Lenin’s fight to defend working-class
power and revolutionary internationalism
A course to strengthen worker-peasant alliance,
combat national oppression, and proletarianize
and politicize state and party bodies
Printed below is the second part of the new introduction to Pathfinder Press’s 2010 edition of Lenin’s Final Fight. The book contains the speeches and writings of V.I. Lenin, central leader of the world’s first socialist revolution, during his final political struggle, five years after the victory of the October 1917 revolution. The final part of the introduction will run in the Militant next week. Copyright © 2010, Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY JACK BARNES
AND STEVE CLARK
The Soviet republic “is based on the collaboration of two classes: the workers and peasants,” Lenin emphasized in what turned out to be his last article, “Better Fewer but Better,” dictated over several days in early February 1923 in preparation for the upcoming twelfth party congress in April. At the time of the October 1917 revolution, some 80 percent of the population of the new Soviet republic were peasants, and 10 percent were workers. By the early 1920s, in the wake of the devastation of the civil war, the industrial working class had declined both in relative size and political strength.
“In the final analysis,” Lenin said, “the fate of our republic will depend on whether the peasant masses will stand by the working class, loyal to their alliance, or whether they will permit the ‘Nepmen,’ i.e., the new bourgeoisie, to drive a wedge between them and the working class, to split them off from the working class. The more clearly we see this alternative, the more clearly all our workers and peasants understand it, the greater are the chances that we shall avoid a split [in the Communist Party leadership], which would be fatal for the Soviet republic.”
Lenin’s proposals to strengthen the worker-peasant alliance were not limited to the tax in kind and revival of light industry to supply food to the cities and needed farm tools and other basic goods to the countryside. He also encouraged the voluntary organization by peasants of state-supported cooperatives to market their produce, provide low-cost government credit to co-ops, and sell manufactured goods in the villages. Such cooperatives, he said, would make possible “the transition to the new system,” toward socialist relations of production, “by means that are the simplest, easiest, and most acceptable to the peasant.” Cooperatives were a means, he said, “to build socialism in practice in such a way that every small peasant could take part in it.”
Finally, Lenin emphasized the interconnected effort to promote literacy and education among workers and peasants, to advance electrification (necessary, among other things, for those in the countryside even to be able to read and study after sundown), and to expand industrialization and with it the size and social weight of the industrial working class.
While insistently demanding reduction in state expenditures, including for the revolution’s armed forces, Lenin called for increased funding of the People’s Commissariat of Education. “Far too little is still being done by us to satisfy … the requirements of elementary public education,” he said.
As Lenin pointed out at the eleventh party congress, increased attention to education and training was essential for another reason as well: the lack of “culture among the stratum of the Communists who perform administrative functions.” The defeated landlords and capitalists themselves were woefully deficient in culture, he said, but “miserable and low as it is, it is higher than that of our responsible Communist administrators… .”
State monopoly of foreign trade
In October 1922 Lenin wrote to Joseph Stalin, general secretary of the Central Committee since April, insisting that the committee reverse a recent decision to weaken the state monopoly of foreign trade. Relaxing state control of imports and exports had first been raised by central party leaders Nikolai Bukharin, Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and Stalin earlier that year. Although the Political Bureau adopted a motion by Lenin in May rejecting this course, the Central Committee reversed that decision at its October meeting, from which Lenin was absent due to the effects of the strokes he had suffered earlier in the year.
Bukharin and others contended that individual traders, the “Nepmen,” would be much more successful than state agencies in collecting farm produce from peasants for sale abroad, thus raising overall export income and revenues for the Soviet republic. Lenin countered that Bukharin “refuses to see that the profits accruing from the ‘mobilization of the peasants’ stock of goods’ will go wholly and entirely into the pockets of the Nepmen. The question is: Will our People’s Commissariat of Foreign Trade operate for the benefit of the Nepmen or of our proletarian state?”
Lenin also dismissed the argument that legalizing private import and export trade would hit hard at illegal smuggling engaged in by growing numbers of profiteers. To the contrary, Lenin said. It would deal a body blow to the worker peasant alliance, since “instead of combating professional smugglers we shall have to combat all the peasantry of the flax-growing region. In this fight we shall almost assuredly be beaten, and beaten irreparably.”
In mid-December Lenin, unable to attend the upcoming December 18 Central Committee meeting, asked party leader Leon Trotsky to “undertake the defense of our common standpoint on the unconditional need to maintain and consolidate the foreign trade monopoly… . [I]n the event of our defeat on this question we must refer the question to a party congress.” In face of these initiatives by Lenin, a majority of the Central Committee at its December meeting reversed the October decision.
