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International Socialism, Winter 2000


Megan Trudell

Setting the record straight


From International Socialism 2:89, Winter 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Robert Service
Lenin: A Biography
Macmillan 2000, £25

It is a feature of the debate surrounding the Russian Revolution that the ideological fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union has disoriented many historians on the left, and that conservative historians have made the most of the confusion to produce works ‘proving’ the direct link between Lenin’s revolutionary government and Stalin’s regime. If Robert Service’s book is anything to go by, it can only be assumed that the absence of politically rigorous opposition has made conservative historians ill-tempered and lazy.

Service, now professor of Russian history at the School of Slavonic Studies in London, has transformed his views in the decade since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc states. Once a social historian, his contribution to the debate with Lenin illustrates just how far the rot has set in. Service has produced a badly-written demonisation which lays the blame for the Stalinist system of the 1930s firmly on Lenin’s shoulders:

The state created by Lenin survived intact for more than seven decades. The edifice was thrown up with extraordinary rapidity ... In 1917–19, under Lenin’s guidance, the main work was already done. The foundations had been dug, the load-bearing walls erected and the roof sealed ... The basic edifice was in situ years before Lenin’s demise. It was altered drastically by Stalin ... yet in truth the core of the building was left intact. [1]

This in itself is not a surprise. Service has long argued, including in the pages of this journal, that Lenin led to Stalin. What is striking about this book is not that it is intensely ideological, but that it is so lacking in intellectual coherence, relying on a mish-mash of assertion, speculation, pop psychology and vitriol to construct its case. Service has embraced the malignant personality view of history – that a power-hungry Lenin manipulated the Bolshevik Party, and the workers and peasants in Russian society, to satisfy his overriding desire to rule.

He argues that since the opening of the central Communist Party archives in 1991 the political and personal memoirs about Lenin now available have made a real biography feasible for the first time, and for him ‘long-held suspicions were proved correct’. [2] Lenin, in other words, is an exercise in fitting facts into a previously held theory while – with breathtaking intellectual dishonesty – leaving aside those which sit less comfortably.

The first point to make is that Service’s contention that the long-awaited archive material has been crucial is not evident from this crude and moralistic book. The vast bulk of it is personal and ranges from the banal to the trivial (did Lenin ever get a newly-discovered prescription filled?). An enormous amount of space is given over to Lenin’s upbringing and personal life. The thread running through it is that, ‘nurtured by four women’ (his mother, sister, wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, and his friend and possible lover Inessa Armand), Lenin was used to getting his own way and remained a ‘spoilt child’ right to the end of his life. Service is obsessed with tracing back Lenin’s behaviour in political debate to his personal life, or his upbringing and heritage, in the most speculative fashion. The possibility of Lenin’s affair with Armand gets pages and pages. While disparaging Lenin for his treatment of women, Service does not appear to be averse to a touch of sexism himself. He quotes one of Armand’s last letters in which she states, ‘Now [1920] ... the significance of love in comparison with public activity becomes quite small and cannot bear comparison with public activity,’ and is incredulous that ‘on the point of death she tried to convince herself that her work for the revolution meant more to her than the man she loved’. [3] This is not far off Mills and Boon, but a very long way off serious discussion.

In a similar vein, we are offered rambling speculation about Lenin’s final illness – including the possibility of syphilis – but despite the archive material, Service admits that ‘no useful conclusion can be offered’. [4] This is a statement equally applicable to most of his guesses at Lenin’s feelings. In his attempt to paint Lenin as a cruel dictator in the making, Service makes a number of extraordinary assertions – Lenin was hard hearted and ‘never felt pity for the peasants’ during the Volga famine of 1891–1892 [5], and when the First World War broke out Lenin’s ‘indifference to the scale of the human suffering was colossal’. [6]

He makes the outrageous statement that when Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered in 1919 ‘it was a disaster for international communism, but Lenin lost no sleep over it’ [7], ignoring that Lenin fought Luxemburg’s detractors in the German SPD, and in his own words ‘will cherish her memory’. [8]

Distasteful as this is, it is window dressing on the core of Service’s argument. The debate about the legacy of the October Revolution and Lenin’s role has been well illustrated in this journal and elsewhere [9], but the central thrust of Service’s thesis is worth returning to in the interests of setting the historical record straight. I want to concentrate on two aspects – the nature of the October Revolution and the forces involved, and the economic and social conditions which led to the rise of Stalin.


