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Did Leninism lead to Stalinism?

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The idea that Lenin led to Stalin has been the subject of many a school history essay. Stalin certainly succeeded Lenin as leader of the Russian Communist Party. But is there something within Leninism which led inexorably to the horrors of Stalinism?

Did the politics which led to the victory of the Russian workers in the October Revolution of 1917, have within them the seeds of a brutal dictatorship which still blights workers across Eastern Europe, Russia and beyond?

The answer is no.

Lenin led the Russian workers to victory in 1917 against the will of many a “revolutionary”, even some within his own party. Some argued that Russia, a less developed capitalist country, was not economically strong enough to withstand the turmoil of a workers’ revolution; others that the Russian working class were not numerically and politically strong enough to lead that revolution and to ensure that it became an international revolution.

Both of these factors did become crucial in the years following the revolution. But Lenin recognised in 1917 that the Russian workers were going to fight to the death even if some “learned socialists” did not fancy the odds. What is the role of a revolutionary in such a situation? To stand to one side muttering about bad omens or to fight alongside the workers and try and secure a victory that would inspire workers across the globe? Lenin was clear where the Bolsheviks should be.

And the omens were far from bad. The revolutionary situation which gripped Russia was not an isolated one. The 1914-18 war led to human slaughter on an unprecedented scale and workers across Europe rose up against it. And of course the 1917 Revolution itself became a factor in events.

Inspired by October, British workers defied their bosses and refused to allow arms to be shipped to the White Russians fighting against the workers’ revolution. German and Austrian workers and soldiers embarked on a series of revolutionary struggles only to be betrayed by cowardly reformist leaders. Workers and peasants in the colonies rose against their imperialist oppressors.

As Lenin foresaw, Russia was the opening shot in the world revolution. When the workers seized power in 1917 they expected the European revolution would triumph within years, if not months. The most immediate tasks were to defend the revolution at home and build the revolution internationally.

In the context of the civil war that followed the revolution, the Bolsheviks took steps which some, anarchists for example, see as the first signs of the descent into bureaucratic dictatorship. The Bolsheviks subordinated many aspects of their long term programme for socialist democracy to the needs of winning the civil war and ensuring the workers’ state survived. Among the measures taken other parties were deemed illegal, the Kronstadt rising in 1921 was suppressed and, in the same year, factions within the party were banned.

Some of these measures were absolutely necessary, others, like the banning of factions, were serious errors. But either way Lenin and other revolutionary leaders like Trotsky were united on one vital issue – such measures were absolutely temporary and emergency measures carried through because no other options were open. They were not “norms”, not goals socialists wished to inscribe into their programme.

The gulf separating Lenin from Stalin can be seen in what became known as the “Georgian affair”. At the end of the civil war, as the Bolsheviks set about constructing the Union of Soviet Republics, they met with opposition within some of the republics in the Caucasus. Stalin declared that the decisions of the federal government in Russia were binding on all republics, betraying his tendency towards Great Russian chauvinism and his hostility towards the democratic rights of the oppressed.

It was this position which alerted Lenin to the danger of Stalin. Lenin went to the Politburo and denounced Stalin, arguing for self-determination for all peoples and a free union of Soviet Republics not one imposed bureaucratically from above. As the revolution was no longer in immediate danger, for Lenin political persuasion was what was required not force.

Lenin wrote that Stalin’s methods were “the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant”, adding that “Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious ‘nationalist-socialism’, played a fatal role here.”

Thus began Lenin’s last struggle – against Stalin and the rising bureaucracy, a struggle cut short by his death but eventually taken up by Trotsky and the Left Opposition.

The objective situation, however, was beginning to work to the Stalin faction’s advantage. The economic consequences of the civil war and the imperialist encirclement soon began to bite. By the end of the civil war, in 1922 industrial production was at only 25% of pre-war levels.
The Bolsheviks were forced to retreat at the economic level and the New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced in 1921. Lenin recognised that this was a backward step, allowing the laws of the free market to dominate within certain sectors of the economy in an attempt to encourage the peasantry to produce more and address serious food shortages.

But NEP did not resolve and in fact exacerbated a fundamental problem within the revolutionary Russian economy: the scissors crisis. As industrial production collapsed, industrial costs and prices were rising steeply. The success of the liberalisation of NEP meant that at the same time agricultural prices were plummeting. As industrial prices grew, agricultural prices fell.

Leon Trotsky was one of the first of the Bolsheviks to address the economic problems facing Russia with a conscious strategy of socialist planning. A minority on the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks at the time argued for a massive increase in state subsidised, and planned, industrial development. Trotsky published his “Theses on Industry” in April 1923 and in October of that year formed an official opposition with 46 other party members. The opposition was not simply around the economy but also against the bureaucratisation of the party, which had flourished under NEP.

