Victor Serge 1945

Lenin’s Heir?[1]

Source: Carnets (1936-1947). Agone, Marseilles, 2012;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

Late May 1945 – The controversy caused by James Burnham [2] cannot, I think, come to any objective conclusion without a simple reminder of the historical facts (it being accepted that ideologies are also historical facts) and without our attempting to consider for a moment the problem from the Russian point of view, quite different in the circumstances from the point of view of the American intelligentsia. Having for seventeen years been a witness and participant in the events in Russia I believe it is my duty to make some small contribution to this debate.

James Burnham maintains that Stalin isn’t the “remarkable mediocrity” whose portrait Trotsky painted. That he’s a “great captain,” a personage great in his crimes and his victories and who “during these war years...never lost the political initiative.” [3] Finally, that Stalin is the legitimate continuator of Bolshevism: “If anyone betrayed Bolshevism, it was not Stalin but Trotsky.” [4] James Burnham recognizes the extreme mediocrity of Stalin’s intellectual productions, both writings and speeches.

The “Leader” (in Russian Vojd, in German Führer) of an immense totalitarian state, planned and policed, has at his disposal such a powerful machinery that he acquires from it a colossal dimension in the eyes of the external world, even if he’s nothing but an ordinary man destined to become the artisan of the most enormous catastrophes: see Hitler. The pilot of a Superfortress doesn’t require extraordinary qualities to become the instrument of massive strategic destruction. Stalin’s inhumanity immediately eliminates the concept of moral grandeur. The vicissitudes of a policy that twice placed the USSR a hair’s breadth from destruction hardly seem compatible with the concept of intellectual grandeur. The cost of these policies are so high that they tend to exclude from the Leader’s means the rational thought of our times.

Stalin arrived in power in 1927 and absolute power around 1932. The only initiatives he took were those of agricultural collectivization and terror against technicians, workers, and the opposition within the party. The results of this were the horrific famine of 1931-1934 and a population loss of around 20,000,000. In 1932-1934, at the moment when Germany went into crisis, Stalin’s initiative in Central Europe resulted in the anti-socialist tactic of the Third International and the bloc with the Nazis in Prussia against Otto Braun’s government: a brief initiative that favored the rise of Nazism. From that date Stalin lost the initiative, which passed over to Hitler. The USSR offered such a spectacle of poverty and terror that its influence over a demoralized Germany was reduced to almost nothing, and this factor facilitated the Nazi seizure of power. Stalin, while maintaining secret military collaboration with the Reichswehr, tagged along with the League of Nations that he had denounced just the day before as a pitiful capitalist-imperialist-anti-Soviet assembly. In 1936 Hitler and Mussolini took the initiative in Spain with the Franco plot. Stalin hesitated for two months before committing himself in this civil war – and when he did so it was too late: the Russian intervention didn’t prevent the disaster.

We have serious reasons to believe that from spring 1939 Stalin sought through secret negotiations an accord with the Third Reich. We know that the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was concluded at least two weeks before being published (see Dino Grandi [5]in Life, February 26, 1944). From the time of the Spanish Civil War Stalin was maneuvered by his mortal enemy, Hitler, to whom he loaned a hand in beginning the European war in the hope of turning it from the borders of the USSR. He sought to counter-maneuver, but it was on a secondary level, in Finland and the Baltic countries. A few days before the Nazi aggression against the USSR Stalin was ridiculous enough to accommodatingly recognize the phantom pro-Nazi government of Iraq! The invasion took him by surprise and immediately turned into a catastrophe. No one can contest that he showed courage during this crisis (let it be noted that none of his biographers disputes his courage and firmness). If he took on all responsibilities at this moment it was because they already weighed on his shoulders, if he wanted them or not, and the existence of the regime was in danger. It is nonetheless true that without Anglo-American assistance (and without the divergence of political viewpoints in the Wehrmacht) Moscow would have fallen at that moment and no one can imagine what the condition of Russia would be. Late 1941, during the battle of Moscow (won by Zhukov), Stalin envisaged a peace by capitulation (see on this subject B. Nikolaevski’s study in the New York Russian review, The Socialist Courier. This author prudently quotes a text from the US ambassador in Moscow). Stalin finally bowed before Anglo-American firmness. He thus appear to us, in the course of the first phase of the world war, to have been successively maneuvered by the two coalitions facing each other, reduced to follow first one of them and then the other. And many things remain in shadow! The same observation concerning his policy towards Japan. I know few episodes as grotesquely significant in this regard as the scene related by John Scott in Duel for Europe, where we see the “Brilliant Leader,” the “Leader of the World’s Workers” seek the embrace of Count Matsuoka before the journalists and diplomats assembled at the Moscow station...