A voluntary union of soviet republics
The Bolshevik-led government sought from the outset to establish a union of proletarian Russia and the oppressed peoples long encased within the old tsarist prison house of nations across Europe and Asia. But that goal could only be achieved by the voluntary action of those peoples, whose unconditional right to national self-determination was recognized by the new government.
The Soviet congress in January 1918 established the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) “leaving it to the workers and peasants of each nation to decide independently at their own authoritative congress of soviets whether they wish to participate in the federal government … and on what terms.”
By late 1922, twenty-one autonomous republics and regions had been established within the RSFSR itself, and the revolutionary government was collaborating with soviet republics in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia, Georgia, and Ukraine to form what in December 1922 would become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Lenin, however, objected to Stalin’s initial draft of a Central Committee resolution, which negated the Bolsheviks’ long-standing proletarian internationalism by calling for “entry” of these other republics into the Russian federation.
“We consider ourselves, the Ukrainian SSR, and others equal,” Lenin wrote in a September 1922 letter to the party’s Political Bureau, and “enter with them on an equal basis into a new union, a new federation, the Union of the Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.”
In a note to the Political Bureau the following day, Stalin acquiesced to an amended form of this proposal and several other of “Comrade Lenin’s unimportant amendments,” as he called them. Stalin’s note dismissively referred to Lenin’s uncompromising opposition to Great Russian chauvinism as the “national liberalism of Comrade Lenin.”
Two months later Lenin was outraged to discover that Central Committee member Grigory Ordzhonikidze, in the presence of another CC member, Aleksey Rykov, had physically struck a Communist from Georgia during a dispute over national rights. In Lenin’s late December letter to the upcoming party congress, he wrote that the Bolsheviks’ support for the right of national self-determination “will be a mere scrap of paper” if the party is “unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist, in substance a scoundrel and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.”
And Lenin concluded: “That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality, through which the oppressor nation, the great nation, would compensate for the inequality which obtains in real life. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question; he is still essentially petty bourgeois in his point of view and is, therefore, sure to descend to the bourgeois point of view.”
In early March 1923, Lenin, who knew he was too ill to attend the upcoming Central Committee meeting later that month, wrote Trotsky with an “earnest request that you should undertake the defense of the Georgian case in the party CC. This case is now under ‘persecution’ by Stalin and [Feliks] Dzerzhinsky, and I cannot rely on their impartiality.” Trotsky did so but, as recorded later in these pages, the motion he placed before the Central Committee was defeated.
Proletarianizing the party and state apparatus
None of these political challenges could be addressed, Lenin insisted, without substantially increasing the weight of politically tested workers and peasants in leading bodies of the party and state.
During the civil war, Lenin pointed out, “We concentrated our best party forces in the Red Army, we mobilized the best of our workers, we looked for new forces at the deepest roots of our dictatorship.” Vast numbers of those selfless cadres had been killed in combat or felled by disease. Now it was time to renew this effort under the current conditions facing the Soviet republic.
Lenin’s first proposal, presented in the opening sentences of his December 1922 letter to the party congress, sometimes years later referred to as “Lenin’s Testament,” was to increase the size of the Central Committee to “a few dozen or even a hundred,” and to do so by electing workers. Not only would this “raise the prestige of the Central Committee” among Soviet working people, Lenin said, but “the stability of our party would gain a thousandfold.” (Lenin made clear that “in this part of my letter the term workers everywhere includes peasants.”)1
What’s more, Lenin said, “the workers admitted to the Central Committee should come preferably not from among those who have had long service in Soviet bodies,” since “those workers have already acquired the very traditions and the very prejudices which it is desirable to combat.” He urged that they “be mainly workers of a lower stratum than those promoted in the last five years to work in Soviet bodies; they must be people closer to being rank-and-file workers and peasants… .”
Lenin linked this measure to strengthen the worker-peasant alliance and proletarian character of the state apparatus with an assessment of the leadership qualities of members of the Central Committee then holding the greatest political responsibilities. Lenin was second to none in the Bolshevik leadership in recognizing the objective social forces and class relations underlying all challenges confronting the party and still-young proletarian dictatorship. For that very reason, however, he also understood the concrete, even decisive importance at each turning point in politics and the class struggle of what individual party leaders did—their accountability for how they conducted themselves.
