Lev (Leon) Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, Moscow (L-R), 1919. Lev (Leon) Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, Moscow (L-R), 1919. Source: TASS - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared from public domain

The myth that Lenin led to Stalin is exposed by Lenin’s Last Testament which argues for more democracy and removing Stalin from power, writes John Westmoreland

‘Revolution’ is a word on the lips of millions. The reason is obvious. Justice for Palestine, ending the imperialist war in the Middle East, and getting climate justice are all revolutionary demands in themselves. But when we put them together, they are demands that threaten the entire capitalist system and the bankers, oil giants, and corporations that dominate our lives.  

That history has set us huge tasks, and their solutions require transformative politics, is widely accepted despite a frenzy of propaganda to the contrary. The capitalist parties are trapped. The ghastly reality of late capitalism is educating millions that are imbued with humanitarian solutions to the crisis. Red lights are flashing, while stifling and deflecting the demands for change occupies the minds of media moguls, spin doctors, and a variety of populist bullshitters.

Revolutionary politics is now at a premium, and there is a rich history of Marxist theory that can be brought to bear to convince the many that they have the collective power to bring about the transformation we need. The ruling class has made a monumental effort to bury the real history of mass revolutionary politics. Marxists as a whole, and those who led real mass movements in particular, have been denigrated and trivialised.

Since 1917 and the first successful workers’ revolution in Russia, a landslide of propaganda, much of it generated by academia, has attempted to bury or distort the liberating impact of that important chapter in our history. The Russian revolution, which gave the working class their democratic state, ended the First World War and lifted millions of the oppressed – women, Jews, national and religious minorities – to political equality, was a world historic victory that shook capitalism to its core.

The idea that the working class might gain more through their organisation and intelligence than waiting for reform from above terrifies the capitalists. So, the story of the revolution is told as a simplistic fairy tale involving fanatical revolutionary leaders, a gullible proletariat, and a misunderstood liberal political class.

Particular venom has been heaped on Lenin. He was a man who never wore a uniform, or held individual political power, and whose entire life’s work was dedicated to ending class rule and oppression, yet he has been portrayed as a ruthless manipulator, responsible for setting in train the dictatorship that came about under Stalin. 

That ‘Lenin led to Stalin’ is not even given the status of a historical controversy in schools and colleges. It is accepted as fact. Academic historians, where Lenin is concerned, ignore their own advice to students – to check historical analysis against the facts offered by primary sources, especially if they were written by the people involved in the controversy itself.

This brings us onto a document known as Lenin’s Testament. The Testament was dictated by Lenin as he lay dying in Gorky. Nobody has ever seriously criticised the Testament as a forgery and as primary sources go it is pretty much bulletproof. It says what Lenin meant very clearly. The problem with it is that it destroys, in a few short sentences, the myth that ‘Lenin led to Stalin’.

Leading to the last

Lenin’s illness and untimely death at fifty-three was brought about because of his selfless work rate. He never stopped worrying about the revolution in which he had played a leading part. The documents referred to below were dictated after he had suffered several strokes and had been forced to retire to a sanatorium.

Three letters to the Central Committee plus Lenin’s Testament, and an addendum that specifically warns against Stalin, show that Stalinism was not grown from Leninism. Reference to the three letters is included because they help to make sense of Lenin’s Testament. This is the ABC of historical investigation. Students are always advised to study primary sources in context. It is surprising how many academics have studiously avoided this when writing about Lenin.  

The content of the three letters shows Lenin’s determination to stop communism from becoming a dictatorship, and how he saw the inclusion of workers in decision-making as the best solution. There were serious dangers to the workers’ state, and these came mainly from the bureaucracy for which Stalin was becoming the spokesperson.

The workers’ revolution had been ravaged by a civil war that was funded and backed by the imperialist countries – Britain, Germany, France, Japan, and the USA – and the ensuing famine coupled with deaths at the front had wiped out large numbers of workers. The danger was that with a tiny proportion of workers set against millions of peasants, the Communist Party would become the government rather than the workers, and the politics of Marxism would give way to administrative necessity.