Throughout Lenin, Service dispenses with any understanding of the development of Lenin’s thought and the dynamic of social change. The revolution in 1905 gets virtually no discussion, apart from to say that in 1905 Lenin ‘not only confirmed his commitment to violent methods but gave them a specificity that was more bloodthirsty than anyone thought imaginable. He displayed a virtual lust for violence.’ [10] And without a grasp of how Lenin learnt from the explosion of revolutionary initiative, his theory of the role of the party floats free from its roots in the class struggle. In a quote that Service does not use, Lenin argued that the mass action of the workers of Petrograd highlighted a central feature of the revolutionary process which revolutionaries ignored at their peril:

We are able to appreciate the importance of the slow, steady and often imperceptible work of political education which revolutionaries have always conducted and always will conduct. But we must not allow what in the present circumstances would be more dangerous – a lack of faith in the powers of the people. Months of revolution sometimes educate citizens more quickly and fully than decades of political stagnation. [11]

Service would have us believe, however, that Lenin’s faith in the working class was ‘conditional’. In 1902, writing What is to be Done? Lenin had been an ‘ideological paternalist’, believing that workers could only reach revolutionary consciousness through the intervention of organised Marxists. This explains how after October he ‘felt uninhibited about overturning the civic rights of the working class’ – although no example of such measures is given. [12]

When it comes to 1917, Service states that Lenin ‘came to the conclusion’ that soviets were the solution to the question of state power. Lenin did not arrive at this position out of thin air, but through experience of the spontaneous organisation created in the revolution by those fighting for it. Those democratic bodies were the embryo of a workers’ state not because Lenin wrote it, but because the action of millions made them so.

But there is a total absence in Service’s account of the forces which made the revolution. The working class is barely visible in the pages of Lenin, appearing only as dupes of the Bolshevik Party rather than agents in their own liberation. There is ample evidence of the depth of Bolshevik support which grew throughout the course of 1917 [13], but it is worth reiterating that October was the culmination of a protracted political crisis. The months between February and October saw millions of people moving towards revolutionary ideas – not as a result of Bolshevik manipulation, but due to the material reality of continued bloodshed on the Eastern Front, food shortages, and the maintenance of the privilege of the landlords and industrialists. Betrayed by the Provisional Government at every turn, increasing numbers of workers and soldiers looked to the revolutionary strategy of the Bolshevik Party which argued that workers themselves could run society.

For Service, Lenin’s emphasis on the power of the working class was a fig leaf for a personal desire for power. He rejects Lenin’s stress that ‘[to] be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class ... Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people’ [14] as a ploy: ‘[Lenin’s] wish was for the Bolsheviks to appear as a party that would facilitate the making of Revolution by and for the people.’ [15]

Service appears to have forgotten what he once knew about the basis of the October Revolution. He wrote in 1979, ‘What really counted was that the Bolshevik political programme proved steadily more appealing to the mass of workers, soldiers and peasants as social turmoil and economic ruin reached a climax in late autumn. But for that there could have been no October revolution.’ [16]

The course of 1917 saw the classes in Russian society become increasingly polarised, and the question of power was posed concretely in the most dramatic terms – either the revolution of February 1917 would push forward to establish workers’ democratic political control through the soviets, or it would go down to a brutal defeat at the hands of sections of the old ruling class. Service reduces the threat from General Kornilov in August 1917 to one sentence, erasing one of the key dynamics in the necessity for insurrection. Interestingly, right wing as Service is, he is guilty of compounding the mistakes of social history (with none of the value of such work) by paying no attention to the role of the old regime’s attempts to regain power. The possibility of counter-revolution is dismissed out of hand, therefore leaving the way clear for the contention that the civil war which followed October was a result of Lenin’s insistence on insurrection, not of the attempts to crush the revolution by reactionary forces: ‘Lenin’s activity ... led to a political order of extreme authoritarianism. It also made civil war inevitable.’ [17]

The rise of Stalin

The possibility of successful international revolution is dismissed as ‘utopian’, but it is not possible to understand the rise of Stalinism without an analysis of how the failure of the revolution to spread beyond Russia and the internal crisis in that country reinforced each other. The potential for successful revolution in Europe in the years after the Russian Revolution is well-rehearsed elsewhere – but in any case the Bolsheviks could not wait. They had to wage war for three years against imperialist powers which invaded and blockaded the revolution, and against Russian counter-revolutionary White armies funded by capitalist states.