“I think that from this standpoint the prime factors in the question of stability are such members of the CC as Stalin and Trotsky,” wrote Lenin in the letter to the party congress. “I think relations between them make up the greater part of the danger of a split [in the party], which could be avoided, and this purpose, in my opinion, would be served, among other things, by increasing the number of CC members to 50 or 100.” (The Central Committee at the time had 27 regular members.)
Turning first to Stalin, Lenin noted that, “having become general secretary, [he] has concentrated unlimited authority in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.”
As for Trotsky, Lenin said, “as his struggle against the CC on the question of the People’s Commissariat of Communications has already demonstrated, [he] is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present CC, but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work.” Lenin was referring to the tenth party congress’s rejection in 1921 of Trotsky’s proposal as people’s commissar of communications to “shake up” union officialdoms by imposing on them the military discipline and direct state administration temporarily applied to the railway union during emergency civil war conditions.2
“These two qualities of the two outstanding leaders of the present CC can inadvertently lead to a split,” Lenin wrote, “and if our party does not take steps to avert this, the split may come unexpectedly.”
Lenin, who had suffered new strokes in December 1922, dictated this letter to the party congress a few paragraphs at a time over thirteen days between December 23 and January 4. By the time he completed it, he had come to the conclusion that the congress, in addition to acting on his other proposals, had to remove Stalin as the party’s general secretary. “Stalin is too rude,” Lenin wrote on January 4, “and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a general secretary.” Lenin suggested “appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.”
“This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail,” Lenin concluded. “But I think that from the standpoint of safeguards against a split and from the standpoint of what I wrote above about the relationship between Stalin and Trotsky it is not a detail, or is a detail which can assume decisive importance.”
‘Anointed with soviet oil’
Those were Lenin’s proposals at the end of 1922 to deepen the proletarianization of the Communist Party and party leadership, and strengthen the worker-peasant alliance on which the advance toward socialism depended.
What about the administrative apparatus of the Soviet state? Five years of experience, Lenin wrote in his letter to the party congress, had demonstrated that workers and peasants had taken it “over from tsarism and slightly anointed [it] with Soviet oil.” Now, he said, “we must, in all conscience, admit [that] the apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us. It is a bourgeois and tsarist hodgepodge.”
In two articles, dictated in late January and early February 1923 after partially recovering from his latest strokes, Lenin made proposals, focusing on the reorganization of a Soviet government institution called the Workers and Peasants Inspection (WPI). These articles, entitled “How We Should Reorganize the Workers and Peasants Inspection” and “Better Fewer but Better”—the last Lenin wrote before a final debilitating stroke on March 10, 1923 (he died in January 1924)—were published in January and early March in Pravda, the daily newspaper published by the party’s Central Committee.
The Workers and Peasants Inspection, a government body established in early 1920, had been chaired by Stalin from its origins until his election as general secretary in April 1922. Its record up to that point, Lenin said, had been “a hopeless affair.” It did not “enjoy the slightest authority,” and “everybody knows that no other institutions are worse organized.” But Lenin rejected as “fundamentally wrong” solving this problem simply by abolishing the Workers and Peasants Inspection, the alternative Trotsky had proposed.
Instead, Lenin urged that it be combined with the Control Commission of the Central Committee, which was mandated, among other tasks, with “combating the bureaucratism and careerism that have crept into the party.” He proposed that the party congress elect seventy-five to one hundred new members to the Control Commission. “They should be workers and peasants,” he said, “and should go through the same party screening as ordinary members of the Central Committee, because they are to enjoy the same rights as the members of the Central Committee” and meet together with them.
In addition, Lenin proposed that a selection be made of “a compact group” of these new Control Commission members “whose duty it will be to attend all meetings of the Political Bureau.” It was essential, he emphasized, that they “not allow anybody’s authority without exception, neither that of the general secretary nor of any other member of the Central Committee, to prevent them from putting questions, verifying documents, and, in general, from keeping themselves fully informed of all things and from exercising the strictest control over the proper conduct of affairs.”
In the opening sentence of “Better Fewer but Better,” Lenin cautioned that the Workers and Peasants Inspection should not “strive after quantity” or “hurry.” The state administration, he said, “is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not been overcome… .”
By drawing more combat-tested and politically respected workers into leading bodies of the party and state, and providing them the education and training necessary to guide and monitor the functioning of these bodies, Lenin said, “we must make the Workers and Peasants Inspection a really exemplary institution, an instrument to improve our state apparatus.”
