Max Shachtman


The Struggle for the New Course


The Role of Lenin

We have already sketched the reasons for the rise of the bureaucracy, and thereby explained the fundamental causes of the defeat of the revolutionary Opposition. The picture is not complete, however, without reference to the role of the man who was the founder of Bolshevism, and its undisputed leader until his death.

History is not an automatic process in which individuals play no important part. The great social forces decide the course of history, and depending upon what they are and what they say and do, individuals exercise influence upon the development of social forces. Great individuals – that is, those whose ideas and deeds correspond closely to the needs of their time or their class – exercise a correspondingly great influence.

Lenin’s presence in Russia in 1917 played a decisive role in the victory of the Bolshevik revolution. Lenin’s illness in 1922-23 and his death in 1924 played a great role in the decline of the Russian Revolution. It would be absurd to say that his death caused the decline. But it would be blindness not to see that his death removed a strong barrier in the path of the bureaucratic counterrevolution. It is of course idle to speculate on the road the Russian Revolution would have taken if Lenin had lived longer. His wife found it possible to say a few years after his death that if he were now alive, Stalin would have him in a GPU prison or in exile. However that may be, it is incontestable that his illness and death were strongly related to two important questions which were themselves strongly interrelated. One was the question of the struggle against bureaucratism. The other, the question, crudely put, of who was to succeed him in the unique position of authority and leadership he had acquired in the course of years. The struggle over the “new course” would be left at least partially obscured unless these questions were dealt with.

The last two years of Lenin’s life and political activity, interrupted by long spells of inactivity enforced by illness, may be said to have been filled with increasing concern over the growth of bureaucratism in the machinery of government. Toward the end, the growth of bureaucratism in the machinery of the party worried him even more. In one article after another, he hammered louder and louder on one key: We lack culture, we must somehow learn, we must draw new, fresh, reliable people into the administration, we must wipe out the heritage of barbarism that is poisoning our workers’ state. In reality, we do not have a workers’ state, but a workers’ and peasants’ state; in reality, we do not have a workers’ state, but a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations.

You communists, you workers, you, the conscious part of the proletariat, who have undertaken to direct the state! Learn how to make the state, which you have taken over, act according to your will! ... The state has not acted according to our will. How, then, has it acted? We are losing control of the machine. It would seem that the man sitting at the wheel is directing it. But in reality, the machine is not moving in the direction we want it to, but where something or other is directing it ...

The ruling stratum of the communists is lacking in culture [he continued in his March, 1922, report to the Eleventh Congress]. Let us look at Moscow. This mass of bureaucrats – who is leading whom? The 4,700 responsible communists, the mass of bureaucrats, or the other way around? I do not believe you can say that the communists are leading this mass. To put it honestly, they are not the leaders, but the led ...

We have now come to the opinion that the central point, the main task, lies in people, in the selection of people. (This idea is the burden of my report.) ... The main emphasis must be placed upon the selection of people, upon the control of the actual execution of orders.

So far, Lenin was referring mainly to the bureaucratism of the state apparatus. A year later, in March, 1923, he wrote: “In parentheses, be it remarked, we have a bureaucracy not only in the Soviet institutions, but in the institutions of the party.” The remorseless illness prevented him from coming to full grips with the problem. But toward the end of 1922 he felt that the situation had gone so far that he planned to “form a bloc” with Trotsky for the purpose of combating and cleaning out bureaucratism in the party. The plan even reached the stage of Lenin’s proposal to establish what Trotsky later described as

“a highly authoritative party center in the form of a Control Commission composed of reliable and experienced members of the party, completely independent from the hierarchical viewpoint – that is, neither officials nor administrators – and at the same time endowed with the right to call to account for violations of legality, of party and Soviet democratism, and for lack of revolutionary morality, all officials without exception, not only of the party, including members of the Central Committee, but also, through the mediation of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, the high officials of the state.”

Lenin’s apprehensiveness over the growth of bureaucratism in the party, and in its highest spheres, was more than justified. His plan to combat it was a total failure. Worse yet, it was adopted in such a perverted form as to serve as an effective tool of the very bureaucracy it was originally aimed to combat! A single episode will show this.