During this same period the decimation of the working class itself in the civil war and the low level of literacy in Russia meant that the Bolsheviks could not run the state without some of the old Tsarist bureaucracy remaining in place. These state functionaries prospered under NEP and were a political danger to the revolution. It was precisely such time-servers who were to form the political power base of Stalin.
Lenin identified the threat posed by this bureaucracy as early as 1921:

“We do have a bureaucratic ulcer, it has been diagnosed and has to be treated in earnest.”

He called for measures to be taken against the bureaucracy including making them subject to election and recall and having wages no higher than workers. Lenin also hoped that rejuvenated soviets would keep a check on the bureaucracy.

But the Russian working class and its party the Bolshevik Party were, like the economy, scarred by the civil war. The revolutionary workers of Petrograd and Moscow were the first to volunteer for the Red Army and many were lost.

The party grew significantly despite these losses, but many of the newer members were careerists who saw the party as a means to develop their own fortune. This fundamental shift within the class character of the party was consolidated following the death of Lenin in 1924 when the doors to the party were opened up to the Lenin Levy – a quarter of a million new members at one time.
The rise of the bureaucracy mirrored the rise of the Stalin faction. Under their influence the party regime became increasingly hostile to any opposition.

The degeneration of the party can be graphically seen in the differing fates of the two oppositions organised by Trotsky. In 1923 the Platform of the 46 was widely discussed within the party. Stalin did move against them – dismissing the entire leadership of the youth section, the Communist Youth, of the party who were sympathetic to Trotsky – but within a few months the Politburo had agreed the New Course resolution presented by the opposition.

Three years later, the United Opposition was formed in 1926. When they attempted to hold debates meetings were cancelled or physically attacked, the leaders were shot at and arrested. Police methods replaced party discussions and the bureaucracy established its grip on the throat of democracy.

Did Lenin fail to recognise the danger posed by Stalin and Stalinism? No, he wanted to defeat him. Prior to his death Lenin was preparing for a full scale offensive against Stalin at the 12th Congress but he suffered a stroke and Trotsky felt unable to carry on with the attack.

This encouraged Stalin to press ahead, not simply by attacking party democracy but by betraying the core internationalist principles of Bolshevism. Following the defeat of the Bulgarian and German uprisings in 1923 Stalin first published the theory of “Socialism in One Country” in 1924. Russia’s isolation increased the popularity of this theory, the idea that it was possible to create a revolution and maintain it within just one country.

Within the Communist International (CI) the Stalinists moved against those who supported Trotsky in arguing the centrality of internationalising the revolution. International defeats – especially the defeat of the British General Strike of 1926 and the Chinese revolution of 1927 – despite being, to a large extent, caused by Stalin’s political errors, actually served to strengthen the national-centred Stalin faction. Trotsky described how the influence of Stalinism within the CI affected the international situation:

“The leaders of the bureaucracy promoted the proletarian defeats; the defeats promoted the rise of the bureaucracy.”

Stalin’s defeat of Trotsky in the CI was rapidly followed by Trotsky expulsion from the party and eventual deportation from Russia in 1929. Grotesquely twisting certain of the opposition’s proposals for economic development, Stalin instituted the First Five Year Plan in 1928, which included the forcible collectivisation of the peasantry. Bureaucratic, not democratic, planning led to famine, over-production in some sectors, underproduction in others and ultimately to the labour camps.

Stalinism’s grip on the party tightened. Murders and expulsions became commonplace, culminating in the grotesque charade of the show trials and the Great Purges launched in 1936. Every link between Stalin’s Soviet Union and the revolutionary tradition of Bolshevism was severed. Every human link was either killed or sent to the camps. The reaction swept through the whole of society with many of the post-revolutionary gains in social policy – divorce, abortion on demand, legalisation of homosexuality – being taken away.

Lenin did not lead to Stalin. Stalin smashed Leninism in the USSR. This bureaucratic victory was not inevitable. The isolation of the Russian revolution was not god-given. It came courtesy of the west European reformist leaders who either derailed or drowned in blood (Germany) the revolutions which erupted after 1917.

Lenin split with these leaders. Stalin – in the 1930s – made peace with them setting up Popular Fronts with the reformist parties, and even with the open parties of the class enemy. Lenin united the leaders of Bolshevism around a revolutionary programme in an inclusive central committee of the party. Trotsky, commenting in 1939 on the fact that every single member of Lenin’s central committee had been either killed, ousted or exiled drew the conclusion:

“Stalinism had to exterminate first politically and then physically the leading cadres of Bolshevism in order to become what it is now: an apparatus of the privileged, a brake upon historical progress, an agency of world imperialism. Stalinism and Bolshevism are mortal enemies.”