Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

15. Lenin and Trotsky join forces to fight bureaucracy

‘Stop the retreat’

LENIN, in his report to the Tenth Congress of the party, made it clear that the New Economic Policy would strengthen capitalism in the countryside: ‘... the switch from the appropriation of surpluses to the tax will mean more kulaks [rich peasants] under the new system. They will appear where they could not appear before.’ [1] In his summing-up of the debate on his report, Lenin said: ‘Speakers here have asked, and I have received written questions to the same effect: “How will you retain the workers’ state, if capitalism develops in the rural areas?” This peril ... is an extremely serious one.’ [2]

Trotsky too never avoided looking dangers in the face. He was brutally clear about the nature of War Communism and the retreat to NEP. In Theses on the Economic Situation in Soviet Russia from the Standpoint of the Socialist Revolution – a summing up of his report to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern – Trotsky wrote the following:

The methods of War Communism, that is, the methods of an extremely crude centralised registration and distribution, are superseded under the new policy by market methods: by buying and selling, by commercial calculation and competition. But in this market the workers’ state plays the leading part as the most powerful property owner, and buyer and seller. Directly concentrated in the hands of the workers’ state are the overwhelming majority of the productive forces of industry as well as all means of railway traffic. The activity of the state organs is thus controlled by the market and to a considerable extent also directed by it. The profitability of each separate enterprise is ascertained through competition and commercial calculation. The market serves as the connecting link between agriculture and industry, between city and country. [3]

The NEP was a struggle between socialism and capitalism:

insofar as a free market exists, it inevitably gives rise to private capital which enters into competition with state capital – at first in the sphere of trade only, but attempting later to penetrate into industry as well. In place of the recent civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie there has come the competition between proletarian and bourgeois industry. And just as the contest in the civil war involved in the main which side would succeed in attracting the peasantry politically, so today the struggle revolves chiefly around the peasant market. In this struggle the proletariat has mighty advantages on its side: the country’s most highly developed productive forces and the state power. On the side of the bourgeoisie lies the advantage of greater proficiency and to a certain extent connections with foreign capital, particularly that of the White Guard émigrés. [4]

The struggle between state industry and private enterprise would decide the future of Russia:

Whither is the NEP leading us: toward capitalism or toward socialism? This is, of course, the central question. The market, the free trade in grain, competition, leases, concessions – what will be the upshot of all this? If you give the devil a finger, mightn’t it be necessary to give him next an arm and then a shoulder, and, in the end, the whole body, too? We are already witnessing a revival of private capital in the field of trade, especially along the channels between the city and the village. For the second time in our country private merchants’ capital is passing through the stage of primitive capitalist accumulation, while the workers’ state is passing through the period of primitive socialist accumulation. No sooner does private merchants’ capital arise than it seeks ineluctably to worm its way into industry as well. The state is leasing factories and plants to private businessmen. The accumulation of private capital now goes on, in consequence, not merely in trade but also in industry. Isn’t it then likely that Messrs Exploiters – the speculators, the merchants, the lessees and the concessionaires – will wax more powerful under the protection of the workers’ state, gaining control of an ever larger sector of the national economy, draining off the elements of socialism through the medium of the market, and later at the propitious moment, gaining control of state power too? [5]

At the end of 1921 and the beginning of 1922 both Lenin and Trotsky called for a stop to the retreat in the face of capitalist pressure. Thus in an article entitled The Importance of Gold, written on 5 November 1921, Lenin stated: ‘There are visible sign that the retreat is coming to an end; there are sign that we shall be able to stop this retreat in the not too distant future.’ [6] On 27 March 1922 Lenin told the Eleventh Party Congress:

The central committee approved my plan ... strong emphasis should be laid on calling a halt to this retreat and the congress should give binding instructions on behalf of the whole party accordingly. For a year we have been retreating. On behalf of the party we must now call a halt. [7]

In notes for his speech at the congress, Lenin summed up his position thus: ‘Halting the retreat. Preparation for the offensive against private capital – the watchword.’ [8]

What about economic planning? Quite early Trotsky came to the conclusion that planning was imperative. It was not the first time that Trotsky had thought ahead of his party colleagues, including Lenin. As Trotsky had preceded Lenin in suggesting the need to give up grain requisitions and replace them with a tax in kind, allowing the peasants to trade, so now he argued for the planning of industry as a way to overcome the spontaneous capitalist tendencies of the NEP. Already before the NEP was announced, in his speech of March 1920 to the Ninth Party Congress, Trotsky argued the need for an overall economic plan. He elaborated this further in a memorandum to the central committee on 7 August 1921. He complained of the confusion in prevailing economic policy because of lack of planning:

In the field of the economy a policy of major switches, and all the more so where they lack intercoordination, is totally inadmissible. The lack of a real economic centre to watch over economic activity, conduct experiments in that field, record and disseminate results and coordinate in practice all sides of economic activity and thus actually work at a coordinated economic plan – the absence of a real centre of this sort not only inflicts the severest shocks on the economy, such as fuel and food crises, but also excludes the possibility of the planned and coordinated elaboration of new premises of economic policy. Hence the system of push and pull which has severe repercussions downwards among the grass roots of our economy.

What was required was both planning from the centre and initiative in the localities and in the specific industrial plants:

it is essential, on the one hand, to transfer the initiative and the responsibility to the institution on the Spot and, on the other hand, to ensure that the central economic apparatus does function in such a way as to ensure the genuine and uninterrupted regulation of economic life by actively eliminating bureaucratic hindrances and assisting in the establishment of straightforward relationships between interdependent organs and establishments ...