The depth of economic and social crisis as a result of fighting the civil war was staggering, as was the devastation of the working class, reduced to 43 percent of its former numbers. The Bolsheviks found themselves ruling in the name of a broken class, and under such horrific circumstances they were forced to take incredibly difficult decisions to preserve the revolution – the nationalisation of industry, forced requisitioning of grain and increased coercion were not socialist measures and none of them were seen as permanent, or as unshakeable principles. Lenin argued these policies were forced on them by war and ruin. They were ‘a makeshift’. And the spread of the revolution to more advanced countries would have released the pressure they were implemented under.

Service makes the point himself: ‘Impoverishment, hunger and disease were becoming normal. And in this situation the Bolsheviks knew that a fully centralised system of order was required. Practical as well as doctrinal exigency was at work.’ [18] Yet for Service, the force of Lenin’s personality and beliefs were a much greater causal factor in the emergence of Stalinism than the medieval state of the economy, and the death and exhaustion of the Bolsheviks’ working class base.

After the civil war the regime was in crisis. Between the end of 1918 and the end of 1920 hunger, cold and disease had killed 9 million people, and at same time the land settlement had increased the weight of the peasantry while the working class was shrinking. There were strikes in Petrograd and a mutiny of the garrison at Kronstadt, which was suppressed in March 1921.

The effect on party members of being faced with hostile class forces and increased bureaucracy was a slow corruption of their revolutionary principles. Authoritarian habits which flowed from the need for discipline in the civil war period became entrenched. It is therefore true that the party itself changed as the working class disintegrated. A revolutionary party rests on its links and roots in the working class – it is a working class party. Without that class the party stands alone, and becomes distorted and isolated. In Russia the working class membership of the party eroded. By October 1919 only 8 percent of members had joined before 1917, careerists joined in large numbers and the Soviet Union was transformed into a single-party state, with power being held at the top.

Lenin recognised what was happening: ‘What we actually have is a workers’ state, with this peculiarity, firstly, that it is not the working class but the peasant population that predominates in the country, and, secondly, that it is a workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions.’ [19] Service gives no indication of Lenin’s concerns, or of the constraints faced by the revolution. Neither, more importantly, does he outline what the alternative was to the Bolsheviks’ measures – the thesis is simply that the October Revolution was a dreadful error, and all that followed was bound to do so, for the ‘oppressive, arbitrary regime was built into [Lenin’s] strategy’. [20]

The New Economic Policy was introduced in 1921, long overdue in Service’s opinion. Forced requisitions were abandoned, state controls were relaxed and market mechanisms were revived to try to aid economic recovery. But these measures were, like those of the civil war, a retreat in the absence of international revolution. The defeat of the German Revolution reinforced the bureaucratisation in Russia, increasingly turning the Comintern into an instrument of Russia. This led to more defeats, most crucially in Germany in 1923.

The NEP meant that concessions given to peasants made workers worse off, and managers and directors emerged with privileged positions. The party found itself dealing with small traders, petty capitalists and wealthy peasants. Under these circumstances the members of the Bolshevik Party could not remain incorruptible, isolated from the class that had made the revolution, which was itself weakened and atomised, and therefore unable to exert pressure on the party. Instead, other social forces exerted that pressure on many Bolsheviks, although the growth of bureaucracy was a long process.

Service’s unwillingness or inability to see the dynamic at work in Russia in the years following the civil war leads him to see the emergence of Stalinism as the result of an iron historical law. But he cannot, and does not try to, explain the fundamental differences between the embattled Soviet regime under Lenin and the dictatorship of the 1930s. Although conceding that Stalin ‘drastically altered’ the Soviet system, the core remains intact: ‘Leninist ideology is crucial to an understanding of the origins and outcome of the October Revolution.’ [21] However, the core of the revolution was not Leninist ideology but the strength and democratic rule of the working class, a core that Stalin ripped utterly apart.

It is beyond Service’s remit to discuss the events which led to the smashing of any vestige of workers’ control after Lenin’s death in 1924, and a full discussion here is not possible. But the central impulse lay in the way in which isolation impacted on the internal regime, and internal decay led to external defeats, further fuelling the decay. So the idea of ‘Socialism in one country’, which had been passed by party congress at the end of 1925 – flying in the face of Lenin’s internationalism and the entire perspective of socialist revolution – was ensured victory after defeat in China, a defeat in no small part due to that abandonment of the internationalism of the working class.