The civil war had required the state-led, large-scale organisation to keep munitions, food, and civil society going. This situation led to the increasing use of ‘experts’ and managers who could use the civil war to override opposition from workers. These decision-makers and experts were largely recruited from the old tsarist state. They were functionaries who emerged as a self-interested layer that acted without any understanding of, or sympathy with, Marxism. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formed in 1922 to spread Communism and give full equality to states that had had to live under the heel of tsarism for centuries.

Lenin was concerned that the bureaucracy could act to split the Communist Party. The bureaucracy wanted increased executive power and less democratic opposition. Stalin was, more than anything, an administrator who favoured ‘getting things done’ over developing political leadership. Stalin and the bureaucracy bullied and threatened anyone who didn’t fall in with their diktat, especially when opposition to Moscow arose in one or other of the Soviet Republics.

Lenin also worried that the Central Committee was itself a problem. It was too small and too bound up in cliques, where personalities were dominating the discussion. He knew he would soon die and the end of his leading role would be another potential cause of division. His solution was on par with everything he stood for. Lenin’s entire works are an articulation of the politics of the working class as a revolutionary class – against capitalism, against war and imperialism, and for a society that produced to satisfy human needs. And this was with him to the end. The answer to all these issues was to turn to the revolutionary workers.

In Lenin’s Testament, he outlines the problems he foresaw arising out of factional divisions. His predictions proved to be accurate. Lenin used his Testament to try to get the existing Central Committee to put politics first and work together. After his Testament had been dictated, Lenin discovered that Stalin had been aggressive, sexist and obscene towards his wife, Krupskaya, and he added an addendum that specifically warned that Stalin should be removed from any important leading role.

Lenin’s last works

The three letters that Lenin dictated in December 1923 advocated practical political steps to widen the leadership of the Communist Party and limit the executive power of the state.

Lenin’s letter to Congress says clearly what he thinks the most important change must be: ‘set an increase in the number of Central Committee members to a few dozen or even a hundred’. He was irritated by the C.C.’s cliquish habits and saw increasing the numbers of workers on the C.C. as essential because they would ‘do a thorough job of improving our administrative machinery and prevent conflicts between small sections of the C.C. from acquiring excessive importance for the future of the Party’. By tying the leadership more closely to workers, he hoped for a more disciplined and politicised C.C., one not obsessed with administration.

A few days later, Lenin dictated a longer letter in the form of notes about the State Planning Commission (Gosplan). Economic planning was an area where the bureaucracy clashed with the political leadership, and Lenin worried that the ‘experts’ would thwart the socialist purpose of industrialisation. This was going to be crucial as foreign powers sought to encircle the USSR. 

It is worth noting here that the bureaucracy was going to take control of state planning in the Stalinist era, and the result would be a war on the peasants that killed at least five million of them. We can say for certain that Lenin foresaw some such possibility, and he argued strongly in favour of the current Communist leadership of Gosplan. He favoured giving Gosplan legislative power on the condition that it was done with the democratic consent of Congress, and that it was set with many constraints and opportunities to review progress. 

This is how Lenin sought to square the circle of centralised state planning and democratic accountability. We might wonder what he would say about Starmer’s complete surrender of economic policy to the Treasury!

Lenin’s third, and in many ways most important, intervention was titled The Question of Nationalities or ‘Autonomisation’. This refers to the national question involving non-Russian states. In this document, he makes it clear what an odious role Stalin and his henchman Ordzhonikidze had played in Georgia. Lenin was appalled to hear how Ordzhonikidze had used the most hateful bullying, reminiscent of the tsarist state, to bring the Georgians into line with Moscow’s ruling. 

Violence towards other socialist states in the name of ‘national unity’ was crude and reactionary. It was to be another hallmark of the Stalinist dictatorship. Lenin, despite being near to death, hits the nail right on the head:

‘It was said [in Georgia] that a united apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from that same Russian apparatus which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?’