The economic plan must essentially be put together around large-scale nationalised industry, as a pivot ... as a general rule coordination of the economic plan is to be worked out and ensured by Gosplan [the State Planning Commission] in the course of its daily work from the angle of large-scale nationalised industry being the governing economic factor. [9]

The urgent need for economic planning, Trotsky argued, was dictated by the economic situation under the NEP. The NEP established a mixed economy: large-scale industry and transport remained state-owned while small and medium-sized industry and trade were in the hands of private owners. The requisitioning of food was replaced by ordinary agricultural taxes. The first purpose of the NEP was to renew the exchange of manufactured products for food and raw materials. In this scheme the socialist and private sectors of the economy were to compete with each other on a commercial basis. It was hoped that in that competition the socialist sector would gradually expand vis-à-vis the private sector.

In fact things did not go as smoothly as this. Already in 1922 the peasantry harvested about three-quarters of the normal pre-war crop, while industry produced only a quarter of its pre-war output. But even the slow recovery of industry encompassed only light industry, especially textiles. Heavy industry remained paralysed. The country was without steel, coal and machinery. This threatened to bring light industry itself to a standstill, as it needed new machinery for repair and replacement of the old, as well as fuel. Prices of industrial goods soared. Stagnation in industry threatened to break again the link between town and country. The peasant was reluctant to sell food when he was unable to buy industrial goods.

Trotsky pointed out these developments and came to the conclusion that the situation demanded the speeding up of state industry. The state had to overcome the stagnation in heavy industry. Planning was necessary to invade the NEP. Trotsky did not pose the question of the market and planning as two hermetically separate alternatives. He argued for a combination of both.

For Trotsky the transition period between capitalism and socialism meant both a period in which socialist elements intertwined with capitalist elements and one in which a struggle to the death between them takes place.

The industry of the workers’ state is a socialist industry in its tendencies of development, but in order to develop, it utilises methods which were invented by capitalist economy and which we have far from outlived as yet ...

We observe, more than once in history, the development of economic phenomena, new in principle, within the old integuments, and moreover this occurs by means of the most diverse combinations. [10]

The introduction of a plan did not mean getting rid of the market at a stroke. Nor did it mean the end of the NEP. As Trotsky wrote in his theses for the Fourth Congress of the Comintern:

The workers’ state, while shifting its economy to the foundations of the market, does not, however, renounce the beginnings of planned economy, not even for the period immediately ahead ...

Under the conditions of the present period the state economic plan does not set itself the utopian task of substituting omniscient prescience for the elemental interplay of supply and demand. On the contrary, taking its starting point from the market, as the basic form of distribution of goods and of regulation of production, our present economic plan aims at securing the greatest possible preponderance of state enterprises in the market by means of combining all the factors of credit, tax, industry and trade; and this plan aims at introducing in the reciprocal relations between the state enterprises the maximum of foresight and uniformity so that by basing itself on the market, the state may aid in eliminating the market as quickly as possible, above all in the sphere of the reciprocal relations between the state-owned enterprises themselves. [11]

The plan, he said, should not be produced in a vacuum, as if the laws of the market did not affect it. The industrial plan should be disciplined by the market:

Before each enterprise can function planfully as a component cell of the socialist organism, we shall have to engage in large-scale transitional activities of operating the economy through the market over a period of many years. And in the course of this transitional epoch each enterprise and each set of enterprises must to a greater or lesser degree orientate itself independently in the market and test itself through the market ...

... the state-owned enterprises are competing with one another on the market, and in part they have to compete with private enterprises ... Only in this way will nationalised industry learn to function properly. There is no other way of our reaching this goal. Neither a priori economic plans hatched within hermetically sealed four office walls, nor abstract Communist sermons will secure it for us. It is necessary for each state-owned factory to be subjected not only to control from the top – by the state organs – but also from below, by the market, which will remain the regulator of the state economy for a long time to come. [12]

How radically different is Trotsky’s concept of planning from Stalin’s future command economy, which went under the misnomer of the Plan!

Planned state industry, said Trotsky, should pay special attention to aid peasant agriculture:

The inclusion of the peasantry in planned state economy, that is, socialist economy, is a task ... complicated and tedious. Organisationally the way is being paved for this by the state­-controlled and state-directed cooperatives which satisfy the most pressing needs of the peasant and his individual enterprise. Economically this process will be speeded up all the more the greater is the volume of products which the state industry will be able to supply to the village through the medium of cooperative societies. But the socialist principle can gain complete victory in agriculture only through the electrification of agriculture, which will put a salutary end to the barbaric disjunction of peasant production. [13]

Again, how radically different this is from Stalin’s future forced collectivisation!

Trotsky does not overlook the final aim of the long struggle between planning and the market: the total victory of the former and the withering of the latter:

The organisation of economy consists in a correct and expedient allocation of forces and means among the various branches and enterprises; and in a rational [way], that is, the most efficient utilisation of these forces and means within each enterprise. Capitalism attains this goal through supply and demand, through competition, through booms and crises.

