Lenin’s political battle to maintain
proletarian course of Russian Revolution
BY JACK BARNES
AND STEVE CLARK
Between late September 1922 and early March 1923, the final months of his active life, Vladimir Lenin led a political battle within the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At stake was nothing less than whether the party would continue advancing along the political course that had brought the Bolshevik-led workers and peasants of the former tsarist empire to power some five years earlier. That victory had opened the door to the first socialist revolution and ushered in a new historical era with prospects for proletarian-led popular revolution not only in Europe but across Asia and beyond.
There was nothing hypothetical about this battle. Lenin fought to win the party’s leadership to implement concrete proposals on matters affecting the lives of tens of millions: control over revenues from the Soviet republic’s import and export trade; structural changes to facilitate improving the class composition of state and party bodies; a transformation of the organization of agricultural production and exchange; special steps to guarantee equality of rights and self-determination for nations and nationalities formerly oppressed by the tsarist empire; increased political priority and funding of literacy programs and schools as part of broader efforts to open education and culture to the toilers and to party cadres working in government bodies; civil treatment of party members and coworkers as an unqualified precondition for leadership.
The battle was not primarily over economic policy or methods of administration. It was a political fight over the class trajectory of the Soviet republic and Communist Party.
Would the proletariat continue to exercise and strengthen its leadership of state institutions, the party, and economic production and planning? Or would this proletarianization be engulfed and overwhelmed by the growth of petty-bourgeois and newly emerging bourgeois layers, especially in trade and farming, and by their representatives—whether unwitting or not—throughout the state and party apparatus?
How could the worker-peasant alliance on which both the proletarian dictatorship and Communist Party rested—and, in fact, the newly formed Communist International, as well—be reinforced?1 How could that alliance be defended in face of social and economic devastation brought on by civil war and imperialist military intervention? In face of unrelenting pressures resulting from the higher productivity of labor in the imperialist countries as reflected through the world capitalist market? How could working-class leadership of that alliance be fortified, and the peasantry’s confidence in the proletariat and support for its course toward socialism be broadened and built on?
What steps had to be taken by the working-class vanguard of the revolution and their party to continue marching forward along the road of proletarian internationalism? Why were the attitudes and conduct of the majority Russian cadres and leaders of the Soviet republic toward oppressed nations and nationalities within the old tsarist empire the acid test of the Communist Party’s course toward workers and peasants the world over? Could communists look for new worker and peasant revolutions not only in Europe but elsewhere, following the defeat of the 1918-20 revolutionary wave?
Lenin was seriously ill during the months this political fight unfolded, having suffered a stroke in May 1922. By late summer he had regained some of his strength, as can be seen in the cover photo of this book taken during his convalescence in Gorki, in the countryside south of Moscow. In October and November Lenin returned to many state and party duties for several weeks and presented political reports on three occasions, two of which—one to the fourth congress of the Communist International, and the other to a full session of the Moscow soviet—appear in this book. Nonetheless, during the six months that these life-or-death political questions facing toilers in the Soviet republic were being fought out, Lenin was unable to attend most meetings of state or party leadership bodies where the issues were joined, and none at all after late November. Lenin was no longer guiding the day-to-day work of the party and state, as he had done since the revolution’s triumph in October 1917.
Following several new strokes in December 1922, Lenin had to rely on dictation to present his views. Opponents of Lenin’s course in the party’s Political Bureau sought to take advantage of “doctor’s orders” to severely limit his daily dictation and bar him from receiving visitors. Party leaders Lev Kamenev and Nikolai Bukharin, together with the recently elected general secretary of the Central Committee Joseph Stalin, went so far in late December as to issue orders to Lenin’s family members and secretaries that they “must not give him political news” in order “to avoid giving Vladimir Ilyich cause for reflection or anxiety.”
Despite these obstacles, and with determined assistance from hard-working and disciplined secretaries, Lenin—in his own hand for as long as he could, and by dictation when that became necessary—conducted the fateful political struggle recorded in his letters, notes, memos, and articles collected in this book.