On January 23, 1923, Lenin, though confined to his quarters, sent in an article for publication in Pravda, dealing with his plan to reorganize the party institutions. The article signified, in effect, an appeal to the party over the heads of a party leadership in which Lenin was losing confidence. At the meeting of the Political Bureau to consider Lenin’s demand for immediate publication, all the members and alternates present, Stalin, Molotov, Kuibyshev, Rykov, Kalinin and Bukharin, were opposed to printing the article, except Trotsky, who insisted on its printing it, and Kamenev, who arrived later and supported Trotsky. The same Kuibyshev, who favored suppression of the article and the proposals embodied in it, was later appointed by the Stalinist machine to head – the Central Control Commission! It became a mere tool of the bureaucracy, before which Oppositionists were given their mock trial before sentence of expulsion from the party, decided upon in advance, was pronounced against them.

As Lenin looked closer into the situation at the center of the party, he saw the nub of bureaucratism located in the Organizational Bureau, presided over by Stalin. The post of secretary had originally had great significance in the party. It was occupied by a Bolshevik, Yakov Sverdlov, also first chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, to whom it fell, in Lenin’s commemorative words, “to express more fully and more wholly than anybody else the very essence of the proletarian revolution ... an organizer who acquired unimpeachable authority.” Upon his death, Sverdlov was replaced by a secretariat of three, Krestinsky, Serebryakov and Preobrazhensky, old Bolshevik militants, men of considerable socialist culture and integrity, and widely known in the party. All three were, however, in opposition to the majority during the intense factional fight at the Tenth Party Congress. In the election of the incoming party leadership, they were removed from their posts. The secretariat was reorganized and its functions and powers strictly circumscribed. Under the conditions of the sharp political fight, the very character and training of the three secretaries as political people with independently-arrived-at political opinions had tended to convert their department into a political body paralleling the Central Committee. The Congress decided to make the Organizational Bureau an essentially technical and administrative body of a decidedly subordinate order. The post of secretary was assigned to V.M. Molotov, a colorless, minor figure in the party, with a capacity for steady and painstaking plodding. The Tenth Congress would have roared with laughter at the thought of the eminent position to which the Stalinist bureaucracy would later raise Molotov.

A year later, at the Eleventh Party Congress (1922), a change was made. Stalin became secretary of the party, with Molotov reduced to the position of his assistant. Given the relative unimportance of the post in the eyes of the party and its leadership, it is doubtful if many people gave the change a second thought. The first thought was simply that while Stalin was not a political figure of great consequence or prominence, he was at all events better than Molotov, among other reasons because he would serve to link the work of the Organizational Bureau with the Political Bureau, of which he was a member and Molotov was not. Another and more important reason why no great significance was attached to the change was the fact that everybody, inside or outside the party, knew that the big political decisions of the party depended upon the agreement, and most often upon the initiative, of its own acknowledged leaders, Lenin and Trotsky.

It was precisely this fact that irked some of the other party leaders. The eminence and authority of the two leaders was not a sign of abnormality – neither Bolshevism, nor Satan, nor Lenin and Trotsky themselves, can be reproached for the intellectual and political superiority these two men displayed in the course of events. But persons like Zinoviev, Stalin and Kamenev, especially the first two, looked with antipathy upon Trotsky. They regarded him as a “newcomer” to Bolshevism and the Bolshevik Party. They liked to think of themselves as the incarnation of the “Old Guard” and deserving of corresponding honors.

Is it possible that men of such unquestionable stature – they were not of Lenin’s caliber, but neither were they nobodies – would allow their political course to be influenced or even determined by such unworthy considerations? What a man sincerely thinks of his actions and of what prompts his actions – is not easily determined; in the last analysis, it is not of great importance. It is enough to understand that the human capacity for rationalization and idealization is infinite. Man has not yet liberated himself from politics. Politics, even revolutionary politics, has yet to be freed of the elements of intrigue, low personal ambition, envy, self-seeking, nepotism. It is worth pointing out, however, that the rise of the revolutionary tide of the masses sweeps these into little bays; when the tide subsides and stagnation sets in, scum settles on the surface. In any case, we are not concerned here with sermons and moralizing, but with facts and analysis; the “personal” details have importance here only insofar as they have political and social consequences.

Under Stalin, with his talent for cunning, manipulation, ruse, his ability to surround himself with people of his own type, his freedom from any scruples in gaining an end, his national narrow-mindedness and absence of international socialist outlook that fitted him perfectly for the protracted isolation of Russia – the Organizational Bureau became an institution of tremendous power and growing menace. It was from this bureau, continuing and systematizing the appointive methods of the War Communism days, that a network of controlling functionaries was spread throughout the party.