Socialism will attain the same goal through the conscious upbuilding first of the national and later of the world economy, as a uniform whole. This upbuilding will proceed on a general plan, which takes as its starting point the existing means of production and the existing needs, and which will be at one and the same time completely comprehensive and extraordinarily flexible. Such a plan cannot be made a priori. It has to be worked out by departing from the economic heritage bequeathed to the proletariat by the past; it has to be worked out by means of systematic alterations and recastings, with increasing boldness and resoluteness in proportion to the increase of economic ‘know-how’ and technical powers of the proletariat.

It is perfectly clear that a lengthy epoch must necessarily elapse between the capitalist regime and complete socialism; and that during this epoch the proletariat must, by making use of the methods and organisational forms of capitalist circulation (money, exchanges, banks, commercial calculation), gain an ever-increasing control of the market, centralising and unifying it and thereby, in the final analysis, abolishing the market in order to replace it by a centralised plan which stems from the whole previous economic development and which supplies the premise for the administration of economic life in the future. The Soviet Republic is now following this path. But it still is far nearer to its point of departure than to its ultimate goal. [14]

What a magnificent grasp of the dialectics of the transition period from capitalism and socialism, when elements of the past and the future intertwine, when the former are subordinated to the latter without immediately being obliterated by them. Again and again it is clear that Trotsky’s concept of planned economy had nothing in common with the ‘planned’ – bureaucratic command – economy imposed by Stalin from 1928 onwards.

Trotsky’s memorandum to the central committee in August 1921 called for the strengthening of Gosplan and the establishment of an economic plan on the basis of large-scale industry. It did not get Lenin’s support. Lenin was less than enthusiastic about the idea. He was worried that the plan would remain on paper, that it would be make-believe encouraged by ‘Communist conceit’. He wrote to G.M. Krzhizhanovsky, the head of Gosplan, on 19 February 1921: ‘We are beggars. Hungry, ruined beggars. A complete, integrated real plan for us at present – “a bureaucratic utopia”.’ [15] So he did not support Trotsky’s stand, either before his first stroke in May 1922 or after he returned to work in the autumn. Trotsky was therefore isolated in the politburo on this issue.

On 23 August 1922 Trotsky reproached Lenin with the fact that because of the lack of economic planning the government was not tackling economic matters with the necessary urgency:

The most vital and urgent administrative-organisational economic measures are adopted by us with, what I estimate to be on an average, a delay of a year and a half to two years ... With the change-over to the new economic policy state funds are a vital lever in the economic plan. Their allocation is predetermined by the economic plan. Outside of fixing the volume of monetary issues and allocating financial resources between departments there is not and cannot be any economic plan at the moment. Yet, as far as I can judge, Gosplan has no concern with these fundamental questions ... How can one require efficiency and proper accountability from individual departments and organs if they do not have the slightest certainty as to what tomorrow will look like? How can one ensure even minimum stability of operation without at the least some rough and approximate, albeit short-term plan? How can one institute even a rough, short-term plan without a planning organ, one which does not have its head in the academic clouds but is directly engaged on controlling, knitting together, regulating and directing our industry? [16]

He stressed the need for planning as a means for rapid industrialisation, creating a firm base for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Trotsky, amid the clouds gathering in the NEP sky, finally persuaded Lenin to change his mind. Both Lenin and Trotsky noticed that the successes of the NEP, achieved by resort to capitalist methods, brought about two evils characteristic of capitalism: large-scale unemployment and violent price fluctuations. The latter opened a new rift between industry and agriculture. In the winter of 1922-3 the terms of trade between agricultural and industrial goods, hitherto favourable to agriculture, began to move slowly but steadily the other way. This imbalance between industry and agriculture was bound to undermine the worker and peasant alliance (smychka) – the main purpose of the NEP. Above all no signs of stimulation for heavy industry, the key to industrial progress, were to be noticed.

On 27 December Lenin dictated from his sickbed a memorandum to the politburo in which he declared himself converted to Trotsky’s view on planning. He wrote:

Granting legislative functions to the State Planning Commission. This idea was suggested by Comrade Trotsky, it seems quite a long time ago. I was against it at the time, because I thought that there would then be a fundamental lack of co-ordination in the system of our legislative institutions. But after closer consideration of the matter I find that in substance there is a sound idea in it ... I think that we must now take a step towards extending the competence of the State Planning Commission. [17]

This is another example of Trotsky’s having better forethought than Lenin. The Stalinist story of the omniscient Lenin was very much a religious myth.

Lenin, in the last few months of his active political life, became a strong advocate of economic planning as an urgent need. It became more and more clear to him that the weakness of the proletariat was due to the weakness of industry. The balance of power between the proletariat and the peasantry, and the strength of the ‘NEPmen’, the growing capitalist sector, depended above all on the relative strength of industry and agriculture.

At the Fourth Congress of the Comintern on 13 November 1922, in the penultimate speech of his life, Lenin argued that ‘all commanding heights’ of the economy were in the hands of the state. But how ‘commanding’ was industry? While, as we have noted, agricultural output in 1922 was at about 75 per cent of its pre-war level, industry had achieved only a little more than 25 per cent of pre-war production; small industry – rural and artisan – was at 54 per cent of its pre-war level, while large-scale industry was at only 20 per cent. The 1922 output of the metal industry, the largest of Russia’s pre-war industries and the basis of all large-scale industry, was only 7 per cent of its 1912 level. [18]

Lenin therefore sounded a note of alarm in his speech to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern:

The salvation of Russia lies not only in a good harvest on the peasant farms – that is not enough; and not only in the good condition of light industry, which provides the peasantry with consumer goods – this, too, is not enough; we also need heavy industry. And to put it in good condition will require Heavy industry needs state subsidies. If we are not able to provide them, we shall be doomed as a civilised state, let alone as a socialist state. [19]

Towards the end of his last published article, Lenin wrote of the need ‘to change from the peasant, muzhik horse of poverty, from the horse of an economy designed for ruined peasant country, to the horse which the proletariat is seeking and must seek – the horse of large-scale machine industry, of electrification, of the Volkhov power station ...’ He called this ‘the general plan of our work, of our policy, of our tactics, of our strategy.’ [20] Building heavy industry was directly related to economic planning.