By late 1920 working people in the young Soviet republic had emerged victorious from nearly three years of a bloody civil war, launched by the combined forces of Russia’s toppled landlords and capitalists. That civil war had raged alongside the toilers’ resistance to the invading armies of fourteen imperialist powers, from London and Paris to Tokyo and Washington.
The revolutionary wave that had swept across Europe from 1918 through 1920, under the impulse of the workers and peasants victory in Russia, had been dealt defeats in Germany, Hungary, and Italy. No new soviet republics had been established anywhere outside the boundaries of the old tsarist empire.
The most class-conscious proletarian vanguard of the revolution, the backbone of the Red Army, had suffered devastating casualties from the assaults aimed at restoring bourgeois rule and the old property relations in the Soviet republic. The Communist Party’s leading cadres in the industrial working class of Petrograd, Moscow, and other major cities were hit especially hard. Counterrevolutionary armies ravaged the countryside, killing peasants, the big majority of whom had backed the Soviet government in order to block the landlords’ return, with many volunteering for the Red Army. At least one million Red Army soldiers died in combat or from disease, and millions of peasants and workers fell to wartime famine and epidemics.
“We live in a country devastated so severely by war, knocked out of anything like the normal course of life, in a country that has suffered and endured so much, that willy-nilly we are beginning all our [economic] calculations with a very, very small percentage” of prewar levels, Lenin told deputies to the Moscow soviet in November 1922. Factory production in 1920 was a third the prewar rate and steel output in 1921 a mere 5 percent of what it had been in 1913. Coal production and rail transport had declined to 30 percent of prewar levels. Average grain output in 1920 and 1921 was about 50 percent of the prewar average, resulting in millions of deaths from starvation in 1921 alone. The imperialist powers imposed what amounted to a virtual boycott of trade and credit on the workers and peasants republic.2
By 1921 the desperate conditions facing working people had produced “the gravest” crisis in Soviet Russia since the revolution, Lenin told delegates to the fourth congress of the Communist International in November 1922. It “brought to light discontent not only among a considerable section of the peasantry but also among the workers,” Lenin said. “This was the first and, I hope, the last time in the history of Soviet Russia that feeling ran against us among large masses of peasants… .”
In order to feed working people in city and countryside and restore the peasantry’s access to farm implements and light manufactured goods, the Bolshevik leadership implemented a number of postwar economic measures, together called the New Economic Policy (NEP). The Soviet government ended the requisitioning of peasant grain surpluses—an emergency measure adopted during the civil war to feed Red Army soldiers at the front and workers in the cities—and replaced it with what was called a tax in kind. Peasants were taxed a percentage of their harvest, at graduated rates taking the least produce from rural toilers with low incomes.
The government legalized small markets, first for farm products and later for other goods. Privately owned enterprises were permitted in rural and small-scale industry. Foreign capitalists were encouraged to invest in “concessions” in raw materials and industry, operated under government control, although, as Lenin remarked in January 1923, these enterprises had “not developed on any considerable scale.”
Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were well aware that these measures, though necessary to revive production and trade, widened class inequalities between and within the working class and peasantry and generated new petty capitalist layers, especially rich peasants and traders. “Nepmen” was the name derisively given by workers and poor peasants to these price-gouging middlemen.
In face of the growth of these layers across the Soviet republic, Lenin—in his report to the March 1922 eleventh Communist Party congress, which begins the book—posed the political question to delegates: “Who will win?” Would the workers and peasants prove capable of defending and advancing their state power? Would they triumph not only over class enemies of the revolution abroad, but above all over rising capitalist layers in their own midst?
“No direct [military] onslaught is being made on us now,” Lenin said in the report. “Nobody is clutching us by the throat… . Nevertheless, the fight against capitalist society has become a hundred times more fierce and perilous, because we are not always able to tell enemies from friends.”
The leadership of the revolutionary government, Lenin said, “must squarely put the question: Wherein lies our strength and what do we lack?”
“We have quite enough political power,” Lenin replied. In fact, as a result of the triumph of the working class and peasantry in the October 1917 Bolshevik-led insurrection, he said, “the greatest invention in history has been made; a proletarian type of state has been created.” The dictatorship of capital—political rule by a handful of wealthy owners of the land, industry, banks, and major wholesale and retail trade—had been overthrown. Their class dictatorship was replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, based on popular councils (“soviets” in the Russian language) of delegates chosen by millions of workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors in cities, towns, villages, and ports.