With the growth of power, came a growth of the feeling that the power could be exercised with impunity. In the best of cases, the official considered party democracy, the need of consulting the mass, of being dependent upon its debate and decision, to be a most uneconomical and time-wasting procedure. Daily collaboration with officials, especially of the state administration, drawn from Czarist, bourgeois and petty bourgeois circles, usually resulted in the party functionary absorbing, as by osmosis, the manners and morals of the overturned but not exterminated ruling machine. “Who is leading whom? The 4,700 responsible communists the mass of bureaucrats, or the other way around?” An undemocratic spirit emanated from the Organizational Bureau to the network of party functionaries; and the bureaucratization of these functionaries reacted banefully upon the Organizational Bureau.

Lenin finally perceived this. But it was too late for him to intervene with the axe he knew how to wield when necessary. Sickness and then death cut his efforts short. But his last period was devoted almost entirely to whetting the axe for Stalin, in whom he saw the incarnation of the cancer eating away the vitals of the Soviet state.

Elsewhere, Trotsky has told this whole story in impressively documented detail. Lenin’s last articles, his last personal letters, his organizational plans, were all directed against Stalin. It is clear from a reading of the documents preserved and made public by Trotsky that Lenin did not consider it a fight against a single person, but against a system, a political danger; and he relied heavily upon Trotsky to carry it on, together with him if possible, without him if he became incapacitated. “At the beginning of 1923,” Zinoviev reported three years afterward, “Vladimir Ilyich in a personal letter to Stalin broke off comradely relations with him.”

In addition to this letter, Lenin dictated what was later called his “testament.” So far as Stalin is concerned, the letter is too direct to permit two interpretations. “Comrade Stalin,” he wrote on December 25, 1922, “having become General Secretary, has concentrated an enormous power in his hands; and I am not sure that he always knows how to use that power with sufficient caution.” Ten days later followed a peremptory postscript:

“Stalin is too rude, and this fault, entirely supportable in relations among us communists, becomes unsupportable in the office of General Secretary. Therefore, I propose to the comrades to find a way to remove Stalin from that position and appoint another man who in all respects differs from Stalin only in superiority – namely, more patient, more loyal, more polite and more attentive to comrades, less capricious, etc.”

Fearing that his advice might be taken lightly, he concluded, with remarkable prescience: “It is not a trifle, or it is such a trifle as may acquire a decisive significance.”

Lenin’s Testament was suppressed and kept from the membership. It was communicated only to a restricted circle of the leadership, accompanied by whispered stories to the effect that “the Old Man is not quite himself now,” “he is surrounded by a bunch of old women,” “he is not up-to-date on the state of the party.” With mock humility, Stalin tendered his resignation to the assembled bureaucrats. Naturally, they rejected his offer. It was all acted out according to a script. The bureaucrats knew that the blow was not aimed at an individual, but at the incarnation of their whole system. They could not stab themselves at the heart and expect the life’s blood of their own existence to continue pumping. What was implicit in the “Testament” only prompted them to make haste, to tighten their control over the party and the party machine. If Lenin survived the crisis in his health, they would be able to confront him with a power that would force him, if not to capitulate, then at least to compromise. If he did not survive, the only problem would be Trotsky. They all understood perfectly well the complete solidarity between the two outstanding leaders on the vital question of the party regime.

Lenin died on January 21, 1924, right after the Thirteenth Party Conference, at which the bureaucracy celebrated its first public and official victory. The change in the tenor of the speeches and articles of the party leadership showed that a great restraint had been lifted from them. Brutality and rudeness in the attack upon Trotsky replaced mock respect. On December 18, 1923, two weeks after the adoption of the resolution on workers’ democracy, Pravda found it necessary to state formally that “The Political Bureau denounces as malevolent invention the suggestion that there is in the Central Committee of the Party or in its Political Bureau any single comrade who can conceive of the work of the Political Bureau, of the Central Committee or its executive organs without the most active participation of Comrade Trotsky.” After Lenin’s death, and by the time the Thirteenth Party Congress rolled around, in May, 1924, the “malevolent invention” was to all intents and purposes an accomplished fact. The real leadership of the party thenceforward met regularly in secret, and adjourned only to go through the hollow formality of a “Political Bureau” meeting with Trotsky.


Last updated on 9.4.2005