Trotsky’s stand on the question of planning and industry was the theme of his economic policy in later years, the theme of the Left Opposition from 1923 onwards.

Defending the monopoly of foreign trade

Another issue intimately connected with that of economic planning was the monopoly of foreign trade. This became a live issue at the end of 1921 and beginning of 1922.

The monopoly of foreign trade had been established on 22 April 1918. During the civil war the question of its abolition never arose (not that there was any foreign trade to speak of). With the development of the NEP, however, the monopoly of foreign trade came under pressure due to the growing influence of private trade. Towards the end of 1921 Miliutin, the Soviet delegate to the Baltic Economic Conference in Riga, promised this monopoly would be abolished. A number of other Bolshevik leaders supported Miliutin in this. Sokolnikov, Bukharin and Piatakov opposed the retention of the foreign trade monopoly; Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin wanted it relaxed. On 3 March 1922 Lenin wrote to Kamenev:

The foreigners are already buying our officials with bribes, and carting out what is left of Russia. They may well succeed. [We must] publish right away ... a firm, cold, fierce statement that we do not intend to retreat in the economy any further, and that those who attempt to cheat us (or circumvent the monopoly etc.) will face terrorism. [21]

On 15 May Lenin wrote a draft decision for the politburo on the subject, stating: ‘The central committee reaffirms the monopoly of foreign trade.’ [22] He also wrote in a letter to Stalin that ‘a formal ban should be put on all talk and negotiations and commissions ... concerning the relaxation of the foreign trade monopoly.’ Stalin wrote on Lenin’s letter: ‘I have no objection to a “formal ban” on measures to mitigate the foreign trade monopoly at the present stage. All the same, I think that mitigation is becoming indispensable.’ [23]

The discussion continued. On 22 May Lenin’s theses were adopted by the politburo. But later, during his absence after the stroke that paralysed him on 25 May, the opponents of the monopoly won the day. On 6 October a plenum of the central committee ratified Sokolnikov’s proposal that the monopoly should be considerably relaxed. Lenin reacted sharply, and on 16 October the central committee agreed to put the question on the agenda again at the next plenum, to be held on 25 December.

On 11 October Lenin asked Trotsky to confer with him on this problem in particular. Two days earlier he had sent an urgent letter to all politburo members demanding the reversal of the decision. Once again Stalin appended a note to Lenin’s letter: ‘Comrade Lenin’s letter has not made me change my mind as to the correctness of the decision of the plenum of the central committee of 6 October concerning foreign trade.’ [24] The lion was mortally wounded, and the jackal raised his head.

On 12 December Lenin suggested to Trotsky that they should join forces in defence of the foreign trade monopoly: ‘Comrade Trotsky: I am sending you Krestinsky’s letter. Write me as soon as possible whether you agree: at the plenum, I am going to fight for the monopoly. What about you? Yours, Lenin.’ [25]

Three days later, in a letter to Stalin, Lenin wrote: ‘I have ... come to an agreement with Trotsky on the defence of my views on the monopoly of foreign trade.’ He added: ‘... any further vacillation over this extremely important question is absolutely impermissible and will wreck all our work.’ [26]

The Lenin-Trotsky partnership on the question of the monopoly led the central committee to reverse its decision of 6 October. On 21 December, therefore, Lenin could write to Trotsky: ‘It looks as though it has been possible to take the position without a single shot, by a simple manoeuvre. I suggest that we should not stop and should continue the offensive.’ [27]

Lenin’s bloc with Trotsky against Great Russian chauvinism

Lenin came politically closer to Trotsky, especially when the issue of fighting Great Russian chauvinism raised its ugly head. When Lenin, on his deathbed, was fighting for his life’s work it was to Trotsky that he turned as an ally.

For a number of years there had been covert symptoms of Great Russian chauvinism in state and party. With the increasing centralisation of administration, and the appointment of more and more state and party officials by Moscow, the workers of other nationalities within the Soviet Union were bound to appear as second-class. Thus administrative convenience played into the hands of Moscow centralism and Great Russian chauvinism. The NEP, which gave economic and social power back to the Russian merchants and officials who had been identified with national oppression under the Tsarist regime, further strengthened the development of Great Russian chauvinism.

Lenin was alarmed. As early as the Ninth Party Congress in March 1920 he said: ‘Scratch some communists, and you will find Great Russian chauvinists.’ [28] At the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, Sakharov, a delegate from Turkestan, analysed the composition of the local party and demanded a more active struggle against both Great Russian chauvinism and Moslem nationalism. [29] The Tenth Congress was first to recognise Great Russian chauvinism in the Communist apparatus by including in its resolutions a strongly worded condemnation of it. [30]

On 2 November 1920 Trotsky, in a message to Lenin and the politburo, bluntly stated that the Soviet administration in the Ukraine had from the outset been based on people sent from Moscow and not on local elections:

The Soviet regime in the Ukraine has maintained itself in being up to now (but feebly at that) largely by virtue of the authority of Moscow, the Great-Russian Communists and the Russian Red Army ... Economically the Ukraine still is the embodiment of anarchy, sheltering under the bureaucratic centralism of Moscow. [31]

He demanded a radical break with this method of government.