“The main economic power is in our hands,” Lenin continued. The new government had encouraged peasants to expropriate the landlords’ estates, nationalized and distributed land to be worked by the tillers themselves, and extended aid and low-cost loans to rural producers. It led workers to take increasing control over the organization of work in factories, mines, and mills, and backed their initiatives to stop factory owners’ sabotage of production. As the civil war deepened over the course of 1918, the Soviet government mobilized the working class to expropriate the remaining capitalists, consolidate the state monopoly of foreign trade, and initiate centralized economic planning.
But as Lenin told delegates to the March 1922 party congress, during the NEP’s first year, the Soviet state “did not operate in the way we wanted… . The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was not going in the direction the driver desired, but … being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both.” That’s why, while still needing the NEP—it “remains the main, current, and all-embracing slogan of today,” he emphasized more than half a year later—Lenin insisted it was time for the party to “call a halt” to further retreat.
If the measures necessary to do so are not taken, Lenin said, “the Communist Party will not lead the proletariat, the proletariat will not lead the masses, and the whole machine will collapse.”
It was resistance within the central party leadership to adopting and implementing the measures necessary to halt the retreat that, half a year later, erupted in the multifront political battle by Lenin to reassert the revolution’s proletarian course.
1. Lenin never had any doubt that the political health and vitality of the Communist International largely depended on that of the Soviet republic and Communist Party. In reports to both the third (1921) and fourth (1922) congresses of the Communist International, he placed the policy course of the Soviet party and government before delegates from around the world, soliciting discussion and a vote on their views. See Lenin’s theses and report for the third congress on the tactics of the Russian Communist Party, in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow: 1965), vol. 32, pp. 453-61, 478-96, as well as Lenin’s report to the fourth congress, which opens chapter 3 of this book.
2. A useful summary of the first five years of the Soviet workers and peasants republic is contained in the two-volume series by Farrell Dobbs, Revolutionary Continuity: The Early Years (1848-1917) (New York: Pathfinder, 1980) and Revolutionary Continuity: Birth of the Communist Movement (1918-1922) (New York: Pathfinder, 1983).
* * *
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
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].
* * *
The political battle waged by Lenin within the Soviet Communist Party leadership in 1922-23 did not end in victory. The civil war devastation, above all the deaths and political exhaustion of broad sections of the most conscious and selfless cadres in the working-class vanguard, compounded by the defeats of revolutionary struggles throughout Europe and Asia, weighed too heavily in the scales.
In January 1923 an opportunity for the working class to take power in Germany was lost due to the vacillations of the Communist Party leadership there and most of the central leadership of the Communist International including Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Karl Radek, and Joseph Stalin. And in 1927-28 the more consolidated Stalin leadership’s insistence that the Communist Party in China subordinate itself politically and organizationally to the bourgeois Kuomintang resulted in the defeat of the second Chinese Revolution and the massacre of workers and communists in Shanghai, Canton, Wuhan, and other cities.
Following World War II, in the wake of the victory of Soviet workers and peasants over German imperialism’s invasion and a new rise of national liberation struggles across Asia and Africa, capitalist property relations were overturned and workers states established across much of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in China and the northern half of Korea and of Vietnam.
Most significant of all—of a different order of political importance—the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the caliber of its proletarian internationalist leadership registered a renewal, for the first time in more than three decades, of the example of a communist government course that had been brought to an end with the defeat of Lenin’s final fight.
All these experiences from the past century have confirmed that the proletariat’s conquest of state power and expropriation of capitalist-owned land and industry have no automatic bias toward the construction of socialism. The proletarian dictatorship opens the transition from capitalism to socialism. The victorious workers state can then either go forward toward socialism—as an integral part of the world revolutionary struggle against imperialist exploitation and oppression—or backward toward laying the basis for capitalist counterrevolution. Advances are made possible by resolute communist political leadership, by deepening politicization of a growing working-class vanguard—prepared for the inevitability of the unexpected and unforeseen—and, above all, by new victories in the world revolution.