It was this process of interrelated internal and external crises which led Stalin to undertake a series of practical measures which destroyed the core of the Russian Revolution. Between 1928 and 1932, in the first Five Year Plan, Stalin oversaw the policy of forced collectivisation of agriculture, the ‘liquidation of kulaks as a class’ and the deportation of large sections of the peasantry, generating more grain to the state, at the terrible price of the famine in 1933 in which millions died. Collectivisation went hand in hand with rapid industrialisation of the economy. The perceived danger posed to the Soviet state by other imperialist states was met by joining the race to be an equal power, which entailed the mass production of modern weapons, paid for in part by exporting grain. The ensuing famine and collectivisation drove millions of peasants from the land into the factories. What took British capitalism 100 years, Stalin achieved in 12 – the working class expanded to nearly three times its size between 1928 and 1940.

Such intensive industrialisation was financed in the main through the massive exploitation of the class that theoretically ruled Russian society. The rate of surplus value squeezed out of workers rose from 27 percent to 110 percent in the course of the first Five Year Plan. Union rights were abolished and living standards plummeted. [22]

To enforce these measures the bureaucracy used systematic coercion – the GPU (Stalin’s secret police) was given massive powers, the gulag and slave labour camps were set up, and purges were unleashed in which 100,000 mainly Bolshevik activists were killed. Stalin was wiping out any trace of the generation of 1917 and transforming society through the exploitation of the majority of the population, while at same time increasing the number of managers and bureaucrats who benefited from the changes. The expansion in the number of white collar workers quickly promoted to positions of privilege widened the bureaucracy’s social base while the majority suffered indescribable hardship. By the mid-1930s pay differentials had widened, a powerful class of rulers had been established, and ideological appeals to nation and family had replaced a commitment to internationalism and individual freedom.

In 1936 the counter-revolution was consolidated politically with the Great Terror against sections of the party itself. The last Old Bolsheviks were executed along with economic ‘conservatives’ and even Stalinists. The vast majority of those with any roots in the party’s Bolshevik past were wiped out and replaced by those with no ties to the working class.

International revolution was ditched and the Comintern reduced to a tool of Russian foreign policy. To ensure that no upheavals prevented the increase in foreign aid, the International went from being a revolutionary weapon to a preventative barrier against revolution.

Victor Serge, writing in 1937, contrasts the regime that emerged under Stalin to that of Lenin:

Everything has changed. The aims: from international socialist revolution to socialism in one country. The political system: from the workers’ democracy of the soviets, the goal of the revolution, to the dictatorship of the general secretariat ... The party: from the organisation, free in its life and thought and freely submitting to discipline, of revolutionary Marxists to the hierarchy of bureaus ... The condition of the workers: the egalitarianism of Soviet society is transformed to permit the formation of a privileged minority, more and more privileged in comparison with the disinherited masses who are deprived of all rights. Morality: from the austere, sometimes implacable, honesty of heroic Bolshevism, we gradually advance to unspeakable deviousness and deceit. [23]

A series of practical responses to the economic crisis on the part of Stalin and his supporters shaped the mentality of those who ruled the system and began to change the pattern of economic and social relations. To carry through the Five Year Plan depended on a brutal attack on living standards, total disregard for suffering and starvation, and meant the bureaucracy cutting itself off from society as a separate social class. To carry that through meant internal changes. The party became highly bureaucratic and centralised. Its whole structure shifted towards controlling the population and forcing through Stalin’s economic programme.

All this may have been done using the language of socialism and Leninism. But social content is all-important. Stalin’s measures represented counter-revolution and the reassertion of capitalism in the Soviet Union. Karl Marx defined the main features of capitalism as the separation of labour power from the means of production and its transformation into a commodity which the worker must sell to survive, and the accumulation of surplus value, its reinvestment in further production, forced on units of capital by their competition with each other. These features, absent in the years of revolution and war, lay at the heart of Stalin’s system.