At the Eleventh Party Congress (March-April 1922) the veteran Ukrainian Bolshevik, N. Skrypnik, argued that the Communist Party apparatus had been infiltrated by adherents of Smena Vekh [1*] ready to violate the party’s solemn pledge to defend Ukrainian independence. ‘The one and indivisible Russia is not our slogan’, he exclaimed – at which point a voice from the audience shouted back ominously: ‘The one and indivisible Communist Party!’ [32]

The right of nations to self-determination was inevitably threatened in a situation where there was only one party – particularly as it was highly centralised and dominated by officials from the dominant nation. Since the central committee in Moscow – or increasingly the secretariat – imposed its will on the central committees of the national republics, little in real terms remained of national independence.

In August 1922 two associated topics brought the question of Great Russian chauvinism to a head in the Moscow party leadership. One was the establishment of the USSR, the other the national question in Georgia.

On 10 August 1922 the politburo directed the orgburo to set up a commission to investigate relations between the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR) and the formally independent Soviet Republics of the Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaidzhan. Stalin drafted the commission’s resolution: On the Relations Between the RSFSR and the Independent Republics. He treated the government of the RSFSR as the de facto government of all six republics, not even formally recognising the legal fiction of independence. The government organs of the RSFSR, VTsIK, Sovnarkom and the Council of Labour and Defence (STO) were to take over the functions of the leading bodies of the six republics. Key commissariats (foreign affairs and foreign trade, military affairs, transport and communications) were to be taken over by the Russian government, while others (finance, labour and national economy) had to operate under the control of the corresponding agencies of RSFSR; only an insignificant few were to be entrusted entirely to the autonomous republics. Nearly all the national commissariats were to become mere extensions of the Moscow administration.

Point Six of the resolution proposed that the documents should be kept secret until the various VTsIKs agreed: there was to be no consultation of congresses of soviets, let alone of the masses of workers and peasants. [33]

On 15 September 1922 the central committee of the Georgian Communist Party rejected this resolution. The party secretariat – which in this case meant Stalin – then acted improperly, by sending the commission’s resolution to all members and candidate members of the party central committee without the question having been considered by the politburo. To add insult to injury on 28 August, even before his plans had been discussed by the politburo, Stalin appears to have sent a telegram to Mdivani, a leader of the Georgian opposition to Stalin, informing him that the decisions of the highest governing bodies of the RSFSR (VTsIK, Sovnarkom and STO) were henceforth binding on all the republics. [34]

When Lenin received the commission’s resolution he was furious. It violated any concept of national equality, and openly formalised the hegemony of the RSFSR over the other republics. On 26 September he wrote to Kamenev: ‘... we consider ourselves, the Ukrainian SSR and others, equal, 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.’ He demanded the creation of an All-Union Central Executive Committee, Sovnarkom and STO, to supersede those of the RSFSR. [35]

Stalin was truculent and opposed the sick old man. He and Kamenev, probably at a meeting of the politburo, exchanged two brief notes on the subject of Lenin’s memorandum. Kamenev’s note reads: ‘Ilyich is going to war to defend independence.’ Stalin replied: ‘In my opinion we have to be firm against Lenin.’ [36]

On 27 September Stalin replied to Lenin. Among other hurtful remarks he accused Lenin of ‘national liberalism’. [37]

On 6 October Lenin wrote a memorandum to the politburo, On Combating Dominant National Chauvinism:

I declare war to the death on dominant national chauvinism ... It must be absolutely insisted that the Union Central Executive Committee should be presided over in turn by a Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, etc. Absolutely! [38]

Recognising that he would be in a minority on the central committee, Stalin accepted Lenin’s amendment to the commission’s resolution. But this was only a cosmetic victory for Lenin, as shown by the issue of Georgia, around which the national question next arose.

Stalin and Ordzhonikidze, political and military leader of the Caucasian front during the civil war, wanted to combine the republics of Georgia, Azerbaidzhan and Armenia into a Caucasian Federation, violating the autonomy of the national republics. The local Georgian leaders, headed by Budu Mdivani, one of the earliest Bolsheviks in the Caucasus, and Filipp Ieseevich Makharadze, a member of the central committee of the Russian Communist Party and a Marxist since 1891, opposed the suggested federation. The conflict turned into a political and personal clash between two groups of Georgians: on the one hand Ordzhonikidze and his mentor Stalin, on the other the Georgian Communist Party central committee.

On 22 October the Georgian central committee resorted to the unprecedented step of tendering its resignation to the central committee of the Russian party. The resignation was accepted and Ordzhonikize appointed a new central committee, made up of incompetent but docile young men who accepted the federation without protest. The secretariat in Moscow eagerly accepted the resignation of the old Georgian central committee and the new appointments.