In a speech to party cadres and students at the University of Havana in November 2005, then Cuban president Fidel Castro addressed this challenge of communist leadership and political consciousness. He pointed not only to the consequences for working people and youth in Cuba of Washington’s decades-long military threats and economic warfare, but the social inequalities, political pressures, and corruption produced by Cuba’s inescapable immersion in the capitalist world.
“Do you believe that this revolutionary socialist process can fall apart or not?” Castro asked those present at the University of Havana meeting in 2005. When they answered with a resounding “No!” Castro replied: “Have you ever given that some thought? Have you ever deeply reflected about it?”
Earlier Castro had described in some detail the corrosion of proletarian solidarity in Cuba brought about by growing numbers of “parasites who produce nothing and just take”—siphoning gasoline from cars on the street, or from pumps at state-run filling stations, or stealing in myriad ways the wealth created by the labor of working people. He compared the incomes of these individuals to those of Cubans “working in factories, in industries,” in the electrical and water utilities, or even to doctors, engineers, or university professors.
Such theft of social resources and materials, Castro said, is not just “a present-day illness.” Nor is it simply a product, he said, of the Special Period—the term used in Cuba to describe the years of deep economic crisis and hardship in the 1990s following the collapse of Cuba’s trade with and assistance from the Soviet Union and regimes across Eastern and Central Europe. But the Special Period “aggravated” the situation, Castro said, because “we saw the growth of much inequality and certain people were able to accumulate a lot of money.”
“Were you aware of all these inequalities I have been talking about?” Castro asked those gathered at the University of Havana. “Were you aware of certain generalized habits?” Several minutes later, Castro repeated his question: Is the “revolutionary process irreversible, or not? What ideas or degree of consciousness would make the reversal of the revolutionary process impossible?”
Recalling “what has happened more than once” over the past century in countries where bourgeois rule had been toppled, Castro emphasized that “some people thought that socialism could be constructed with capitalist methods. That is one of the great historical errors,” he said, including of “those who called themselves theoreticians, blanketing themselves from head to toe in the books of Marx, Engels, Lenin and many others.
“That is why I commented that one of our greatest mistakes at the beginning of, and often during, the revolution was believing that someone knew how to build socialism.” No, that could only be discovered in practice by the combat-tested and politicized toilers themselves.
Due to the political consciousness of Cuban working people, and their readiness to defend their historic gains arms in hand, Castro said that the danger of destruction of the revolution comes not from an assault or invasion from U.S. imperialism. The Cuban Revolution, he said, has reached “the point where we can affirm today that our country is militarily invulnerable, and not because of arms of mass destruction,” which the Cuban government neither possesses nor aspires to develop or deploy. “We have a people who have learned to handle weapons. We have an entire nation which, in spite of our errors, holds such a high degree of culture, education, and consciousness that it will never allow this country to become their colony again.”
The revolution “can self-destruct,” however, Castro reiterated. “They can never destroy us, but we can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault.”1
Fidel’s conclusion was prominently cited and affirmed once again in January 2009 by Cuban president Raúl Castro in his speech on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution’s triumph, addressing the challenge that remains at the center of leadership and policy decisions taken by the revolutionary government of Cuba.
Revolutionary prospects for 21st century
As capitalism in the twenty-first century enters its deepest economic and social crisis since the decades spanning the first and second imperialist world wars, programmatic and strategic matters in dispute in the communist workers movement in the early 1920s once again weigh heavily in prospects for the working class worldwide to advance along its historic line of march toward the conquest of power.
“One of capitalism’s infrequent long winters has begun,” noted a political report adopted by the Socialist Workers Party in 2002, half a decade prior to the 2007 financial implosion that announced the imperialist order’s latest global crisis. And “with the accompanying acceleration of imperialism’s drive toward war, it’s going to be a long, hot winter.”
Even more important, slowly but surely and explosively, it will be one that breeds a scope and depth of resistance not previously seen by revolutionary-minded militants throughout today’s world… .