It is true that the nationalisation of industry, forced requisitioning and suppression of opposition parties were temporary features of the civil war – but in scale, savagery and most crucially, in the interests of which class such measures were undertaken, the early Bolshevik government and Stalinism were diametrically opposed social forms. Stalin fundamentally broke from a revolutionary regime which had overthrown capitalism to free humanity from its horrors. Those were the ideals of the revolution even when it was forced to compromise and became distorted by circumstances.

Though distorted, there was continual stress on international revolution throughout the 1920s. There was also still the sense of managing the workers’ state until the revival of the economy made possible the revival of that class. The year 1928 represented the smashing of all those aspirations and the reversal of the gains made in the previous ten years, and, crucially, cemented the rule of a new capitalist class. It is also the point at which international revolution became downright undesirable and the Communist parties in other countries were used not to stoke revolution, but to pressurise this or that section of capitalism in the interests of Russian foreign policy.

But none of this was inevitable. The fact there was struggle inside the Soviet Union about the direction of the state, illustrated with the growth in support for Trotsky’s Left Opposition, indicates there was not a seamless unbroken thread from the Bolshevik Party of 1917 to Stalin’s triumph. If Stalin was simply building on Lenin’s foundations, why did he order the butchering of every last Bolshevik? The answer is that he was not building on Lenin’s foundations, but fighting a battle against the remnants of the forces who had made the revolution – even when the party had risen above the class and bureaucracy had grown, the state still had elements of October within it. The battle was one of competing social forces, and those representing the working class lost – with the whole trajectory of economic crisis and bureaucratisation against them.

Historical circumstances are not optional extras in tracing the development of events and personalities. It is not good enough for Service and others like him to simply refuse to look because it does not suit a political perspective. The roots of Stalinism lie in war, blockade, economic collapse and the decimation of the working class. They lie in the betrayals of the Social Democratic parties in Germany, Austria and Italy, and in the failure of the revolution to spread. The Bolshevik Party made mistakes, Lenin made mistakes, but the spread of the revolution could have corrected them – they were mistakes born not of dictatorial tendencies, but of hideous circumstances. The decisive factors were the relative weight of the working class and the possibility of the revolution spreading beyond Russia. In the absence of a strong politically active working class able to exercise democratic control, and in the absence of social revolution in Europe, the outcome of the revolution can be seen as deeply tragic and brutal, but not as inevitable.

Service worries at the end of Lenin that ‘it is not even impossible that his memory might again be invoked ... in those many parts of the world where capitalism causes grievous social distress’. [24] Needless to say the prospect horrifies him, but socialists should relish the current debates about what sort of change is needed, and fight for the centrality of Leninist organisational leadership confident that the outcome of future revolutions will be shaped not by any ahistorical notions of inevitability, but by the people that make them.


1. R. Service, Lenin (Macmillan 2000), p. 490.

2. Ibid., p. 7.

3. Ibid., p. 416.

4. Ibid., p. 446.

5. Ibid., p. 88.

6. Ibid., p. 228.

7. Ibid., p. 385.

8. V.I. Lenin, From Notes of a Publicist, in M. Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (Pathfinder 1994), p. 440.

9. See J. Rees, In Defence of October, International Socialism 52 (Autumn 1991); R. Service, Did Lenin Lead to Stalin?, International Socialism 55 (Summer 1992); and M. Haynes A Social History of the Russian Revolution, in Essays on Historical Materialism (Bookmarks 1998).

10. R. Service, op. cit., p. 177.

11. Quoted in C. Harman, Party and Class, in C. Harman et al., Party and Class (Bookmarks 1996), p. 24.

12. R. Service, op. cit., p. 350.

13. See for example M. Haynes, Was There a Parliamentary Alternative in 1917?, International Socialism 76 (Autum 1997); and C. Reed, From Tsar to Soviets (UCL 1996).

14. Quoted in T. Cliff, Lenin, All Power to the Soviets (Bookmarks, 1985), p. 338.

15. R. Service, op. cit., p. 315 (my emphasis).

16. Quoted in J. Rees, op. cit., p. 17.

17. R. Service, op. cit., p. 370.

18. Ibid., p. 374.

19. Quoted in A. Callinicos, The Revenge of History (Polity 1991), p. 27.

20. R. Service, op. cit., p. 263.

21. Ibid., p. 5.

22. A. Callinicos, op. cit., pp. 32–40.

23. V. Serge, From Lenin to Stalin (Pathfinder 1987), p. 58.

24. R. Service, op. cit., p. 493.

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