But the members of the old central committee did not give up the struggle. A small but significant incident took place that opened Lenin’s eyes to the real meaning of the conflict around the Georgian question. In the course of the continual debates and confrontations, Ordzhonikidze, losing his temper, went so far as to use physical violence against another party member, a supporter of Mdivani. It happened at a private session held at Ordzhonikidze’s house, while Rykov, Lenin’s deputy and a member of the politburo, was present. When a new request to reopen the enquiry into the Georgian question reached Moscow, signed by Makharadze and others, it could not be ignored. At this point Lenin was beginning to be anxious about the situation. He was suddenly alarmed by a letter from Okudzhava, a prominent member of the old Georgian central committee, accusing Ordzhonikize of personally insulting and threatening the Georgian comrades.

Lenin’s incapacity gave Ordzhonikidze and Stalin the opportunity to take the offensive against their Georgian opponents. On 21 December the central committee of the Russian Communist Party ordered the opposition leaders, Mdivani, Makharadze, Tsintsadze and Kavtaradze, to leave Georgia. [39]

When Lenin recovered from his stroke towards the end of December, he decided to return to the Georgian question. On 30 December he dictated the following:

I suppose I have been very remiss with respect to the workers of Russia for not having intervened energetically and decisively enough in the notorious question of autonomisation, which, it appears, is officially called the question of the union of Soviet Socialist Republics ...

It is said that a united apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from that same Russian apparatus which ... we took over from Tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?

... It is quite natural that in such circumstances the ‘freedom to secede from the union’ by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and Sovietised will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk ... were we careful enough to take measures to provide the non-Russians with a real safeguard against the truly Russian bully? I do not think we took such measures although we could and should have done so.

Lenin went on to refer to Stalin:

I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious ‘nationalist-socialism’ played a fatal role here. In politics spite generally plays the basest of roles. [40]

In another note dictated on 31 December Lenin went on to deal with the misdeeds of Ordzhonikidze: ‘exemplary punishment must be inflicted on Comrade Ordzhonikidze.’ He continued:

The political responsibility for all this truly Great Russian nationalist campaign must, of course, be laid on Stalin and Dzerzhinsky [the head of the Cheka].

Unless Great Russian chauvinism was fought to the death, the party’s support for anti-imperialist national liberation movements would be completely hypocritical:

we ourselves lapse ... into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism! [41]

The Georgian question was uppermost in Lenin’s mind throughout his last few weeks of political activity. His secretary, Fotieva, in the Journal entry of 14 February 1923, wrote: ‘Called me in again. Impediment in speech, obviously tired. Spoke again on the three points of his instruction. In special detail on the subject that agitated him most of all, namely the Georgian question. Asked to hurry things up.’ [42] On 5 March Lenin dictated the following letter to be telephoned to Trotsky:

Top secret

Dear Comrade Trotsky: It is my earnest request that you should undertake the defence of the Georgian case in the party CC. This case is now under ‘persecution’ by Stalin and Dzerzhinsky, and I cannot rely on their impartiality. Quite to the contrary. I would feel at ease if you agreed to undertake its defence. If you should refuse to do so for any reason, return the whole case to me. I shall consider it a sign that you do not accept.

With best comradely greetings,
Lenin. [43] [2*]

With this letter Lenin forwarded to Trotsky his memorandum on the national question.

Lenin was worried that Trotsky would not be decisive enough. Trotsky recounts in 1927:

When Fotieva ... brought me the so-called ‘national’ letter of Lenin, I suggested that since Kamenev was leaving that day for Georgia to the party congress, it might be advisable to show him the letter so that he might undertake the necessary measures. Fotieva replied: ‘I don’t know. Vladimir Ilyich didn’t instruct me to transmit the letter to Comrade Kamenev, but I can ask him.’ A few minutes later she returned with the following message: ‘It is entirely out of the question. Vladimir Ilyich says that Kamenev would show the letter to Stalin and Stalin would make a rotten compromise in order then to deceive.’ [44]

On 6 March Lenin sent a brief but very significant message to the leaders of the Georgian opposition:

To P.G. Mdivani, F.Y. Makharadze and others
Top Secret

Copy to Comrades Trotsky and Kamenev

Dear Comrades:

I am following your case with all my heart. I am indignant over Ordzhonikidze’s rudeness and the connivance of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky. I am preparing for you notes and a speech. Respectfully yours,

Lenin [45]

This was the last document Lenin dictated. On 7 March he suffered his third serious stroke. By 10 March half his body was paralysed. He never recovered the power of speech. His political life was over. Stalin and Ordzhonikidze were saved by this stroke.


While dealing with the Georgian question Lenin became increasingly aware that it was only a symptom of a much deeper and more general sickness – the rule of the bureaucracy.

If the Georgian affair brought him into conflict with Stalin, his examination of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate (Rabkrin) deepened that conflict. Stalin headed Rabkrin from 1919 until the spring of 1922, when he was appointed party general secretary. But he continued to exercise a strong influence on it for some time. The inspectorate’s functions were wide: it was entitled to inspect the work of the commissariats and the civil servants, to oversee the efficiency and morale of the whole administration.

Lenin intended Rabkrin as a super-commissariat fighting bureaucracy and imposing democratic control. It acted through teams of workers and peasants who were free at any time to enter any government office. Unfortunately working in offices turned the workers themselves into bureaucrats. As Deutscher put it, Stalin transformed Rabkrin ‘into his private police within the government’. [46] As its chief he came to control the whole state machinery, its working and personnel, far more closely than any other commissar.