We find ourselves in the very opening stages of what will be decades of economic, financial, and social convulsions and class battles. [We] must internalize the fact that this world—the likes of which none of us have known before in our political lives—is not only the world that must be faced today, but the one we will be living and fighting in for many years.
By acting on this reality today, we will not be caught short politically as wars erupt, deeper social crises explode, pogroms are organized and attempted, and union conflicts become life-and-death battles. The proletarian party that exists tomorrow can only grow out of the proletarian party we put together today.2
In this effort, the political lessons of Lenin’s final fight, recounted in his own words in these pages, take on increasing importance for the working class, and for youth attracted to the power of working people to put an end to capitalism’s exploitative and oppressive social relations and transform the course of human history.
Before Pathfinder Press published the first edition of Lenin’s Final Fight, in English in 1995 and Spanish in 1997, these articles, letters, speeches, resolutions, and notes by Lenin had never before been collected and presented in a single book—anywhere, or in any language.
From December 21, 1922, until March 6, 1923, when Lenin dictated what turned out to be his final letter, every single thing he is known to have written is contained in these pages. They are presented chronologically, as Lenin led the defense of Bolshevism’s proletarian internationalist course in the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Other writings and speeches by Lenin after late September 1922, when the fight opened, are also included, as is Lenin’s political report to the eleventh congress of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1922. A few letters, notes, and articles by other Bolshevik leaders who figured prominently in the struggle have been included as well, when they are needed to clarify central political issues.
Joseph Stalin was general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for more than three decades, and head of state in the Soviet Union for much of that time. During those years, many of Lenin’s writings contained in these pages were suppressed. A few years after Stalin’s death in 1953, a section of his political heirs, including then-Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, sought to wash their hands of some of the Stalin regime’s most notorious acts. Only then were most of these writings by Lenin acknowledged and, over time, published in the Soviet Union. Some had not been available anywhere since the mid-1920s.
A number of long-sequestered documents were finally translated and printed in the English-language edition of Lenin’s Collected Works published in Moscow between 1960 and 1970, and in the Spanish-language edition published there between 1981 and 1990. But these documents by Lenin were scattered throughout the Collected Works (in English, vols. 33, 36, 42, and 45; in Spanish, especially vols. 45 and 54), making it difficult for readers to follow the political trajectory of Lenin’s half-year-long fight. Prior to their publication in Spanish in Moscow, some of the documents had been printed in an Argentine edition of Lenin’s Collected Works published from 1960 to 1967, in a book published in Spain in 1970, and in the Cuban magazine Pensamiento Critico in 1970.
Several works by Lenin that appear in these pages for the first time in either English or Spanish are indicated in the source notes to each piece.
One item was published for the first time, in any language, in this book. That is the March 1923 report prepared, at Lenin’s request, by three of his secretaries concerning a Political Bureau-initiated whitewash of Great Russian chauvinist abuses in the republic of Georgia. Kept secret by Moscow until 1991, the final section of that long-suppressed report, “On the Conclusions of the Dzerzhinsky Commission,” appears in appendix 1.
Chapter divisions, titles, and footnotes have been prepared by Pathfinder, as well as a chronology of important events and a glossary of names of individuals, organizations, and publications. While chapter titles focus on a central aspect of the struggle during a particular time period, those chapters often also contain material by Lenin on other questions related to the communist course he was fighting to advance. For each item the source and related information appear as the first footnote. A list of initials and acronyms used in the book is also included.
The previously mentioned English and Spanish editions of Lenin’s Collected Works were used in preparing this book. The existing translations in each language, however, were compared and corrected against the fifth Russian-language edition of Lenin’s writings, published in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Special appreciation for their collective effort in checking and correcting, against the Russian original, the translations published in the Spanish edition of Lenin’s Final Fight is due to a team of volunteers from the University of Matanzas in Cuba: Edith González, Idalmis Izquierdo, Diosmedes Otero, and Landelino Sierra.
1. The speech, printed in Granma International in December 2005, can be found online at http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/2005/ing/f171105i.html.
2. Jack Barnes, “Capitalism’s Long Hot Winter Has Begun” (July 2002), in New International no. 12 (2005), pp. 184-85, 146-47 [2005 printing]. Barnes is the national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States.