Russian Revolution – the title of his book – was in fact “a Bolshevik coup”. Lenin, of course, was an evil puppet-master, anti-democratic and power crazed, who, far from seeking to liberate the working class, forced them to surrender to Marxist dogma.

The Stalinist tyranny that came to dominate Russia from the late 1920s was laid at Lenin’s door, the fruits of Marxism.

Pipes was a very capable propagandist but not such a good historian. He was a neoliberal first, and an historian second. The Lenin he tried to bury in infamy, might well emerge from the grave in the years ahead. Let’s start to shift some of the dirt from Lenin.

The strangled revolution

The October Revolution was a rallying cry to workers across the globe. The success of the revolution terrified the ruling class, and embarrassed the Social Democratic parties still parroting their support for their national war effort.

On taking power Lenin announced the programme of the Soviet government: the immediate proposal of peace to all nations; the transfer of land to the peasants; workers’ control over the production and distribution of goods; national control of the banks. Inequalities based on class, gender, nationality and religion were quickly abolished by law.

This is an achievement unparalleled anywhere else in history. But this beautiful beginning was short-lived. Invasion by the capitalist powers resulted in a horrific civil war that gutted industry, caused famine and saw leading Bolsheviks killed in action. The disaster sucked the energy from the revolution.

Lenin and Trotsky led the insurrection in 1917 in the belief that they would be able to end the imperialist war and build a new economy and society. But they knew this could only happen if other countries took up the cause of revolution.

There was every reason to hope that revolution would spread in the wake of Red October. Revolutionary struggles did break out – in Germany and Hungary – while rising numbers of strikes and demonstrations across Europe shook it to its foundations.

Revolution in Germany was the decisive factor for the survival of the revolution in Russia. Germany was the most advanced industrial economy in Europe. A working class victory would have massively compensated for Russia’s backwardness. But Germany lacked a Leninist party, and this proved decisive. The Social Democratic Party in Germany, wedded to reform and the preservation of capitalism, joined with right wing paramilitaries to suppress the revolution and cut off a vital lifeline to Communist Russia.

Although Trotsky’s brilliant leadership saw the Red army triumphant in 1921, it was at a terrible price. Economically Russia was all but destroyed. Workers fled the cities to forage for food. The Bolsheviks, now called the Communist Party, lost its working class base. And Lenin’s vital leadership would soon be lost too. In the absence of the working class, the Communists had to lead alone.

These difficulties did not cause the revolution and Leninism to mutate into Stalinism. In the absence of soviet power and workers’ democracy a huge bureaucracy emerged. Many of them were former Tsarist officials. Stalin, a limited Marxist at best, became the spokesperson for this bureaucracy. 

After Lenin’s death

By the time of Lenin’s death in 1924 the bureaucracy, as Lenin said, were running the former workers’ state. The triumph of the bureaucracy stifled all revolutionary initiative in the Communist Party. 

The decisive moment when bureaucratic power triumphed over workers’ power was in 1925. Trotsky was the most able leader trying to keep alive revolutionary socialism. Trotsky wanted to gradually grow the economy and rebuild workers’ democracy, while using Russia’s authority as a Communist state to build an international Communist movement. This became known as Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

Marxism was a foreign language to the bureaucracy. Stalin cemented his leadership in the Communist Party by portraying Trotsky’s Marxism as mad and dangerous – the language of the Daily Mail on Corbyn. Internationalism was alien to the bureaucrats, and Stalin met their needs when he opposed Trotsky’s permanent revolution with ‘socialism in one country’. The bureaucrats and Stalin had a crude nationalist perspective, where the industrial strength of Russia would show that their brand of Communism could match the productive capacity of capitalism. This would mean an industrial and agrarian dictatorship that the capitalist west would admire and the deaths of millions of peasants and workers.

The ‘debate’ in 1925 ended in favour of Stalin through the most vicious slander of Trotsky, whose defeat then led to him being hounded into exile.

I925 was the year when the hopes of a workers’ state were supplanted by a bureaucratic state, upon which Stalin’s dictatorship grew. It was the year when internationalism – the bedrock of socialism – was replaced with the crude nationalism of ‘socialism in one country’.

The claim that Leninism produced Stalinism is a monstrous fiction. Stalinism was the negation of Leninism.

In the years after 1925 Lenin was reduced to a figurehead whose ideas were twisted to justify the monstrous tyranny of Stalin. Thus Trotsky was exiled, hunted and murdered in the name of Lenin. Former comrades of Lenin like Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev faced show trials where they were forced to admit to ‘Trotskyism’ and fascism.

All the ‘old Bolsheviks’ alive in the 1930s, with the exception of Alexandra Kollontai were murdered. The less people knew of the real Lenin, the better it was for Stalin. The more the current generation learns of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the better our chances of ending the current nightmare.

Rosa Luxemburg summed up the historical importance of Lenin and the Bolsheviks thus:

“Theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to Bolshevism.” (Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, page 395)

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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