Trotsky attacked Rabkrin as inefficient as early as 1920. He was not supported by Lenin, who continued to defend Rabkrin as late as 5 May 1922. [47] However Lenin’s conflict with Stalin on the Georgian issue opened his eyes. In his last article, ‘Better fewer, but better’, he declared war on Rabkrin:

Let us say frankly that the People’s Commissariat of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection does not at present enjoy the slightest authority. Everybody knows that no other institutions are worse organised than those of our Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, and that under present conditions nothing can be expected from this People’s Commissariat. [48]

As Lenin’s health did not permit him to carry out a struggle for reform himself he turned to Trotsky for help. Trotsky remembers his last conversation with Lenin not long before his third stroke:

Lenin summoned me to his room in the Kremlin, spoke of the terrible growth of bureaucratism in our Soviet apparatus and of the necessity of finding a lever with which to get at that problem. He proposed to create a special commission of the central committee and asked me to take an active part in the work. I answered him: Vladimir Ilyich, it is my conviction that in the present struggle with bureaucratism in the Soviet apparatus, we must not forget that there is taking place, both in the provinces and in the centre, a special selection of functionaries and specialists, party and non-party, around certain ruling party personalities and groups – in the provinces, in the districts, in the party locals and in the centre – that is, the central committee. Attacking a functionary you run into the party leader. The specialist is a member of his retinue. Under present circumstances I could not undertake this work.’ Vladimir Ilyich reflected a moment and – here I quote him verbatim – said: ‘That is, I propose a struggle with Soviet bureaucratism and you are proposing to include the bureaucratism of the Organisational Bureau of the party?’

I laughed at the unexpectedness of this, because no such finished formulation of the idea was in my mind.

I answered: ‘I suppose that’s it.’

Then Vladimir Ilyich said: ‘Very well, then, I propose a bloc.’ I said: ‘It is a pleasure to form a bloc with a good man.’ [49]

A dying man, making desperate efforts to save the revolution, Lenin turned to Trotsky as an ally. Again, as in 1917 and during the civil war, an intimate alliance was being forged between them.

Lenin’s criticism of Rabkrin did not meet with unanimous support among the party leadership. Trotsky recalled:

How did the Political Bureau react to Lenin’s project for the reorganisation of Rabkrin? Comrade Bukharin hesitated to print Lenin’s article [Better fewer, but better], while Lenin, on his side, insisted upon its immediate appearance. N.K. Krupskaya told me by telephone and asked me to take steps to get it printed as soon as possible. At the meeting of the Political Bureau, called immediately upon my demand, all those present – comrades Stalin, Molotov, Kuibyshev, Rykov, Kahin, Bukharin – were not only against comrade Lenin’s plan but against the very printing of the article. The members of the secretariat were particularly harsh and categorical in their opposition. In view of the insistent demand of comrade Lenin that the article should be shown to him in print, comrade Kuibyshev, afterwards the head of Rabkrin, proposed at the above-mentioned session of the Political Bureau that one special number of Pravda should be printed with Lenin’s article and shown to him in order to placate him, while the article itself should be concealed from the party ... I was supported only by comrade Kamenev, who appeared at the meeting of the Political Bureau almost an hour late.

The chief argument that induced them to print the article was that an article by Lenin could not be concealed from the party in any case. [50]

On 4 March 1923 Pravda published Lenin’s article. Unfortunately its impact within the party was insignificant.

Lenin’s Testament

In the last few days of his political life Lenin was haunted by the question of his successor. Who would take his place at the head of the party and the state? He wrote about the subject. He undertook an analysis of the personnel of the top leadership of the party, which seemed to him to be of serious importance because of the perilous situation of the Soviet regime.

This question constituted a crucial element of Lenin’s Testament. This consisted of notes dictated between 23 and 31 December 1922, with a supplement dictated on 4 January. In the edition of Lenin’s Works published after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin 30 years later, these notes are called Letter to the Congress.

The notes proposed changes in the central committee, the central control commission and Rabkrin – and then presented an analysis of the top leadership of the party. Lenin argued that a threat to the stability of the Soviet regime could exist first of all at its base – in the danger of a split between the proletariat and the peasantry:

Our party relies on two classes and therefore its instability would be possible and its downfall inevitable if there were no agreement between these two classes ... No measures of any kind could prevent a split in such a case.

This was a threat in the long run. In the short run Lenin foresaw the greater danger of a split resulting from personal relationships within the party leadership:

I think that from this standpoint the prime factors in the question of stability are such members of the CC as Stalin and Trotsky. I think relations between them make up the greater part of the danger of a split.

After this prophetic judgment Lenin proceeded to sketch portraits of six leaders of the party: Stalin and Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, Bukharin and Piatakov:

Comrade Stalin, having become secretary-general, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution. Comrade Trotsky, on the other hand, as his struggle against the CC on the question of the People’s Commissariat for Communications has already proved, is distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present CC, but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive pre-occupation with the purely administrative side of the work.

These two qualities of the two outstanding leaders of the present CC can inadvertently lead to a split, and if our party does not take steps to avert this, the split may come unexpectedly.

Only a single remark is made about Zinoviev and Kamenev: ‘I shall just recall that the October episode with Zinoviev and Kamenev was, of course, no accident.’ Of the two youngest men, Bukharin and Piatakov, Lenin writes:

They are, in my opinion, the most outstanding figures (among the youngest ones), and the following must be borne in mind about them: Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the party; he is also rightly considered the favourite of the whole party, but his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectics, and I think, never fully understood it).