He followed this up by excoriating the bureaucracy and their role:

‘But now, we must, in all conscience, admit … the apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and tsarist hotch-potch and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the course of the past five years without the help of other countries and because we have been “busy” most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine.’

And on Stalin’s role in this Lenin says,

‘I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the [socialist states] played a fatal role here. In politics, spite generally plays the basest of roles.’

It is not difficult to understand why Stalin later considered every Leninist to be dangerous and systematically killed them.

Lenin’s Last Testament

On his deathbed, Lenin dictated what needed to be said to the Central Committee. He also wanted it to be published in Pravda so that the public could have Lenin’s criticisms and recommendations verbatim. 

Lenin’s Last Testament should be read in full to appreciate why, unequivocally, Leninism and Stalinism were polar opposites. Lenin wanted to increase the size of the C.C. to make it more representative, less prone to splits, and to use working-class comrades to make it stick to a socialist agenda. He wanted to cut down the power of the bureaucracy and saw developing working-class leadership as key. And, although Lenin only comes out openly and decisively against Stalin in the addendum, he makes it clear before then that ‘Stalin has concentrated enormous power in his hands’ and doesn’t exercise that power ‘with sufficient caution’.

Some have argued that Lenin, although he was dying, should have come out on the side of Trotsky and cast Stalin to the wolves. But as stated earlier, Lenin didn’t like leadership cults. The Testament makes criticisms and praises strengths in equal measure. He is more critical of himself in many of the documents referred to here than he is of others. He didn’t come out as hard on Stalin as he could have, because he hoped that the personalities would see his purpose and try to form a collective leadership. He makes it abundantly clear that the collective leadership had to be Marxist, and anyone with minimal knowledge of the history must see what that meant for a workers’ state and the spread of revolution to other countries.

The Testament does pick out Trotsky as the outstanding Marxist on the C.C., but because Trotsky had offended others, he was cautious not to overstate his case. What is certain is that everything Lenin says in the Testament helps to explain why Stalin emerged as the dominant force and Trotsky was marginalised.

Trotsky and Lenin were at one on the need to cut down the bureaucracy. They were at one on the need to uphold socialist relations with other socialist states, and they were united against the Great Russian chauvinist bullies that had more in common with tsarism than Bolshevism.

Lastly, Lenin and Trotsky were adamant that the revolution would not survive unless it spread to other countries, and the conservative Russian nationalists who were to denounce this as ‘adventurism’ in the Stalinist era were completely invested in the power of the bureaucracy. Taking up an internationalist, anti-imperialist policy – just as with Palestine today – would expose the limitations of the bureaucrats and their reactionary role.

Legacy

After Lenin’s funeral, the C.C. met to discuss his last words. They decided not to publish it as Lenin had requested. They each had different motives, but that does not excuse a disastrous mistake. The refusal to publish meant there was also a refusal to accept the responsibility of collective leadership. It also gifted the bureaucracy and Stalin a license to use their power shamelessly to sideline Trotsky and turn ‘Marxism’ away from a struggle for world revolution and into a dogma serving Red Russian Nationalism. 

Stalin’s dictatorship turned workers’ democracy into its opposite – a state-capitalist country where the goal was to serve the same Gods of economic growth and militarism that existed in the West. National independence in the USSR was crushed.

Internationally, Stalinism all but destroyed the meaning of Marxism. Genuine Marxists were the first to face Stalin’s terror, along with their families and friends. But Lenin might get the last word after all. There is a crisis gripping the world that is forging common interests and understandings that demand a return to the genuine Marxist tradition for which Lenin gave his life.

Today, there is a social-democratic collapse on one flank and a populist reaction on the other. Never has a Leninist party of the working class and the oppressed been as important as it is today. Revolution doesn’t have to end in a dictatorship – and if Lenin’s last words had been heeded, it might have been avoided in Russia.

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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.