This process of political rejuvenation within the Soviet Union, Lenin emphasized, would be reinforced by the results of the encouragement the October revolution and Soviet republic were giving to the nationally oppressed toilers “of the East, India, China, etc… . The general European ferment has begun to affect them, and it is now clear to the whole world that they have been drawn into a process of development that must lead to a crisis in the whole of world capitalism.”
Finally, in the closing paragraphs of “Better Fewer but Better,” Lenin pulled together the central political threads of the half-year-long political battle he was leading. “We must strive to build up a state in which the workers retain the leadership of the peasants, in which they retain the confidence of the peasants,” Lenin wrote. “… We must reduce our state apparatus to the utmost degree of economy. We must banish from it all traces of extravagance, of which so much has been left over from tsarist Russia, from its bureaucratic capitalist state machine.
“Will not this be a reign of peasant limitations?” Lenin asked, provocatively posing the question he knew would be raised by members of the Central Committee who opposed his course.
No, Lenin replied. Only by exercising “the greatest possible thrift in the economic life of our state” would the Soviet leadership, “speaking figuratively, be able to change horses, to change from the peasant … horse of poverty, from the horse of an economy designed for a ruined peasant country, to the horse which the proletariat is seeking and must seek—the horse of large-scale machine industry, of electrification… .”
“These are the lofty tasks that I dream of for our Workers and Peasants Inspection,” Lenin said. “That is why I am proposing the amalgamation of the most authoritative party body [the Control Commission of the Central Committee] with an ‘ordinary’ people’s commissariat [the Workers and Peasants Inspection].”
‘Politicizing the ministry’
At the twelfth party congress in April 1923, the Stalin-led majority of the Central Committee quashed all mention of several of Lenin’s proposals, while paying lip service to others and gutting them of any revolutionary proletarian content.
Georgian communist P.G. Mdivani, for example, was ruled out of order at the congress when he sought to read from Lenin’s March 1923, letter to him saying Lenin was “indignant over Ordzhonikidze’s rudeness and the connivance of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky” and was preparing “notes and a speech” on the rights of oppressed nations to present at the party gathering. Lenin’s March 6, 1923, letter to Mdivani can be found in chapter 9 of this book.
At the same time, claiming to act on Lenin’s final proposals to the party congress, Stalin presented the report “On the Organization Question,” which was adopted. The report increased the size of the Central Committee from twenty-seven to forty regular members; expanded the Control Commission and merged it with the Workers and Peasants Inspection; and called for electing to these positions “primarily local party workers, and, in particular, those from the working class who have the best ties with the proletarian masses.”
What Lenin had proposed in his last two articles, however, was not an administrative shuffle, but the revival of a truly revolutionary internationalist course—the proletarianization, and simultaneously the politicization, of the entire state and party structures—with the aim “to create a republic that is really worthy of the name of Soviet, socialist, and so on and so forth.”
“Let us hope,” Lenin said, “that our new Workers and Peasants Inspection will abandon what the French call pruderie, which we may call ridiculous affectation, or ridiculous swagger, and which plays entirely into the hands of our Soviet and party bureaucracy. Let it be said in parentheses,” he added, “that we have bureaucrats in our party offices as well as in Soviet offices.”
Some four decades later, addressing similar leadership challenges during the opening years of the Cuban Revolution, Ernesto Che Guevara—speaking to young communists working in Cuba’s Ministry of Industry, which Guevara himself headed—noted the “qualitative change in our party [that] occurred when all the bad leadership methods were abandoned, and exemplary workers, vanguard workers—those workers on the production front who could really speak with authority and who were also the ones going to the front lines—were elected to membership.”
That was the spirit in which Che called on the young communists “to politicize the ministry.” Doing so, he said in the May 1964 talk, was the only way to fight to transform it from being a “cold, a very bureaucratic place, a nest of nit-picking bureaucrats and bores, from the minister on down….”3
(To be continued next week)
1. The record of Joseph Stalin’s efforts to suppress this letter, first by keeping it from the party’s leadership committees and congress and later by denying its authenticity, is explained in footnotes 1 and 3 of chapter 5, “Lenin’s Letter to the Party Congress,” pp. 222, 223.
2. Lenin’s views in this political dispute—which has come to be known one-sidedly as the “trade union debate,” although much broader issues of communist leadership and program were at stake—can be found in the opening 100 pages or so of Lenin’s Collected Works, volume 32.
3. Ernesto Che Guevara, “Youth Must March in the Vanguard” (May 1964), in Che Guevara Talks to Young People (Pathfinder: 2000), pp. 147,150 [2009 printing].