As for Piatakov, he is unquestionably a man of outstanding will and outstanding ability, but shows too much zeal for administrating and the administrative side of the work to be relied upon in a serious political matter. [51]

At this stage – on 23 and 25 December – Lenin suggested that a collective leadership should be preserved, based largely on the pre-eminence of Trotsky and Stalin, and with the safeguards of a larger central committee, among other measures. However, ten days later Lenin wrote an addendum that completely shifted the balance: a sharp, bitter attack on Stalin. This change of mind was a result of the Georgian affair, for Lenin now accused Stalin and Ordzhonikize of acting like Great Russian bullies, and of an incident on 22 December when Stalin used offensive language against Krupskaya. On 4 January 1923 Lenin added the following to his Testament:

Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings among us communists, becomes intolerable in a secretary-general. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and 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. [52]

Lenin’s Testament looks, on the face of it, like a non-Marxist document – a personal fight against Stalin rather than a general political-social statement. However, Lenin well knew that politics develops by and through people. Personal traits in the party and state leadership may well become the expression of alien social forces.

The tragedy of Lenin’s position pervades the whole of his Testament – that he had now to rely on changes at the personal level as the main weapon of politics, when throughout his revolutionary activity he had relied on the rank and file to put the necessary pressure on the conservative party machine.

Lenin and Trotsky could not turn to the proletarian element in the party because this was now only a small minority. They could not rely on inner-party democracy – even if by a miracle it had been restored – because the party was made up largely of factory managers, government officials, army officers and party officials; such a democracy would have reflected the aspirations of the bureaucracy. Lenin and Trotsky could not call on the ‘Old Guard’, first because these were a tiny minority of the party – a mere 2 per cent – and secondly because many of them made up an important part of the bureaucratic caste.

Lenin knew that the bureaucracy had arisen in the Soviet state to fill a political and administrative vacuum created by the exhaustion and dispersal of the revolutionary proletariat that had resulted from the cumulative suffering of the First World War, the revolution, the civil war and the accompanying devastation, famine, epidemics and physical annihilation. The measures that Lenin proposed to fight bureaucracy were all substitutes for an active proletariat – which now no longer existed.

One is ‘incapable of making correct calculations ... when one is heading for destruction’, Lenin had written in a different context. Unfortunately, this remark now applied to Lenin himself.


1*. Smena Vekh, which translates into English as ‘A changing of landmarks’, was a volume of essays published in Prague in July 1921 by a group of émigré Russians, who argued for reconciliation between the Soviet regime and the Russian White émigrés.

2*. The closing words of the letter were so warm that Stalin, when forced to read it out before the central committee in July 1926 – by which time his position was unassailable – changed them to ‘With communist greetings’.


1. Lenin, Works, volume 32, page 225.

2. Lenin, Works, page 236.

3. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, page 268.

4. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, pages 268-9.

5. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, page 238.

6. Lenin, Works, volume 33, page 116.

7. Lenin, Works, volume 33, page 280.

8. Lenin, Works, volume 36, page 571.

9. Trotsky Papers, volume 2, pages 579-83.

10. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, page 245.

11. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, pages 270-1.

12. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, pages 236-7.

13. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, page 271.

14. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, pages 271-2.

15. Lenin, Works, volume 35, page 475.

16. Trotsky Papers, volume 2, pages 745-9.

17. Lenin, Works, volume 36, page 598.

18. Carr, volume 2, pages 310-11.

19. Lenin, Works, volume 33, page 426.

20. Lenin, Works, volume 33, page 501.

21. Lenin, Works, volume 45, page 497.

22. Lenin, Works, volume 42, page 418.

23. Lenin, Works, volume 42, page 600.

24. Quoted by L.A. Fotieva, Iz vospominanii o Lenine (Moscow 1964), pages 28-9.

25. Lenin, Works, volume 45, page 601.

26. Lenin, Works, volume 33, pages 460-1.

27. Lenin, Works, volume 45, page 606.

28. Lenin, Works, volume 29, page 194.

29. Desiatii sezd RKP(b), pages 163-8.

30. KPSS v rezoliutsiiakh, volume 1, page 562.

31. Trotsky Papers, volume 2, pages 347-9.

32. Odinnadtsatii sezd RKP(b), pages 72-5.

33. Lenin, Works, volume 42, pages 602-3.

34. R. Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923 (Cambridge 1964), page 271.

35. Lenin, Works, volume 42, pages 421-3.

36. P.N. Pospelov and others, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: Biografiia (Moscow 1963), page 611.

37. Trotsky, Stalin School, pages 66-7.

38. Lenin, Works, volume 33, page 372.

39. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 150.

40. Lenin, Works, volume 36, pages 605-6.

41. Lenin, Works, volume 36, pages 610-11.

42. Lenin, Works, volume 42, page 493.

43. Lenin, Works, volume 45, page 607.

44. Trotsky to the Bureau of Party History, 21 October 1927, quoted in Trotsky, Stalin School, page 71.

45. Lenin, Works, volume 45, page 608.

46. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed (London 1959), page 47.

47. Lenin, Works, volume 33, pages 353-4.

48. Lenin, Works, volume 33, page 490.

49. Trotsky, Stalin School, pages 73-4.

50. Trotsky, Stalin School, page 72.

51. Lenin, Works, volume 36, pages 594-5.

52. Lenin, Works, volume 36, page 596.

Last updated on 28 July 2009