Enough about the statesman “who never lost the political initiative...” [6]

It’s permissible to use the word treason when a man does, against his brothers, his party, and his people, the opposite of what he promises. The Bolshevism of 1917-1927 wanted a socialist regime founded on the democracy of labor and international solidarity. Lenin and Trotsky’s companions believed in this, they never stopped believing it even while committing their most dreadful mistakes. The republic of the Soviets defined itself as a “Commune-State,” “dictatorship against the expropriated possessing classes and the broadest workers’ democracy,” etc. The documents are so numerous that I'll be forgiven if I quote none of them. It is perhaps justified to nevertheless recall Lenin’s final speeches and articles, in which is manifested his real fear for the bureaucratization of the regime. Neither the doctrine nor the intentions of the Bolshevik party aimed at the establishing of a totalitarian police state with the most vast concentration camps in the world. The Bolshevik party saw in the perils it confronted the excuse for its Jacobin methods. I think it’s undeniable that its Jacobinism contained in germ Stalinist totalitarianism, but Bolshevism also contained other seeds, other possibilities of evolution. The proof is in the struggles, the initiatives, and the final sacrifice of its various oppositions. I dare to assert that whoever would have predicted before 1927 what Stalinism made of the revolution would have been considered a contemptible and dangerous madman. (In order to be fair I add that the Mensheviks, the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the anarchists, and some opposition communists, like Sapronov and Vladimir Smirnov demonstrated a clairvoyance in this regard that must be recognized today as admirable and that served only to render them unpopular, since they went against the general sentiment and the sincerity of the party.) It’s too little-known a fact that in 1925-1926 (I don’t have the exact date at hand) the Left Opposition, of which Trotsky was only one of the leaders, examined the possibility of seizing power by a coup de force whose success seemed probable. It had great support in the army and the political police, but it preferred to appeal to party opinion in order to avoid having to resort in governing to military and police methods it condemned in principle (Trotsky later published his reasons in the Russian edition of the Opposition Bulletin).

It is appropriate to remind James Burnham that in order to establish the totalitarian regime Stalin had to proceed to the systematic massacre of the old party and the revolutionary generation molded during the civil war. In this regard one should flip through Joseph E. Davies’ ambiguous book Mission to Moscow. From one page to another, like a leitmotiv, notes like this one reappear: “The terror is here a horrifying fact” [7](April 1, 1938). The solution of continuity between Bolshevism and Stalinism is bloody, attested to by figures that are, in fact, horrifying. More than 1500 members of the Soviet government disappeared in two years; all the superior officers of the Red Army were executed or sent to forced labor; the purges extended to more than 30,000 officers out of a total of 90,000 (and this on the eve of a world war!). The official statistics of the party show that in 1936-1939 463,000 Communists were expelled, that is most of them sent to concentration camps and the most energetic minority before the firing squad. To such an extent that the fascist reviews of Rome praised Stalin as the exterminator of the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s “heir,” according to Burnham, had to inflict this treatment on Lenin’s party in order to collect his inheritance! It is from thus evident that the great majority of the revolutionary generation refused him this inheritance and that rising Stalinism was in absolute contradiction with the aspirations and ideas of this generation. I wonder how a commentator as qualified as James Burnham can be ignorant of a historic fact of such importance.

From the Russian point of view the “grandeur” of Marshal Stalin is certainly not such as it might appear in the wartime American press. No genius is required to brutally and unscrupulously profit by circumstances as favorable as the collapse of the Nazi Empire, the powerlessness of a Poland bled white, and the weakness of the Balkan countries. In Russia Stalin remains, for those who know history, the fratricidal Old Bolshevik who Lenin recommended be removed from power and with whom he broke before dying. For those who survived the purges he remains the exterminator of their generations; for the adult population he remains the principle person responsible for the agricultural collectivization and famine of 1930-1934; the man who allowed himself to be fooled by Hitler and who was unable to prevent an invasion comparable in its scope and ravages only to the Mongol invasions of the twelfth century. He also remains the symbol of a system of terrorist repression aimed at all citizens without exception. The great military victory he carried off with Anglo-American assistance at an unimaginable price in blood, misery, and terror leaves the USSR as ruined, if not more so, than Germany. All the information we have shows that the living standard of the Soviet population (except in the furthest regions, where the lack of communication protects them from the state) is presently lower than the part of Germany occupied by the Anglo-Americans. The victory obtained under these conditions doesn’t dazzle the citizens who must pay its cost. And the Stalin experiment isn’t over; it is even being continued in such worrisome conditions for the USSR and the world that intellectuals concerned with understanding the march of history cannot be too prudent in their predictions.

“Stalin is communism,” [8] James Burnham concludes. Words change their meaning and this is perhaps nothing but a quibble over language. The Communist movement is in fact identified today with Stalin and his totalitarian system. It would be completely futile to continue to seek to make prevail in people’s minds a discrimination that demands erudition, however correct it might essentially be. It is nonetheless true that the humanist doctrine of Karl Marx, that returned the word communism to a place of honor, has only a distant – and often contradictory – relationship to Stalinism.


1. In English in the original.

2. The author of The Managerial Revolution published a text titled “Lenin’s Heir” in the winter 1945 issue of Partisan Review. The most often quoted passage was: “Under Stalin the communist revolution has been, not betrayed, but fulfilled.”

3. In English in the original.

4. In English in the original.

5. This Fascist politician, several times a minister under Mussolini, was one of the artisans of his fall on July 25, 1943.

6. In English in the original.

7. In English in the original.

8. In English in the original.